Europe/Americas update: June 1, 2017

NATO

Two major NATO exercises took place in Eastern Europe today, the annual BALTOPS naval exercise in the Baltics and the Romanian leg of the alliance’s “Noble Jump 2017” exercise. This did not, of course, go without notice from Moscow, whose ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, issued a warning:

“NATO countries should understand that all these efforts will not become unnoticed for us and will not stay without response in terms of military planning,” Moscow’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, told reporters.

Russia has been reinforcing its western flank with new divisions, and accuses NATO of threatening its security by stepping up military drills and deployments on the alliance’s eastern end.

“With these military steps, military activities and military reinforcements, NATO is building a new military, security situation that we cannot ignore, that we should address using our own military instruments,” Grushko said.

NATO, meanwhile, still appears to be processing last week’s close encounter with Donald Trump:

After apparently moderating his stance toward an organization he once dismissed as obsolete, Trump used last week’s meeting to publicly denounce Europe’s low defense spending, while also surprising many NATO leaders present by urging them also to focus on illegal immigration.

Many at NATO headquarters are now unsure of the alliance’s future direction under Trump, according to seven current and former alliance diplomats, some of whom attended Tuesday’s debriefing at NATO’s inner sanctum, the North Atlantic Council.

“Trump showed we have fundamental differences about what NATO is for,” said one senior European NATO diplomat. “NATO is designed to defend the territory of its members, not stop terrorism or immigration. We are heading in opposite directions.”

A second diplomat described Trump’s style, which revealed the limits of negotiating in advance with U.S. diplomats and even with such senior figures as Defence Secretary James Mattis, as both “refreshing” because it was direct, but also as “very strange”.

Trump’s call for member nations to increase defense spending to meet the alliance’s “two percent of GDP” target gets a mixed reception, in that many officials recognize that European countries should be spending more on defense but a number of those countries are in perilous economic straits and, frankly, very few of them want to increase their defense spending in order to respond to Donald Trump’s pet peeves. If he cares about getting countries up to the two percent level, Trump should spend less time ordering NATO to deal with America’s Middle Eastern messes or illegal immigration (!) and more time talking about the need for a stronger collective defense against Russia. Of course, he may have reasons not to want to talk much about that.

MISSILE DEFENSE

As an addendum to reports that the Pentagon has successfully tested its Ground-based Midcourse Defense missile, I want to highlight this War Is Boring piece that puts the test in its proper context:

However, critics contend that the GMD system—as it currently stands—has not demonstrated the ability to intercept a real ICBM under wartime conditions. In fact, such a capability is a long way off. Indeed, according to the GAO, the MDA won’t even test the system in the rain.

“Not even close,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey told The National Interest.

“It’s a nice baby step.”

Even if the MDA conducted tests under realistic conditions, the program is still essentially a research and development program in many ways. The agency—which is not part of any military service—does not have a strategy or doctrine on how to use the system operationally.

Missile defense is a funny thing because, as the piece notes, it can be overwhelmed by any adversary with enough nuclear weapons–so it’s not going to save America if we go to war with Russia for some reason. But it’s also not great at neutralizing the threat posed by a small-time player like North Korea because, unless you can be 100 percent certain you’re going to intercept a North Korean missile, you’d be crazy to provoke them into launching one. The potential carnage is just too great. But we keep dropping billions into this program anyway, which is great for Raytheon but might not be all that cost effective for whatever benefit it offers.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to assure you that his government does not hack. Does. Not. Hack. Of course, if some patriotic Russians who are tired of seeing their great nation get shoved around by Western bullies wanted to get into the hacking field, well, I mean, Vlad could certainly empathize with that:

Vladimir Putin has given his broadest hint yet that Russia may have played a role in the hacking of western elections but emphatically denied that his government was involved.

Speaking at the St Petersburg economic forum, the Russian president acknowledged that it was “theoretically possible” that “patriotic” Moscow hackers might have interfered in foreign polls.

Asked on Thursday if Russia would meddle in Germany’s election later this year, Putin said: “If [hackers] are patriotically minded, they start to make their own contribution to what they believe is the good fight against those who speak badly about Russia.

“Is that possible? Theoretically, that’s possible,” he said.

Theoretically.

REPUBLIC OF MACEDONIA

Here’s the New York Times on the challenges facing the new Macedonian government:

Macedonia, a small, landlocked Balkan country of two million, transformed from a fragile but promising democracy to an authoritarian state under Nikola Gruevski, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2016. During the period, the country witnessed a degradation in the rights of the news media, a heavily biased judiciary system, rampant corruption and abuses of power.

The stability of the country, formerly a republic in Yugoslavia, is strategically important, because it is in the center of the so-called Balkan route taken by migrants fleeing war-torn countries. It applied to join the European Union and NATO, but a long-simmering dispute with Greece over the use of the name “Macedonia” has derailed that plan.

New PM Zoran Zaev has to navigate the Greek dispute and try to get the country’s economy moving while keeping a lid on ethnic tensions and, most importantly, while dodging interference from Gruevski, who views the country as his property the way Putin views Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan views Turkey, and believes he was illegitimately forced out of power by Western interference.

MALTA

Malta is holding snap elections on Saturday, whose outcome is expected to be a victory for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party but by a substantially reduced majority from the one he picked up in 2013. Muscat has led Malta to arguably the strongest economy in Europe, so you’d think he’d be in line for a landslide, but his government has been wracked by corruption charges leveled by the opposition Nationalist Party, to the point where Muscat felt compelled to call for new elections, despite the fact that his term wasn’t up until next year, just to renew his mandate.

FRANCE

Two French charities, l’Auberge des Migrants and Utopia 56, are accusing French police of brutality toward refugees at Calais. Migrants have to wait at Calais in hopes of getting into Britain, and the charities say that police have been gassing and beating them, as well as preventing the distribution of food aid.

Another poll is showing that Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party is headed toward an outright victory in the parliamentary election later this month. In this one, Macron’s party is projected to take between 335 and 355 seats, well north of the 289 it would need for a majority. It’s probably good for Macron that the parliamentary election is coming up soon, because nascent corruption scandals are already circling two of his cabinet ministers.

UNITED KINGDOM

First the somber story: Mohamed el-Sharif, a British citizen who went to Libya to fight in that country’s civil war and says he knew Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi, told the BBC in an interview that Abedi was “brainwashed” by ISIS recruiters, who he says are still active in Libya today.

Now on to the less serious stuff. While we’re chuckling at Theresa May–who, outlier polls aside, is still likely to gain seats in the June 8 snap election even if she’s not likely to win the landslide she’d been seeking–let’s also spare a larf for the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems decided to run as the only explicitly anti-Brexit option in this election, in the hopes that they’d be able to win the nearly half of the country that, you know, didn’t vote for Brexit. How’s that working out for them?

Surveys show the party’s support stagnant at around the same level as in 2015, and the future of the state-run National Health Service replacing Brexit as voters’ top concern.

A YouGov poll last month found that 45 percent of Britons were “Hard Leavers”, while 23 percent had voted to stay in the EU but now believed the government had to carry out the will of the people – so-called “Re-Leavers”.

Only 22 percent were determined to stop Brexit, it found.

“Despite the Liberal Democrats stressing their pro-EU stance, this appears to be having limited effect,” said Luke Taylor, Head of Social and Political Attitudes at pollster Kantar which put Lib Dem backing at 11 percent this week.

“Only 12 percent of likely voters that voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum currently plan to vote for the Lib Dems, compared with 35 percent for the Conservatives and 41 percent for Labour.”

Huh. Well, it made sense in theory at least.

Let’s also spare a big old guffaw for former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who’s about to be caught up in his buddy Donald Trump’s dragnet. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke, really.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

President Nicolás Maduro wants to hold a referendum on his plans to form a constituent assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. I’m sure that will go smoothly.

Despite Venezuela’s decision to leave the Organization of American States, the OAS has yet to put out a declaration on Maduro’s tumultuous past several months. It simply doesn’t have the votes, as there are too many Caribbean nations that still have close ties to Maduro. Other OAS states were hoping that the Trump administration might lean on a few of those Caribbean states, but so far Washington has stuck to the Obama administration’s largely arms-length approach to Venezuela. This is a bit inexplicable–Obama didn’t deal harshly with Venezuela because he didn’t want to risk upending his diplomatic outreach to Cuba, but that’s not a problem for Trump (see next item). The explanation may lie with the administration’s apparent disinterest in filling staff roles at the State Department. State is still without many of the people who would be working on crafting a Venezuela policy.

CUBA

Right, so, remember the Obama administration’s landmark diplomatic breakthrough with Havana? Well, about that:

One of Barack Obama’s most remarkable foreign policy accomplishments as president was warming ties with Cuba, in a break from decades of icy relations dating back to the early days of the Cold War. But the Trump administration is currently contemplating ways to cool the relationship again.

Administration officials are reportedly considering a wide variety of policies that President Trump could enact through an executive order that would partially close the economic and diplomatic channels Obama opened up. It’s still in the preliminary stages, but if it happens, the move could be announced as early as this month.

There are a lot of potential changes currently on the table — here are some of the main ones:

  • Tighter restrictions on the ability of US travelers to visit Cuba
  • A return of restrictions on the flow of Cuban cigars and rum to the US
  • A ban on US companies making deals or selling material to the Cuban military
  • Some kind of restriction on dealings with Cuban banks (it’s unclear from reports what they would be)
  • A demand for the release of US fugitives like Assata Shakur (Cuba has provided asylum to her for more than three decades; she escaped from a US prison in 1979 after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper)

There’s no talk of completely severing relations again, so that’s something. Meanwhile, Cuban officials are warning that the substantial progress they’ve made in curbing human trafficking since opening up diplomatic relations with the US risk being thwarted by this return to frosty relations. There’s no way to know if that’s actually true or if it’s just a way to play on Trump’s pathological fear of migrants.

UNITED STATES

As expected, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on Thursday to great fanfare from his own EPA director and…uh, I don’t know, a truckload of coal? People who look forward to owning beachfront property in the Adirondacks? I’m going to make a confession here: I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep lately. These updates keep me up late and I have to get up early so the end result is that I pretty much want to go to bed about eight hours ago. Plus, it’s getting hard to find new ways to call Trump a dangerous imbecile every day. So I’m not sure I can offer you the requisite contempt that this decision truly requires, and instead I’m going to rely on The Week’s excellent Ryan Cooper to do that for me:

Politico writes that this is a victory for the “nationalist” wing of the White House. On the contrary, it’s a victory for precisely no one. It’s a representation of how crack-brained thinking has turned the United States into an enemy of the human race.

It must always be emphasized that climate change is first and foremost a threat to human civilization — contrary to typical centrist media framing of the issue as some sort of boutique environmentalist hobbyhorse. Climate change means more drought, more flooding, more extreme weather, mass extinctions, tremendous disruption of agriculture, and sea levels rising by many meters.

At any rate, none of this is much of a surprise. When America elected Trump we forfeited all claim to any global leadership of any kind whatsoever. Under this president, on the most important problem facing human society, we are an enemy of the human race, too powerful to be strong-armed into a bargain and led by people too stupid to be reasoned with. The rest of the world now has no choice but to press forward with the most aggressive climate policy they can muster, and hope that Republicans are thrown out of power soon (and that ongoing green industry upgrades and local action at least contains the damage).

Yeah, that’s the stuff. Anyway, here’s the future that we’re all staring at, the future we’ve forced our kids and grandkids to live through:

All those red and purple areas on that map represent mass starvation, refugees, conflicts over water and food, human suffering on a massive scale. And the thing is, the Paris agreement wasn’t even going to prevent this stuff. The climate of the 2030s is already baked into this lovely shit cake we’ve fed ourselves. Paris was woefully inadequate to the catastrophe we face. But it was a start. It was an acknowledgement by almost the entire world that climate change is a serious problem and that we all need to work together to ameliorate and hopefully reverse its effects. And now it’s gone, up in a puff of smoke from a coal-burning power plant.

Trump says he wants to rejoin the agreement after renegotiating its terms, but it’s not clear that anybody else is interested in negotiating with him, and frankly why should they be? He’s shown no indication that he’d be willing to agree to any deal that would actually have any environmental impact, and there’s no reason to believe he’d abide by any deal to which he agreed anyway. The impacts of this decision–on the American economy, US national security, and the human race–will likely be serious. But Donald Trump–this buffoon, this meathead, this paranoid dipshit madman who believes that the rest of the world is laughing at him when in fact it’s recoiling in visceral and entirely justifiable disgust–can rest easy that, at age 70, he’s probably too old to have to worry about living through the worst effects of what he’s done.

Also, Trump is appealing to the Supreme Court to issue a stay on two court rulings against his precious travel ban. So he’s just an all-around asshole.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

3 thoughts

  1. Macedonia: Zaev taking power is less bad than Gruevski getting back in, but it’s still very problematic. Gruevski and his people will be completely committed to destroying Zaev. They won’t care about collateral damage, and they’ll have a lot of tools to work with. The incumbent President is a Gruevski ally, the media is still controlled by VMRO either directly or through friendly oligarchs, the police, prosecutors and judiciary are all packed with VMRO loyalists, and there’s still no shortage of VMRO-controlled paramilitary goon squads. And, to be fair, Gruevski’s also got a large chunk of the population on his side — people who prospered under VMRO rule (there were some), plus people who’ve been terrified by the VMRO-dominated media’s relentless Fox-News style coverage of the opposition. UNDER ZAEV THE ALBANIANS WILL BE COMING TO SLIT YOUR THROAT IN THE NIGHT!

    Honestly, the least bad option would probably be to throw Gruevski in jail *right now*, and come up with charges at evidence is uncovered (which it will be). I’m a good liberal democrat who generally holds that process is absolutely crucial, so I can’t believe I just wrote that. But VMRO is fucking poison right now. And removing Gruevski would be the fastest way to shut VMRO down, because he’s marginalized all competitors and centralized power in himself. If Zaev doesn’t do that… well, then he faces a long protracted struggle with no clear outcome. Good luck with it.

    Strategic importance: Macedonia really has almost no strategic importance. It’s not even the only possible route for refugees. It is of interest as a test case / proof of concept to see whether and how a small country can recover from a decade of Erdogan / Orban style authoritarianism.

    Doug M.

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