Friday, February 24, 2017

Putin Now Fears a Threat He Helped Create – 4,000 Russian Citizens Fighting for ISIS



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – Vladimir Putin told Russian military leaders yesterday that Moscow now estimates that there are some 4,000 Russian citizens and 5,000 citizens of other CIS countries fighting for ISIS in Syria and that in the event that they return home from the Middle East, they constitute a serious threat for Russia.

            That is why defeating ISIS in Syria is so important, he suggested in what appears to be his latest effort to mobilize Russian public opinion behind his military actions there. But there are two facts that the Kremlin leader chose not to mention in the course of his remarks (graniru.org/Politics/Russia/President/m.259017.html).

            On the one hand, these new figures are significantly larger than the ones he and other senior Russian officials have given in the past.  In Octobeer 2015, for example, Putin himself put the total number of ISIS fighters from Russia and the CIS state taken together at between 5,000 and 7,000.

            The new figures suggest that Moscow has not stemmed the flow of its citizens into the ranks of the Islamic State. Indeed, its increasingly repressive anti-Muslim actions in the North Caucasus may have produced the exodus behind the new numbers.

            And on the other hand, Putin did not acknowledge what more junior Russian officials have confirmed in the past. The Kremlin played a key role in the departure of many people from the North Caucasus into the ISIS ranks earlier when in order to avoid a possible terrorist incident at the Sochi Olympiad, the FSB actually encouraged and assisted radicals to leave the country.

            That explains his continuing calls for a harsh even brutal and murderous Russian campaign in Syria: Moscow doesn’t want those it helped to go there to be able to come back alive, and it wants to hide its earlier role in helping Russian citizens to join the ISIS ranks by casting its effort now as simply part of an anti-terrorist campaign.

            “All of this is a direct threat to Russia,” Putin said, “and our military personnel in Syria are first of all defending their own country. Our actions there are not dictated … by abstract geopolitical interests or the desire to train and test new arms systems.” Instead, they are about “blocking a threat” to Russia itself.
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Moscow’s Transformation of Kaliningrad into ‘Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier’ a Threat to Europe, Lithuanian Analyst Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – Lithuania and its president, Dalia GrybauskaitÄ—, have taken the lead in denouncing what Vladimir Putin has been doing in Ukraine and in highlighting the threat he poses to the West. Now a Lithuanian defense analyst says that Moscow’s efforts to transform Kaliningrad into “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” pose a direct threat to Europe.

            In an interview with Kseniya Kirillova, a US-based Russian journalist, for the Krymr.com portal, Luidas Zdanovicius says that conscious of the threat Lithuania and her two Baltic neighbors are stepping up their military efforts in order to ensure that they are not simply consumers of NATO security but contributors to it as well (ru.krymr.com/a/28327287.html).

            Lithuania, after slipping back after the 2008-2010 economic crisis to defense spending equal to 0.78 percent is now online to achieve the two percent level the alliance and the US suggest, he says. Estonia has long been at or above the two percent figure, and Latvia is moving toward it as well.

            Zdanovicius says he and the Lithuanian government are especially worried by what Moscow is doing in Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous Russian enclave to the west of Lithuania.  “Now Russia is making of it a certain kind of ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier.’” There has been “a growing militarization” of the region, with more troops and more exercises every year.

            (The importance of having such an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” can hardly be overstressed. As readers of Tom Clancy’s novel, Red Storm Rising, will recall, without Iceland, which played and plays that role for NATO, the Soviet Union almost certainly could have won a military contest with the West in Europe.)

            According to the Lithuanian analyst, “the US and NATO are informed about Moscow’s actions there and are devoting serious attention to them.” Indeed, that is why the Western alliance has sent NATO battalions to Poland and the Baltic countries. But that build up at least so far has not prompted Moscow to back down either on hard power or soft.

            Moscow continues its efforts to put pressure on Lithuania economically and politically, Zdanovicius says, pointing to Russian efforts to disrupt the delivery of gas and its continuing propaganda effort directed not only at the Russian-speaking minority but at the Polish minority and the 80 percent of the population which is ethnically Lithuanian.

            But these “hybrid” campaigns, he says, have been remarkably ineffective: Lithuania is now importing its energy needs by sea from the West, and few in Lithuania pay much attention to Russian television or to its propaganda line.  And Vilnius appears to be successful in countering Russian espionage efforts as well.

            “If Russia tries to occupy [Lithuania],” he concludes, “it will find it far more difficult to do so than only a couple of years ago.” In large part that is because Lithuania’s NATO partners “understand perfectly well our situation” – including the threat posed by the militarization of Kaliningrad – “and are prepared to support us.”

Is Lukashenka Going to Be First Foreign Leader to Lose Power Because of Trump’s Victory?



Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – It will be a truly delicious irony of history if Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka becomes the first foreign leader to lose power because of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.  But that possibility is now being suggested by some Russian commentators.

            Among the most prominent of these is Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Moscow Institute of CIS countries, who argues that Lukashenka miscalculated in betting that Clinton would win and that Moscow would have no choice to support him regardless of what he said or did (pravda.ru/world/formerussr/belorussia/22-02-2017/1325277-zatulin-0/).

            That is because the Belarusian president assumed that relations between Washington and Moscow would deteriorate under a Clinton presidency and that Russia, however many economic problems it faced at home, would continue to support Lukashenka and his regime sufficiently that they could survive.

            But Clinton didn’t win, Zatulin points out, and now all the things that the Belarusian president thought he could get away with have put him in Moscow’s bad books forever. Indeed, the Moscow official and commentator says, Lukahsenka has proved to be “a bad ally for Russia and perhaps not an ally at all.”

            And “now it has turned out that Belarus is not so much needed in the interests of Trump or anyone else,” and Lukashenka faces serious unrest at home without the likelihood that anyone is going to come in and save him with a fresh infusion of cash.  As a result, the Belarusian leader is in trouble and it is deeper because of his miscalculation about the US elections.

            That Lukashenka is in trouble at home should now be clear not only in the wake of last weekend’s protests over the vagrants tax but also plans for more such protests ahead – and also for the continuing protests against business use of part of the territory on which the Kuropaty mass graves are located (belaruspartisan.org/politic/371958/).

            Few would have predicted – and Lukashenka certainly didn’t – that his vagrants tax would trigger what is becoming a revolutionary situation, one that is especially serious because the Belarusian leader now has no one in the east or the west who will bail him out for his or her own interests.

            That makes these days especially dangerous, and Belarusian commentator Valery Karbalevich argues that they resemble the lead up to the February 1917 revolution in that the authorities then and again now have thoroughly discredited themselves and find that as a result there is no one to whom they can turn (sn-plus.com/ru/page/diagnosis/7464/).