Tag Archives: geopolitics

The big chemical lie

The wheel of history turns and turns, but we the people don’t seem to change too much, do we? It’s as if only the stage set occasionally changes a bit around us. We’ve replaced the carts and wagons with cars, instead of shacks we live in shiny buildings of glass and metal, and our brains we’ve trapped inside plastic boxes and connected them digitally. And that’s about it, as far as change goes. Everything else remains: wars, resources, politics, easily controllable masses, trade and consumption.

In the late 3rd century AD, Roman emperor Diocletian established a tetrarchy, and he appointed one Gaius Galerius to rule Egypt and Syria on his behalf. In 303, encouraged by Galerius, Diocletian burned his own imperial palace in Nicomedia, then accused the Christians for it and used the opportunity to demonize the Christian community based around Antioch. Terrible persecution ensued, torching, pogroms, beheadings, massacres of Christians (St. George and St. Panteleimon were among the more famous victims).

This propaganda tactic has been used for centuries. And for some unknown anthropogenic reason, it always works without fault. It worked for Hitler when he burned down the Reichstag and blamed the communists. It’s obviously working today for the US too, their main tool for well crafted blame being the “use of WMDs” and the “killing of innocent small children” (think about the children, you heartless automatons!) This worked flawlessly for both their wars in Iraq. First they brought a 15 year old girl to the international human rights committee, and she told the jury, with tears in her eyes and a touching trembling voice, how she had witnessed the murder of babies in incubators by blood-thirsty Iraqi soldiers. Years later it turned out she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and the whole story had been forged, but what does it matter. The case for Iraq War 1.0 had already been made, it was a done deal at this point.

Next up, Iraq War 2.0 and the “chemical weapons” that Saddam presumably had in his possession. Those were probably meant to be the same WMDs the US had supplied him with for his prior fight with the Iranians. At the end of the day, no such weapons were found and everything turned to have been mere propaganda. Too bad for the hundreds of thousands of killed Iraqi, their ruined country, and the chaos in the region that persists to this day. What does it matter? The ends justify the means. After all, who would’ve dared to question the testimony of a sobbing little girl about bad evil soldiers slaughtering little babies?

Oh, and how are we supposed to question and criticize the good intentions of the global spreader of democracy and all that is good in the world? Yeah, the only country in history to use nuclear WMDs for the mass murder of entire cities. Now this paragon of peace again seems utterly “concerned” with the presence of chemical weapons in a war-torn region. And sure, they should have a good reason to be worried about chemical weapons: traces of them are still affecting the biospheres in Vietnam, right? So, America must know a thing or two about chemical weapons. Therefore we should trust their judgment when they have to say something on the matter.

As much as we might be tempted to accuse the US administration (not just this one, all previous administrations too) in a lack of imagination and creativity, at the end of the day, the tasteless propaganda they’re so eager to employ over and over again, seems to be working just fine. Every single time. The accusations against Assad have been flowing in for more than 6 years now, maybe several times a month, every month. The first accusation was back in 2013, when chemical weapons were used in Khan Al-Assal, near Aleppo. But in that case something didn’t click right into place with the whole story, and the “moderate rebels” were exposed as the likeliest culprit. Things went as far as former UN prosecutor Carla del Ponte saying herself that it was most likely that the rebels had used the chemicals. She was fired the very next day for this sudden, unsolicited burst of sincerity. We can’t allow some narratives to be challenged now, can we?

Mind you, if you think this is some crazy-ass conspiracy theory, I’ll have to disappoint you. This is actually closer to fact than the stories the media had been spreading, at least initially (when it most mattered). The Syrian government invited international inspectors to investigate the case openly, but for “administrative reasons” they somehow came a few months late, on August 20, 2013. On August 21 (the next day), as the international delegation were already in their Damascus hotel, the next accusation came in: in Eastern Ghouta, a region in the Damascus suburbs, another chemical attack. The delegation instantly packed up and left Syria without even setting foot in Khan Al-Assal. And Obama started declaring left and right that Assad had crossed the imaginary “red line” the US had set for him.

Thus, we get to this month’s new accusation, the one from April 4. The whole thing looks like a belated April Fools prank when you look a bit closer at it. From Khan Sheikhoun, a town under the firm control of Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, a string of footage came of gassed dead children. Just a day earlier, Al Qaeda had kidnapped scores of people from nearby Khattab, their whereabouts still remaining a mystery now. Local news outlets report that these were the same people who were shown in the footage of the chemical attack. The Syrian and Russian military claims a weapons storage was hit, stuffed with ammo from Turkey. As we’ve mentioned here, any motivation of the Syrian military to use chemical weapons at a time they’ve almost won the battle in North Hama, remains a mystery too. It sounds illogical and absurd, stupid even. We should be asking ourselves, who actually wins from the whole story? Assad, who had his foes stuck into a corner and would’ve suffocated their resistance if he had kept the course for another few weeks without any sharp moves – or his desperate opponents who were near done and finished, unless something new and drastic happened (like a chemical attack, and the direct involvement of the world’s greatest military power)? Are there any critically-thinking people still around?

But let’s face it. None of this really matters. It’s quite telling that Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu seems so utterly concerned for the well-being of the Syrian people, and Turkish president Erdogan (this paragon of humility and humanity), and also Boris Johnson, Francois Hollande and a dozen other friendly US minions who’ve piled onto the bandwagon, and crawled into the media and social networks, as if prompted by command, to raise a chorus of condemnations to the evil Syrian government.

No direct and undeniable proof, no UN resolutions this time, no verifiable information. We don’t need them to start bombing someone at this point. So the US did just that. In a display of decisiveness, strong will and sympathy for the dead little children and their sobbing surviving siblings, Trump ordered the bombing of a Syrian air base near Homs. The stated reason was the “chemical attack” that Assad had somehow done in an Al Qaeda controlled town, based on footage sent by the omnipresent White Helmets – the ones who probably deserve more Oscars than Meryl Streep for their artistic renderings of events (not that anti-Syrian propaganda wasn’t present at the Oscars). As some of us may be aware, the so called White Helmets are exclusively active in regions controlled by Ahrar Al Sham and Al Nusra. The reason for this I leave to your imagination to deduce.

Whether the world is standing at the precipice of WW3 or this is all just some re-shuffling of the chess pieces, the more important question is, why is all this needed? Who gains from it? Well, we’ve already talked about this part here already. As funny and simplistic as it may sound to some, it’s mostly about gas. Gas pipes, to be more precise. If you look at the map of Syria, you’d realize America’s main problem and that of their good buddies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, is the advance of the Syrian military towards Palmyra and Deir Ez-Zor. If Assad takes these territories, he’d shut the gates to the Gulf pipes from Qatar to Turkey, and render the splitting up of Syria meaningless. Splitting Syria up has been America’s plan B since they realized nearly 3/4 of the Syrian population actually supports a secular government rather than the US-preferred Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamized metastases.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the newly-found fossil fuel deposits in the Levantine basin if we want the whole picture. Everyone knows the US and their minions want to put a friendly puppet in Damascus, and they’re using radical Islam as a tool for pressuring the current regime there. If they genuinely wanted democracy, they would’ve focused on the most obvious elephant in the room first, Saudi Arabia. After all, any dissident thought, especially in terms of religion, is punished by jail and even death there, and women have close to zero rights. It seems to me Saudi Arabia (and Kuwait, and Qatar, etc) are in urgent need of freedom and democracy, no? Or maybe having mindless, easily controllable consumers is more convenient to both sides of this awkward West/East symbiosis?

And to those ultra-nationalist neocon hawks on both sides of the aisle praising Trump’s sudden “presidential aura” and his unilateral actions in Syria, I’d just as this one question. You folks are very fond of Jesus, right? So why doesn’t anyone try to find a surviving Christian town or neighborhood in the “rebel”-controlled parts of Syria that still has population and is not completely destroyed? Come on, find me one!

Why does your Jesus-loving government support (and in some occasions, indirectly sponsor) genocide against Christians? Why am I not hearing anything on the Trump-praising, airstrike-contemplating, “beautiful”-poetry-reciting media about the systematic exterminations of the Christian population in towns like Maharde by “moderate” monsters like Jaish al Izzah? Who funds those monsters? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the US supplying them with equipment and money? How did they end up in possession of brand new US weapons? In fact, when you’re attacking the Syrian government, who are you really attacking? Syrians, Christians, Alawites and Sunnis. In other words, to use the nationalist rhetoric you’re so accustomed to, “Real Syrians”.

Also, could you point me to a single square inch of rebel-controlled territory where a Wahhabi and Salafi Sharia quasi-caliphate hasn’t been imposed? Would you be so kind to explain to me how come Daesh has attacked the Syrian bases instantaneously after the US and Israeli strikes in Der Ez-Zor, Homs and Palmyra? Whom were those strikes meant to help really? Would you tell me how come Idlib is simultaneously the capital of Al Nusra controlled territory and of the Free Syrian Army territory? And why is Idlib full of signs banning women from walking outdoors without a niqab? Are these the people you want to replace Assad with?

Would someone tell me why we’re constantly seeing US weapons and TOW missiles in the hands of Al Nusra? And why isn’t anyone admitting that Ahrar al Sham is a terrorist organization, its founder is a former Al Qaeda member, and the current Al Nusra chief (or Tahrir al Sham chief if you like), the so called Abu Jaber is a former chief in Ahrar al Sham? Would you tell me why the cousin of the founder of the FSA is actively spreading radical Islam around the Balkans?

See, I can recall of a certain former great power that in a similar fashion liked surrounding itself with servile, docile, unscrupulous propagandists and manipulators. Well, that system came crumbling down and has been thrown to the scrapheap of history, being totalitarian and unsustainable. It’s a failed system. And it would be nice to consider raising your level a bit, and starting to give way to critically thinking, autonomous people who are prone to looking for actual facts rather than ones slavishly licking your… boots. Because those who surround themselves with sticky trash, sooner or later start reeking themselves.

The scramble for the Mediterranean (revisited)

This piece is about the new gas (and possibly also oil) discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, which could explain a lot about the ongoing geopolitical shifts in that region.

There can be no coincidence. Two important events took place just within hours apart from each other on March 17. First the Cyprus government decided to grant drilling licenses for gas and oil to several multinational energy giants: Exxon Mobil, Qatar Petroleum, Total and ENI. On that very day, Turkey announced they’d be starting a navy exercise with live rounds just a few days later in Cypriot territorial waters, just 30 nautical miles off the SW coast of the Island of Aphrodite. Turkey said their patience was running out. Much in line with a visit a month earlier by their foreign minister Cavusoglu to the Turkish part of the island, where he warned the Greek Cypriots against any unilateral actions on the oil/gas issue.

Whoever was hoping that the gas off the Cyprus shores could serve as a platform for unification and cooperation between the two communities there, was being naive. Oil and gas are much more likely to stir up conflict, and the latest events are yet another evidence of that. The tension started to escalate instantaneously after the Cypriot move on the gas. The Greek/Turkish negotiations were halted, and the leaders of the two communities started hurling accusations at each other for this failure. Turkey used the opportunity to sharpen the tone and start issuing ultimatums and threats (they’ve been rather active in that regard lately).

The deepening conflict between Turkey and the EU, combined with increased interest by US and EU companies for drilling in the region are tightening the energy knot in the Eastern Mediterranean even more. The big discoveries in 2009 have turned the region into a key strategic hub that’s very important for the energy diversification of Europe. There’ve been arguments that this is the main reason behind all the shit-stirring in the Levant and across the Maghreb, aka Arab Spring. This includes Syria too, of course.

The thing is, the Eastern Mediterranean is the new place to be if you’re a big oil company, or a big geopolitical player. Ever since the discovery of the Egyptian oil field in Zohr, things have changed for the region – for the better or worse, depends on your perspective. But the fact that big energy giants from around the world are scrambling to invest in Cyprus, is presenting both promising prospects for development for the island, and giving sleepless nights to many leaders. If the gas treasure also turns out to be accompanied by the vast oil deposits that experts are predicting, the geopolitical situation would totally change.

Turkey is a big factor in that respect. Some major drilling activity inside the Cypriot exclusive zone is expected to commence later this year, and continue through 2018. In June, Total is planning to drill in Block 11, which could become a second Zohr field because it’s located under the same sea ridge. The first French drilling operation is anticipated with great interest, not least importantly because it had been cancelled four times in a row already. Lastly, it was scheduled for April, but now it’s been postponed for July, just days after the latest conference on the Cypriot issue ended in failure in Geneva in January. This meant pushing the deadline for a possible agreement and unification of the divided island to a unspecified future time.

Italian company ENI is also planning to make two drills by the end of the year, and US company Nobel Energy also has one drill scheduled. Exxon Mobil is also in the game, planning drills in 2018. But despite this tight schedule, any technical preparation before a possible agreement on the Cypriot issue would more likely stumble upon problems and obstacles. Without a political settlement, any drilling would make Turkey react with hostility. And this is not just a prediction, it’s what has actually happened before. Turkey has sent navy forces to the region on four occasions up till now, in a clear demonstration of force. The latest occasion was in 2014 when a seismologist research vessel entered the Cypriot exclusive zone, which made the Cyprus president Anastasiades to suspend the negotiations with the leader of the Cypriot Turks, Eroglu.

So, any attempt to proceed with drilling, despite the Cypriot Greek claim that they’ve got sovereign rights to do that, is bound to bring further tensions. Exploiting the carbon riches under the sea floor would only be possible after a wholesome political agreement that would satisfy the interests of both sides. And this is not just the opinion of some experts and the leaders of the two sides most directly involved – the special advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Cypriot question, Espen Eide has also said that first an end has to be brought to all this uncertainty on the reunification issue. The deadline he has given? This summer.

The question here is whether despite his aggressiveness and unpredictability, Erdogan would really risk sending military flotillas against the oil and gas corporations and have a direct standoff with the countries behind them (UK, US, France, Italy). Hey, Cypriot president Anastasiades has even gone as far as to declare the presence of Exxon Mobil a guarantee for the Cypriot interests. And let’s not forget that the former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson under whom the company applied for drilling license in Cyprus, is now Trump’s secretary of state.

All in all, the situation is not easy at all. On one side, there’s rising tension with Turkey. On the other hand, the companies who are pushing for drilling rights represent the major world players. Any conflict in that regard would be extremely risky for any of the sides.

But that’s not all. There’s also the question about the potential routes that would deliver all that fuel, once it’s extracted. There are huge interests there too. We’ve already talked about Iran’s geopolitical plan to establish a friendly corridor from Pakistan across Iraq and Syria giving them access to the Mediterranean. They want this corridor to bypass the Gulf states, mainly their biggest rival Saudi Arabia. If this happens, the Straits of Hormuz would stop being so important, and the Saudis would take a big geopolitical tumble.

As for Cyprus, there are several scenarios for them to export the gas to the European markets. Of course, the final decision mostly depends on the quantities that are discovered there. Right now they’re not sufficient, but in the future the Cypriot fields could be combined with their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts, which would grant access to much bigger markets. Granted, Cyprus still lacks the needed infrastructure for this, like tanker terminals, ports, etc. But that would be built in the future.

The main gas route to possibly connect the countries in the region currently is the EastMed Pipeline, terminating at the Greek shore. The pipeline could connect Israel and Cyprus to Greece and hence Europe, supplying Israeli and Cypriot gas. The project is technically doable and economically viable, but they need to add more gas fields first to bolster its total capacity.

Naturally, the Turks are not happy because this totally bypasses them. The Russians are not happy either, because if Europe diversifies its energy sources, it would remove Putin’s only tool for geopolitical pressure. The Russians are already planning a geopolitical expansion across the southern periphery of the Eastern Mediterranean, as has been recently mentioned here before: they’ve fortified Assad in Syria, they’ve made friends with El Sisi in Egypt, and they’re now pursuing a military presence in East Libya. This is all for a reason: they want to be part of the game too.

Another option is building a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Cyprus itself, which again requires boosting the gas output, i.e. adding more gas fields to the mix. Part of this plan is to use the vacant facilities at the two LNG terminals currently existing in Egypt: Cypriot gas would be transported via pipeline running on the sea floor (total distance: 180 km), and then exported. If Total’s drills are successful this year, another good opportunity for export to Europe and Asia would be to use floating LNG (FLNG).

Turkey and the Cypriot Turks insist that the shortest, safest and most beneficial route to Europe would be a pipeline connection from Cyprus to Turkey (but of course!) Except, until the Cypriot question still lingers, such a project is absolutely impossible. Right now, when the Turkey-EU relations are getting worse, not better, it would be a huge political risk to give all the taps and keys to Erdogan. That would be a geopolitical suicide for Europe, and the gas/oil corporations know this.

So it’s not just about financial and economic expedience. In fact, it all mostly depends on geopolitics. Because of all the political conflicts, the prospect of building pipelines from the Egyptian and Israeli gas fields to Turkey remains questionable. Turkey and Israel used to like this idea until about a year ago, when their relations were still kind of warm(ish). Finding a mutually acceptable solution to the Cypriot issue would be of big help in that respect of course. But right now, that seems very unlikely. So the gas scramble for the Eastern Mediterranean will continue to be hostage to politics for a long time. And maybe even more so, once the fields are operational and the cards are laid on the table.

Meet the new master of the Middle East

There are indications that Russia is planning a military intervention in Libya. On March 13, Russian special units and drones were spotted in the Egyptian coastal town of Sidi Barrani, just 100 km east of the Libyan territory that’s controlled by the Russia-supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

If Russia is really working to change the balance of powers in Libya as they did in Syria, Turkey’s positions in the Eastern Mediterreanean will be threatened (not to mention America’s). Establishing a military presence there is aimed to stabilise the Sisi regime in Egypt against the Islamists. That’s in line with the traditional Russian policy since the Soviet times when they were in alliance with Egypt. Now they’re conducting joint military exercises, and Russia is actively helping Egypt to guard its vulnerable western border.

These movements have the long-term goal to support Gen. Haftar in Libya, who’s facing Jihadist threats against the territories he controls, including the important oil ports in Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. Haftar is a former Gaddafi loyalist who’s now ruling from Tobruq and has been a key player in the Libyan civil war. He now controls most oil fields in Libya, with a daily output of 700K+ barrels.

Last month, the Russian oil giant RosNeft signed an agreement with the Libyan national oil corporation for the delivery of raw oil, plus some further investment in Libya. And last December, the Russian deputy foreign minister Gatilov harshly criticised the special UN envoy to Libya, German diplomat Martin Kobler, for his statements in support of Haftar’s opponents.

In January, Haftar was invited on board the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean, where he had a video meeting with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. And a month later, Shoigu warned his British counterpart Michael Fallon against meddling in Russian affairs in Libya (“Don’t tell a bear what to do!”)

There’s no doubt at this point that Russia is trying to restore its previous military alliances.

Meanwhile, Turkey is not sleeping either. They’re also trying to assert their positions in Libya after the failed attempt to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a couple of years ago. Last summer, during his visit to Libya, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu managed to snatch an agreement for the completion of 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 bn. The deal was done with Haftar’s rivals, however. The Turks are concerned that after Syria and Egypt, Libya could be Russia’s next prize, and Putin might be trying to create a Russian ring to control the southern flank of the Eastern Mediterranean – which would practically mean the encirclement of Turkey, and its geopolitical isolation.

Let me remind that vast new oil deposits have been found off the Cyprus coast, conveniently situated well in range of at least half a dozen countries, so the scramble for access to that new treasure will be very fierce. Some have even argued that this is at the core of all the recent conflicts in the region, including the string of Arab Spring events across the Maghreb and the Levant. Iran is also a factor, trying to establish a Shia-controlled corridor spanning Iraq, Bahrain and Syria and allowing them to gain access to the Mediterranean and control the crucial trade and pipeline routes crossing the region. And Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow that. So there are more than 4 or 5 big players, plus about a dozen other secondary participants involved in this whole mess. And the knot doesn’t seem likely to be untied any time soon. Worse, it’s only just beginning to get tightened.

Another terrible year

Even George R.R. Martin Thinks 2016 Was ‘Too Much to Bear’

“Please, let this wretched year come to an end!”

I don’t know what it was for you like, personally. But 2016 was quite a horrible year for the world, overall. Even despite the statistical fact that we currently live in the most peaceful and least bloody times in recorded history, 2016 presented us with plenty of reasons to think that the world was going crazy.

Ceaseless bloodshed in the Middle East: Syria, Yemen, Libya, and to some degree Iraq. The international community still hasn’t managed to break ISIS, or find a way to counter the rising terrorist threat. The first signs of the Arab Spring were brutally stomped upon by various autocrats, despots and dictators. This will bring serious consequences. The whole region will become a source of political and societal explosion that will rock the world. A decades long war is very likely to loom ahead, with a nightmarish maze of tribes, clans and religions fighting each other to no end.

Europe is shaking as well. Waves of refugees and economic migrants keep washing ashore. The migrant crisis has shown that the words “European solidarity” is but a mere slogan, empty of meaning. The Brexit has started a chain reaction of accelerating dismantling of the very idea of a united Europe. The very core of the European project is now in question, and its main purpose, shared peace and prosperity. Europe feels like it doesn’t know where to go next.

What’s more, the former Soviet satellites are making a U-turn back to the nation-state, re-asserting their own identity in reaction to having been treated as second-rate citizens. Now that the balance of powers in West Europe will change from now on (what with the UK exiting the equation and leaving a void behind), some of the newer EU members will be asserting ever more influential positions, and largely setting the tone of the discourse, and influencing the new rules.

This process is being coupled with the ascent of populists virtually everywhere: Wilders is likely to take over in Holland, France is at the threshold of a revolution, either embodied by Fillon the Catholic and outright Thatcherite, or worse, Le Pen the quasi-fascist. There are elections coming up in Germany as well, although Merkel still looks like the front-runner (the Germans are still betting on stability). She’s likely to retain her position at the helm, but with significantly weakened influence, and probably at the cost of a tough coalition. The populists are also advancing in Germany, and they’ll be a big factor from now on. The swing to the far-right is felt ever more strongly there, and this could ultimately bring to a change of the guard in the longer run. For the time being though, that remains one of the few islands of stability. But for how long – no one can say. The Germans are already pretty angry with the whole migrant thing, especially after the outrageous behavior of some of those it had voluntarily chosen to welcome.

The big uncertainty comes from the Big Bro. Where exactly US president-elect Trump is going to steer international politics, remains a mystery. Will he be predictable? Can America’s allies rely on him? Or are international relations mere “business”, a “deal” in his eyes? Or maybe he would turn out a capable diplomat? Does the US still see itself as a leader in global politics, or it’ll continue the process of withdrawing from international matters and losing influence, but this time willingly? And who would fill that void, and how? Wouldn’t that be a retreat of democracy, and a chance for various despotic systems to assert themselves? And most importantly, will America continue to consider itself part of an alliance, of the Western world, or it would choose to shut itself from the rest of the world, close itself within, look inside, and focus on “making itself great again”? In any case, 2017 is going to be a transition year. Transition to what, though – that’s the big question. And transitions are tough.

2016 also saw the revival of Putin’s Russia, despite the economic obstacles put by her rivals and the inherent structural disadvantages that define its economy and society. Russia is asserting its positions again, growing from a mere regional power (as Obama used to disparagingly characterize it), to a global player. Putin is actively meddling in the Middle East gambit, he’s also pressuring a number of European countries as well. The bad thing is, Russia doesn’t usually have the habit of using diplomatic means to meet its objectives – they’re too quick to resort to military solutions.

Russia is methodically and willingly, cynically practicing a sort of brutal violence that cannot be met with diplomacy – in Syria actively, and in frozen conflicts like Ukraine passively. Russia’s return to the world scene means a return of military interventions, proxy wars, regime change, and nation-building all across the world. The West has no other choice but to respond in kind, if it is to survive as a bloc. Again, Trump’s ambiguous position regarding America’s allies, is emboldening Putin, while causing concerns in the West.

Let’s not forget China, either. Their economic growth may’ve slowed down from its previous bombastic levels, but the thing is, China has matured, and set the stage for jumping to the big stage as well. They’re amping up their military presence in territories that they consider crucial for their geopolitical goals – and they’ll stop at nothing; they’ll gradually and methodically work to achieve them. This will cause another zone of geopolitical clashes, and a dangerous stand-off with other regional and global players.

Again, Germany remains one of the few bastions of stability and sanity (to some extent; though some might disagree, especially given the way they’ve handled the migrant issue) – and they might be compelled to take a more active role in settling things down, even if they don’t necessarily like this. On the other hand, such a more assertive Germany would inevitably cause other EU members to protest, and possibly react. All in all, it’s unlikely that we could find a single area in the world, which would boast of a more stable situation at the end of 2017 than the end of 2016. And the peaceful solutions to the problems seem to be slipping away at an alarming rate already.

Peculiarities Of The Hybrid Warfare

Scared of the little green men in green uniforms without any signs on them, are we? Don’t know where they’re coming from and what they want from us, eh? East Europe trembles with the shaking ground under their boots, and prepares to eat the dust from under their heels. The angry bear is stirring, and is preparing for a predator leap: RRRAWR! But this time it’s masked, it has no insignia, and it uses RT to convince the world that it’s actually not a bear, but a mere lamb. You gotta believe it, or else!

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“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, Carl von Clausewitz’s famous “bottom-line” says. For those unaware, that was one of the preeminent military theoreticians of the 19th century. Now almost 2 centuries later, when we’re seeing direct stand-offs between standing armies belonging to nation-states more seldom than ever, the Prussian general’s argument is, paradoxically, more valid than back then. Even if it’s somewhat tilted upside down. Today, the boundary between war and peace is painfully smeared. The Anschluss of Crimea and the stirring of a separatist uprising in East Ukraine for the last few months is the best example of that.

Naturally, the various smartheads in the security & defense genre already have a name for that sort of conflict: hybrid warfare. The term gained traction in my country only recently, with the infamous “2020 strategy for European defense” memorandum, where Russia was initially painted as the epitome of evil, only to then be watered down to milder definitions, lest we anger Big Bear too much.

The new hybrid warfare, combining conventional methods and means of guerrilla, cyber and information warfare with actions contradicting international law, is putting an immense political, military and economic challenge to the region“, the initial draft version of the concept said. Eventually, the part about “information warfare” was tossed out of the document, and substituted with the somewhat more PC term, “propaganda”. And the nature of hybrid warfare was narrowed down to a single sentence. How sad. It would’ve made for a great action-movie script.

But what is this hybrid menace, after all? Many people have hastened to put an equation mark between this new beast and the already familiar asymmetric warfare. In practice, though, the hybrid approach is the next stage in the evolution of armed conflict. It came into the public focus somewhere in the mid 2000s with the Second Lebanese War between Israel and Hezbollah. That sort of conflict, on the one side, combines conventional with guerrilla methods, and on the other, it uses both military and non-military means for achieving its objectives.

The partial application of hybrid tactics is not that new, though. Granted, it did start to gain popularity after the end of the Cold War, when in most cases the protracted and aggressive conventional warfare in most cases would lead to catastrophic results for the aggressor. America has been learning that lesson time and time again since then. That’s why in many cases, non-government formations like guerrilla groups, terrorist organizations, revolutionaries, separatists, would be used around the zone of operation. Using anonymous troops without national uniforms, the so-called “little green men”, plus an aggressive information blitzkrieg of unprecedented proportions in the history of information warfare, has become part of the Russian operations in Ukraine. So, if anyone is to counter such action, they should probably be adapting to dealing with that sort of paramilitary formations, while preparing themselves to adequately counter possible cyber attacks as well.

Neither asymmetric nor hybrid warfare has a clearly defined frontline. It’s being conducted with all military and non-military means available, and the battlefields are actually several: in the conflict zone itself, among the ranks of the population (which is often being used as a human shield), and among the population back home (the constant struggle for gaining public support for the military campaign through propaganda, and inciting hatred for the enemy, dehumanizing the other side, eliminating internal opposition, silencing dissent, etc). The other battlefield is the international community, where the struggle is for gaining legitimacy.

A hybrid war involves one country or non-state “actor” who’s prone to using the whole palette of means and methods simultaneously, including regular armies, guerrilla actions, and tools for psychological influence on people’s perceptions on both sides. As of now, we’re at an intermediary point between the era of conventional warfare and asymmetric warfare, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously seeking political representation without even being a state, and conducting conventional operations. These are using all sorts of means to gain political legitimacy, while trying to maintain something resembling state organization in their controlled territories (as ISIL is doing), they have formations very much resembling regular army, but they also use their typical guerrilla tactics as well. On the other hand, they’re still giving priority to covert tactics and tools, which is a feature of asymmetric warfare. What we’ve seen in the recent months, shows that even some countries like Russia are prone to using a larger specter of instruments to achieve their goals.

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But perhaps the most important characteristic of hybrid warfare is the combination of military and non-military methods. Thus the country that’s the recipient of the aggression finds it hard till the very last moment to clearly tell whether it’s being subject to a coordinated assault or not. And even if that’s somewhat clear, the covert character of the hybrid tactics wouldn’t allow it to have a sufficiently legitimate justification for retaliating with open force without becoming the evil one, or seek military help from its allies without being accused of open aggression. In the case with Ukraine, NATO has been very hesitant to activate its collective defense, because that would be interpreted as a direct act of aggression. We should also note that using non-military means of pressure like (propaganda, appeal to emotion or outright lies), and imposing one’s political will upon another country doesn’t necessarily mean that these actions are explicitly aiming to provoke some sort of armed conflict, as opposed to merely being yet another tool for conducting aggressive diplomacy and gaining a more favorable position for possible future negotiations. Again, the borderline here is uncomfortably smeared.

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This unclear line between war and peace is actually the most dangerous consequence of hybrid warfare. The tricky part here is to refrain from using the term “war” too arbitrarily. If we take the case with Russia, it does have its interests regarding both the EU and NATO. Generally speaking, the idea is to provoke dissent within both organizations. But if we’re to conclude outright that pursuing those interests constitutes war, that would mean falling into the realm of constant paranoia, and no longer being able to make a rational distinction between diplomacy and warfare. There should be a clear line between potential threat and real conflict. One tends to evolve into the other, but when we’re talking of hybrid warfare, we’re seeing the use of regular armies.

Espionage, for example, does not necessarily mean war. On the other hand, when we’re talking of cyber security, the problem is that when we see such attacks, we should clearly establish to what extent they pursue military objectives, thus constituting a form of military action. For the time being, the premise is that the final assessment depends on the end result of the attack: when there’s a destruction of physical infrastructure and/or human life, that’s an act of war. So, when we’re talking of economic, financial or political influence, or funding of political parties and political engineering, or nation-building by a foreign state, that’s hardly an act of war. It doesn’t make it any less hostile an act, though. It’s just that the state and the national security services should be doing their job accordingly.

The usual escalation of hybrid threats and their evolution into real armed conflicts logically brings the conclusion that the key element for countering them is the adequate work of the secret services, particularly counter-espionage. It’s their job to get information about the intentions of other countries, and intercept any foreign attempts to meddle into domestic matters by infiltrating their agents at key positions of political and economic life, and thus manipulate the decision-making at a state level. When shit hits the fan, though, especially when external factors prove overwhelming, then there’s nothing else to do but to either submit to the pressure, or succumb to endless conflict, and go down to the level of the aggressor, starting to use their own tools against them. Something that’ll eventually come haunting ya afterwards.

Sovereignty Redefined, pt.2: New Players, New Rules

In the conditions of a transitional “monopolar” age in international relations which emerged at the end of the 20th and the beginning of this century, the Western states, just like one or two centuries ago within the framework of the so called Westphalian system, have tried to assume the role of vanguard, projecting (including through force) their own preferred values and institutions (free market, human rights, liberal democracy) upon other societies, regardless of their local cultural and historic specifics and peculiarities. In return, the latter (although to a varying extent) have shown a tendency to oppose this process and, and as paradoxical as that may seem, many of them have tried to uphold the integrity of the very institutions and norms previously imposed upon them by the West itself (like national sovereignty, territorial integrity, diplomacy as a primary tool at the international stage, etc). In this sense, the system of international relations continues to be based on the relations between center and periphery, where the role of generator and distributor of new values belongs to the West almost exceptionally.

Now, as for the proneness of imposing values through force, the last fifteen years have seen the emergence of a doctrine designed by the American political class which employs the imposition of simple (and by definition, forceful) solutions to international problems, and has thus become the core of the US political discourse. And though America has promoted terms like “soft” and “smart force”, that hardly means Washington would somehow magically relinquish its attachment to the traditional instrumentarium of hard force any time soon. The US continues to conduct policies based on their global military presence and projection of their own influence in the key regions of the world. In the conditions when the formation of a monopolar tendency in world politics was considered almost self-evident and natural, that may’ve made a lot of sense. But the situation is changing very fast now. If until 10-15 years ago the notion of a “multipolar” world order looked extravagant and fictitious, in more recent times the tendency toward polycentrism, redistribution of weight and influence of the separate states in world economics and politics has become ever more plausible, changing the picture that we got used to at the turn of the century.

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As some US experts point out, the US should rather be supporting diversity not just within their own borders but around the whole world, and accept that liberal democracy ought to be in an open competition at the market of ideas with other types of political system, without presuming to underestimate their value or assume the moral high ground in relation to them. Because in reality, tolerance to various types of political systems matches the US interests to a much greater extent than the arrogance that we’ve seen from the Neo-cons, or the short-sighted idealism of today’s US liberals. The respectful attitude to responsible governments, tolerance to political and cultural diversity, the balance between global rule and the transferring of prerogatives to the regional powers, as well as the more moderate approach to globalization, are the principles that should probably be at the core of a future world order.

We’ve been hearing calls for sparing resources, limiting the scope of international activity, or cooperation with other states and transferring of prerogatives to them for problem-solving within the framework of their respective regional sub-systems. I.e., a more frugal approach to world politics, which would be less exhausting economically and less damaging morally to the global cop itself. On the other hand though, we can hardly rely on the US adopting self-control, a more regionalized approach, or embracing a well thought-out cooperative culture among the US political elite any time soon. Almost no high-rofile US politician (maybe save for Ron Paul, who’s got a number of other shortcomings, unfortunately) has openly called for America to limit its own role of global arbiter and regulator, or to relinquish its plans of forming a politically homogeneous “democratic world” under its sceptre (which is basically what defines this constant drive for “spreading democracy”, and explains the effort to change regimes in sovereign countries around the world).

The problem is not solely being viewed through the prism of looking for effective instruments and relevant ideas that could consolidate the America- and Western-dominated world order. For the ruling Democrats, the main goals for guaranteeing the US global leadership have boiled down to guaranteeing a prosperous economy, untouchable military power, and attachment to the policy of imposing “universal values“. Having in mind the financial problems, in the mid-term perspective, America’s goal is to make other countries contribute more for creating “global public goods”, to support the new international norms and institutions, and to cooperate for regulating the conflicts in various regions by the Western terms.

The US and their Western allies (in the most general sense) have continued to act as a generator of international norms and principles even in the conditions of the global financial crisis, which otherwise accelerates the processes of redistribution of influence, and facilitates the increase of potential of a number of non-Western power centers (China, India, Brazil, Russia), each of them having a certain set of positive and negative sides as well as certain amounts of regional and global influence. The crisis has demonstrated the incapability of a limited group of Western countries to bear responsibility for global regulation for the last few decades (and throughout almost the entire 20th century, in a broader sense), and to control and uphold the global order, and overcome the challenges of the epoch.

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So what about these new players on the scene? Well, there sure has emerged a severe need for broadening the circle of countries participating in taking the key decisions. This has become a stimulus for the emergence of new institutions of global regulation (like G-20). In the meantime though, the Western countries have insisted on remaining the main factor for defining the norms and principles of this global regulation, as if that is their given right, granted to them by historical inertia.

This is where the obvious discrepancy in the current transitional situation in global politics emerges from. The monopolar moment remains part of the past, while the norms that were created in its core, previously capable of guaranteeing relative stability, are now having a strongly destabilizing effect in an increasingly polycentric world (namely, the principles of “limited sovereignty”, “selective legitimacy”, interventionism, etc). These still remain in place, and are actively pushed forward by the West, but the situation has changed, and they’ve become a detriment rather than asset.

In other words, when in the framework of a monopolar system of international relations, the Western countries deemed it necessary to start transforming the traditional Westphalian sovereignty, it became clear that it was exactly them who were intending to take benefit of that transformation, in order to project their own influence upon the other participants in international relations, by legitimizing (or, conversely, delegitimizing where appropriate) this or that political practice. The countries that tried to exhibit an “unsystematic” behavior were constantly being threatened with sanctions and even military intervention. Until very recently, this used to discipline most players in world politics (both state and non-governmental players in fact), and create a sense of controllability of the conflict situations, and the presence of “firm rules of the game”. Implicitly, it was self-evident that the limitations (including that of sovereignty) wouldn’t ever affect the leaders in that monopolar system in any way, but that was okay, as long as the rules were clear, and stability was guaranteed.

Thus, the “outsiders” and the marginal countries and “fringe states” were turned into subject of deligitimization of their own sovereign status, and a potential target of foreign intervention, while the US and the West as a whole were playing the role of the arbiter. What’s more, the very idea of a possible conflict between the big players was completely out of question.

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But now the accelerating tendency toward forming a polycentric world order is changing the big picture, and pretty fast. The establishing of the principles of limited sovereignty, preemptive action, unilateralism, selective legitimacy, and interventionism, are not only NOT facilitating the better management of the processes in world politics, in fact they’re breathing new life into the political unpredictability and uncertainty that was forgotten for a while. The until-recently valid norms and principles of international law (including the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs or the threat of use of force, and the principles of internal and external sovereignty and border integrity) were largely designed to minimize international conflicts in a potentially polycentric system. Which is why ignoring or outright disregarding them poses an immediate danger to world order. In the emerging polycentric world, the norms and precedents that are being set by the US and the West, could now be used by other emerging new powers for their goals, and we might not like the results very much. In result, instead of an illusion for manageability and control, the advocates for the active promotion of new norms and principles in modern world politics could soon be faced with a rather chaotic picture, and even the complete destabilization of the world order that they strive so much to control. I.e., yet another case of presumably good intentions backfiring pretty badly.

In this sense, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched if we forecast an exponential rise of the global risks for the system, since the new and fast emerging powers will surely be asserting their claims for a more active participation in defining the rules of the game, and will be drawing their own “red lines” ever more definitely in regards to the various aspects of their internal and external politics.

There is some hope that the current crisis in the relations between Russia and the West could stimulate, if not the respective political elites, at least the expert community in both America and Europe, and prompt them to look for more inclusive strategies, and formulate more balanced approaches to forming and promoting the norms and rules of modern world politics – and I’m not just talking about the problems with sovereignty. It’s becoming ever clearer that there’s no viable alternative to that.

In any case, the increased enthusiasm for setting new precedents, and the drive for imposing one’s own rules of the game upon everyone else (with a back-door option for arbitrary reinterpretation of these rules as a “leadership bonus”), is incapable of creating, in the conditions of an emerging polycentricity, any stable basis for anything resembling a predictable and manageable development of international relations, and would certainly be the cause of many new global crises instead.

Sovereignty Redefined, pt.1: The Evolution of Sovereignty

In the context of the ongoing Ukrainian debacle, a number of Western authors, including reps of the so called “expert community”, have often criticized Russia for violating international law. From such interpretations the conclusion comes out that Russia has not only delivered an unprovoked blow on a neighboring country, but it has eroded the fundamental principles of world politics: equality between all countries, territorial integrity, and refraining from external intervention in domestic affairs. Ultimately, the institution of sovereignty has been stomped over yet again.

Although this picture does indeed look very dramatic, it might turn out to be a bit less nuanced than reality actually is. If the problem solely boiled down to Russia’s behavior at the international scene, perhaps things wouldn’t be as confusing. But the truth is, as it turns out, things are not just “not as bad as they seem”, they’re much worse than they look at a first sight. Because, I’d argue, the political maneuvering of the Western powers and their elites for the last couple of decades has led to a situation where the violation of national sovereignty and meddling in other countries’ affairs may’ve become the norm rather than being a mere exception. Don’t believe me yet? Well, do bear with me now.

One of the global tendencies in the analysis of international relations for the last few years has been the activation of the political debate on the sanctity of the so called “Westphalian sovereignty“. In the framework of scientific discourse, the question about the possibility of external intervention into the domestic policies of one country or the other has become very frequent. The goals, means and limits of this intervention are also being regularly discussed. It’s understandable that in the modern world, where every country functions in the conditions of significant internal and external limitations, interdependent connections and obligations, and where the globalization processes lead to the redistribution of the power resources from the governments toward other subjects of global politics (like international institutions, financial and corporate economic entities, NGOs, trade blocs, military alliances, etc), there can be no such thing like “absolute sovereignty”.

However, the notion that national sovereignty has now become a mere anachronistic remnant of an old and increasingly eroded Westphalian system and organization of international relations, remains questionable. As does the notion that “traditional concepts of sovereignty” are somehow incapable of reflecting the entire complexity of modern international relations. Conversely, we could argue that “everything new is a well-forgotten old”. So when we’re faced with claims about the incompatibility between the old, “outdated” sovereignty and the humanitarian principles of the modern world order, we can’t help but recall the idea of one of the founders of the theory of international relations, Edward Carr, who more than a century ago argued that overlooking national sovereignty is an inherent part of the ideology of dominant states, which see in the sovereignty of the lesser states a sort of obstacle to the full assertion of their dominant position. There’s a sort of double standard that he noticed: in a nutshell, the bigger players like to be more independent, while they don’t like when lesser players are too independent.

The question about the character and the modern tendencies in the evolution of the concept of sovereignty remains very controversial. Of course, various transformations of the key norms that define the functioning of the international legal system, have been happening frequently throughout history. Some of these have almost completely died out – like such fundamental principles and institutions like the dynastic principle of power transferral, or the institution of colonialism (although many would argue here that neo-colonialism is just as rampant as its previous, more overt form used to be). In the meantime, a reinterpretation of other significant principles and notions is also going on. For example, in the 17th-18th century the market was mostly defined by the doctrine of mercantilism, while for the last century and a half or so, free trade has taken primacy. In other words, the very fact of transformation of the concept of sovereignty is nothing surprising or unexpected at all.

That’s not really the problem. The problem rather is that the role of an arbiter, interpreter and lawmaker of the principles and institutions has been taken over by a select group of states (mostly those in the West, which in essence makes this a sort of manifestation of the principle “might makes right”). A sort of instrumentalization of sovereignty is happening right in front of our eyes (if we’re to use the terminology of Stephen Krasner), i.e. a manipulation of international legal recognition through threats of conducting “humanitarian intervention” with the purpose of realizing the practical goals and interests of certain select countries.

International politics largely functions by the principle of rational expectation. A cornerstone of the previously dominant (and, in most expert opinions, still existing) archaic and pluralistic system of international relation from the time of the Westphalian Peace (and even before that), is the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Meanwhile, the modern competition between the countries is supposed to be limited by the structure of the internationally recognized legal norms and sovereign rights. National sovereignty has been the basis of world politics, and has played an important function of minimizing violence in the relations between the countries for quite a while. So, it’s no surprise that many authors from the late 20th century have predicted that any attempt to undermine this basis of world politics and put in question the significance of the “primary institution” that is national sovereignty, would inevitably result in uncontrollable chaos.

In the foreseeable future, world politics will likely keep witnessing the confrontation between two diametrically opposite tendencies: one is toward asserting sovereignty, the other toward its limiting. And these tendencies will often be embodied in the policies of one country or a group of countries (these countries doing their best to essentially fortify their own sovereignty while actively working to undermine that of their rivals, is a frequent element of that, too). The contradiction between the tendency toward more sovereignty and less sovereignty will be a permanent source of international tension. The new interpretations and the newly found great flexibility of the term “sovereignty” will largely depend on the specific situation at the specific time and region, and of course the capabilities for power projection of the sides involved.

The post-Cold-War period is kind of unique in this respect. First and foremost, for almost two decades no one looked even remotely capable of challenging America’s global leadership (many analysts and experts have openly spoken of American hegemony, of the “hyperstate”, etc). The US power was indeed formidable and hugely intimidating in most respects. The US had 20% of the world’s GDP, more than half of the military expenses of the planet, etc. The US still remains the world’s center of innovation to this very day, and it sets the pace in most political and economic processes, and defines the course on most key decisions of global significance. All of this has been practically viewed as sufficient condition to perceive America’s global political leadership as de facto legitimate.

Even at the time of the bipolar global standoff during the Cold War, the US was actively participating in the shaping up of a system of international norms, which was supposed to be serving their own interests and those who supported them, and to develop the values and principles that the US and their allies saw fit. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the US achieved unprecedented success in legitimizing and institutionalizing their claim to the right for power and omnipresent global influence – mostly through asserting the viability of their own model of political and economic organization. The US-led liberal model (the so called Washington Consensus) included free market economy and the development of democratic institutions, and was being accepted by other countries because their political elites and the broad public there deemed it the most efficient at the time (and many of them still do).

There’s been such an overwhelming consensus about the primacy of liberal democratic ideology that many have taken Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history” much to heart. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who in an article on the essence of liberal ideology made the famous conclusion that “in a sense, liberalism is everything in America”, we could say that at the beginning of the 21st century, everything in the world (including the theory of international relations and political practice) has been literally soaked with the ideas and principles of liberalism.

In the context of the triumph of the liberal ideological paradigm, an attempt was made of crafting an axiom out of the notion that liberalization was essential for guaranteeing peace and security for all, and that this could become reality even in countries that were extremely different from each other. Another axiom stipulated that neo-liberal states are less prone to aggression and less likely to succumb to the temptation of increasing their military might for the sake of projecting power. And that the liberal regimes were always more peaceful in principle. As a consequence, the rule said, the level of threat in international relations somehow depends on the ratio between liberal and non-liberal regimes. In that context, regime change and democratization (i.e. the “export of democracy”) has been perceived not as a blatant violation of international law and national sovereignty, or a direct intervention in the domestic affairs of this country or the other, but as a totally justified and humane cause, and simultaneously the most rational strategy for achieving global stability and guaranteeing “human security“. It’s also being viewed as a tool for guaranteeing a country’s own safety, and securing the moral and political leadership of the old liberal democracies. Moreover, by forming a more peaceful and cooperative international environment, the liberals preferred to focus their attention on the issues of economic interdependence (especially among the countries with a market economy), and on the role of international institutions. They have put the emphasis on the idea that liberalism is universally applicable, regardless of the national and cultural specifics.

If we take a look back at history, we might notice that in various historical epochs, the leading countries have often tried to take the initiative and promote specific paradigms and formulations of a set of values and rules of conduct at the international stage. There’s a very simple explanation for that. The policies of a leading country which otherwise does not have sufficient legitimacy, would inevitably meet resistance (whether active or passive, or both) from both rivals abroad and at home. In such conditions, pushing one’s own political agenda is rendered impossible, or in the best case requires huge additional resources and efforts. So, in the absence of such consensus, the level of mutual trust between the main political subjects at the international scene is usually rather low. After all, leadership (and of course, hegemony) that does not rest upon international legitimacy soon turns out a burden too heavy to sustain.

According to most Western experts and a significant part of the political elites, in order to minimize the energy and resources that’s required for realizing and sustaining leadership, establishing a certain set of common rules and values is necessary – they’re to ensure support for the political agenda of the leading country, and legitimize its leading position. In this sense, the transformation of the old international values, rules and regimes, and their substitution with new ones, could turn out of paramount importance for the leading country, because they would ensure the necessary international support, and thus guarantee the efficient projection of power and influence. Furthermore, the dominant countries are to refrain from being too aggressive in their attempts to counter the imposition of certain limitations to their own activeness from the international institutions, and are to respect the commonly accepted norms and rules that they’ve themselves promoted. The Western countries, and most of all the US however, have shown time and time again that they’re not exactly capable of such self-restraint. And, while in the case of the authoritarian regimes that’s understandable (since the disregard for international law is part of their very definition), from the point of view of liberal democracy that’s a serious problem.

In other words, while some apologists of American exceptionalism may be rather eager to look for justifications for arbitrary unilateralism in the actions of various totalitarian regimes, rogue states or extremist groups (i.e. the “but they do that too” argument), using North Korea, Putin or the Taliban as a yardstick is not exactly the most compelling argument, especially when claiming the moral high ground constitutes an essential part of making your case. If we’re to fully embrace Realpolitik, on the other hand, things become much simpler, more cynical, and yet at least somewhat sincere.

In result, as paradoxical as that may seem, during the short “monopolar period” of world history that followed after the Cold War, it turned out more difficult to create and sustain international regimes in the sphere of security, the control of various specific spaces (the Arctic, the ocean, interplanetary space, etc), and to respect the ecological norms. The double standard and the ad hoc standard for acting according to the particular situation or based on some single precedent that you’ve set yourself, has become an inherent element of the model of international relations that the US and their allies have been trying to impose for years.

Granted, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that these were the only countries that have benefited from this rampant normative indeterminateness. The arbitrary construction of international norms by the global hegemon and its servile minions has benefited an entire group of mid- to minor-sized countries, at least until very recently. After all, these conditions have given them the opportunity to take part in various temporary (or even long-term, like NATO) alliances, designed to fortify their regional political and/or global economic positions. This circumstance has ensured a certain degree of stability to the whole system, which can’t be a bad thing, by any measure.

In the meantime though, promoting the democratic norms and values, and the saturation of the modern political discourse with humanist and humanitarian rhetoric, has generated a lot of questions, since this transformation of the rhetoric has been coupled with active attempts of diluting some key norms of international law, and legitimizing such vague terms like “limited sovereignty”, “regime change”, “humanitarian intervention” (especially when not internationally sanctioned), etc.

…That being said, next time I’ll attempt to have a look at the way the norms of the slightly older monopolar world have largely become obsolete in the emerging multipolar one.

Hybrid, But Still A War

When in the early morning of March 9, 1230, the Tzar of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Asen II decided to declare war on the short-lived Despotate of Epirus, he did that in an almost ritualistic way. He ordered the parchment of the peace treaty that had been violated by the Byzantines to be impaled on a spear. In the ensuing Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian ruler turned the enemy into retreat and routed the Byzantine army, he captured their emperor Theodore Komnenos, and restored previous territories to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.

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That’s the picture that comes to mind to any pupil as they read the history studybooks, and all the novels and movies. It’s a conventional notion of war where one state directly attacks another, two armies meet at the battlefield, and the winner of this clash subdues their rival, either conquering their entire territory or parts of it. History abounds of such examples. But a fact that is little discussed is, such a development is more like an exception than the norm.

War has long ceased to be a separate act. The line between war time and peace time, between military and civilians is rather blurred. About two centuries ago, using Napoleon’s experience, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz formulated the argument that war is a mere continuation of politics, but with different means. The military is but a tool in a much wider array of means, one that’s only limited by the available resources, the imagination of the commanders, and the willingness of the leaders to respect (or not) the established international norms. The Thirty-Year War for example was bloody, messy and full of atrocities (mostly because it was religiously motivated); the following War of the Spanish Succession was widely viewed as a refreshing reversal to “decency” and “honor” in war actions.

Military history is rich of examples where economic sanctions, blockades, and messing with the financial system of the rival state has been employed in addition to military means: for example, printing and fake money and flooding their economy with it, economic sabotage, propaganda, and psychological spec ops. These have targeted not only the military but also the population of the opposing side. The palette of not-so-military means also includes initiating and aiding rebellions against the ruling regime, “revolutionary” or “freedom-fighting” movements (like the one that ultimately triggered the end of 500-year Ottoman rule over my country), direct embedding of agents amongst the ruling elite, creating internal divisions and pitching one ally against another, etc, etc.

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The combination of military and non-military tools is what makes a war a hybrid war. The term is relatively recent. Various analysts of the military actions between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 introduced the term “hybrid threat” for the first time. The same year it appeared for the first time in an official document, the US defense overview report. Still, the analysts are able to trace the manifestations of hybrid warfare way back in time – back to the 1st century AD actualy, when the Jewish Rebellion happened, and the Jews used criminal gangs to undermine the Roman legions of Vespasian – these were used in combination with regular armies and voluntary guerrilla units, and the tactic included a series of ambushes, and even the use of stolen siege equipment. I suppose some future researchers will some day find even earlier examples of hybrid conflict.

Of course, the term “hybrid warfare” became particularly popular after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Within hours of Yanukovich’s deposition, military units from the Russian military base at Sevastopol and from Russia-proper took control of the Crimean key infrastructure, including the main civil airport of Simpheropol, and also various communications infrastructure, radio and TV stations, etc. Pressured by the Russian special services and lacking clear instructions from Kiev, the Ukrainian army and security services in Crimea were unable to put up any resistance. The result of the ensuing pseudo-democratic procedures, which were later recognized by the parliaments of several EU member states (or at least some nationalist parties, which turned out to be funded by the Kremlin), gave more credence to the Crimean annexation, which was a de facto conquest of territory. This allowed Putin to consolidate his success, which had begun with the swift and resolute use of force, and then got legitimized. He then used the same model to launch a similar campaign in East Ukraine, which chopped large portions of that country away and practically put them under Russian control.

All of this has prompted some NATO countries to make their own analyses of the situation, the conclusion invariably being that Russia is a major threat for their national security, in part because of its skillful use of hybrid warfare as a viable method, in combination with conventional military actions, propaganda, economic (mostly energy) blackmail, etc. Russia has reciprocated since then, of course.

NATO’s response to the changing situation came in September 2014, when a decision was made to double the NATO Response Force, and create units with a high state of alert, like VJTF and NRF, which would be able to respond to urgent situations within a couple of days. A command and management infrastructure is to be created, which would direct the redislocation of military personnel and equipment to the sensitive regions in times of need, and the military exercises in the NATO border states with Russia were to become more frequent. These elements are part of the Readiness Action Plan, and most of them have already been completed. This complex of measures is considered sufficient for the time being to halt a potential advance of geopolitical rivals like Russia which do not shy away from using military force – if Russia is stupid (or desperate) enough to do such a step against NATO at all. This is all part of the realization that hybrid warfare is now a fact, and is being perfected and used on a regular basis by countries that can afford the resources for it.

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The conflict in Ukraine has shown that the methods are old, only their names tend to change. The mutual economic interdependence, the new information and communication technologies and the utter and complete dependence on them, plus the free movement of people and capitals, are among the factors that create new opportunities for expanding the variety of methods of hybrid influence. Apart from all that, the essence of war has not changed much. It remains an extension of politics, and aims at subduing an opponent and forcing them to accept terms and conditions that suit the aggressor.

Except, in order to achieve these goals, it’s not necessary to completely eradicate the entire military of the opponent, or conquer their cities, and murder all their soldiers. The hybrid instrumentarium provides opportunities for direct access to the “will of the opponent”, and manipulate it through financing political parties and proxy agents, blackmailing corrupt politicians, manipulating public opinion through the media, and embedding agents into crucial positions within that country’s elite.

For instance, in 2003 the Central military committee of China adopted a concept for information operations which includes three strategies: coordinated strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulations, and defense policies targeting specific segments abroad. Although this sort of operations are mostly supposed to be directed at Taiwan, the 2014 annual report of the Czech intelligence notes that the Chinese administration and special services have directed their efforts toward ensuring the expansion of the Chinese influence over the Czech political and state structures, and collecting politically sensitive intel with the active participation of select members of the Czech elite, including politicians and state officials.

Another way of influencing is through taking control of key economic sectors (like the energy, finance, communications sector), and establishing monopolies. China gradually does that in Africa for example. This method makes it relatively easy to induce crisis situations and respectively to collapse the public trust in the rulers of the targeted country. This effect could be achieved through cyber attacks, and looking to influence critical infrastructure: financial, energy, transportation, communication. As well as limiting access to critical resources like water, essential foods, fuels, medicines.

An alternative approach is through propaganda and psychological influence on the populace. It can be done relatively easily, especially if the aggressor already has a strong influence on the traditional, electronic and online media, and when specific segments of the populace are associated with the aggressor along ethnic, religious, linguistic or other lines. This is practically the employment of non-military tools by specific groups – both prior to, for the duration of, and in the aftermath of the use of actual military force.

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It may just so happen that NATO does have the necessary potential to counter all major challenges of hybrid warfare – if it can use it wisely. NATO has already made steps in that direction by strengthening its conventional forces on the eastern flank, and raising their response capabilities if need be. In principle, the main question is how to determine the threshold beyond which they are to be deployed – for example when the potential aggressor uses non-military tools and keeps their military capabilities on high alert without using them. In other words, the question is how to achieve a level of understanding of the situation where adequate decisions could be made by all NATO member states, even if there’s no clear declaration of war and the moment of the start of that war is blurry.

NATO is gradually finding solutions on questions as complicated as these. One example is the alliance’s policy on cyber defense. It is also assumed that the creation of the VJTF is already having a deterring effect. But this still doesn’t remove the deterring effect of the nuclear arsenals of the leading NATO members.

EU’s ambitions in this respect are more limited, and its capacity for military response too, respectively, In light of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, JC Juncker has urged the member states to agree on the creation of European armed forces. But this remains just a long-term plan for the time being.

In the meantime, the EU is developing and using a wide array of policies, which by the way could serve as an antidote to the non-military tools of hybrid warfare. This includes policies aimed at transparency in political funding, the supremacy of law and countering corruption, policies for bolstering competition and busting oligarchic monopolies, energy security and diversification of energy sources, border control, free and pluralistic media, transparency in business and property relations, etc. We could say with a good amount of certainty that all these policies and measures will continue to be perfected as the risks and threats for EU’s functioning evolve, including the hybrid threat both for specific member states and the union as a whole.

As for my country, what it can do is to restore efficiency in the intelligence system, and make it capable of identifying illicit external influence, and come up with ways to counter it. We also need a working judicial system that could sanction such influences and deter future hybrid actions from potential aggressors.

The Dismantling Of Moldova

Moldova is at a crossroads that could bring a dramatic turn in its post-Soviet history. The main reason for the chronic political crisis that’s been eating up Moldova from the inside for years, is related to a constant threat that has existed ever since the break-up from the Soviet Union: namely, the possibility of a Romanian Anschluss. In other words, Romania has been preparing to swallow up Moldova for quite a while.

The persistent political crisis in Moldova has gradually set up the stage and is constantly increasing the possibility of the execution of an Unionist (i.e. pro-Romanian) coup in Chisinau. The main slogan of Unionism is, “Moldova has failed as a state, therefore it should immediately be unified with Romania”, and its advocates have been actively working both among the ruling circles and in the midst of the multi-faceted opposition that’s now openly protesting and pushing for snap elections.

The prepared swallowing of Moldova is related to the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the Great 1918 Romanian Union, when in result of the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Romanian kingdom added vast territories like Transylvania (then part of Hungary), Bukovina (now part of Ukraine), and Southern Dobrudja (before then, and now, part of Bulgaria).

The calls of the Moldovan Unionists are mostly being inspired from Bucharest, but there’ve been a number of signs lately that the Unirea 2018 (Union 2018) project has already received the approval of the leading NATO countries. One piece of evidence for that is the claim of the Romanian branch of the Deutsche Welle media that “the majority of members in the Moldovan government have declared that at the highest level of power in Moldova, there is already an understanding of the necessity to meet the conditions that Romania has put for granting Moldova the promised 150 million euro loan. Without these funds, the government would be no longer able to even pay the salaries and pensions of its citizens”.

As is already well known, in February 2015 the Romanian parliament created a group called Prietenii Unirii (Friends of the Union), including 40 prominent MPs and senators, its main goal being to prepare and present by the end of 2016 a specific plan for the unification of Moldova and Romania. The recent events in Chisinau stongly suggest that this plan has already been put in motion.

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In November 2015, a number of Moldovan media reported that the leader of the then still unofficial Rightist Party, Ana Gutu had urged the Moldovans to sign the Unification Declaration that she had proposed, because “the union of Romania and Moldova is unconditionable”. Her hope is that this Declaration could then become law, essentially being a project for a resolution of the Moldovan parliament for the unification of Moldova and Romania into a single state.

In relation to the list of preliminary conditions that Moldova has to meet in order to get the first installment of the promised 150 million euro loan, proposed by Romania, the Moldovan-Romanian oligarch and former prime-minister Ion Sturza jubilantly announced, “The Romanians are coming! For the first time since 1812 Romania as a state will directly take responsibility for the territory between the Prut and Dniester rivers, i.e. Moldova”.

Bucharest, quite obviously a staunch US ally, indeed seems more than prepared and willing to “take the responsibility” for the bloodless annexation of Moldova. The current Moldovan PM Pavel Filip (from the Liberal Party) who recently visited the Romanian capital, was assured there that if the protest activities in Chisinau are activated, the Moldovan government could rely on Romania’s help, because according to the 2013 Military Cooperation Treaty between the two countries, Romania would be able to send its carabineri units across the border if need be.

09022016-moldovaThis is how the Greater Romania idea looked like back in 1939

In its classical version, the Greater Romania project includes the “unification” of Romania with Moldova, Transnistria (a highly contested area dominated by ethnic Russians, which has enjoyed de facto independence for years), as well as parts of Ukraine (Bukovina and possibly parts of the Odessa region), and even in its greatest extent, the north-eastern corner of Bulgaria (i.e. Southern Dobrudja again). In this sense, it’s notable that the deputy chairman of the Liberal Party and current mayor of the capital city Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, has said, “I dream that this damned border finally disappears, and we become one people and one country again… If we were one country, our fate and our life would be quite different”.

Chirtoaca is largely considered a protage and aide to the “evil genius”, the grey cardinal of Romanian politics, and Moldova’s factual patron, oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc (who, btw, is a long-time business partner of the Chocolate King, current Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko). During a recent visit in Iasi, in the presence of Romanian prime-minister Dacian Ciolos and president Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Chisinau once more called for the unification of the “two Romanian countries”, stating that this was the only option for Moldova to overcome its systematic crisis.

Right now, the majority of the Moldovan parliament is dominated by the Democratic Party, which is completely controlled by Plahotniuc. He expects to be selected president by the parliament (the term of the current head of state Nicolae Timofti expires next month). The Moldovan Unionists have already announced the launching of a specialized TV channel, Unirea TV. The other deputy chairman of the party, Vyacheslav Untile, has said, “I believe our only chance is unification with Romania. And Plahotniuc has already promised that if we pick him up for president, he would manage this unification by 2019”.

It’s a well-known fact that along with Poland, Romania is considered one of the two foreposts of NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe. And the Greater Romania project just so happens to nicely fit into the Polish project called Medzumorie (Inter-sea), which is the creation of an anti-Russian buffer bloc including an arc of countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea to the Adriatic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia).

09022016-moldova-1The three stages of the creation of the Medzumorie

In other words, the second “great unification” of Romania is potentially a link in the chain of events that makes up the process of the creation of an anti-Eurasianist Baltic/Pontic/Adriatic geopolitical arc, or anti-Russian axis if you like. As the famous Moldovan publicist and chief editor of the local Panorama newspaper, Dmitry Chubashenko says, the plan that Bucharest is having in mind, with the support of its powerful Western patrons, is a “unification” of Moldova and Romania that is essentially an accelerated version of the coveted Euro-Atlantic integration of the latter, because through a simple vote in the Moldovan parliament, and a subsequent simple shifting of the Romanian border a few hundred km to the east, the citizens of Moldova would end up simultaneously NATO and EU citizens just overnight. And then Russia would be having one more problem to deal with, as the geopolitical pressure at its doorstep would increase many times over.

I’m sure you’d agree that the recent NATO decision to place movable military units in those same countries is not helping wind the Doomsday Clock even one bit back, either.

Expect A Little Democratic Bombing In 3, 2, 1…

First, the context:
Oil Found in Bulgarian Black Sea Offshore Drilling

WARSHINGTON, The Land of the Brave and the Free. The US government has surprisingly announced that they’re planning drastic measures against Bulgaria because of suspicions that the tiny Balkan country is developing nuclear weapons with the help of Russia and North Korea.

9047_1Pictured: An American bald eagle looks sternly at the rogue Bulgarians

The US Department of State has denied the rumor that the decision has something to do with last week’s discovery of oil deposits in the Bulgarian Black Sea shelf, adding that such allegations are part of the hybrid war that everyone has gotten so worked up about.

“I’d also like to point out that there’s no democracy in Bulgaria, everything is a smoke-screen, and the Supreme Court of that country is designed after the Soviet model”, Secretary of State Jim Kerry said. “Oh, and they still keep a monument to the Red Army in the center of Sofia. What other proof do you need?”

The Bulgarian authorities were this close to giving an actual response to the US decision, but then they had second thoughts and figured a more adequate course of action would be to wait for people’s reactions around the social networks. The people should be first and foremost after all, right?

In turn, Russia has announced they’re prepared to defend their interests, and is planning to shortly dispatch a bunch of overly polite drinking guys and topless chicks to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, to investigate the situation with the oil (and those beaches).

Mityo “The Gun”, the most colorful presidential candidate in BG, has proposed a modest yet cheap solution to this situation: invite both sides of this geopolitical conflict to his ranch deep in the Balkan Mountain, and buy the sympathies of the Great Powers by buying Coke for the Russians and vodka for the Americans. Perhaps, if they taste each other’s fave product at a neutral territory, they’d lighten up a bit and start thinking about more important things – like the Cubs’ win in the “World” Series, and Philipp Kirkorov’s new mistress.