Crooked Line in the Sand — Russia and Turkey

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On Tuesday, November 24, 2015, two Turkish Airforce F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24. How will that incident impact Russia-Turkey relations, Russia-West relations, NATO response, and the fight against ISIS?

 

Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

Russian Sukhoi SU-24
Image by US Dept. of Defense, public domain.

 

Not surprisingly, Russia and Turkey disagree on what occurred leading up to Turkey shooting down the SU-24.

Russia claims that its aircraft flew along the Turkish border, making sharp turns along the crooked and sharp-angled Northwestern Syrian border to avoid flying into Turkish air space. According to Russia, its pilot received no warnings prior to being shot down. The Russians claim they were hitting ISIS targets in the area.

Turkey claims that the Russian plane flew a two mile route across a small section of Turkey that borders Syria to the east and west. Turkey claims that it radioed ten warnings to the Russian pilot before shooting down the SU-24. According to Turkey, there are no ISIS terrorists in the area that the Russians were bombing – that ethnic Turks that do not support ISIS, but do oppose Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, inhabit the targeted area.

Russia’s claim that the downed SU-24 never flew across Turkish airspace is highly improbable.

The SU-24 lacks the maneuverability required to fly the route that the Russians are claiming that it flew. Also, the Russian claim that they were attacking ISIS targets in the area is most likely at least partially false. ISIS members would be scarce in that area. The Turks seem to be telling the truth about those elements of the shoot down.

However, the Turks could not have radioed ten warnings in the few seconds that would have elapsed while the SU-24 was crossing over Turkish airspace. It’s possible that they could have been broadcasting warnings as the SU-24 flew the long leg of its route that paralleled Turkish airspace. In any case, Turkey had previously warned Russia to keep their warplanes out of Turkish airspace in response to earlier incursions by Russian planes. (For one example, see Russia Upskirts Turkey.)

So why did Russia allow their pilot to fly over Turkish air space?

Given the highly regimented air combat control structure employed by the Russians, it’s not likely that the pilot acted on his own initiative. Russian avionics equipment is not cutting edge, but it is certainly adequate to prevent an accidental flyover on the particular route taken by the SU-24. My guess is that Russia had decided that their pilots should limit their incursions into Turkish air space, but that they approved the flight path that led to their plane being shot down. It seems that Russia miscalculated Turkey’s resolve concerning its incursions.

So how will this incident affect the famed “international coalition to combat ISIS”?

Since the famed coalition is more a product of rhetoric and wishful thinking than of substance, it’s not likely to matter much. Russia is in Syria to prop up the hapless Bashar Assad. Russia’s opposition to ISIS is secondary to that goal. The West opposes both ISIS and Assad. Non-ISIS rebels are receiving Western aid, and both Turkey and its Western allies are opposed to Russian airstrikes targeting non-ISIS rebels. None of this will be greatly impacted by Turkey’s shoot down of the Russian SU-24.

On the diplomatic front, Putin claimed that Turkey “backstabbed” them by shooting down the plane.

Given that no real cooperation between Turkey and Russia has occurred in Syria, and given that the Syrian regime previously shot down a Turkish F-4 on the Syrian Turkish border, it’s more accurate to describe Turkey’s actions as a “counter slash.”

Russia canceled some official meetings between Russian and Turkish ministers and has asked Russians to halt any tourist travel in Turkey. Russia is also claiming that it is scaling back plans for gas exports through a new Russian gas line across Turkey. This seems unlikely since the alternative is for Russia to continue to rely on gas lines crossing Ukraine to reach European markets. With the current low prices of crude, Russia cannot afford to scale back on energy exports. Their fragile economy needs the revenue generated by oil and gas exports.

In military terms, Russia has reacted by deploying better air defense missiles in Syria.

This, when combined with the uncertainty that Putin relies upon so heavily in his foreign policy tactics, may present a new threat to Western and Jordanian aircraft flying in Syrian airspace hunting ISIS targets.

Putin likely does not want to further escalate the situation in Syria by attacking Western or Jordanian aircraft, but he might feel justified in shooting down Turkish aircraft that fly into Syrian air space. The possibility that Russia might mistake a French or American aircraft for a Turkish aircraft cannot be ignored. In recognition of that, the West might, without much fanfare, inform Russian commanders in Syria of Western flight plans when attacking ISIS targets.

As for Russian relations with Western nations, the impact will be minimal.

The US views Erdogan as unreliable on his best day. If Erdogan has “backstabbed” anyone, it has been his NATO partners. Nobody in the US military community will forget that on the eve of the 2003 US-coalition invasion of Iraq, Erdogan withdrew his permission for US troops to invade Iraq via Turkey. More recently, Turkey has been inconsistent in dealing with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. Erdogan claims to want to fight ISIS, but he has spent far more effort fighting Kurds both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey is a NATO partner, but thanks to Erdogan, it is the least trusted and least liked member. NATO will not ignore direct military aggression by Russia against Turkey, but given Erdogan’s long, ugly record of ignoring the interests of his “allies,” NATO partners are not going to allow Erdogan to control their agenda in Syria.

As for the war on ISIS and statements by US cabinet members and DOD spokesmen that “this further complicates our efforts against ISIS” – that’s more PR effort than reality.

The Obama administration’s opponents have been critical of Obama’s minimalist approach to combating ISIS. The White House now has one more excuse for not escalating efforts against the Islamic extremists.

Given the economic trouble at home and the expensive conflict in Ukraine, Putin does not want to escalate a conflict with Turkey. Given the growing discontent and political violence in Turkey, along with troubled relations with his NATO allies, Erdogan does not want to escalate a conflict with Russia. NATO does not want Turkey or Russia to escalate a conflict. Neither Erdogan nor Putin have demonstrated skill in foreign policy or diplomacy, but both have strong reasons to avoid a serious engagement with each other.

Most likely, the status quo will continue in Syria. The fight against ISIS will remain in low gear, and since Russia has few friends, economic convenience will prevent a long term freeze of Turkey-Russia relations.

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Changing US-Mideast Relations — Turkey’s Hot and Cold Running Erdoğan

By Jay Holmes

During the past twelve years, US-Turkey relations have been in a state of flux. Statements from Ankara and Washington D.C. to the Western media have been almost habitually optimistic, but the reality beneath the rhetoric has proven problematic for both nations. For the West, the rise to power of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and his pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party has introduced complications in the previously stable US-Turkey relationship.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

 

As compared to earlier Turkish leaders, such as Abdullah Gül, the outspoken Erdoğan has demonstrated less finesse when dealing with Western leaders. In his three terms as Prime Minister and now as the President of Turkey, Erdoğan has represented himself as an agent for change. Precisely what sort of change Erdoğan represents is not so easy to identify.

Erdoğan is a case study in contradictions.

Turkey has been moving toward economic integration with the European Community for over a decade, and Erdoğan openly supports this. He’s counting on European markets to provide the cash that will satisfy the “development” aspect of his Justice and Development Party platform. Yet, in spite of his desperate need to bring Turkey into the European Community, he simultaneously sees himself as leading Turkey into a leadership position among Islamic nations.

These two positions are not realistically or mutually sustainable. The values, standards, and laws that are central to European Community membership are not compatible with the values, standards, and laws of most Islamic nations.

One of Erdoğan’s dilemmas is his relationship with Iran.

Iran, unlike Turkey, is a Shia nation with a radical Shia theocracy. Therefore, it might seem a simple choice for Erdoğan to openly oppose Iran and Iranian ambitions in Syria and Iraq. However, Iran is Turkey’s second largest export customer. Iran also provides Turkey with about 35% of its oil supplies. Instead of being at odds, these two countries have fostered closer relations in recent years.

The rise of a democratic reform movement in Syria followed by the birth of the ISIS cancer presents Turkey with obvious security risks. It also presents Turkey with a golden opportunity to assume a leadership role in the fight against ISIS at a time when Turkey so desperately wants membership in the European Community.

In light of this golden opportunity, one might envision coalition air attacks being conducted from Turkish air bases, which are ideally located near the Syrian border. One might even expect the Turkish Air Force to take part in those raids. However, one would be quite mistaken. While Erdoğan has loudly demanded and received prompt NATO protection in the past, he refused to allow US and European air forces to conduct raids against ISIS from Turkish bases. For apparent diplomatic reasons, the US and its allies have downplayed their frustration with Turkey over this and several other issues concerning ISIS.

Another contradiction in Turkish policies is Erdoğan’s changing relationship with the Kurds. While most Kurds see themselves as being one people in need of an independent homeland, Turkey views them as three distinct groups.

The first group is the Kurds within Turkey. In order to enter the European Union, Turkey has been under pressure from Europe to improve its stance on human rights. Erdoğan and many Turks see the Kurds within Turkey as enemies of Turkish culture and a challenge to Turkish nationalism. In order to gain entry to the European Community, Turkey has changed some of the laws that discriminated against Kurdish Turks, but Turkey’s relationship with other Kurds remains more complex.

The second group of Kurds resides to the east of Turkey in Iraq. From Erdoğan’s point of view, they are “our dear Kurdish friends to the east.” The central feature of those particular Kurds that makes them dear to Erdoğan is the oil reserves in their region. Perhaps I oversimplify. It’s not just the oil. There’s gas, as well.

 

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014 Image by Voice of America, public domain.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014
Image by Voice of America, public domain.

 

The third group of Kurds is in Syria. Many of these Kurds previously resided in Turkey, but they escaped to Syria to avoid oppression by the Turkish government. While practicing to pretend to love Kurds in Iraq, Erdoğan is hosting 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. These Kurds have no oil and no gas to sell to Turkey, and so to Erdoğan, they are only a problem.

Removing ISIS from Syria would be a simple solution to the refugee problem. However, when ISIS attacked Kobani, Syria, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey refused to allow the US and other coalition members to supply the Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobani through Turkey. In Erdoğan’s mind, Kurdish control of part of Syria represents a threat to Turkey. Erdoğan fears that the Kurds will one day do to Turkey what Turkey has done to the Kurds.

The US grew tired of negotiating with Erdoğan and resorted to airdropping supplies to the Kurdish fighters. In spite of Erdoğan’s opposition to US assistance to the Kurds, the Kurdish resistance fighters were able to drive ISIS from Kobani.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobani, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

One particularly nasty rumor that surfaced during the battle of Kobani is that members of the Turkish army supplied ISIS with ammunition during the battle. Another serious allegation against Turkey is that it may have been supporting ISIS affiliated rebels in Libya.

Turkey denies those allegations, but they cannot deny that a Turkish-born ISIS commander, Emrah Çaçan , is being treated in a Turkish hospital after being wounded in Kobani. At the same time, Turkey is prosecuting a Kurdish-Turkish medical student named Esra Yakar for providing volunteer medical treatment in Kobani.

Esra left school to volunteer as a physician in Kobani. She was badly wounded there, and with the promise of better treatment, she was taken to a hospital in Turkey. Her Turkish doctor requested that she receive advanced care by eye specialists, but he was ignored. She then lost the use of her right eye. After she was finally transferred to a hospital in Ankara, Esra Yakar was ordered out of her hospital bed by police, arrested, and thrown in jail. Though she was released a few days later, she is still awaiting a trail date on April 30. Apparently, Erdoğan and his government consider anyone that gives medical treatment to Kurdish fighters to be criminals, yet they are happy to give medical care to a well-known terrorist.

To be clear, not everyone in Turkey supports Erdoğan’s pro-ISIS behavior.

The medical community in Turkey is outraged by what was done to Esra Yakar and has lodged complaints and petitions on her behalf. Unfortunately, the opposition in Turkey counts for less each day since Erdoğan’s government has stifled the press and used the police and intelligence services to crush any opposition to his rule.

So why is Erdoğan so willing to defy his Western “allies”? Why would the European Community seriously consider Turkey’s application when Turkey has so clearly rejected all of the European Community’s shared values?

In large measure, the answer is oil and gas.

Turkey is serving as a major conduit for oil from Russia, Central Asia, and Iraq. Turkey must import most of the oil and gas that it consumes, and if the Justice and Development Party is to deliver on its “development” promises, it needs even more oil and gas to do so.

 

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline -- only one of many through Turkey. Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline–only one of many through Turkey.
Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

 

Although Turkey has none of its own gas and oil to sell to Europe, it collects lucrative fees on each barrel of oil or cubic yard of gas that flows through its pipelines or transfers through Turkish ports. At a time when Russia’s trans-Ukraine oil and gas pipelines are under threat because of its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Europe will likely remain quiet about whatever Erdoğan does as long as he keeps allowing that oil and gas to keep flowing across Turkey.

And what will the US do?

For the moment, the US administration has decided to keep pretending that Erdoğan is an ally to the US and NATO. Elections in Turkey are scheduled to take place in June. Whether or not the throttled opposition can manage a victory remains to be seen.

The US will not be interested in harming European allies by slowing the transit of oil and gas across Turkey to European markets. My guess is that, if Erdoğan and his party remain in power, the US will begin to disregard Turkish interests while continuing to pretend that Turkey is an ally.

If the Justice and Development Party loses the next elections in Turkey, Turkey will likely end up with a more secular-leaning government, and it will abandon its fantasies of friendship with Iran and ISIS.

Until that happens, we cannot expect any real improvement in US-Turkey relations.

 

 

Russia’s Ukraine Invasion–The Cost

By Jay Holmes

Precisely who is fighting in Ukraine depends upon whom you ask. When Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin speaks to non-Russians, he claims the Russian-speaking Ukrainian rebels are valiantly fighting to save Russian-speaking orphans, Jews, and senior citizens from the vicious onslaught of the Ukrainian government. When Putin speaks at home, he says the Jews are plotting with Americans to overthrow Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, along with most of the rest of the planet, takes a different view. According to Kiev, the violence in eastern Ukraine is instigated by, funded by, and in part fought by Russian security forces.

 

 

Base image for Putin meme  from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

Base image for Putin meme
from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

 

From Putin’s office in Moscow, the Russian invasion must seem like a great idea. His entire campaign platform—for the next campaign, last campaign, or any campaign—is his vision of returning Russia to the former glory that, in his view, it enjoyed during the Soviet era. Many Russians don’t have the same memory of enjoying that glory, or much of anything else during that time. Unfortunately, their memories and opinions no longer count for much since Putin has consolidated his power as a New Age Stalin.

A year ago, NATO-aligned nations warned Putin that the costs to Russia for invading Ukraine would far outweigh any nationalist glory that he might obtain.

In response, Putin confidently explained to Western journalists that Europe would suffer more than Russia would from any Western-imposed economic sanctions. At that time and to this day, Putin is denying that any such invasion has taken place, or that the economic sanctions are hurting Russia. They are.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s currency and its stock market have plummeted, and energy prices have dropped like a rock. Between that and the damaging economic sanctions that Putin had so confidently laughed off, the economic outlook for Russia is much less favorable today than it was a year ago.

Given Putin’s plans for increased military spending, the Russian taxpayers can expect decreased standards of living, accompanied by decreased civil rights.

The Russian people are already experiencing a decline in the standard of living in economic terms. Along with this, Putin is intolerant of dissent, the state controls the media, and political opponents are being jailed. Apparently, Putin’s visions of former Soviet glory come down to more centralized authority, fewer human rights, and the same economic hopelessness that made life so miserable in the old regime. Welcome to the “good old days.”

 

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate
Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

 

For the most part, we in the West have measured the consequences of Putin’s folly in Ukraine in terms of damage to his economy, but there are deeper and less obvious consequences that will affect Russia for decades to come.

For starters, Putin grossly overstated his support at home for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The lack of real democracy in Russia means that Putin can pretend to ignore the unpopularity of his Ukrainian adventure, but even for a skillful, self- promoting dictator, there are limits to his power. I don’t know what those limits are. Unfortunately for Putin, he doesn’t know either. He would not like to discover them, as his increasing ruthlessness could mean that if he is toppled, he could end up with a retirement plan similar to that of his old pal Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

Another price Russia is paying is that a substantial percentage of its young professionals are immigrating to the West in the wake of Russians allowing Putin to install himself as a modern czar.

That brain drain is hurting Russia. In fact, if so many Russian engineers and scientists had not left their country during the last fifteen years, Russia might not have needed to pay France to build new amphibious assault carriers for them. And now, with the sanctions, Russia doesn’t get the carriers from France. Putin wants desperately to modernize and enlarge his military, but that modernization depends on Russian engineering and scientific capacity, which has has been badly damaged by the intellectual exodus resulting from his repressive policies at home.

Russia is also paying in the form of deteriorating relations with Scandinavian countries.

Last week, Sweden suggested to its partners in the Nordic Defense Cooperation that they do two things. First, that they raise the status of cooperation from the current minimal form by establishing an actual Nordic standing task force to deal with growing aggression from Russia. Second, that deeper military coordination and cooperation be extended beyond Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark to include Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

 

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries
Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

 

The bad news for Russia is that it didn’t take more than a few hours for the Nordic members to enthusiastically agree to Sweden’s suggestions. But that’s not all. Sweden has suggested that the combined force that they create should be available to integrate in NATO operations. So in effect, Putin has achieved what Western diplomats could not achieve with half a century of their best efforts–he has managed to get Sweden to join a Western alliance against Russia.

These developments are all consequences of Putin’s adventurism in the Ukraine, and they are all precisely the sorts of developments that Putin was hoping to avoid.

In an alternative scenario, Putin would be capable of seeing beyond 1986.

It is a view that would leave Russia without enemies in Europe. It would be a country where the aspirations of so many of its brightest young people would not include relocation to London or Paris. In that alternative paradigm, Russia could pick up a phone and ask Sweden if it could send a submarine to Swedish waters, and Sweden would say “yes,” because Russia would be a modern nation with a modern foreign policy and friendly relations with its neighbors.

That Russia would experience a better standard of living, greater scientific and cultural achievements, and far better national security. The NATO nations would be happier for it and would enjoy all the advantages of real cooperation between Russia and the West. But that’s the alternative paradigm and a view that Vladimir Putin will not entertain, because such a view would place the interests of the Russian people above his own desire for absolute political power.

The scope of Russia’s lost opportunities is spectacular to behold, but until new leadership arrives, Putin’s dingy Stalinist Cold War reality is all that we can expect for that country and its unfortunate neighbors. Proof that you can take the boy out of the Cold War, but you can’t always take the Cold War out of the boy.

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Related Posts

France–At the Crossroads of Russia and NATO

How Putin is Having His Way with the West

Dances with Bears–The Putin/West Waltz

Ukraine in Crisis:  Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

Timeline of Ukrainian Turmoil–Part Two, 2001 – Present

It Didn’t Start Last Week–Timeline of Ukrainian Invasions

 

 

Why Over is NOT Over — Afghanistan

By Jay Holmes

With the “ISIS crisis” occupying the headlines in Europe and North America, the US and NATO military operations in Afghanistan have been all but forgotten in the media.

 

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province Image by Dept. of Defense.

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province
Image by Dept. of Defense.

 

On December 28, 2014, US President Obama announced that after thirteen years of combat, the longest war in US history, the war in Afghanistan, was ending. However, the president pointed out in the same speech that US forces would, in fact, remain in combat in Afghanistan.

The war that is “over” is not over.

To most accurately represent the President’s words from his December 28 speech, it is best that we offer a direct quote. The following is the entire fourth paragraph of President Obama’s speech:

“Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country. At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States—along with our allies and partners—will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda. Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation.” [emphasis added]

In attempting to interpret and understand the President’s intent in Afghanistan, I am left in the precarious position of trying to extract facts from a political speech.

In the above paragraph, we see the source of the “war is over, but not over” dilemma that the president and our troops at risk face in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the president and most Americans would love for peace to reign in Afghanistan, or at the very least, for Americans to no longer suffer the consequences of the complete lack of anything like peace in Afghanistan. While President Obama mentioned the sticky detail of the “remnants of al-Qaeda,” he failed to mention the larger obstacle to peace—namely, the Taliban and its dozens of local “taliclones” opposing peace and civilization in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s commitment to a “united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan” is in keeping with US political opinion, but is, unfortunately, not at all descriptive of the reality in Afghanistan as it was on December 28, 2014, nor as it is today.

We in the US find ourselves again in a dilemma that resembles President Lyndon Johnson’s view of the Viet Nam war. The war that Johnson saw, understood, and valiantly attempted to manage was not terribly similar to the war that actually occurred in Viet Nam. My guess is that in reality, President Obama understands Afghanistan better than his speech would indicate, so I assume that the speech was a political exercise rather than an expression of the president’s real view of Afghanistan.

He knows it’s not over.

While most of us in the US were glad to see the Afghan people conduct their first democratic election, that election, unfortunately, has not led to any sign of unity in the Afghan political system. Being ever the incurable optimist, I hasten to point out an interesting, though less noticed, phenomenon in Afghanistan. The young people of Afghanistan are learning to use social media, and judging from their correspondence, they are more practical, more civilized, more intelligent, and far more united than their elders. They have clearly expressed that they want a functioning democracy and won’t let tribal loyalties and factionalism get in their way.

In practical terms, it seems that we will have about 11,000 US forces in Afghanistan instead of the previously estimated 10,000. NATO will continue in its feeble efforts by maintaining 2,000 troops in Afghanistan to back up the usual idealistic and vague European political agenda.

Political speeches and media trends aside, what might we reasonably expect from Afghanistan?

My best guess is that any hope for civilization in Afghanistan resides with its not-yet-empowered youth. Too many of Afghanistan’s most educated people reside outside of Afghanistan, and most of them have no intention of returning home.

We have to consider that the ongoing national political schizophrenia in neighboring Pakistan will continue to allow various tali-brand bandits to wage war against the Afghan people.

The American public’s dwindling enthusiasm for paying the Afghan bills in blood and treasure, combined with the fact that most European nations have never been willing to contribute much more than rhetoric to the Afghan war, means that the US will remain in combat in Afghanistan as quietly as possible for another ten years. As the next generation of Afghan leaders gradually replaces the current gang of intellectually arthritic old men that currently fail to run their country, hope for a “united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan” will finally become more than political dogma.

 

At the Crossroads of NATO and Russia

By Jay Holmes

Friday, November 14, 2014 might end up being an important date in Western history—not for what happened on this day, but rather for what didn’t happen. The French government failed to deliver the new Mistral class helicopter carrier to the Russian Navy.

 

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

FS Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship in Toulon Harbor
Image by Rama, wikimedia commons.

 

On December 24, 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the sale of two French Mistral class ships to the Russian Navy. The contract was signed on January 25, 2011, with a delivery date for the first helicopter carrier, the Vladivostok, in October of 2014 and the second ship, the Sevastopol, to be delivered in 2015. Two more ships of the same class were then to be constructed under license in Russia. The price of the contract for the first two ships was 1.37 billion euros. This, of course, represented thousands of jobs for the troubled French economy.

In what was likely a well-rehearsed press briefing, Russian reporters asked Russian General Staff member General Nikolai Makarov why the ships would not be built in Russia where Russian workers could benefit from the project. General Makarov stated that the reason for purchasing the French design, rather than Russian, was that “Russia would require another ten years to develop technologies” that could match the Mistral class capabilities and that the Russian Navy did not want to endure that delay. In answering the question, he effectively confirmed the concerns of the US and some of its NATO members.

When the contract was announced in 2010, US Republican senators, led by John McCain, sent a letter of protest to the French Ambassador to the US. NATO member states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also protested against the sale. During his visit to Paris on January 8, 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed US concern over the substantial military technology upgrade that the French were exporting with the sale of the Mistral class ships to Russia. When questioned by journalists, Gates’ representatives stated that, in spite of US concerns, there was nothing that the US could do to block the sale of the Mistral ships to Russia. France had anticipated the complaints and ignored them. The construction proceeded on schedule.

On February 27, 2014, when the Russian flag was hoisted over the Ukrainian parliament in Crimea, the pending transfer of the Mistral ships to Russia quickly became a much more serious problem to Ukraine, to NATO member states, and to Sweden. With a planned delivery date of October 15 looming on the horizon, the US and NATO quietly stepped up pressure on the French government to halt the sale of the high tech Mistral ships. The French quickly complained that they would have to reimburse Russia the 1.1 billion euros already paid for the ship construction, and that it would cost France over a thousand jobs.

Members of the US Congress responded that NATO should purchase the two ships for use by the NATO Standing Force Atlantic and NATO Standing Force Mediterranean. NATO was slow to respond, but after a few weeks, they decided that they lacked the funds and mechanism for making such a purchase. In reality, if the UK and the US cooperated, an offer to purchase the ships at their original sales price could be made within days. France would have no doubt as to the validity of the offer, but that does not mean that France would easily agree.

In less public communications, the Russian government offered, in general terms and without producing a contract, to make further substantial warship purchases from the French shipyards if France delivers the two Mistral ships. Russia is also in a position to quietly make a variety of generous financial offers to the French government or to members of the French government. I am not aware of what other offers have or have not been made.

 

 

In response to pressure from its fellow NATO members, France delayed the projected delivery date to November 14 with the condition that a cease-fire and a permanent political solution be in place by then.

Only days before the deadline, Vladimir Putin did what he always does best. He hurt Russia. On November 10, 2014, Australia deployed warships to shadow Russian warships that had approached the Coral Sea. On November 13, the Russian ships were in the Coral Sea, where they approached, but did not enter, Australian territorial waters.

This bit of Putinism was in response to the announcement by the Australian government that at the G-20 meeting, they would confront Vladimir Putin about the fact that Russian forces had shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, 2014. Thirty-eight Australians were killed in that attack.

On November 12, another Russian armored column crossed into Ukraine, further escalating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and making it more politically difficult for France to deliver the ships. The November 14 delivery date has now passed, and France has thus far declined to turn over the ships to Russia.

The Russian government responded with its traditional lack of finesse. It officially announced that it would make financial claims against France if the first Mistral is not delivered by the end of November. Less officially, but quite publicly, they have announced that the financial claims would be in the neighborhood of 3 billion euros, and that France would face “grave consequences.” France responded by stating that it would not be forced into any decisions by anyone outside of France.

In spite of what Vladimir Putin’s media machine will tell the Russian public, Russia is, in fact, in no position to deliver and “grave consequences” to France. The Russian ships in the Coral Sea are not capable of overcoming Australia’s defenses, but the move plays well on Putin-controlled state media. As for Australia, Putin doesn’t give a damn what anyone in that country thinks.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin contemplating the  "grave consequences" he would like to deliver. Image by www.kremlin.ru.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
contemplating the “grave consequences”
he would like to deliver.
Image by http://www.kremlin.ru.

 

While NATO maintains that it cannot purchase the two Mistral ships from France, some interesting options are available.

In 2010, Poland expressed an interest in possibly purchasing a Mistral class ship from France. For lack of funds, no offer has been tendered. Canada, a nation that has the funds, has also expressed an interest in purchasing two Mistral class ships from France. The UK, a nation that has the funds but won’t give the funds to its navy, has not expressed any interest in purchasing a Mistral class ship. Perhaps it should. With the once mighty Royal Navy currently reduced to having no carriers in service, the purchase of a single Mistral class helicopter carrier could serve to boost the Royal Navy’s defense capabilities until the two new Queen Elizabeth carriers enter service sometime after 2016. The helicopter carrier would remain useful to the Royal Navy long thereafter.

The likelihood of the UK considering the purchase of one of the Mistral carriers is approximately equal to the likelihood that I will win the lottery. I don’t buy lottery tickets. Since the US is expected to pick up the slack from the Royal Navy, and since there is next to no Canadian navy afloat from which to pick up any slack, it is in the direct interest of the US to offer partial financial assistance to Canada or to Poland for the purchase of the two Mistral carriers. The key to getting such a deal done would be to allow the French to announce that any such arrangements were the results of inspired, avant-garde thinking by members of the French government. Neither Canada nor Poland would care who claimed credit for any such deal.

My best guess is that between now and the end of November, Vladimir Putin will not learn to act in the best interests of Russia. Russia will continue its aggression against Ukraine, and, therefore, France will want to avoid suffering the political damage that will result in supplying Russia’s invading military with a new high-tech warship. Time still remains for France and its Western allies to come to their senses and redirect the Mistral ships to an allied navy. Whether or not reason will prevail in the long term remains to be seen.

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Pakistan and the Tangled Web

By Jay Holmes

On Saturday, November 26, 2011, NATO conducted airstrikes against what later proved to be two Pakistani border observation posts. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed in the two air attacks, and NATO’s always tenuous relationship with Pakistan suffered a major blow.

The two Pakistani positions were fairly well dug in to withstand light weapons fire from Taliban or from any other brand of the many armed bandits that have inhabited the area for centuries. The lightly constructed Pakistani bunkers were not built to withstand the cannon fire that NATO or US aircraft can bring to bear, and most of the inhabitants were killed.

Two similar, but much smaller and less publicized, incidents had already occurred during the last few years. In both of these previous incidents, Pakistan and the USA agreed that Pakistani forces (without orders from above) had opened fire on NATO forces before NATO returned fire.

The reaction from Pakistan to this most recent incident was instantaneous and about as predictable as the results of the cannon fire, itself. Pakistani politicians quickly entrenched themselves in their positions before any investigation could be conducted. Pakistan closed the two critical border crossings from Pakistan to Afghanistan to trucks that carry supplies to US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Less than half of the coalition’s supplies arrive via Pakistan, but the closure is a considerable inconvenience for them.

It is too early to say what might have caused the incident. The US military, in conjunction with NATO investigators, will review gun camera film, radio tapes, and combat reports. The pilots and the Afghan and US Special Forces that were operating near the area where the air strikes occurred will be questioned multiple times. NATO and the US will be under pressure from politicians to quickly spit out an answer, but the Pentagon and the White House, along with other coalition governments, will want the most accurate report possible.

So far, a few key facts are striking. To start with, there is no denying the impact of twenty-four dead Pakistani soldiers. Most elements of the not-altogether-unified Pakistani military establishment are doing everything they can to use the incident to assert more control over the Pakistani government, and more influence over the Pakistani people.

When I listened to early responses from Pakistani spokesmen, I immediately realized that they were being deceptive, but the precise nature of the deception is not yet clear to me, and may not yet be clear to the Pakistani government, itself. One glaring bit of evidence of deception in the Pakistani response is that it carelessly emphasized that, “The attacks by NATO were absolutely unprovoked. Everyone in the outposts were asleep, nobody was awake so nobody in the outposts could have fired first.”

While I have never been a member of the Pakistani military, it’s still quite obvious to me (and to anyone who has spent a day or more in any military service) that a military team would never all sleep simultaneously unless they were on leave together. Even in a base in a peaceful area, soldiers and sailors stand watch around the clock. The notion that Pakistani troops would all be asleep on the Pakistan/Afghan border in the middle of the night is beyond absurd. The only reason I can think of so far for such a desperate lie would be that the Pakistani government is covering up some provocation by a shooter or shooters in or near the outposts.

Once Pakistan had announced that they were certain the coalition attacks were deliberate and unprovoked, the Afghan government responded by reminding everyone that they had, on multiple occasions, protested to Pakistan about Pakistani troops allowing Taliban to operate next to Pakistani border outposts, and essentially use the Pakistani border outposts as human shields while firing on Afghan and coalition forces inside of Afghanistan.

Both the US Special Forces and the Afghan Special Forces have stated that they are certain they were fired on by shooters at or near the outposts. The Pakistani outposts are distinguishable from Taliban outposts only by the fact that the Pakistani outposts are more hastily constructed and less elaborately furnished. The Special Forces troops may have believed that they were taking fire from Taliban outposts.

US and Pakistan military counterparts did communicate before and during the air attacks. So far, it seems that neither side had a clear picture of what was occurring. At one point, the Pakistani military informed a US Special Forces sergeant that there were no Pakistani troops in the area. The Pakistanis would have no reason to transmit such a message, unless the two sides were not clear on the location in question. Given the lack of reference points and the lack of clear demarcation on the Pakistan/Afghan border, it would not be difficult to make such a mistake. Tribes in the area where the attack occurred don’t recognize the border or any such thing as “Pakistan” or “Afghanistan,” and the border, itself, remains in dispute.

While we here in the West get to hear a wide variety of viewpoints concerning this incident, Pakistanis are not being allowed to hear what Western media outlets are saying. The Pakistani authorities have blocked Western news broadcasts since the incident occurred.

Once a proper investigation has been completed, we might know more about what occurred, but there are some things that the investigation cannot change.

1)    The families and friends of the dead Pakistani troops will remain angry. The Pakistan government will do its best to direct that anger away from itself and toward the US.

2)    While the Taliban and the many “Tali-clone” gangster groups are the root cause of the incident, they will do their best to profit from the deaths of the twenty-four Pakistani soldiers.

3)    The government of Pakistan will respond to any investigation based on its internal political needs rather than any determinable facts.

4)    The public response from Pakistan vs. the private response from Pakistan to the USA may vary wildly.

5)    If there is any duplicity on the part of the Pakistan military and intelligence services, it will not be unanimous. They are more concerned with their own internal power struggles than they are with either the Taliban or the USA.

6)    Outside interested parties such as Iran have no need for facts and will respond in their usual manner (Death to America).

7)    Where you stand depends on where you sit. The world’s media vendors’ commentary on the incident will be heavily influenced by their own agendas.

image from dailyhaha.com

While angry Pakistanis and Westerners might both be tempted to say, “It’s time for a divorce,” there are still reasons why both the West and Pakistan are better served by continuing to attempt to cooperate against the Tali-gangs. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs of this ugly marriage, the dysfunctional family will remain intact.

Do you have any questions?

Update on Libya and a Tearful Good-bye

By Jay Holmes

This week, Zimbabwean Dictator Robert Mugabe, a long time friend of Qaddafi’s, stated to the international press that Moammar  Qaddafi is now his guest in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean opposition leaders claim that they have verified Momo’s presence. Mugabe’s people claim that Moammar flew out of his enclave at Sirte, but it’s just as likely that he flew out of an airstrip on the Algerian border.

The fact is that it is unlikely that anything other than shrapnel is flying out of Sirte without NATO’s acquiescence. It has not been confirmed by NATO authorities that Qaddafi or any of his principal family members are in Zimbabwe. If he is, I can only extend my condolences to the people of Zimbabwe for having to suffer yet another undeserved indignity. However, it is entirely possible that this is simply a rumor spread by Mugabe in an attempt to slacken the search for his buddy, Qaddafi, in Libya.

In honor of great work on the part of NATO and the Libyan rebels, I would like to repost this open letter I wrote to Qaddafi as a parting shot gift.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

My Open Dear John Letter to Qaddafi

By Holmes**

My Dearest Momo,

Perhaps you are surprised that I would write you now, but after all these years, I hate to see us break up this way. The lack of closure is emotionally draining for both of us. After all, my relationship with you has lasted even longer than my marriage thus far.

I was so young and impetuous when we first met. I know that some of the things that I have said and done may have hurt your feelings. Please accept that my friends and I always acted with sincerity and the best of intentions. I hope you can understand that some of the things you did were really hurtful to me and to many of my close friends, as well.

I am sitting here listening to Carol King sing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, and it brings me so many fond memories of our long and often exciting friendship. All those years. . . . So many cute hats, none of which ever fit you. . . . Those charming outfits. . . . That lovely fireworks display on a romantic spring night in 1986. . . . These  memories all come flooding back to me as I sit here and laugh cry.

Seeing you in such painful difficulties these days has made me re-evaluate our long connection. I want this to all end for us on the best possible note. Although I know you have not always loved me, I am sure you have never questioned my sincerity or passion. It’s all been very real for me.

Based on my deeper understanding of our heart-felt connection, I am offering you a gift. . . . A gift from my heart. . . . In fact, in your honor, I have decided to offer this special gift to any deserving person in the world. . . . the Seventy-Two Virgins Golden Retirement Plan. In fact, out of my deep respect for you, I will ask potential retirees in the future to plan in advance by donating a small portion of their plunder to my special fund, so that I may be able to help as many needy souls as possible.

Because of all the years of joy you have brought me, I am offering this gift to you free of any of your normal financial arrangements. Unlike your other so-called friends, Gordon Brown and Silvio Berlusconi, I won’t take a penny from you. Yes Momo, I know about that gas pipeline you built to Silvio’s house, and look at how he has repaid you! But I forgive you. And I want you to know that my friendship with Markus Wolf* in no way detracted from all we have been to each other. “Mischa” never meant a thing to me.

My dear friend, stop struggling and give yourself the rest you deserve. Those seventy-two virgins will keep you happy for eternity. I know how picky you are about your meals so I have also arranged for a lovely, doting Ukrainian nurse to be your celestial mommy. Just stop for a moment and think of your future, Momo. Imagine being young again, imagine being attractive this time, imagine four exhausted recent virgins by your side, and your mommy’s voice entering that lovely silk tent. . . .”Ooo, Momo darling. . . . come to lunch Dear. Mommy made you your favorite lamb goulash. . . .”

Please come and visit soon so that we can implement your overdue, well-deserved gift. I want to finally repay you for our long years of friendship. Come what may, never forget that we had Paris in the spring, Rome in the fall, and those wonderful picnics on the Algerian border. Thank you for a lifetime of wonderful memories.

Sincerely,

Holmes, CEO, Celestial After-Care, Inc.

*Markus Wolf was the despised director of the foreign intelligence branch of the East German Stasi (secret police).

**Note by Piper Bayard:

Holmes, a man with experience in intelligence and covert operations, has a long and involved past with Moammar Qaddafi (“Uncle Momo”) so these events in Libya are especially moving for him. During the Cold War, Qaddafi allowed the Soviets, the East Germans, and the other Warsaw Pact countries to use Libya as a giant terrorist training camp. Sometimes there were upwards of 30 camps operating at the same time for the purpose of training terrorist groups to attack Israel and Western nations. Qaddafi even cooperated with the Irish Republican Army for a while, until the IRA decided he was too filthy even for them.

Holmes and many of his friends spent decades intimately involved in fighting the Soviets, the East Germans, and the various terrorist organizations they sponsored. The stories of their sacrifices will never be told, but they were numerous and deeply personal.

In 1986, Qaddafi was blown away (pun intended) that his vaunted, high-tech Soviet Air Defense System proved useless against a rather limited air attack by less than two dozen aircraft from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. Rumors circulated that clandestine operations had simultaneously been carried out against military assets in Libya. In addition, Qaddafi’s Syrian allies had sent their best naval unit to the Gulf of Sidra with the intention of guaranteeing damage to the U.S. 6th fleet. That Syrian ship exploded shortly after casting off from its dock in Libya. Both Syria and Libya were left unenthusiastic about the prospects of any future engagements with the U.S. 6th fleet, despite the best cheerleading the Soviets could bring to bear.