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PUTIN CONQUERS BELGRADE

Janusz Bugajski, January 2019

President Vladimir Putin’s triumphal visit to Belgrade was intended to consolidate Russia’s position in the Balkans. Serbia and Russia do not have a close alliance but an asymmetric coupling in which the Kremlin exploits its dominance and treats Belgrade as a useful surrogate. Pressure mounts when Moscow needs Serbia to fulfill certain international tasks to Russia’s advantage, as evident in the current push toward Kosova’s partition.

During the wars in the 1990s, Belgrade appealed to Russian solidarity whether over preserving Yugoslav integrity, creating a Greater Serbia, or retaining control over Kosova. Moscow manipulated Serbia’s grievances against the US and NATO to demonstrate that Russia remained a major factor in European affairs. Since the ouster of Milosevic, Serbian governments have intensified their role as Russia’s junior partners, enabling Putin to transform Serbia into Moscow’s outpost in the Western Balkans.

Putin’s agenda in Belgrade consisted of three prongs. First, he sought to consolidate Serbia’s nationalist sentiments and resistance to the West. Through its numerous propaganda weapons, Moscow makes sure that anti-NATO sentiments are constantly nurtured among the Serb public. In Belgrade, Putin attacked the US for allegedly destabilizing the Balkans by imposing its “dominant role in the region”and berated NATO enlargement for increasing tensions in Europe.

In his second prong, Putin sought to demonstrate how bilateral ties are being strengthened in various domains. A series of agreements focusedon upgrading Serbia’s military capabilitiesand the use of atomic energy for “peaceful purposes.”Belgrade already supplies Serbia with military hardware and operates a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center” near Nis, which Russian services use as an intelligence gathering facility vis-à-vis the West.

Putin and Vucic also prepared an agreement for a free-trade zone between Serbia and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, to be signed later this year, and an extension of the TurkStream gas pipeline.Media in both countries persistently broadcast disinformation that Russia is Serbia’s main economic benefactor, even though its trade and investment is dwarfed by the EU and is based on opaque deals that benefit corrupt politicians. Serbia has already surrendered toGazprom majority shares in its major oil and gas company, NiS,and entered into other deals that tie the country tightly with Russia’s energy supplies.

In the third and newest prong, Putin is seeking to benefit from the debate over Kosova’s potential partition. Moscow’s strategists are pursuing two primary objectives. First, border changes in the Balkans approved by Western powers can be trumpeted as a valuable precedent for Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria, and other regions coveted by Russia. Officials can contend that changes in the Kosova-Serbia border simply bring co-ethnics into the motherland. Hence, a similar process can be applied to territories with sizeable Russian populations, including parts of Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.

Second, the Kremlin calculates that border changes in the Balkans can create havoc for NATO and the EU by stimulating calls for further partitions. Local nationalists could orchestrate violence to demonstrate that ethnic co-existence is not feasible and borders have to be adjusted. A ripple effect of territorial aspirations would not only affect unsettled states such as Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia, but also embroil NATO members Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro.

Putin’s visit raised expectations in Serbia that Moscow would help Belgrade win its dispute with Kosova. Moscow will push for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue to be moved from under the umbrella of the EU to the UN Security Council where Russia exerts veto power. Here it can endorse the kind of partition precedent that could serve Kremlin interests inside and outside the Balkans.

.A partition plan that would allow Serbia to annex Kosova’s northern municipalities could be sold as a victory for Serbia. However, the unilateral partition of Kosova is unacceptable to Prishtina, hence President Hashim Thaçi proposed a land swap involving the Preshevo Valley that is resisted by Belgrade.

Moscow may seek to pacify Serbian nationalist opposition to any acceptance of Kosova’s status by not only promoting partition but also by raising other aspirations. It can express support for the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia’s incorporation of Republika Srpska (RS). This would be a bigger prize than the northern fringes of Kosova, particularly as RS leaders yearn to join Serbia.

The result of Moscow’s deepening intervention will be to embroil the Aleksandar Vucic government in a new conflict with the EU, NATO, and the US over Bosnia-Herzegovina. This will also serve Kremlin interests by blocking Belgrade’s path toward EU accession. The lesson for Serbia is that unless it breaks free from Russia’s suffocating grip, it cannot achieve its national potential and will be consistently exploited as a pawn in Putin’s campaign to disarm and dismantle the West.

BALKANIZATION OF BRITAIN

Janusz Bugajski, January 2019

With the clock ticking on Britain’s exit from the European Union, the country not only faces major political battles and economic threats but also the prospect of increasing fragmentation. While Scotland’s independence may be back on the agenda, fears are growing in Northern Ireland that the Irish island could either be divided again or the northern province would be separated from Britain.

Prime Minister Theresa May has failed to negotiate a Brexit deal that the British parliament will approve. In the absence of a last-minute agreement Britain’s departure on March 29 will generate political and economic shockwaves. May could resign and in an early general election a neo-Marxist Labor Party could win a majority pledging to re-impose nationalization and expand the welfare state. Brexit combined with state socialism would ensure the country’s long-term decline.

Brexit supporters claim that despite some short-term disruptions, the UK will thrive when it leaves the doomed experiment in a German-dominated EU. They fail to specify how long and painful this “short-term” will be and that it could take years to negotiate new bilateral trade deals across the globe.

Britain will no longer be a party to the legislative and regulatory framework that has governed its external trade and domestic economy for four decades. EU countries will reinstate customs regimes and British trucks will no longer have the right to transport goods into the Union. UK exports to the EU would face tariffs of 4.3%, thus damaging businesses competing with cheaper European rivals. Some economists are even warning that Britain may experience shortages in medical and food supplies.

Additional checks and tariffs on the border will block ports and disrupt supply chains for British business. Instead of raising productivity and creating jobs, businesses are already diverting resources into stockpiling goods or moving out of the UK.Britain’s budget will also be hard hit, as much of the lucrative financial services industry will relocate to the continent.

The Bank of England has warned that a disorderly Brexit would push the UK economy toward an 8% contraction by the end of the decade and the value of the pound could decline by 25%. Business leaders estimate indicate that the auto, chemicals and pharmaceutical industries, which trade heavily with the EU, would shrink by more than 20% over the coming years.

There is also a national and territorial dimension to the looming disruption. The United Kingdom consists of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The first three are contained on the island of Britain, while Northern Ireland shares an island with the independent Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member. While a majority of English and Welsh residents voted to leave the EU, a large proportion of Scots and Irish voted to stay. These voting differences have revealed growing political fissures that will expand after Brexit.

The two greatest risks to the UK’s territorial integrity are the potential separation of Northern Ireland, as the government’s Brexit WithdrawalAgreement with the EU has implied, and a second referendum in Scotland that would secure the country’s independence from the UK.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is currently in a coalition with the British Conservatives and holds the balanceof power in Westminster. It is also one of the major obstacles to May pushing her Brexit deal through parliament. The Unionists assert that the deal fails to settle their most important demand: no hard border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or with the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Irish realize that they have benefited from being inside EU, not least because of the ease of trade with the Republic of Ireland. However, Unionists in the north fear that in exchange for a soft border on the Irish island the London government would accept a hard border with Northern Ireland that will affect commerce and travel between units of the same state.

Recent polling has indicated that Conservative voters in England would even accept the break up of theUK in exchange for a complete Brexit. At the same time, the looming economic and institutional chaos in the UK will raise support for Irish unification and could again provoke conflicts between pan-Irish Catholic Republicans and pro-British Protestant Unionists.

The situation in Scotland could become equally volatile, where over 62% of the population voted to stay in the EU. In 2015, Scottish voters supported the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party in large numbers despite the fact that the first Scottish independence referendum in 2014 failed to muster a majority. A chaotic Brexit that severely damages the economy will raise support for a second independence referendum so that Scotland can rejoin the EU as an independent state.

History is a chronicle of ironies and paradoxes. In the case of the UK, a country that for years has been involved in preventing or pacifying conflicts in the Balkans now faces challenges to its own stability and integrity that some would describe as “Britain’s Balkanization.”

POLITICAL GLOBAL WARMING IN 2019

Janusz Bugajski, January 2019

2019 looks destined to be a year of international conflicts in which the US will become a less predictable player. The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis has signaled that President Donald Trump’s approach to the world is prevailing over that of traditional internationalists in his administration and the consequences could be severe.

Mattis’s departure means that one of the most important constraints on Trump has been removed. In his letter of resignation, Mattis asserted that the President dismissessound advice, disdains America’s allies, appeases foreign dictators,and repudiates the principles on whichUS leadership has been basedsince World War Two. With Trump having no consistent global strategybut acting largely on impulse, fears are growing overtwo daunting possibilities: American withdrawalsandAmerican over-reactions.

Trump, the US Commander in Chief,has decided to removeall Americantroops from Syria after claiming victory over ISIS. He did not consult USallies, partners, or even his own security team.Critics charge that the pulloutwill simply hand over large partsof the Middle East and southwest Asia to US adversariesincluding Russia, Iran, ISIS,and the Taliban.The move was evidently coordinated with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and signals a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies and Syria’s democratic opposition. This will send a chilling message to America’s military collaborators in other conflict zones.

The Syrian disengagementwasevidentlythe last straw for Mattis who has watched in dismay as Trump appeased Putin while insulting several NATO allies. The Secretary of Defense has warned that Trump is assaulting the core pillars of US global power with his populist nationalist approach to geopolitics.Hisresignation has intensified questions whether Trump is qualifiedto be commander in chief and raised the prospect thatTrumpmay be engineeringa full-scale global retreat.

Trump’s international moves are intended to appeal to his voting base who believe the President that America is spending too much on foreign wars. The White House is also planning to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan, starting in the coming weeks. The current force of 14,000 is expected to be cut by half. But the impact could be devastating, with some senior Republican congressmen warning thatan Afghan withdrawal could result in another 9/11 terrorist attackonUSsoil or in Europe.

America’s Asian allies are growing concerned that Trump could also remove US troops from the Korean peninsula, claiming that peace with North Korea had been accomplished.  In reality, Kim Jong Un has expertly manipulated Trump by appealing to his ego while continuing to develop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Trump has already cut back on military exercises with South Korea and asserted that the military mission, in place since the end of the Korean war in 1953, is too expensive.

America’s European allies are also anxious that US commitments to NATO could become uncertain. With Mattis gone and Trump looking for distractions from FBI and congressional probes into his alleged conspiracy with Moscow,US troops in Europe could also be on his agenda. Under Mattis troop numbers along NATO’s eastern flank were increasedthrough the Enhanced Forward Presence(EFP)missionto deter against a Russian assault. The Kremlin is now relishing the prospect of an American military drawdownand lessened US commitments to the most vulnerable European allies.

In addition to the perils of a sudden US abandonmentofstrategically vital regions, there is a related dangerof Trump’s overreactionduring a crisis, asthere are now fewer constraints on his sudden policy shifts.

For instance, analystsare alarmed by Trump’s likely volatile reaction if there is a confrontation between Americanand Chinesenavies in the South China Sea thatcould rapidly escalate into a full-scale war. In the Middle East,following its success in Syria,Iran may feel more emboldened to strike against Israeli and Saudi Arabian interests. Trump would then be faced with the stark choice of abandoning key regional allies or engaging in a direct conflict with Tehran that could pull Russia into a dangerousmilitary confrontation.

Despite the escalating fears around the globe, not all is completely lost in America’s traditional global role. A great deal depends on whether the next Secretary of Defense, who needs to be confirmed by a staunchly pro-NATO Senate, will stand up to Trump much like Mattis. All eyes will also be on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to maintain more consistency in US foreign policy. And a key role will be played by Senate Republicans, who will need to speak out more vigorously against Trump’s growing isolationism.

Many congressmen and policy makers remain apprehensive that in 2019 congressional and FBI investigations will finally reveal that the President has been involved in a conspiracy with Moscow, has obstructed justice, and has engaged in extensive corruption. Trump may then react by deliberately creating an international crisis to distract public attention, divert the political focus, and prevent a loss of power.

AMERICA IN TURMOIL IN 2019

Janusz Bugajski, December 2018

The United States is entering a period of deep political turmoil. President Donald Trump has precipitated the escalating crisis by his combative responses to growing legal and political challenges that undermine his legitimacy and his term in office.

There are two ultimate results for Trump’s political future – removal from office or confrontational resistance. In the first scenario, investigations and legal proceedings against him and his family multiply, particularly after Democrats take charge of the House of Representatives in January 2019. They will control numerous committees that can subpoena Trump’s associates and documents. In the second scenario, Trump resists the mounting pressure and hangs on to office while social tensions increase.

The next few months will be grueling for the President. Currently, 17 federal and state level investigations revolve around him, focusing on three main accusations: criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and financial crimes. “Collusion” has become a code word for a criminal conspiracy with Russian intelligence services intended to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections. This lies at the core of the Special Counsel investigation, which has already uncovered volumes of evidence about the Kremlin’s election attacks and indicted over a dozen Russian conspirators.

The investigation also involves WikiLeaks and its hacking of Democrat party Emails on behalf of Russian intelligence agencies. This has ensnared several Trump associates as well his campaign chairman. An additional line of inquiry involves the activities of Russian agents during the election campaign, including the penetration of the National Riffle Association and various conservative and evangelical groups.

A separate second line of investigation involves the President’s alleged attempts to obstruct justice, tamper with witnesses, and prevent the FBI from uncovering the conspiracy with Moscow. The firing of FBI director James Comey was the most glaring example of how Trump purportedly attempted to block any probes into his campaign.

A third expanding investigation revolves around the finances of the Trump family. Over a dozen inquests are now under way at federal level and by the US Attorney General’s office in New York. Analysts believe that the Trump Organization engaged in financial crimes for decades, with Comey comparing Trump to a mafia boss.

Among the targets of financial crime is the Trump Tower Moscow Project, which was pursued even while Trump was running for office. Investigators seek to uncover whether candidate Trump was promising Putin that he would lift sanctions in return for Moscow’s financing. The funding of the President’s Inauguration is also under scrutiny and whether foreign entities funneled money into the inauguration in order to buy influence with the incoming administration. Trump family members are also being investigated for foreign lobbyingand influence peddling not just with Russia but also with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

All Trump businessesare under scrutiny. The Trump Foundation was recently closed for numerous financial crimes and prosecutors are examining howmoney flowed both in and out of Trump’s interconnected enterprises, including his hotels, golf courses, and companies. Experts believe it is not possible to separate his election campaign from his business dealings, as Trump himself intermingled them to make money and gain office.

Trump now confronts dozens of witnesses while the Special Counsel and other prosecutors have amassed millions of documents, telephone calls, recordings, emails, and other communications. Courts in Washington and Maryland have sent out subpoenas for Trump hotel financial records alleging that the President is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits him from accepting payments from foreign powers while in office. This lawsuit could publicly reveal how foreign governments have funneled business to Trump’s businesses.

Given the likelihood that Trump will be directly implicated in conspiracies, obstruction, and corruption, there are two main avenues for him to leave office, either impeachment or resignation. If Republicans in the Senate begin to calculate that they will lose the November 2020 elections by remaining tethered to Trump, they may turn against him and support the Democrat-led impeachment process.

However, there is a second possible scenario if Trump can successfully resist Congress and, unlike Richard Nixon, refuses to resign. He will calculate that the Republican controlled Senate will protect him from impeachment, at least until the November 2020 elections. He can claim special legal privileges as President, including non-indictment, even while sacrificing others to trial and imprisonment, including members of his own family. He can simultaneously rally the ultra-conservative media and his militant base in threatening civil disorder and even violent resistance if Congress dares to move against him.

A major factor in Trump’s future will be the state of the Democratic Party and whether it can stay united as politicians begin to line up for primary election season to choose a candidate for the 2020 presidential vote. There is little affection between the moderate and progressive streams of the party and they could be further pulled apart by campaign pledges and debates. Above all, Trump could rebound if the Democrat candidate for President turns out to be as weak as Hilary Clinton.