The primary security concern across Eastern Europe in January remained the Russian military build-up in Russia’s southern region and US and NATO fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Kremlin decision in the first week of January to dispatch troops as part of a CSTO mission to quell political unrest in Kazakhstan exacerbated western fears of Russian expansionist intentions. A series of diplomatic talks between Russian, US and NATO delegations followed but appeared to offer little hope for a resolution, as Russian demands on NATO to withdraw forces from Eastern Europe and commit to a restriction against Ukrainian membership were continually rebuffed, while western calls for Russia to deescalate the crisis by withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border were ignored. Later in the month, US intelligence alleged that Russian operatives were active in Ukraine and planning to stage a false-flag incident to provide a justification for military action against Ukraine, accusations which Russian officials strongly denied. On 17 January Russian military forces began to move into Belarus, ostensibly in preparation for joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in February, but further inflaming western fears that the Kremlin was preparing for a two-pronged assault into Ukraine while maintaining a pretense of diplomatic de-escalation efforts.
By the end of January, relations appeared to have deteriorated significantly, with a flurry of negotiations between Western states as NATO members offered military support to Ukraine and Eastern European neighbors. Russian officials expressed little hope for negotiations as NATO continued to refuse any concessions on Moscow’s security demands. Despite continued insistences that Russia does not want war, further expanded Russian military deployments to Belarus and the Ukrainian border as well as indicators such as cyber-attacks against Ukrainian government websites and the stockpiling of blood supplies as part of Russia’s preparations have made the prospect of conflict appear more real than at any point since the crisis began. Looking ahead, it is difficult to anticipate what course the situation on the Russia-Ukrainian border will take in the next months, appearing to entirely depend on whether the Kremlin will instigate some form of conflict or choose instead to de-escalate by withdrawing its forces.
Several factors may lead to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin will choose not to attack Ukraine. Recent Russian conflicts, such as in Syria or the annexation of Crimea, have primarily emphasized the use of ‘low cost’ and low casualty methods of airstrikes, hybrid warfare, mercenaries and maskirovka to secure strategic aims. However, during the Ukraine Crisis the US and NATO allies have utilized strategies to increase potential casualties from an attack on Ukraine. US intelligence agencies negated the element of surprise by announcing an anticipated attack early, negating the possibility of any plausible deniability. In addition, the US and allies have increased the likely costliness of an attack in terms of casualties by supplying Ukraine with armaments and security assistance, and by threatening a coordinated suite of sanctions in the event of conflict which would be likely to significantly impact the Russian economy. While western governments have almost entirely ruled out direct intervention in any conflict, it is likely that lethal support to Ukraine would increase dramatically. It is also possible that the Russian government may have never intended to attack Ukraine and that the military build-up on the border was a carefully engineered bluff, designed to coerce concessions from the US and NATO.
However, the crisis on the Ukrainian border, which has now lasted for nearly two months, may have gone on for too long to allow a dignified de-escalation without some form of gain for Russia. If the military build-up had been designed as a bluff to secure concessions, then the bluff has been called by the US and NATO who have flatly refused all of Russia’s extremely ambitious demands, with both sides adhering to their respective ‘red lines’. The maintenance of such substantial military forces at a state of readiness in both Ukraine and Belarus must also be placing a significant and growing financial burden on the Russian government which will have gone to waste if nothing is achieved. If true, more recent US intelligence accusations that Russia is planning to fabricate a false-flag provocation may signal that the Kremlin is attempting to retrieve a possibility of plausible deniability, while claims of a plot to replace the Ukrainian government with a more favourable regime may indicate that Russia is seeking to find a new ‘low cost’ method to achieve its goals in Ukraine. While NATO responses have made a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine extremely costly and unlikely, it is a distinct possibility that the Russian Federation will engage in some form of limited conflict in the Ukraine region within the near future in order to avoid a clear ‘loss’ to NATO. Such an action might entail a small ‘flashpoint’ between Russian and Ukrainian forces as a pretext to return to the negotiating table with amended demands which might be accepted by the West.
Fourteen people were killed and a further fifty were wounded on Monday 3 April in a blast that occurred in a St Petersburg train carriage.
The explosion on Monday afternoon at 2:40 PM (1140 GMT) occurred when the train was in a tunnel deep underground, which amplified the force of the blast. The carriage door was blown off, with witnesses describing seeing injured passengers with bloodied and blackened bodies. State investigative authorities have disclosed that fragments of the body of the suspect had been found amongst the dead, indicating that he was a suicide bomber.
The National Anti-Terrorist Committee reported on Monday that an explosive device had been found at another station, hidden in a fire extinguisher, adding that it had been defused. It was unclear who had placed that device, and so far no arrests have been made.
Authorities disclosed on Tuesday 4 April that the main suspect behind the attack is a Russian citizen, originally from mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz GKNP security service has identified the suspect as Azbarzhon Jalilov, born in the city of Osh in 1995. The security service however has provided no further detail about the suspect. Citing law enforcement officials, Russian media have reported that the perpetrator had radical Islamist links, which has raised the possibility that the attack could have been inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which has not struck a major city in Russia before. So far however there has been no official confirmation or claim of responsibility.
Russia has been on alert against attacks in reprisal for its military intervention in Syria, where Moscow’ forces have been supporting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against Western-backed armed group s as well as IS. The militant group is now under attack by all sides in Syria’s multi-faceted war and it has repeatedly threatened revenge and has ben linked to recent bombings elsewhere in Europe. Monday’s attack in Russia has raised security fears beyond Russian frontiers, with France, which has itself suffered a series of terrorist attacks, announcing additional security measures in Paris.
Japan and Russia have never signed a peace treaty since WW2; Is history reigniting a geopolitical contention?December 16, 2016 in Russia
Anxiety hovers over Japanese leadership as Russia has moved anti-ship missiles to the disputed Kuril Islands in the Pacific in November 2016. These missiles provide effective protection from landing operations and carrier-based aircraft strikes. The Russian move comes oddly at a time when the Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Japan later this month. Perhaps a retrospect in history and analysis of contemporary geopolitics will help understand better the contention between the two countries.
What is the dispute over Kuril Islands?
Under the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda between Russia and Japan, the islands of Iturup, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai had belonged to Japan. Post WW2, these islands became parts of the-then Soviet Union, although Japan never recognized the Soviet authority over the islands. In the 1956 Treaty of Peace with Japan, there was a commitment to transfer two southern Kuril Islands to Japan, which was also not executed because it was not clear what conditions were essential for the transfer and who bore sovereignty over the islands. Thus the two countries never signed a peace treaty.
Why are the Kuril Islands important?
The Russian annexure of Kuril Islands post WW2 had made Japan feel vulnerable about its northern mainland. Japan feared that the Soviet empire would expand and invade Japan’s north. As a result, Japan emphasized its military presence in Hokkaido, although the fear of a potential invasion had subsided since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Recent developments in the islands have, however, reignited this contention between Japan and Russia that warrant looking into why these islands are important to the two countries.
Japan’s strategic interest in the islands is because they are rich with natural resources, which is vital to a resource-starved Japan. Historically, to the people of Hokkaido, the idea of Japanese hold of the islands is a matter of honor.
Russia’s strategic interests in the islands include:
- Russian Navy’s safe access through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific;
- Russian military’s presence to strengthen its involvement in East Asian affairs;
- The islands and its territorial waters are rich with minerals including offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, titanium and rhenium;
- The islands are able to supply geothermal energy to meet Russian’s annual heating needs;
What have been the latest developments on this dispute?
Russia’s military developments in the islands have appeared at a time when Japan has been moving its focus to the south to deal with China’s maritime expansion. In the hope that the two countries could come to terms about the dispute, Japan is keen on incentivizing Russia with economic relations particularly when sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, low oil price and high inflation have been taking its toll on the Russia economy. Given the strategic interests in the islands, the gains for Russia from economic relations with Japan, however, seem too inadequate to give up the islands. Also in September this year, when asked if Russia is ready to consider giving up one of Kuril Islands to reciprocate for a greater economic cooperation with Japan, Putin said, “We do not trade territories”.
What’s in it for the West?
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent trip to the U.S. to visit Pearl Harbor is perhaps a testament to the strengthening relations between the U.S. and Japan today. Abe is the first Japanese premier to visit Pearl Harbor. It is hard to infer if this gesture is manifested as an ally subtly seeking the U.S. intervention in Kuril dispute. Russia’s increasing militarization in the Pacific and Japan’s continued support of the Western sanctions against Russia are, however, likely to generate U.S. interest on this matter, although the U.S. president elect Donald Trump, during his election campaign, have threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan.
So, where does it leave Japan and Russia now?
The Russian President Vladimir Putin is due in Japan later this month. While the visit is intended toward discussing economic ties and signing a peace treaty, Russia’s firm stance so far on the territorial dispute will most likely sustain. However, some minor economic deals between the two countries are likely.
The security implications of what appears to be a foreign policy matter.
Moscow’s expansion of its arms sales in the Middle East gives it another dimension through which to pursue its geopolitical goals. Moscow has long been the world’s second largest arms exporter after the US, with average annual income in 2012−15 reaching $14.5 billion. But over the past decade, it has particularly increased its arms exports to the Middle East, part of a broader Russian strategy of re-establishing Moscow as a key player in the region. However until recently, Russia was cautious in using weapons exports as political leverage. This has changed, and the growth of the Russian share of the Middle East arms market will make the Kremlin more decisive still. The instability in the Middle East suggests that that region will remain one of the chief markets for arms for years to come and will help Russian arms suppliers to challenge US dominance there.
On the 16th of August, The Russian Defense Ministry reported long-range Russian TU-22M3 bombers based in Iran have struck a number of targets inside Syria. Russian bombers flying from an Iranian air base struck rebel targets across, dramatically underscoring the two countries’ growing military ties and highlighting Russia’s ambitions for greater influence in a turbulent Middle East. The long-range Tu-22 bombers took off from a base near Hamadan in western Iran and launched raids in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour and Idlib. The ministry said the bombers were accompanied by Russian fighter jets based in Syria. Russia has carried out strikes in support of government troops there where both countries are loyal allies of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian intervention marked a turning point in the fate of the Assad regime, which had been losing ground to rebel forces. But until now, Russia’s long-range bombers, which require longer airstrips, had to be launched from Russian territory more than 1,200 miles away. Now, those same bombers need to fly only about 400 miles from Iran to Syria. The shorter distance, using less fuel and allowing a bigger payload, will allow Russia to intensify its air campaign against rebel-held areas. Syrian government troops and opposition fighters are now locked in a battle for the strategic city of Aleppo, where residents face a growing humanitarian crisis. The flights marked the first time Russia has launched strikes from Iranian territory. Iran has long banned foreign militaries from establishing bases on its soil. But the raids appeared to signal a budding alliance that would expand Russia’s military footprint in the region.
Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that its long-range bombers only struck targets linked to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a group that formally split from al-Qaeda last month and changed its name from Jabhat al-Nusra. The strikes destroyed five major ammunition depots, training camps and three command posts. But rights groups have criticized both Russia and the Syrian regime for repeated strikes on civilian targets, including homes, schools and hospitals. Conversely Russian and Syrian officials have denied those reports.
On Tuesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian and Russian troops have used banned incendiary weapons in civilian areas. The joint Syrian-Russian military operation has been using incendiary weapons, which burn their victims and start fires, in civilian areas of Syria in violation of international law.
Incendiary weapons, as the term is understood in international humanitarian law (IHL) describes weapons that act mainly through fire and heat. Napalm and white phosphorous are probably the best known incendiary substances used in incendiary weapons. 1980 Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III to the CCW) prohibits the aerial delivery, in relation to the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict, of incendiary weapons within a concentration of civilians.
The illegal use was already addressed in June 2016 when the Russian state-run television reportedly released a video footage showing incendiary weapons, specifically, RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM bombs, being loaded on a Su-34 fighter-ground attack aircraft. The use of incendiary weapons by Russia was confirmed by Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, in a letter to Human Rights Watch. Lavrov attributed the ‘significant humanitarian damage’ caused by incendiary weapons in Syria to their ‘improper use’. Incendiary weapons have been used at least 18 times over the past nine weeks, including in attacks on the opposition-held areas in the cities of Aleppo and Idlib on August 7, 2016.
Countries meeting at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva on August 29, 2016 should condemn the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in civilian areas of Syria in violation of the treaty’s Protocol III on incendiary weapons. However it is important to remember that the implementation of such a belligerent tactic has been historically shared by many other countries despite the international conventions; an example of that is the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Ukraine conflict in 2014.
In a nine-minute video posted on YouTube on Sunday, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has called on its members to carry out jihad in Russia.
The video, which has subtitles, depicted footage of armed men attacking armoured vehicles and tens and collecting arms in the desert. One of the subtitles read, “breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat.” In the last minutes of the video, a masked men driving a car in the desert yells “Listen Putin, we will come to Russia and we will kill you at your homes…Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them.”
While it was not immediately possible to independently verify the video, the link to the footage was published on a Telegram messaging account used by the militant group. Furthermore, while it was not immediately clear why Russia would be a target, the country, along with the United States, are talking about boosting military and intelligence cooperation against both IS and al-Qaeda in Syria. IS has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.
Over the past several weeks, there has been a string of deadly attacks that have been claimed by IS. Last week, assailants loyal to IS forced an elderly Catholic priest in France to his knees before slitting his throat. Since the mass killing in Nice, southern France on 14 July, there have been four incidents that have occurred in Germany, including the most recent suicide bombing that occurred at a concern in Ansbach.