Majority of officers in Belarus for unification with Russia

Recently, oppositional politician Mikalaj Statkewitsch referred to a (closed) survey of   army officers in Belarus,  70% to 80% wishing for a real unification of Russia and BelarusStatkewitsch went as far as calling Belarus a “fake state”, and warned: “It is enough to recruit a dozen senior officers among those who yearn for the ‘real association’ during the ‘fraternal’ joint exercise and to send a Special Forces battalion to support them through the open border. And that would be the end of the whole ‘strong state’.”

This leads to the question who will be the real target of the divisions from the 1st Guards Tank Army which Russia (apparently) is about to dislocate into Belarus.

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Russia takes de facto control over Baltic region

The German Bild-Zeitung has implicitly confirmed the assessment that Russia has taken control of the Baltic region, mainly in being able to prevent larger NATO military deployment (by ship or transport planes). This in practice means that in the case of a Russian military aggression the Baltic region will have to defend without the chance of a larger NATO-backup. It is unclear how the realities on the ground will affect he planned deployment of NATO-troops to the Baltic region starting from January 2017.

Additionally, Retired US General Jack Keane found the there was a “possibility of challenging NATO with a military hybrid occupation similar to eastern Ukraine”. Some have estimated the troop number being massed in Kaliningrad to be at some 225.000 Russian troops.

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Russia moves Bastion missiles to strategic outposts

According to Russian statements, Russia this week moved “Bastion” missiles to Kaliningrad and two Kuril Islands (opposite Japan). They will just add to other military hardware already deployed there. For the Baltic region this signifies that Russia de facto has established anti-access and area denial, i.e. Russia will be able to block NATO reinforcements in the case of a move against Baltic countries or other states in the region.

Additionally, the “Bal” subsonic anti-ship missile system would be deployed with the Baltic and Northern Fleet.

The recent moves fit into a greater picture enforcing Russian military outposts in order to “defend” the country:

(source)

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From Berlin with love: Germany’s next president

It had been hardly a week after the election of Donald Trump for US president. The German Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier reacted harshly to his victory. But his election apparently was not taken as a warning that similar political developments could become also relevant in Germany. This weekend Merkel announced she would again run for chancellor. Additionally, a small circle of the German governing elite after a long political tug of war decided in a back-door deal to make Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier the next President of Germany a few days ago.

He has not been elected yet, that’s right. The election by the Federal Convention will take place in February 2017, but so far Steinmeier is the only candidate and the convention will reflect current power relations.

Thus his “election” will actually be an appointment. German citizens do realize this and will even more get the impression that politics no longer has to do something with them, even if polls claim he has been the preferred candidate (taking into account recent polls their informative value have to be questioned).

Another issue is the fact that Steinmeier over the last two years has supported an appeasement with Russia at the detriment of the eastern neighbors of Germany, namely Poland and Ukraine. Some have pointed to the fact that he was a communist in his youth and editor of an according law journal with unclear financing.

Let’s have a look at some of his more recent actions.

One interesting aspect is that he continuously has supported to get rid of EU sanctions against Russia, imposed after the country occupied Crimea and started war in the Donbas: He has warned against too harsh sanctions (November 2014), questioned sanctions (December 2014), demanded to ease/phase out sanctions (May 2016), (June 2016), (July 2016) (September 2016), or been against more sanctions (October 2016).

Such actions can be understood as efforts for renewed economic cooperation with Russia, as well as the following acts: In December 2014, Steinmeier proposed a dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Union. In later 2015, he supported to take Russia back into the G8, and again in April 2016. In the same month, he demanded cooperation with Russia and a “normalization of the relationship”. In the meantime the Russian economy has de facto crashed with 40% of its citizens not having enough money for food and clothing.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Economic Minister Sigmar Gabriel (both the leading politicians in the German social-democratic party SPD) have actively pushed the Russian North Stream II gas project.

The German foreign minister is also responsible for the German OSCE presidency this year which promotes “dialogue – trust – security”. The slogans have been mainly understood to push cooperation between the EU and the Russian Eurasian Union beyond the fact that Russia is waging war in Ukraine. The recent Opal decision by the EU Commission allowing Gazprom to ship more gas to German/Czech markets through the Opal pipeline – which  connects with North Stream pipelines – can be seen in this light: It allows Russia to reenter the European market at the expense of Ukraine, ignoring Russian warfare and the use of banned weapons in the Donbas. If true the OSCE has been misused to push economic projects between western European countries and Russia instead of security in Eastern Europe. Plus, Opal could be regarded as a test case in order to fully open up „North Stream II“ and to weaken sanctions.

In another scandal Surkov (who is on the European sanctions list) was placed next to Steinmeier during Normandy-4 talks in October 2016, Germany even having facilitated an exception-entry for him. A few days later Ukrainian hackers got access to over two thousands of his emails quite proving his decisive role in destabilizing Ukraine. No wonder the issue was largely ignored in the German press.

Steinmeier was also a friend of pushing the issue of a “special law” for the Donbas (November 2015, September 2016), and even Transnistria (July 2016). He moreover found elections on the occupied Donbas territories in the first half of 2016 were possible.

His notoriously optimistic views of Russian warfare in different world regions are a characteristic feature of his office. For example, Steinmeier’s call for a “common partnership of responsibility” or calls for an arms control process seem somehow unrealistic as Russia is waging war in Ukraine and Syria, and preparing its military for a larger continental war. In regard to defense he has preferred to support the project of a European army. The topic increasingly had been pushed since the Russian aggression in Ukraine. It would come at the expense of NATO and would seriously weaken the position of eastern European members – and does allow to distract attention away from other important topics (Germany’s role in NATO as a de facto free-rider allowing the country to spend little on defense (some 1.2% of GDP) and to pose as a ethically correct acting country while others are doing the dirty business).

A culmination of NATO-bashing was reached in June 2016, when Steinmeier criticized NATO-defensive exercises as aggressive. The Brexit-referendum a week later and the election victory of Donald Trump in the US have strengthened calls of European defense initiatives which in the current security situation can only be assessed as a common European suicide.

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Russia organized assassination of Montenegro’s prime minister

RFE/RL reports: “Prosecutors in Montenegro have released the names of two Russian citizens who they say attempted to organize the assassination of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in October. Prosecutors on November 18 identified the two Russians as Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov and accused them of organizing a criminal group with the aim of murdering Djukanovic and inciting a coup in order to prevent the country from joining NATO. Montenegro officials alleged that Shirokov and Popov met in Moscow on September 26 with Aleksandar Sindelic, the head of the nationalist Serbian Wolves organization in order to arrange the plot. They reportedly gave Sindelic 200,000 euros to carry it out. Some 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens, including Sindelic, were arrested in Montenegro on October 16 in connection with the alleged plot. The whereabouts of Shirokov and Popov are unknown. Sindelic reportedly testified that he had been drawn into the plot by ‘two nationalists from Russia’ whom he had met while fighting for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.”

Ukrainian sources have claimed it has been thanks to the Ukrainian SBU the assassination of Đukanović failed as persons involved in the plot had previously acted as terrorists on Donbas-territories.

In recent weeks, similar groups with different tasks to destabilize the situation in the respective countires have become more active all around Europe (notably in Hungary; this week a dozen were arrested).

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Russian ship capitains of Norwegian ships conducting reconaissance

According to media reports Russian captains and pilots who have been hired to serve on Norwegian ships are conducting active reconaissance of the Norwegian shore, including the amount and nature of Norwegian vessels – both civilian and military – stationed in Norwegian ports.

It has to be reminded that Russia in October 2016 exercised attacking Norway (including several thousand Russian military and according hardware (see here for the Russian Navy, submarines, air and land forces). NATO has reacted on this threat in announcing to send 300 US marines to central Norway/Trondheim – some 1000km from the frontier with Russia.

At around that time Russia also exercised to bomb strategic objects in Ukraine from Belarus, masking the endeavor as “CIS joint air defence exercises”.

As Russia has mobilized its 20th army on the borders with Ukraine and is preparing according “exercises” – Ukraine and the Baltic states are issuing warnings that Russia could use the time until US president Trump is inaugurated to test NATO and the west (see for example the foreign minister of Lithuania).

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Clarification from Estonia on recent political developments

ERR News editor Dario Cavegn reported on the distorted international media coverage of Estonia this week assuming Russia was just about to take over the country politically and culturally: “[…]

A Center Party government, or the end of the world as we know it

Take this week’s reports in the foreign press about the impending change in government. Any reader of the New York Times, Die Zeit, or even more so any publication running AFP’s article on the topic will have thought that this country is on the verge of going to Eastern European, Russian-dominated hell. They referred to a “pro-Western” government “teetering on the verge of collapse,” a “NATO-friendly” prime minister forced to resign, and a “pro-Russian” party about to take over.  Painting the Center Party as pro-Russian is out of touch with reality. Yes, they signed a cooperation protocol with United Russia. But so did the Finnish centrists, the party of that country’s current prime minister. We don’t see the foreign media express worry that Finland may get too close to Russia. Language that would have made sense some 15 or 20 years ago, perhaps, but Estonia has been a member of NATO and the European Union since 2004. It’s a bit late for these labels. Estonia is one of NATO’s few members who actually spend in excess of 2% of GDP on national defense, which means that even Donald Trump, if he sticks to statements he made during his campaign, would agree that it should be defended if attacked.

Estonia is a Western-minded country with Western-style politics

In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Estonia is on par with France, where the scaremongering AFP article was published, and ahead of quite a few other EU member states. For most of the 25 years that have passed since Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, right-wing or center-right governments have been in power. There is a broad social consensus that Estonia belongs into the European Union, that it is a Western-minded country, and that NATO is its most important means of protection against its very large and very unpredictable neighbor in the East. Yes, the Center Party has been very critical of previous governments. And yes, its former chairman, Edgar Savisaar, has always depended on the support of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia, which is one of the reasons why the Center Party has courted the Russian vote. But that isn’t the only reason why Russians support the party. An important detail, and one that is obvious to anyone who follows Estonian politics, is that no other party has dealt with the particular issues and worries of that community to the extent the Center Party has done it. Talking about Center criticizing governments made up of Reform and IRL, there is also the small detail that Savisaar and Ratas’ party has a very Western European idea of taxes. For years they have spoken out in favor of a progressive income tax, and a corporate gains tax, which would mean changing the Estonian system from the bottom up, as its current tax system has little to do with that of Germany, for example. Over the past 25 years Estonia has become a very Western European place. Of course there are plenty of leftovers of the Soviet union and mindset, there is no denying that. But there is no danger that one of its parties would turn its politics upside down and change course to join Putin. Actually, that is likely not what the foreign press would naturally assume either. But the problem is that the people who report about Estonia typically are at a disadvantage.

Can’t read an article in Postimees, writes ‘expertly’ about Estonia in a large British newspaper

I know of a single foreign news journalist in this country who speaks Estonian beyond the Intermediate or Upper Intermediate level. He is Finnish. Most others don’t even make it to a point where they can read a newspaper article and understand what it says in detail. Those I know of who can, I can count on one hand. For most foreign journalists writing about Estonia, this means that while they are considered about as qualified in their opinion as it gets, they don’t have access to anything that would require a more highly developed understanding of the Estonian language. And this is a problem. If you lack the language skills to read an Estonian text quickly, and if on top of that you are busy with a whole number of things and don’t get paid for in-depth research of the topic you are writing about, you cannot possibly get a good idea of what is going on here. In the case of the journalist who wrote the AFP article, I would say we are talking about someone with a very superficial grasp of what is happening in Estonia’s day to day politics. In fact, I suspect this writer has a very limited understanding of Estonian history as well. The other option of course is that it was written and submitted by someone interested in making things look worse than they are. Which brings us to the next point.

Big fish in a small pond: How to become an instant expert on Estonia

Whoever tells a story first controls it it. And the fewer people to tell a story there are, the more likely it is that the initial version becomes the most important one. This means for instance that if I wrote a newspaper article in German about the drawbacks of Estonia’s tax system, I would become an instant authority on the subject [rest of the article]”

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