Category Archives: Europe

Merkel Hopes Moldova Isn’t in Russia’s Sights After Ukraine

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Germany’s Angela Merkel has said she hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will not try the same strategy in Moldova as he has in Ukraine, and expressed support for the country’s efforts to forge stronger ties with Europe, to Moscow’s chagrin.

The chancellor, asked Thursday at a news conference with visiting Romanian President Klaus Iohannis whether she thought there was a risk that Romania’s eastern neighbor could be in Moscow’s sights, replied: “Well, we hope not.”

Germany and European Union member Romania feel “politically very closely linked to Moldova” and will support the new pro-EU government of Chiril Gaburici, she said.

Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has ratified a political and trade agreement with the EU, turning its back on a future in a Russian-led customs bloc.

“There are many small steps that show Moldova is our close partner,” said Merkel, citing the EU’s attempts to offset the impact on the Moldovan economy of Russia’s ban on imports of wine and food from Moldova in retribution for its overtures to the EU.

Iohannis said there were “no indications at the moment” that Moscow would interfere in Moldova.

Merkel and Iohannis both said the crisis in Ukraine had put the spotlight on the situation of Transdnestr, a breakaway sliver of Moldova with strong ties to Russia, which Moscow has warned Moldova it could lose if it moves closer to Europe.

Ukraine’s war against pro-Russian separatists was partly triggered by Kiev pursuing similar pro-EU policies to those now being adopted by Moldova, in the face of opposition from Moscow.

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned this week that Russia could try to destabilize other countries in eastern Europe if it was left unchallenged over its actions in Ukraine. “Next it’ll be Moldova or one of the Baltic states,” he said.

The centre-right Romanian president said there was no need for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to take the part of ethnic Hungarians living in other countries in the region including Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia.

Iohannis said he was in close contact with political parties representing Romania’s Hungarian minority, adding: “There is no Hungarian problem in Romania.”

The West Is Ignoring Some Unpleasant Truths About Putin

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At the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have told U.S. President Barack Obama that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “in another world.” After months of near-constant shuttle diplomacy, a mere 48 hours after Minsk II was concluded, the West had to watch a humiliating Ukrainian rout at Debaltseve.

While on a recent visit to Hungary, Putin gloated, “Obviously it’s bad to lose, but life is life and it still goes on.” It seems more and more clear that if anyone is living in another world, it is Western leaders.

Minsk and the subsequent Debaltseve collapse revealed the reality of the West’s own situation — it negotiated with Putin on his terms and in his world. It is clear that the West has an interlocutor in Putin whose objectives are not transparent, promises are not trustworthy, and who is making decisions that have heightened conflict in the region.

Last December, an international consortium of investigative journalists, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) named Putin their “person of the year” for 2014, “for his work in turning Russia into a major money laundering center for enabling organized crime in Crimea and in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine; for his unblemished record of failing to prosecute criminal activity; and for advancing a government policy of working with and using crime groups.”

A runner-up was Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who is on record as wanting to establish an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.

Most analysts concede the depth of Kremlin thievery and U.S. sanctions specifically target “team Putin.” The question however is whether kleptocratic tendencies are central or peripheral to the conduct of Russian policy. Those, like myself, who say they are central agree with opposition activists like Boris Nemtsov that Putin’s building and renovation of 20 palaces, his receipt of $700,000 in watches and his unlimited access to yachts, planes, and a Kremlin property management department with a staff of more than 60,000, and an annual presidential office budget of $2.41 billion is costly in terms more than treasure.

It also reveals that at the system’s heart is total bespredel — limitlessness. Unconstrained by laws, rules, or any sense of decency, Putin stands astride the world’s largest gap between rich and poor.

Credit Suisse noted in 2014 that “inequality in Russia is so far above [all other countries] that it deserves to be placed in a separate category.” The top decile of wealth holders owns 85 percent of all household wealth in Russia, while 83 percent of the population has less than $10,000 in personal wealth.

Instead of the state acting as a market regulator and redistributive agent, kleptocratic interests at the top have only fueled the tendency toward monopoly and state capitalism. Allowing Kremlin cronies to raid less protected entrepreneurs has stymied development and encouraged capital flight, exceeding $150 billion in 2014.

Russians can only secure property rights by keeping money in foreign banks or buying apartments abroad. But by doing so, they never develop a vested interest in the emergence of sustainable legal and financial systems in Russia.

The regime increasingly claims legitimacy through Putin and his much-vaunted popularity rating. But polls also express dissatisfaction with dishonest elections, widespread corruption, and government mismanagement.

Transparency International ranks Russia positively in terms of human development but negatively in terms of judicial independence, press freedom and corruption. The population has the skills to make a transition to a law-based society, but the state has taken the country in the opposite direction.

As regimes close politically, the quality of decision-making always declines. And when closeness to the leader also depends on willingness to maintain a tribute system based on gifts, fealty and silence, professional advice takes a backseat to slavish expressions of loyalty.

More and more of the high-ranking posts are going to people not just connected to Putin since the St. Petersburg days, but also his own relatives and relatives of his friends. Sitting on the Scientific Council of Moscow State University and director of Innopraktika — a $1.7 billion project to build a Russian Silicon Valley — is a certain Katerina Tikhonova. Russian opposition figures claimed at the end of January that she is Putin’s 28-year-old daughter.

Two sons of Putin’s cousins similarly hold positions in the gas industry, as do many other top leaders’ children.

In addition to officials being placed in positions less because of their expertise than their relationship to Kremlin officials, decision-making is slowed while everyone waits for Putin. Even in his first year in office a fire in the Ostankino television tower burned out of control until he had given the order to cut the electricity. Three firemen died.

Also in 2000, 118 young men aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk died a slow death at the bottom of the Barents Sea tapping out rescue messages as the military waited for Putin’s decision to accept international help. Over the time of Putin’s tenure, Kremlin insiders have come to talk less about the “vertical of power” — decisions made along a chain of command, and more about “manual control” — all decisions made at the top.

The pressures of making all the decisions, combined with fear by subordinates of making any, only weaken state response to crisis. One could see this in Putin’s rambling answer last December during his annual news conference to a question on the government’s response to the ruble and oil price collapse.

“I said that given the most unfavorable foreign economic situation this could last (approximately, because no one can say for certain) for about two years. However, it may not last that long and the situation could take a turn for the better sooner. It could improve in the first or second quarter of next year, by the middle of next year, or by its end. Nobody can tell. There are many uncertain factors.”

Should anyone criticize the president for his less than commanding performance, they could easily be branded as an enemy. The reemergence in the official political lexicon of denunciations of opponents as speculators, fifth columnists, traitors, foreign agents and fascists further weaken the quality of decisions.

Those Kremlin elites who came to power to become rich now are faced with sanctions and visa bans that keep them in Russia. It might be hoped that over time they will lobby for real laws to protect their gains. But the state takeover of Sistema’s subsidiary Bashneft late last year suggests the Kremlin will continue to consume juicy morsels at will.

It is not encouraging for Russia, for the West or for Ukraine and the Baltic states that Russia is ruled by a leader whose actions he may describe as serving Russia’s interests, but which clearly do not in the long run.

Unless we recognize what we are dealing with here — a kleptocratic authoritarian regime which has and will use many levers to undermine, divide and defeat the West, it may be historians who will ultimately write that it was the West and not Vladimir Putin who once lived in another world.

What If Ukraine Decides To Stop Fighting?

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Putin’s goal is the destruction of NATO. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an integral part of this strategy, it is only a sideshow to the main event. If Ukraine decides to stop fighting, NATO, Europe and the United States are all on their own. Ukraine’s “friends” must decide: Do we want Ukraine to fight for us or are we prepared to fight for ourselves? To avoid this choice, they must give Ukraine the means to defend itself.

Ukraine’s travails over the past year remind me of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illich.” Tolstoy tells the wrenching story of the slow death of a wealthy Russian head of family. Near the end, his family and friends wish him dead so as to be spared the sound of his suffering. Similarly, Ukraine’s “friends,” Europe and the U.S., seem to welcome its demise in the form of a “diplomatic solution” that sacrifices its goal of becoming an independent nation oriented to the West. If we could only get Ukraine out of the way like Ivan Illich, we can go back to business as usual and hope that Mr. Putin is satisfied.

This may sound like harsh language, but we now know that Europe’s “diplomatic solution, as enunciated by the Minsk II accord, calls for a Ukraine that gives Moscow’s separatist stooges veto power over the shape of Ukraine’s future, while Ukraine pays the price of propping up the dying Donbass rustbelt, and the border with Russia remains open as far as the eye can see. What has Ukraine gotten in return? A shaky ceasefire that fell apart even before it began. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande still express hope that Minsk II will work even after a full-scale assault by Russian regular forces in a land grab made possible by their failed ceasefire agreement.

If I were Ukraine, I might concede Donbass and Crimea on a de facto but not de jure basis. Russia will not let them go under present circumstances. Let the Donbass (or that part that it presently holds) be a problem for Russia and the separatists to contend with; don’t let its self-appointed leaders dictate Ukrainian policy. When the time is right, the Donbass can come back into the fold. I would maintain a formidable standing army to defend the remaining Ukrainian provinces that have come to hate Putin’s Russia with a vengeance. I imagine that Odessa, Kiev, Zaporozhe and Lviv will make short change of self-appointed Muscovites when they arrive to proclaim new people’s republics. Who knows? If active hostilities ended, maybe even Barack Obama would supply defensive weapons. He’s good at shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

The Ukrainian leadership, which would still control some 80% of Ukraine, could then focus on the reforms the Maidan revolution rightly demanded. Ukraine should listen carefully to reform advisors from the European Union but not hold false hopes of early admission to an EU that fears upsetting Putin. Europe and international institutions should provide the financial backing that Ukraine needs, if anything, as a form of reparations for abandoning Ukraine in the cold.

If Ukraine raises the drawbridge around Ukraine proper, it leaves Putin facing a hostile and armed population that can inflict huge losses on the Russian army, attempting to expand further into Ukraine territory and not backed by the myth of a “civil war” fought by patriotic anti-Kiev militia.

If Ukraine decides to stop fighting, where does this leave Europe and the U.S.? If Putin has any sense of rationality, Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, Southern Europe, and the arctic replace Ukraine as low-hanging fruit. Given Western timidity, indecision, and lack of fighting forces and will, Putin will probe where he sees weakness.

If Europe is lucky, Putin may first turn his attention to Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, giving Europe a bit of breathing room. If Europe and the U.S. have been paying attention to Putin’s statements and his propaganda, however, they should have noted that Ukraine is not really Russia’s number one enemy. Rather it is Europe, NATO and the U.S. As Putin puts it: Ukraine is just a “foreign legion” for an evil West that humiliated Russia, broke its promises, and is preparing a sneak attack on the Russian homeland.

We do know that Putin is remarkably consistent. NATO, U.S., and European betrayal have been his themes since 2007 in Munich. Why should he change his tone now? If both Europe and the U.S. are the enemy, they are the ones to undermine with or without Ukraine in the picture. With a faltering economy and unprecedented corruption, Putin must have an external enemy to flog and victories to flaunt. Without them, Putin’s regime is in danger.

If European and American pundits think that Russian military ventures against NATO countries are ruled out by NATO’s Article 5, think twice. Russia need only stir up other “civil wars,” say in the Baltic States, taking advantage of their large Russian populations. In the confusion of Russia’s hybrid warfare, which European nation will come to the call of Article 5 when Putin assures the world that this is another unfortunate civil war to which he is a mere bystander?

Ukraine’s betrayal by its European and U.S. allies is their failure to give Ukrainians the means to defend themselves against what is now acknowledged as the full force of the Russian army. Ukraine, after Minsk II, now knows the contours of the inacceptable diplomatic solution that Europe and the U.S. will accept. Why fight a war at enormous cost of life and treasure to battle on behalf of those who abandoned you?

The West’s experience in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa has been a futile quest for reliable allies who are prepared to provide “boots on the ground” we can count on. In the 45 million strong Ukraine, the West has had such an ally, which it paradoxically refuses to give the means to defend itself, while arming questionable allies in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Merkel, Hollande and Obama should consider a world in which Ukraine has left the battlefield, and they are on their own. They will then have two choices: A Finlandized Europe that dances to the Kremlin’s tune or an ill-prepared Europe that tries to fight back with uncertain chances of winning.

Which will it be? We know pacifist Europe’s answer. All Putin needs to do is to saber rattle his tactical nuclear weapons and German, French, Dutch and Italian legs will turn to jelly. Don’t look to the U.S. for help as long as the dithering Obama is in office. You are on your own.

John F. Hall Jr: Solutions for the West to end strife, suffering in Ukraine

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The United States and the European Union salute themselves as bastions for freedom, enlightenment, diversity, tolerance, peace, and the rule of law across the globe. Hundreds of American and European lives and billions of dollars and euros are sacrificed on the altar of these principles each year by our governments. The West’s leadership and its delivery on the promise of these values is lacking, however, in righting the wrongs of a growing, devastating cancer in Ukraine, which has extinguished thousands of lives. The toll of lives sacrificed to the Russian invasion and the Russian-backed aggression in Ukraine is now approaching that of lives lost to the Ebola virus, but where does the West focus its attention and resources?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective is to partition Ukraine, its resources, and its people into a new neo-Soviet enclave which he — not its people — will rule, with characteristic, Putin-esque brutality and repression. The forthcoming conquest of Mariupol and Russia’s land-route to Crimea — which Putin illegally ripped from Ukraine nearly a year ago, in brazen violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and all precepts of international law — is Putin’s current objective. It’s an objective which he will easily accomplish, especially in the face of increasingly-shameful Western timidity to respond. So, what is to be done?

Here’s what the West could do, if it actually possessed the true strength and character of its principles . . .

First, Russia is out of the G-20. The G-20 is a group of industrialized nations, with modern political and economic systems that respect peace, respect borders, and work for international comity and security, as well as financial stability. Russia is neither an economic nor political leader; it doesn’t respect either peace or borders, and it harbors no interest in international peace and security. How many Russian forces are engaged against the forces of Islamist extremism, for example? Much of the rest of the G-20 is aggressively engaged to save innocent populations from the brutal devastation of ISIS and other radical Islamist movements, while Russia sits-by, happily on the sidelines, watching as others take-up the fight and suffer the losses against an alarmingly brutal and growing Islamist threat. Under Putin’s dictatorship, Russia is, instead, focusing its efforts on silencing dissension and civil liberties at home, occupying Ukraine and Georgia, serially breaking promises, and fast-becoming a pariah state and its own economic basket-case, as a result. In short, Russia possesses none of the attributes required for membership in the G-20. Russia should be out of the G-20.

Second, the Western powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and all European Union Member States — must ally themselves firmly with Ukraine, providing Ukraine with both meaningful financial and military relief. The United Kingdom has recently provided an entree to this effort through its own initiative. Others should follow. While Putin may not particularly care, nor suddenly be moved to pursue the path of peace, if hundreds more Russian soldiers and their Donbas mafia colleagues lose their lives in the furtherance of his Ukrainian gambit, it is nonetheless vital for Ukraine to at least be able to defend itself. Robust Western aid to Ukraine — in all forms — is essential to this effort. Lives are in the balance. Lives that believe in freedom, democracy, pluralism, and the dignity of humankind. In defense if these values, Ukraine’s poorly-equipped soldiers are dying on the uneven fields of battle with their badly-outdated arms against trained Russian soldiers and an overwhelming modern Russian military power. They fight valiantly, yet they are tragically over-matched against Putin’s army. It’s past time for the United States and other Western powers to supply Ukraine with the best that we can give to them in their efforts to defend their Ukrainian homeland, Ukrainian civilians, peace, and the rule of law. In fact, it’s well past time.

Third, the United States, all European nations, and Ukraine should now be shouting at the tops of their voices at the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly, and the international media with their ample proof that Russia has invaded Ukraine and killed its people — including civilians — in an illegal land-grab that violates numerous provisions of the United Nations’ charter. The skilled Russian propaganda machine is kicking the United States and the European Union across-the-floor, quite successfully painting the West as the instigators of a conflict in Ukraine that Russia is now obliged — as a good neighbor — to pacify. It’s all pure manure, of course, but the West is losing the information war — and badly. It’s time for the West to step-up its game when it comes to the truth and the evidence.

Finally, as CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria has noted, the United States and the European Union could consider removing Russia from the international banking system until Russia can finally learn to honor the agreements which it has signed, and abide by the norms of international law in the 21st century. Without the further loss of a single life on the tragic fields of combat, the West can demonstrate to Russia the importance of actually respecting nations, neighbors, laws, and borders. It can do all of this by taking Russia out of the international banking mechanisms governed by the Society for Worldwide Inter-bank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). This would put Russia on an international financial footing similar to, say, North Korea, and stem Russia’s economic ability to support its continuing invasion of Ukraine. It might even drive Russia into further economic strife. Why would the West do this, however? Especially when Russian Prime Minister Medvedev has stated that such an act would be met with unlimited consequences?

We would do this because, for one, Putin and his gangsters in Ukraine mercilessly killed 298 innocent passengers aboard MH-17 — a crime against humanity for which they have never been and never will be called to account, largely owing to the fact that the West lacks the fortitude even to demand an answer, although Putin’s many victims included children. Putin and his henchmen ruthlessly blew an unarmed civilian aircraft out of the sky . . . and we’ve all just stood by, wringing our hands. How nice for us. How awful for those who suffered from this terrible injustice. Will we, in fact, never respond to this mass-murder of innocents?

We would also do this because it’s clear that the loss of Russian soldiers illegally present in Ukraine — killing Ukrainian civilians and soldiers — is of minor consequence to Putin. He simply doesn’t care if Russian soldiers perish in the pursuit of his ill-conceived frolic. His ability to pay-off his boyars in the Russian oligarchy, however, is of some consequence to him. Putin has fleeced billions of dollars off of the backs of the people who blindly “elected” him. It would be nice if the world’s press finally took notice of this fact, but in the meantime, Russia’s exclusion from SWIFT and the ensuing complication of the means to pay-off his boyars might just be enough to end the conflict in Ukraine, and even to restore peace in Europe. All without firing a shot. We all hope for this, but it will require the kind of leadership from the United States and the European Union — the self-proclaimed guardians of freedom — that we’ve yet to see. We’re all eager to see such leadership. The people of Ukraine who yet believe in Western values are dying to see it, as well. Literally.

Cyprus Signs Military Deal With Russia

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Cyprus on Wednesday signed a deal with Russia allowing its navy ships to make regular port calls on the island.

The deal with European Union member Cyprus, which also hosts British military bases, comes amid Russia-West tensions over Ukraine, the worst since Cold War times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said after Thursday’s talks with visiting Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades that the agreement would primarily refer to Russian navy ships involved in international counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts. He added that military cooperation between Russia and Cyprus isn’t directed against any third party.

“Our friendly ties aren’t aimed against anyone,” Putin said. “I don’t think it should cause worries anywhere.”

Russia has sought permission for navy ships to use ports in various parts of the world to replenish supplies and undergo maintenance, deals that would allow Moscow to expand its global military presence.

Russian ships already have made port calls at Limassol, but the new agreement apparently aims to create a more solid legal basis for that.

Speaking to TASS news agency before his trip to Moscow, Anastasiades said that Cyprus and Russia were also discussing a possibility for Russian planes to use an air base near Paphos for humanitarian relief missions.

Poland To Train Ukraine’s Fledgling Military In Fight With Pro-Russia Rebels, Says Advisor

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Poland plans to send military instructors to assist the Ukrainian military, according to Reuters. Poland would be the second foreign nation to send advisors to train Ukrainian soldiers. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Tuesday his country would send 30 trainers this week to begin training Ukrainian personnel in medical, logistics and intelligence fields, with another 45 to join them in coming months.

“The defense ministry intends to send Polish instructors to support the training of Ukrainian non-commissioned officers,” said Boguslaw Pacek, an advisor to the Polish Defense Ministry, on Tuesday. He added that between a dozen and several dozen advisors will be involved in the mission and that a final decision will be made on the exact number in March.

Neither the Polish nor British missions will involve sending lethal aid to Ukraine, which Russia has repeatedly said it would take as a direct provocation and hinted that it could prompt it to openly become involved in the conflict. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, according to Sputnik News. Lavrov criticized the West for trying to “dominate global affairs” at a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council, according to Reuters. His country was in turn lambasted for allegedly supporting Ukrainian rebels with weapons, money and manpower.

Polish politicians are some of the most critical of Russia in all of Europe. Poland was a communist satellite state from 1945 until 1989, during which it suffered harshly under a Communist dictatorship propped up by Moscow. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, becoming the first three former Communist states to join the bloc, which was founded as a deterrent alliance to Russia.

Poland’s Parliament speaker Radek Sikorski strongly condemned alleged Russian involvement in Ukraine Tuesday, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “lost” Ukraine and inadvertently boosted Ukrainian nationalism with his aggressive actions.

Russia’s Lavrov Accuses West of Trying to Dominate the World

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Western powers of trying to dominate and impose their ideology on the rest of world, while the United States and European delegations slammed Moscow for supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov was speaking Monday at a special meeting of the UN Security Council organized by China, which holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation body this month, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

Without accusing specific countries, Lavrov complained about what he said was rampant violation of key principles of the UN Charter, specifically the “independence and sovereign equality of states, the non-interference in their internal affairs.” He cited Western interventions in Syria, Libya and Iraq.

“All of this is a result of attempts to dominate global affairs, to rule over all, everywhere,” Lavrov said.

“For those not wishing to play ball, there are various methods, including regime change, including the open support for the unconstitutional state coup in Ukraine a year ago,” he said.

Russia’s top diplomat also complained about unilateral sanctions not approved by the Security Council, such as those imposed on Moscow by the United States and Europe over its actions in Ukraine. Russia denies Western allegations that it is supporting and directing Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also highlighted the importance of “non-interference in internal affairs and respect for territorial integrity.”

He complained about moves by some countries that “attempt to overturn and whitewash past crimes of aggression,” ostensibly a swipe at Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to recast his country’s World War II history in a less apologetic tone.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius responded sharply to Lavrov’s complaints.

“From eastern Ukraine to Moldova’s Transdnestr, to Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, a pattern exists of Russia’s interference in the sovereign affairs of neighboring states,” he said. “For a year now, Ukraine has been under attack by Russian commandos and mercenaries.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power suggested Moscow’s call for greater respect for nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity was hypocritical.

“Russia today is training, arming, supporting and fighting alongside separatists who have brutally seized Ukrainian territory, a blatant violation of the UN Charter and an assault on its neighbor’s sovereignty,” she said.

France: Russia Will Face More EU Sanctions If Mariupol Attacked

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Moscow would face more EU sanctions if pro-Russia separatists attack the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, potentially opening a corridor to the south, including the annexed Crimean Peninsula, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday.

Kiev fears Mariupol, with its 500,000 people, could be the next major rebel target after separatists took the strategic railroad town of Debaltseve, its Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said after cease-fire talks in Paris two weeks ago.

”The problem today is particularly around Mariupol. We’ve told the Russians clearly that if there was a separatist attack in the direction of Mariupol things would be drastically altered, including in terms of sanctions,” Fabius said.

”At a European level the question of sanctions would be asked again,” he told France Info radio, having hosted Tuesday’s meeting where his Russian, Ukrainian and German counterparts all renewed calls for the cease-fire to be respected.

EU leaders had agreed not to increase or reduce sanctions after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande helped broker a cease-fire deal on Feb. 12.

However, following several breaches of the cease-fire, European Council President Donald Tusk said on Feb. 20 leaders were discussing possible further sanctions to penalize Russia.

A French diplomatic source, however, played down the prospect of more sanctions, saying that it was not an issue Paris supported for now as it would send the wrong message.

”You can’t seriously discuss implementing the [Minsk] agreements and in parallel discuss sanctions. We are not entering this debate,” the source said. 

Rebel commander Eduard Basurin said on Tuesday that the rebels still aimed to gain control of the entire territory of east Ukraine’s two rebellious provinces, including Mariupol, but would seek this through “negotiations with the Ukrainian side.” 

Klimkin told reporters in Paris late on Tuesday, “Mariupol is critical. Any kind of attack on Mariupol would change things … Debaltseve was a game changer because it disrupted the spirit of the Minsk accords.” 

“Any further attacks would trigger a counter attack.”

Basurin also denied Kiev’s assertions that there were serious clashes in villages near Mariupol, saying there had been provocations from the Ukrainian side but no major incidents.

Merkel Is the Unsung Hero of Ukraine Crisis

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Ever since the signing of the Minsk II agreement on Feb. 13, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had no respite.

As one of the four negotiators in Minsk, the so-called “Normandy Four,” Merkel has been on the phone constantly to President Vladimir Putin. She knows the details of the new Minsk agreement inside out. She knows the details of eastern Ukraine’s terrain like the back of her hand.

She knows all too well what is at stake if Minsk II ends up like its failed predecessor, Minsk I. It will have immense consequences for Ukraine, for Eastern Europe and for European security.

As for the United States, the administration is already preparing more sanctions on Russia if the cease-fire does not hold.

And although U.S. President Barack Obama has no appetite for such a move, leading Republican senators are leading a call for the United States to deliver weapons to Ukraine, to be used to fight the Russian-backed separatists in the east.

Their view is that a show of force might make Putin back down in eastern Ukraine, or at least show that the West is not prepared to abandon Ukraine and let it end up as a failed state or a dismembered country.

The Republican contingent at the recent Munich Security Conference gave Merkel a very hard time. They could not understand her opposition to sending arms to the Ukrainian military.

But where were the Republicans, or the Obama administration for that matter, when the Ukraine crisis broke out a year ago? Largely absent. Since then, it had been up to Merkel to negotiate with Putin. Indeed, Obama, preoccupied with enough domestic issues and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, gladly delegated the Ukraine crisis to Merkel.

Merkel took on this unenviable role. Who else was prepared to? The EU leadership was in transition. But even its incumbents showed little interest in events in Ukraine and largely failed to grasp the significance of the Maidan movement and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea.

The fact that Merkel decided to take on such a role has shown two things. First is that she has tried to change the nature of Germany’s relationship with Russia. Second is that she has managed, so far, to keep the European Union together and to present a united front on the highly controversial issue of sanctions against Russia. In both cases, it has been a very tough struggle and it is far from over.

Germany’s relationship with Russia is fraught with difficulties. For the past 45 years, it has been based on Ostpolitik, or “Eastern policy,” that was promoted by former Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt.

In essence, Ostpolitik was about Germany forging a special, cooperative understanding with the Soviet Union and later Russia. In practice, it meant seeing Eastern Europe through the prism of that special relationship with Russia.

To this day, many German Social Democrats see Ukraine, but also other countries in the region, through that prism.

They are reluctant to abandon Ostpolitik despite the immense changes that have taken place among Germany’s eastern neighbors since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Some are even prepared to justify Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Merkel has been chiseling away at those perceptions. Since becoming chancellor in 2005, she has increasingly focused on Germany’s eastern neighbors like Poland and Hungary and even further afield to the Balkans and Moldova.

But with Ukraine, Merkel has taken on the biggest foreign policy challenge, if not the biggest gamble, in her political career.

She has to convince Putin to implement the Minsk II agreement. If the agreement collapses, the situation will escalate — American Republicans could use this as a pretext to send arms to Ukraine and the European Union could slap on more sanctions.

Above all, she has to convince her EU partners that Europe must support Kiev to build a modern and democratic state, no matter what happens in eastern Ukraine.

Unity inside the EU is holding, for now. But several member states, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece oppose more sanctions on Russia.

What would be left of Europe’s soft power or commitment to Ukraine if another round of tougher sanctions were blocked?

Putin will have to make his own calculations as well. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine can easily turn the tables on Merkel by tapping into the pro-Russian sympathizers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. And there are many.

They can easily accuse Merkel of trying to isolate Russia and pushing it into a corner from which it could only escape by using force to defend its national interests.

And Putin too can exploit the divisions inside the EU, whose unity is fragile.

Above all, if the new Minsk agreement fails, the transatlantic relationship will be strained to the breaking point, making Merkel’s role in this crisis an unenviable one, and an unenviable burden.

Europe Is Still a Second-Rate Power

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The continent’s economy is flagging, its population is declining, and issues like immigration and high taxes are stalling meaningful progress, even as neighboring nations cosy up to Russia and China.

In the years after the Cold War, much was written about Europe’s emergence as the third great force in the global political economy, alongside Asia and the United States. Some, such as former French President Francois Mitterand’s eminence grise Jacques Attali, went even further: in his 1991 book Millenium Attali predicted that in the 21st century, “Japan and Europe may supplant the United States as the chief superpowers.”

This notion of a fading America has been embraced among some here as well, by authors such as Jeremy Rifkin who has written extensively about a “European dream” supplanting the American one on a global scale. In 2008, CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria predicted the rise of what he called “the post-American world,” with the U.S. still preeminent but losing ground, particularly to emerging countries in Asia. This view is widely held in American elite circles, including many people in or close to the Obama administration.

Yet something funny happened on the road to a post-American era: it didn’t happen. Even under two of the most incompetent administrations in our country’s long history, we are headed not to a “post-American” world, but more likely a “post-European” one.

The Fading of the “European Dream”

Fifty years ago, when Europe’s economy was growing faster than America’s on a consistent basis, and Asia was just emerging, the case for the continent’s ascendency seemed much stronger. But for the past 30 years Europe’s economy has been generally performing worse than that of the U.S. , not to mention rising Asian powers, including China and India.

The Great Recession hit all economies, but recently American growth rates have consistently outperformed those on the continent. By 2013 Europe was still experiencing 12 percent unemployment—a rate that exceeds ours at the height of the U.S. recession. European household debt, notes analyst Morgan Housel, has been increasing while that of American households has dropped.

The roots of Europe’s poor economy lies in large part in the very welfare state so admired by some progressives. To be sure, generous benefits have helped make Europe somewhat less unequal than the United States. But in the process Europe has become a very expensive place to do business. High taxes and welfare costs, tolerable in an efficient economy like Germany’s, have caught up with weaker, less productive countries such as Italy, Greece, and even France.

This weakness is most evident in two critical sectors—energy and technology—critical to modern economies. Europe’s much ballyhooed attempt to go “green” has raised energy costs throughout the continent. Ultimately, the effects of high energy prices tend to fall on the middle and working classes, as well as on manufacturing industries, which are are now scouring the world, including the southern United States, for lower cost alternatives.

Europe is also vastly underrepresented among the rising players in the tech world . The continent still possesses some influential industrial companies—Siemens, BMW, Volkswagen, Bayer, Royal Dutch Shell, Daimler—but it has created no European equivalent to Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, or even IBM. Not one of the world’s 14 largest tech companies by revenue is based in Europe. Five are in Asia, nine in the United States. European officials have tried to curb these often intrusive and arrogant companies, but the problem lies not in overstrong American competition but Europe’s inability to grow and nurture successful young companies.

The Barrel of the Gun

It’s understandable that a continent that almost destroyed itself twice with wars in the 20th century would shy away from the use of military force. This was reinforced by decades of reliance on U.S. military might for security. This situation in turn nurtured a strong anti-military, pacifistic streak that resulted in a region with a large economy but with little to offer on the battlefield. England is the only European country to possess one of the world’s top five military budgets. Besides the U.S., by far the largest military power, the top four include China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The three largest economies using the Euro—France, Germany, and Italy—spend one third less on defense combined than the U.S. Increasingly the only counterweight to U.S. power will be the emerging Sino-Russian alliance, which matches Russia’s still prodigious arms production with China’s almost limitless bankroll.

Demilitarization has its perils. As Chairman Mao once noted, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Sure we should all prefer, like President Obama, to employ “soft power” rather than going in with guns blazing a la George Bush. Yet the world is still full of well-armed people who don’t play by such civilized rules. A hard-baller like Vladimir Putin knows a bluffer when he sees one and knows he can do what he wants, in the Ukraine or elsewhere, without fear of European intervention or even fear that the E.U. might help arm Kiev’s forces. Similarly, Jihadis have learned that you can do what you want to Europeans, knowing that some countries—notably France, Germany, Spain and Italy—will willingly pay ransoms to free their citizens. Kidnap a German and get rich; do it to an American, Brit or, god forbid, an Israeli, and there’s eventually hell to pay.

The Demographic Disaster

Europe’s biggest problem, however, happens inside the boudoir. Along with Japan, Europe has pioneered low fertility. European countries average a fertility rate of 1.5, well below the 2.1 children per family needed to replace their population.

The problem is most acute in Italy, Spain, and, most important, Germany. The number of German babies born annually has dropped below the levels at the turn of the last century. Not surprisingly the U.N. expects Germany’s population to drop 9 percent by 2050. Germany may have fewer children than it did in 1900, but Spain’s total number of births has dropped well below the rates of 1858, and may match those of the 18th century.

This reflects something of a hangover from the disasters inflicted by Europeans on themselves in the last century. After decades of war and conflict, notes historian Tony Judt, Europeans simply wanted peace and quiet. In post-war Europe, every subsequent generation has been a “me generation,” focusing less on family and religion and more on material goods and financial security. Today Europe is one of the most irreligious places on the planet; there are more atheists in Germany, by some counts, than in the entire United States, a country with nearly four times as many people.

To maintain their workforces and create new consumers, European countries have by necessity made a priority of bringing in more immigrants. By 2025 Germany’s economy will need six million additional workers; this means 200,000 new migrants every year to keep its economic engine humming, according to government estimates . The situation gets worse from there, and by 2050 Germany’s overall workforce (PDF) is expected to drop 30 percent below 2010 levels, reducing it from 54 to 38 million. In the same time period the American workforce is expected grow by an additional 35 million workers.

For years, Germany and other western European countries have depended on newcomers from Turkey and other Islamic countries to drive their economy. But Islamic migration is widely believed to have failed to deliver workers with enough skills, not to mention creating ever more dire cultural and social divisions. Concerned about Islamic immigration, Germans are now relying , as they did back in the ’60s, on the diminishing pool of skilled workers from rapidly aging states such as Spain and Italy, as well as from eastern Europe. These economically beleaguered countries have become a major source of new migrants to Germany, numbering roughly one million in 2011, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

In the process, much of southern and eastern Europe is gradually depopulating. By 2050, Bulgaria is expected to lose 27 percent of its population, while Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania are expected to lose more than 10 percent of theirs. By 2050 the populations of almost the all of Eastern Europe will fall, according to recent projections.

Then there is Europe’s rapidly aging population, a natural product of low birth rates, which also imposes enormous burdens on the region’s economy. A proposal by German Chancellor Angela Merkel would impose a one percent income tax as a “demographic reserve” to make up for rising pension costs. “We have to consider the time after 2030, when the baby boomers of the ’50s and ’60s are retired and costing us more in health and care costs,” explained Gunter Krings, who drafted the new proposal for Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats.

Ultimately the next generation will be the biggest losers in Europe’s decline. Even though birthrates are very low, those young people now entering the workforce face extraordinarily high levels of unemployment ranging 20 percent and higher in countries such as Spain, Greece and France . No surprise that Europe’s young are widely described as “the lost generation.”

Political Chaos

Europe’s current political crisis has spawned a new level of political uncertainty most clearly seen in the rise of radical new parties—such as Greece’s Syriza—on both right and left. Two forces driving this shift in political balance have been immigration and a growing grassroots rebellion, such as has emerged in Greece, over EU budget and regulatory policies. In Spain, for example, the fastest rising party, Podemos, borrows directly from Syriza’s brand of quasi-Marxist radicalism.

But most of the thunder in other parts of Europe comes from the right. Many Europeans have come to see the EU not as a great unified superstate but instead as an oppressive, unelected, despotic power. The “common European home” dreamed of by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is becoming a ramshackle collection of apartments, with neighbors who increasingly don’t get along and look elsewhere for succor.

Another key driver of opposition from the right is the EU’s generally lenient view about immigration. Despite their growing dependence on immigrants, Europeans are increasingly resentful of the newcomers, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East. Some two thirds of Spaniards, Italians, and British citizens, according to an Ipsos poll, believe there are already “too many immigrants,” while majorities in Germany, Russia, and Turkey also hold negative views about newcomers in their midst.

In France the long-standing fear of losing control of national destiny has combined with growing fear over immigration, stoked by the recent terrorist incidents there. This has allowed the far right National Front’s Marine Le Pen to emerge as an unlikely front runner in the next race for president. The rise of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party stems from a similar concern about threats to Britain’s sovereignty as well as angst over immigration, particularly among working and middle class voters. Even countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, once considered paragons of liberalism, have seen the rise of similarly minded rightist movements.

Back to Bipolarity

Buffeted by a weak economy and a welter of social ills, the aforementioned visions of Jacques Attali and American Europhiles now seem like wishful thinking, if not delusional. In reality in everything from culture and high tech to military prowess, the continent is rapidly becoming a peripheral global power at best. Only Russia, the most powerful military power and the continent’s primary source of energy, seems to have seen the light. President Putin has made this clear as he develops closer ties to China, with whom he shares an authoritarian philosophy.

Other countries on the fringe of the continent, such as Greece and Serbia, also are looking increasingly at Russia, and its emergent Chinese alliance, rather than the E.U. Chinese plans for new bullet trains to Central Asia and eastern Europe could further enhance the Middle Kingdom’s linkage to Eurasia and central Asia.

“So what about us?” Anglo-Americans (culturally if not ethnically) may ask. In a globalized world that speaks and writes in English, the Anglosphere—comprising both the U.K. and its various colonial offspring, including the United States—retains some natural advantages. This is where the most elite colleges and universities are located, and where the top financial, technology, and key business service firms are concentrated. Equally important, the Anglosphere also controls much of what the developing countries will most need in the future—food—through the unsurpassed fecundity of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Demographics and a unique ability to absorb a wide range of immigrants make the Anglosphere economically and demographically more vibrant than Europe. By 2050, the Anglosphere will be home to upwards of 550 million people, the largest population grouping outside China and India. English-speakers may not straddle the world like the 19th century empire-makers, but they are likely to remain first among equals well into the current century.

Ultimately, the various countries of the world will have to choose between the Anglosphere and the Chinese-led authoritarian alliance. This will become something of a new version of the Cold War (but with China not Russia in the lead position), with each bloc seeking to win influence across the world. Anglophone India and Japan, for example, may choose the Anglosphere due to democratic traditions and a feeling of foreboding about a future forged by Chinese economic and, increasingly, military power.

On the other hand, Latin American nations like Brazil and Argentina may consider “yankee imperialism” a greater threat to their autonomy and choose instead to embrace the Middle Kingdom and its Russian ally. This may also hold true for much of Africa, where China is making deep inroads. The Chinese-led New Development Bank and its $40 billion “Marshall Plan” for infrastructure in developing countries represents a bold move to secure ever more influence in the emerging world order.

In this bipolar world forged in the context of U.S. vs China competition, Europe will likely be a bit player, wooed by both but essential to neither. In the 21st century, the road to power will not run through Paris or Berlin but through Beijing and Washington. Like the great leaders of the post-war era, American politicians and statesmen need to acknowledge the new reality of the post-European world and begin to address its implications.