Russia has tabled a UN Security Council resolution calling for a through investigation of the chemical weapons incident in Idlib Governorate.
Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s acting Ambassador to the UN who has stepped in to fill the position of the late Vitaly Churkin has said,
“… we submitted our short draft resolution, drawn up in a business manner and aimed at conducting a true investigation rather than to appoint the guilty ones until the facts are established”.
The Russian draft resolution proposes to,
“… fully investigate the reports about the incident on the ground under the mandatory condition that the list of investigators will be submitted to the UN for approval and will be geographically balanced as well”
This is in sharp contrast to the US-UK-France co-sponsored resolution which automatically assigned blame to the Syrian government in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. That resolution was vetoed by Russia.
The Russian resolution calls for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the group which helped the Syrian government to remove the remains of its chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, to explore this incident.
It also demands that illegal terrorist groups cooperate with investigations, something which may not be possible.
This response is similar to Russia’s reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Donbass by forces loyal to the Kiev regime. At that time Russia called for an investigation rather than a war.
MOSCOW – The Kremlin disagrees with Poland’s accusations toward Russian air traffic controllers of provoking the deadly 2010 plane crash that killed then-president Lech Kaczynski and other officials, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.
National Public Prosecutor’s Office deputy chief Marek Pasionek said earlier in the day that Poland had amassed evidence to bring “charges of the crime of deliberately provoking the catastrophe.” Pasionek said the accusations have been leveled against Russian air traffic controllers and a “third person” in the flight control tower.
“Certainly, the circumstances of this tragedy, this catastrophe, have already been seriously investigated, examined and of course it is not seen as possible to agree with these conclusions,” Peskov told reporters.
On April 10, 2010, a Russia-made passenger plane carrying Kaczynski, his wife, and a number of high-ranking Polish officials crashed as it attempted to land at an airfield covered in heavy fog near Smolensk. All 96 people on board died in the Tu-154M crash.
The Polish Defense Ministry said last year that Warsaw would restart its investigation into the crash from scratch.
The NATO Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday assumed special significance since it happened to be the first appearance by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the alliance’s ‘diplomatic podium’. The alliance, in fact, refixed the date of the ministerial to suit Tillerson’s scheduling convenience. And he, for sure, did not disappoint his audience.
Tillerson’s interventions on Friday were the first structured statements of the Donald Trump administration on two important vectors of the US foreign policies – NATO’s raison d’etre as a military alliance and, secondly, Ukraine – which together inevitably reflect on the overall approach that can be expected from Washington in relations with Russia – at least in the near term. Tillerson is slated to visit Moscow on April 12.
Tillerson unequivocally stressed the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO. He described the alliance as the “bedrock of transatlantic security”. Thereupon, he went on to identify ISIS and Russia as the two “common threats” that the alliance faces. He said NATO as an alliance is “fundamental to countering both non-violent, but at times violent, Russian agitation and Russian aggression.” Tillerson called on NATO to “remain vigilant in strengthening NATO’s eastern defences… from Baltic to the Black Sea.”
No doubt, it was exceptionally strong language for the US’ top diplomat to use. Tillerson cited against this backdrop this weekend deployment to Poland of the US’ “enhanced, forward presence battalion”. He hinted that the Trump administration envisages a lead role for NATO in fighting the ISIS and, importantly, in the stabilization of Iraq.
This effectively rules out any significant level of military cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against ISIS. (Notably, though, Tillerson made no mention of Syria.) Indeed, it remains to be seen how an enhanced NATO presence in Iraq will be perceived in Tehran.
Tillerson also addressed a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Brussels on Friday and his remarks there have been the most detailed statement so far on the Trump administration’s policies towards the Ukraine crisis. Tillerson literally tore into Russia. The following excerpts bring out the flavour of this unequivocal condemnation of Russian policies in Syria through the past 3-year period:
- Three years ago, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shook the very foundations of security and stability in Europe. Today, Russia’s ongoing hostility and occupation is compromising our shared vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. American and NATO support for Ukraine remains steadfast. As we have repeated at every Ministerial and Summit since Russia launched its campaign of aggression against Ukraine, NATO Allies stand firm in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We do not, and will not, accept Russian efforts to change the borders of territory of Ukraine… NATO solidarity is crucial to finding a political solution to this conflict.
Tillerson made it clear that the US squarely holds Russia accountable for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. He warned Moscow:
- The United States sanctions will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions. We note with alarm the escalating violence along the line of contact and the repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure by Russia-led separatist forces, which poses an elevated risk of humanitarian disaster. We call on Russia to exercise its influence over the separatists to put a stop to the violence, end the campaign of attacks and intimidation against OSCE monitors, and facilitate the access they need to do their job. The OSCE must be able to fulfill its mandate which included monitoring throughout the conflict zone and to the international border. And Russia must understand there is no basis to move forward on the political aspects of the Minsk agreements until there is visible, verifiable, and irreversible improvement in the security situation.
Simply put, Tillerson has put Russia on notice that the Trump administration policies will be hard as nails when it comes to the Ukraine situation. (Meanwhile, there are growing demands that the US should supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.)
On Crimea, Tillerson was pretty much blunt: “Crimea-related sanctions must remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”
Most important, Tillerson just stopped short of saying that the US is supportive of Ukraine’s induction as a NATO member country. He urged Kiev to bring the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to reform and modernise so as to come up to the NATO standards by 2020. In a subtle reference to what lies ahead, Tillerson recalled Trump’s assertion that “every country has the right to chart its own future.” To be sure,Ukraine is looming ahead as the inflection point in Russia’s relations with the US.
The overall tenor of Tillerson’s remarks suggests that not only is the Trump administration unable or unwilling to do anything to improve relations with Russia in immediate terms, it might simply continue with the Barack Obama administration’s Russia policies for as long as the civil war conditions prevail in Washington between him on the one hand and the Russophobes in the Congress and the American foreign and security policy community on the other. Read the triumphalist opinion piece by Time magazine – These Five Facts Explain Why Trump’s Russia Reset May Be Over.
Germany’s recently published job offer for Russian “extras” for US and NATO military drills caused vivid reaction among media and politicians. Political observer Alexander Khrolenko believes that Western armed forces are being trained “for a Ukrainian scenario.”
According to the expert, the exercises mean that NATO is preparing for a full-scale military conflict with Russia.
“It is not difficult to guess that the Pentagon has organized training for a Ukrainian scenario, because the only ‘crisis region’ in Europe, where people speak Russian, is Donbass,” Khrolenko wrote for RIA Novosti.
In his opinion, the Pentagon is concerned about the psychological factors servicemen may face in a war against Russians.
“The simulation of the conflicts with partisan groups in large cities makes it possible to predict major problems in the area of operation that can involve the Russian-speaking population,” the journalist wrote.
Earlier, a job offer was published on the official web portal of Berlin on Sunday seeking Russian “role players” for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US Army training drills.
“We are looking for performers to take part in role games during US military exercises,” the website said.
The starting date was said to be April 26. All participants must have a good knowledge of Russian, English and German. It would be “a great advantage” if they also know Polish or Czech, the advertisement said.
“Interestingly, there are no signs of an international scandal in Germany. If Russia were recruiting American extras for military exercises, then there would be a lot of noise. But now everything is good,” the expert noted.
According to Khrolenko, only several activists oppose the drills. For instance, Deputy Chairman of the German Left Party Tobias Pfluger called the job offer “a disaster from the point of view of world politics.” He also noted that the situation is quite dangerous and can lead to escalation given the high concentration of NATO forces deployed against Russia.
Caracas – Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio publicly warned the governments of El Salvador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic Monday that the US would cut off aid if they failed to vote to suspend Venezuela from the Organization of American States.
“This is not a threat, but it is the reality,” said Rubio, speaking ahead of an extraordinary OAS session scheduled for Tuesday, in which the body’s 35 member-states may be called to vote on whether to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela.
“We have a very difficult situation in Washington, where massive cuts in foreign aid are under consideration and it will be very difficult for us to justify assistance to those countries if they, at the end of the day, are countries that do not cooperate in the defense of democracy in the region,” the senator added.
El Salvador’s left-wing FMLN government, for its part, slammed Rubio’s instrumentalizing of US aid as a means of “political pressure”.
“Marco Rubio’s disregard for international treaties that mediate and lay down the rules for cooperation astonishes us,” expressed Eugenio Chicas, spokesman for President Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
Chicas added that Washington is welcome to cut off future aid, noting however that slashing current assistance would be a violation of previous agreements.
The Dominican Republic likewise responded to Rubio by reaffirming its commitment to non-intervention and support for dialogue in Venezuela.
“The Dominican Republic supports dialogue as the solution to the situation in Venezuela,” declared Dominican Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas Maldonado.
Santo Domingo has been a key player in Vatican-sponsored talks between the Maduro government and right-wing opposition over the past year, with former Dominican President Leonel Fernandez serving on the UNASUR mediation team alongside the former presidents of Spain and Panama, Jose Rodriguez Zapatero and Martin Torrijos.
“We appeal to the international principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of [other] countries, respecting their sovereignty,” Vargas Maldonado continued.
Haiti, for its part, has yet to issue public statement concerning Rubio’s remarks.
Under the Chavez and Maduro governments, Caracas has forged strong political and economic ties with the three neighboring countries, which are all members of Venezuela’s regional energy integration initiative known as PetroCaribe.
Rubio’s comments come as OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro scrambles to amass a two-thirds majority of member-states to support Venezuela’s suspension, which has faced opposition from not only leftist governments, but also close US allies.
Most recently, the right-wing Kuczynski government in Peru, one of Venezuela’s most vocal critics in the region, has cast doubt on the success of the bid, calling it “extreme” and admitting that “there is not a majority”.
Likewise, Costa Rica has announced that it would not endorse the application of the Democratic Charter, insisting that the only solution to the country’s current crisis is “electoral”.
A US state department official told the Associated Press on Thursday that Washington wants to work with Moscow on regional efforts to end the 16-year Afghan war and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be discussing this during his visit to the Russian capital on April 12.
The Trump administration’s idea of seeking Russian cooperation to bring about national reconciliation in Afghanistan signifies a radical departure from the consistently negative approach taken by the Barack Obama presidency aimed at keeping Moscow out of the Afghan problem as far and as long as possible. This is of course brilliant news. (See my recent opinion piece in the Tribune titled The grand bargain.)
However, Trump’s best-laid plans in this direction are surely going to run into big headwinds. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scapparotti may have already made a valiant attempt to raise dust by saying on Thursday that he has seen “increased influence” of Russia of late in Afghanistan “and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.” Hot-shot generals do not usually speculate, and the word “perhaps” has simply no place in their vocabulary, but then, this is politics with the objective of caricaturing Russia in adversarial terms.
The Russians promptly hit back saying that the accusation by the general is “absolutely false.” A top Russian diplomat heading the Afghan desk in the foreign ministry, Ambassador Zamir Kabulov retorted that “these statements are fabrications designed to justify the failure of the US military and politicians in the Afghan campaign, we cannot find any other explanation.” (Sputnik )
Indeed, the NATO general could have been indulging in a blame game. The point is, Scapparotti spoke soon after reports appeared that the Taliban have captured the strategically-located Sangin district in the southern Helmand province. It is a humiliating setback for the US and NATO since more of their soldiers had been killed in Sangin during the war than in any of the 400-odd districts in the country. (Read a BBC commentary here on the significance of Sangin in the chronicle of the Afghan war.)
But, coming back to Tillerson’s talks in Moscow, it is significant that Trump is taking his time to announce his strategy for Afghanistan. He is apparently pondering over the wisdom of deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan in the absence of an exit strategy. Under the circumstances, there is a good possibility that Trump would sense the rationale behind the regional initiative taken by Russia on Afghan national reconciliation.
Pakistan announced today its intention to take part in the forthcoming Moscow conference. Afghanistan has already stated its participation. Presumably, Iran, China and India also will attend the conference. Meanwhile, AP reported today that Pakistan brought together seven top Taliban leaders for a meeting in Islamabad last week “to try and press them into peace talks ahead of a multi-nation meeting in April in Moscow.”
The Taliban leaders who attended the meeting included key figures in the leadership such as Mullah Muhammed Abbas (who took part in direct talks with the Afghan government in July 2015 in Pakistan), Amir Khan Muttaqi, Mullah Muhammed Turabi, Mullah Saaduddin (from the Quetta shura), Mullah Daud (Peshawar shura) – and, most important, Yahya, a senior member of the Haqqani network, and Latif Mansour, secretary of the Taliban leadership council.
This would suggest that the Taliban could be tiptoeing toward the regional format on Afghanistan soon. Of course, there will be hiccups on the way to the conference table, since some Taliban factions could be counting on an outright military victory and a takeover in Kabul. Pakistan will have to do the heavy lifting, ultimately.
Marine Le Pen has just proved that she is more clever than the thousands of anti-Russian politicians in the west, but also more astute than many of the western politicians who are sympathetic to Russia.
Where people like Nigel Farage, Francois Fillon and even to a lesser extent Donald Trump have often distanced themselves from or played down their lack of hatred towards Russia, Marine Le Pen has gone the opposite way, she had a public meeting with President Putin with the eyes of the world watching.
This is why Le Pen is an admirable woman, even for those who may not agree with her politics. There’s no better way to hush up a tired conspiracy than to expose the absurdity of the conspiracy theory.
Michael Flynn acted as though he wished that he’d never been in the same room with Russian vodka let alone a Russian man. Rex Tillerson pretended to have a more negative view of Russia before the Senate than he likely actually does.
By contrast, Marine Le Pen has done what many prominent opposition candidates on the likely verge of power do; she met with a representative of an important foreign power with whom she may be directly dealing with in the near future, in this case the possible next President of France met with the current President of Russia.
Her public meeting has demonstrated the gist of many private meetings held between sane western officials and Russian ones, namely a broad commitment to improve rather than to further destroy diplomatic relations.
When Nixon did it, it was called détente, but when people surrounding Donald Trump even attempted to do it, some call it treason.
I can scarcely think of anything more apropos than a French person re-educating the world as to the meaning of détente. Le Pen stated the obvious in her meeting. She explained that both Russia and the US are important superpowers and that the states of Europe such as France, could only benefit from having good relations with both the US and Russia. Furthermore, she said that she would be happy to work with both President Putin and President Trump if she got elected.
Only in the awkward world of post-modern western politics could such a statement be seen as controversial. She said that peace and good relations is preferable to the opposite and that she respects the leaders of two of the three global superpowers. In any other place and in any other generation, this would be considered a rather throw away statement, but the hysteria of the ideologically driven anti-Russian 21st century west, has elevated these simple remarks to the level of the profound.
Le Pen has encouraged other Europeans to admit that Crimea is Russia and she has also supported the anti-fascist struggle of the Donbass people. Is this why some in the European MSM call her a fascist? The twists of logic would be laughable if they weren’t tragic.
I believe that Le Pen is intelligent and understands the moral underpinnings of the struggle of the Donbass people to repel fascist aggression. I also feel that she truly understands and respects the will of the Crimean people as expressed in a democratic referendum.
But beyond this, Le Pen is pragmatic. It took Richard Nixon to set in motion the inevitable reality that the capital of China is Beijing and not Taipei. Even old right-wing Cold Warriors had to eventually admit which China was the China, no matter how much they would have preferred the other China.
Likewise, even western leaders of the far-right (or so-called liberals who are far right in all but name) who have sympathies with the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev, ought to admit that realistically, Crimea is a peaceful part of Russia, no matter how much they salivate at night over the thought of fascist banners flying over the beaches of Yalta. The sooner they come to terms with this, the better it will be for them.
Marine Le Pen has talked a lot of common sense and in going to Russia she has shown that the ‘Russian connections’ scandal is a big hoax. She didn’t do it by denying the fact that she wants to improve relations between Paris and Moscow, she did it by flying from Paris to Moscow and acting in a far more diplomatic and presidential manner than the current French President.
For the first time in several generations, France has a big ticket politician of whom the people can be proud.
The first half of April will witness the first major forays by the United States into the foreign policy arena under President Donald Trump. The summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping is slated for April 6-7 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. On April 12, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be visiting Moscow.
There is much heartburn already in Washington and in some European capitals that Trump administration is showing preference for big powers and is ‘ignoring old allies’. The lamentation is factually baseless. There have been a string of visits by leaders of allied powers to meet with Trump in the White House – Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and so on.
Interestingly, however, Tillerson showed disinterest in attending the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on April 5-6 and is instructing his deputy Tom Shannon to represent the US, pleading he will be preoccupied with Xi’s visit to Florida. The Reuters reported that NATO offered to re-schedule the Brussels meeting to suit Tillerson’s convenience, but that Washington ‘rebuffed’ the offer.
If so, it is a big statement on the Trump administration’s foreign-policy priorities. Possibly, Washington has decided to subject the alliance to a spell of benign neglect if only to show who calls the shots in the western alliance system. There were some testy exchanges between the US and Germany over Trump’s taunt against the backdrop of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent trip to the White House that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” German Defense Minister Ursula von Der Leyen, a close associate of Merkel, promptly snapped back at Trump the next day saying, “There is no debt account at NATO.” (See my blog Trump hangs tough on Germany, eases on China.)
At any rate, the symbolism is profound when Tillerson signals that he has more important things to do than wasting time with NATO counterparts. The message Trump conveys here is that he doesn’t care to consult the NATO allies or to handle Russia ties on the basis of a unified policy toward Russia with the European allies. Trump would rather pursue US interests. In essence, it means he will not be held hostage by the European allies in the pursuit of his agenda to engage with Russia constructively and improve relations with Russia, western sanctions notwithstanding.
Interestingly, mutinous elements within the US state department – probably Obama-era holdovers – appear to have leaked the info regarding Tillerson’s intention to travel to Russia on April 12, presumably with a view to create a public controversy and somehow force the cancellation of the visit. (Guardian ) This, in turn, prompted the state department to formally announce on Monday within a few hours of the Reuters report that Tillerson proposes to travel to Moscow. It is extremely unusual for a VIP visit to be formally announced full 3 weeks in advance. In sum, Trump administration is creating a fait accompli. Curiously, Moscow learnt about Tillerson’s visit from the state department announcement!
In the Byzantine world of diplomacy, this presents itself indeed as one of those extraordinary spectacles where powerful interest groups or die-hard ideologues in Washington and holdovers from the Obama administration within the USG plus kindred souls in some European capitals — Britain and Germany, in particular — just do not want any easing of US-Russia tensions! They would rather have war drums beating! One is reminded of the famous slice of our own history in 1960 in Delhi when some of Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet colleagues demanded that the visiting Chinese Premier Chou-En Lai should not be allowed to have a private session with the then Defence Minister Krishna Menon, which, they feared, might lead to some amicable formula for border settlement! (Indira Gandhi apparently received Chou at Nehru’s reception at Teen Murti House clad in a Tibetan dress.)
Be that as it may, it seems Trump is beginning to force the pace of his foreign-policy agenda. What all this underscores is that Trump is finally asserting. His address to the US Congress, in retrospect, would have been the turning point. All the hoopla over the FBI investigation over alleged Russian interference in the November election in the US hasn’t affected him. Trump seems supremely confident of weathering the storm, and is going ahead on that basis.
One purpose of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow could be to prepare a summit meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
US Senators unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday urging President Donald Trump to take further action against Venezuelan officials.
The bill also expressed support for a controversial move by Organisation of American States (OAS) head Luis Almagro to invoke the Democratic Charter. If invoked, Venezuela would be suspended from the OAS. When Almagro first announced the move in 2016, he also demanded President Nicolas Maduro be “immediately” removed from office, prompting many Latin American leaders to accuse the OAS head of overreach.
Despite the controversy, the Senate bill called on Trump to “provide full support for OAS efforts in favour of constitutional and democratic solutions to the political impasse and to instruct federal agencies to hold officials of the Venezuelan government accountable for violations of US law and abuses of internationally recognised human rights.”
The bill will now head to the House of Representatives.
One of the main supporters of the bill, Senator Marco Rubio, thanked both Republicans and Democrats for supporting the move.
“I thank my Senate colleagues for supporting this bipartisan resolution calling for the government of Venezuela to respect the constitutional and democratic processes and release all political prisoners,” Rubio said in a statement.
The bill was co-sponsored by prominent Democrats including Senators Bob Menendez and Bill Nelson, along with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential running mate Tim Kaine.
Venezuela has already been hit by numerous US sanctions. One of former president Barack Obama’s last acts in office was the renewal of an executive order in January, declaring Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security.
The executive order wasn’t set to expire until March, though White House officials said Obama went ahead with renewal early to ensure a “a smooth transition” for the Trump administration.
Since then, the Trump administration has slapped Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami with sanctions, including a travel ban and an asset freeze targeting one of his alleged close confidants, the entrepreneur Samark Lopez. Both Aissami and Lopez have been accused of involvement in international drug trafficking. Aissami has denied the allegations, stating in February that he was the victim of anti-Venezuela hardliners in Washington “ “whose fundamental interest is to prevent Venezuela and the United States from restoring their political and diplomatic relations on the basis of mutual recognition and respect”.
“These interest groups not only lack any evidence to demonstrate the extremely serious accusations against me, but they also have built a false-positive case in order to criminalise –through me– the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, a country that is decidedly waging a war on transnational drug trafficking business,” he said.
Moscow refused to join issue with the US State Department’s strident statement on Sunday blaming Russia for the renewed violence in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Washington had stressed that it was “imperative” that the “combined-Russian separatist forces” in Donbass halted their attacks and “immediately” observe the ceasefire.
The Russian reaction came on Monday at the level of the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov who was dismissive of the US allegation but wouldn’t be drawn into the blame game, either, and instead would call on Washington to be “more attentive in judging the situation.” Peskov said he’s reiterating for “a hundredth time” that Russia is not party to the conflict in Ukraine. It was a restrained reaction, albeit a rebuttal of the US charge – and just stopped short of offering Russia’s helping hand.
This puts Washington in a quandary: What next? The point is, the Donald Trump administration is still to put on track a Russia policy. Ukraine is a potential crisis on Europe’s doorstep which demands that Trump has a one-on-one with President Vladimir Putin as early as possible. But then, the Trump administration must also know what to discuss with Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Donbass situation is developing in a way that Washington needs to contend with newer and newer facts on the ground. Moscow announced a week ago its “humanitarian” move to recognize identity documents issued in the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine. This followed a blunt statement by Moscow that “We’re not returning our territory, Crimea is part of Russian Federation” (which in turn was provoked by a remark by the White House press secretary that Trump had been taking a tough line on Russia and that he expected Moscow to withdraw from Crimea, which it occupied after a “full-scale invasion” in 2014.)
Putin ordered last week that the Russian government will temporarily recognize identification, education and qualification documents and other certificates as well as car licence plates issued in the self-declared “people’s republics”, ie., parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that are not under the control of Kiev.
Europe is unsure whether or not see the Russian move as a warning shot by the Kremlin – although it will be a rush to judgment that Moscow is heading in the direction of granting recognition to the self-declared “people’s republics” in Donbass. Moscow maintains with a straight face that the move aims at facilitating travel and allowing Donbass residents to work and study in Russia and that it has a “strict temporary limit – until the implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
On Monday, Russian media reported that another new fact on the ground is struggling to be born in Donbass. This time around, the Lugansk “People’s Republic” has reportedly announced that from March 1, Russian Ruble will become the region’s official currency. Now, things are becoming serious, aren’t they?
And all this is unfolding against the backdrop of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups imposing a blockade for the past month on the movement of coal from Donbass to western Ukraine, which threatens serious economic dislocation. These “neo-Nazi” elements also captured a water purification plant with the intent to cut off water supplies to the Donetsk region under separatist control. The authorities in Kiev cannot or will not crack down on the far-right groups.
Pressure is mounting on Kiev from multiple sides. Importantly, President Petro Poroshenko doesn’t know where exactly he stands in the US foreign policy calculus in the Trump era. The popular mood in Ukraine is increasingly disenchanted with all that happened in the country through the 3-year period since the regime change following the ouster of the elected president Viktor Yanukovych in a “colour revolution” in February 2014.
A recent poll by the Kiev International Sociology Institute shows that in retrospect, a majority of people now see the 2014 “colour revolution” as more of a western coup d’etat and blame Kiev (rather than Moscow) for the lackadaisical implementation of the Minsk agreements. Evidently, the ground is shifting beneath the feet of the “pro-US” set-up installed in power in Kiev by the Barack Obama administration. Popular discontent is cascading with three-quarters Ukrainians estimating that living conditions have only worsened. The most worrisome factor is of course the ascendancy of the far-right groups – and they happen to be well-armed and include ex-servicemen.
With Europe preoccupied with own problems and the US caught up in a civil war – Trump told Fox News last night that he saw Obama’s hidden hand behind the media leaks and protests against him – the West is not paying attention to the dangerous drift in Ukraine. The point is, the Ukrainian political process is steadily becoming violent, threatening the country’s stability. Russia’s cooperation becomes a must to salvage the situation.
However, engagement with Russia is possible only if the Trump administration musters the steam to override the formidable resistance from the US foreign-policy and security establishment (and the US Congress), which is not going to be easy. What Obama visualized as his finest foreign-policy legacy in “post-Soviet” Eurasia is turning out to be a can of worms for the West. Read an overview of the developing crisis featured in The Duran.
Vitaly Churkin was one of the wisest voices in international diplomacy. His voice will no longer echo in the halls of the United Nations. Articulate, polite yet commanding, wise yet affable, he oversaw some of Russia’s and the world’s most important events in a position he occupied since 2006.
Churkin had to face a great deal of hostile criticism from both the Bush and Obama administrations during his time at the UN, but he always did so with grace. He never failed to explain the Russian position with the utmost clarity.
Standing next to some of his colleagues, he often looked like a titan in a room full of school children.
His death, a day before his 65th birthday, is a tragedy first and foremost for his family, friends and colleagues. It is also a deeply sad day for the cause of justice, international law and all of the principles of the UN Charter which Churkin admirably upheld in the face of great obstacles.
His death however raises many uncomfortable questions…
Here are 5 things that must be considered:
1. A Macabre Pattern Has Emerged
Beginning in 2015, there were several deaths within the Russian Diplomatic corps and a special Russian Presidential adviser.
First there was Russia’s RT founder and special adviser to President Putin, Mikhail Lesin. He died in November of 2015 in his hotel room. Reports said that he appeared discombobulated during his last sighting before he died. Later it emerged that he died of a blunt head trauma. Drinking was blamed, but many questions were left unanswered.
Earlier last month, Andrei Malanin, a Senior Russian Diplomat to Greece was found dead in his bathroom. The causes of death remain unknown.
Just last month, Russia’s Ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, an always prestigious role, died of a heart attack, although no one was aware of any previous health issues.
In December of last year Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a lone jihadi gunmen in an art gallery. There was no effective security as the killer simply walked up to Ambassador Andrei Karlov and shot him multiple times in the back.
Vitaly Chirkin is the highest profile member of Russia’s diplomatic corps to die in recent years.
2. A Motive For Foul Play?
Each of the recently deceased Russian Ambassadors were high profile targets for miscreants and criminals, whether state actors, mercenaries or fanatics.
Lesin was instrumental in the creation of RT, a news outlet which has come under constant attack from the western establishment.
Malanin had overseen a period of warming fraternal relations between Greece and Russia at a time when Greece is feeling increasingly alienated from both the EU and NATO.
Karlov is said to be responsible for helping to facilitate the rapprochement between Presidents Erdogan and Putin.
Kadakin oversaw a period of renewed tensions between India and Pakistan at a time when Russia was trying to continue its good relations with India whilst building good relations with Pakistan.
On the 31st of December, 2016, Churkin’s resolution on a ceasefire in Syria passed in the UN Security Council after months of deadlock. The resolution is still in force.
Anyone who wanted to derail the diplomatic successes that the aforementioned men achieved for Russia would have a clear motive to extract vengeance.
3. Who Stands To Gain?
In the matter of Karlov, any derailment of restored Russo-Turkish relations would be good for those happy for Turkey to continue her support of jihadists in Syria rather than moving towards accepting a Russian and indeed Iranian brokered peace process which respects the sovereignty of Syria as Russia and Iran always have, but Turkey has not.
In the case of Lesin, anyone wanting ‘vengeance’ for RT’s popularity would be able to say that a kind of former media boss was taken down.
For Malanin, many fear that if ‘Grexit’ happens, Russia will become an increasingly important partner for Greece. The EU would not like one of its vassal states enjoying fruitful relations with Russia, a country still under sanctions from Brussels.
For Kadakin, it is a matter of interest for those wanting Pakistan to continue favouring western powers and not wanting Russia to be able to mediate in conflict resolutions between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Churkin had come to dominate the UN in ways that his counterparts on the Security Council simply could not. No one really stood a chance in a debate with Churkin. His absence leaves open the possibility for a power vacuum that would makes other peoples’ jobs easier.
4. Where The Deaths Took Place
Each death took place on foreign soil. Mr. Karlov’s killing in particular, exposed the weakness of his security contingent. If security was that weak in a comparatively volatile place like Turkey, it goes without saying that security in states considered more politically stable would be even more lax.
Again it must be said that a non-biased detective might say that the only pattern which has emerged is that many people in the Russian diplomatic corps and related institutions have heart attacks. Maybe they eat fatty foods every day and drink and smoke too much. But if this was this case, why are the heart attacks all on foreign soil?
If all of the former Ambassadors except Karlov were really in bad health, is it really just a coincidence that none of these men had a health scare on Russian soil? Again, a pattern has emerged.
5. The Ethics of Speculation?
Many will say that it is too early to suspect foul play. Indeed, I must make it clear that this is simply speculation based on a pattern of tragic and at times unexplained events, combined with the objective reality that because of Russia’s recently elevated profile as a born-again geopolitical superpower, Russia is a bigger target for international criminals than it was in the broken 1990s or the more quiet early 2000s.
When such events happen, one’s duty is to speculate so that better health and safety precautions are taken to ensure the well-being of Russia’s important diplomats. Furthermore, if foul play is a factor, it means that such seemingly unrelated events must be investigated more thoroughly.
Russia has historically suffered from invasion, revolution and more recently from immense international pressure. The Russian people, like Russia’s ambassadors are entitled to the peace and long lives deserved by any member of a country that has suffered for too long.
Vitaly Churkin, who served as Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations since 2006, “died suddenly” in New York, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced.
The announcement “of the untimely passing away of Ambassador Vitaly Churkin this morning” was met with shock when it was delivered during a session at the UN headquarters.
“He was a dear colleague of all of us, a deeply committed diplomat of his country and one of the finest people we have known,” a UN official who delivered the news to her colleagues said.
The moment of silence in Churkin’s memory was announced at the UN.
President Putin has expressed his condolences to Churkin’s family and to all Russian diplomats.
“He was an outstanding person. He was brilliant, bright, a great diplomat of our age,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told RT, adding that the news of Churkin’s death was “completely shocking.”
Churkin fell ill in his office at Russia’s UN mission and was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he died Monday, AP reported, citing Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known, the agency reported.
“He has been such a regular presence here that I am actually quite stunned. Our thoughts go to his family, to his friends and to his government,” Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general’s office said, as quoted by Reuters. […]
“He was a strong-willed, resolute, and dutiful person, who was admired by his colleagues and envied by his enemies,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told RT.
Russia’s UN Ambassador spared no effort and devoted his life and strength “to the fight for a brighter future for this world,” Ryabkov said, adding that Churkin’s death is “a great loss not only for diplomacy, but for the country in general.”
The profession of a diplomat “has become much more hectic than it used to be in the past,” Churkin said earlier this month in an interview with RT, which was one of his last. “It is stressful,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the world has not become more stable than it used to be,” Churkin told RT’s Aleksey Yaroshevsky.
Before he was appointed to represent Russia at the UN in May 2006, the diplomat served as ambassador to Belgium, ambassador to Canada, and liaison ambassador to NATO and the Western European Union (WEU).
In the 2000s he was ambassador at large at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, while in the early 1990s he served as the special representative of the Russian president to the talks on the former Yugoslavia.