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.
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.
United States President Barack Obama has urged Russia to stop “intimidating” Ukraine and to cut the number of troops it has deployed to its eastern border. The statement by Mr Obama comes as ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called for a national referendum to determine each region’s “status within Ukraine.”
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Obama stated that the move by Russia may “be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that Russia has additional plans.” He added that President Vladimir Putin had been “willing to show a deeply-held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.” He also warned that the Russian leader should not “revert back to the kinds of practices that were so prevalent during the Cold War,” adding “I think there’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past.”
Russia is believed to have deployed a force of several thousand troops close to Ukraine’s eastern frontier. Although the Kremlin has stated that it has no plans to take over the eastern regions of Ukraine, tensions in Ukraine and in other former Soviets states have continued to rise.
A new classified intelligence assessment has also concluded that it is more likely than previously that Russian forces will enter eastern Ukraine. Although US intelligence officials have emphasized that nothing is certain, they have indicated that over the past three to four days, there have been several worrying signs. According to one official, “this has shifted our thinking that the likelihood of a further Russian incursion is more probable than it was previously thought to be.” The build up along Russia’s eastern border with Ukraine is reminiscent of Moscow’s military moves before it went into Chechnya and Georgia in both numbers of units and their capabilities.
The assessment makes several new points including:
- Troops on Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine, which exceed 30,000, are “significantly more” than what is needed for the “exercises” Russia says it has been conducting, and there is no sign the forces are making any move to return to their home bases.
- The troops on the border with Ukraine include large numbers of “motorized” units that can quickly move. Additional Special Forces, airborne troops, air transport and other units that would be needed appear to be at a higher state of mobilization in other locations in Russia.
- Russian troops already on the border include air defence artillery and wheeled vehicles.
According to US intelligence officials, there is additional intelligence that even more Russian forces are “reinforcing” the border region. All of the troops are in positions for potential military action. The US currently believes that Russia may decide to enter eastern Ukraine in order to establish a land bridge into Crimea. The belief is that Russian forces would move toward three Ukrainian cities: Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk in order to establish land access into Crimea. According to US intelligence information, Russian forces are currently positioned in and around Rostov, Kursk and Belgorod.
In response to growing unrest amongst Western leaders, a Russian security official has also stated that intelligence measures are now being stepped up in order to counter Western threats to Moscow’s influence. Alexander Malevany, deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) was quoted as saying “there has been a sharp increase in external threats to the state. The lawful desire of the peoples of Crimea and eastern Ukrainian regions is causing hysteria in the United States and its allies.” He added that Russia was taking “offensive intelligence measures” to counter Western efforts to “weaken Russian influence in a region that is of vital importance to Moscow.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, Ukraine’s highly-divisive opposition leader, and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, announced her plans to run in the presidential polls which have been set for 25 May 2014, following last month’s fall of a pro-Kremlin regime. The dramatic announcement completes a highly improbable return to national politics that underscores the scale of changes that have shaken the former Soviet republic in the past few weeks.
Speaking to reporters shortly after walking into a pressroom, the 53-year-old confirmed “I intend to run for president of Ukraine.” In 2010, Tymoshenko, one of the most charismatic and outspoken leaders of Ukraine’s 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, lost a close presidential poll to Victor Yanukovych after heading two pro-Western cabinets that became embroiled in fighting and eventually lost popular support. During her speech, Tymoshenko attempted to paint herself as a compromise figure who could look after the interests of her older supporters but who could also be able to find common ground with the Russian speakers who are now looking towards the Kremlin for assistance.
Shortly after the 2010 vote, her political downfall was rapid and seemingly fatal as Yanukovych’s government quickly launched a series of criminal probes against his political rival. This led to a controversial trial over Tymoshenko’s role in agreeing to a 2009 gas contract with Russia that many Ukrainians though came at too high a cost. In October 2011, she was convicted of abusing her power and was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison, a sentencing that Western nations denounced as the use of selective justice.
However on 22 February 2014, the day the Ukrainian parliament ousted Yanukovych for his role in the deaths of nearly 100 protesters in Kiev earlier that month, she emerged triumphantly from a state hospital, where she had spent most of her sentence under guard. Hours after her release, she arrived at the protest square in the heart of Kiev, which had also served as the crucible of the 2004 pro-democracy movement that had propelled her political career. However the crowd’s reception of Tymoshenko was guarded, a sign of their growing weariness of the corruption allegations that had been made against her. Many now believe that the pro-Western government movement that Tymoshenko once headed is now looking towards a new generation of leaders who played a more prominent role in the latest protests and who now hold key position sin the new interim government.
Twenty-First Century Soviet Union: Could Moscow be Looking Towards Annexing States in Eastern Europe?March 27, 2014 in Russia, Ukraine
With the annexation of Crimea, there have been growing Western concerns of the rising number of Russian troops along the country’s eastern border with Ukraine. Although Moscow has denied that President Vladimir Putin has an ambitious plan to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the West following the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, the presence of 30,000 troops stationed along the border is nevertheless alarming. Furthermore, while Moscow originally stated that it was intervening in Crimea because of concerns over the ill-treatment of Russians there, who make up more than half of the population, since Crimea’s annexation, Russia has done little to ease Eastern European fears of further takeovers. The question now remains, could similar action take place in other parts of the former Soviet Union?
Since the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in February 2014, there have been frequent pro-Russian demonstrations that have taken place in Donetsk as well as in other cities in eastern Ukraine. So far, at least one person has been killed. Russians however have blamed far-right pro-Western demonstrators for escalating tensions throughout the country.
With Russian troops having staged military exercises near the border, and Ukrainian officials claiming Thursday that 100,000 Russian forces have massed on Ukraine’s border, it would not be difficult for them to move across into Ukraine itself.
If Putin is indeed considering more territorial expansion, than eastern Ukraine is likely to be high on his list. The political costs however would be high, with NATO and Western leaders already warning Moscow against further expansionism.
Although Crimea, which was previously Russian territory, became part of the Ukraine in 1954, Ukraine’s eastern border goes back much further, ties which could be used by Putin in any possible future take overs.
A great deal of attention has also focused on Trans-Dniester, a separatist region of Moldova, which has already offered itself to Moscow. Proclaiming independence in 1990, which has never been recognised internationally, Trans-Dniester is majority Russian-speaking while most Moldovans speak Romanian. NATO’s commander in Europe has warned that Trans-Dneister may be Russia’s next target as Moscow has already deployed 1,000 troops to the region, which borders Ukraine, near the city of Odessa.
The southern region of Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova which is made up of four enclaves with a total population of 160,000 also held a referendum in February 2014, in which 98.4% of voters backed integration with a Russia-led customs union. The Moldovan government has stated that the referendum was illegitimate.
Russia’s 2008 brief war with Georgia resulted in two areas breaking away, South Ossetia and Abkhazi. Although Abkhazia had already declared independence unilaterally in 1999, since the 2008 war, the two enclaves have existed in a grey zone as they are not recognized internationally, nor are they formally are part of Russia. Although Moscow’s stated aim at the time was to protect Russian speakers, most residents are native speakers of Ossetian and Abkhaz respectively. Furthermore, most residents hold Russian passports and are opposed to the Georgian government in Tbilisi.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
Although the Baltic republics regained their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, Russians account for about a third of the population in both Estonia and Latvia. Due to the fact that both Latvia and Estonia require knowledge of their languages in order to gain citizenship, some Russian speakers born in the countries are either unable or unwilling to become citizens. Many Russian speakers have complained of discrimination, stating that the strict language laws make it difficult for them to get jobs. This treatment was echoed by the Kremlin in mid-March of this year, with officials expressing “outrage” at the treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia, the same reason, which they gave for intervening in Crimea.
In Lithuania, ethnic Russians make up about 5% of the population and there is no requirement for them to pass a language test in order to attain citizenship.
However what must be noted is that in the case of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all three Baltic states are members of both the European Union and NATO. Therefore any Russian incursion would have serious consequences as article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.
Currently, there is no reason why Russia would seek to intervene in Belarus as the country is already closely aligned with Moscow. Furthermore, Belarus is an economic union with Russia, and Russian is an official language. Although only 8.3% of the population identifies itself as Russian, more than 70% speak the language.
Ties between Russia and Kazakhstan go back to tsarist times, when northern cities such as Pavlodar and Uralsk were founded by the Russians as military outposts. Russians currently account for more than half of the population in northern Kazakhstan which, like Crimea, was once a part of Russia itself.
Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan signed an agreement on nuclear disarmament in 1994 in exchange for protection. It has no port like Sevastopol in Crimea, however it does have the Baikonur space facility.
Although Kazakhstan already has close ties with Russia, as it is one of two other members, along with Belarus, of Moscow’s customs union, it has remained officially neutral in the matter of Ukraine.
Other Central Asian Republics
After independence in 1991, large numbers of Russians emigrated to central Asia, with the percentage of ethnic Russians in the region now ranging from 1.1% in Tajikistan to 12.5% in Kyrgyzstan. However it must be noted that the Central Asian economies remain tied to Russia, bot in terms of trade and remittances from migrants working there.
While it therefore seems unlikely that Moscow would seek to intervene in the region, the post-Crimea turmoil could still have an affect on the area. As the Russian rouble falls, and sanctions hit Russian businesses, jobless migrants returning from Russia could cause trouble for the governments in Dushanbe or Bishkek.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
Although Armenia has no Russian population to speak of, and Azerbaijan has just 1%, both countries tread a geopolitical tightrope between Russia and the West. Furthermore, since Aremenia gained its independence in 1991, Russia has retained a military base at Gyumri.
As was the case in Ukraine, Armenia had been preparing to sign an association agreement with the EU, however in September 2013, officials in the country announced that Armenia would be joining the Russian-led customs union instead.
Azerbaijan on the other hand is less economically dependent on Russia as it exports oil and natural gas to the EU. A pipeline that ends in Turkey effectively allows it to skirt Russian territory.
Russia would like to keep both countries in its sphere of influence, however in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia is more likely to use economic, as opposed to military, measures.
Poland and the Baltics
Outside of Russia’s direct neighbours, countries such as Poland and those in the Baltics have also caused unease, with a sense that they too are under threat.
Although leaders in Poland have played down the danger, repeatedly reassuring the public, there remains a widespread sense of insecurity throughout the country.
While during an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Poland joining NATO, Prime Minister Donald Tusk stated that he saw no direct threat to his country, a view that has been echoed by Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski, an opinion poll has shown that 59% of respondents believed Russia’s foreign policy presented a threat to Poland’s security. Some have stated that they “…feel threatened by Russia because we’re next. Ukraine is first, then the Baltic countries and then Russia’s President Putin will make something bad here.” These fears have been echoed across the country, with one resident stating “now they want to attack Ukraine but we are neighbours so I don’t think Poland is safe, especially because we have a shred history with Russia, and they were always aggressors.” While these remarks to not directly indicate that most Poles fear that Russia is about to launch a military attack on the, their shared history however has generated a widespread mistrust of Russia and its leadership.
During the 18th century Catherine the Great annexed eastern Poland, with the country not regaining its independence until the end of World War One. However after just two decades of freedom, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland just two weeks after Nazi Germany marched into western Poland in 1939. While the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis in 1945, this liberation was seen by many as a simple transfer of power, from one enemy to the next. Upon removing Nazi troops out of Poland, Joseph Stalin quickly installed a Soviet-backed communist system throughout the country, with the last Soviet troops leaving Poland in 1993.
According to Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, “…there is a sense that certain boundaries have been crossed, that precedents have been created and because of that its not clear where Putin is going to stop,” adding that “this clearly unprovoked aggression against another state is in breach of international law. It doesn’t seem wise to hang on to the belief Putin’s not going to go further.”
Poland’s growing insecurity however is not solely tied to the country, but is also shared by the Baltic countries, which were also incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War Two.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite warned last week that Russia was trying to redraw the post-war map of Europe, adding that while Ukraine is likely to be the next on Putin’s list, Moldova, the Baltics and Poland would be next.
Estonia and Latvia both have large Russian minorities, which is of concern considering Putin’s justification for occupying Crimea has been to protect ethnic Russians there.
In response of growing fears of a possible Russian takeover of Poland and/or the Baltics, the United States has announced that it is increasing its military cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states. Officials have indicated that the US is sending six more F-15 fighters and a KC-135 refuelling tanker to increase its support for NATO’s patrolling of Baltic airspace.
In Poland, about 300 US air force personnel and 12 US F-16 fighters will be deployed for a joint training exercise. This is a significant boost to the 10 US airmen who are already stationed in the country. However the United States response will not solely focus on military aspects, but will also concentrate on the energy issue, which has developed out of the Ukrainian crisis. According to sources in Poland, “our prime minister and president have said we have to work more intensely towards energy independence. Energy is vital because the threat is not just of a military nature, its also about turning the gas taps off.” Poland has already experienced this switch-off as much of Russia’s gas supplies to Europe transit Ukraine while on its way West. In 2009, a price dispute between the Ukraine and Russia halted supplies to many European countries.
Despite the 2009 issue, Poland and the Baltic countries remained dependent on Russian gas supplies, with Poland last year importing 60% of the gas consumed by industry and households from Russian gas company Gazprom. According to Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk, Central and Eastern Europe’s dependence on Russian gas effectively gave Putin too much leverage. However after years of stating that it should liberate itself from independence of Russia’s gas supplies, and not doing much about it, Poland is now diversifying its gas sources.
By the end of this year, Poland is set to complete construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal to import gas from Qatar. It has also increased the capacity of interconnector pipelines with German and the Czech Republic in order to boost supplies from those markets. Poland also hopes to start producing its own shale gas in the future.
An al-Qaeda-linked militia that was founded by Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday that it would be joining forces with another armed group in order to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali. While this move is no surprise to analysts, as the two groups have previously collaborated in carrying out regional attacks, it does cement the fact that the Sahel region will remain the new focal point for global counter-insurgency efforts.
Reports surfaced on Thursday that Belmokhtar’s Mauritanian-based al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones) along with Malian-based terrorist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is believed to be led by Ahmed Ould Amer, have joined forces under one banner in a bid to unite Muslims and to target French interests in the West African region. In a statement that was published by Mauritanian news agency Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), the two groups indicated that “your brothers in MUJAO and al-Mulathameen announced their union and fusion in one movement called al-Murabitoun, to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar and Ould Amer are said to have ceded control of al-Murabitoun to another leader. Although he has not been named, reliable sources indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000’s. Reports also indicate that unlike the leaders of most of the armed organizations in the region, this new leader may not be Algerian.
The merger between the two groups was first reported by ANI, which has long been a reliable source of information pertaining to jihadist activities in West Africa. In an excerpt of the group’s statement, Belmokhtar indicates that he decided not to assume the leadership of al-Murabitoun in order to “empower a new generation of leaders.” Further excerpts of al-Murabitoun’s first statement also threaten France and its allies in the region and call upon Muslims to target French interests everywhere. The document states that “we say to France and its allies in the region, receive the glad tidings of what will harm you, for the mujahideen have gathered against you and they pledged to deter your armies and destroy your plans and projects. By the grace of Allah, they are more firm and strong in your face, and your new war only increased their certitude, resolve and determination.”
Previously believed to have been killed, Belmokhtar is a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2003, he was designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information that would lead to his capture. He broke away from AQIM in 2012 in a bid to form a new group that would expand its beliefs of forming an Islamist state. In March of this year, it had been reported that he was killed in action in northern Mali. Although the reports of his death were announced by the Chadian military, they were never confirmed by France or the United States. Currently Belmokhtar remains at large. He is believed to be the mastermind behind January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. MUJAO is though to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi.” The group also broke away from AQIM in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad into areas outside of AQIM’s scope. It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year and was responsible for imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQIM, citing leadership issues and desires of expanding their control, both groups continued to cooperate and fight alongside AQIM fighters in Mali and in other regions of West Africa. In late May of this year, the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The attack in Agadez was reportedly executed by a five-man suicide assault team which resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people. The attack in Arlit was reportedly carried out as a means of attempting to cripple France. Shortly after the attacks, Belmokhtar indicated that the incidents had been carried out as a form of avenge for the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was killed by French forces in northern Mali earlier this year. Consequently this merger comes with minimal surprise as MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s forces have already forged a working relationship. Thursday’s announcement just makes this relationship official. However many questions still linger as to whether such a merger will have any impact within a region that continues to be rocked by instability.
On the one hand, in examining Mali, the country no longer seems to be the central hub it was a year ago. The recently held peaceful presidential elections, which resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, coupled with 12,600 UN troops that are stationed on the ground, are a move to fill the security vacuum and to stabilize the country by uniting the north and south. However when looking at the greater Sahel region, many vulnerabilities continue to exist in a region of Africa that is sparsely populated and prone to poverty, food insecurity and estrangement from regional governments. The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. These threats, which were further heightened following the French military intervention in Mali, are highly likely to occur again. Furthermore, there are currently at least thirteen hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. Over the years, many have been killed and threats of kidnappings, especially of French and Western nationals, will likely continue. The surrounding areas also contain threats that may lead to a further destabilization of the region. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria are waging their own wars at home. While reports that Boko Haram militants may have been trained by al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali further fuels the notions the movement of terrorists in the Sahel and surrounding regions continues to be unaffected. The militant groups now joining forces have gained reputations for evading capture and continuing to launch attacks despite security forces’ concentrated efforts to stop them.
On the other hand, given the long history of al-Qaeda-linked forces making and breaking alliances, the real question remains whether this official union will change anything. Many doubt that al-Murabitoun can bring anything new to the table and that instead this could signify another reorganization in an attempt to strengthen the group, remain relevant and give it a new and better direction. The timing of this announcement is also critical as it comes just two weeks after elections were held in Mali and a new President was selected. This alliance may be an attempt to remind regional actors and international officials that while Mali has won a victory by carrying out successful elections, the war is far from over.