Janusz Bugajski, April 2018
Most American presidents have a specific war by which they are remembered in history. With Bill Clinton it was Serbia and Bosnia and with George W. Bush it was Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Trump like Obama underscored that he would avoid foreign entanglements, the sitting President is making Syria his war.
The recent US-led strike against Syria was limited, aimed primarily at eliminating the ability of Damascus to conduct chemical weapons attacks against civilians. Chemical weapons are banned under international treaties.The US, the UK, and France bombed specific chemical producing facilities, but “regime change” for President Bashar al-Assad was not the objective.
Unfortunately, Germany announced that it would not join any military action, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of sending a united message that using chemical weapons was unacceptable. Germany also refused to take part in the American-led war in Iraq, and in 2011 abstained from a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya. One wonders why key US bases remain in Germany rather than closer to NATO’s eastern front.
All eyes will now be on Assad’s response and his Russian allies. If American troops are targeted or there are further chemical attacks by Damascus, Washington is likely to escalate. President Donald Trump has been restrained by Defense Secretary James Mattis who was unwilling to engage in a comprehensive attack at the outset.
A massive Allied strike against Syria carries several risks – regional escalation that could draw in Iran and Israel into the war, but even more importantly a direct military confrontation between the US and Russia. Relations between Washington and Moscow are worse than they have been at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
In a worst vase scenario, the two states may stumble into direct military confrontation, and because Moscow will not win a conventional war its next step may be to threaten nuclear strikes. However, Putin’s reaction to the bombing of Syria makes nuclear war unlikely.Washington gave Moscow prior warning before the missile strike although the risk of miscalculation remains. Official verbal reaction has not been matched by military action and it seems that the Kremlin is more afraid of America than the White House is of Russia.
Thus far, Moscow has issued ominous warnings but has failed to defend its ally with arms. It threatened “grave repercussions” if the US carries out military strikes against the Syrian regime, including targeting American weapons systems. But Putin’s people are well aware that they will be defeated in any firefight with America. An estimated 2,000 US troops in Syria have been focused exclusively on fighting the Islamic State. Any attacks on these units by Syrian, Russian, or Iranian forces would be met with massive American strikes.
Putin faces humiliation if he is seen to be weak and unable to defend Syria. Other allies from Belarus to Armenia will wonder whether the Kremlin will ultimately cower from any move against Western forces. A Russian unit was decimated by US troops in February when it staged an attack on an America base assisting Syrian rebels. Moscow immediately distanced itself from the defeated troops and described them as “mercenaries” outside of state control. In reality, no Russian military units would be active in Syria without Kremlin approval and support.
Despite Russian fears of a war with America, the West must remain on guard in case Moscow decides to take its revenge for the US-UK-French strikes by staging provocations in other regions. One possibility would be to intensify the attack on Ukraine in order to rally the Russian masses behind Putin and demonstrate that he remains a strong leader.
Kremlin officials must now be convinced that the“hawks” dominate the White House and will channel Trump’s aggressive instincts against Russia’s assertiveness. Moreover, although both the House of Representatives and Senate are deeply divided along party lines, virtually all Members of Congress remain united on the issue of combating Russia. Trump himself criticizedMoscow for protecting the Syrian regime and its failure to keep its promise in guaranteeing the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons.
Trump may have started his presidency with a focus on isolationism, but he is clearly moving toward international interventions. This is despite the fact that his national security team is in flux following the ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the replacement of National Security Advisor McMaster with John Bolton. If Moscow was hoping for a more accomodationist team it is gravely mistaken. Bolton is a genuine “hawk” and interventionist and believes in a tough military posture.
If confirmed as Secretary of State by the Senate, Mike Pompeo, the former head of the CXIA, has also complained about soft US policy toward Moscow and considers Russia a direct danger to US security. Bolton and Pompeo both stress America’s “duty to lead,” – this is their interpretation of Trump’s slogan of putting “America first.”
TURKEY DESTABILIZING BALKANS
Janusz Bugajski, April 2018
Turkey’s influences in the Balkans have heightened local fears that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government may be destabilizing the region. Initially seen as a useful supplement to the EU and the US, especially among Muslim populations, Turkey’s self-declared “neo-Ottomanism” is increasingly viewed as a form of potential neo-imperialism.
Over recent years, Ankara has extended its influences across the Balkan peninsula through trade, investment, cultural exchanges, humanitarian assistance, and religious contacts. In general, all countries welcomed Turkey’s involvement and viewed the country as a developing economy and a trusted NATO member. However, with Ankara kept at arms length by the EU and its democracy regressing, the government is now perceived as overly intrusive.
Ankara has applied pressure on the region’s governments in demanding the extradition to Turkey of adherents of Fethullah Gulen – an ostracized Turkish cleric living in exile in the US since 1999. President Erdogan claims that Gulenists organized the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 and has pinpointed the movement as the main danger to the state. Unable to convince Washington to extradite Gulen himself, Erdogan has focused on Gulenist supporters in Europe, with the Balkans viewed as the softest target.
A scandal recently erupted in Kosova over the expulsion of six Turkish citizens allegedly linked with Gulen but without the knowledge of Kosova’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. The Prime Minister fired the Interior Minister and the head of Kosova’s Intelligence Agency after news of the deportations was announced. Erdogan accused Haradinaj of protecting terrorists and claimed that Ankara would continue to intervene in Kosova. Officials admitted that Turkish agents had conducted the operation in cooperation with collaborators in Kosova’s security services.
Erdogan also implied that Washington was behind Haradinaj’s decision, claiming that the Prime Minister was acting on the orders of another country. Any attempts to turn Albanians against the US is a futile proposition. On the contrary, public opinion is likely to turn against Turkey. Already a growing number of officials and analysts complain about overbearing Turkish influence and an imperial “big brother” syndrome toward Muslims similar to the Russian variant among Slavic and Christian Orthodox populations.
Turkey’s President likes to portray himself as a protector of Muslims in former Ottoman dominions. He also uses this image in domestic politics, as millions of Turkish citizens have Bosnian or Albanian backgrounds. However, the extent of Turkey’s political impact in the region varies. In Macedonia and Bulgaria, Ankara has supported pro-Turkey parties and civil society organizations among local Turks and other Muslims and has enlisted people who are loyal to Erdogan. These bodies do have influence at local level where there are sizeable Turkish populations and when they enter government coalitions. Nonetheless, it is in Muslim-majority states that Turkish influence is more challenging.
Kosova and Albania are largely immune to pan-Turkism or pan-Islamism and Turkey is important only as far as its policies are in sync with those of the EU, which both countries seek to enter. Turkey is not a political role model for these secular Muslim societies and the only way it could gain more influence is if these countries were to be abandoned by the EU and US.
There are two populations that may be more susceptible to Ankara’s interventions – the Bosniak Muslims and the Sandzak Muslims. Bosnia-Herzegovina is home to private schools founded by the Gulen movement and Ankara has been demanding that they all be closed. Theseeducational institutions stand accused by Ankara of fostering a personality cult around Gulen. Supporters of the institutions contend that they provide a balanced education and are opposed to their closure.
In the ongoing dispute between Erdogan and Gulenists and with increasing pressure on Bosnia, intra-Muslim disputes could escalate. This would assist the separatist agenda of leaders of the Serbian entity backed by Moscow who contend that Bosnia is an unstable and failing state. Bosnia’s limited progress toward EU membership and its stagnant economic conditions would feed into the turmoil.
The Sandzak is a Muslim-majority region along the Serbia-Montenegro border where Turkey claims significant influence. The region was created by the Ottomans in order to separate Serbia and Montenegro and to connect the Ottoman Empire with Bosnia. Sandzak Muslim loyalty toward Turkey stems from close historical and cultural ties, and because Ankara is viewed as a potential source of protection from Serbian nationalism. The region is also connected to Turkey by a large diaspora, with some estimates that nearly five million Bosniaks live in Turkey, most of whom originate from the Sandzak.
If there is unrest in Bosnia, the Sandzak will be directly affected and Ankara could be pulled into the fray if new waves of nationalism increase religious and ethnic divisions. Since the wars in the 1990s, Turkey’smoderate Islam has been viewed as a valuable counterpoint to radical Salafist penetration from Saudi Arabia. However, the intra-Turkish struggle between Erdogan and Gulenism and Ankara’s heavy-handed approach may contribute to intensifying Balkan disputes.
BEYOND THE COLD WAR
Janusz Bugajski, April 2018
Moscow’s chemical weapon attack on British soil has alerted Western leaders to Russia’s intensifying offensive against both NATO and the EU. Kremlin policies are not a replay of the Cold War but a much more dangerous endeavor in which Russia is testing the limits of Western reaction.
The Cold War was a status quo that left Europe divided between NATO and the Soviet Bloc while both sides avoided direct confrontation. In stark contrast, Putin presides over a revisionist, revanchist, and aggressive regime in which the consequences of conflict between Russia and the West are less predictable. This will have major ramifications for NATO and the EU because it challenges their political unity and their determination in confronting a belligerent adversary.
Tensions between Moscow and the West are escalating each day. In the past week, NATO joined the US and over 25 European countries in the expulsion of over 150 Russian diplomats, many of them spies. This was the largest coordinated expulsion since the Cold War. It was precipitated by a military-grade nerve-agent attack orchestrated by Russian services on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. Moscow responded to Allied solidarity by expelling dozens of Western diplomats.
Washington and its allies have also imposed sanctions on Moscow for its military intervention in Ukraine and its meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. The US ouster of 60 Russian diplomats for the nerve agent attack has further dented Putin’s attempts to forge a deal with President Donald Trump aimed to reestablish distinct spheres of influence across Europe. It appears that the Kremlin may have given up on Trump delivering any benefits to Russia.
In another threatening move, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asserted that a Russian military aircraft had for the first time since the Cold War conducted a training flight across the North Pole to North America. In recent weeks, Moscow’s sabre rattling has included announcements about the development of new weapons that can allegedly blunt US missile defenses and increased arms supplies to Taliban forces fighting US troops in Afghanistan.
All Allied countries need to demonstrate their solidarity with the UK and NATO in their reaction to Russia’s policies. Moscow’s nerve-agent assault was more than an assassination attempt; it was a chemical weapons attack on a NATO ally in which hundreds of citizens were infected. States that do not respond to such provocations are considered by Moscow as weak links in the Western chain. By showing solidarity with its allies, each capital should expect Allied solidarity in return and will be in a stronger position in dealing with Putin when he turns his attention toward them.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov inevitably accused the US of exerting pressure and blackmail on its Allies regarding the expulsions and blamed it on “Anglo-Saxon arrogance.” He evidently fears that the large-scale expulsions could seriously damage Russia’s ability to gather intelligence in Europe and the US. However, the expulsions are unlikely to change the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior and the time has come for Western capitals to deploy more effective tools of pressure.
An increasing number of analysts are convinced that Russia must be hit harder by focusing on its extensive assets abroad. One key option is the imposition of financial sanctions on Kremlin officials and their oligarchic cronies. Total private Russian holdings abroad amount to almost $1.3 trillion, as money is regularly syphoned out of the country to benefit a small clique of billionaires.
Since 2006, the personal enrichment of Putin and his closest collaborators has amounted to some $25 billion a year. Putin himself is believed to be the richest man in the world, with a personal wealth of approximately $200 billion in various bank accounts and properties around the world. The US and Britain harbor most of Russia’s offshore wealth because they allow for large-scale and anonymous investment in real estate and other sectors.
American authorities need to be more diligent in implementing existing laws, particularly the Magnitsky Act that is intended to sanction individuals and companies for their role in human rights abuses and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Secret ownership of property and other assets must be investigated and unearthed, and indeed the FBI probe of Russia’s intervention in the US elections has already revealed several culprits.
The Magnitsky Act prohibits individuals from entering the US and freezes their assets. Until now, the US government has detected only a few million dollars of illicit funds and property, although the US treasury has calculated that at least $300 billion a year has been laundered in the US over the past decade.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is also considering imposing a ban on the City of London in helping Russia to sell its sovereign debt, which helps to prop up the Russian economy. Freezing Putin’s fortunes, cracking down on oligarchs, and curtailing the Russian budget can undermine elite support for Putin and even precipitate a power struggle in the Kremlin. The nerve agent attack should make Moscow nervous.
CYBERWARS: THE NEXT BATTLE
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
The digital arms race is intensifying. With the FBI still investigating the extent of the information war waged by Moscow during the 2016 US presidential elections, preparations for the next battle are already underway. Russia’s disinformation campaign is gearing up to target the US congressional elections on November 6, while American authorities are still uncertain how to respond.
The mid-term US elections are critical not only for the two parties because they will determine who will hold the balance of power in Washington. They are even more important for President Donald Trump who faces the prospect of impeachment if the Democrats triumph over Republicans in the House of Representatives.
US lawmakers have warned of the urgent need to defend the US election system against attacks from foreign adversaries. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen fears that in addition to the Russian threat, more state and non-state actors are seeking involvement. There are two main avenues areas of attack that experts are concerned about: systematic disinformation spread through the social media and the hacking of vulnerable election infrastructure.
During 2016, Russian agents launched a social media blitz to inflame social tensions and promote certain candidates. In February, FBI special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russians for meddling in the elections by using false identities and fake social media accounts in a concerted attack on American democracy coordinated with some US nationals. Intelligence officials now see indications Russian agents are preparing a new round of election attacks targeting public opinion and voting preferences.
Investigators are following the money trail and how Kremlin cash corrupts the social media. Facebook in particular is under intense scrutiny for sharing private information about millions of subscribers with data digging firms such as Cambridge Analytica who then passed the information to Russian operatives. National elections are often decided by a small number of voters in a few key precincts who can be targeted by fabricated news. The US lacks sufficient media education through which citizens can discern facts from fiction and real media from fake media.
Congress needs to pass legislation that would necessitate full transparency in foreign funding sources for social media advertisements and political messaging. A draft law, the Honest Ads Act, would place political ads on the internet under the same regulatory regime as broadcast TV and radio and ban the purchase of political ads by foreign nationals. Legislation should also prohibit election spending by groups linked with foreign governments and foreign-owned corporations. Congress should require social media sites to engage in federal licensing for all foreign-sourced social media accounts that seek to advertise or disseminate information.
On the hacking front, software vulnerabilities exist throughout the US election system, including voter registration, the balloting process, vote counting, and certification. Even Democrats have criticized the Obama administration for failing to warn the public that the voting system was being targeted. Experts believe too little has been done to fix weaknesses in 10,000 U.S. voting jurisdictions that run on obsolete and insecure technology. Moscow attempted to penetrate 21 states including their voter database. Several senators are now pushing for all states to have a backup paper ballot system, so a trail is left in case of system failure or breach of electronic voting machines.
A Senate report has recommended punishing governments attempting to interfere in America’s election infrastructure. It underscores that any US counter-measure must be unified to involve the White House, federal agencies, state and local officials, private companies, the media, and citizens. The primary goal is to protect the election infrastructure including voter registration systems, voting machines, and tally servers.
Some Senators are urging the DHS to create a “red team” in the Department employing a group of highly proficient hackers to break into electoral systems in several US states to demonstrate how easily they can be penetrated. Beyond that, a comprehensive cyber deterrence strategy is needed with several Senators urging American counter-attacks against foreign hackers and disinformation peddlers. Some legislators want the administration to formulate a cyber-retaliation doctrine focusing not only on deterrence but also on offensive measures.
Any major cyberwar initiative requires leadership from the White House, in which the President acknowledges the gravity of the threat to American democracy. Unfortunately Donald Trump failed to even raise the topic of US election security when he telephoned Putin to congratulate him on his fake re-election. President Trump has not spoken clearly on the question of Moscow’s election interference or imposed tough sanctions on Russia.
The longer that the Trump administration delays in implementing a comprehensive strategy of cyber-defense and cyber-counter attack, the more questions will be raised about the President’s motives. An increasing number of people are likely to conclude that Trump may actually want the Kremlin to interfere in the November elections to help Republican candidates and pre-empt potential impeachment by a Democratic Congress.
WHO DECIDES US FOREIGN POLICY?
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
The sacking of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised questions not only about American foreign policy but more importantly about who actually decides that policy and how it is applied. Although US Presidents traditionally determine the direction of policy, it is their interpretation and implementation that remains crucial.
Donald Trump’s Cabinet is in constant turmoil, as the President often makes statements impulsively and without consulting other officials. Sometimes, major policy disagreements can result in a sacking, while on other occasions Trump feels he needs to replace an individual who has appeared disloyal.
Tillerson frequently clashed with Trump and at one point was quoted by the media as calling him “a moron” when concluding that the President had no grasp of foreign affairs. During recent weeks, Trump undermined Tillerson by raging against the nuclear agreement with Iran, imposing tariffs on metal imports that impacts directly on foreign policy, and announcing a meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without consulting his Cabinet.
Trump’s ouster of Tillerson may be the first move in a wider government shakeup. For instance, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may be sacrificed, as Trump has not forgiven him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and exposing the President to charges of collaborating with the Kremlin. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may also be replaced after questioning by the Senate over his lavish spending on office renovations and private flights that are embarrassing to Trump. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin may also be sacked following release of a report on his ethics violations.
Despite these turnovers, Trump’s national security team remains committed to NATO as the foundation of trans-Atlantic security regardless of Trump’s tweets. The new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA Director, is known as a policy “hawk” which traditionally means a strong supporter of the US military, the NATO alliance, and America’s global role. Under Pompeo there are unlikely to be any major shifts in US policy toward Europe, although there may be some changes of emphasis and intensity in the Middle East and North Korea.
A more worrying prospect for foreign policy is the potential ouster of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has reportedly never clicked with Trump. Observers will be closely watching his replacement – whether by another strong Atlanticist or a populist-nationalist in the mold of Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon.
The most important and powerful cabinet level official who retains Trump’s trust despite policy disagreements is Defense Secretary James Mattis. His military achievements simply cannot be dismissed by Trump even when he may support a contrary position. It will be instructive to see whether Pompeo sides with Mattis if there are any rifts between the White House and the Pentagon.
Tillerson came under immense criticism from Democrats and some traditional Republicans for alienating many career diplomats and scaling back the State Department. Paradoxically, Pompeo may need to build up the Department again if he is to pursue a more aggressive diplomatic policy, and this could potentially put him at odds with Trump who does not fully understand the need for the US foreign service. It remains to be seen whether Pompeo will be able to neutralize Trump’s often unpredictable decision-making.
While Tillerson left many State Department positions empty, reduced staffing at US embassies abroad, and confined decision-making to a small group of advisers, Pompeo is more expansive. As CIA Director he sent more agents into the field while eliminating bureaucratic red tape and decentralizing some of the Agency’s decision-making to lower levels.
A key test for Pompeo will be his position on Russia, particularly if Trump continues his soft rhetoric toward Putin. In contrast to Tillerson, Pompeo has a blunt-speaking style and will be more aggressive in calling out adversaries that challenge US national and security interests. Instructively, it was Pompeo who helped engineer a detente between Trump and America’s intelligence agencies after the President disparaged them for concluding that Moscow had interfered in the presidential elections.
Pompeo has been helped by the new sanctions imposed on 19 Russians and five entities Russian for their meddling in US elections and persistent cyber attacks. This was the most significant step taken against Moscow since Trump became President. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that the government was preparing retaliatory measures.
The US has joined its allies in demanding that Moscow explain a military-grade nerve toxin attack in England on a former Russian military intelligence double agent. Additionally, US officials announced that Russian hackers had attempted to break into the American energy grid, which is vulnerable to debilitating cyber attacks.
US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate despite Trump’s often-declared intention for improved cooperation. Pompeo is unlikely to jeopardize his reputation to defend either Putin or Trump. However, the real test will come if the ongoing FBI Special Counsel investigation confirms a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin as well as possible obstruction of justice by the White House.
AMERICA’S DEMOCRAT WAVE
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
As America’s new election season approaches, fears are growing among Republicans that they will suffer significant setbacks in November. While the governing party usually loses some of its support during congressional mid-terms, the unpopularity of President Donald Trump can drastically increase support for Democratic Party candidates.
The mid-term elections will take place in the middle of Trump’s term in office. All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate will be contested, together with numerous state, county, and municipal elections.
In the Senate, Republicans can only afford to lose one seat to maintain their working majority, in which Republican Vice President Mike Pence can break any tied vote. Three of the Republican Senate seats are now open contests because of retirements, while Democrats are defending ten seats in states won by Trump in the presidential elections.
However, it is the House of Representatives that poses the biggest danger to the Republican majority. At least 25 have announced their retirement in recent weeks for a variety of personal and political reasons. Meanwhile, the Democrats need 24 extra seats to gain control of the House.
California and Pennsylvania may be pivotal in November, as it contains 14 House Republicans half of whom could lose their seats because of retirements and public disapproval of policies. In Pennsylvania, the new redistricting map could cost the Republicans six additional seats. In addition, suburbs in several parts of the country are now leaning Democrat. Democrat victories in recent Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races could indicate the road ahead.
First term midterm elections are invariably bad for the party in power, but approval ratings for congressional Republicans has dipped below expectations. Despite the passage of tax legislation, many citizens are dismayed that a Congress and White House controlled by one party is still incapable of major legislative achievements, such as Trump’s promises on infrastructure and affordable health care.
In addition, the Trump phenomenon could make it even worse for Republican incumbents. Historically, there is a close correlation between the President’s approval ratings and first-term midterm losses by the President’s party. On the six occasions when the President’s job approval among citizens dipped under 50%, the average loss for his party was more than 43 seats.
Trump’s popularity has hovered between 32% and 40%, most of whom are his hard-core supporters. The President’s impulsive moves and the evident chaos in the White House have alienated the majority of Americans. Many believe that Trump’s political instincts, which worked in the 2016 elections, are failing him and his time in office is widely viewed as disastrous.
Numerous senior officials in the White House have resigned in recent months, including Trump’s chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. Rumors abound that he could lose another Chief of Staff and another National Security Advisor in the coming weeks. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have become more critical of the White House, indicating their fears about the election impact.
Republicans had planned to focus on economic growth in the run up to the November elections after passing tax cuts for businesses. Instead, Trump’s sudden imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports could precipitate an international trade war and ultimately damage business development, worker employment, and consumer prices. Trump’s protectionism is anathema to establishment Republicans and indicates a continuing struggle between the traditionalist-conservative and populist-nationalist wings in the party.
Trump himself may keep his Republican base, or about a third of the electorate, but he has alienated many independents and the constant scandals around him have invigorated the Democrats who are likely to turn out to vote in record numbers. Moreover, Trump supporters may simply not be motivated to vote for congressmen that they view as part of the despised Washington establishment and whom Trump has berated in the past as political creatures of “the swamp.”
In this political maelstrom, Moscow is preparing further interventions. US intelligence chief Dan Coats recently informed Congress that Washington must take more vigorous action to deter attacks from Russian sources in the upcoming elections. He asserted that it was “highly likely” that Moscow would engage in a campaign of disruption, similar to its interventions through cyber space and the social media in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite Trump’s denials of any collaboration with Russian sources during his presidential campaign, the Russia question could come back to bite him after the November elections. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives, Trump will face more intensive investigations, frequent subpoenas, and most likely impeachment proceedings. If the House impeaches Trump, the process will then move to the Senate. And although, a two-thirds super majority is required to convict an impeached Preside t and remove him from office, the opprobrium of impeachment could itself force Trump to resign from office.
CROATIA’S UNPREDICTABLE BORDERS
Janusz Bugajski, March 2018
Although Croatia is both a member of NATO and the European Union, it continues to face security challenges along its long southern borders that could drag the country into another war. Although this may be a worst-case scenario, it is important for Zagreb to develop contingencies for its worst-case reactions.
During the past few weeks, EU institutions have issued documents and several EU leaders have conducted tours in the West Balkan states to underscore their renewed commitment to incorporating the entire region inside the Union. The European Commission has issued a new report asserting “A credible enlargement perspective and enhanced EU engagement.” And the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker just completed his first regional pilgrimage in the footsteps of Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
Although the EU document claims that the Union can start to admit new members by 2025, there are serious doubts about how realistic such a plan will prove given the enduring problems in several candidate states. Critics argue that the EU announcements do not signify any real acceleration in the enlargement process but are simply a means to press each country to pursue reforms and prevent further instability.
Both Brussels and Washington have expressed heightened concern that renewed conflicts may be just over the horizon. In conditions of economic stagnation, popular frustration, nationalist manipulation, and limited inter-ethnic reconciliation most of the flashpoints are found along Croatia’s southern border.
Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the primary danger where developments can rapidly spiral out of control. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik may not fully realize that he is playing with fire when he toys with the idea of referenda on separation. Bosniak Muslim reactions should not be underestimated and even delayed revenge attacks for the attempted genocide in the 1990s cannot be discounted.
But Bosnia could implode even without a provocative political decision in Banja Luka. Conflict can be triggered by a violent act such as a political assassination or a major terrorist outrage. This could become a pretext for the RS to withdraw from all state institutions in Sarajevo, declare statehood, and construct a hard border across the country. Moreover, the creation of paramilitary forces by Banja Luka will simply encourage similar moves among Bosniaks and Croats. The EU may warn against armed conflict but it lacks the deterrents to prevent it, while any NATO mobilization is likely to be significantly delayed.
In the most extreme scenario, armed clashes between Serbs and Bosniaks will rapidly escalate and draw Croats into the fighting. Such developments may create a vacuum and an opportunity to declare a Croatian entity or even to announce outright autonomy. Croatia and Serbia could not afford to stand on the sidelines during the growing crisis if their kindred across the borders are being killed or expelled. If Bosnia starts to crumble some form of military intervention by Zagreb and Belgrade would become practically inevitable, with an enormous risk of clashes between the two neighbors.
At this point NATO would automatically become involved in the war to honor its article five pledge to Croatia, while Moscow would not want to lose credibility by claiming neutrality. Having assisted Dodik in creating a paramilitary force and fearing that Serbia could suffer a military defeat, the Kremlin would probably intervene either with its special forces or assorted “volunteers” relocated from Ukraine or Syria. This would raise the prospects for NATO-Russia clashes, with Croatia trapped in the middle.
A second crisis scenario along Croatia’s southern border could involve Montenegro. Although Montenegro has already entered NATO and is a primary candidate for EU accession, Moscow has not surrendered the country to the West and will use any opportunities to incite conflict. The attempted coup and assassination attempt in October 2016 was intended to demonstrate that Moscow has every means at its disposal including outright violence.\
The coup plot was also designed to deliver a strong message to Serbia. In effect, Belgrade needs to comply with Russia’s international aspirations or face a potential overthrow of the Aleksandar Vucic government. Russian officials have no enduring loyalties toward their Serbian counterparts but exploit the latter’s economic needs and nationalist yearnings to further Moscow’s anti-Atlanticist agenda.
An assassination or coup in Serbia would further damage relations with all of Serbia’s neighbors and could increase pressure on Bosnia, Kosova, and Montenegro in particular. An even more pro-Moscow administration in Belgrade could jettison its EU aspirations and even stage provocations against Croatia in attempts to embroil the country in the region’s instabilities. Just as the Kremlin is testing NATO commitments toward the three Baltic states, Serbia could be used as a vehicle by Moscow to test Alliance commitments in defending Croatia and Montenegro.
Zagreb cannot sit on its hands and assume that conflict and war have been consigned to history. In addition to preparing for potential military and self-defense operations, it would be valuable to expand the “Immediate Response” exercises with NATO forces and develop contingency plans for a series of crises along Croatia’s unpredictable southern borders.
RUSSIA AFTER PUTIN
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
One key element of Kremlin disinformation is to convince NATO capitals that the fall of Vladimir Putin will spark a global Armageddon. Russian officials, propagandists, trolls, and gullible Westerners recite the credo that regime change in Russia will precipitate chaos, conflict, and even a nuclear war. Instead of succumbing to such hyperbole, it is valuable to consider Russia’s “Fuehrer Principle” while evaluating the potential alternatives to Putin.
The notion that the removal of a Russian leader is a dangerous endeavor is deeply rooted in Soviet and Tsarist tradition. Each of Moscow’s rulers is portrayed as the infallible representative of the Russian state and the supreme defender of its people. “Without Putin there is no Russia” is a phrase heard among the most fawning officials and demonstrates how Tsars, Secretary-Generals, and Presidents are depicted as quasi-divine figures. To escape from this autocratic straightjacket, Russia’s citizens periodically rebel but are quickly strapped down again through repression and propaganda.
It is worth remembering the warnings about regional and global conflagrations during the early 1990s in the event that communist rule collapsed or the Soviet Union disintegrated. In reality, neither episode triggered international conflict. On the contrary, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union were celebrated among Russia’s neighbors. Each country could finally achieve independence and the majority of states sought membership in Western institutions without fear of Moscow’s violent reprisals.
As Putin is unlikely to voluntarily disappear into the sunset, his ouster is likely to be sudden and possibly violent. He faces three scenarios of abrupt replacement, other than a natural death or a fatal accident – assassination, a power struggle, or a popular revolt.
Assassinations are not uncommon in Russian politics and although the President has an army of guards he cannot guarantee the loyalty or mental stability of every subordinate. A successful assassination could be the result of an internal power struggle, if Putin is increasingly viewed as an impediment for elite enrichment and a serial loser on the international arena. Conversely, the assassination of Putin may become a trigger for competing elites to try and seize the Kremlin reigns. Less likely, but not inconceivable is a mass popular revolt that overthrows Putin once a sufficient mass of people conclude that even the unpredictability of revolution is preferable to the inevitability of economic destitution.
The Kremlin traditionally wards off any support for a new regime by claiming that the alternative would be worse than the incumbent. In reality, the impact of Putin’s demise will depend on the identity of his replacement and not on the act of dethronement. The post-Putin administration may be of several possible varieties.
The new Kremlin head may initially assume an aggressive and imperialist posture. However, as Putin’s revisionist enterprise, including the seizure of Crimea, has actually impoverished the Russian state, his successor may calculate that further expansionist ventures are self-defeating. It is conceivable that the next Russian leader who fears the country’s economic collapse may turn to a more virulent ethno-nationalism in order to deflect public unrest toward internal and external enemies. But such a move carries even greater risks than those taken by Putin, as it could release the genie of ethnic and religious conflict inside Russia itself. An assertive Russian nationalism will alienate the non-Russian population which forms about a quarter of the country’s total and some of whom may press for separation from Moscow.
Alternatively, we cannot discount the prospect that a post-Putin regime may be more internally focused on reforming, modernizing, and reviving the economy and will conclude that decentralization and genuine federalism is more productive than centralized political repression. Hence, post-Putinism could lead either to the collapse of the state or its economic revival.
Bordering countries are particularly anxious about Russia’s internal developments because Moscow habitually disguises its own problems by attacking them. After eighteen years of Putinism, each capital has concluded that Russia’s commander-in-chief is an autocrat and imperialist. He subverts neighbors political systems, incites social and ethnic divisions, threatens war, supports separatist groups, and annexes territories. Hence, a change of regime in Moscow may open up more productive possibilities in bilateral relations.
Indeed, the next Kremlin leaders may decide that Russia desperately needs foreign investment and modern technology in order to restart economic growth. To attract Western capital, Russia would need to reduce its attacks on European states and behave as a responsible international player. Such a scenario would clearly be the most beneficial for the US and Europe even if the new détente proves to be a temporary interlude. The alternative, marked by internal decay and potential state fracture, will severely weaken the Kremlin and diminish its international capabilities.
Western governments have little practical influence over Russia’s internal evolution, otherwise why would they have tolerated its expansionist communism for over seventy years. But regardless of which scenario materializes in the Kremlin, Washington and its European allies should be preparing their responses to a post-Putin Russia, both to protect themselves against potential negatives and to engage with potential positives.
DANGERS OF AN ATLANTIC RIFT
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
The EU’s new defense agreement risks weakening NATO and alienating the Trump administration from its Atlantic allies. If the PESCO pact among EU members leads to the diversion of resources and equipment from NATO then some in the White House may conclude that candidate Trump was correct in claiming that the North Atlantic Alliance has become obsolete.
The EU launched its Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defense (PESCO) at the close of 2017, a project driven primarily by Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Although the list of potential PESCO projects is still being decided, its members will initially focus on 17 areas, including improved military training and cyber defense, for which a new funding mechanism will be established. Such developments have generated concerns in the Pentagon.
US officials and generals are anxious that some of the proposed PESCO initiatives may pull resources and military capabilities out of NATO. In his recent visit to NATO HQ in Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis informed his European counterparts that the US is generally supportive of PESCO as long as it is complimentary to NATO’s activities and requirements and not a competitor.
One useful PESCO initiative would be to lower legal requirements that slow the movement of military equipment between European states in case of a crisis. This has been a major focus for NATO since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However, the Pentagon is concerned that PESCO may compound the problem by creating two sets of rules, one for the EU and one for NATO.
The US seeks to enhance practical co-operation among allies, as Washington has placed the threat from Moscow at the forefront of its new national defense strategy. A new NATO Joint Force Command for the Atlantic is to be established, the first since the end of the Cold War. Its mission will be to help protect sea lines of communication between North America and Europe and counter Russia’s military probing.
Above all, Mattis wants to focus Europe on modernization and burden sharing. Only Estonia, Greece, Poland, Romania, and the UK fulfill the 2% of GDP requirements for military spending. Washington is also urging NATO members to meet an equally important guideline by allocating at least 20% of their defense spending for military equipment. Less than half of the Alliance met this stipulation last year. Washington also wants to ensure that any closer EU co-operation does not undermine the commitment of NATO members in the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An EU defense structure including a single EU army has been under discussion for several decades but continues to have opponents who perceived it as a challenge to NATO. The majority of EU members from Central and East Europe are skeptical about any distinct EU force that could undermine NATO precisely at a time when the Alliance needs to strengthen its capabilities to deter Moscow. Moreover, the EU has lost some of its potential military muscle in the wake of Brexit.
Supporters of PESCO argue that the initiative will not conflict with NATO. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini claimed that PESCO would be able to take actions where NATO could only use military tools. If that is the case, then PESCO is not a serious attempt at developing hard security but another mechanism for such mission as providing humanitarian relief and development aid.
If PESCO results in a limited mandate for a small international crisis-response force then this could prove valuable. In the past 15 years the EU has engaged in over thirty international missions, including peacekeeping and police-training operations in Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The creation of a compact international force could also help in intercepting refugee smuggling and other forms of trafficking, combatting piracy, rescuing distressed ships, providing humanitarian assistance, and contributing to counter-terrorism operations throughout Europe.
Another potentially positive outcome of PESCO would be to integrate the fractured EU defense industry. Analysts estimate that EU governments could save more than €25 billion annually if they coordinated their defense purchases to focus on the bloc’s overall security needs. However, American officials have warned the EU not to use any deepening of military cooperation to impose protectionist measures around Europe’s defense industry by excluding US companies from the bidding process for military equipment.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has asserted that EU efforts to boost its defense spending under the pact were welcome, but only if this was coordinated with NATO. He also warned that the EU could not replace the Alliance in guaranteeing European security and should not even try. Instead, the Union should pool its security within the most effective security organization that maintains the US in Europe.
Hopefully, as in past iterations of a European security arm, officials in Brussels and a few other capitals will make a few commitments, sign a few documents, and create a new bureaucracy, but the initiative silently fizzles out and only NATO remains standing as the sole effective guarantor of trans-Atlantic security.
MOSCOW FEARS NATO
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
Moscow has manufactured a thick mist of disinformation about NATO in order to disguise its expansionist policies in Europe’s east. Nonetheless, lurking behind this propaganda offensive is a genuine fear in the Kremlin that the North Atlantic Alliance will thwart Kremlin ambitions and weaken the Vladimir Putin regime.
Russia’s NATO myth making can be debunked by examining the evidence. According to Moscow’s deceptions, Russia tried to join Western institutions during the 1990s but was rebuffed and ostracized. In reality, the Russian Federation has failed to meet the basic standards for either EU or NATO membership, whether in the rule of law, democratic governance, or military reform, and its aggressive aspirations toward neighboring states counters the core principles of both multinational organizations.
Russia’s officials also contend that NATO captured the post-communist countries and threatened Russia’s borders. In reality, NATO enlargement over the past twenty years has been a voluntary process initiated by each aspirant state. It has not created a hostile alliance along Russia’s western frontiers but improved relations between new NATO members and diminished their fear of Kremlin attacks. Moreover, no neighboring country has voiced claims to Russia’s territory or its resources. Above all, NATO, in its doctrine, exercises, military posture, and force dispositions is neither a threat to Russia’s statehood nor a danger to its territorial integrity.
Despite these facts, the Kremlin has a troika of fears about NATO. These do not revolve around Russia’s national security but are based on profound anxieties about the future of the Putin administration.
In the first place, the Kremlin President has anchored his domestic legitimacy on restoring Russia’s great power status and reigning in neighbors that have veered away from Moscow. Such ambitions are blocked when aspirants enter NATO and benefit from its core principle of mutual defense. And although Russian security is not challenged by any country’s accession to NATO, Moscow’s ability to control their security dimensions and foreign policy orientations is largely thwarted. In this sense, NATO is an effective threat against Russia’s threat.
The second fear for the Putinists is that NATO is a source of attraction for other post-Soviet states, including Russia’s allies. Unlike NATO and the EU, Moscow’s alliances are not voluntary but consist of countries trapped in a dependency relationship based on blackmail, bribery, and threat. In seeking genuine national independence several capitals have turned to Western institutions for help and protection. When they do, Moscow inverts reality by claiming that it is being surrounded by enemies and needs to pursue an aggressive posture to combat them
In the most glaring recent example of truth inversion, in justifying its attack on Ukraine Moscow charged that Washington organized the overthrow of the government in Kyiv in February 2014 primarily to create an excuse for reinvigorating NATO and deploying American forces closer to Russia’s borders. In reality, the Ukrainian revolution was indigenous and is thereby a potential precedent for Russia itself. NATO simply responded to Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its escalating threats against the Alliance’s eastern flank by increasing its defensive presence in the region.
Third, and most importantly, Moscow fears NATO as the security core of Europe’s development that challenges the credibility of Russia’s ruling dictatorship. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s main fear over Ukraine was the prospect that its large neighbor would be transformed into a democratic, unified, and prosperous state that achieves EU accession and NATO membership. Such a model of development can become increasingly attractive for Russia’s citizens.
For Kremlin officials an independent, democratic, economically stable, and internationally integrated Ukraine symbolizes everything that threatens their hold on power. A successful Ukrainian model of development would expose the Russian model as a failure and inspire dozens of impoverished federal regions to seek greater control over their own destiny by opposing the current hyper-centralized regime in Moscow.
From the outset, relations between NATO and Russia have been based on false premises. Putin’s Moscow does not see NATO as a potential partner but as its primary rival, territorial competitor, and existential political threat. The Kremlin’s methodology has involved drawing the Alliance into ephemeral joint initiatives in combating terrorism and curbing nuclear proliferation. In reality, this lulls NATO leaders into a false sense of confidence while Moscow prepares new assaults against its neighbors and subverts NATO states from within.
The NATO-Russia Council, established in May 2002, was aborted after August 2008 in the wake of Moscow’s attack on Georgia. After lulling the West into another false dawn, amid growing calls for restoring the Council, in April 2014 NATO again suspended practical co-operation in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To prevent a third failure, NATO must develop a new realism toward Moscow, one that is not based on grand bargains, power balances, or global cooperation but on upholding the principles on which NATO was founded – the defense of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic and effective opposition to any power that seeks to dominate Europe.
US SHOULD INTERFERE IN RUSSIA ELECTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, February 2018
With the CIA reporting that Moscow is preparing to interfere in America’s mid term Congressional elections in November, it is time for America to launch a cyber offensive against Russia. Instead of simply monitoring and warning about Russian state-sponsored hacking and manipulation of American public opinion, the best form of defense would be a targeted cyber onslaught that undermines the stability of the Vladimir Putin regime.
CIA chief Mike Pompeo issued a warning about Russian interference in the US political system at the same time that he met secretly in Washington with the heads of Russia’s three main intelligence agencies. Speculations about the meetings have persisted, whether to explore cooperation in countering international terrorism or nuclear proliferation. Another explanation is that the three spy chiefs may have been offered a freeze in sanctions policy in return for desisting from manipulating the US elections.
And indeed, despite a Congressional deadline for the end of January, the Trump administration did not impose new sanctions on Putin’s corrupt cronies who finance international subversion but simply published a broad list of officials and oligarchs. If Moscow fails to stem its election interference and evidence mounts that hacking and disinformation have intensified, then the pressure for new sanctions is likely to escalate in Washington.
However, sanctions are rarely an effective tool and often take years to have any significant impact. To demonstrate that Washington is serious in countering Moscow’s attack a covert cyber onslaught needs to be launched on Russia’s own political process. Indeed, the first principle of any war, whether material or cyber, is not only to defend against attack, but above all to counterattack and stymie the aggressor.
According to Pompeo, Moscow is targeting the Congressional elections in order to influence the result or to generate confusion and chaos. Kremlin-aligned hacking group Fancy Bear—notorious for stealing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential elections—is evidently making preparations to penetrate and leak US Senate e-mails.
What Pompeo did not point out is that Russia itself faces presidential “elections” on 18 March and the country is equally vulnerable to attack from cyber hackers. The most logical US strategy would be to undermine Russia’s political networks whose objective is to damage Western democracies. A key component of such a covert assault would be to hack and disseminate official Russian communications and documents, with a focus on the Kremlin, government ministries, parliament, and all subservient political parties, as well as private communications between Russian officials.
Although the regime controls the major media outlets, the most incendiary leaks can be circulated through the internet and the social media – a favorite instrument of Kremlin disinformation in the West. They could even be camouflaged as emanating from within Russia, including from inside the ruling circles. The purpose would be to uncover and publicly disclose the most provocative scandals of Russia’s high officials and the extent of their corrupt governance, opulent lifestyles, public lies, personal hypocrisies, and contempt for ordinary citizens. Especially valuable would be messages that reveal a willingness to betray the country for personal gain. And Western intelligence services possess more information about Putin’s theft of the Russian budget than Alexei Navalny, the main anti-Kremlin activist barred from the elections.
The US offensive can be extended beyond the March elections, as part of a broader psychological influence operation. This offensive needs to be geared toward two core objectives: alienating the public from the regime and promoting power struggles inside the ruling stratum. Detailed revelations about official treason and financial abuse while living standards for the masses dramatically collapse can fuel social, ethnic, regional, and religious unrest. Any attempts at regime change would then become the task of the exploited and manipulated Russian people.
Simultaneously, disclosures about conflicts within the ruling elite will generate uncertainty and anxiety in government circles and indicate the regime’s vulnerabilities. The promotion of regime power struggles may not precipitate Putin’s downfall, but it can distract the authorities from their unchallenged cyber war against America. It will spread suspicion and distrust between officials, raise fears about political purges and repressions, and may lead some fractions to take preemptive actions that would escalate the disputes and potentially endanger Putin’s rule.
Although the result of the March elections is already decided, an avalanche of revelations can discourage voters and diminish the turnout. Although the turnout percentage has no legal bearing on the validity of the results, a vote of under fifty percent will be viewed as a sharp decline in Putin’s popularity and government legitimacy.
Voices of appeasement will of course be heard in Washington, deriding any US cyber and informational offensive against Moscow as being too provocative. Such a position is not only short-sighted, it is also dangerous. Weakness and hesitation simply whet the Kremlin’s appetite. The attacks on US democracy continue to this day precisely because of our lack of resolve and action. Moreover, as Moscow will in any case accuse America of interfering in its elections, Washington might as well make such intervention consequential. It is time for America’s democracy to destabilize Russia’s dictatorship.
TRUMP’S FIRST YEAR
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
President Donald Trump launched his second year in office by a visit to the World Economic Council in Davos. Despite his combative and self-congratulatory speech, Trump’s foreign policy record during the first year in office has been marked by shortcomings, contradictions, and unintended consequences.
In Europe, Trump claims to have pursued closer bilateral ties and a business friendly agenda, but the results show serious shortcomings. US relations with the UK and Germany at the leadership level have rarely been weaker since World War Two, although this has not ultimately threatened the security ties maintained by Trump’s national security team.
The promised bilateral trade agreements have not been forged, as the EU remains a single market and evidently resilient to further national “exits.” Trump’s public popularity ratings in virtually every state make George W. Bush seem like a European celebrity. Trump’s withdrawal from the climate agreement, his xenophobic statements, and his attacks on various European governments as being weak on terrorism have alienated large sectors of the population.
With NATO, Trump has been more successful, but this despite his own statements on the Alliance. His security team working in tandem with Congress have reaffirmed the importance of NATO, underscored US commitments to article five for collective defense, strengthened NATO’s presence along its eastern flank, and have not blinked when facing Russia’s constant threats.
With regard to North Korea, Trump has created fear and confusion but without any end product. Pyongyang continues to manufacture and test its rocketry and nuclear devices and analysts estimate that within the coming year it will have the capability to hit the US with a nuclear weapon. Moscow continues to provide Pyongyang with the needed technology and both Russia and China bypass US economic sanctions as they want the Kim Jong Un regime to survive. Trump threats of nuclear annihilation have plainly not achieved nuclear disarmament and tensions will again increase this year.
In the Middle East, Trump claims that he has defeated the Islamic State terrorists, but the result is a mixed picture. Increased bombing of IS targets certainly contributed to shrinking their territories in Syria, but the prime agents were Kurdish forces, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian government military assisted by Russia. Although Trump pledged to stamp out terrorism globally, in reality the Islamic militants will simply move and mushroom in other unstable states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. And they will continue to threaten the US and Europe regardless of how many refugees from war zones are allowed into Western countries.
In Israel, Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and to threaten a cut-off in aid to the Palestinian authority is widely seen as the end of the two-state solution that may close the peace process. Analysts expect a growth of anti-Americanism and terrorist outrages as a result of Trump’s decision.
In the case of China, Trump has sent contradictory signals. While he praises President Xi Jinping as a great leader, he simultaneously attacks China’s economic and trading polices. However, his recipe for thwarting China’s predatory trade policies are backfiring. For instance, US withdrawal from the Pacific free trade agreement simply gives Beijing more influence and opportunities around the Pacific rim, while the imposition of tariffs on Chinese products is likely to hurt American consumers more than Chinese businesses.
In the case of Africa, Trump’s comments about “shit-hole” countries sending immigrants to America have been condemned as racism and discrimination. They will sour relations with several dozen countries that may increasingly look to China as an alternative investor, developer, and security partner.
In the case of Russia, Trump’s initial policy direction has been completely contradicted by later developments. Relations with Moscow have certainly not improved, despite the fact that Trump has consistently praised Putin and called for cooperation with Moscow in combating terrorism. In reality, relations continue to deteriorate with a host of disputes over Ukraine, Syria, NATO, North Korea, and US sanctions.
The perennial question of Russia hangs around the President’s neck, as one part of the FBI investigation is approaching its climax. The intense probe of whether Trump obstructed justice in preventing the FBI from investigating campaign collusion with Russia’s intelligence services has now reached the White House. Special Investigator Robert Mueller wants to interview Trump himself and the President’s lawyers fear that he could implicate himself even more if he agrees to talk under oath.
America is experiencing a unique era, in which there appear to be two foreign policies: the policy of words and the policy of deeds. Trump brash, loud, and controversial statements sometimes result in decisions that damage America’s position in the world. On the other hand, the President’s national security team continues to pursue the policy of the deed, in which US commitments are fulfilled and major damage is avoided. However, this balancing act between the President and the cabinet may sooner or later become untenable in the face of some major crisis in which a singular US policy will need to prevail.
BALKANS NEED A VIGOROUS US STRATEGY
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
The Balkans are returning onto America’s radar screen, as threats to regional stability and European integrity are mounting. To prevent a dangerous spiral of escalation, Washington needs to pursue a more vigorous strategy to help secure the remaining states within Western institutions and curtail Russia’s spreading subversion.
Drift and delay in dealing with the Western Balkans can give a false sense of security. After years of relative peace and progress, a new crisis can erupt when ambitious nationalist politicians and foreign governments are intent on provoking armed conflicts to gain power or expand their influence.
In recent months, the region has witnessed several ominous developments, including a Moscow-directed coup attempt in Montenegro, the creation of a Russian-trained paramilitary force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the assassination of a moderate Serb politician in Kosova. Whether or not there is a grand strategy behind the three incidents, it is clear that nationalist radicals and Kremlin operatives directly benefit from the resulting instability.
In October 2016, Montenegrin police arrested several suspects, including former Serbian gendarmerie chief Branislav Dikic, on charges of plotting a coup against the elected government. Evidence indicates they were funded and directed by Russia’s military intelligence service. The plot was confirmed by Western intelligence and by the Serbian authorities, which provided Montenegro with assistance in apprehending the conspirators.
In recent weeks, reports have surfaced about the creation of a paramilitary force styled as Serbian Honor (Srbski Ponos) at the behest of Milorad Dodik, President of the Serbian entity in Bosnia. According to local analysts, the unit has been trained in Russia and at Moscow’s military outpost in the Serbian city of Nis. Some of its members fought as mercenaries alongside the Kremlin’s proxy separatists in Ukraine. Bosnia’s Minister of Security Dragan Mektic, a member of the opposition Serbian Democratic Party, confirmed the existence of the paramilitaries whose objective is to defend the Serb entity in case of conflict with the central government in Sarajevo.
In another blow to regional stability, Oliver Ivanović, a prominent Serb politician in Kosova who favored talks with the government in Prishtina, was gunned down outside his party headquarters on the day that Belgrade and Prishtina resumed talks on normalizing relations. Although investigators have yet to find the culprits, the assassination clearly profits politicians who want the talks to fail. Indeed, the Serbian delegation withdrew from the discussions after news of the murder was announced.
To prevent political radicalization and ethnic polarization that could ignite armed conflicts, a more vigorous Western Balkan strategy led by Washington is urgently needed. Such an initiative must be grounded on three pillars – counter-subversion, national security, and regional collaboration.
Counter-subversion entails monitoring and combating imminent security threats, whether these stem from illegal paramilitaries, terrorist cells, criminal organizations, or Russian-financed networks. Improved intelligence collection, police effectiveness, banking transparency, judicial reform, media responsibility, information literacy, and the elimination of political corruption can reduce the sub-military threats. Washington can play a more prominent role in developing a comprehensive inter-agency approach to help defuse the dangers.
In bolstering national security, each state needs to be brought under the NATO umbrella with its defense structure modernized according to NATO standards. Last year’s accession of Montenegro into the Alliance is a consequential step in this process. Washington can take the lead role in unblocking Macedonia’s and Bosnia’s progress toward NATO and offering both Serbia and Kosova dual entry once they establish full bilateral ties and complete the necessary military reforms.
However, even NATO inclusion is not sufficient to ensure security. The Alliance must not only assist each state in its struggle against domestic and foreign subversion but also avoid moves that undermine national stability. For instance, attempts by some Western embassies to sideline Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s most important political figure, are a short-sighted strategic mistake. One cannot assume that because Montenegro joined NATO then its security problems are fully resolved. The Kremlin together with Serb nationalists will continue to undermine the state and without a proven pro-Western leadership opportunities for destabilization will expand.
The third pillar of US policy should enhance opportunities for regional security collaboration, in which practical initiatives defuse tensions. Countering political and religious terrorism, organized crime, and foreign subversion provide valuable arenas for cross-border cooperation. For instance, the murder of Ivanovic may actually improve ties between Belgrade and Prishtina. Because the destabilization of one state has a ripple effect on neighbors, each government will enhance its effectiveness by working jointly. Moreover, such collaboration would also boost their credentials for both NATO and EU membership.
In an important recent initiative, the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee has ordered a report from the Defense Department on Russia’s intrusions in the Western Balkans. It is especially concerned about Serbia’s defense links with Moscow and how its acquisition of new weapons systems may affect regional stability. The investigation of both hard and soft security threats is the first step in combating the dangers and demonstrating America’s effectiveness in countering Putin’s strategy of destabilization.
AMERICA POISED FOR AN OFFENSIVE
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
At the start of 2018 there are indications that the US is poised to take the offensive against Russia’s persistent subversion of Western institutions. A series of high-level reports and resolutions by the US Congress and a number of imminent steps by the Trump administration is likely to intensify the struggle with Moscow.
The Trump administration has two parallel foreign policies. On the one hand, Trump and his closest advisors, family members, and long-time friends act on impulse in trying to implement campaign promises to cut America’s foreign entanglements. On the other hand, the traditional internationalists in the cabinet seek to bypass the President and assert America’s global strategy. The majority of Congress quietly supports this parallel government that prevents Trump from damaging US interests.
Despite acquiescing to the President domestically, Congress has proved more assertive internationally. It has overwhelmingly passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to punish Russian oligarchs and entities linked with Kremlin interference in US elections. Trump reluctantly signed it into law, although its provisions are still to be implemented. If enacted this would have a crippling economic effect on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential elections in March.
A new US Senate report produced by the Democrats asserts that the Trump administration has been negligent in responding to Putin’s election interference. The report urges better coordination among the State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence services, and other US agencies to more effectively counter Moscow’s assaults.
There are growing fears about the Congressional elections scheduled for November and the primaries in the Spring. America’s vulnerabilities are evident in cyberspace and the social media sphere. In particular, measures need to be taken to help safeguard the electronic voting process from hacking and other forms of sabotage. Analysts are warning that Russian agents will have refined their tactics of interference to try and influence candidates and voters.
With approval from traditional Republicans, the White House itself has issued a National Security Strategy that contradicts Trump’s campaign statements that cooperating with Russia will transform it into a friendly partner. According to the document, the Kremlin is intent on weakening US influence and divide the Western allies, and preventative actions must be taken.
Despite the Kremlin attacks, some appeasers in Washington linked with Trump hope to diminish the escalating conflict with Moscow. The problem is that any unilateral move by the US will be perceived as weakness in the Kremlin. For instance, a halt to NATO enlargement and a weaker US military presence in Europe would signal to Putin that it may be a propitious time for another adventure against a neighboring state. Moreover, any talk about a new “security architecture” in Europe that sidelines NATO is music to the ears of Russia’s ruling imperialists.
When Moscow expresses outrage at some assertive US initiative, Russia’s propagandists aim to frighten the US public and policy makers with the threat of war. Fortunately, the most seasoned policy makers understand that strength and action are genuine deterrents while weakness and prevarication actually provoke the Kremlin.
As a result, arming Ukraine with lethal weapons, the further expansion of NATO in the Balkans, NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Ukraine and Georgia, and a more robust military presence along NATO’s eastern flank and in the Baltic and Black Seas, will signal to the Kremlin that Washington is no longer hesitating in its policy offensive.
In a significant recent bipartisan initiative, the US Congress has ordered a new report from the Defense Department on “Growing Russian Interests and Current Intrusions into the Western Balkans.” Congress is increasingly concerned about Serbia’s defense ties with Moscow and how this affects regional stability and the NATO presence. Belgrade has acquired a number of weapons systems in the past five years that could prove threatening to NATO members such as Croatia and to the stability of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Montenegro.
Serbia’s armed forces also participate in Russian exercises and Moscow’s operatives have penetrated Serbia’s intelligence services. All these factors pose a direct threat to the Alliance and cast a shadow over US and NATO cooperation with Belgrade. Indeed, there are suspicions that Serbia is becoming an outpost of Russian expansionism and even a facilitator of Moscow’s penetration of Western institutions.
The US House Foreign Affairs Committee has asserted that Washington needs a more effective plan to counter Moscow’s destabilizing influence throughout the Balkans and wants the Pentagon and State Department to additionally examine ties between Russia and other Balkan governments, including Bosnia’s Serb entity.
The intensifying FBI investigation of the Trump campaign will increase pressure on the White House. Regardless of the outcome, it will prevent the President from making any significant conciliatory moves toward Moscow. Washington will become even more combative if Democrats regain control of one or both houses of Congress during the November ballot, which even senior Republicans are now predicting. At that point, not only could the Trump presidency be imperiled with impeachment, but calls will intensify for retribution against Kremlin subversion of America’s political process.
TRUMP BATTLES FOR REPUBLICAN BASE
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
The rift between President Donald Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon has inflamed the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. If the split is permanent and Bannon turns against his former boss, then Trump’s support among the populist wing of the party could decline and his presidency would be further imperiled.
Trump’s election victory was driven by a core of Republican voters who were mobilized by populist messages that Bannon helped to craft. Bannon has been a key figure in the “alt right” (alternative right) movement that helped Trump appeal to anti-establishment rightists, economic nationalists, and religious conservatives.
Trump won the presidency partly because of the high turnout among the Republican base, about one third of which are hard-core rightists and nativists. Their long-term reaction to Bannon’s rift with Trump will determine whether Republicans win or lose the Senate and House of Representatives in mid-term elections in November 2018. Although they will not vote Democrat, the question is whether they will be motivated to vote at all.
Trump has excoriated his former chief strategist, claiming that Bannon had “lost his mind” after being pushed out of the White House a few month ago. The President attacked Bannon after a new book by investigative journalist Michael Wolff “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” quoted Bannon criticizing senior members of the Trump campaign. He implied that Trump’s son and son-in-law were engaging in “treason” for meeting with Russian government agents during the election campaign.
Trump’s maintained regular contact with Bannon even after he was pushed out of the White House by the President’s new chief-of-staff General John Kelly. Bannon had influence over Trump as a de facto leader of the rightist populist movement. He returned to the helm of the ultra-right website, Breitbart, and has been focused on creating a political network to support nationalist and populist candidates against traditional Republicans.
Over recent months, Bannon has waged a political war against the two most prominent Republicans – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. He has accused them of being part of the corrupt establishment and undermining Trump’s populist and protectionist agenda. He has pledged to back new Republican candidates in the mid-term congressional elections to challenge the traditionalists. He uses his Breitbart media outlet to attack and discredit establishment figures and promote alternatives.
However, Bannon’s impact has come under question over the past month, especially after backing the losing Republican candidate in the Senate election in Alabama to fill a seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bannon even convinced Trump to support the controversial candidate who was accused of sexual liaisons with under-age girls.
Mainstream Republicans are now hopeful that Bannon’s campaign against the party establishment will be extinguished after the split with Trump. Democrats may also miss his potential decline, as he was fuelling the Republican civil war and his populist campaign could ensure significant victories for Democrats in upcoming elections.
Bannon is also in conflict with several of Trump’s cabinet members and senior advisors. He presents himself as the guardian of Trump’s populist movement in conflict with “globalists” espousing free trade and “open borders,” including Trump’s relatives. His attacks on daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have clearly angered Trump and contributed to his venomous recent tweets against Bannon.
Bannon’s criticisms of Donald Trump Junior and Jared Kushner as potential traitors for meeting with Russian operatives will also provide extra ammunition for the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign. Indeed, Bannon may seek revenge against the “globalists” by providing evidence against them to Special Counsel Robert Mueller whose probe of Kremlin collusion, obstruction of justice, and financial crimes are increasingly focused on the Trump family.
If Bannon concludes that the presidency is irredeemably compromised by White House deals with globalists and establishment Republicans he may become Trump’s biggest critic for betraying his support base. Although the base may no longer find Bannon as appealing after his break with Trump, his persistent attacks could diminish enthusiasm for Republican candidates in the November elections.
A major deciding factor will be economic conditions, as Trump‘s working class voters were promised better jobs and higher wages. Major tax cuts for the rich and for private businesses in recently passed legislation and the record setting stock exchange will have little impact on their livelihoods. Additionally, cuts in government welfare programs and attacks on comprehensive health care may actually hit Trump’s base even harder.
Bannon and the populists support a redistributive economic agenda with tax cuts for working and middle classes, and they view much of the business class as part of the ossified establishment. In addition, one of the main planks of Trump’s campaign was to limit immigration in order to allegedly create jobs for US citizens. The stalemate in building a wall along the Mexican border will contribute to their apathy and resentment and Trump could well be the long-term loser.
THE BATTLE OVER KOSOVA
Janusz Bugajski, January 2018
2018 is bound to bring several surprises, particularly in the Balkans. Although the region has made progress in moving closer to NATO and the EU, as well as registering some economic growth, dangers continue to lurk beneath the surface. In addition to a potential Bosnian implosion and another Macedonian crisis, the Serbia-Kosova conflict could place the US and Russia at loggerheads.
EU-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, initiated during the Brussels Agreement in April 2013, have stalled. Moreover, the negotiations have only handled smaller and easier issues, on the assumption that a step-by-step approach would help build confidence while leaving the more critical questions for later. The problem is that “later” has already arrived and the remaining questions may not be resolvable without tackling the bigger ones.
During the past year, the parliament in Prishtina has failed to ratify an agreement on establishing an Association of Serbian Municipalities. Its opponents argue that it could turn Kosova into another divided state such as Bosnia. In addition, Prishtina does not see any reciprocal moved by Belgrade that would strengthen Kosova’s statehood. The stalemate suits neither side, as it retards Kosova’s international progress and Serbia’s EU aspirations.
With the Kosovar government coming under increasing criticism from Brussels, officials are now seeking US involvement in a renewed dialogue with Belgrade, and the new US administration might be more willing to participate than the previous one.
After a December meeting at the White House, Kosova’s President Hashim Thaci claimed that US Vice President Mike Pence pledged that America would be directly involved in reaching a final agreement to “normalize” relations between Kosova and Serbia and to bring Kosova into the UN. What this will mean in practice is still unclear, although it seems evident that the Trump team is seeking some foreign policy successes.
Americans are already indirectly involved in the Serbia-Kosova negotiations and remain well-informed on their progress and regress. Washington is concluding that practical questions can be more effectively handled by the EU, such as protecting religious buildings, agreeing on border posts, and forging cooperation on energy links or telecommunications. However, Brussels has studiously avoided dealing with the more fundamental roadblocks.
The main concern for the US revolves around “normalization” so that the current standoff does not develop into a full-scale conflict in which Washington would need to re-engage militarily. “Normalization” would include Kosova’s entry into the UN, mutual recognition between Serbia and Kosova, and the exchange of ambassadors. Having decided on NATO involvement and state recognition in the past, the US is in a better position than all other states to push for full-scale “normalization.”
While Prishtina is trying to entice Washington into the talks, President Aleksandar Vučić has threatened to involve Moscow. Vucic spent his pre-Christmas visit to Russia canvassing for Kremlin involvement in order to neutralize a more direct American role. Indeed, Vucic claimed that President Vladimir Putin agreed that Moscow would be involved as mediator.
Vucic also made an ominous sounding comment that Belgrade had concluded “certain agreements” with Moscow: “in case there are any conflicts, the format will expand in order to resolve the situation.” This could mean flexing Serbia’s military muscle and allowing Russia to have a more prominent diplomatic or even security role. Such moves could worsen relations between the US and Russia if Washington concludes that the Kremlin is obstructing resolution and denying the US a foreign policy success.
Vucic informed Russia’s state-run news agency TASS that Serbia was planning to buy Russian military transport helicopters and air-defense systems. Moscow has already provided Serbia with six MiG-29 fighter jets. Serbia’s moves to heighten military ties with Moscow are of grave concern to NATO and several neighboring countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova.
Additionally, Russia’s military intelligence base in Nis is damaging its position in Washington and the EU. The base will need to be closed or Russian personnel replaced by Europeans if Belgrade is serious about hosting an actual humanitarian relief center.
Belgrade is committing a basic miscalculation if it believes that it can leverage its relations with Kosova in order to gain improved conditions for EU entry. It will eventually have to accept Kosova as an independent state in order to qualify for the Union, but an early acceptance could actually prove more advantageous. “Normalization” would build confidence between the two states and may win Belgrade support for a faster track to EU accession. Vucic is also in a better position to deliver than previous Serbian leaders, as his base is nationalist and he benefits from broad public support.
Serbia’s reliance on Russian benevolence in blocking Kosova’s UN admission may be a grievous error. Vucic naively claims that he is “absolutely convinced” that Serbia can “always count on Moscow’s support.” He has evidently forgotten that Russia does not operate on sentiments but according to its expansionist interests. If Serbia no longer profits Moscow’s geopolitical calculations and can trade Kosova for some other strategic prize then Belgrade’s aspirations can be easily discarded.
AMERICA’S NEW SECURITY STRATEGY
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
Contrary to suppositions by his critics, President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) does not veer away from consistent US policy since the Cold War. It confirms America’s leadership role in the democratic world and may actually presage even greater US commitments internationally.
Written by a professional team of security experts, the document contains five key elements that will help determine US policy: threats to America’s interests; US global engagement; continuous competition with rivals; the importance of military power; and the significance of allied cooperation.
First, the Security Strategy acknowledges that America is under continuous attack: “The spread of accurate and inexpensive weapons and the use of cyber tools have allowed state and non-state competitors to harm the United States.” These tools challenge US dominance across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains. In addition, “adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law.”
Second, the Security Strategy underscores the importance of US global engagement. The definition of “America First” rejects the isolationism that some of Trump’s populist advisers advocated and it closely links domestic strength with international involvement. According to the document, “Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for US leadership in the world.”
With regions such as the Balkans in mind, there is a section about “aspiring partners” and “states that are fragile, recovering from conflict, and seeking a path forward to sustainable security and economic growth.” According to the text, stable, prosperous, and friendly states enhance American security, and “some of the greatest triumphs of American statecraft resulted from helping fragile and developing countries become successful societies.”
Third, the document declares that the US has to compete with key adversaries in order to preserve and advance American security and prosperity. The US “will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.” The Strategy pinpoints Russia and China as the two main competitors. Both states “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
The Strategy contradicts the notion that cooperating with Russia will transform it into a benign and friendly power. Contrary to Trump’s own assertions, Washington should not assume that engagement with Russia will turn the regime into a trustworthy partner. On the contrary, Moscow “wants to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” aims to weaken Washington’s international influence, and “divide us from our allies and partners.”
Moreover, the Russian government is “determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow its military, and to control information and data to repress society and expand its influence.” With the US presidential elections in mind, the Strategy declares that “through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.”
Fourth, the new US Strategy focuses on military and economic power. It underscores that peace will be preserved through strength by rebuilding the military “so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win.” America will evidently ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.
Fifth, the document trumpets the important role played by allies in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations. It acknowledges that Allies and partners magnify US power if they shoulder their share of the military burden against common threats. It pledges that the US will lead in multilateral organizations so that its interests and principles are protected. On the economic front, America can play a “catalytic role in promoting private-sector-led economic growth, helping aspiring partners become future trading and security partners.”
Working with allies, the US can prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological attacks, block terrorists from reaching the homeland, reduce drug and human trafficking, and protect America’s critical infrastructure. Above all, alliances can “deter, disrupt, and defeat potential threats before they reach the US.”
The new National Security Strategy sets important goals, but does not flesh out specific strategies, plans, costs, and timeframes in confronting the threats. Although the document serves as a useful foundation, the White House needs to be more specific for the Pentagon, Congress, the American people, and US allies in how to combat common challenges.
The Security Strategy also does not explain what it means by the term “competitive diplomacy,” especially when there is great uncertainty on how the State Department and the diplomatic service are being reorganized. More specifics are also needed on how to engage in cyberwar and disinformation campaigns. Washington needs to craft communications strategies to combat ideological and psychological threats from radical Islamist groups and competing states, while exposing the aims of enemy propaganda and disinformation.
To his credit, Trump has tasked a range of more specific documents to address the missing strategic elements. It is insufficient simply to define the threats and establish national security goals without providing details on how they will be confronted and defeated.
MOSCOW’S STRATEGY INSIDE AMERICA
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
A year into the Trump presidency, Moscow appears to have concluded that when it comes to his Russia policy, the President is a “lame duck.” The Kremlin assumed that after taking office, Trump would lift financial sanctions, recognize Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and allow Putin to dominate the former Soviet states. In reality, Trump is unable to deliver what the Kremlin expected; he is immersed in a growing FBI investigation and Congress is resolutely opposed to any concessions to Russia.
According to US officials, President Putin is satisfied with the Kremlin’s “active measures” campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election, in particular in helping to thwart the victory of Hilary Clinton. However, disappointment with Trump is mounting and Kremlin officials are developing an alternative strategy that could prove beneficial for their geopolitical ambitions. The primary objective will be to exploit the political battles in Washington in order to undermine American democracy regardless of the fate of the Trump presidency.
Putin has praised Trump in order to appeal to the president’s vanity. In reality, he was seen in Moscow as the ultimate “useful idiot” who would not challenge its expansionist enterprise. He would also make deals with Russia that could benefit some US businesses even while damaging Washington’s international influence. However, because the Kremlin believes that Trump has been blocked by “the establishment,” the time has come for Russia to use Trump to help undermine the American establishment.
The dispute over the legitimacy of the Trump presidency will begin to boil over in the coming months, as the FBI investigation reaches into the White House and may indict senior figures from the Trump campaign. It seems unlikely that Trump will simply resign as President Richard Nixon did in 1974 in order to avoid impeachment. Trump has indicated that he will fight any charges of corruption or collusion with Russia. He will try and discredit the FBI investigation and may even be willing to precipitate a constitutional crisis in order to stay in power.
The conflict over Trump’s fate between the White House and the judicial branch, between congressional Republicans and Democrats, and between Trump supporters and opponents will provide fertile ground for the Kremlin in its new offensive. For Putin, the next best thing to America’s external appeasement is an internal American crisis that will weaken the political system and disable a coherent and effective foreign policy.
Moscow can pursue a number of options in order to exacerbate tensions in the US. There are three areas in particular where Russian agencies can be most effective: kompromat, disinformation, and incitement.
Russian security services gather compromising material on all major US politicians and businessmen, which can be used either to bribe or blackmail them at opportune moments. The FSB (Federal Security Service) would be negligent if it did not possess voluminous amounts of kompromat on Trump, whether concerning his financial dealings or his personal life. Some of this material could be injected into the media sphere either to warn Trump from pursuing specific anti-Kremlin policies or to feed the investigation against him. At the same time, compromising material can be released on Trump’s opponents in order to deepen the rifts in American politics.
Kompromat is intertwined with disinformation, as Russian agents can also inject false stories about targeted politicians that gain traction in the media. During the US election, Kremlin officials discovered how easily they could manipulate social media networks to spread disinformation. In the case of a potential Trump impeachment the propaganda offensive will focus on how American elites are trying to eliminate a popularly elected President and that ordinary people should resist by all possible means. The purpose will be to inflame emotions and exacerbate divisions that could paralyze America’s political system.
Disinformation blends into outright incitement where fabricated information is targeted at particular audiences to react in specific ways. The US has already witnessed Moscow instigating demonstrations through the internet. Such tactics can be developed to generate race conflicts, riots, or clashes between leftist and rightist radicals in American cities. A deeply divided electorate is susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories and negative propaganda against the opposing party.
There is a high probability that the Kremlin has established a special unit in the presidential administration that develops the strategy and tactics of subverting and manipulating American politics. At the same time, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies may not be sufficiently prepared to counter an intensified campaign designed to destabilize the country.
Trump’s dismissal of Russia’s election interference as a “hoax” may be intended to assert the legitimacy of his election victory, but the consequences of neglect at the highest administrative levels can be damaging. The White House has failed to establish an inter-agency task force to examine Russia’s election meddling or to formulate responses to counter future assaults on American democracy. This leaves the country even more vulnerable to a sustained offensive.
MOSCOW’S DIVIDE AND RULE
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
A profitable strategy pursued by Moscow to subvert its neighbors is the classic imperial policy of divide and rule. Although Russia may not rule the countries it subverts, by pitting neighbors against each other the Kremlin can weaken their defenses, prevent the emergence of a common multi-national front, and inject itself in the foreign policy decisions of nearby governments.
Moscow’s “divide and conquer” strategy around its borders is so pervasive that it would take a long report to chronicle all the cases and methods. At least four current bilateral relations within Europe are pinpointed by the Kremlin to weaken its adversaries and to control its allies: Poland-Ukraine, Belarus-Ukraine, Hungary-Ukraine, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda has focused on undermining relations between Ukraine and all of its Western neighbors in order to isolate and destabilize the country. Poland and Hungary have been the two main targets of Moscow’s offensive. In the case of Poland, Moscow-generated media, policy statements, and social networks have focused on lingering historical disputes between Warsaw and Kyiv in order to weaken Poland’s support for Ukraine’s independence and its self-defense against Russia’s aggression.
For the Poles, Moscow underscores the Wolyn massacres during World War Two, in which some Ukrainian nationalists murdered Polish civilians. For the Ukrainians, Moscow focuses on the forced relocation of Ukrainian civilians from Poland’s eastern territories after World War Two. The objective is to raise nationalist sentiments in both states and demonstrate that Poles are incurably anti-Ukrainian and Ukrainians are genetically anti-Polish. Russian TV has even staged incidents of Polish nationalists allegedly burning Ukrainian flags during Poland’s independence day celebrations in order to whip up Ukrainian hostility.
In another example of fostering neighborhood disputes, the Kremlin encourages Budapest to campaign for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region. It amplifies the contention that Kyiv is pursuing discriminatory policies and highlights the stance of some members of the local Ruthenian community in Transcarpathia for autonomy or independence.
In seeking to depict Ukraine as a failing state, Moscow claims that it is facing increasingly serious ethnic problems in regions such as Transcarpathia. The Kremlin’s strategy serves to exert pressure on Kyiv, depicts the Magyars in Ukraine as potentially disloyal to the state, and undermines a common front among Central Europe’s Visegrad Group in opposing Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has also endeavored to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow’s propaganda has persistently claimed that Ukrainian militants are infiltrating Belarus to stage a EuroMajdan-type revolt in Minsk. It has also conducted direct provocations, as in the recent arrest of a Ukrainian journalist in Minsk reportedly engineered by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The reporter was accused of espionage after being handed forged documents by staff from the Russian television company NTV disclosing that Minsk would permit Belarusian territory to be used by Russian forces in its war against Ukraine.
The South Caucasus provides an example of the longest-standing “divide and rule” operation by Russian agencies – the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since the early 1990s, Moscow has prevented the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and disputes over other territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces. Moscow’s objective is to prevent either country from moving westward geopolitically and ensuring they remain within Russia’s orbit. It supplies both sides with weapons and uses the conflict to keep both Yerevan and Baku in check.
In aiding Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin threatens Azerbaijan with partition if the government moves closer to the West. At the same time, it rewards Armenia for its client relationship with Moscow and indicates that such support can be withdrawn if Yerevan were to push for closer ties with the EU and NATO.
The Kremlin can manipulate a number of other lingering disputes to stifle international opposition to its policies. Latent tensions between Serbia and Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Romania and Moldova, or Romania and Hungary can be recharged by both propaganda and provocations. And minority questions in numerous states in Central and South Eastern Europe can be inflamed to precipitate new rounds of dispute.
To counter the “divide and rule” strategy and avoid falling into Moscow’s traps, each targeted government can pursue three policies. First, they need to heighten public awareness of political and informational vulnerabilities to Kremlin-inspired assaults. Second, it would be valuable to establish bilateral working groups between neighboring states composed of scholars and specialists to monitor and expose the various sources of divisive propaganda.
And third, Moscow’s meddling can be constructively used as an opportunity to develop bilateral and regional relations particularly in the informational sphere including media cooperation, cultural exchanges, IT roundtables, and student visits. Although long-standing disputes between several countries will not disappear overnight, at the very least each society should become aware when a predatory third party aims to exploit them to its advantage.
GROWING TURMOIL FOR TRUMP
Janusz Bugajski, December 2017
Turmoil in the Donald Trump administration is intensifying following the indictment of former National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, and a pending cabinet reshuffle. The Flynn crisis and the potential replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may increase Trump’s pressure against the ongoing FBI-led investigations of his Kremlin connections.
Trump has been incensed with Tillerson since reports surfaced a few months ago that he called the President a “fucking moron” and subsequently proved unwilling to deny these reports in the media. In retaliation, Trump seems determined both to embarrass Tillerson publicly and to eventually replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, calculating the latter will be more loyal.
Trump remains deeply frustrated with his Secretary of State, and has repeatedly undermined him on a range of issues, including policy toward North Korea and Russia. Tillerson has refused to bend to Trump’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations with Moscow because he is convinced that the Kremlin interfered in the US elections. Tillerson values his independence on the diplomatic front and never envisioned his role as a lackey. Trump demands loyalty and even subservience from those who work for him and views himself as the only indispensable part of the government. He has even stated that he understands foreign policy better than the State Department.
All eyes will now be on Pompeo and whether he can resist White House pressure to simply become a yes-man. Similarly for Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who is the leading candidate as Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA. Until now Cotton has been supportive of Trump, but the two may clash if Trump ignores evidence about Russian interference in the election system or propounds conspiracy theories about the US intelligence agencies.
As Trump nears the end of his first year in office, other heads may be on the chopping block, including economic adviser Gary Cohn and even son-in-law Jared Kushner. Cohn’s relationship with Trump has become tense over economic policy, as Trump is heavily influenced by protectionists against free traders such as Cohn. Cohn’s position in the White House was also undermined after his public criticism of Trump’s response to the violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia in August.
Kushner is under increasing pressure from the Russia investigation and his influence in the White House has shrunk. He could receive a face-saving exit by being given an outside advisory role. In addition, mid-level staffers could decide to leave in the middle of the turmoil to protect their own careers. This would have a significant impact on the White House because few replacements are available and not many people are eager to join the administration.
Even while dealing with turmoil in his government, Trump is becoming increasing angered and frustrated by the independent Russia investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that is moving closer to Trump’s inner circle and family members. However, any move to fire Mueller would not only spark a constitutional crisis but also a national political crisis in which the future of the presidency itself would be in doubt.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, indicating that he will testify against Kushner and possibly the President himself as the senior officials who instructed him to contact the Russian government before Trump took office. According to Flynn’s testimony, the Trump team was collaborating with Moscow and undermining the policies of the Obama administration even after it was revealed that Moscow was interfering in the US elections. Such a charge could result in prosecution because it is illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy. Before Trump took office and Obama was still President, Flynn allegedly reassured the Kremlin that the incoming White House would remove the sanctions punishing Russia for election meddling.
Even more significantly, Flynn could also shed light on whether the Trump campaign benefited from or conspired in Moscow’s election interference, which would constitute an even more serious criminal offense. It is illegal for any citizen to gain assistance from a foreign power in influencing the election process.
Flynn is the first Trump administration official and the fourth connected to the campaign implicated in possible collusion with the Kremlin, as well as obstruction of justice and financial crimes. In addition, evidence has emerged that Trump placed pressure on members of Congress to end the investigation of his campaign. In recent months, he repeatedly spoke to lawmakers directly involved in congressional inquiries, including Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Ultimately, Mueller is searching for proof of a quid pro quo between Trump and Putin. In return for Russia’s assistance in defeating Hillary Clinton in the presidential elections through various social media and cyber interventions, did Trump’s representatives promise that they would ease or lift financial sanctions on Moscow? If Flynn provides evidence of such a deal that tampered with the elections, calls for Trump’s impeachment will escalate. With Flynn on the verge of testimony that could start the impeachment process, Trump may wish he could employ Putin’s direct methods of eliminating rivals and witnesses.
COPING WITH A. RISING CHINA
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
While Russia remains the immediate threat to Western security, China represents a more comprehensive long-term challenge for Western interests. The US and Europe need to pursue beneficial economic and security agreements with China to avoid sparking competition that will drain resources and foster conflicts.
China is fast becoming a major economic power in Europe just as Russia is being excluded from the continent through sanctions and a sinking economy. While Moscow is preoccupied with threatening its neighbors, Chinese business has been sweeping through Europe’s east and Central Asia and purchasing billion-dollar assets in Russia’s former dominions. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” involves the construction of a major trade and transportation route linking China with Europe.
China’s overseas investment focuses on infrastructure, energy, minerals, and manufacturing. Beijing’s Emerging Europe initiative has already opened offices in several European capitals and launched a $10 billion fund to finance projects in revamping railroads, bridges, tunnels, and highways. China views countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, and Ukraine as manufacturing bridgeheads into Europe, where labor is cheap and access to the European market is growing.
While Russia has little to offer Europe’s east, other than energy supplies with political strings attached, China promises growing investment, development, and trade without imperial pressures. In this equation, Russia itself will become a raw materials appendage to China, and in the not too distant future large swaths of Siberia and Russia’s Far East may be settled and annexed by Beijing.
Beyond Europe, China and the US are increasingly sidelining Russia as they become increasingly interconnected economically and geopolitically. The Russian economy is only one-fifth the size of China’s or America’s. Technologically, the gap between China and the West, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, is accelerating.
China is the most important exporter of goods to the US and the third importer of American goods. The total trade between them exceeds half a trillion US dollars. China is the largest purchaser of Russian exports (mostly crude oil) and the first supplier of goods to Russia. But this dependence is one-sided. The total turnover between the two countries forms only two percent of China’s trade with foreign countries.
Kremlin policy is based on the erroneous idea that deteriorating ties between Russia and the US can be compensated with an alliance with China. In reality, Moscow is in no position to dictate to Beijing or turn it against the West. No one in the Chinese administration envisages a Russia-China union.
China’s growth will also eclipse Russia militarily in the projection of power and could increasingly challenge Washington. However, while Beijing is playing a greater role in international security, unlike Russia it is not directly confronting the US but seeking benefits from cooperation. North Korea will be a major test of these bilateral security relations, as both Washington and Beijing seek to resolve the problem without combat. Beijing may try to obtain trading concessions from Washington in exchange for leveraging Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program, while Russia has no real leverage in the region.
Washington needs to adjust to China’s rise because it is no position to reverse it. Simply accusing China of “predatory economics,” as President Donald Trump has asserted, could be counterproductive. Instead, the US needs to offer a more positive formula for economic integration in the Pacific region in which America does not exclude itself.
Many of China’s trade and investment practices are problematic, as it becomes more assertive under President Xi Jinping. For instance, Beijing imposes embargoes on some governments to achieve its diplomatic objectives; practices market-access restrictions; subsidizes major national companies resulting in unfair competition with foreign firms; finances schemes for infrastructure projects that saddle recipient countries with unsustainable debt; and engages in intellectual property theft.
Moreover, Beijing has ambitions to dominate key industries such as robotics, aerospace, and biotechnology. The US and Europe need to protect themselves from some of China’s policies, particularly by using World Trade Organization (WTO) procedures to challenge illegal Chinese subsidies or forced technology transfer policies.
However, not all of China’s economic behavior can be dismissed as predatory. Indeed, Asian countries seek access to the enormous Chinese market, as well as to its technology and capital to support infrastructure development. Unfortunately, the Trump administration surrendered a powerful tool by abandoning the regional free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and failed to replace it with a credible regional trade strategy. This was based on the forlorn hope that bilateral agreements could be negotiated although few Asian country are interested in them. The result will simply restrict US access to growing markets.
The rise of China will damage Russia more rapidly than the West. To defend its Eurasian ambitions, Moscow may engineer a new war in the South Caucasus to restrict China’s transportation corridors, which bypass and isolate Russia. A military move to divide Georgia and establish a corridor to Russia’s close ally Armenia would effectively cut off Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and China from a direct land route to Europe. This would boost Kremlin attempts to control transportation and communications links between Europe and China. However, this could also spark a regional war in which all three major global powers could become embroiled.
ENERGIZING THE ALLIANCE
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
The Trump administration is boosting the effectiveness of the trans-Atlantic alliance by pushing for greater defense spending among all members and reinforcing NATO’s military presence along its eastern flank. An additional political step could be taken by Washington to energize the Alliance – a more restrained approach toward the Central-East European (CEE) states regarding any democratic shortcomings.
The promotion of democracy was a noble and necessary objective for Washington after the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It encouraged the development of political pluralism, representative institutions, and civil societies. It contributed to enshrining the minority rights of ethnic, religious, and regional groupings. And it helped to propel each state to qualify for NATO and EU membership.
However, at this hazardous juncture in Europe’s evolution, with the European Union itself facing an uncertain future and an aggressive Russia seeking to destabilize the continent, Washington needs to consolidate its alliances and not endanger them. An overly intrusive American posture toward its CEE allies that scolds elected governments for their domestic politics can alienate societies and push some leaders toward nationalism, populism, and closer ties with Moscow.
Having constructed their democratic systems, all the CEE states are now European Union members and subject to the norms and pressures of this diverse multi-national structure. The promotion of democratic standards and social policies is a primary role of EU institutions, in which each CEE country is now firmly embedded. Washington should neither interfere in internal EU developments, such as the Brexit vote or the Catalonian imbroglio, nor castigate countries when they adopt policies that challenge the resilience of indigenous democracies.
There is a difference between criticism and ostracism. Constructive criticism should not effect high-level political and diplomatic relations or our close security ties. No allied leader should be spurned or publicly castigated while Washington simultaneously avoids any open criticism of autocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. Such perceived double standards generate suspicion about US motives and provide ammunition for anti-American propaganda.
Countries such as Poland and Hungary possess durable institutions, mature civil societies, and a broad political opposition that will prevent any long-term democratic reversals even when the separation of powers and media freedoms is under threat from the current governments. US diplomatic reprimands almost thirty years after the demise of communism could prove counter-productive by stimulating defensive nationalism against perceived American paternalism. One wonders how American officials would respond if Budapest or Warsaw persistently criticized the US President for attacking the free media or pressuring the Justice Department to investigate the opposition party.
With the rise of political formations throughout Europe that stress national sovereignty, a reproachful US policy could spawn new anti-American movements that resent Washington’s perceived intrusiveness, as witnessed in several West European states during the Cold War. Europe’s younger generation in particular has no memory of the immense American role in toppling both fascism and communism and may increasingly view the US as a new imperialist overlord that seeks to deprive the nation of its identity and independence.
Such misperceptions can undermine security relations and assist Moscow in gaining political inroads by claiming that it is defending these nations against American “cultural imperialism.” This would increase the susceptibility of local political leaders to corruption, manipulation, and intimidation, and amplify their isolation from Washington.
The White House also needs to be mindful that bilateral arrangements with each CEE state that neglects the broader multi-national frameworks can contribute to dividing Europe and assisting the Kremlin. A multi-speed or multi-tier EU may increasingly sideline the CEE states, which are still catching up economically with their West European partners while aiming to become a core part of Europe. No CEE government wants to drift into some stagnant grey zone by falling into a lower EU tier at a slower speed.
While the US needs to focus on strengthening NATO and expanding economic ties with Central Europe, the CEE governments must also bolster their obligations to trans-Atlanticism. No capital can logically pursue its national sovereignty (as persistently claimed) without resolutely defending its national security. This commitment includes the defense of NATO allies, partners, and other neighboring states under the threat of attack from a predatory power such as Russia. Bolstering Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is a stark example of the common trans-Atlantic cause to forestall Moscow, and in which each CEE capital can assume greater responsibility.
To be relevant in Washington, all CEE states need to contribute to NATO capabilities, cooperate closely in combating jihadist terrorism, diversify their energy supplies and plug into US exports, and enhance their attractiveness for US business investment. They need to reach out to Washington with new initiatives that benefit both sides, whether in the economic arena or on the broad security front. In sum, both shores of the Atlantic need to demonstrate solidarity and commitment or we risk dividing the Alliance at an increasingly testing time in Europe’s history.
WHERE NEXT FOR ISIS?
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
The fall of Raqqa and the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the movement together with its offshoots, collaborators, and imitators. Instead, it will morph in other regions of the world and provide more dispersed terrorist challenges for the Western world.
Some officials, including President Donald Trump, have hailed the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq as evidence that the Islamic State has been militarily vanquished. Such views overlook two essential features of modern day jihadism – the movement is not restricted to any one state or region and it can assume various forms in attacking rival Muslims and Western targets.
At the peak of its power in 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) ruled over approximately nine million people across an area equal to the entire state of Jordan. The group functioned as an insurgent government, collecting taxes and oil revenues while providing various local services. On the dark side, it forced its puritanical version of Islam on citizens and administered severe punishment for any infractions, including public executions.
In the coming weeks, ISIS will be eliminated from its remaining desert hideouts and small urban centers along the Syria-Iraq border. At the same time, the number of recruits joining the movement in the region has plummeted – from about 1,500 a month down to only a trickle. But despite this major setback, ISIS will not simply disappear, as its ideology and ruthlessness has strong appeal to a core of angry and idealistic misfits in almost every country.
Two phenomena need to be closely monitored over the coming months – the takeover of alternative unstable territories by fighters from Iraq and Syria, and their increasing infiltration into Western societies.
In the first scenario, the loss of the current Middle Eastern territorial base has forced its leaders to regroup in new terrorist formations. ISIS benefits from a unique flexibility, in that it is an inter-ethnic movement where religious conviction is the key marker of identity. Hence, it can operate almost anywhere and recruit fighters from all corners of the earth.
There are several border regions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa where government authority is absent, where local dissatisfaction with the state capital can be exacerbated, and where ethnic and religious conflicts can be exploited. This provides opportunities for ISIS cells to infiltrate and spread their rebellion, attracting recruits from both within and outside the country.
One critical country is Libya, which lacks a strong central government and where regionalist militias predominate. ISIS plans to establish a new base in Sirte to strengthen the more radical Islamist groups. Saharan Africa also provides valuable opportunities for ISIS, particularly in border regions between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. ISIS could also increase its presence on the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa by igniting civil wars and taking control of unstable territories in countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
Another vulnerable region is Central Asia. In recent weeks, a new organization has been spawned in the extensive border regions between Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other. The Khorasan movement already includes several thousand fighters and seems to be a successor to ISIS. It poses a danger not only to Central Asia but also to Russia through militant migrants from the region. Unfortunately, the local Muslim leaders have demonstrated little motivation to combat the group, while the national governments are too weak to fully control the entire territory.
In its alternative iteration, ISIS can multiply its small-scale terrorist attacks in Western countries. It does not need territorial control or even significant weaponry to expand its range, but willing recruits to engage in mass murders and suicide missions. It has unknown numbers of enthusiastic or duped supporters in Western countries as well as former fighters returning home in search of new missions.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asserted after the atrocities in Barcelona and London that his organization plans to terrorize the Americans, Europeans, and Russians by reverting to the tactics of a urban terrorism and sabotage. ISIS can inspire individuals to engage in terrorism in Western cities, where a small sleeper cell can independently decide the target, date, and methods without higher coordination.
Unfortunately, there is no major international initiative to rebuild Iraq and Syria after the ISIS devastation. Moreover, the re-imposition of the Assad regime is likely to inflame local resentments and conflicts that bred the ISIS takeover in the first place. Economically undeveloped areas have also been neglected in several states targeted by radicals.
In addition, there is no process of reeducating and rehabilitating former fighters to return to civilian life. On the contrary, there are thousands of children who have grown up with the ideology of jihadism and anti-Westernism and are pliable recruits for the militants. The defeat in Raqqa could actually lead to a resurgence in recruitment as revenge against Western intervention in the Middle East. ISIS had lost a battle, but it has not lost the protracted war.
TRUMP INVESTIGATION INTENSIFIES
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
The FBI Special Counsel investigations of illicit connections between the Kremlin and the Trump election campaign has entered a new phase. With several indictments issued and trials set, the probe by Robert Mueller is closing in around the White House.
Three new developments have disturbed the administration. First, two Trump campaign advisors have been indicted by the FBI, including Paul Manafort, chairman of the campaign for much of 2016. Second, another Trump foreign policy advisor pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his connections with Russia’s regime. And third, Mueller’s probe is zeroing in on Jared Kuchner, Trump’s son-in-law, particularly for his role in firing the previous FBI director James Comey.
The FBI probe is focused on three tracks: collusion with Moscow during the campaign, financial crimes by campaign staff, and the obstruction of justice by the White House in investigations of the first two tracks.
Regarding track one, collusion itself is not a crime and Mueller’s team needs evidence that laws were broken in contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian intelligence officials or their intermediaries. The main focus is whether “collusion” entailed allowing Moscow to interfere with the US elections or gaining information from Kremlin sources that would effect the elections. This would constitute a conspiracy to defraud the US.
Former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos is a key figure at the center of track one. After admitting making false statements to the FBI he is now fully cooperating with the probe to avoid prison. His false statements revolved around communicating with Russian nationals and attempting to arrange a meeting between Trump and Kremlin officials, even Putin himself.
Papadopoulos is also providing Mueller with information about other individuals that were involved with Moscow or who violated federal laws. He admitted interacting with an academic in London linked to Kremlin officials possessing compromising material on Hilary Clinton and informed Trump’s campaign chiefs. Sam Clovis, national co-chairman of the Trump campaign, encouraged Papadopoulos to pursue contacts with Russian officials and is also cooperating with Mueller’s team.
A particular charge the FBI may pursue is conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This would require proving that the Trump team conspired with Moscow’s hacking campaign against Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by directing or aiding the hacking. By keeping the arrest of Papadopoulos secret for several months and allowing him to be at liberty while wiring him, the FBI may have gained more information about co-conspirators. This prospect has reportedly generated paranoia and even panic among White House staff.
Track two involves investigating and prosecuting an array of potential financial crimes by Trump’s former officials. Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates have been indicted for conspiracy to launder money, tax evasion, and failing to report their foreign bank accounts. In effect, they were conspiring against the US in order to defraud the Justice and Treasury Departments by hiding income from their lobbying work on behalf of Kremlin-linked politicians in Ukraine.
Manafort evidently had links with Russian organized crime, which is largely inseparable from the Kremlin oligarchy. In particular, the FBI indictment details that he illicitly received millions of dollars from a businessman closely linked to one of Russia’s most notorious criminals, Semion Mogilevich. According to the FBI, Mogilevich, who is under Kremlin protection, is responsible for weapons trafficking, contract killings, and international prostitution.
By charging Manafort and Gates with financial felonies that could result in long prison terms, Mueller is seeking their cooperation in providing information that will lead to further indictments of Trump associates. Mueller is also sending a signal to the wider Trump circle that he will leave no stone unturned to uncover criminal behavior.
Track three of the FBI investigation strikes even closer to home for Trump. It involves potential obstruction of justice by Trump’s close associates. Son-in-law Kushner has turned over stacks of documents as investigators probe his role in the firing of former FBI Director Comey. Evidently, Trump naively believed that by removing Comey he would end the Russia inquiry. Instead, an even more effective Special Counsel was placed in charge of the investigation. However, the Department of Justice has been struggling to maintain its independence from the White House.
The Kuchner investigation indicates that Mueller’s search for criminality not only involves the election campaign but also the activities of the current administration. Trump himself may be implicated in obstructing justice and covering up his knowledge of secret meetings between his campaign and Kremlin-connected individuals. In addition, Kuchner himself is under investigation for potentially criminal connections with a Russian bank that is under US sanctions.
As the Special Counsel probe deepens, Washington remains in suspense anticipating the next revelation. The core question for the FBI investigators is whether Trump and his close allies were working with a foreign government, and one that is a major adversary of the US, in order to manipulate America’s elections. If proven, such activities would constitute treason and would warrant impeachment and even imprisonment.
THREE PARADOXES OF US POLICY TOWARD EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, November 2017
Nine months into the Donald Trump presidency, at least three major paradoxes have persisted in US policy toward Europe. They revolve around trans-Atlantic security and the institutional future of Europe itself. Resolving these paradoxes to consolidate the trans-Atlantic bridge is the main challenge for the rest of this decade.
The first US paradox concerns the European Union. Trump´s position has been that the EU is America’s global competitor rather than a partner. This is largely a result of the economic nationalists who still have influence over the President and who support the break-up of the EU and a refocusing on bilateral ties. They view the Union similarly to China – as a growing economic threat to American interests.
In marked contrast, the Atlanticists in the US administration understand the importance of the EU to preclude new nationalist conflicts in Europe and as America’s major trading partner and investor. Far more troubling for the Atlanticists than the weakening of democratic institutions by some ruling parties in Europe, is a weak approach toward both NATO and Russia.
Indeed, the second paradox revolves around NATO. When he was a presidential candidate, Trump declared the Alliance as obsolete. His position changed dramatically after assuming office. Indeed, the administration has taken steps to strengthen NATO and boost Western security. Trump’s criticisms misled both Europeans and Russians into believing that the White House would disband the Alliance and terminate US commitments to the defense of Europe. In reality, Trump’s strong criticism of NATO has refocused attention on Alliance costs, missions, and capabilities.
Two main factors are enabling Trump to reinvigorate the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s performance and his strategically astute national security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at those European governments who fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. He threatened to scale back US support if these targets were not rapidly met.
Ironically, Trump’s threats seemed to have an impact, as a number of Allied governments, especially along Russia’s unpredictable borders, have pledged to increase their spending and raise their military capabilities. Even some West European governments are now revising their defense commitments.
The defense of national sovereignty, as claimed by several rightist governments in Central Europe, must also include the defense of national security. This in turn means speeding up the timetable for meeting NATO benchmarks in defense spending and helping to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank against Moscow’s revisionism. It is time for all laggards to fully commit to a common defense and demonstrate that they are reliable neighbors and allies whose own sovereignty is worth defending by America.
The determination of the US administration to bolster NATO has been especially evident in the key figures appointed to the Trump cabinet. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has asserted that the Alliance is indispensible for defending America’s national interests and maintaining global security. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have reinforced Mattis’s position that a traditional Atlanticism would prevail in Washington.
During the Iraqi and Afghani interventions, NATO developed its counter-insurgency capabilities, while the defense of Europe was neglected, and the number of American forces was drastically reduced. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 refocused attention on European defense with escalating anxieties among NATO’s front line states over Moscow’s expansionism. Trump’s team are bolstering NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) along the eastern flank, substantially increasing US defense spending, and working more closely with European allies committed to American goals.
The third US paradox is the Russia question. Trump may still avoid directly criticizing Vladimir Putin, for whatever skeletons he may have in his closet, but both the administration and Congress have sharpened their policy toward an expansionist adversary. Moscow is increasingly fearful that Trump will not surrender any ground despite his campaign promises to pursue closer cooperation with Russia.
For instance, Putin’s officials have condemned Washington’s policy of seeking nuclear superiority. The Kremlin claims that Washington’s pledge to reinforce the US nuclear arsenal would trigger a new arms race. In addition, Congress has overwhelmingly passed a new sanctions bill against Moscow for interfering in the US elections. This stipulates financial repercussions for oligarchs linked with the Kremlin, including freezing their bank accounts, and safeguards that the President cannot cancel sanctions unilaterally.
Although the White House has delayed the implementation of these sanctions, congressional pressure on the administration will bring results. Moreover, with the investigations into potential collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia’s intelligence services intensifying, the President will need to demonstrate that he is not beholden to Putin.
Despite the Kremlin’s initial expectations, the Trump White House is not moving toward a new “reset.” Mattis and other security chiefs have made it clear that Washington can only negotiate with Russia from a position of strength. By emplacing US troops and NATO infrastructure in countries bordering Russia, Washington has demonstrated that it is taking its Allied responsibilities seriously. And as the scale of Russian penetration of the US political system emerges in FBI investigations, the momentum to hit back against Moscow will also intensify.
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
In Russia, history is not an objective record of events but an instrument to strengthen the regime. A century ago an armed group of Bolsheviks staged a coup d’état in Russia’s capital Petrograd and proceeded to seize all state institutions and eradicate political rivals. This power grab by a small communist faction was depicted in Soviet propaganda as the “Great October Proletarian Revolution.” In reality, the coup was not a revolution, the Russian proletariat did not lead it, and according to the widely used Gregorian calendar it did not even happen in October.
Since the Bolshevik seizure of power, the manipulation and distortion of Russia’s history has served three main purposes: legitimizing the regime, denigrating its rivals, and mobilizing the masses. In contemporary Russia, historical narratives justify the policies of the Vladimir Putin administration, which claims to be following a glorious historical tradition in defending Mother Russia against a multitude of foreign enemies.
Even as Russia’s citizens hover on the material level of a poor developing country, with shrinking living standards, shortened life spans, rampant alcoholism, growing crime, collapsing health care, and crumbling infrastructure, the Russian state-empire is depicted as a unique civilization. This alleged bastion of Christianity is an enlightened civilization with a deep Russian “soul” than no Westerner can understand. Such arguments are intended to disguise reality and make Russians feel important despite the growing repression and destitution.
Russia’s official history also undermines the identity and cohesion of neighbors who are earmarked for domination, assimilation or eradication. One key stratagem is manufacturing a fraudulent self-identity, in which the history of neighbors is systematically appropriated and their distinctiveness diminished. The most egregious example of historical theft is perpetrated against the Ukrainian nation, which many Russians disparagingly dismiss as a “younger brother.”
Russia’s rulers claim much of Ukrainian history as their own, including Kyivan Rus (the first eastern Slavic federation between the 9th and 13th centuries), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the Cossack tradition. Simultaneously, Russian officials deny or downplay Moscow’s repression and mass murder of Ukrainians, whether in eviscerating the independent Cossack tradition, perpetrating the holodomor genocide in the 1930s to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry, or exterminating Ukraine’s armed resistance to the imposition of Soviet rule in the 1940s and 1950s.
By denying Ukraine a distinct and independent historical narrative, the Muscovite elite seeks to wipe out the very idea of a separate Ukrainian nation. In this logic, if Ukraine has no distinct identity then it cannot possess a truly independent state and it cannot freely choose its government or determine its international alliances.
Official Russian history is not only the propaganda of the word. It is also the propaganda of the deed, to mobilize the masses in the service of the state. With state organs monopolizing information and education, they also control the past and convince the public that Russia is restoring its superpower status. This allows the Kremlin to pinpoint internal scapegoats and external enemies and divert attention from its own failures. The Crimean annexation was a perfect example of how the public can be hoodwinked even while the regime is incapable of delivering economic development.
A new generation of Russians is now subject to intense imperialist and nationalist propaganda that intertwines seemingly contradictory historical figures. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, and Stalin are all depicted as Russian heroes, regardless of ideology or policy because each contributed to building a Greater Russia. Putinism blends every tradition and historical epoch that can reinforce the narrative of invincible state power.
The disinformation offensive is expanding Russia’s historical revisionism toward neighbors. The Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe is depicted as a progressive era of Russian benevolence rather than a dark period of retardation through the imposition of a failed ideology and an obsolete economic system. The aim is to whitewash Soviet crimes and weaken the national independence of neighbors.
One central component of historical fabrication is the official narrative about the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany (1941-1945). Kremlin war myths are designed to generate pride in Russia’s achievements. They stress the country’s sacrifices and victories against the Third Reich but ignore inconvenient facts, such as Moscow’s active collaboration with Hitler in launching World War Two and the mass murders and ethnic expulsions in territories occupied by the Red Army throughout Europe’s east. A focus on the “Great Patriotic War” also invokes a continuing conflict with the West, which is avowedly threatening Russia’s survival. History becomes an ideology that reinforces the siege mentality.
Russia’s “Ministries of Truth” have many more tools at their disposal than during Soviet times, including cable news networks, the social media, and an array of duped or corrupted Westerners. We can expect more distortions of both the past and the present, as Moscow seek to undermine the West while creating the illusion that Russia remains a great power. The Kremlin ultimately aspires to realize George Orwell’s insight about dictatorships, in that ”Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
ANOTHER BLOW FOR THE EU
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
The result of parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic on 20-21 October could prove a double blow to the EU project. The new government is likely to be a populist coalition that will retard the democratic process and become more vulnerable to Russia’s influences designed to further divide the EU.
The ruling pro-EU Czech Social Democratic party has been in persistent conflict with an openly pro-Russian President, Miloš Zeman, and the populist ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) movement led by a wealthy Czech oligarch, Andrej Babiš. ANO is openly Euroskeptic, resists further European integration, and opposes various EU policies, including the economic sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.
During the past year, support for the Social Democrats has shrunk to under 15 percent despite the relatively respectable performance of the Czech economy. The ANO movement outperformed them in several key regional elections in October 2016, with its focus on national identity and anti-immigration. In recent opinion polls, it registered a double-digit lead over the Social Democrats and looks on track to lead any new coalition government.
ANO has no clear ideology but plays on populist themes to gain power. Similarly to the ruling parties in both Hungary and Poland, it is less concerned about democratic checks and balances and more focused on restoring national sovereignty that is allegedly under threat from Brussels. This can steer the country toward a more centralized and statist capitalist system that favors loyal oligarchs.
The rule of law in the Czech Republic is already failing to meet EU standards because of high-level political interference in the judicial process that often targets political opponents. This is likely to worsen under an ANO-led government.
Opponents charge that Babiš and Zeman will continue to exploit xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments and resist the EU’s migrant quota directive, in which member states are expected to accept a share of Muslim immigrants. This is similar to the stance of other Central European leaders who claim that Brussels should not impose mandatory quotas that will destabilize their societies.
An ANO victory will also assist the Vladimir Putin regime in driving a wedge through Central Europe to disable a common front against Russia’s expansionism. The Kremlin already views Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico as pliable leaders who can be enticed to distance themselves from the EU and NATO. The Czech Republic is now the main target, where the current President is demonstrates his pro-Kremlin bias and his close advisers reportedly maintain financial connections with Moscow.
The focus will now be on the incoming Prime Minister. Links between Moscow and amenable Central European politicians are based primarily on lucrative business contracts and donations to political campaigns, together with compromising personal material that can provide extra political leverage. After winning office in March 2013, President Zeman pledged to promote closer political and economic ties with Moscow. He has connections with General Vladimir Yakunin, former Chairman of Russian Railroads, a Putin confidant, and ex-KGB officer blacklisted by Washington for involvement in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Zeman openly favors Babiš to become the next Czech Prime Minister. Such an outcome could further estrange the country from both the EU and NATO. Babiš was dismissed from the Finance Ministry in May following allegations of tax dodging and fraudulently using EU subsidies. Czech police are pushing for Babiš’s prosecution, with some reports linking him to opaque Russian business interests. Babiš also uses his substantial media holdings to attack political opponents.
In addition to weakening the European project, an ANO-led coalition may jeopardize regional security. Until now, Czech intelligence services have been vigilant in uncovering Russian subversion. Under a Moscow-friendly government their work could be curtailed and undermine EU intelligence sharing.
The current Czech government also monitors and alerts the public to false news spread by websites supported by Moscow. The Kremlin is reportedly behind at least forty Czech-language websites peddling conspiracy theories. The goal of such operations is to sow doubts among citizens about the value of democracy and create negative images of the EU, the US, and NATO.
In addition to canvassing for the lifting of EU sanctions against Moscow, the next Czech government is likely to facilitate new energy deals with Russia that would undercut the region’s energy diversity and competition. For instance, an ANO government is likely to select Russia’s Rosatom to build a new reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia lie at the epicenter of Russia’s campaign to subvert EU and NATO states from within. Putin’s policy planners calculate that governments can be influenced to serve Kremlin designs, transforming Central Europe into a neutral zone. The election of populist politicians with ties to the Kremlin will present new threats for the EU, which is already grappling with challenges to democracy and the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
CATALONIA IS NOT KOSOVA
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
Following Catalonia’s referendum on independence, some politicians have equated Catalonia with Kosova. Such comparisons are not only politically misleading they also stir instability in both the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas. Kosova gained independence under NATO and EU supervision following a campaign of mass murder by the Slobodan Milosevic regime against Kosova’s population, after which reunification with Serbia was no longer a viable option. Catalonia is testing the framework of Spanish democracy and the right to regional self-determination that could ultimately result in separation from Spain.
Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has claimed that the EU was hypocritical in recognizing Kosova’s independence while dismissing Catalonia’s aspirations for statehood. Dacic has conveniently forgotten recent history. Kosovar separatism was a reaction to state repression, which entailed the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy and the attempted genocide and expulsion of the majority Albanian populationin Belgrade in 1999.
Belgrade lost its legitimacy to govern a population that its government sought to systematically expel or murder, thereby precipitating NATO’s intervention. Countries that lose wars invariably lose the lands that that they conquered or brutalized. Belgrade consistently demonstrated that it primarily sought the territory of Kosova and not its majority population. For instance, over a million Albanian voters were excluded from voting lists for Serbia’s constitutional referendum in October 2006 and from all national elections, demonstrating that they did not belong in Serbia. Kosova declared its independence in February 2008.
Since the unilateral revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in the early 1990s, Belgrade has consistently demonstrated that it principally seeks to hold the territory of Kosova and not its majority Albanian population. Hence, over a million Albanian voters were disenfranchised and excluded from voting lists for Serbia’s constitutional referendum in October 2006 and from Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Kosova declared its independence in February 2008
Some EU governments voiced fears that Kosova’s independence would destabilize a number of multi-ethnic European countries. In reality, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia, and the emergence of two-dozen new countries during the 1990s did not precipitate the breakup of West European democracies. Unlike in Kosova, Catalans and other nations did not face mass murder at the hands of the central state and no international security force needed to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
The regional sovereignty movements in the EU operate within a democratic framework. Several pro-autonomy parties have won increasing local control for their territories in a number of countries. Although the majority of the public may support membership in a larger state, sentiments for statehood have accelerated in Catalonia and will be boosted by the heavy handedness of the central government. If outright secession is to be avoided, the region’s autonomy must be preserved and negotiations resulting in constitutional changes will be essential.
The notion that Catalonia looks toward Kosova as an example and precedent for separation is not serious. The Catalan movement has a long tradition fortified over the past decade by Spain’s economic crisis and the belief that the region would be wealthier as an independent state within an EU framework. Whether or not the regional government declares independence, Madrid’s reaction is crucial to prevent radicalization and violence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should beware of relying on coercion to control Catalonia, otherwise the region may witness civil unrest and potential armed insurgency.
Kosova’s independence did not trigger Catalan or other separatist movements; this was accomplished by prolonged political and economic disquiet in Spain combined with a revival of regional identities, the promise of economic improvement, and the prospect of peaceful separation. Indeed, Catalan leaders asserted three years ago that it was Scotland’s independence referendum in September 2014, even though unsuccessful, that had invigorated the Catalan movement.
In Catalonia we are not witnessing the rise of ethno-nationalism, as the Spanish government contends, but an awakening of a regional movement for self-determination. Such a process is not necessarily conflictive but can forge political units better adapted to the 21st century rather than larger and more cumbersome states. An effective antidote to EU-skepticism may indeed be greater sub-state autonomy and even administrative independence where regions can find flexible solutions to local problems.
Although Kosova does not serve as a model for Spain, there is one specific link between Madrid, Prishtina, and Belgrade. Spain is one of five EU countries (together with Cyprus, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia) that have not recognized Kosova’s independence, and the Serbian government has praised Spain’s stance. However, that relationship may now begin to fray. Belgrade’s comparison of Kosova and Catalonia could be interpreted in Madrid and Barcelona as underscoring equivalence between Milosevic’s brutal “ethnic cleansing” of Kosova in the 1990s and Prime Minister Roja’s police crackdown against voters in the Catalan referendum and the potential suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy.
Moscow has also played its part in exploiting the Catalan-Spanish dispute. Every European election and referendum provides an opportunity for the Kremlin-funded media and its cohorts of disinformation to encourage EU discord and division. No country should consider itself immune from such attacks. In the Spanish case, Moscow has promoted the country’s fracture despite the fact that Madrid has been soft on Putin by calling for the easing of sanctions on Moscow for its ongoing attack on Ukraine. Maybe it is time for the Spanish authorities not only to engage in a fruitful dialogue with Catalan leaders but also to explain the difference between Catalonia and Kosova and to adopt a more assertive and effective policy toward Russia.
TRUMP’S SYMBOLIC POLITICS
Janusz Bugajski, October 2017
Political symbolism and heated verbiage is often more important than policy substance to large parts of any electorate. Donald Trump won the US presidency by skillfully and brazenly manipulating public fears and resentments. He continues to do so in office the more that he comes under criticism from numerous political directions.
Trump continually creates news stories by sparking controversy and conflict. This is a deliberate ploy designed to achieve several objectives. It distracts focus and deflects blame from White House failures to push through any major legislation, such as health care reform, infrastructure rebuilding, or tax reform. It also overloads news cycles to such a degree that most of Trump’s failings disappear under the headlines.
However, the most significant and consistent objective is to defend Trump’s performance as President and to place responsibility for any shortcomings on his political opponents. And the most effective part of this strategy is to create or exploit divisions in society by underscoring themes that have emotional impact on voters.
There are numerous examples of this classic divide and rule policy that not only energize Trump’s support base but also engage wide sectors of society in largely symbolic disputes from which the President benefits.
In recent months, Trump has stirred conservative sentiments and the Republican base by issuing directives against the recruitment of transgender people in the US military, despite the opposition of his generals. He tweets about any terrorist incident in Europe to claim that he is correct in seeking a travel ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. And he jumps on any crimes committed by Mexican immigrants to claim that a border wall will solve the problem.
Trump’s most recent controversy has been over US national symbols at sporting events, in which he has not only raised the question of patriotism but also stirred latent racial animus. In a speech to his supporters in Alabama, Trump attacked black players in the National Football League (NFL) for kneeling during the national anthem and criticized basketball celebrity Steph Curry for his hesitation in attending an awards ceremony at the White House.
In recent months, several black footballers have knelt during the national anthem to express their opposition to racial discrimination and police brutality. Trump blew this mild protest out of all proportion by calling such athletes “sons of bitches” and appealed on NFL club owners to sack them. The vast majority of players in the NFL are black while almost all club owners are white.
Despite the fact that Trump himself evaded military service during the Vietnam war on spurious health grounds, he is now attacking athletes for their lack of patriotism, even though some of them or their families actually served in the military. He also called them privileged because they earn millions of dollars, ignoring the fact that while Trump inherited a fortune from his father and family business, most of the black athletes grew up in poverty and worked hard to achieve their goals.
But above all, Trump is neglecting the constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression to every citizen, including symbolic acts. Paradoxically, it is Trump and his supporters who have hit out against “political correctness” allegedly imposed by Democrats and liberals. Clearly, they now want to impose their own version of “political correctness.”
Trump’s tirade against black athletes sparked sympathy actions across the NFL in support of the protestors. But they also precipitated a storm of attacks against them in the mainstream and social media. Opinion polls indicate that the public remains evenly divided on the anthem protests.
Trump added fuel to the flames by claiming that the protestors demonstrated “total disrespect of our heritage and everything that we stand for.” References to heritage and culture are often code words for racial differences, in which blacks are depicted by racists as inferior aliens. This appeals to many of Trump’s core supporters and invigorates white supremacists and xenophobes. The President’s attacks in effect revived deep-rooted stereotypes and sentiments that black athletes should be grateful for their jobs and status, remain quiet, and not stir any trouble.
Trump’s focus on the national anthem reinforced his previous manipulation of historical symbolism. During the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, in which white supremacists clashed with anti-fascists and ultra-leftists, Trump defended monuments to the Confederacy. He presented Confederate generals as part of the American heritage even though they were slave-holding rebels responsible for sparking the Civil War in the 1860s.
Trump’s attacks have energized a populist crusade in which nationalist, supremacists, ultra-conservatives, and economic protectionists are thriving. They are now seeking to elect their representatives in mid-term congressional elections in November 2018. Their anti-establishment campaign is directed not only against Democrats but also against Republicans, even if that endangers the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. They believe that this will help Trump achieve his agenda in which division and symbolism will play an immense role.
THE US-NORTH KOREA WAR
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
As the dispute between the United States and North Korea heats up, the main question is whether war is now avoidable. There are two contrary views of President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on dictator Kim Jong Un: either they will precipitate an all-out war or they will convince Pyongyang to desist from its nuclear weapons program.
In recent months, Pyongyang has tested its first two intercontinental ballistic missiles, conducted an underground hydrogen bomb test, and fired mid-range missiles over northern Japan. US experts calculate that North Korea is only a year away from building a nuclear warhead capable of surviving the intense heat of an intercontinental ballistic missile and reaching the US mainland. Unlike Israel, India, and Pakistan, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not solely intended to deter regional rivals, but to achieve the capacity to strike its archrival, the US.
Pyongyang has tested missiles and developed a nuclear program for many years, but experts calculated that any threat to the continental US was decades away. Officials of several US administrations and neighboring China failed to convince Pyongyang to dismantle or freeze its weapons program, but felt they had plenty of time. With North Korea moving closer to success, the danger has dramatically increased and the onus is on Trump to finally deal with an imminent threat.
The intensive financial and economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN on Pyongyang is unlikely to achieve early results, especially as North Korea has mastered sanctions busting. After conducting six nuclear tests, Pyongyang’s next step could be to demonstrate that it can deliver a nuclear warhead on a long-range ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).
The escalating conflict now has only two potential outcomes: bilateral talks and a nuclear freeze or full-scale war. The current round of threats between Kim and Trump while rocket testing continues cannot continue indefinitely.
In the more optimistic solution, intense pressure from Washington leads to a stand down by Kim in testing nuclear devices and offensive rocketry. Trump agrees to negotiations that would give some concessions to Pyongyang and remove the immediate danger to the US. In such a scenario, both sides can claim a measure of victory.
The North Korean regime would seek several advantages for itself in any nuclear freeze. This would include a peace deal on the Korean peninsula that would legitimize the Kim dynasty; a commitment by the US not to seek regime change if Pyongyang ceases to threaten the US; and international funds for economic development.
Washington could then claim a modicum of victory in halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program. However, the US will not remove its 38,000 troops from South Korea and abandon its ally; it is also unlikely to scale down its military presence in Japan. Pyongyang remains committed to reunifying the two Koreas on its own terms and continues to threaten its southern neighbor with its massive conventional military forces. In addition, no one can be certain how durable the nuclear freeze would last, as the Kim regime is not trustworthy.
In the most pessimistic scenario, we could be on the verge of full-scale war, whether through miscalculation or design. Kim may fire at US military aircraft patrolling near Korea. Or its rocket may accidentally hit US territory or an ally such as Japan with or without a nuclear warhead. This could immediately provoke a US military response.
The Pentagon has been planning several potential military options against North Korea. These include pinpoint air strikes against rocket assembly and launching facilities, although most of these are underground or in mountain caves. It may also entail sending special forces to blow up military facilities or key members of the regime.
However, there is no ideal or easy military option, as an American attack could trigger a massive North Korean bombardment of Seoul, which is only 35 miles from the border. Pyongyang has massed artillery and tanks along the frontier and its firepower could annihilate tens of thousands of civilians before American and South Korean forces could strike back effectively.
Kim calculates that the prospect of mass civilian bloodshed will restrain Washington, although they are less certain about Trump than any previous President. In his recent UN speech, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the North if the US was forced to defend itself or any of its allies.
The next step in the escalating conflict could witness Pyongyang testing a hydrogen bomb with an atmospheric nuclear detonation. One possibility would be to fire its Hwasong-14 over Japan and into the Pacific. The purpose would be to show that Kim could also target American territory – whether Guam, Hawaii, or Alaska. Given that much of US missile defense systems are still in the early stages of testing, it is far from certain that North Korea’s ICBM could be intercepted.
The risks of such a nuclear test are immeasurable. If the missile detonates prematurely over Japan the result would almost guarantee a US nuclear strike on North Korea. Trump would have little choice, as he could not be seen as backing down from an act of aggression.
CARVING UP EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
Moscow’s strategy toward Europe is reminiscent of carving a hunted game. It exploits and exacerbates the vulnerabilities of targeted state and widens any lingering disputes between them. At least four portions of the continent are targeted by the Kremlin: Anglo-Saxon, West European, Central European, and Orthodox Balkan, with the remainder of Europe’s east to be directly devoured by Russia.
A primary focus of subversion dating back to Soviet times is to drive a permanent wedge between the continental European states and the “Anglo-Saxon” countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The former are viewed in Moscow as more malleable, corruptible, and exploitable, while the latter are more likely to challenge Russia’s revisionism.
After a brief interlude following the election of Donald Trump, the Kremlin has refocused its sights on promoting trans-Atlantic rifts. Its propaganda depicts the US as a hegemon that limits the sovereignty of all European states and pushes them into conflicts along Russia’s borders, including Ukraine. In this schema, the UK is depicted as an American puppet that has now been untethered from the continent following its Brexit decision.
The second carving strategy is to expand fissures between West Europeans and Central Europeans and to foster various bilateral disputes. Former Soviet satellites, particularly Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are depicted as nationalistic and incurably Russophobic, thus preventing rapprochement between Brussels and Moscow and blocking business opportunities in Russia for West European companies.
In addition, EU-skepticism is encouraged in all targeted countries, based on nationalism, populism, and conservatism. Kremlin propaganda outlets castigate the degenerate nature of European liberalism, the lack of national sovereignty, recurring financial crises in the Eurozone, failed multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration, and an inability to combat jihadist terrorism. In contrast, Russia is depicted as a Christian bastion against Muslim extremism. All these themes help Moscow to influence a “fifth column” of movements and parties inside the EU that include radicals of diverse political persuasions.
A third Kremlin carving maneuver encourages a neutral bloc to emerge across Central Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia lie at the epicenter of Russia’s campaign to subvert NATO states from within, with Poland increasingly in Russia’s crosshairs. Having failed to keep these countries outside the Alliance, Putin’s officials calculate that politicians and governments can be bought or blackmailed to serve Kremlin designs, transforming Central Europe into a zone increasingly alienated from Washington.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico are depicted as sympathetic leaders who can be enticed to distance themselves from NATO. Ministers in several countries, including Poland, are also probed for their susceptibility to Russian financial overtures. Following the October 21 elections, Andrej Babiš, a Moscow-friendly businessmen and leader of the ANO party, could become the next Czech Prime Minister and draw the country closer into a Kremlin orbit. Moscow also endeavors to pull Slovenia and Croatia away from Western institutions through energy contracts and opaque investments, thus completing a long wedge of influence between Ukraine and the Adriatic that could disable NATO operations in the event of war.
Moscow also favors links between the Central European wedge and traditionally neutral Austria. It views the “Slavkov Triangle” association between the Czech Republic, Austria, and Slovakia as a useful tool to undermine the Visegrad Group and help lift sanctions against Moscow. This strategy also contributes to isolating Poland from other Central European states. Bilateral disputes are also exploited throughout the region to undermine state integrity, including the position of the Polish minority in Lithuania, whose leader reportedly maintains close relations with officials in Moscow and has campaigned for territorial autonomy.
A fourth carving opportunity for the Kremlin is in the Balkans where the goal is to create an Orthodox bloc and shield the region from American influence. Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria are earmarked as the core of this portion of Europe. Greek governments have a long tradition of pro-Moscow sentiments. Bulgaria is perpetually prone to Russian influence through numerous political and economic entanglements. And Serbia values Russia as a counterpoint to EU and US pressure in rejecting the independence of Kosova. Moscow miscalculated by failing to overthrow Montenegro’s government and reinforced the latter’s determination to join NATO. Nonetheless, it continues to target both Macedonia and Montenegro through its broad arsenal of subversion.
Moscow is now fixated on keeping Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosova outside of NATO so it can deepen its political, economic, and informational inroads. The Central European and Balkan wedges will also contribute to isolating Romania, which, much like Poland and the three Baltic countries, is resolutely anti-Kremlin and pro-Washington.
The last portion of the European carcass are the former republics of the Soviet Union that Moscow either intends to absorb into its economic and security structures or to transform into permanently neutral satrapies. These include Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. With Europe preoccupied with its internal divisions and its unsettled relations with the United States, the Kremlin calculates that it can achieve most of its objectives without resorting to any significant military actions.
AMERICA’S POLITICAL HURRICANE
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
While natural hurricanes have devastated coastal Texas and Florida, Washington is experiencing its own unrelenting political hurricane and its name is Donald Trump. While the President swirled through a summer of controversy, the autumn promises to be even more ferocious and potentially destructive.
During Trump’s seven months in office the White House has been in constant turmoil, as evident in the sacking of the national security, the chief of staff, two communications directors, and several others senior advisers to the President. The chaos was brought under partial control by General John Kelly, brought in from the Homeland Security department as the new chief of staff. However, more firings and resignations are now predicted and it is unclear how long Kelly himself will stay in office.
In many respects, Trump tries to run the US administration as the patriarch in a family business. He has little experience of management or politics. When he encounters resistance his instinct is to attack or fire opponents, When he faces scandal he deliberately generates conflict to distract attention and minimize the consequences.
Trump has executed a number of presidential decisions that have angered and alienated wide sectors of the population, including Latino immigrants, American Muslims, and anti-racists of all colors. His attempted travel ban from some Muslim countries has been challenged by the courts and berated by human rights organizations. Trump is widely perceived as a divisive figure who preys upon ignorance, prejudice, and fear.
The President also remains enraged by the inability of a Republican-controlled Congress to pass any significant legislation, which Trump promised to voters during the election campaign. In particular, the failure of a new health care program has demonstrated that even a Republican White House cannot guarantee overturning Democratic policies.
Disputes between Trump and the Republicans have raged throughout the summer. Republican leaders complain that the President has been insufficiently engaged in canvassing for legislation within a party deeply divided between traditional conservatives, neo-conservatives, populists, and moderates.
In addition, Republicans and Democrats have been completely polarized in Congress, and it seems that without some Democrat support for legislation the Republican majority will remain paralyzed by internal disputes. In an unprecedented move, in recent days Trump reached out to Democrat leaders in support of a three month extension of the debt ceiling and he may be prepared to work with them on other legislation.
Republican leaders are outraged by Trump’s Democrat move and have finally realized that the President has no ideology and no specific policies. He is primarily interested in scoring legislative victories that reflect positively on himself. He is now eager to raise his public ratings, which have dropped to under 35% support during the summer.
An even more ominous agenda is fast approaching Congress, with Trump expecting the rapid passage of key legislation. He is likely to become frustrated and will hit out at different congressmen. The passage of tax reform will remain contentious between Republican factions, particularly between pro-business conservatives who favor lower corporate taxes and populist nationalists seeking tax cuts for the working class.
The passage of a new budget will prove extremely conflictive not only due to ideological divergences but also because each congressperson will try satisfy his constituency with particular spending proposals. The passage of a Trump-supported infrastructure bill will be extremely expensive at a time when the cost of disaster relief in Texas and Florida will skyrocket. And Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall with Mexico is unlikely to come to fruition, as the majority of Congress opposes it.
On top of this heavy weather swirling over the capital another huge political storm will envelop Washington in the coming months. FBI special counsel and several congressional committees are investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin in affecting the 2016 presidential elections.
Each day has brought new leaks and revelations about potentially illegal contacts between Trump campaign representatives and Russian officials. Among the charges are suspicions that Russian intelligence services provided Trump’s people with Emails stolen from Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
In return, Trump associates may have enabled Russia’s disinformation campaign in targeting specific social groups in the three most contested states in the mid-West. In addition, Trump himself is being examined for potentially obstructing justice by trying to quash various investigations into the election campaign as well as his unclear business connections with Russian oligarchs.
In the latest twist, Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel investigating Trump, is zeroing in on key presidential aides for imminent interviews. They were all witnesses to critical events during the elections and the first few months of the presidency. The most important developments included Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey for his Russia investigations and the muted White House response to revelations that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Trump also played a role in drafting a misleading statement in response to revelations that his son Donald Trump Jr. held a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russians during the election campaign. This is now viewed as potential obstruction of justice. With each passing day the storm becomes more ferocious in DC.
Janusz Bugajski, September 2017
The Balkans are back from vacation and facing a testing autumn. The last few months have witnessed contradictory developments in the region driven by domestic political ambitions and by various outside influences. In the best-case scenario, conflicts will be avoided and progress made toward long-term regional security and NATO and EU accession. In the worst-case possibility, new rounds of conflict and instability can expand because the most persistent regional disputes have not been resolved.
International efforts to reform and integrate the region made significant strides in recent months. Montenegro joined the NATO Alliance in June and received a visit from US Vice President Mike Pence who commended the country’s development. At the Adriatic Charter Summit, Pence also encouraged further NATO enlargement in the Western Balkans.
On the intra-European front, six national leaders convened in July with their EU counterparts at a summit in Trieste, Italy in order to promote regional and EU integration. This continuation of the “Berlin Process” launched in 2014 indicates that Brussels and Berlin understand the importance of interconnecting the entire Balkan peninsula.
More immediately, the Summit focused on economic reconstruction, although falling short of an-often requested “Marshall Plan” for the region. In an initiative led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU pledged 1.4 billion euros to finance twenty infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects over the next three years. Among the proposals is the construction of a west-east railway from Albania to Bulgaria, linking the Adriatic with the Black Sea. This would not only facilitate travel and commerce but also provide NATO with a major logistical connection across the region.
Attendees at the Trieste summit signed a Transport Community Treaty, which outlines the need for a transport network within the Western Balkans as well as between the region and the EU. They also launched a “Regional Economic Area” to enhance the flow of labor, trade, and business investment. The Balkan leaders signed a “Multi-Annual Action Plan” for the concept, and established a monitoring mechanism through the Regional Cooperation Council and the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).
The summer also brought some positive domestic news. Despite the threat of an opposition boycott, Albania held a legitimate national election and promptly installed a new government committed to EU membership. Macedonia finally established its own new administration led by the Social Democrats and prepared to resolve Skopje’s disputes with Greece and Bulgaria and reinvigorate the country’s bid for NATO and EU accession.
However, whenever we hear good news in the region, some bad news invariably follows closely behind. Aside from the fact that many countries continue to be riddled with official corruption, poor governance, unreformed judiciaries, and insufficient attractiveness for investors, several states also struggle with seemingly endless political disputes.
In Kosova, almost three months after national elections, a government has still not been formed and agreements with Serbia that would enable both states to move forward toward the EU remain blocked. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, decision-making is persistently obstructed by special interests that seek to disable the consolidation of a single functional state. In a glaring example, Republika Srpska leaders blocked Sarajevo from signing the EU’s Transport Community Treaty in Trieste.
In another potentially negative move, leaders of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria met in Thessaloniki a day after the Trieste Summit in the pursuit of policies that could damage regional stability. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic requested that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras uphold the non-recognition of Kosova, while Tsipras underscored that Macedonia will not be allowed to enter NATO and the EU without altering its name for Athens’ approval.
Belgrade has also been embroiled in a diplomatic standoff with Macedonia, as the new administration in Skopje seemingly has evidence that Serbian embassy staff colluded with Russian intelligence operatives against the formation of a new government. Moscow methodically exploits opportunities in the region to foster state paralysis and inter-state conflict.
In Thessaloniki, Serbia and Greece also discussed a transportation route between Belgrade and the Greek port of Piraeus and basically ignored the EU proposal for stronger west-east regional connections. The Thessaloniki meeting was undoubtedly welcomed by Moscow in its pursuit of an “Orthodox bloc” across the region that would obstruct further NATO and EU enlargement, undermine US policy, and serve as a gateway for Russian political and business interests including its oil and gas pipeline networks.
As autumn approaches, the struggle between the European and Russian projects for the Balkan region will intensify. This makes it imperative that Washington takes a more prominent role by following up on VP Pence’s important recent visit. Although the US does not have a voice in EU decisions, it remains the main promoter of security. This role can be enhanced by unblocking Macedonia’s and Bosnia’s progress toward NATO and combating Russian subversion in all its guises. Just as Poland, Romania, and the three Baltic states form NATO’s eastern front, the Balkan countries are now part of NATO’s internal front.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Contrary to the assertions of American populists, the US and Russia are not part of one “Christian civilization” with common cultural values and congruent national interests. They are incompatible global powers whose relations will remain adversarial and conflictive as long as Russia remains an autocratic empire seeking to dominate its neighbors and undermine America’s alliances.
Every US administration has assumed office with the high hope that Russia can be a partner in resolving regional crises, but that hope soon confronts reality. Instead of performing this pointless diplomatic ritual that invariably ends in disappointment, the White House needs to focus on three key principles that lie at the root of the America-Russia rivalry: contrasting identities, incompatible systems, and antithetical interests.
American identity is a multi-ethnic form of citizenship, in which civic identity transcends all others, whether ethnic, religious, national, or class. It is successful in integrating all nationalities because it is not constructed around a single ethnic category.
In stark contrast, Russian identity is grounded in the predominance of the Russian ethnos, constructed through Tsarist and Soviet imperial conquests, and maintained through colonization, russification, and the subjugation of neighbors. This process breeds resentment among diverse ethnicities, particularly during times of economic distress and political repression. The revival of distinct non-Russian identities ultimately undermines the stability of the state.
While the Communists failed to create a durable non-ethnic Soviet identity, Putin’s regime is also unable to establish a non-ethnic civic identity because this is widely viewed as camouflage for assimilation into the dominant Russian ethnos. The lesson for Washington is that a country that coercively constructs a national identity is not only autocratic but also inherently unstable and a danger to its neighbors, including US allies and partners.
In the political domain, American and Russian systems and the ideologies and policies that sustain them are also incompatible. The US is a genuine federation with significant autonomy and self-determination among all fifty states. In addition, central government power is separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, in which each state and its electorate have a voice.
Russia is federal in name only. In practice, it is a centralized state in which local governors of the 85 federal units are appointed and supervised by the Kremlin, including the two occupied territories of Crimea and Sevastopol. In this increasingly obsolete empire dozens of nationalities and regions resent being tethered to Moscow. Given America’s support for the independence of all states that emerged from the Soviet Union, the potential fracture of Russia itself will present serious new challenges for Washington.
The key reason that Russia remains an adversary for the US is its antithetical interests on global and regional levels. While both states have their “spheres of influence” the distinctions are pronounced. American administrations honor the right of each country to choose its alliances, while Russia’s officials seek to impose security arrangements on each neighbor. Countries enter the US sphere or the NATO alliance voluntarily because it helps to protect their security. States enter the Russian sphere as a result of inducement, threat, pressure, or political corruption from Moscow.
Concurrently, while the US promotes cordial relations between its own allies and Russia, Moscow foments division and conflict. Washington supports closer bilateral relations between Poland or other Central European countries and Russia because it believes this generates regional stability and lessens the need for delivering US security guarantees. The Kremlin does not support closer relations between Ukraine or other post-Soviet republics and the US or NATO, calculating that this deprives Moscow of its political leverage and privileged interests and could be the harbinger of a political and military alliance.
Russia also promotes regional conflicts for the US or seeks to capitalize on disputes between Washington and third parties, as this can weaken American influence in Moscow’s neighborhood. For instance, the Kremlin works against any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, as this would marginalize Russia’s position in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. It does not seek a permanent resolution of the North Korean dispute, as this would further sideline Russia’s role. It prefers to see the US bogged down indefinitely in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as this serves to distract Washington’s attention from Russia’s aggressive moves along its borders.
US policy toward Russia should not be based on a form of “realism” that resembles neutrality, in which American interests and those of our allies are sacrificed to appease Moscow. It needs to be firmly rooted in reality, in which Russia’s actions that impact negatively on America’s foreign and domestic interests are challenged and neutralized.
If an ally or partner is attacked by Moscow then it is in America’s interest to uphold its defense commitments. If US alliances are subverted by Moscow, then it is Washington’s duty to resist and strengthen those alliances to protect trans-Atlantic security. And if America’s democracy is assaulted by Moscow, then it is the obligation of the White House to implement policies that would diminish the impact of any future offensives.
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
President Donald Trump’s controversial remarks on the clashes between racists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia has opened the floodgates to radicalism. By equating the proponents of racism with those seeking to combat it, Trump may have acted to preserve his base of support among poorly educated whites. However, his statements have alienated the majority of political leaders and outraged a large segment of the population.
Trump’s speech, in which he claimed that there were “good people” among the angry white supremacists and neo-Nazi demonstrators spouting anti-Semitic slogans, was comprehensively criticized even by senior members of the Republican Party. The subsequent sacking of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon from the White House seemed intended to appease his critics by removing the more extreme nationalist-populist elements from the President’s team. But the impact of Bannon’s ouster could further isolate the President.
An embittered Bannon has pledged to use the ultra-right media, of which he is one of the founders, to attack traditional Republicans within the administration who contributed to removing him. This could further split Republican loyalists, disillusion a growing number of Trump supporters, and create fresh problems for the White House. The ultra-right will also continue to play the race card to foster divisions in American society and to preoccupy the Democrats with constantly condemning Trump.
Trump continues to be a polarizing and divisive figure after an election in which he attacked immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims as the core of America’s problems. By providing an aura of legitimacy to racists and xenophobes he polarized the political environment and was endorsed by White supremacists. These vocal radical groups view Trump as the best political hope for generating either a race war or a system of racial separation and apartheid.
Trump’s rhetoric regularly adds fuel to the flames. After the killing of a peaceful protestor by a racist driving his car into the crowd in Charlottesville, Trump proved unwilling to call the act “White supremacist terrorism.” In stark contrast, he has regularly blasted “radical Islamic terrorism” whenever a Muslim is involved in the murder of civilians.
The clashes in Charlottesville could motivate a growing number of people to engage in radical politics and take to the streets. White supremacists have pledged to organize further rallies around the country, and their opponents have promised to stage mass counter-protests. An increasing number of both ultra-rightists and ultra-leftists may become more brazen because for the first time in modern history they either view the President as their chief benefactor or their primary enemy.
Racist groups benefit from a proliferation of hate propaganda on the Internet. Persistent news coverage and media focus on Trump’s words simply exacerbates the problem. There has been an exponential growth of rallies and hate crimes, including vandalism at synagogues and Black churches. And recruitment to various radical rightist groups has soared, including the self-defined New Right, which claims not to be racist but is staunchly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic, and propounds various outlandish conspiracy theories.
Although a majority of anti-racist protestors have been peaceful, each rally also attracts an assortment of militants collectively known as “antifa,” short for “anti-fascists.” The more visible the racists become, the more it activates the antifa movement which in addition to hard-right targets also challenges ordinary Trump supporters at various demonstrations. Militant antifas also try to block the appearance of ultra-right ideologues during speaking engagements at college campuses and other venues.
The number of youths attracted to the antifa movements is difficult to gauge. It does not possess clear leadership or a top-down structure but consists of a collection of autonomous local cells. However, it is increasingly attracting a broad assortment of causes, including environmentalism, Black rights, and indigenous rights, as well as a mixed bag of socialists, communists, nihilists, and anarchists.
Although the US has a strong and long tradition of non-violent protest movements, including the civil rights and anti-war rallies in the 1960s, there has always been a more violent element who believe that free speech does not include hate speech and that racists and fascists pose a serious threat to American democracy. They seek to directly confront their opponents on the streets, arguing that the police are too tolerant. In some cases they are also willing to battle with the police.
The more peaceful elements of antifa have allied themselves with local clergy and grass-roots social-justice activists. However, many militants have been involved in anti-capitalist and anti-globalist rallies and are renowned for rioting and destroying property near targeted buildings such as the IMF headquarters in Washington.
The peaceful segment of the ant-fascist groups argue that militant attacks are harmful to the movement and actually assist the racists in claiming that the left is violent and anti-democratic. This resonates among many ordinary citizens who abhor violence, and once the two sides are seen as equivalent then in effect the racists appear victorious.
In the best-case scenario, future mass protests against racism and neo-Nazism will remain peaceful, as during the recent rally in Boston. This could convince Trump to condemn bigotry without any qualifications. But if violence and hate crimes spread, Trump’s ambiguity will simply add to the turbulence and unrest.
MOSCOW’S UNCERTAIN ALLIES
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
September will witness the largest military exercise in Europe since the close of the Cold War. Russia’s Zapad drills will involve at least 100,000 troops in the country’s Western Military District and in Belarus, along NATO’s eastern border. However, the exercises will also demonstrate that Russia has few genuine allies.
Unlike NATO, the handful of states that enter Moscow-led organizations are either intimidated or enticed to participate. Washington needs to take a closer look at these fragile alliances to see where it can develop ties with countries that seek closer Western links and diminish Russia’s onslaught on their sovereignty.
Moscow projects its regional power through two main organizations – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The EEU includes five states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) and is depicted as an alternative to the EU. Its real purpose is to prevent neighbors from qualifying for the EU while intensifying Russia’s economic dominance.
The CSTO consists of six members (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and is portrayed by the Kremlin as an equivalent to NATO. Its actual goals are to increase Russia’s military presence and prevent members from moving closer to NATO. Even current CSTO members are weary of collective defense arrangement that would permit Moscow to station troops on their soil.
After witnessing Russia’s “brotherly assistance” to Ukraine and Georgia, three European countries – Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan — are now on the front line defending their sovereignty. In the economic realm, they are steadily reorienting toward China and other markets as Russia’s economy deteriorates. The US and EU have an opportunity to expand trade and investment links with all three states and wean them away from dependence on Moscow.
On the diplomatic arena, Russia’s allies have refused to recognize the occupied Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. They also adopted an ambiguous stance towards Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, torn between appeasing Moscow and legitimizing a precedent that threatens their own integrity.
In the security arena, Moscow uses the carrot of economic assistance and the stick of regime change to keep Belarus in line. The Zapad exercises entangle Belarus in the Kremlin deception that NATO is a threat to both countries. Minsk stresses that it does not want to choose between Russia and the West, but to demonstrate real balance it needs to be included in future NATO exercises.
The Alliance hosts several drills in the Baltic and Central European regions throughout the year and Belarus should be welcomed to participate once all necessary agreements are signed. This would help build mutual confidence and undercut the narrative that NATO is a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty.
Belarus needs to extricate itself from Russia’s politically-motivated economic assistance. The Trump administration should unblock the remaining economic sanctions and finally dispatch an ambassador to Minsk, as the current status quo only helps Putin. Washington can consolidate regional security by enabling Belarus to develop closer ties with its NATO neighbors – Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
In the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in an even more exposed position than Belarus. Armenia has no diplomatic relations with its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, while Azerbaijan is squeezed between Russia and Iran and needs Georgia to maintain access to Europe. However, both countries participated in the NATO-backed Noble Partner-2017 multinational drills in July, together with eleven allies and partners. This inaugurated the first substantial NATO initiative including Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani troops.
The South Caucasus states seek to intensify cooperation with NATO and emerge from their insecure isolation. Armenia hosts a Russian base and is pressured to incorporate its armed forces into Moscow’s military structures. Azerbaijan is threatened by the prospect that Russia will emplace its “peace-keepers” on Azeri territories currently occupied by Armenia. The Kremlin deliberately sustains the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to keep both governments dependent on Russia’s diplomatic decisions and military involvement. Russian troops stationed in Armenia are a security threat for all South Caucasus countries.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have asserted their sovereignty by expanding links with NATO, even though neither country, unlike Georgia, has petitioned for membership. Both states have participated in NATO-led operations, including in Afghanistan. Yerevan has obtained a new NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) for 2017-2019 that will enhance its interoperability with the Alliance, while Azerbaijan fulfills its bi-annual IPAPS with NATO. These connections can be bolstered to benefit all sides.
While diplomatic and military interactions with Russia perpetuate the state of conflict between Baku and Yerevan, closer links with the West and participation in NATO exercises will reduce tensions between them. Military cooperation can contribute to a political resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and initiate the process of returning Azerbaijan’s occupied territories while enhancing Armenia’s connectivity with Europe and the US. In stark contrast to Russia’s threatening military posture in the South Caucasus, NATO’s multi-national involvement can actually strengthen regional security.
AMERICA’S ENERGY WEAPON
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Decades of American dependence on foreign energy have ended and the US is now an emerging leader in the global gas market. While Moscow manipulates its energy supplies to exert political pressure on European states, Washington can now deploy its energy resources to reverse Russia’s expansionism while boosting America’s economy.
US gas exports in 2016 were more than three times higher than ten years ago. Growth in shale gas production is increasingly linked with the export of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Although the US currently supplies a small percentage of Europe’s gas needs, five new LNG export facilities will be constructed by 2021 and others are planned as Europe’s demands for gas continues to climb.
With increasing volumes of US gas, Russia’s Gazprom is entering a global price war that will further diminish its revenues. Several European countries want to terminate the Russian stranglehold over the gas market by tapping into alternative LNG sources. In particular, the front-line NATO states would prefer to become more reliant on US gas to broaden their energy diversity, even if it means paying a higher price. In his recent visit to Poland, President Trump claimed that the US will guarantee the region’s access to alternative energy sources so that a single supplier can no longer hold it hostage.
Washington seeks to undercut Europe’s energy links with Russia, despite protests from some West European energy companies. A key focus of tension is over the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Gazprom seeks to expand the existing pipeline that delivers Russian gas along the Baltic Sea to Germany. The European Commission has been unable to find a legal means of stopping Nord Stream 2 and the project has been viewed differently among European states. Large consumers of Russian gas, including Austria, France, and German, support it, while Poland, the Baltic and Nordic states view it as a threat to regional security.
The countries that disagree with Nord Stream have been growing in number, bolstered by new opportunities for gas supplies, especially from the US. Lithuanian and Polish LNG terminals have started receiving American gas. Global LNG exports will increase by over 20% in the coming years, thus heating up competition between the US and Russia over European and other markets. Russia is a late starter in LNG and its gas lines are becoming less significant geopolitical tools. In addition, diversification, efficiency, and renewables, will provide European countries with more attractive energy partners than Russia.
Washington holds another important card – the specter of new sanctions against Russian companies. On August 2nd Trump signed the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” Among other provisions, the law allows for expanding US sanctions on Russia’s energy sector by empowering the President to sanction any foreign company or person that invests in the construction of Russian energy export pipelines. The law also prohibits persons and companies with an interest of 33 percent or higher in these projects from providing any “goods, services or technology in support of exploration or production” of deep-water fields.
Russian officials will seek to exploit EU concerns about the new legislation by arguing that the US is seeking a monopoly on gas supplies to Europe. Some EU spokesmen have warned of possible retaliation if European energy companies in business with Russia, including the construction of Nord Stream, are stifled by US sanctions. But they are overreacting, as the legislation instructs the US President to take measures in coordination with allies. The White House and Congress understand full well that joint sanctions are more effective and do not want to allow Moscow to drive wedges between the allies.
In addition to undermining Nord Stream, the sanctions bill will constrain the construction of the Gazprom-controlled Turkish Stream project and Moscow’s plans to export gas to Europe via the Azerbaijani-led Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). The threat of new US sanctions could compel TAP’s stakeholders to disqualify Russian gas. Gazprom’s penetration of TAP and the wider Southern Gas Corridor would neutralize the basic purpose of the project to diversify European imports away from Russian gas. The building of pipelines for Russian gas supplies would do more to damage European security than any steps the US takes.
The EU should not act hypocritically over the latest American sanctions. The Union itself is imposing new sanctions on Russian companies and individuals who delivered German Siemens turbines to Crimea despite assurances from Moscow. The EU has barred companies from doing business in Crimea after Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula, while France and Germany are considering further sanctions following Russian cyber attacks on their elections.
Above all, any EU reactions against US sanctions will prove difficult, as this requires consensus among EU members, some of which vehemently oppose Russia’s energy projects. Paradoxically, through its new energy policy and sanctions against the Kremlin the Trump administration will better defend Europe than several West European governments and energy conglomerates which seek short-term profits while ignoring the long-term costs to Europe’s security.
PENCE ON THE FRONT LINE
Janusz Bugajski, August 2017
Vice President Mike Pence’s geopolitical tour in Europe’s east transmitted important messages to America’s NATO allies, partners, and rivals. Pence visited key countries in three regions where US competition with Putin’s Russia is mounting – Estonia in the Baltic region, Georgia in the Caucasus, and Montenegro in the Balkans.
For NATO members such as Estonia and Montenegro and for America’s strategic partners such as Georgia, Pence’s message was one of commitment and solidarity. Meanwhile, for a revisionist Russia the message was one of resistance and determination. Each visit needs to be followed up with practical joint initiatives to strengthen regional security and enhance the role of NATO as a security provider..
In meeting with the three Baltic Presidents – Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia, and Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania – Pence asserted that “no threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.” In response to Moscow’s persistent threats against the Baltic countries, Pence underscored that “a strong and united NATO is more important now than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.”
Washington remains committed to stationing NATO battalions on Baltic territories under the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) initiative and providing them with defensive weapons to deter a Russian assault. In early July, the US deployed a Patriot air defense system for the first time in Lithuania as part of a multi-national NATO exercise, Tobruq Legacy 2017. Each Baltic country is seeking anti-aircraft missiles to deter a Russian military incursion, while Poland has already announced its decision to purchase the Patriot system.
Pence’s visit preceded Russia’s Zapad 2017 military drills scheduled for 14-20 September, which NATO officials expect could bring up to 100,000 troops to the Baltic borders with Russia and Belarus. Lithuania in particular has expressed fears that the exercises could simulate a cross-border intervention by Russian forces. Because they are more vulnerable to attack than other NATO members, the Balts seek assistance in both deterrence and defense from their NATO allies. They are also making significant contributions to Allied security given their experiences with Russian cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that the US is now experiencing.
In Georgia, Pence met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, condemned Russia’s occupation of a fifth of Georgian territory, and signaled strong US support for Georgia’s desire to join NATO. The Caucasus was downgraded as a focus of interest during the Obama administration, creating perceptions that Washington was surrendering ground to Moscow. With Putin placing increasing pressure on all three South Caucasus states to curtail their Western aspirations, Pence’s visit signaled that the US aims to connect them to Europe through energy, transport, trade, and eventual integration.
Pence also visited with US and Georgian troops participating in the Noble Partner 2017 exercises, the largest joint drills between the US and Georgia, combining 1,600 US and 800 Georgian soldiers, with the participation of several other NATO members as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia. Washington has also deployed M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley infantry vehicles for the exercises, which will continue until 12 August. Georgian officials view the exercises and Pence’s visit as clear support for Georgia’s NATO ambitions. Georgia already contributes to the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational contingent of land, air, navy, and special operations units that can deploy quickly when needed.
In Podgorica, Montenegro, Pence met with President Filip Vujanović and Prime Minister Duško Marković. He also participated in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. Pence’s visit to Montenegro was intended to demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO’s newest member and deliver a strong message to Moscow not to interfere in Montenegro’s internal affairs, following the recent coup attempt concocted by Russian intelligence services. The high-level US visit will enhance Montenegro’s regional role as an American ally and an example of a successful transition that other states can emulate if they seek NATO accession.
In the longer-term, close and consistent US involvement in the Baltic, Caucasus, and Balkan regions can help resolve outstanding territorial or ethnic conflicts that Moscow has perpetuated in order to keep each region divided and conflicted. As in the Donbas separatist conflict in Ukraine, Washington can be more engaged in ending the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and seek ways to engage Georgia with its separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the Balkans, a greater push is needed to resolve disputes between Serbs and Albanians, and Macedonians and Greeks, and to help transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a functioning state that can move toward EU entry.
Just as the Kremlin grievously miscalculated by interfering in the US presidential elections and now faces even stiffer financial and diplomatic sanctions, its intervention in countries such as Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine will simply push each country closer to NATO. Following Pence’s trip all eyes will now be on the Trump administration to develop initiatives for consolidating the security of America’s most exposed allies and partners and neutralizing Putin’s strategy of subversion.
MOSCOW’S TRUMP MISCALCULATIONS
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Moscow’s involvement in the American presidential elections has misfired and could lead to a much more assertive US policy toward Russia. As congressional probes and law enforcement investigators increasingly expose Kremlin goals and methods, it becomes less likely that the Donald Trump administration will make any major concessions to Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s original plan was to undermine Hillary Clinton’s race for the White House and foster disputes over the election process. When candidate Trump surprisingly won the ballot in November, Moscow believed that the ties it had cultivated with the Republican campaign and Trump’s family business could bring significant benefits.
However, as investigations continue to unfold over Russia’s election interference, it is becoming clear that Putin seriously miscalculated about the resilience of American democracy and the system of checks and balances that prevent dependence on one person in the White House.
The Soviet-era KGB would probably be outraged by the incompetence of Putin’s successor organizations that devised a strategy of collaboration with Trump’s election campaign that is now being exposed. This was evident in the now infamous meeting in June 2016 in New York between Trump campaign managers and Russian intermediaries. It was arranged on the understanding that Moscow possessed negative material about Clinton that they wanted to share with Trump’s representatives.
The normal rule of such “fishing” expeditions designed to entrap a potential collaborator is not to dispatch individuals who can be easily traced back to the source. Instead, it has transpired that the Russian lawyer who met Donald Trump Junior after his father won the Republican nomination for President had represented Russia’s intelligence services for several years. In addition, another person at the secret meeting in New York was a US national of Russian descent involved in money laundering schemes with Putin’s oligarchs.
The apparent amateurishness of the “ensnare Trump” operation was matched by the gullibility of Trump’s campaign leaders. They did not inform the FBI that they had been approached by representatives of an adversarial foreign power. They assumed that the meeting itself could be kept secret indefinitely. And they reportedly continued to maintain contacts with Russian officials despite the political damage that could result.
Whatever the precise deals made between the Kremlin and Trump Tower the entire affair is now rebounding against Moscow. Russia is broadly perceived as trying to undermine America’s democratic system and seeking to install a surrogate in the White House. Because of such perceptions combined with congressional pressure, media exposure, and high levels of public disapproval, Trump cannot be seen as surrendering ground to Russia. In fact, he may need to be tougher than his predecessor Obama.
Contrary to Putin’s calculations after Trump assumed office, not only will existing financial sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not be lifted, but Congress is pressing for even tougher measures. The Republican-led Congress has approved a bill to expand sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs while curtailing Trump’s ability to relax any punishment for the invasion of Ukraine, the subversion of US elections, and Moscow’s global disinformation campaigns.
New sanctions will be targeted at entities involved in cyber-attacks as well as elements of Moscow’s military intelligence, defense, financial, shipping, railways, metallurgy, and energy sectors. Trump is unlikely to veto such legislation because his objections could be overruled by Congress.
Beyond the maintenance and expansion of sanctions, Trump’s national security decisions have not served Moscow’s interests. Indeed, the President’s national security team consists of fervent Atlanticists who favor a more robust NATO presence along Russia’s borders and are committed to strengthening America’s military. Trump himself has boasted that his plans for increasing the military budget are not viewed favorably in the Kremlin.
Russia could also suffer significantly in the struggle over energy supplies to Europe. The Trump administration is involved in a diplomatic offensive against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic region, lobbying to curtail a project that is designed to increase Moscow’s political leverage in Europe. The new congressional legislation would grant Trump the power to impose sanctions on any company participating in the development or operation of energy export pipelines from Russia to Europe.
At the same time, Washington is boosting efforts to deliver shale gas through LNG terminals across Europe. Greater diversity and competition will not only reduce prices, but it can also undercut Russia’s position in Europe’s gas markets. This will result in further revenue shortfalls in the Russian budget and glaringly expose the economic failures of the Putin regime.
Kremlin officials were hoping that a Trump presidency would give a green light to expanding Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe and make it easier to subvert and pressure various European states to fall in line. Instead, they are witnessing the resilience of the American system to foreign manipulation. And things could get even worse for Putin if it transpires that there was outright collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia’s intelligence services. The backlash in Washington against Russia could then reach an even higher level of intensity.
AMERICA IS A SOFT TARGET
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential elections, demonstrates that America has become a soft target for subversion. Russia’s intelligence services have probed American politics for many years, seeking to gain influence or to obtain intelligence on personalities, politics, and policy. However, under the Vladimir Putin regime the Kremlin has become more ambitious in its intentions and more capable in its operations.
As evidence now accumulates and FBI and congressional investigations gather steam, it transpires that Russian state services have focused on at least five entry points to impact the US election process: hacking, hoaxing, corrupting, compromising, and penetrating.
The first Russian tool is the hacking strategy. It consists of intercepting, altering, forging, and releasing personal communications, including Emails, to discredit targeted American politicians. In the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were the primary targets of Email hacks by Russia-connected specialists. Selections of stolen documents were provided to Wikileaks for general release at politically opportune occasions during the election campaign. Wikileaks acts as a surrogate for Russia’s intelligence services and is evidently funded by Moscow.
The second weapon of Russia’s influence is the hoaxing strategy and entails planting and disseminating false stories about election candidates through both the traditional and social media. The fabricated accounts can be positive or negative, but the purpose is to spread rumors and innuendo that may stick in a voter’s mind even if the stories are subsequently debunked as false. Hoaxers operate on the premise that the bigger the lie the more likely that people will believe it and repeat it.
The third tool of Moscow’s intervention is the corruption strategy. It involves enticing, bribing, and recruiting political activists, lobbyists, journalists, academics, and opinion leaders to take part in Moscow’s conspiracies in order to subvert America’s democratic system.
The current investigations in Washington revolve around the charge that Russia’s intelligence operatives recruited prominent members of Donald’s Trump election campaign team to serve Moscow’s interests. In return for obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton or caches of stolen EMails, Trump’s entourage may have made pledges to reverse painful US economic sanctions on Russian officials if they won the elections
The fourth Russian mechanism is the compromising strategy. It focuses on gathering scandalous and salacious material on targeted political leaders that can be used to blackmail the individual and thereby affect US policy, particularly after an election. Undoubtedly, potentially compromising material, whether financial or personal, was not only gathered on Hillary Clinton but also on Donald Trump. The Kremlin can hold this kompromat material in reserve in case it needs to generate scandals against an incumbent President and undermine White House policies. There have been numerous such cases in Central and Eastern Europe over the past decade, as Moscow sought to discredit politicians who opposed its policies.
The fifth method is Russia’s penetration strategy, which was largely uncovered after the US presidential elections. It consisted of hackers recruited by the Kremlin gaining access to election rolls and voting systems in over twenty states. The purpose seemed to be to alter voter information and thereby affect elections at local and state levels. Investigators have yet to determine what impact this may have had on the vote count and some believe the information gained could be used in subsequent elections.
Moscow’s five methods for influencing the outcome of elections relies on favorable political and social conditions in contemporary America. Political polarization between the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, deepened considerably during the Obama administration. This continues to be evident in Congress where there are few if any bi-partisan efforts to pass legislation. The rifts are so profound that foreign actors have space to infiltrate if they provide a politician with useful assistance against a domestic opponent.
Congressional and party rifts are reflected in a deeply divided electorate, which is susceptible to conspiracy theories and negative propaganda against the opposing party. Informational gullibility allows Russia’s intelligence services to penetrate. They also feed into the political ambitions of some politicians and open the terrain to financial corruption geared toward destroying opponents and winning elections.
Such a competitive and polarized domestic environment also fosters naivete among many decision-makers about Moscow’s strategic aims. The idea that the Cold War is over and that Russia can be a partner pervaded the Obama administration and lulled much of the political establishment to sleep until the extent of the Trump-Russia scandal began to unfold. During the past decade, America has become a vulnerable society with a false sense of security regarding Moscow.
Russia’s penetration and manipulation will likely continue through forthcoming election cycles – congressional in 2018 and presidential in 2020. Although the FBI and other branches of the US government may be able to detect and defend against major cyber attacks it will be much more difficult to protect against propaganda, disinformation, and the ambitions of some politicians willing to collaborate with foreign powers simply to defeat their domestic political opponents.
TRUMP BETWEEN WARSAW AND MOSCOW
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
The contrast between President Do
Both the US and Polish administrations stood to benefit from Trump’s visit to Poland before the President headed to
Warsaw also serves as a valuable example of increasing energy independence from Russia. Poland is boosting its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US and seeks to multiply the presence of American business.
Trump’s stopover in Warsaw also pinpointed Poland as a dependable ally that does not shirk from its military responsibilities. Poland is one of five NATO countries that currently spend
For the government in Warsaw, Trump’s visit was important for two reasons. First, it highlighted Poland as a key ally and reinforced its diplomatic and military defenses against Russia. Second, it provided much needed international legitimacy to the Law and Justice Party government, which has been under criticism from its EU partners for increasing party controls over state institutions and the official media.
Trump’s national security team must also be calculating that the President’s learning curve about NATO and Russia was reinforced by his Polish visit. President Andrzej Duda and other interlocutors heightened Trump’s awareness that the most dangerous security threats along NATO’s eastern flank stemmed from Kremlin policy, particularly in Ukraine and toward the Baltic states.
In contrast to the Warsaw sessions, the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg was hyped as a unique event for both Presidents. They discussed a range of questions – from Syria and Ukraine to cyberspace, terrorism, and Russia’s election meddling. But despite all the fanfare, pleasantries, and verbal commitments, in practice the fundamental strategic differences between the US and Putin’s Russia cannot be resolved by any US President even if some temporary agreements are made. Moscow’s overarching goal in the wider Europe is to reverse US influence and raise Russia’s stature.
Each incoming US President seems to minimize or overlook Kremlin objectives and engages in a courtship ritual with Russian officials. A high-level engagement is arranged with overblown expectations, the new US President dismisses his predecessor’s failure to reach accommodation with Moscow, and makes a bold declaration to cooperate against some global menace. In their counter-ritual, Russia’s high officials pose as reliable partners and trumpet Russia’s indispensability in resolving pressing global problems.
Inevitably, after a short affair, it transpires that the vows made between the two capitals were not symmetrical. In retrospect, there are few if any gains for America, but the dalliance has provided Moscow with breathing room to engage in new international offensives and offered strategic advantages vis-a-vis the US. This was the case in 2009 when the Obama administration cancelled plans for installing a missile defense system in Central Europe in an effort to placate the Kremlin. Several US allies perceived the move as an act of betrayal displaying naiveté toward the Putin regime.
Any US-Russia flirtation also enables Moscow to gather intelligence on US capabilities and intentions while lulling Washington into a false sense of security as the Kremlin prepares for its next act of international assertiveness. Even though Trump signaled in Hamburg his interest in a new relationship with Russia, his advisors should urge him to remain skeptical and be prepared for disappointments, so that America is not extorted and duped once again.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that Washington was seeking a commitment from Moscow that it will not interfere in American and other elections in the future, a claim that Putin has fervently denied despite all evidence to the contrary. The Secretary described this as a potentially intractable disagreement. Fortunately for Trump, his national security team appears to be well versed in Moscow’s tactics and understands Putin’s objectives to make Russia great again at America’s expense.
ANXIOUS AMERICA ON INDEPENDENCE DAY
Janusz Bugajski, July 2017
Independence Day on July 4th is always a time of celebration and national pride in the United States. But this year darkening clouds are gathering over the festivities as the country braces for a period of domestic turmoil that could also have serious international repercussions.
Questions over the Donald Trump presidency continue to multiply. The President is being closely scrutinized not only for his persistent policy failures but also for his character and fitness for office. In recent weeks, he has intensified his twitter attacks on the media and constantly dismisses any criticism of his presidency as “fake news.”
At the core of Trump’s anger and frustration are two factors. First, is the underlying fear that his presidency may be widely perceived as illegitimate if evidence emerges that his election campaign staff collaborated with the Kremlin to defeat Hilary Clinton. And second, Trump believed that he could run the country as he operates his businesses – through top-down instructions and absolute employee loyalty. But democracies are not family businesses.
Trump’s inability to adjust to his new position has created various disconnects between the presidency and several branches of government. In fact, the first disunion is within his own administration – between Trump’s closest White House advisors and several cabinet members. Trump retained key figures from his campaign who helped him capture the populist vote, including the ultra-rightist Stephen Bannon. However, their isolationist and protectionist advice to Trump starkly contradicts the positions of the Secretaries of Defense and State as well as the National Security Advisor.
The disconnection between the White House and Congress is not simply with the Democrat minority in the House and Senate, but between Trump and the Republicans. While many Republicans supported Trump because they thought he would enable them to push through their legislative agenda, the President’s falling popularity, inattention to policy details, and confrontational tactics have deepened fissures within the majority party.
Trump and Congress have set themselves a monumental agenda for the rest of the year, including passing a new health care plan, raising the debt limit, approving a budget, implementing tax reform, and launching an infrastructure initiative. But little of this is likely to come to fruition especially given Trump’s numerous distractions and congressional disputes.
As he lurches from one controversy to another, Trump’s public approval ratings continue to fall. Opinion polls indicate that nearly 60% of voters disapprove of his performance in office. His lack of effective leadership in implementing his campaign promises have also stunned and divided the Republicans in Congress. This has been most evident over the health care debate where despite their majority position Republicans are unable to agree on replacing the “Obamacare” program.
Lack of progress on health care, which has an enormous impact on the national economy, will make it much more difficult to implement other legislation. This will affect passage of a new comprehensive tax bill, which was premised on cutting government health care costs and enabling income tax cuts.
The White House has also created new conflicts with dozens of state governments by calling on them to release private information contained on voter lists. Despite any evidence, Trump seems determined to uncover pro-Democrat voter fraud. Meanwhile, other Trump campaign promises, such as building a huge wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and starting a nationwide infrastructure project to rebuild roads, bridges, tunnels, and airports, have simply not materialized.
Another major disconnection is between the White House and US intelligence agencies. Trump continues to undermine FBI and other investigations of his alleged campaign contacts with Russia. The net effect is to alienate the leadership and personnel of various agencies, which itself fuels distrust of the President’s intentions and competence.
A similar situation is evident between the White House and the legal system, as Trump has voiced anger at the federal courts for blocking his travel ban against seven Muslim-majority states. The courts have to honor the constitution in their rulings and refuse to bow to political pressure from the executive. Trump continues to receive a painful lesson about the separation of powers between the three branches of government.
The President’s domestic frustrations can also translate into international problems. His preoccupation with how he is portrayed in the domestic media and his constant attacks on critics distracts Trump from several brewing international crises, whether in the Middle East or over North Korea. A number of government agencies, including the State Department, are also complaining that six months into the new administration they still lack essential staff in high positions to implement policy.
Trump’s growing domestic problems are compounded by his short attention span and hypersensitivity. Concerns are growing that America’s adversaries will seek to exploit and manipulate such presidential weaknesses. Officials and analysts will be closely watching the upcoming encounter between Trump and Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg for signs of any US retreat. They fear that Putin is a master at extracting advantages from opponents either through flattery or promises that Trump may naively take at face value.
PROBLEMS WITH “LIBERALISM”
Janusz Bugajski, June 2017
The terms “liberal democracy” and “illiberal democracy” have become commonplace in our political vocabulary. But instead of enlightening and enhancing our understanding of contemporary politics, the phrase has served to assist the adversaries of democracy who disguise themselves as democrats.
There are two negative consequences of trying to ideologically qualify democratic systems with “liberal” or other labels. First, it muddies the concept of liberalism and conflates it with specific ideologies or policies – whether laissez faire European liberalism or leftist-welfarist American liberalism. And second, it allows various non-democratic forces to claim that they are also democrats who are simply qualifying their own version of democracy.
In its original 19th century incarnation, liberalism was virtually synonymous with democracy and stood in stark opposition to all forms of tyranny. In the emerging liberal systems, the will of the people was represented through competing parties in regular elections within a constitutional and legal framework. But the times have changed since the flowering of Western democracies and liberalism has assumed various new connotations.
In the US in particular, the term liberalism carries a heavy baggage and is associated with the leftist wing of the Democratic Party. It is linked with pronounced government intervention in the economy, a distributive economy, a broad welfare system, and support for individual sexual freedom. In Europe, liberalism has become closely associated with globalization, monetarism, and the loss of national sovereignty to international institutions.
As a result of these definitional developments, anti-liberals have become proud of the term “illiberal democracy” or even “anti-liberal democracy.” Indeed, the more they are attacked as “illiberal” the more emboldened they become. Some non-liberals prefer greater specificity and define themselves as “conservative democrats” or “patriotic democrats” in stark juxtaposition to “liberal democrats.”
Although most conservatives and patriots are democrats and respect constitutions and the rule of law, some populist politicians seeking to restrict political and ideological competition adorn the mask of what seems like a democratic alternative. In a current example, EU institutions have charged the Hungarian and Polish governments with various restrictive measures such as interfering in the justice system and obstructing the mass media. But instead of underscoring that undermining the system of checks and balances is undemocratic, too many analysts assert that it is “illiberal.”
Leftist “political correctness” has also contributed to strengthening the anti-democratic populists. Radical populists encourage public outrage against what is depicted as the curtailment of free expression in which the leftist or liberal establishment limits the public vocabulary. The Trump campaign played with such perceptions to gain support among conservatives and working class voters throughout the presidential elections. However, condemnations of “political correctness” also enable racists and xenophobes to claim that their prejudices should not be publicly outlawed by anti-democratic liberalism.
An additional source of confusion and conflict, especially in the US, is the “progressive” label that the leftist sector of the Democrat Party has adopted. Not only is such a self-definition arrogant and dismissive of other political positions – presumably in juxtaposition to everyone else who is “regressive” – it is also tainted in its use by communists throughout the Cold War. The “progressive” label serves to divide society and substantially helps the radical rightist populists who couch themselves as traditionalists and conservatives.
Any qualification of the term “democracy” also allows outright autocrats to pose as democrats. The most pertinent example is Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy,” a term developed soon after Putin assumed power in 2000 to camouflage his reversal of democratic development. Moscow has a long tradition of appropriating and perverting Western concepts. One of the most notorious examples was the notion of a “people’s democracy” – a term applied to the satellite states of the Soviet bloc. The system of rule in these states was neither democratic nor determined by the people but by a “progressive” communist elite installed by the Kremlin.
The current threat to European democracy comes from the populist radicals. Unfortunately, Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and other officials naively assist them by claiming that the EU should enhance its role as the guardian of the “liberal world order” because the US is adopting a “skeptical” view of that role. They inadvertently expose themselves to charges of imposing a particular world-view and policy prescriptions on the nations of Europe rather than defending the fundamentals of democracy.
Putin has regularly jumped into the liberal and globalist narrative by either attacking Washington for its avowed attempts to create a “unipolar world” or berating Brussels for imposing an unpopular liberalism. Moscow’s message is that “liberal democracies” are only one variant of democracy and that Russia will defend the alternatives against American or European globalization. Hence, a restricted political opposition, a compliant parliament, a controlled media, and police repression against protestors are presented as Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”
At a time of ideological confusion and terminological simplification, any definitional qualifications of democracy must be treated with skepticism and suspicion. Above all, genuine democrats must avoid being pulled into a semantic quagmire where almost any system can pose as a democracy and gain validity despite its disdain of basic democratic principles.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE EU
Janusz Bugajski, June 2017
A campaign is under way to prevent the next important step for Europe’s development – the incorporation of the entire Balkan peninsula in the European Union. While Moscow is attempting to sink the EU integration project, Belgrade has proposed a regional free trade area and a West Balkan customs union that could be exploited by opponents of EU enlargement and delay or disqualify the membership of states seeking entry.
Twenty years ago, as the post-communist Central European countries pushed for EU accession, some voices in Western capitals were promoting a regional free trade bloc and even a separate political alliance that would in effect keep the new democracies at arms length. Governments in these states calculated that regional economic integration can foster economic growth, but it can also prove an obstacle to EU entry. As a result, the Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians studiously avoided being trapped in any substitute arrangements. Even the Visegrad alliance was seen as a stepping-stone to EU entry and not as a regional structure.
In this context, proposals by President Aleksandar Vucic for a Balkan free trade bloc have raised suspicions in several capitals that Serbia seeks to regain its regional hegemony by economically integrating the countries that once formed Yugoslavia, together with Albania. Indeed, Vucic admitted that the integrated free trade zone was a political project and not simply an economic one. Countries tied to neighbors through a common legal economic space tend to become dependent on each other’s progress in meeting EU standards and the slowest may hold back the fastest.
The creation of another common market in the region is unnecessary because most countries have been part of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) since 2007. CEFTA was created in 1992 to help members prepare for EU membership and not to serve as a substitute. Every country that joined the EU subsequently exited CEFTA and was not involved in any alternative regional customs unions.
Any long-term economic structure in South East Europe does not benefit the EU aspirants; however, it assists Moscow in its drive to fracture and dismantle the West. Vucic’s proposal for an integrated economic area would enlarge Russia’s footprints in the region and increase its political penetration. Serbia has a free trade agreement with Russia and the creation of a new regional agreement would damage CEFTA and tie each West Balkan state into a closer Russian orbit through Serbia.
Russia’s government supports any economic or political substitute for the EU that will weaken the European project and enable the growth of its strategic influence. In fact, Moscow views the EU as a more pernicious long-term threat to its ambitions than NATO. Its standards of legality, transparency, and competition challenge Russia’s opaque and corrupt business model, while its political and human rights stipulations undermine Russia’s autocratic model of governance.
The Kremlin finds it easier to manipulate weak states and authoritarian leaders outside the EU than dealing with democracies inside the Union that hold regular elections and frequently change governments. Brexit, populism, nationalism, and other divisive problems within the EU are also welcomed in Moscow because they can fracture the Union and enable advantageous bilateral deals with Russia.
Kremlin propaganda outlets continually lambast the EU for its secularism and liberalism, for its allegedly failing multiculturalism, and its uncontrolled immigration. Through its information war Moscow can stimulate and influence a “fifth column” of parties opposed to the EU project. In particular, it exploits an assortment of nationalist, ultra-conservative, and xenophobic groups to reinforce its message of Western decadence and Russia’s alleged defense of traditional values.
In this context, the Balkan peninsula is viewed in the Kremlin as Europe’s weakest link where competition with the EU can be increased, conflicts manipulated, potential new allies found, and economic opportunities exploited to Moscow’s advantage. To compensate for its military and economic weakness vis-à-vis the West, Moscow deploys a wide assortment of political, financial, and informational tools to achieve its strategic objectives.
In seeking to disqualify the West Balkan and other states from EU entry, Moscow promotes local nationalisms, corrupts politicians and oligarchs to favor Russian business interests, and fosters energy dependence with national capitals. By sabotaging progress toward EU accession, President Vladimir Putin seeks to maintain a number of frozen or divided countries in the former Yugoslavia This also forestalls the implementation of the EU’s legal standards and makes easier the corruption of national leaders. Keeping the Western Balkans outside the EU and fanning local disputes undermines European unity and the credibility of the EU itself.
Even if it possesses constructive political and economic motives, Belgrade’s focus on a regional free trade zone and a Western Balkan Customs Union inadvertently plays into the hands of Moscow as well as Europe’s populists and nationalists. It gives extra ammunition to those who seek a substitute for EU accession by making more qualified countries such as Montenegro become dependent on weaker neighbors and thereby obstructs their progress into the European mainstream.
EUROPEAN UNION NEEDS TO EXPAND
Janusz Bugajski, June 2017
In the face of an existential crisis, the European Union needs to demonstrate its importance by reviving its core mission of including new qualified states as members. Instead of wasting time and resources on trying to develop a separate defense structure that would compete with NATO, the EU should stick to what it knows best by developing a common economic, legal, and social space that includes the entire Western Balkan region.
Moving the EU’s borders would indicate that the Union is overcoming its recent crisis with the Greek financial bailout, its shock over the Brexit decision, and its continent-wide struggles with nationalism and populism. A good point to start the new revived enlargement process is with Montenegro. Indeed, the principle of “the smaller the quicker” could easily apply to a national population equal in size to a mid-sized Western European city.
Since December 2010, Montenegro has been a candidate country for the EU and its accession process formally began in June 2012. Podgorica has opened 26 out of 35 chapters of the EU’s acquis communautaire and is making progress on several fronts. This formal process of legal and institutional harmonization can be substantially accelerated through a commitment by EU leaders to incorporate Montenegro by the end of this decade, or shortly thereafter. One could call it the EU’s 2020 vision.
There are six compelling arguments for Montenegro’s accelerated accession that would enhance local, regional, and international stability. First, it would help energize political and economic reforms in all states aspiring to EU entry and discourage the dangers of backtracking. Politicians would understand that membership can be secured if reforms are speeded up and the public will feel less anxious about their future economic prospects.
Second, Montenegro’s entry would undermine nationalist and populist alternatives to the EU project. Destructive domestic and international actors rely on uncertainty, fear, and anger to stir conflict and chaos in countries left outside the EU. A positive scenario for Montenegro would contribute to eroding social grievances and national disputes in the region, similarly to developments in Central Europe over a decade ago. It would help counter the negative messages of anti-globalist and Euroskeptic populists, as successful politicians espouse the benefits of international institutions.
Third, Montenegro’s EU entry would deter Russian aggression and other forms of international subversion. Russia’s uses its “soft power” tools to entrap local politicians with financial support, impregnate the local and social media with disinformation, stir inter-ethnic animosities, and threaten pro-Western governments or even plan coups, as was the case during Montenegro’s elections. The EU must demonstrate its resolve and not be intimidated by the Kremlin, which ultimately seeks to fracture the Union not to expand it.
Fourth, the incorporation of new states would revive the EU’s core mandate of a united and prosperous Europe. The fact that long-time aspirants are admitted would underscore that the EU is reinventing itself as an attractive and beneficial multi-national institution that can provide prosperity and security to each member. The inclusion of a small state like Montenegro would not be costly in terms of EU accession funds and other forms of structural assistance, but the benefits to economic development and international investment would prove significant.
Fifth, the commitment to enlargement would demonstrate the leadership of key states such as Germany and France regardless of Britain’s exit from the Union. The presidential elections in France have recommitted Paris to the EU and a similar process is likely in Germany later this year. Leaders with new popular mandates must not shirk from a historical challenge but take bold steps to build a united Europe.
And sixth, the Union’s revival would underscore that it is not only a partner for NATO and the US but also a problem solver and regional stabilizer in its own right. EU leaders should look at NATO’s rejuvenated mandate to expand as an example for its own resurgence. This would also raise the EU’s stature in Washington and help strengthen trans-Atlantic bonds.
It would be a tragic mistake for the EU to concentrate on constructing a military or security arm to try and prove its relevance. This would undermine NATO, estrange the US from defending Europe, and feed Moscow’s ambitions. It would also deeply split the Union itself between quasi-pacifist West European states and the Central-East European members who understand that they can only be properly defended from Russia’s aggression through US leadership in a strong NATO.
The 2003 Thessaloniki process that committed the EU to incorporate all Western Balkan states has lost its momentum and the region needs new impetus to make progress. Otherwise, citizens will become convinced that they are never destined to be members of the EU and politicians will calculate that self-enrichment and consolidation of power are more important goals than democratic and economic development. The time has come for the EU to demonstrate “2020 vision” about Europe’s future by pushing ahead with the inclusion of all of South East Europe.
COMPARING TRUMP AND NIXON
Janusz Bugajski, June 2017
President Donald Trump may follow Richard Nixon through impeachment and resignation, but the implications could much more serious for American democracy. Investigations of the current President are spreading, with each day bringing new revelations about potential abuses of power and, more ominously, secret links with Moscow during the election campaign.
The US Constitution provides set procedures for impeachment and removal from office on charges of “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” In such a rare process, the House of Representatives acts as the prosecutor and the Senate as judge and jury. Impeachment, however, is less of a legal process than a political decision by the majority of Congress. In effect, the executive branch would be charged with endangering national interests or the President with committing a serious crime. Congress has to define what constitutes an impeachable and removable offense, and no court can override its decision.
Moves toward impeachment pose a major democratic dilemma. Dislodging a sitting President without a general election can divide the nation and inflict grievous damage on the legitimacy of governing institutions. On the other hand, a failure by Congress to prevent the abuse of power can prove even more destructive to the rule of law and to national security.
In recent weeks, credible allegations have been made that Trump obstructed justice by pressuring FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn – a key figure in Trump’s election campaign who evidently had secret contacts with Russian intelligence services. When Comey refused to close the FBI investigation he was fired by Trump.
It is useful to consider both the similarities and the contrasts with the Nixon impeachment in the 1970s. Watergate refers to scandals that engulfed Nixon following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex. Five men, including the security director of Nixon’s 1972 re-election committee, were caught inside the DNC offices with bugging equipment and photographs.
By the time Nixon resigned in August 1974, the scandal had grown into a major abuse of office, including FBI wiretaps of government officials by Nixon’s people. The President was also trying to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in.
In a modern version of interfering with the political opposition, the Trump campaign is under investigation by the FBI and two congressional committees for possible involvement in the hacking of DNC and Hilary Clinton’s Emails by Russian operatives. The stolen material was subsequently transferred to WikiLeaks, widely believed to be a front organization for the Kremlin.
The investigation process accelerated following the appointment of a special Justice Department prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to examine Russia’s interference in the presidential elections and the alleged connections between various members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Unless the President is implicated in a major crime beforehand, there will be no steps toward impeachment before the Mueller probe is completed. Nixon dug his own grave by engaging in an extensive cover-up of the original crime, so that the articles of impeachment included the obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress. Nixon resigned before the articles came to a vote. Trump’s advisors appear to be covering up their contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign, including the possibility that they offered something to Moscow in exchange for Russian hacking of Democratic Party Emails.
Nixon fired several Justice Department officials who were demanding documents and tapes of Nixon’s conversations in the White House and who refused to fire the special prosecutor. This is a step that Trump has not yet taken, but the investigation is in its early stages, considering that over two years elapsed between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation. If Trump ousts special investigator Mueller then the process of impeachment could be speeded up.
Despite all these similarities, there is one major difference between the Nixon impeachment and the actions against Trump: congressional control. In 1973, Democrats had a majority in Congress, with a long history of conflict with Republican Nixon. In stark contrast, the current majority in both houses is Republican. This raises the burden of proof on charges of abuse of power because many Republicans will defend Trump as they seek to push through their legislative agenda with White House support.
Much depends on the effect Trump has on mid-term congressional elections to the House of Representatives scheduled in 2018. If his popularity continues to sink then either most Republicans will abandon him or they will lose their seats. A Democratic majority in the House is much more likely to push for the President’s impeachment.
There is one other major contrast with the Nixon scandal: its significance for national security. The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper considers the Russia affair facing Trump to be far worse than Watergate. Although the obstruction of justice charges may prove similar, it is the potential connection with Moscow that makes this case more profound. Nixon may have sought to undermine the elections but he did not benefit from the help of hostile outside powers – that would not only constitute an abuse of office but treason.
SECURING NATO’S EASTERN FLANK
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
Last week’s NATO summit indicated that the Alliance is committed not only to deter Russia’s assertiveness but also to build a more capable common defense. Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO has been reviving its core mission of defending members from outside aggression. As the illusion of a cooperative Kremlin has dissipated, the key questions revolve around how to contain Moscow’s ambitions and how to reinforce NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank.
The focus of attention at the Brussels Summit was on President Donald Trump’s short speech at NATO’s new HQ, in which he berated several allies for not contributing their share to the Alliance. Although one can question the timing of his remarks at a venue that was designed to display NATO unity, his criticisms have some validity. However, insufficient attention was paid to a key passage in Trump’s remarks, in which he stated that “the NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders.”
Two main factors can enable Trump to revive the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s future and his selection of a strong security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at those European governments who consistently fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. Trump claimed that the American taxpayer should not be primarily responsible for defending a wealthy Europe. Although the President may have ignored the fact that not all national defense spending is allocated for the Alliance, his core point that several West European countries have not been pulling their weight in their contributions to military missions is not in dispute.
White House commitments to strengthening NATO are evident in the selection of Trump’s security team. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is a staunch supporter of the Alliance and has stated that the bond between the US and NATO is a critical component in regional and global security. Mattis and the Pentagon understand that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and NATO needs to deal with Moscow from a position of strength. Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor General H. R. McMaster also harbor no illusions about Kremlin objectives to dismantle NATO and reduce American influence in Europe.
There is now an opportunity to modernize and strengthen NATO with the commitment of an increasing number of Allies. To accomplish this task, the Trump team would need to pursue several initiatives.
At the core of an effective NATO are sufficient resources to increase capabilities. The recently announced boost in the US defense budget is welcome among NATO’s front line states. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asserted that it was a sign of Washington’s support for Europe’s security. Trump’s fiscal blueprint includes $4.8 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a special fund created by Obama to protect the eastern flank against Russian aggression. The fund grew to $3.4 billion in 2016 from an initial $1 billion in 2015. Trump’s proposal adds another $1.4 billion and constitutes a 40 percent increase that will result in more military exercises, weapons acquisition, and infrastructure investment. It will also help ensure the presence of rotating US forces along the eastern flank.
NATO’s front line states were not distressed by Trump’s demands for more defensive spending, as they have either met the requirements or pledged to do so in subsequent budgets. They are seeking a long-term commitment to forward deterrence, which they want to develop into a more effective forward defense. This will necessitate more intense Alliance coordination and a mix of deterrents against Russia’s conventional threats as well as its unconventional subversion, including cyber attacks, disinformation, and support for political radicals.
At the conventional military level, the current forward deployments of NATO multi-national battalions are primarily tripwires to dissuade Russian intervention in the three Baltic states and Poland. They are intended to signal that any military move would trigger a full-scale NATO counterassault. The challenge for NATO is to create the capabilities, including troops, transport, and infrastructure, for quickly mobilizing reinforcements and larger follow-on forces, thereby demonstrating a determination to defend every ally. Such a posture is the key to an effective deterrence.
NATO must also improve national and common defense against non-military attacks, including cyber sabotage, incitement of ethnic conflict, disinformation offensives, political interference, and economic subversion. While each state needs to confront and disarm unwelcome foreign penetration, the Alliance itself must demonstrate that it is prepared for each level of conflict by developing offensive cyber capabilities and information war components, as well as special forces trained for specific operations on enemy territory.
The prospect of opening alternative fronts against an aggressive adversary would create unpredictable and potentially destabilizing problems for Russia if it intervened in a NATO state. Targeted spending and creative offensive options would then become key components of a stronger common defense of the eastern flank.
TRUMP’S RUSSIA SCANDALS INTENSIFY
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
Presidents Trump and Putin may meet for the first time at the Group of 20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7. However, in the weeks leading up to this event a great deal is likely to be revealed about any clandestine connections between the two leaders during last year’s US presidential elections.
Russia had high hopes with Trump after ties with Washington deteriorated under President Obama following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine. The visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the White House in early May to meet with Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was viewed in Moscow as the beginning of a potential thaw.
Russia is using the bait of fighting jihadist terrorism to entice Trump into a closer relationship. Trump himself naively declared during the election campaign that Russia could be an anti-terrorist partner, evidently unaware of the fact that in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran Moscow remains on the sides opposing the US.
The Kremlin has several objectives with Trump, above all lifting various sanctions imposed during the Obama administration. Last December, Washington denied Russian diplomats access to country estates that Moscow owns in New York and Maryland, while 32 Russian diplomats were expelled as a reprisal for Kremlin interference in the US elections. Russia did not retaliate, reportedly after Trump’s advisor Michael Flynn met with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and asked him to wait until Trump took office. Russia’s foreign ministry is becoming impatient and believes Trump should revoke these sanctions or it will retaliate against US diplomats.
Putin also wants Washington to lift the wider financial sanctions imposed for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Ultimately, it seeks Trump’s recognition of Russia’s exclusive sphere of dominance in the post-Soviet area, including Ukraine, Belarus, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
An authoritarian regime such as Russia’s cannot understand the workings of American democracy. It believed that Trump would impose his authority on Washington within a few months, having little conception about political accountability and the separation of powers in a democratic system.
Unfortunately for Moscow, any progress in restoring relations has been undermined by Trump himself and by the expanding investigations of his potential collusion with the Kremlin to undermine the US elections. At the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov on 10 May, Trump jeopardized a critical source of intelligence by disclosing top-secret information about plans by the Islamic State to hide explosives in computer notebooks. Moreover, photos of Trump and Lavrov smiling together at the Oval Office with Ambassador Kislyak was an optical mistake. Kislyak is implicated in several scandals involving key members of Trump’s election team.
Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey demonstrated that the FBI probe was getting closer to the Trump campaign. Indeed, the firing itself intensified suspicion that the White House was engaged in a cover up and obstructing justice. The US Department of Justice promptly appointed a special counsel to investigate alleged links between Trump’s election campaign and Russia.
By the time of the July summit, investigations into Russia’s interference in the US elections will heighten Putin’s anxiety that Washington will seek to punish Moscow. In recent revelations, it transpires that the briefly appointed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and other senior members of Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials in at least 18 phone calls and emails during the presidential race. The FBI and several congressional investigations are now reviewing these interactions.
The investigations have also reached the White House and revolve around Jared Kuchner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor who is accused of maintaining extensive business dealings with Russia. Revelations about Russian oligarchs with opaque financial transactions with Trump companies are likely to be disclosed. And Trump’s tax returns, which have been withheld from the public, may also be revealed during a probe by the Treasury Department. Although some of these business contacts with Russia may be legitimate they will also intensify perceptions that Trump colluded with Moscow to influence the US elections.
Nonetheless, unless there is egregious evidence of criminality, corruption, or treason, impeachment proceedings against Trump are unlikely to be initiated by the Republican-controlled Congress. However, if Democrats take control of the House, because of Trump’s dismally low popularity, after the mid-term elections in November 2018 then the President could be in deep trouble.
If it cannot take advantage of Trump, Russia may seek to benefit from the President’s political problems and the growing disarray in Washington. However, this is also unlikely to bring significant dividends for Moscow as a divided Washington and an unpredictable White House will prevent any major deals. If investigations into Trump intensify, Trump may even act more assertively toward Russia to compensate for perceptions that he is Putin’s puppet. Ultimately, Russian officials fear an even worse scenario: Trump’s impeachment and replacement by Vice President Mike Pence, who they believe is a fully-fledged Cold War “Russophobe.”
THE POLITICS OF DISINFORMATION
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
In the era of fake news, the most insidious disinformation has specific political and geostrategic objectives. Such strategic information attacks need to be distinguished from other forms of fabricated news in order to understand the objectives and to locate the sources.
In the age of mass information and multi-media proliferation, citizens are swamped with data and opinion. The widespread use of social media contributes to the information chaos, where rumors pose as facts and spread like wildfire. In uncontrolled social networks, rarely are sources checked and even lazy or sensation-seeking journalists can give conspiracy theories credibility by publishing or broadcasting them in the mainstream media.
This phenomenon can be defined as globalized village gossip without particular political objectives. Nonetheless, it can also inflict significant damage, whether against individuals or institutions. Hoax stories can discredit officials and organizations in the eyes of readers and listeners, and even recourse to retraction or trial may prove insufficient to clear someone’s name. It is difficult to wash away the stigma of disinformation.
At a deeper level, fabricated news can become more organized, systematic, and politically motivated. Here, it is useful to distinguish between state-sponsored disinformation and non-official or insurgent disinformation by non-state actors. Such a distinction has implications for goals and means, although there may also be connections between the two sources.
“Guerrilla disinformation” is pursued by an assortment of individuals and groups for a variety of purposes. Politically motivated radicals may seek to provoke domestic conflict to promote their cause or to delegitimize a particular politician or party. Hackers and false news planters may simply seek to sow social chaos through cyber hooliganism. And criminal groups may endeavor to benefit from attacks on specific businesses or organizations. All such assaults tend to have a limited purpose and are not geostrategic.
By contrast, state-sponsored disinformation is invariably designed to undermine governments, to split societies, and to weaken national security. Such offensives are not a new invention. Soviet sources regularly engaged in disinformation wars against the West, but with limited success. For instance, fake news that the CIA manufactured the AIDS virus or that NATO was preparing to attack the USSR primarily fooled those who wanted to be fooled.
The contemporary disinformation offensive, especially the Russian variant, has more numerous goals, transmits a broader diversity of messages, and employs a wider assortment of methods. The overriding objective is similar to Soviet times – to weaken and fracture the West. However, it has several supplementary goals: to confuse and frighten citizens, to delegitimize Western democracies, to corrupt and corrode state institutions, and to strengthen nationalists and populists. Simultaneously, although Moscow no longer claims it is an alternative utopia, it does promote Russia as a strong patriotic state with conservative values that can appeal to sectors of the Western public.
By employing a diverse array of messages, Russian disinformation can question basic facts and inject alternative narratives about a range of issues. For instance, US democracy promotion is depicted as a cover for toppling governments, or the EU is claimed to be spreading homosexuality among new members. Russian sources claim that they are simply pursuing “balance” in disseminating and interpreting information. But “balance” does not always mean objectivity and the truth does not always lie in the middle between two opposing positions. For instance, what is the balanced position between a flat earth and a round earth?
Modern disinformation has a much wider and faster assortment of channels for distribution than during communist times. Fabricated stories can be disseminated through all social media networks, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and potentially reach millions of consumers. As with village gossip, most people do not check the source before further spreading sensational items. There are also electronic methods for increasing the reach of hoax news and even infecting the more credible media with bogus items.
State sponsors may purposively employ or exploit the social media, amateur media outlets, and guerrilla disinformation to generate messages for subverting democratic systems. They can simultaneously use hacking outfits such as Wikileaks to spread stolen or falsified documents.
Ominously, the terminology of fake news has also crept into mainstream Western politics either to discredit rivals or to deflect criticism. President Donald Trump often uses this tactic by attacking the media for allegedly spreading bogus stories about him. Trump is seeking to delegitimize any evidence that his election team had connections with Moscow or that his businesses received funding from Russian banks or oligarchs.
Unfortunately, such high level attacks on the free media and on journalists who diligently check their sources of information have a corrosive impact on American democracy. In the eyes of many citizens few outlets can be trusted if the media is attacked by the President for lying. This also enables saboteurs and foreign powers to inject more forged news into the confusing swirl of disinformation and counter-information. Ultimately, Trump’s charges may backfire, if there is undeniable evidence of his collusion with Moscow during the election campaign. The President himself would then be widely perceived as a primary culprit of disinformation.
NATO’s BALKAN STRATEGY
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
Montenegro’s imminent entry into NATO, as its 29th member, provides both momentum and opportunity for the Alliance. The Summit in Brussels on May 25 is an important venue to specify NATO’s strategic direction in the Western Balkans to counter the threats still facing this volatile region of Europe.
NATO has pursued two mandates in the Western Balkans since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s – enlargement and intervention. The entry of Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, and now Montenegro into the Alliance demonstrates a commitment to incorporate all of South Eastern Europe in the world’s most effective security structure. Concurrently, the continuing presence of NATO forces in Kosova and the military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina indicates that the Alliance remains ready to engage if armed conflicts were to recur.
Nonetheless, the current challenges to Balkan stability are not primarily military but political, economic, and informational, particularly where flammable local disputes can be ignited through targeted foreign subversion. And this is precisely where NATO can play a key role: by identifying vulnerabilities, enhancing national security, promoting interstate military cooperation, detecting, deterring, and defeating Russian subversion and Islamist terrorism, and bolstering steps toward eventual NATO entry.
In this context, Montenegro can serve as an example to its neighbors for NATO’s involvement in the region. In addition to assistance in modernizing Montenegro’s armed forces and enhancing security along the Adriatic Coast, the Alliance can help establish a NATO Center of Excellence, similarly to other member states. Given Podgorica’s recent experience with Moscow, the Center’s focus could be on Countering Foreign Subversion and Coup Attempts.
Beyond Montenegro, both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia should be designated as NATO’s next members. The Alliance maintains a military headquarters in Sarajevo that assists in defense reform and counter-terrorism. In 2010, NATO launched a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Bosnia, but entry has been blocked by one key obstacle: the transfer of 63 military facilities from the entity level to the central administration. The Serb entity government has delayed completion of the process and is violating state law. Unfortunately, the EU has been a laggard in pushing Bosnia’s local governments to enforce the rule of law despite considering EU candidate status for Bosnia later this year. The legal transfer of all military facilities must be one of the conditions.
In the case of Macedonia, a clear roadmap for membership has to be applied, as the country has fulfilled its MAP requirements. Once a new bi-ethnic government is formed in Skopje the prospect of membership can contribute to reducing tension, as both Macedonians and Albanians favor NATO entry. However, this will also require a more vigorous mediation process with Greece in which Washington can play a prominent role. Although Athens continues to dispute Macedonia’s name, there is no reason for the country not to enter NATO under the designation that Greece itself uses since the bilateral Interim Accord of 1995 – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
While NATO maintains a presence in Kosova, it is time for Kosova to gain a presence in NATO. Approximately 4,500 Allied troops remain stationed in the new state in continuation of the KFOR mission established after NATO’s intervention in 1999. NATO has helped to create a professional and multi-ethnic Kosova Security Force, consisting of lightly armed units responsible for security tasks. The force will eventually be transformed into a military structure once the constitutional and organizational changes are implemented. The process can be accelerated by including Kosova in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program to develop a modern military operating alongside NATO forces. Kosova would then join 22 partner countries from outside NATO, in which PfP has been an important stepping-stone toward NATO membership for twelve other states.
The remaining country, Serbia, will prove more of a challenge for completing the NATO umbrella over the Balkan Peninsula. In addition to lingering resentment over the Allied intervention to liberate Kosova from Milosevic’s massacres in 1999, Serbia has forged close ties with Moscow. It has allowed the Kremlin to establish a base near the southern city of Nis purportedly to handle humanitarian emergencies, but also believed to serve as an intelligence gathering facility.
Despite its Russia-friendly policy, Serbia’s army participates in NATO programs since joining the PfP in 2006 and has obtained an Individual Partnership Action Plan that could become a step toward a MAP and eventual membership. If the Serbian military had a choice free of political considerations it would certainly favor joining the most modern and effective military organization rather than being linked with a second-rate Russian structure.
However, even with NATO accession the mission is not completed, as the Alliance must continue to help its members monitor and protect against foreign subversion. Indeed, NATO’s role needs to be augmented in countering Russia’s information offensives, intelligence penetration, and political manipulation. The guiding principle is that Russia’s NATO-phobia cannot be allowed to sabotage the future of the Balkans as an integral part of the trans-Atlantic world.
Janusz Bugajski, May 2017
The specter of European populism may no longer be as threatening as many imagined. Although the mainstream parties are clearly losing public support, new political forces are coming to the forefront and some will challenge the premises of radical rightist or radical leftist populism.
Traditional populism relies on a mixture of anti-establishment resentment, national statism, economic protectionism, residential xenophobia, and identity politics. It vehemently repudiates the status quo, delivers personalistic leadership, and thrives on conspiracy theories for the gullible public. While rightist populism is more ethnically exclusive and business friendly, leftist populism is economically redistributive and largely multi-cultural.
One of the keys to countering nativist, xenophobic, anti-EU, and anti-NATO populism is a centrist populist variant that while repudiating the establishment parties aims to revive core values and score economic achievements. This necessitates a combination of commitment to far-reaching reforms that can stimulate economic growth and charismatic leadership untainted by partisan politics.
Several key elections over the coming year will define the future of European populism. France may serve as the first major example with the likely election of Emmanuel Macron as President on 7 May. The advancement of Macron and the populist nationalist Marine Le Pen to the second-round of the elections is a disaster for the French political establishment. For the first time since World War Two, neither of its two establishment parties, neither Socialists nor Republicans, will have a representative in the second-round of balloting.
Macron’s projected victory indicates that a youthful non-party candidate who can sell his vision to the electorate has a good chance of defeating a populist such as Le Pen. But he or she needs a strong and convincing personality and a clear plan for ambitious economic reform that can stimulate economic growth. Through his proposals for labor market deregulation and lower corporate taxes Macron has offered an alternative to the status quo, which is neither protectionist nor anti-EU.
Macron’s political movement is only a year old and is unlikely to win the French parliamentary elections in June. Nonetheless, it is likely to be a factor in forging a new governing coalition that will exclude both right and left radicals. Regardless of the exact result, much of Europe will be reassured that France is not destined to abandon the Union or turn to exclusivist nationalism.
The next major election will take place in Germany this autumn. The danger from populism is less pronounced, but eroding support for the two major parties, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, cannot be ignored. Support for the rightist populist Alternative for Germany party and Pegida, the anti-Islamic group, is growing and a new wave of refugees or a major terrorist attack will energize them before the elections.
A bigger danger for the EU appears to be Italy, the Eurozone’s third-largest economy and scheduled to hold elections by the spring of 2018 at the latest. The vote could see the rise to power of a strongly anti-European party, the populist Five Star movement, and a major loss for the ruling Democratic Party.
Five-Star is capitalizing on widespread public discontent with the political establishment and is intent on removing Italy from the Eurozone. Recent opinion polls indicate that Five-Star is the most popular party while a majority of Italians view the euro negatively. A Five Star victory with a protectionist agenda will exacerbate Italy’s chronic economic problems and drive the country further into debt. If Italy leaves the Eurozone living standards are likely to plummet. As of now, it remains unclear whether Italy will be rescued by a centrist populist movement committed to structural reform.
Other countries also face radical populist challenges, as Europe’s economic future remains uncertain. The IMF projects growth in the euro area at 1.7 percent in 2017 and 1.6 percent in 2018, and only a gradual reduction of high unemployment rates. Without more fundamental reforms that would make the EU economies more globally competitive prospects are pessimistic because of weak productivity and an aging population.
A potential recipe for success for centrist populists is gradually emerging. In campaigns to counter the negative messages of anti-globalist, Euroskeptic, and anti-immigrant populists, new political actors need to provide positive and internationalist approaches that espouse the benefits of international institutions such as the EU and the advantages of an interconnected world.
They also need to adopt some of the populist tactics to reach and convince voters, whether through social media, simple slogans, fast interactions online, the presentation of hard facts against conspiracy mongering, and the mobilization of ambitious youth who do not want to be trapped within their national borders.
The alternative to a new centrist populism are radical populist victories in several states that endeavor to dismantle the EU and undermine NATO, but fail to stimulate economic growth while provoking social unrest and national conflicts. Such a scenario will eventually turn the majority of citizens against populist radicalism but at a much higher cost to national economies and international institutions.
UPHEAVAL IN THE BALKANS
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
Storm clouds are gathering again in the Western Balkans. If escalating grievances and national disputes are not resolved, the region could again be engulfed in a spiral of conflict that degenerates into violence. Several interlinked generators of instability need to be urgently addressed by elected leaders as well as by Western governments and international institutions.
Economic frustrations: Although GDP growth has been registered across the region in recent years, the impact on living standards is uneven and public expectations remain unfulfilled. Moreover, youth unemployment remains high and public frustration with corrupt and incompetent governments is rising. Conversely, economic growth is contingent on political legitimacy, social stability, and investor confidence – all of which are undermined by public protests sweeping across several states.
Political polarization: Partisan battles are so intense in some countries that opposition parties boycott the parliament, block legislation, and even refuse to participate in elections. This is currently the case in Albania, which faces general elections in June but where the opposition Democratic Party claims in advance that the vote will be rigged.
Creeping authoritarianism: Serbia and Macedonia are at the forefront of accusations that ruling parties are appropriating the state for their benefit and eliminating any viable opposition. After his election as President on April 2, Alexander Vucic’s Progressive Party now controls Serbia’s executive and legislature, with the next parliamentary elections only due in 2020. Attempted state capture has been even more blatant in Macedonia where the outgoing VMRO-led government was caught in various abuses of power including wire tapping its opponents.
Growing public protests: Serbia is in the midst of extensive protests against the election of President Vucic. Social networks and student organizations have mobilized tens of thousands of young people with different political and ideological beliefs calling for the ouster of a government viewed as increasingly authoritarian. The protests are an outpouring of years of frustration with pervasive official corruption, controlled media, and political manipulation. The protests could spread to workers dissatisfied with low wages and poor conditions.
Ethnic escalation: Where political divisions become ethnified the prospects for conflict rapidly increase. This is the case in Macedonia where the formation of a new bi-ethnic government with Albanians has been blocked and where the President and outgoing administration claim that Albanian leaders aim to fracture the state. Separatism is also exploited by leaders of the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina amidst widespread frustration with political institutions and economic stagnation.
Border disputes: Conflicts over borders and the non-acceptance of statehood for some countries persist in the region. For instance, tensions are periodically ratcheted up between leaders of Serbia and Kosova, while Serb nationalists do not accept the permanent independence of Montenegro. Even where borders are not disputed, ethnic clashes in one state can precipitate demands to incorporate a minority territory in the “mother state.” In other cases, the removal of borders is seen as a threat, as between Albania and Kosova. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently raised the question of unification and aggravated fears of pan-Albanianism that would violently break up several countries.
Foreign scapegoating: Governments facing growing social or ethnic unrest could stage a crackdown and seek to discredit protestors as traitors in the pay of foreign powers. Instructively, the George Soros-funded Open Society organization has become a major scapegoat for nationalists and ultra-conservatives throughout the region, from Hungary to Macedonia. Media disinformation and public revolts foster political radicalization and can propel anti-Western sentiments.
EU blockage: EU entry remains a receding ambition in much of the region despite the benefits that this provides new members, including accession funds and investments. Although several countries are candidates for the Union, progress has been stalled because the EU is preoccupied with internal problems and public opinion opposes further enlargement. There is also disillusionment among citizens in the Balkans that the Union has been complicit in upholding corrupt government in exchange for a measure of stability. In this vicious circle, failure to reform the state precludes EU membership. As an example, Serbian citizens complain that Brussels has supported Vucic’s election while ignoring his role in stifling a free press.
Russian provocations: In this cauldron of unrest, Russia’s uses its “soft power” tools to entrap local politicians with financial and diplomatic support, impregnate the local and social media with disinformation, stir inter-ethnic animosities, and threaten pro-Western governments. The coup attempt in Montenegro in October 2016 involving Serbian nationalists led by Russian intelligence operatives against a pro-NATO government may be a trial run for further acts of violence. Moscow’s next attempt may be more sophisticated and broad-based, whether by inciting Serbian minority leaders in Bosnia against the Muslim Bosniaks, engineering ethnic clashes in Macedonia, or provoking Serbian-Montenegrin conflicts.
If it serves his interests, President Vladimir Putin would not be averse to pursuing a regional war to test NATO resolve and undermine the process of Western integration, while camouflaging Kremlin involvement. To this end, Moscow favors a military buildup in the region, as evident in recent talks between Putin and Vucic in which Belgrade looks set to purchase Russia’s S-300 air defense system in addition to MiG-29 fighter jets and T-72 battle tanks. The reaction among Serbia’s neighbors is unlikely to be passive.
RUSSIA’S NEW MACEDONIA OFFENSIVE
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
Moscow has opened a new front in the Balkans with a concerted effort to inflame Macedonia’s political crisis. The goal is not only to diminish prospects for Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU, but even more menacingly to turn the Balkans into a conflict zone that illustrates Western weakness and intensifies Russia’s influence.
When Yugoslavia began its violent breakup during 1991, the main danger to regional stability was a potential conflict over Macedonia that would pull in several neighboring states outside Yugoslavia. Twenty-six years later the prospect of a wider conflict generated from Macedonia is again looming across the region.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov precipitated the most recent domestic crisis when he blocked the formation of a Social Democratic (SDSM) government. Following tight elections in December, SDSM managed to assemble a viable coalition with an Albanian partner – the Democratic Union of Integration (DUI). If Ivanov’s decision is not unblocked by parliament the crisis will deepen and take on ethnic dimensions.
Ivanov objected to the Albanian Platform – an agreement signed between three Albanian parties containing specific conditions for entering the government. Its main elements are recognition of Albanian as a second official state language and more equal distribution of resources to the country’s regions, including western districts of Macedonia where Albanians predominate.
The Albanian DUI decided to enter a coalition with the opposition SDSM for two main reasons: dissatisfaction with the governing VMRO party in implementing Albanian demands and VMRO’s involvement in a major wiretapping scandal and other abuses that further estranged Macedonia from NATO and EU membership. VMRO does not want to lose control of the government as its leaders could face criminal indictments. But without an Albanian partner, VMRO does not have the required majority of seats to form a new administration.
There are two main risks for conflict escalation: political divisions between Slavic Macedonians and ethnic polarization between Macedonians and Albanians. In the most hazardous scenario, Albanian leaders may abandon the planned coalition and turn to other political solutions such as territorial federalization if the political standoff continues indefinitely.
VMRO has tried to distract attention from investigations into its abuse of power by claiming that the Albanian Platform would shatter national unity and destroy the state. It also claims that Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the signing of the Platform in Tirana, is interfering in Macedonia’s internal affairs and pursuing a greater Albanian program. And this is where Moscow enters the stage.
For the Kremlin, Macedonia provides another valuable inroad for widening national rifts in the Balkans and spawning anti-Western sentiments. Its revved up propaganda offensive contains two major messages, which may be contradictory but are designed to appeal to different audiences. For their own citizens and foreign partners such as Serbia and Greece, Russian officials dismiss Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosova as American “projects” designed to serve American and NATO interests. All three states are depicted as artificial and temporary constructs and must be blocked from entering both NATO and the EU.
Simultaneously, to appeal to the Macedonian public, Moscow claims that an anti-national coup is being conducted in Skopje under US direction. Even more menacingly, according to Russian disinformation that penetrates the region’s media and social networks, Washington supports carving up Macedonia and Serbia and creating a greater Albania. The Kremlin thereby presents itself as a defender of the Macedonian state in combating Albanian irredentism and alleged Muslim terrorism.
The more desperate VMRO becomes in its exclusion from government, the more it is likely to buy into Kremlin accusations against Albanians. Such an approach could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Albanian parties are excluded from government while the two major Macedonian parties continue to battle, leaving the country adrift from Western institutions and exposed to Russian intrigues.
VMRO has organized anti-SDSM protests in most major cities and formed “patriotic associations” that fulminate against purported Albanian domination of the country and condemn subversive foreign influences. Such movements are ripe for Moscow’s covert manipulation, including through funding and media exposure.
A conflict within Macedonia may rapidly escalate to embroil both Albania and Kosova in protecting their ethnic kindred, revive the Serbian government’s regional anti-Albanian campaign, and potentially draw NATO members Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey into the fray on the side of different protagonists. Any territorial demands by one party will precipitate revisionist demands by others with the potential for outright violence.
To defuse the Macedonian crisis and prevent any destabilizing spillovers, Washington needs to become more active and visible. The Balkan region is fast developing into a test for the Trump administration in wielding both carrots and sticks to defend Western interests and European security.
Strong diplomacy can be combined with a pledge to finally bring Macedonia into NATO regardless under which provisional name. This will necessitate the unblocking of two obstacles to Macedonia’s progress: the obstruction of a new bi-ethnic coalition government that remains committed to state integrity and Greece’s veto of Macedonian membership in NATO. Such moves would dissuade both pan-Albanian and pan-Serbian temptations. And most importantly for the US, it will curtail Russian meddling and provocations in a still volatile peninsula.
TRUMP’S NEW FOREIGN POLICY VIGOR
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike on the Syrian air force sent four strong messages early on in his presidency: to dictators, allies, Russia, and Western populists. It also helped to remove attention from his domestic problems including investigations into alleged connections between Trump’s election campaign and Russian intelligence services.
Although the military strike only involved one Syrian airfield, it also proved to be swift and decisive, thereby demonstrating to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad that the new White House values hard deeds above tough words. Trump’s action was in stark contrast with the Barack Obama administration, which warned of consequences for war crimes but did not deliver any punishment and lost international credibility as a result.
Effective diplomacy always needs to be backed by an element of coercion and the willingness to use force to convince one’s opponent. The question is whether there will be any follow up by Trump if the Syrian government continues to bomb civilian targets. Indeed, some in the US administration are pushing for “regime change” in Syria as Assad is unwilling to negotiate with rebels to allow for a political transition. If he is unwilling to relinquish power the stage is set for further confrontation with Washington.
America’s Syria bombing also sends a clearer message to America’s allies, not just in the Middle East and East Asia, but also in Central and Eastern Europe. If Washington is willing to actively defend civilians in Syria, then it will surely not sit on its hands if civilians are threatened in any front line NATO state, even if the aggressor is Russia.
During the Obama administration, several US allies remained concerned that Washington was unwilling to use force and would baulk at applying NATO’s article five for mutual self-defense. In the Middle East, it appeared that Obama was withdrawing and surrendering all responsibilities.
When Trump was elected fears of US weakness and withdrawal were heightened, as the new White House had been stressing its isolationist nationalism and non-intervention abroad. In stark contrast, a more vigorous Trump foreign policy is likely to elicit support among allies and a greater responsiveness to future US requests for assistance.
Trump’s message to Russia is unmistakable. Several members of the Trump cabinet have spelled out their disgust with Moscow’s involvement in war crimes in Syria, its neglect of international treaties in the use of chemical weapons, and its collaboration with a rogue regime that systematically murders its own civilians. All that is missing is to underscore that the Kremlin has also mass murdered its own citizens, as evident in the slaughters in Chechnya after Putin assumed power.
At the same time, the White House gave the Kremlin an enticement to cooperate with the US in replacing Assad and building a durable ceasefire in Syria under the Geneva peace process. President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to welcome such an offer, as it would mean abandoning Assad – his most trusted ally in the region. Moreover, if Moscow backs away from Assad, Russia’s credibility will plummet throughout the Middle East as an unreliable partner that buckles under pressure from the US and whose air defense systems are helpless against American technology. Washington also has an opportunity to build a broader coalition against Moscow’s Syrian adventure. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN has signaled a hardening of Washington’s attitude toward Russia with the threat of more onerous sanctions.
There is an additional bonus for Trump in being tough with Moscow, as it serves to dispel suspicions that he colluded with the Kremlin during the presidential election campaign. The notion that Putin helped Trump win the elections in return for lifting financial sanctions on Moscow has preoccupied Washington since Trump’s inauguration. The best outcome for the President from the FBI and Congressional investigations would be evidence that Russia sought to destabilize America’s democracy but without directly helping Trump.
Regardless of the outcome of investigations, the more Trump challenges Moscow the less will he be viewed as a potential puppet who has been bribed or blackmailed by Russian intelligence services. Nevertheless, in retaliation against Russia’s humiliation in the Middle East, the Kremlin may decide to release a trove of hacked Republican Emails and other materials from the Trump campaign. The objective would be either to discredit him personally or to confirm the supposition that he acted as a Kremlin agent. Moscow would welcome an impeachment process in order to paralyze the US administration for many months.
Trump has also sent a strong message of rejection to populists and nationalists in the US – many of whom supported his candidacy. Contrary to their non-interventionist mantra, Trump has demonstrated that he will not abandon America’s global leadership and that America still possesses both interests and values that it will defend internationally. The rejection of populism will certainly move Trump closer to the Republican mainstream and even endear him to many centrist Democrats on the international arena.
RUSSIA CLOSER TO REVOLUTION
Janusz Bugajski, April 2017
Exactly one hundred years after the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 Russia may be facing another revolution. The Putin era has lasted for nearly 17 years but no dictatorship is more vulnerable than when it cannot deliver its side of an unofficial social contract. Why should the population remain politically passive if the government can no longer deliver economic wellbeing?
A combination of low oil prices, international financial sanctions, massive official corruption, and government incompetence has devastated the Russian economy. Living standards and incomes have been in decline for four straight years while citizens have no legitimate or effective means to express their frustration in a politically repressive environment.
Putin has stifled, exiled, or murdered the opposition, gagged the media, banned organized expressions of dissent, and saturated the country with false news about economic recovery. Official opinion polls create an illusion that over 80% of the public support Putin, even though most people do not answer pollsters in case of police repercussions.
But despite the climate of fear engendered by Russia’s police state, protests are mounting. Mass street demonstrations took place in almost one hundred Russian cities on 26 April involving tens of thousands of citizens. They were the biggest anti-government rallies since the 2011 demonstrations against fraudulent elections.
At the forefront of mobilizing protestors is the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Alexey Navalny, a Russian oppositionist who has announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential elections. There is rising anger over official corruption, which itself is a euphemism for government failure.
While the 2011 election protests were confined to Moscow and quickly faded, the recent demonstrations have three new features that can prove dangerous for the regime: they are nationwide, they involve an increasing number of young people, and they can spread to the working class.
The wave of protests took place in almost every major city from Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. While Western reports focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg, the fact that tens of thousands of citizens across the country risked arrest and police violence indicates that public anger is overcoming fear. It also shows that new activists are entering the fray and challenging officialdom at both local and central levels.
Russian analysts conclude that Russia now finds itself in a critical situation because the government can longer localize and isolate protests that are springing up all over the country. Indeed, economic decline has proved to be even worse in the regions than in the capital and any public optimism about the future has dissipated.
A second element that must trouble the Kremlin is the surprisingly large number of youth protestors, not only from universities but also from high schools. Some of these youths were born during the Putin era and despite their indoctrination by state education and the mass media many are actively demanding change.
The younger generation of protesters is fed up with rampant nepotism, the lack of officials accountability, the widening gap between rich and poor, the impunity of officials and their families, and shrinking opportunities for employment and advancement. Some have compared them to young and educated protestors during the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Youth mobilization is partly the consequence of the internet where, unlike television, state propaganda can be challenged. For instance, Navalny publishes his numerous investigations into official corruption on the social media as he is barred from traditional media outlets. Despite the susceptibility of social media to hoax news, ultimately it may outcompete the fake news generated by Russia’s official media.
A third element of growing pressure on the authorities is the awakening working class. In the past year dozens of strikes have reportedly taken place against unpaid salaries and falling living standards. A current strike by truck drivers against an onerous road tax has spread to fifty regions of the country, with the number of strikers being especially high in the North Caucasus. Strike organizers are claiming that at least 10,000 truckers will eventually take part in the stoppages, as their livelihoods are at stake. Such strikes can also spread to other sectors of the economy.
No one can be sure of the Kremlin response to the rising tide of protests. Putin may decide to further tighten the screws and increase police suppression, but this may not be enough to dissuade desperate citizens. He could also sacrifice Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who is a particular target of anti-corruption campaigners for his ill-acquired wealth.
However, Putin will not want to be seen as responding under public pressure, as this would indicate weakness, stimulate further public demands, and alienate sectors of the elite who are worried that the Kremlin could also scapegoat them. Putin could also reach for a traditional ploy of Russia’s rulers when faced with domestic unrest – by launching new military adventures abroad in which demonstrators can then be depicted as unpatriotic and “anti-Russian.” There are several targets along Russia’s borders where the Kremlin may decide to strike.
A TEST FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
The Donald Trump presidency is providing important lessons in civic politics and testing the resilience of American democracy. For all citizens in any state there is a time-tested saying worth remembering that even if you are not interested in politics, “politics is always interested in you.”
No country can consider itself absolutely safe from threats and even reversals to its democratic system often through the maneuvers of elected officials and government leaders. Trump has authoritarian and centralizing tendencies that he applied in his business enterprises, some of which succeeded and others failed. However, he is discovering that running a business and presiding over a democratic country are clearly not compatible or even comparable.
Since taking office, Trump has tried to exert and expand presidential authority but has encountered institutional resistance because of the structure of American democracy. The principle of the separation of powers has become a crucial factor during the early weeks of the Trump administration. Both the judicial and legislative branches of government have constrained and even blocked executive authority and decision-making.
Constitutionalism and the rule of law are the fundamental components of the American system. As a result, several federal judges have blocked Trump’s executive orders restricting or banning immigration from selected Muslim-majority countries. Despite protests from the White House, these independent judges ruled that elements of Trump’s orders violated the constitution and discriminated against specific religious groups.
Although the President nominates judges to the Supreme Court, who are then accepted or rejected by the US Congress, this key national body remains fully independent of the other two branches. This has been evident during the ratification process for judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. As Gorsuch clearly stated during questioning in Congress, every official is accountable to the law including the President.
Congressional oversight over presidential authority has also been displayed on several occasions. Most notably, the failure by the House of Representatives to pass a new health care bill demonstrates that the White House can be opposed and overruled. Trump thereby lost the first major piece of legislation that he was committed to implementing throughout the election campaign.
The inability to push through an unpopular health care bill also showed that there are not only divisions between Democrats and Republicans but deep policy differences between different factions of the Republican Party. As a result, even though the Republicans have majorities in both houses of Congress and control the executive, they are constrained from full political control and potential authoritarianism by factionalism, procedures, and public opinion.
Trump’s failure with health care also underscored that a President needs to fully understand the legislation he wants to introduce, particularly as restructuring health care is not as simple as building a hotel or a golf course.
For too many decades, the majority of citizens have taken the US system of government for granted or failed to understand how it operates. The Trump presidency is dramatically changing both public interest and involvement.
Opposition to Trump has revived and expanded America’s civil society organizations, including consumer groups, women’s organizations, and minority lobbies. It is also raising new recruits into the political process. There has been a surge of candidates registering to run in local and state government elections, in what many believe is a backlash against Trump. Most of these candidates are from the Democratic Party, which under normal circumstances experiences problems in local recruitment.
Observers believe that there is a revived awareness of the importance of state legislatures to counter Republican control in Congress and the White House. At present, Republicans control more than two-thirds of legislative chambers in America’s 50 states, having increased their total during and after the Obama presidency.
In particular, thousands of women are preparing to run for office, in an evident retort to what is widely perceived as Trump’s misogyny. The ongoing protest movements are producing a flood of first-time female candidates on a number of local ballots, including school boards, municipal councils, and state legislatures. Young people under thirty have also become more involved in local politics since the presidential elections. Republican recruitment has also increased as interest in politics continues to spread with blanket coverage by the mass media of the Trump presidency.
America should serve as a lesson to those states in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) where ruling parties seek to use their electoral mandate to entrench their rule through constitutional changes and legislative measures. A vibrant civil society and political opposition needs to make sure that the internal balance of power is maintained and no branch of government can disregard the rule of law.
As a result of the Trump experiment, regardless of the President’s policy successes and failures, the US is likely to develop into a stronger democracy. Indeed, one could call it the reproduction of democracy in which a greater number of citizens not only become aware of their system of government but also actively participate in it. Trump too will hopefully learn a lesson that politics is the art of compromise.
EUROPE’S NEXT CRISIS
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Escalating political instability in Belarus could presage a direct Russian intervention that would prove much more destabilizing for Europe than Moscow’s proxy war in Ukraine. An attack on Belarus would challenge the security and integrity of several nearby states and potentially precipitate a direct Russia-NATO confrontation.
Political conditions in Belarus are fast deteriorating. Public protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenka that began in mid-February are spreading outside the capital Minsk. They were initiated by citizens outraged against the government imposed “vagrants tax” on people employed for less than half a year, but have since mushroomed into demands for systemic political change, even including Lukashenka’s ouster.
Belarus’s relatively weak opposition did not initiate the protests and the mass demonstrations in several cities appear to lack central leadership. Nonetheless, the longer the protests continue the more likely that a more focused and determined leadership will steer them either in a pro-Western or a pro-Russian direction.
Unlike previous protests, Lukashenka has thus far desisted from a hard police crackdown, evidently weary of alienating Western countries. During the past year, Minsk has cultivated closer ties with the EU and US in order to obtain much needed investments. Moscow’s subsidies are drying up because of the deteriorating Russian economy and Belarus’s economy is also sinking. The Eurasian Economic Union, of which Belarus is a member and which was heralded by President Vladimir Putin as a viable counterpart to the EU, is proving an abject failure.
Despite the Union treaty between Russia and Belarus, Lukashenka has resisted Kremlin pressure to establish an air base in western Belarus that would be a more direct threat to NATO. He also moved diplomatically closer to the EU and US lifted visa requirement for Western citizens. The removal of EU sanctions against Belarusian officials has recently been followed by the visit to Minsk of a high level EU delegation.
While the West would welcome a compromise solution between Minsk and the demonstrators as a harbinger of political reforms, Moscow views a soft approach against protestors by Lukashenka as abject weakness. It fears that this could provoke another Ukrainian-style “EuroMaidan” that will remove Belarus from Russia’s orbit. To disorient public opinion, the Moscow media claims that another “color revolution” or “fascist coup“ is being engineered along Russia’s border by Western intelligence services.
Belarus is a key component in the Kremlin’s projection of power in Central Europe and the Baltic region, especially as it borders three NATO states. The Kremlin will not allow the country a free choice to move westward with or without Lukashenka at the helm. Russia’s officials blame Lukashenka’s moves toward the West for the current crisis and their propaganda tools are once again depicting Belarus as a “failing state” similar to Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in February 2014.
One ominous scenario of instability would be for Russian services to overthrow Lukashenka behind a smokescreen of pubic protests and under the pretext of preventing violent revolution, civil war, or NATO intervention. Moscow would then claim that it is simply implementing the “will of the people” by replacing the “last dictator in Europe” – an unfortunate phrase used by the Bush and Obama administrations that could rebound against the West.
Russian services have deeply penetrated Belarus’s military, police, bureaucracy, and intelligence networks and could enthrone a pro-Moscow replacement for Lukashenka. Such a move is likely to be accompanied by “brotherly” military intervention with the Kremlin seeking full control over Belarus’s western border with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. This could set the stage for an even more dangerous regional standoff.
Less than 150 miles separate Belarus from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. With one short military thrust through Lithuanian territory the Kremlin could accomplish two strategic objectives. First, it would directly link the Russian mainland with its military outpost that hosts its Baltic fleet, and second it would cut off the three Baltic states from potential NATO supplies of troops and equipment in the event of a future Russian assault on Estonia or Latvia.
In justifying its Baltic thrust, Moscow could heat up the grievances of Russian and Polish minorities in southern and eastern Lithuania, which have been prime targets of Russian propaganda and whose leaders are courted by the Kremlin. Moscow would then possess two pretexts for intervention in Lithuania designed to connect Russia with Kaliningrad – alleged protection of “Russian speakers” and preventing the isolation of fellow citizens in Kaliningrad.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, Belarus provides both a danger and an opportunity not only to test the West but even more to score a strategic victory. It comes at a time when the EU is gripped by a crisis of identity and America’s inexperienced Trump administration is preoccupied with domestic political battles. Moscow has traditionally exploited moments of weakness and indecision in the West to pursue its imperial goals and the crisis in Belarus can easily trigger such a scenario.
AMERICA’S RUSSIAN CONNECTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Russia’s regime has declared war on the United States. Unable to challenge America ideologically, economically, or militarily, Moscow uses alternative tools to generate political and social turmoil and to weaken Washington’s global role.
It is clear that by hacking and distributing Democratic Party Emails, the Russian government interfered in the US presidential elections. WikiLeaks was used as a cover and a tool for Russia’s intelligence services to inject anti-Clinton stories through the mass media. Moreover, there is a consensus among US intelligence agencies that Russian agents accessed numerous state and local electoral boards and threatened to interfere with the balloting and counting process.
Congressional investigations have been launched on Russian hacking and the role, if any, of the Trump campaign. The President himself has promoted another conspiracy theory that has also been promulgated by Moscow to discredit American democracy. Critics argue that Trump is trying to deflect attention by positing the existence of a “deep state” of intelligence officials and bureaucrats undermining the administration. The problem for Trump is there is no evidence for such a shadow government, whereas the evidence is overwhelming for Russian interference.
In attempts to confirm the “deep state” theory, WikiLeaks recently released a stash of hacked CIA material detailing the agency’s surveillance methods. Trump’s ultra-right supporters now claim, without evidence, that the CIA not Russia hacked Democratic National Committee (DNC) Emails. The new President was allegedly a victim of a “false flag” operation whereby CIA hackers broke into the DNC and blamed Moscow. The inconsistency in this story is why should the CIA seek to discredit Hillary Clinton if, as Trump implies, the intelligence services are part of the anti-Trump “deep state.”
Nonetheless, the notion of a “deep state” fits with Trump’s previous accusations of a rigged election and a fraudulent vote count if he lost. Such claims may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of American democracy. However, when there is no evidence for such allegations it is the President who discredits himself and will be widely perceived as either delusional or deliberately lying.
The overriding question is whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Moscow to influence the outcome of the elections. If the answer is no, then the focus of US foreign policy should be to combat and prevent any future Kremlin subversion of American democracy. If the answer is yes, then Trump and his closest advisers could face impeachment on charges of treason.
The benign explanation for Trump’s contacts with Russian officials is simply the cultivation of good relations in preparation for office. This is common for all potential administrations. The problem for Trump and his advisers is that they have denied having such contacts and thereby raised suspicions that the meetings were neither routine nor innocent.
The more ominous explanation is outright Trump collaboration with Moscow either for financial or political gain. Trump has regularly praised Putin and denied any financial involvement in Russia. However, reports have surfaced that some Russian oligarchs may have invested in Trump businesses and that the President does not want these links unearthed. Suspicions are raised by the fact that Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns and other financial information.
The political explanation for the Russian connection is far more serious. With several Trump associates under FBI and Treasury Department investigation for links with the Kremlin, each day brings fresh allegations and evidence. Roger Stone, Trump’s former campaign advisor, admitted that he was in private communication with a Kremlin-connected hacker behind the DMC email attack. U.S. intelligence officials and cybersecurity firms assert that Russian spy agencies created Guccifer 2.0 as an Internet persona for the purpose of helping Trump win the elections.
Ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, former Trump adviser Carter Page, and the sacked National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are also under investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is under suspicion for his contacts with the Russian ambassador, while Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have played a role in various Trump’s financial connections with Russia.
The most important question is whether the Trump team collaborated with Moscow to subvert the election process by offering to ease sanctions if the Kremlin released Clinton Emails. According to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, no direct evidence has surfaced thus far. But even without direct collusion, some analysts have raised the possibility that Trump may have possessed advanced knowledge of Moscow’s attack on the elections and failed to reveal it.
An additional question revolves around changes to the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) platform just before the Republican Convention in July 2016. Inexplicably removed was the statement on providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to combat Russia’s proxy forces in the Donbas. Evidence now indicates that Kremlin-connected interlocutors convinced the Trump team to remove this provision.
The slowly dripping leaks from the White House create the appearance of a major cover up. Trump’s inner circle has not helped itself through deception and deflection. Indeed, Trump’s tweet that President Obama tapped his phones has raised even more questions as to whether Trump was actually under investigation by the FBI for potential criminality or conspiracy with foreign powers.
TRUMP BATTLES THE EU
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
President Donald Trump’s denunciation of the European Union and his support for Brexit has unnerved many European leaders. The White House is generating mixed messages on the EU, which, despite its failures, remains vital for keeping peace in Europe and reducing the need for American intervention.
Trump himself is receiving two contradictory policy prescriptions about the EU: one from America’s rightist nationalists and one from the centrist-internationalists in the Republican Party and in his own cabinet. Unfortunately, his public statements on the EU seem to reflect the views of the last person Trump spoke with rather than a consistent policy.
On the nationalist wing, the driving force behind Trump’s antagonism toward the EU is senior counselor Stephen Bannon. Contrary to all historical evidence, Bannon claims that strong nationalist governments ensure good neighbors. Moreover, he has urged Trump to encourage populist-nationalist and Eurosceptic movements in the EU over the heads of elected governments.
Trump has questioned the rationale and effectiveness of the EU and has publicly stated that he favors its dissolution. He also claimed that the Union is basically a vehicle for German control, whereas in reality the EU is built to constrain German power. Trump’s nationalist advisers prefer dealing on a bilateral basis with EU member states and oppose multilateral free trade agreements.
On the internationalist wing, Trump’s key players are Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Michael Pence. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also stated his support for existing alliances and for the EU. Each has visited Brussels to affirm Washington’s support for the Union and even Trump has been persuaded to assert that he was “totally in favor” of the EU.
The internationalists contend that there are costs and benefits in EU membership. On the negative side, the Union is politically flawed and has not developed into a confederation with a credible security structure. Oftentimes, Brussels is seen as imposing unpopular continent-wide regulations on states that are grappling with their sovereignty. The Schengen open border system has also come under fire since the massive refugee inflow from the Middle East.
However, the EU has delivered a number of positives. It consolidated the post-World War Two peace in Western Europe, incorporated the majority of former communist states, and proved instrumental in constructing free markets, democratic systems, and the rule of law throughout Europe. It is equally vital for pushing all Balkan states to complete their reform programs and reduce their disputes.
The EU is also important for America. It forms the world’s most significant market for US companies and the major base for their operations abroad. The trans-Atlantic economy is valued at $5.5 trillion and generates 15 million jobs, half of them for US citizens. The EU is America’s largest trading partner and the greatest source of foreign investment. The Union provides a one-stop platform, allowing American companies to deal with a single financial and economic regulator rather than 28 separate country regulatory bodies. European policy makers fear that despite these benefits the Trump administration will impose protectionist tariffs on EU goods as part of its nationalist program, believing that this will “bring jobs back to America.”
The EU has a largely positive impact on NATO, as countries that have a common economic and political agenda are more likely to defend each other during a crisis. A lessened commitment to the EU could mean a reduced commitment to joint security and more divided relations with the US. For instance, with London no longer having a voice in EU affairs it may become less committed to Europe’s defense and less important for Washington.
The transatlantic link has been the bedrock of American foreign policy since World War Two. All US Presidents supported a politically and economically integrated Europe bound to the US by values, trade, and security. Indeed, the EU itself can be viewed as a historical success for American policy, helping to ensure peace and prosperity and ending the prospect for a major new war.
The withdrawal of US support at a time when the EU is experiencing an institutional crisis and growing populist demands would weaken European security and benefit Russia’s ambitions to divide the continent. Without the EU, the old continent may revert to national disputes, undermine the NATO alliance, and potentially necessitate another US military intervention.
The EU should not react to Trump’s occasional pronouncements by ostracizing the US or pushing for some separate defense structure. Such moves are more likely to doom NATO than any policies actually pursued by the White House. Trump has already said that he will reconsider US contributions to NATO if Europe pursues its own military structure.
One paradox may also become evident in the coming year: if Trump continues to attack the EU he may inadvertently strengthen the Union. The populist wave could recede among the general public if it is too closely associated with Trump. The US President is not a popular figure among a majority of EU citizens and policy failures early in his term contribute to the weariness of voters in supporting populists with big promises but little delivery.
TRUMP BOOSTS NATO
Janusz Bugajski, March 2017
Throughout the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump was berated for suggesting that NATO was redundant and for implying that the US would pull its forces out of Europe. In stark contrast, President Trump has already made moves to strengthen NATO and significantly boost Western security.
Trump’s statements on NATO appeared to be contradictory and may have misled both Europeans and Russians into thinking that the White House would move to disband the Alliance and terminate US commitments to the defense of Europe. In retrospect, it transpires that Trump’s strong criticism of NATO was intended to refocus attention on Alliance missions and capabilities.
Two main factors can enable Trump to revive the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s future and his selection of a strong security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at European governments who consistently fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. Trump threatened to cut American support if these targets were not met, claiming that the American taxpayer should not be primarily responsible for defending a wealthy Europe.
Although several former US leaders have expressed their frustration with Europe’s inadequate defense spending, it appears that threats are more effective than pleas. Trump’s words are having an impact already with several capitals pledging to boost their spending over the coming years and improving their fighting capabilities.
Trump’s commitment to strengthening NATO is even more evident in the selection of his security team. In particular, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is a staunch supporter of the Alliance, which he views as indispensible for defending America’s national interests. He stated unambiguously at the Munich security conference that the bond between the US and NATO is a critical component in regional and global security.
Mattis’ visit to Brussels for NATO’s defense ministerial meeting in February was an important occasion to reaffirm US commitments but also to push for NATO’s internal reform to deal with contemporary threats. Mattis and the Pentagon understand that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and that NATO also needs to be more effective in combating terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Mattis’ pro-NATO position during his recent visit to Europe. Moreover, the replacement of the Russia-friendly National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn with General H. R. McMaster demonstrated that a more traditional Atlanticism would prevail in Washington. McMaster like Mattis has no illusions about Russia and will counter Kremlin objectives to dismantle NATO and reduce American influence in Europe.
Under the George W. Bush administration, NATO allies were focused on expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Barack Obama NATO was neglected and Europe’s defense was downgraded until Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014 and growing fears among NATO’s front line states over Moscow’s revisionist ambitions. Under the Trump administration there is an opportunity to modernize and strengthen NATO with the commitment of an increasing number of Allies.
Trump’s security policy will be largely defined by his handling of ISIS, the Middle East, and Russia’s assertiveness. In each of these arenas NATO has a role to play even before any discussions are undertaken or agreements made with Moscow. Indeed, Trump should learn lessons from Obama’s naïve expectations about “resets” with the Kremlin. As Mattis stated at the Munich security conference America and NATO need to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength.
Trump should learn from Obama’s mistakes and embrace a U.S. leadership role in Europe early in his term. This should also include a repositioning of American military deployments. Since the end of World War Two, German governments have taken US defense of the country for granted. The time is fast approaching to move some of NATO’s major installations from Germany to the new members in order to more effectively protect NATO’s eastern flank and deter Kremlin aggression. This should also include repositioning a larger share of the 60,000 US troops currently stationed in Western Europe to Poland and the Baltic states.
Moscow’s view of Trump has swung from euphoria to trepidation since he moved into the White House. Putin’s officials increasingly compare him to President Ronald Reagan, in seeking superiority over Russia and undercutting Moscow’s claims to global stature. For instance, they assert that Trump’s declared aim of putting the U.S. nuclear arsenal “at the top of the pack” risked triggering a new arms race between Washington and Moscow. Trump has proclaimed that he will reverse the decline in US nuclear weapons and dismisses treaties with Russia as “bad deals” for Washington.
With regard to NATO, instead of dismantling the Alliance as Moscow had hoped, Trump looks poised to rebuild and rejuvenate NATO, to substantially increase US defense spending, and to work more closely with European allies that are most committed to American goals. While Reagan’s military posture contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ultimate fear in Moscow is that Trump’s planned military buildup could contribute to dismantling the Russian Federation.
WILL TRUMP BE IMPEACHED?
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
The Donald Trump administration is only one month old, but talk about the President’s impeachment is already swirling around Washington. The future of the presidency may hinge on what emerges from upcoming congressional investigations into Trump’s dealings with Russia’s regime. Some insiders believe that the outcome could compare with the infamous Watergate scandal and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
There is growing suspicion in Congress that during the election campaign the recently fired national security adviser Michael Flynn promised sanctions relief to Moscow in return for Kremlin hacking of Hilary Clinton’s Emails that helped Trump win the presidential elections. Such an act by a private citizen is illegal.
Moreover, according to information leaked from US intelligence services other members of Trump’s campaign regularly communicated with Russian intelligence operatives. This has raised the key question that could precipitate impeachment: did Trump himself or members of his team collaborate with a foreign adversary to subvert the US elections? Furthermore, is the Trump administration trying to cover up the scandal by hiding behind the camouflage of “fake news”?
Impeachment is not simply a legal mechanism, but a political act. As long as a majority of congressional Republicans believe that Trump can push through their legislative agenda, impeachment seems unlikely. Nonetheless, if it is proved that Trump conspired with Russian intelligence it would be difficult even for Republicans to ignore the evidence.
America’s founders intentionally used the broad term “high crimes and misdemeanors” to hold Presidents, Vice Presidents, and cabinet members accountable. An impeached official is not charged by a prosecutor or in the courts, but is charged by the House of Representatives, tried by the Senate, and removed from office if convicted in order to restore respect for the Constitution.
Other accusations about the Trump administration continue to escalate, especially regarding his alleged conflict of interests that could undermine national security. There are concerns over potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, designed to prevent corruption and foreign influence over policy decisions.
Democrats in Congress have called for transparency in Trump’s business dealings and the release of his tax returns. They charge that Trump has not divested himself of ownership of his global businesses and is thereby susceptible to bribery or blackmail by foreign powers seeking to influence his policies. Some in Congress are warning about legal actions, including the prospect of impeachment.
Another arena where congressional action has been threatened revolves around Trump’s executive orders designed to block immigration from selected Muslim-majority states. If the President orders federal agencies to ignore judicial rulings halting his immigration order, Congress could pass a resolution of censure. But if presidential unilateralism persists, there could be a new push for impeachment.
Moscow remains at the center of Trump’s problems and Putin has made various calculations about the new White House. Early hopes that Trump will engineer deals with Russia are fast receding, including the notion that Ukraine will be sacrificed in return for anti-terrorist cooperation. US Secretary of Defense Secretary Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence, and other high-ranking officials have made it clear that NATO will remain united and no major deals with the Kremlin are possible if it continues to occupy Crimea and fuels war in eastern Ukraine.
If Russia concludes that it cannot benefit from Trump’s foreign policy decisions then it will seek to exploit any disarray in the new administration. Indeed, Russian commentators are banking on Trump polarizing and dividing America. Some officials are even hoping that Trump will become an American Gorbachev who will create a major domestic crisis and substantially reduce US global influence. Russia’s propaganda offensive against Washington could even provide support to anyone in the country who promotes confrontation with Trump.
If Trump becomes weak politically because of numerous scandals then the Kremlin will prepare for an early collapse and potential impeachment. Domestic turmoil could provide Moscow with a unique opportunity to pursue its expansionist policies around its borders without fear of US retaliation. A dysfunctional White House would itself be a threat to US national security that could be exploited by several aggressive powers.
However, there could be another twist to the Trump-Putin saga. In order to shield himself from accusations of collusion with Russia and his alleged business ties with Moscow oligarchs, Trump may actually welcome a conflict with Russia to restore his legitimacy and credibility.
Since the inauguration, Putin has been testing Trump with deployments of missile systems prohibited by the IMF Treaty, with confrontational overflights of US warships in the Black Sea, and by positioning a spy ship off America’s east coast. Putin evidently calculates that Trump is too preoccupied to respond or too determined to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East to confront Moscow.
But the Kremlin may miscalculate. An exasperated and besieged Trump may decide to demonstrate his toughness and resolve, whether by increasing the US troop presence along NATO’s eastern flank or arming Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons. Trump may even hit out by shooting down a Russian jet that strays too close to an American vessel. Putin needs to beware of provoking a wounded White House.
AMERICA’S BALKAN CONTROVERSIES
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
Controversial statements by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in support of redrawing borders in the Western Balkans have provoked both fear and expectation throughout the region. Some political leaders assume that Rohrabacher, as a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, could influence White House policy.
The California congressman has been a controversial figure in Washington for many years, often voicing views diametrically at odds with mainstream government policy. In recent interviews for the regional media he has reiterated his position on how the Balkans should be reorganized twenty-five years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
In his first proposal, Rohrabacher believes that in order to stabilize the region Serbia and Kosova should exchange territories and populations, thus leading to mutual recognition.Rohrabacher has even dispatched a letter to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, asking Serbian authorities to consider the exchange of territories in the north of Kosova with parts of the Presevo valley currently in southern Serbia.
In his second proposal, during an interview with Albanian television Rohrabacher asserted that Macedonia should be divided between Kosova and Bulgaria because it is not a “proper state.” He claimed that Albanians and Macedonians cannot be reconciled. Hence, parts of Macedonia should be attached to Kosova and the eastern section of the country to Bulgaria.
Rohrabacher seems eager to bring home all remaining US troops, arguing that Washington is keeping alive an artificial state through its regional presence. And given his reasoning, presumably other states should be partitioned, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. His argument also rests on the supposition that territorial exchanges can be accomplished voluntarily, without renewed violence, and without more intense American involvement.
Despite the obvious problems in implementation, some politicians and analysts are worried that Rohrabacher’s proposal will be accepted by the Trump administration in order to scale down the US presence and refocus on more critical regions.
Rohrabacher has often espoused both controversial and contradictory positions. On the one hand, he supports the creation of a Greater Albania or a Greater Kosova and is widely considered anti-Serbian. But on the other hand, he is known as President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent defenders in Washington and has opposed Montenegro’s membership in NATO.
Rohrabacher was the first member of Congress to insist that the US arm the Kosova Liberation Army and remains one of the few members who have consistently publicly supported the independence of Kosova. However, he does not apply the same principle to Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. On the contrary, he has is widely considered as the most pro-Moscow and Putin friendly Congressmen.
Rohrabacher boasts about his personal friendship with Putin and consistently defends “the Russian point of view.” After Trump won the elections, Rohrabacher backed the new president’s statements that relations with Moscow should be improved by cooperating on the settlement of the Syrian crisis, combating international jihadist terrorism, and deterring China’s expansionism in East Asia.
As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, Rohrabacher was on the short list for nomination as the new US Secretary of State. However, his maverick position on Russia and softness toward Putin has alienated him from many congresspeople, including Republicans.
Although it is too early to determine the Balkan policy of the Trump administration, its contours are beginning to emerge. Observers and politicians in the region speculated that Trump may be more amenable to Serbia’s position or more willing to make deals with Moscow in which Kosova or Bosnia-Herzegovina could be sacrificed. Some European analysts even believe that Trump will withdraw completely from the Western Balkans and declare the region a “European issue” that the EU should handle.
But contrary to the high hopes in Belgrade and Moscow, the new President’s objectives may be far from beneficial for Serbia or Russia. Indeed, the exact opposite may be the case. In one indication that the Kremlin position will be disregarded, the White House national security advisor has recommended that Trump support Montenegro’s membership in NATO to smooth the ratification process in the US Senate.
Serbian officials also seemed certain that the Trump administration would be less committed to Kosova’s independence or membership in international organizations. In reality, the opposite may be true. As a self-declared pragmatist and deal-maker, Trump may seek to speed up the process of Kosova’s statehood and international integration in order to hasten the removal of American troops.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis implicitly backed such an approach during his Senate confirmation hearings. Mattis indicated that Washington may support a more rapid creation of a regular Kosova army that can take on all security functions including the defense of Kosova’s borders. This has not been well received in either Belgrade or Moscow and both capitals are anxiously waiting to see what position the new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will adopt. Some observers are now speculating that Washington may soon demand that Serbia recognize Kosova.
MAKING DEALS WITH MOSCOW
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
The future of economic sanctions against Russia for its ongoing attack on Ukraine has become a litmus test for the foreign policy effectiveness of President Donald Trump. Lifting sanctions without any tangible benefits to US and Allied security would make it more likely that Washington becomes embroiled in a future confrontation with Moscow Putin is bound to interpret such a move as weakness and may miscalculate the US stance in his next foreign adventure.
The new US administration has yet to be tested internationally. Cancelling free trade agreements and talking tough with foreign leaders is the relatively easy part. Responding to armed conflict, including a potential Russian attack on an independent neighboring state, will demonstrate the intentions and capabilities of the White House.
The easing of any component of US sanctions, whether over the attack on Ukraine or in response to Moscow’s interference in America’s elections, would be viewed as a victory in the Kremlin. Moreover, linking sanctions with any potential cooperation in combating ISIS is a self-defeating strategy. It assumes that Moscow’s seeks to combat anti-Western jihadism, whereas in reality the Kremlin fans Islamist terrorism to distract the White House from its own international ambitions.
The condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, underscored that sanctions imposed for the annexation of Crimea will remain in place until Moscow withdraws from the peninsula. Less clear is whether additional sanctions enforced for the proxy war in the Donbas could be eased or whether the White House views these as part of the same package.
In addition, the decision by the US Treasury Department to ease some sanctions applied by the Obama administration in retaliation for Kremlin interference in the US elections could prove counterproductive. By allowing US companies to conduct transactions with the FSB, the spy agency will calculate that it has a freer hand for further subversive operations. Putin may well be tempted to further test the Trump team to see how much advantage he can gain without any consequential US resistance.
If indeed the lifting of economic sanctions is intended to help US business then Washington needs to include strict conditions to protect its long-term interests. Such linkage provides an opportunity for President Trump to stamp his authority and demonstrate his potency in any deal making with Russia. Without clear markers for the Kremlin, the White House will again find itself floundering when Putin decides to escalate his international offensives.
If sanctions are softened the US should demand corresponding concessions by the Kremlin to test Putin’s sincerity in honoring bilateral deals. For instance, removing Russian companies from the sectoral sanctions list, which were added after the attack on Donbas, can be linked with Ukraine regaining full control of its eastern border with Russia. Such commitments must be closely monitored and verified. A number of similar deals could be made in restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and promoting a lasting ceasefire with Russia.
At the same time, in order to underscore America’s firmness, the arms embargo on Ukraine needs to be lifted. Kyiv should be allowed to gain lethal defensive weapons, thus overturning the mistaken Obama approach that weakened Ukraine’s self-defenses and encouraged Russia’s incursions. A key part of any emerging Trump doctrine should guarantee every US ally and partner the right to defend itself from outside aggression, thus lessening the need for future American military involvement.
The targeted financial sanctions imposed on Moscow have contributed to the downturn in the Russian economy and damaged the performance of some major state companies. If sanctions were to be eased the Kremlin-controlled oil and gas industry would find it easier to access foreign financing. Although lifting sanctions will not reverse Russia’s economic deterioration, precipitated by low energy prices, lack of diversification, absence of the rule of law, and pervasive official corruption, they will give Putin a short-term propaganda victory.
To guard against Kremlin attempts to manipulate the new US administration, a bipartisan group of Senators have introduced new legislation that would impose further sanctions on Russia. At a time when Moscow is escalating its offensive in the Donbas, withdrawing sanctions would be interpreted as a green light to further aggression, while an additional embargo would signal that the Trump presidency is serious in punishing warmongers.
The proposed congressional sanctions are directed at Russia’s energy sector and its civil nuclear projects. They also aim to terminate trade in Russia’s sovereign debt and remove US investment in the privatization of state-owned assets. Although passage of this legislation seems unlikely at this point, the fact that Congress may consider such a bill conveys a clear warning to Moscow against further meddling in the affairs of its neighbors or in US politics.
Trump himself should not view the proposed legislation as a challenge to his foreign policy goals but a valuable tool that he can keep in reserve if any deals with Putin are violated. While the new US President portrays himself as an artful deal-maker, he must remember that the Kremlin is notorious as a serial deal-breaker.
TRUMP THE SOCIALIST
Janusz Bugajski, February 2017
President Donald Trump’s first days in office indicate that he is more of a statist socialist than a capitalist Republican. His pursuit of greater state intervention in the economy and his opposition to neo-liberal globalism places him closer to leftist Democrats than to centrists or rightist Republicans.
Most analysts have labeled Trump as a radical rightist and even a neo-fascist. However, such labels are imprecise and do not fully fit with the policy moves of the new American administration. A closer look at Trump’s early initiatives indicate that he is both a nationalist and a socialist.
Socially, Trump has pandered to ultra-conservatives and Christian evangelicals, but he is neither a religious fanatic nor convinced by an agenda that opposes homosexual rights or abortion. He may support such initiatives but only as long as they secure him the backing of the most conservative voters and prevent the Republican base from rebelling against his economic plans.
It is on the economic front that Trump is veering toward state socialist prescriptions. Republicans are traditionally opposed to big government and state intervention. Over recent decades both conservatives and neo-liberals have tried to limit the power of the state, which is often viewed as a socialist impediment to development. Despite Trump’s claims, such policies have not weakened America as much as cuts in defense spending and an accomodationist policy toward Russian expansionism.
Trump’s statist socialism is evident in several areas. He is coercing large private US companies to invest inside America, planning for huge government spending on infrastructure projects, opposing free trade agreements, ignoring threats to the environment (similarly to socialist East Europe), and issuing millenarian promises to the population. This is aside from his threats against the media and distrust of civic initiatives evident in all socialist autocracies.
Trump is seeking higher economic growth and job creation using a classic “import-substitution” approach. This involves significant government intervention, including deregulation and incentives to favor domestic production and the consumption of American-made goods and services.
Such a program is underpinned by a contract between state and business that involves both carrots and stick. The carrot of business deregulation and lower corporate taxes is counterbalanced by the threat of onerous tariffs and other forms of punishment against corporations investing abroad. Some economists have compared this to policies pursued by leftist governments in several Latin America countries.
The centerpiece of Trump’s state socialist project is a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative proposed during the election campaign, although decreased to $550 billion following the ballot. A group of senior Senate Democrats have unveiled their own $1 trillion plan to revamp the nation’s airports, bridges, roads and seaports, urging Trump to back their proposal, which they claim would create 15 million jobs over the next decade. This is a clear case where self-styled “progressives” overlap with rightist statist interventionists.
Some Democratic congressmen assert that their infrastructure plan would rely on direct federal spending and would span a range of projects including roads, bridges, and schools. Democrats want to use this statist initiative to drive a wedge between the new president and congressional Republicans who oppose a major new government spending program that would balloon Washington’s already massive budget deficit.
Much like the self-declared socialist and Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders, Trump has also supported nationalized universal health care, although his position may shift in office in order to maintain traditional Republican support.
Trump’s statism also blends with his nationalist and isolationist convictions. His stated commitment to increase spending for a stronger military does not coincide with Socialist prescriptions. However, his isolationist leanings certainly fall within the socialist camp. Isolationism has two elements – a protectionist economic policy to allegedly defend American workers and limit immigration – and opposition to international military involvement.
Trump is a classic protectionist, mirroring the program of the left in calling for an end to multilateral free trade agreements and high tariff on imports from countries such as China and Mexico. Although the purpose is to encourage American business and to raise employment, the effect will be to raise domestic prices and undermine America’s global competitiveness. Trump will face opposition from within Republican ranks, who favor a lessened state role in trade and free markets.
On the security side, Trump wants to reduce funding for NATO and other international organizations while withdrawing American bases from around the world. This is a traditional leftist position intended to limit US military intervention in overseas wars. Nonetheless, Trump’s unpredictability is more likely to provoke a regional war than the much more cautious leftist isolationists.
The Trump phenomenon demonstrates that extreme left and right ultimately merge. This was evident among fascist parties throughout inter-war Europe. Nationalism and protectionism are far rightist principles and can combine with state socialist programs to appeal to a sizeable sector of the population including dissatisfied working class voters. In addition, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations favor a statist approach to government with the notion of a patriotic vanguard that leads “the people” into a new millennium.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CENTRAL EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, January 2017
The countries of Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) are anxiously monitoring the foreign policy moves of President Donald Trump. But simply waiting for decisions from Washington is insufficient to raise the stature of CEE capitals in the strategic calculations of the new White House. They cannot afford to be passive bystanders but must be perceived as active contributors to Allied and American interests.
During the US presidential campaign, candidate Trump questioned the value of NATO, the financial commitment of allies to mutual defense, and Europe’s dependence on the US. In response, the small and medium sized states forming half of Europe need to reinvent themselves or face the danger of being ignored ahead of the ambitions of larger powers. They also need to restate their significance for America.
Historically, strategically, and economically the huge swath of territory between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas is vital for European security. Two world wars were sparked in this region, pulling America into devastating combat. More blood was shed in CEE during the 20th century than in the history of any other region.
Millions of Americans originate from CEE and remain concerned about the future of their ancestral countries. Since the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, each government has helped to defend America’s security interests and national values. This was evident in their military participation in US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which several West European allies refused to take part. Unlike Russia, each CEE country remains a dependable ally and partner and is not in competition with the US for territory, influence, or resources.
Given Trump’s “America first” focus, CEE capitals have to demonstrate that their security is vital to US interests, and in this effort they can pursue both minimal and maximal objectives. At the minimal level, a basic priority is to assure the continuity of US policy toward the region. This includes the non-reversal of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in response to Russia’s revisionism and the completion of current US military deployments in front line states such as Poland and the Baltic countries.
At the maximal level, CEE leaders should endeavor to convince Washington to adopt a tougher diplomatic position against Russia’s “soft power” subversion of the region. The White House needs to understand that Moscow’s regional policies are designed to replace pro-American governments and undermine US interests. CEE officials also need to explain why a harder sanctions regime and a display of strength is more likely to restrain Moscow’s ambitions than an easing of pressure.
The ultimate aim throughout CEE is to preclude any grand deal between Washington and Moscow over the heads of affected countries that undermines their security and can retard their development. This will require greater activism by each government to demonstrate in both word and deed that the region remains important for the US.
Trump has placed a premium on the national independence of every state and praised Britain’s “Brexit” decision. This principle can be applied to all CEE countries, not in terms of leaving the EU but in ensuring their immunity to Russia’s provocations, subversion, and intervention. Washington needs to be attuned to the fears and aspirations of each nation to avoid a spiral of regional conflict or another potential war.
On the economic front, Europe’s East is a larger and much more developed market than Russia and has a combined population of some 170 million consumers. Trump has stressed the importance of business connections in developing bilateral relations and CEE has an opportunity to demonstrate its attraction for new American investments.
In the security arena, each CEE country needs to pursue a three-pronged demonstration of commitments to NATO and to bilateral ties with the US. First, it is imperative to earmark at least 2% of GDP for defense, as stipulated by NATO agreements. Thus far only Poland and Estonia meet this standard, although other countries, including Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania, have pledged to increase their spending in the coming years. The process needs to be speeded up so the region is not seen as a mere consumer of security.
Second, there needs to be a greater focus on building domestic deterrents against outside aggression so that the CEE region is not perceived as impotently waiting for outside assistance. This includes the development of an effective territorial defense force, military modernization, and targeted defense spending that serves joint Allied interests.
And third, enhanced regional security cooperation is essential where common deterrents need to be established to confront outside aggressors. This can include combined military units, intelligence sharing, joint air-defense, and a host of other initiatives. Regional defense will encourage greater commitments by the US to better protect the borders, airspace, and sea space of eastern flank countries.
For America an unstable Europe that is fractured internally and whose borders are challenged by a belligerent Russia would constitute a major foreign policy disaster, reversing the progress made by every President since Ronald Reagan. In a worst-case scenario, it could pull the US into another costly war in order to defend America’s allies. The CEE region is the key interface between American and European interests and underscores that a common peace only works through collective strength.
SERBIA’S NEW YEAR MANEUVERS
Janusz Bugajski, January 2017
The Serbian government has begun 2017 with mixed messages to the West and with the potential to spark regional instability during America’s presidential transition. It is therefore vital for NATO members such as Croatia to demonstrate their commitments to existing borders and inter-state norms.
On the constructive side, Belgrade is cooperating with Podgorica to flush out the organizers of the failed coup attempt in Montenegro during last October’s elections. Serbian police recently arrested two suspected coup plotters on terrorist charges, in line with arrest warrants issued by Montenegrin authorities.
Serbian officials stated that they would continue working on Montenegrin extradition requests in line with their bilateral agreement. Podgorica issued arrest warrants for two Russian and two Serb citizens for “setting-up of a criminal organization and terrorism,” including a plan to kill former Milo Djukanovic on election day.
Montenegrin authorities describe the coup attempt as an anti-NATO plot designed to bring a pro-Russian coalition to power. The Serbian government quickly distanced itself from the plotters and decided to collaborate closely with an imminent NATO member.
It appears that the Aleksandar Vucic administration realizes that a successful coup in Montenegro could encourage a similar attempt in Serbia if the government enters into a prolonged dispute with Moscow. The Kremlin supports a more aggressive Serbian role in the region and views Prime Minister Vucic as too accommodating to NATO and the EU and insufficiently assertive toward Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
To keep pace with Moscow’s strategy and to maintain its support, Belgrade’s position toward Kosova is unsettling the region. Serbian officials remain fixated on pursuing major political figures in Kosova as alleged war criminals and in claiming that Kosova remains a part of Serbia.
In the most recent dispute, Belgrade has urged France to send former KLA commander and ex-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to Belgrade to face war crimes charges. Haradinaj has been acquitted twice by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal but has been detained in France as Paris considers the validity of a Serbian arrest warrant.
In a move that will further sour relations with Western capitals, Belgrade warned of retaliation if Paris refuses to dispatch Haradinaj to a Serbian prison. Officials asserted that they will disregard any extradition treaties with France and other states that do not recognize Serbia’s arrest warrants. Slovenia declined to send Haradinaj to Belgrade after detaining him in 2015, while Switzerland refused last year to send two former members of the KLA to Serbia to face trial.
If Haradinaj was actually dispatched by the French authorities to Belgrade for trial by Serbian courts, the impact on the region could prove devastating. The outcry in Kosova itself would raise inter-ethnic tensions and seriously threaten the Serbian minority, still viewed by many Albanians as facilitators and supporters of Milosevic’s attempted genocide in 1999. Albanian unrest in Kosova would scuttle any chance of normalizing relations between Prishtina and Belgrade and have serious reverberations in Macedonia where Albanians are becoming more vociferous in demanding equal rights with Macedonians. Renewed conflicts would place pressure on all pro-NATO governments and open new inroads for Russia’s subversion.
The conflict with Kosova is further exacerbated by Belgrade’s plans to establish a regular railway service to the Serbian enclave in northern Mitrovica. The Russian-built train has been painted in Serbian national colors and bears the slogan “Kosovo is Serbian” in twenty languages. If Belgrade pushes ahead with this scheme it will provoke a direct conflict with Prishtina and raise prospects for outright violence. Serbia’s pro-Kremlin President Tomislav Nikolic has accused Kosova’s leaders of “wanting war” because of their refusal to allow the train on their territory.
A third developing problem in which Serbia will also be involved is the status of Republika Srpska and the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Donald Trump administration. Officials in Banja Luka and nationalist politicians in Belgrade believe that the Trump White House will be more favorable toward RS and less accommodating to Muslim populations in the Balkans. Hence, they will be testing the new administration and Washington’s reaction to their assertiveness.
President Milorad Dodik has made a major point in being invited to side events at the Trump inauguration on January 20th, signaling that his presence indicated a significant change brewing in US policy toward his quasi-state. In reality, little is likely to alter in US policy in the Balkans in the short-term, especially as the Trump team will be preoccupied with much more pressing domestic and foreign policy problems.
Serbia’s international maneuvers place the onus on Croatia to act as a regional stabilizer, beginning with Bosnia. Commitment to a single Bosnian state must be demonstrated through words and deeds, including joint regional programs with Sarajevo and the reigning in of any separatist tendencies among Bosnian Croats. A crunch time is approaching in which relations between Croats and Bosnians will be sorely tested, as Russia and Serbia now see an opportunity for measuring American and European resolve.
TRUMP’S FOREIGN POLICY CONTRADICTIONS
Janusz Bugajski, January 2017
As America prepares for the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a major rift has appeared not only between Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate but even between members of Trump’s own foreign policy team. The dispute revolves around US policy toward Russia.
A storm has erupted following the release of US intelligence reports that the Kremlin was involved in influencing the presidential elections. While Trump seeks to downplay Moscow’s role in the campaign, fearful that it will delegitimize his victory, both Democrats and Republicans view Russian Email hacking as an attack on American democracy.
Republicans have embraced Trump’s positions on immigration, trade, Iran, and even on China, but not Russia. Most elected Republicans have a traditional hard-line position on Russia as an expansionist power and a threat to US interests and America’s allies. By contrast, Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin.
According to senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump appears to have a blind spot toward Moscow despite the fact the Russia is undermining democracy around the globe, attacking neighbors, and hacking into the US political system. Trump has even sided with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, someone that most Republicans consider an enemy of the state. Assange released Democratic Party Emails after reportedly receiving them from Russian sources tied to the Kremlin.
There are various theories why Trump acquiesces to the Kremlin. Some believe that Russian agencies possess compromising material on him gathered over several decades. Or Trump may simply have extensive financial ties with Russian oligarchs that he does not want exposed or cancelled.
The conflict over Russia effects Trump’s national security choices, some of whom are preparing to testify before the US Congress. Trump’s nominees to run the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security will need to be confirmed by the Senate, amidst fears that they could express positions at odds with Trump.
Senators from both parties, who support a tougher policy toward Russia than that pursued by President Barack Obama, will use the confirmation hearings to highlight the confusion in Trump’s position toward Moscow. Indeed, Trump’s national security team can be divided into two camps: the realists and the appeasers, and no one knows which will prevail in formulating policy.
The realists include Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis who has stated that Russia could be America’s most dangerous rival. Mattis has strongly criticized Putin, asserting that he wants “to break NATO apart” and called for a more aggressive posture to confront Moscow.
Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo, nominated to head the CIA, has asserted that Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was “far too weak.” Pompeo, who served on the US House Intelligence Committee, has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, while Trump has held out the prospect of lifting sanctions.
K.T. McFarland, a former Reagan administration official selected to be Trump’s deputy national security adviser, is also a Russia realist. She has claimed that the US is engaged in a cyberwar with Moscow, which has been trying to influence the US elections.
General John Kelly, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security, which has a major role in dealing with cyber threats, has told Congress that Russia’s inroads in Latin America are more dangerous than China’s. According to Kelly, Putin has returned to Cold War-tactics and is using power projection to erode US leadership and challenge American influence even in the Western Hemisphere.
In stark contrast, Trump’s Russia appeasers include the incoming national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, who has defended Moscow in the past and seeks close cooperation to counter international terrorism. Flynn, who does not require Senate confirmation and who has shaped many of Trump’s foreign policy views, was a paid consultant for Russia Today – a propaganda arm of the Kremlin.
Potentially the most explosive confirmation process will be for the US Secretary of State. Trump’s nominee is Rex Tillerson, who as head of the energy giant Exxon Mobil was a vehement critic of economic sanctions against Russia. Tillerson is under intense scrutiny for his close relationship with Putin in several oil deals and for his opposition to punishing Russia economically for its aggressive actions against neighbors.
Some Trump advisers predict that the incoming President will eventually have to confront reality as it becomes apparent that Putin will only be accommodating if compelled to do so. The looming question is how Trump reconciles contradictory views in pursuing an effective Russia policy that promotes US interests. If Trump really wants to strengthen US security, as he pledged during the elections, then he cannot create the appearance of weakness or surrender ground to a permanent geopolitical rival.
THE POWER OF FAKE NEWS
Janusz Bugajski, January 2017
In the era of fake news, democracies need to protect themselves from a deluge of disinformation. False facts and unsubstantiated rumors not only provide fertile ground for populists and extremists to fool the public, they can also discredit and threaten democratic institutions.
The scope and reach of false news has become so extensive that Martin Schulz, President of the EU parliament, has called for Europe-wide laws to stem the spread of particularly harmful stories. A special EU team, StratCom East, already documents disinformation originating from Russian sources. It issues a weekly bulletin highlighting the numerous myths and distortions, as well as a Twitter feed called EU Mythbusters.
The unit responsible for StratCom East is led by a former British EU official and contains experts on disinformation from several member states. The material is collected through a “myth-buster network” of over 300 journalists, bloggers, NGO activists, and current and former government officials.
Countries facing elections have become particularly vulnerable and concerned about fake news that can influence the outcome. Officials and analysts are looking at the conduct of the US elections as a negative precedent. American intelligence sources are convinced that Russian professionals created false stories to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump. Fake news was sent through Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media outlets.
With Germany facing general elections in 2017, Berlin is worried that similar infiltration could impact on the vote. German officials have proposed creating a special government unit, an “anti-disinformation center,” to combat fake news. The government is also drafting legislation to prevent Facebook from spreading fabricated stories. Social media networks are not merely conduits for information but share a responsibility to society for accuracy and should be fined if they enable damaging false stories to spread.
Facebook has a platform of more than 1.5 billion users worldwide and clearly impacts on social attitudes and behavior, and not only among the most gullible who are prone to conspiracy theories. In response to mounting pressure, the Facebook management is finally seeking out the worst offenders who spread false reports. They have enlisted five fact-checking organizations to review stories that are flagged by Facebook users.
Individual lies are one thing but deliberate state intervention is much more dangerous. Schulz claims that to combat the subversion of democracy through manufactured news, a Europe-wide solution is necessary. Legislation and enforcement should not restrict free speech but a way needs to be found to warn consumers that a particular story either has no basis in fact or has not been corroborated.
Analysts believe that populists, nationalists, and pro-Moscow activists are saturating the social media and can inject falsehood during election campaigns that preoccupy journalists, commentators, and politicians and divert attention from real policy issues, similarly to what occurred in the US. Such stories are aimed not only at discrediting particular politicians but also at undermining national institutions and questioning the rationale for democracy.
The Czech Republic is at the forefront of the anti-disinformation campaign. To counter Russia’s offensive against Western democracies, Prague has established a specialist unit dealing with fake news spread by websites supported by Moscow. Its primary aim is to counteract interference in the country’s general election in October.
Officials believe the Kremlin is behind forty Czech-language websites peddling conspiracy theories. Its key goal is to sow doubts into the minds of citizens that democracy is the best system, while creating negative images of the EU, the US, and NATO. Part of the Czech interior ministry, the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, will now scrutinize disinformation and counter it via the social media.
Online agitation had an impact in the Czech Republic during the refugee crisis and incited anti-Islamic rallies despite the fact that the country has few Muslims or immigrants. Protesters have carried placards denouncing the EU, NATO, and Chancellor Merkel. The social media offensive has also fuelled public fears of terrorism and an imminent influx of Middle Eastern refugees.
Czech intelligence officials blame some sectors of the country’s 45,000-strong Russian community for the disinformation, as well as agents at the large Russian embassy in Prague who pose as diplomats. Some Czech MPs advocate expelling Russian citizens convicted of spreading false news and expelling diplomats suspected of spying.
According to the Czech Republic’s domestic security agency, BIS, Moscow possesses the “most active foreign intelligence services” on Czech soil. One of the priorities of Russian espionage is to fabricate disinformation and promote distrust in the democratic process that will enable extremists to gain votes against “the establishment.”
Viewers and listeners anywhere in Europe need to be beware of being duped by Russia’s special services. For instance, during 2016 manufactured news included reports that the CIA murdered Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov; that the US plans to shoot down a Finnish plane and blame Russia; that Poland is preparing to occupy western Ukraine; and that IS militants are fighting against pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine. Purveyors of such disinformation operate on the assumption that voters in every country can be easily deceived.