The European Union (EU) has extended for another year the sanctions, which it imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
In mid-June, the 28 EU member states renewed a ban on economic ties with Crimean businesses, which include a block on EU tourism and investment in the Black Sea peninsula. Other EU sanctions target top Russian officials over the Ukraine insurgency.
The annexation, which occurred after pro-Russian forces seized Ukrainian bases in Crimea and then held a referendum, drew international condemnation. While Crimea has a Russian-speaking majority, the referendum was organized by the new authorities and was deemed illegal by the West. After the Crimea annexation, pro-Russian insurgents seized power in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in April 2014. The EU, United States and some other countries then ratcheted up their sanctions against Russia.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia retained control of the important Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. However Ukraine had control of the rest of Crimea until the 2014 crisis.
Lift of the embargo and the impact on Vietnam’s weaponry
After decades of ban, the U.S President Obama lifted the embargo on sales of weapons during his visit to Vietnam in May 2016. The decade-long embargo was on sales of weapons to Vietnam and was already partially lifted in 2014. Today, the U.S decided to fully lift this embargo.
The lift of the embargo is unlikely to affect immediately the acquirement of weapons by Vietnam, mostly because the government would not rush to acquire only American weapons but might use the lift as way to diversify its sources. Indeed, even though the embargo is lifted, the Vietnam might not be ready yet to use weapons as sophisticated and expensive as the American’s ones. In the past decade, the Vietnam defence’s spending has doubled but it is not proven that Vietnam will rush into the American technology. The greatest potential for US sales probably lies in areas like military surveillance systems and coastal defence. Vietnam would welcome technology that helps it track Chinese naval forces. The partial lifting of the embargo two years ago was with the specific aim of improving U.S’ sales in this area. Hence, Vietnam, currently relying mostly on Russian’s defence equipment, is likely to diversify its equipment’s sources but without focusing on the U.S.
The context of South China Sea’s tensions and the U.S policy towards China’s influence
This decision occurs in a time of tension in the South China Sea where the regional States have disputes of territorial claims over several island of the Sea for economic and politic purposes. China is one of the biggest claimers (80% of the claims) and numerous incidents occured in the past few years, including some between Vietnam and the Chinese Republic. For example in 2014, a dispute over a oil rig near the Paracel islands led to clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels along with anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Within these disputes and this tension, the U.S defends the freedom of navigation in this area and has tried to bolster its relations with the other countries involved in the dispute, such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Even though the President Obama affirmed that this decision is not related to the American policy within the region, this lift of the embargo would allow the U.S to strengthen the Vietnamese army, which is currently weaker than China. The Chinese Republic expressed concerns about this lift as the China’s privately-owned portal Sina News said that the lifting of the arms embargo “is a cause for concern” because it may have an impact on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Moreover, the lift of the sanction is also a mean for the U.S to bolster and strengthen its relation with Vietnam, both economically and politically. Indeed, Vietnam is also a key partner for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has currently 12 members including Vietnam but excluding China and aims at facilitating global trade, especially for Made-in America exports. This US-led trade deal is seen as a counter to China’s growing influence, a policy where Vietnam plays an important role for the U.S.
The condition for selling: respect of the human rights
During his announcement of the lift, President Obama assured that the arms ban would be lifted only if human rights in Vietnam improved. He was pushed by Activist groups who called for him to require a greater respect of human rights in Vietnam. Indeed, as Human Right Watch describes: “Basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment.” The juridical system based arrests on the Article 258 (abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens) of the 1999 Penal Code. Vietnam has about 100 political prisoners and seven activists were sentenced in March for spreading anti-state propaganda. And during May 2016, a BBC reporting team has seen its accreditation revoked and was not allowed to cover Obama’s visit.
This condition of respecting human rights before any selling could make the access to weapons more difficult. Indeed, the U.S President assured that any military contracts would still be subject to provisos on human rights. This condition might be difficult to respect for the Vietnamese government as explained above. Given the Vietnamese government’s poor human rights record, it might hold up possible arms sales in Congress.
Hence, the lift of the embargo on sales of weapons to Vietnam might not bring immediate changes neither for the Vietnamese doctrine warfare nor for its equipment. Russia is likely to remain the first partner of Vietnam on the defence area even though the lift could allow Vietnam to diversify the sources of its weapons. Moreover, this decision of lifting the embargo is to analyse within the regional context of tensions and the U.S policy of countering China’s growing influence.
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.
A conflict which has lasted over five years; dismounted the infrastructures of a country set the entire surviving population to seek asylum in neighbors’ states: the Syrian civil-war. The perfect stage to allow terrorists and extremists to enforce their plans and gain territories. Syria is not the only battlefield of this unbalanced amorphous and revised war on terror. North Iraq, Southeastern Turkey and on a broader spectrum the whole of Europe remains a potential target. A conflict where superpowers as the US and Russia played a major role leading to a ceasefire and alleged peace talks in Ginevra; a conflict where actors, structures and outcomes are yet to be fully unveiled.
This conflict is another historical landmark for many foreign policies; it reshaped the approach to terrorism and justice; showed the world a climate of desperation and fear; cruelty and loss of lives have filled the daily newspapers. Europe has worked on resolving the collateral effect of migrations and has faced attacks within its capitals; other players have tried to eradicate ISIS. No winners; only an apparent and fragile ceasefire.
From any “problem solving” point of view the first step of the analysis is to acknowledge the problem; identify the causes beginning by minimizing the effects. Who is ISIS?
Before describing the organization we should consider the so widely used term “Terrorism”. Historically the term refers to the unlawful use of violence towards civilian’s targets in a desperate attempt to enforce political goals. The rise of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It was initially an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and both were radical anti-Western militant groups devoted to establishing an independent Islamic state in the region. AQI was weakened in Iraq in 2007 as a result of what is known as the Sunni Awakening, when a large alliance of Iraqi Sunni tribes, supported by the US, fought against the jihadist group. AQI saw an opportunity to regain its power and expand its ranks in the Syrian conflict that started in 2011, moving into Syria from Iraq. By 2013, al-Baghdadi had spread his group’s influence back into Iraq and changed the group’s name to ISIS. It disowned the group in early 2014 proving to be more brutal and more effective at controlling seized territories.
While ISIL has not been able to seize ground in the past several months, that hasn’t precluded them from conducting terrorist attacks, and it hasn’t precluded them from conducting operations that are more akin to guerrilla operations than the conventional operations that we saw when they were seizing territory. The organization understood the value of pushing out content, specifically videos of atrocities, into the world. Therefore, they could recruit very brutal young men to come and join their struggle. As the organization evolved, it made media very central to its ideology and strategy. ISIS had harnessed the power of the “information arena” to propagate its ideology, recruit, move money and coordinate activities. The question arise naturally: “What can be done?”
A top Pentagon official reported that the US is hitting ISIS with “cyber bombs” as part of its new arsenal of tactics being deployed against the terrorist group. The cyber effort is focused primarily on ISIS terrorists in Syria and that the goal is to overload their network so that they cannot function. An attack of this magnitude can interrupt the group’s ability to command and control forces. Similar principle was applied over the power and water disruptions in the middle of a two-week truce between government forces and certain militant groups. Disruption of critical infrastructure was used in order to gain an advantage over the group. Moreover the Islamic State is clearly frightened by the outflow of refugees. A lot of media have been created excoriating those who flee from these territories. By taking advantage of those refugees a powerful tool could be created in order to tell their stories to the world.
The humanitarian issues, the fallout, the civil war, the core issues have not been addressed yet. So far the military intervention and the coalition of multiple air strikes, carried out by Russia and US, have diminished the capabilities of the group; however there is so much more to do and the future remains uncertain. It is highly likely that ISIS will not cease to exist in the near-medium term; their strategy, tactics and objectives are likely to remain unaffected. The struggle in the region and the level of threat to Europe are still primary concerns and subjects of ongoing discussions.
On several occasions lately it has been reported that there is a concern with Russia possibly conducting a so called hybrid warfare on European countries. In Finland the flow of migrants coming from the Middle East via Russia is what some consider a form of hybrid warfare. Military researcher Antti Paronen says the vast numbers of asylum-seekers in Europe could be used as a means to keep the Finns and European West off balance and push certain pressure points. Parallels have been drawn between the Somali migrants that overwhelmed Finland after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the alleged trafficking situation with Afghani migrants that is going on presently in Finnish Lappland. Steering the flow of mass migration is a typical method in the arsenal of the so-called “grey phase” of hybrid warfare. To the Bulgarians the concept of hybrid warfare also include cyber-crime. The Defence Minister, Nikolay Nenchev, has noted that state institutions are taking cyber-crimes more seriously. This comes at a time when attacks have increased lately. Bulgarian institutions such as the National Revenue Agency and the Education Ministry have reportedly been targets of repeated hack attacks over the past months. These attacks have been linked to Russia, by Ukrainian news agencies. Chief of Defence of the Bulgarian Armed Forces has warned that the line between peace and war in the case of hybrid wars is not always clear, and that this is a dangerous thing and often a challenge for states. At the same time, the Latvians have also spotted signs of hybrid warfare directed at them, allegedly from Russia. Instead of migrant flows or cyber-crime the Latvians are considering propaganda. This is not a concern of Latvia alone, but affects several countries throughout Europe. The director of the Latvia-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, has said that indications of ongoing hybrid warfare are becoming stronger in Central Europe and Scandinavia. Despite cuts to the Russian budget, propaganda projects like the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news agency, which recently opened a Latvian branch, is still receiving government funds. This could be a signal of an increased Russian budget for producing and using state-propaganda. Sputnik set up a website in Latvian in early February, 2016. The Latvian Security Police said it serves as evidence to Russian attempts to spread propaganda. Such websites can be blocked but there are always tricks to bypass such blocks, not to mention that this might bring up some questions about democratic values. Therefore encouraging people to ignore the websites is the best thing to do as of now. That seems to be where the challenge lies in the case of so called hybrid warfare, because of its nature there is no obvious way to counter it. There is no discussion that adversaries have developed creative uses of the “full-spectrum” of warfare, including the use of regular and irregular tactics across all dimensions of war. In the last decade, some of the most important military forces and coalitions in the world, have attempted to address and counter so-called hybrid threats. This has turned out to be difficult, mostly because there is no agreed upon definition of the word hybrid. It is widely understood as a mixture or a blend of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, and information and cyber warfare. In theory any strategy of conducting warfare can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single method. Perhaps it is unnecessary to define it, but rather a need to consider war for the complexity that it is and counter each strategy with the appropriate counter measure. Hybrid defence for hybrid threats.