Farewell to Arms? Seen Nowhere on the Horizon

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Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009  (Image credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

We are all defence and military this week. An arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to US$110 billion, followed by the Pentagon’s US$639 billion budget proposal for FY2018 (“dead on arrival” because apparently it was not big enough). And to complete it all, the NATO summit in Brussels.

All three security levels (country, regional, and global) are covered. An array of topics claimed to be targeted (from national defence interests to global threats like terrorism, to job creation) or flagged by independent observers as issues of concern (like civilian casualties and human rights). And this way or another, it is all about military spending; or, to be precise, about military spending (militarization) under the pretext of ensuring state and human security (eventually at the expense of other government expenditure). This is not a topic to be taken lightly—in the world of “limited resources and unlimited needs” we have to make (supposedly, rational) choices. Do we?

How much justified is, for example, US$1.69 trillion (which happens to constitute no less than 2.2 percent of global GDP) in military spending in 2016 alone? And this is at the time when according to Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the same year the total number of deaths from violent conflicts across the world equalled to 103,330; of them 87,018 lives were lost in state-based violence; 9,034 in non-state violence, and 6,278 in one-sided violence. Add to this tens of millions of forcibly displaced people (both internally and refugees), those who are exposed to starvation and infectious deceases due to violence—and you quite get an idea of the scale of the problem. But to make sense of it, we first have to reflect on some basic questions.

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How should we think about relationship between militarization and security, stability? How important is it to maintain high military spending (which includes items from procurement of arms and equipment to wages, training and social benefits to research and development)? How justified is it to cut public funding from non-defence areas in order to build up further militarization? And finally, does organized violence (whether state-based and non-state-based armed conflicts or one-sided violence) persist because governments don’t spend enough on security or the use of armed force is driven by other (social, economic, political, ideological, psychological) factors and cannot be contained by ever increasing military budgets? Or is it the arms production and trade (both formal and trafficking) that itself contributes to fuelling many conflicts?

There is no single or simple way to answer those questions. Especially considering that universal rules (like the one by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, millennia-long, worldwide reduction in all forms of violence) are difficult to establish, and they may not necessarily work in all regions and at all times (especially nowadays, when the pace of developments and changes, and thus volatility are uber-high).

There are also different forms of conflict and therefore the relation between each form and external factors (like military spending) may vary greatly. Moreover, the forms are also changing. Take for example state-based armed conflicts—that is, armed contests over power and/or territory where one of sides is the government. The established classification recognizes four forms of state-based conflict (called wars if they cause more than one thousand battle-deaths a year): inter-state conflicts (between states); extra-state conflicts (between a state and an armed group outside the state’s own territory); intra-state conflicts (between a government and a non-state group); and internationalized intra-state conflicts (when the government, or an armed group opposing it, receives military support from one or more foreign states). Well, how are we going to categorize the wars in Iraq and Syria? For the majority of states involved, both wars fall under more than one sub-category, and each sub-category in turn is subject to a different set of driving forces, contexts and circumstances.

Another challenge (as ever) is causality. We first look at the correspondence, and if there is any, then at the casual direction in relations between (extensive) military spending and security. What I am interested in here is, whether it is true that more military spending by governments leads to sustained improvements in both state and human security (where human security is not only saving lives from war, genocide, displacement, epidemics and famine, but means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence, with direct and indirect implications on fundamental freedoms and basic human rights). To answer this question one has to undertake a full-blown research based on empirical evidence, and perhaps employing a sophisticated computation and modelling (to cover a broad range of variables over extended periods of time). However, it is possible to make sense of developments without this heavy armoury, simply viewing them in right context.

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Take for example, the controversial arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia signed this week. Let’s look first at the trend. In the last decade, the region’s governments have significantly increased their military spending, and weapons purchase in particular. In 2012-2016 their share among global importers of major weapons equalled to 29 percent, compared to (no small otherwise) 17 percent in 2007-2011. Out of top five arms importers in 2012-2016, three were from the Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia with 8.2 percent, United Arab Emirates with 4.6 percent, and Algeria with 3.7 percent of global imports, respectively.

Note that this happens at the time when oil prices have dropped drastically and the global trend is leaning towards reliance on renewables and clean energy. The Gulf states being heavily dependent on commodity exports, find themselves in a dare financial situation. Never mind, they say. But the facts tell a different story: “Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. … Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.”

The true burden of military spending on the economy becomes apparent when we see it as a share of a country’s GDP: in 2016, in the Middle East it was at staggering 6.0 percent (compared to 2.0 percent in Africa, 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.3 percent in Americas, 1.8 percent in Asia). As mentioned above, this money is not spent out of some surplus magically appearing in the government coffers; it is spent at the expense/instead of something else. And this “something else” happens to be human, social and economic development. As pointed out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its 2016 yearbook, a comparison of trends in spending on the military, health and education since 1995 shows that whereas the majority of countries have increased health and education spending while reducing military spending, the trend in the Middle East has gone in the opposite direction. There is no better indication of where the governments’ priorities are.

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Of course, there is also a game in play. Bluff is always present in politics, whether at local or global level. Saudi Arabia is in acute need of cash. The regime knows that they cannot afford large military spending. Actually, they have decreased the military expenditure last year, and as a result are not in the top third position of spenders, giving up this “honourable place” in the rankings to Russians. But they are also aware that others know that too, and are watching them closely. So the deal so ambitious is (at least in part) to throw dust in someone’s (say, arch-rival Iran—which happens to be on ascending line thanks to Nuclear Deal-incited release of sanctions—or would-be partners in emerging Muslim countries of East Asia) eyes. The deal is not binding and can stay stalled for years (until each letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) it is comprised of is signed and paid for thus making it to the contract), but will send a signal to anyone around that Saudis are in no short supply of money, resolve, ambition and support to this matter.

Whether the others buy this bluff is another story, but the point is made—and with such a skillful showman as Mr Trump in game, it is performed quite theatrically to impress everyone, at home and abroad. (As a side note, such a show with inflated package price serves the US administration’s goals too—to demonstrate to the voters at home their power and influence, to claim more jobs and benefits to economy etc; Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the DSCA was quick to announce: “When completed, it will be the largest single arms deal in American history.”  What an accomplishment!)

Still, this does not change the overall intent of the affair. And just to be clear on that point: the rulers of Saudi Arabia will make sure to purchase big part of the arms package, especially considering that first, it is a political commitment before the strategic partner (who is so kind to take sides in the ages-long Sunni-Shi’a power contest); second, the delivery under contracts may take long years thus allowing some flexibility with regards to payments; and also, Saudi rulers want to build the military production capabilities at home by 2030, so part of contracts would work to this end.

That is all good, but the question is who will pay for this. Well, I have an answer: I assume this would be the young generation of Saudi Arabia (who are already frustrated by worsening life standards, unemployment and various barriers in social life) and of other countries in the region (who are either equally robbed by their governments of public investment in their future or are unlucky to be born in the neighbouring countries which serve as playground to use those weapons purchased). Whether they like it or not.

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Where is it all heading? Marc Lynch has nailed it in his recent article that, emboldened by such deals (and the Washington’s backing) the region’s regimes will find it easier “to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent” when faced with difficulties and popular resistance to meet the militarization commitments, “but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator—economic, political, security or social—the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.”

So in response to the question posed in the opening part of this piece, it would be fair to say that militarization (through extensive military spending, among others) makes the Middle East governments more vulnerable and the entire region increasingly unstable—it encourages violent conflicts and contributes to their escalation instead of containing them. It is counterproductive, whether in immediate or long term. And I am sure we will arrive at similar conclusion when analyzing other regions. Think of Africa (military spending across the continent has increased by almost half in the past ten years). Think of South Asia (with the top importer of major weapons, India and no less ambitious Pakistan). Think… how much good could have been done instead.

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Can Hamas Afford the Cost of Ending Gaza’s Isolation?

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Palestinian students and supporters of Hamas during a rally ahead of Student Council elections at Bir Zeit University, West Bank, Palestine, April 26, 2016 (Image credit: Majid Mohammed/AP).

by  | World Politics Review

EDITOR’S COMMENT: Observers are watching closely as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. President Donald Trump today at the White House, where the two leaders will discuss prospects for a possible peace agreement. A potential Palestinian-Israeli deal hinges in part on a push for Palestinian unity; Abbas, who leads the Fatah party that governs the West Bank, has recently increased financial pressure on Hamas, the militant group and political party that controls the Gaza Strip, in a bid to soften its hard-line against Israel. Earlier this week, Hamas issued a new charter that moderates its stance on Israelis and Jews, accepts 1967 borders, cuts ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeks to develop stronger ties with Egypt.

These were some of the moves Khaled Hroub outlined last May, as he assessed ways for Hamas to end its ever-growing isolation. According to U.N. reports, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020—a spiraling humanitarian emergency that only a shift in Hamas’ political positioning could alleviate. “The group’s strategy to defend itself was largely based on strengthening its military while immersing itself in the lives of Gaza’s 2 million residents, making any effort to extract it from power without inflicting unbearable cost on Gaza’s population virtually impossible,” Hroub wrote. “This of course has had great repercussions for Gazans, as some in the outside world have come to view Hamas and Gaza as almost synonymous.” With a new set of principles aimed to improve its international image and promote reconciliation, is Hamas ready to cede ground?

“The real question is whether Hamas can make a concerted push for national reconciliation, which could be the least-costly way out of today’s deadlock.”

Read the full article.

America’s War-Fighting Footprint in Africa

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                                               US Marine exercise in Djibouti, January 2017                                           Image credit: US Marine corps

Secret U.S. Military Documents Reveal a Constellation of American Military Bases Across That Continent

by Nick Turse

General Thomas Waldhauser sounded a little uneasy.  “I would just say, they are on the ground.  They are trying to influence the action,” commented the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) at a Pentagon press briefing in March, when asked about Russian military personnel operating in North Africa.  “We watch what they do with great concern.”

And Russians aren’t the only foreigners on Waldhauser’s mind.  He’s also wary of a Chinese “military base” being built not far from Camp Lemonnier, a large U.S. facility in the tiny, sun-blasted nation of Djibouti.  “They’ve never had an overseas base, and we’ve never had a base of… a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be,” he said.  “There are some very significant… operational security concerns.”

At that press conference, Waldhauser mentioned still another base, an American one exposed by the Washington Post last October in an article titled, “U.S. has secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa.”  Five months later, the AFRICOM commander still sounded aggrieved.  “The Washington Post story that said ‘flying from a secret base in Tunisia.’  It’s not a secret base and it’s not our base… We have no intention of establishing a base there.”

Waldhauser’s insistence that the U.S. had no base in Tunisia relied on a technicality, since that foreign airfield clearly functions as an American outpost. For years, AFRICOM has peddled the fiction that Djibouti is the site of its only “base” in Africa. “We continue to maintain one forward operating site on the continent, Camp Lemonnier,” reads the command’s 2017 posture statement.  Spokespeople for the command regularly maintain that any other U.S. outposts are few and transitory — “expeditionary” in military parlance.

While the U.S. maintains a vast empire of military installations around the world, with huge — and hard to miss — complexes throughout Europe and Asia, bases in Africa have been far better hidden.  And if you listened only to AFRICOM officials, you might even assume that the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa will soon be eclipsed by that of the Chinese or the Russians.

Highly classified internal AFRICOM files offer a radically different picture.  A set of previously secret documents, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, offers clear evidence of a remarkable, far-ranging, and expanding network of outposts strung across the continent.  In official plans for operations in 2015 that were drafted and issued the year before, Africa Command lists 36 U.S. outposts scattered across 24 African countries.  These include low-profile locations — from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield — that have never previously been mentioned in published reports.  Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including “15 enduring locations.”  The newly disclosed numbers and redacted documents contradict more than a decade’s worth of dissembling by U.S. Africa Command and shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East.


A map of U.S. military bases — forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations — across the African continent in 2014 from declassified AFRICOM planning documents (Nick Turse/TomDispatch).

A Constellation of Bases

AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for further information about the 46 bases, outposts, and staging areas currently dotting the continent.  Nonetheless, the newly disclosed 2015 plans offer unique insights into the wide-ranging network of outposts, a constellation of bases that already provided the U.S. military with unprecedented continental reach.

Those documents divide U.S. bases into three categories: forward operating sites (FOSes), cooperative security locations (CSLs), and contingency locations (CLs).  “In total, [the fiscal year 20]15 proposed posture will be 2 FOSes, 10 CSLs, and 22 CLs” state the documents.  By spring 2015, the number of CSLs had already increased to 11, according to then-AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez, in order to allow U.S. crisis-response forces to reach potential hot spots in West Africa.  An appendix to the plan, also obtained by TomDispatch, actually lists 23 CLs, not 22.  Another appendix mentions one additional contingency location.

These outposts — of which forward operating sites are the most permanent and contingency locations the least so — form the backbone of U.S. military operations on the continent and have been expanding at a rapid rate, particularly since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.  The plans also indicate that the U.S. military regularly juggles locations, shuttering sites and opening others, while upgrading contingency locations to cooperative security locations in response to changing conditions like, according to the documents, “increased threats emanating from the East, North-West, and Central regions” of the continent.

AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement notes, for example, a recent round of changes to the command’s inventory of posts.  The document explains that the U.S. military “closed five contingency locations and designated seven new contingency locations on the continent due to shifting requirements and identified gaps in our ability to counter threats and support ongoing operations.”  Today, according to AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, the total number of sites has jumped from the 36 cited in the 2015 plans to 46 — a network now consisting of two forward operating sites, 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.

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US marines boarding MV-22

Location, Location, Location

AFRICOM’s sprawling network of bases is crucial to its continent-wide strategy of training the militaries of African proxies and allies and conducting a multi-front campaign aimed at combating a disparate and spreading collection of terror groups.  The command’s major areas of effort involve: a shadow war against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia (a long-term campaign, ratcheting up in the Trump era, with no end in sight); attempts to contain the endless fallout from the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the neutralizing of “violent extremist organizations” across northwest Africa, the lands of the Sahel and Maghreb (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the degradation of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad (a long-term effort — to the tune of $156 million last year alone in support of regional proxies there — with no end in sight); countering piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a long-term effort with no end in sight), and winding down the wildly expensive effort to eliminate Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (both live on, despite a long-term U.S. effort).

The U.S. military’s multiplying outposts are also likely to prove vital to the Trump administration’s expanding wars in the Middle East.  African bases have long been essential, for instance, to Washington’s ongoing shadow war in Yemen, which has seen a significant increase in drone strikes under the Trump administration.  They have also been integral to operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where a substantial (and deadly) uptick in U.S. airpower (and civilian casualties) has been evident in recent months.

In 2015, AFRICOM spokesman Anthony Falvo noted that the command’s “strategic posture and presence are premised on the concept of a tailored, flexible, light footprint that leverages and supports the posture and presence of partners and is supported by expeditionary infrastructure.” The declassified secret documents explicitly state that America’s network of African bases is neither insignificant nor provisional.  “USAFRICOM’s posture requires a network of enduring and non-enduring locations across the continent,” say the 2015 plans.  “A developed network of FOSes, CSLs, and non-enduring CLs in key countries… is necessary to support the command’s operations and engagements.”

According to the files, AFRICOM’s two forward operating sites are Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier and a base on the United Kingdom’s Ascension Island off the west coast of Africa.  Described as “enduring locations” with a sustained troop presence and “U.S.-owned real property,” they serve as hubs for staging missions across the continent and for supplying the growing network of outposts there.

Lemonnier, the crown jewel of America’s African bases, has expanded from 88 acres to about 600 acres since 2002, and in those years, the number of personnel there has increased exponentially as well. “Camp Lemonnier serves as a hub for multiple operations and security cooperation activities,” reads AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement.  “This base is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”  Indeed, the formerly secret documents note that the base supports “U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region.”

In 2015, when he announced the increase in cooperative security locations, then-AFRICOM chief David Rodriguez mentioned Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon as staging areas for the command’s rapid reaction forces.  Last June, outgoing U.S. Army Africa commander Major General Darryl Williams drew attention to a CSL in Uganda and one being set up in Botswana, adding, “We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now.”

CSL Entebbe in Uganda has, for example, long been an important air base for American forces in Africa, serving as a hub for surveillance aircraft.  It also proved integral to Operation Oaken Steel, the July 2016 rapid deployment of troops to the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as that failed state (and failed U.S. nation-building effort) sank into yet more violence.

Libreville, Gabon, is listed in the documents as a “proposed CSL,” but was actually used in 2014 and 2015 as a key base for Operation Echo Casemate, the joint U.S.-French-African military response to unrest in the Central African Republic.

AFRICOM’s 2015 plan also lists cooperative security locations in Accra, Ghana; Gaborone, Botswana; Dakar, Senegal; Douala, Cameroon; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Mombasa, Kenya.  While officially defined by the military as temporary locales capable of being scaled up for larger operations, any of these CSLs in Africa “may also function as a major logistics hub,” according to the documents.

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More than 40 African Chiefs of Defence or their representatives participated in the first ever CHoD conference hosted by U.S. Africa Command, April 19-20, 2017, in Stuttgart, GE. Countering VEOs and peace support operations were the central topics for discussion. (Photos by Brenda Law and Staff Sgt. Grady Jones, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs/Released)

Contingency Plans 

The formerly secret AFRICOM files note that the command has designated five contingency locations as “semi-permanent,” 13 as “temporary,” and four as “initial.”  These include a number of sites that have never previously been disclosed, including outposts in several countries that were actually at war when the documents were created.  Listed among the CLs, for instance, is one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, already in the midst of an ongoing civil war in 2014; one in Bangui, the capital of the periodically unstable Central African Republic; and another in Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield in southern Libya located near that country’s borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.

Officially classified as “non-enduring” locations, CLs are nonetheless among the most integral sites for U.S. operations on the continent.  Today, according to AFRICOM’s Prichard, the 31 contingency locations provide “access to support partners, counter threats, and protect U.S. interests in East, North, and West Africa.”

AFRICOM did not provide the specific locations of the current crop of CLs, stating only that they “strive to increase access in crucial areas.” The 2015 plans, however, provide ample detail on the areas that were most important to the command at that time.  One such site is Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, also mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen.  At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time.

Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti is also mentioned in AFRICOM’s 2015 plan.  Once a spartan French Foreign Legion post, it has undergone substantial expansion in recent years as U.S. drone operations in that country were moved from Camp Lemonnier to this more remote location.  It soon became a regional hub for unmanned aircraft not just for Africa but also for the Middle East.  By the beginning of October 2015, for example, drones flown from Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and were also, according to the Air Force, “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals” in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

AFRICOM’s inventory of CLs also includes sites in Nzara, South Sudan; Arlit, Niger; both Bamako and Gao, Mali; Kasenyi, Uganda; Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles; Monrovia, Liberia; Ouassa and Nema, Mauritania; Faya Largeau, Chad; Bujumbura, Burundi; Lakipia, the site of a Kenyan Air Force base; and another Kenyan airfield at Wajir that was upgraded and expanded by the U.S. Navy earlier in this decade, as well as an outpost in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, that was reportedly shuttered in 2015 after nearly five years of operation.

A longtime contingency location in Niamey, the capital of Niger, has seen marked growth in recent years as has a more remote location, a Nigerien military base at Agadez, listed among the “proposed” CSLs in the AFRICOM documents.  The U.S. is, in fact, pouring $100 million into building up the base, according to a 2016 investigation by the Intercept.  N’Djamena, Chad, the site of yet another “proposed CSL,” has actually been used by the U.S. military for years.  Troops and a drone were dispatched there in 2014 to aid in operations against Boko Haram and “base camp facilities” were constructed there, too.

The list of proposed CLs also includes sites in Berbera, a town in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, and in Mogadishu, the capital of neighboring Somalia (another locale used by American troops for years), as well as the towns of Baidoa and Bosaso.  These or other outposts are likely to play increasingly important roles as the Trump administration ramps up its military activities in Somalia, the long-failed state that saw 18 U.S. personnel killed in the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” mission of 1993.   Last month, for instance, President Trump relaxed rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the U.S. conducts drone strikes and commando raids in that country and so laid the foundation for a future escalation of the war against al-Shabaab there.  This month, AFRICOM confirmed that dozens of soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a storied light infantry unit, would be deployed to that same country in order to train local forces to, as a spokesperson put it, “better fight” al-Shabaab.

Many other sites previously identified as U.S. outposts or staging areas are not listed in AFRICOM’s 2015 plans, such as bases in Djema, Sam Ouandja, and Obo in the Central African Republic that were revealed, in recent years, by the Washington Post.  Also missing is a newer drone base in Garoua, Cameroon, not to mention that Tunisian air base where the U.S. has been flying drones, according to AFRICOM’s Waldhauser, for quite some time.”

Some bases may have been shuttered, while others may not yet have been put in service when the documents were produced.  Ultimately, the reasons that these and many other previously identified bases are not included in the redacted secret files are unclear due to AFRICOM’s refusal to offer comment, clarification, or additional information on the locations of its bases.

Base Desires

“Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same,” laments AFRICOM in its 2017 posture statement. “We continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency.”

Since it was established as an independent command in 2008, however, AFRICOM itself has been anything but transparent about its activities on the continent.  The command’s physical footprint may, in fact, have been its most jealously guarded secret.  Today, thanks to AFRICOM’s own internal documents, that secret is out and with AFRICOM’s admission that it currently maintains “15 enduring locations,” the long-peddled fiction of a combatant command with just one base in its area of operations has been laid to rest.

“Because of the size of Africa, because of the time and space and the distances, when it comes to special crisis-response-type activities, we need access in various places on the continent,” said AFRICOM chief Waldhauser during his March press conference.  These “various places” have also been integral to escalating American shadow wars, including a full-scale air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, which ended late last year, and ongoing intelligence-gathering missions and a continued U.S. troop presence in that country; drone assassinations and increased troop deployments in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab; and increasing engagement in a proxy war against Boko Haram militants in the Lake Chad region of Central Africa.  For these and many more barely noticed U.S. military missions, America’s sprawling, ever-expanding network of bases provides the crucial infrastructure for cross-continental combat by U.S. and allied forces, a low-profile support system for war-making in Africa and beyond.

Without its wide-ranging constellation of bases, it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to carry out ceaseless low-profile military activities across the continent.  As a result, AFRICOM continues to prefer shadows to sunlight.  While the command provided figures on the total number of U.S. military bases, outposts, and staging areas in Africa, its spokespeople failed to respond to repeated requests to provide locations for any of the 46 current sites.  While the whereabouts of the new outposts may still be secret, there’s little doubt as to the trajectory of America’s African footprint, which has increased by 10 locations — a 28% jump — in just over two years.

America’s “enduring” African bases “give the United States options in the event of crisis and enable partner capacity building,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard.  They have also played a vital role in conflicts from Yemen to Iraq, Nigeria to Somalia.  With the Trump administration escalating its wars in Africa and the Middle East, and the potential for more crises — from catastrophic famines to spreading wars — on the horizon, there’s every reason to believe the U.S. military’s footprint on the continent will continue to evolve, expand, and enlarge in the years ahead, outpost by outpost and base by base.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, was a finalist for the 2016 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award.  His website is NickTurse.com.

This article was first published at TomDispatch

It’s Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region

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by Barnett Rubin | War on the Rocks

“It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure. Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.”

Read more

Changing the Global Order: Give as Much as You Take

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Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There is reading and reading. There are things you have learnt to read and watch, and subsequently process with impartiality. This concerns (all) the media and (most of) “independent” think-tank publications, on a broad range of contemporary power contestation events and processes—from elections & referenda to international conferences and negotiations, rhetoric of politicians big and small, wars and covert actions, and so forth.

Majority of these pieces are being produced with intention to appeal to our emotion in a certain way, and therefore one would do well keeping them under control. You do not enjoy much reading or watching this intentionally tailored stuff, but definitely find pleasure in analysis. And then there are pieces you enjoy reading and re-reading, numerous times. Always with excitement. And always with intellectual benefit.

For me, this week was of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. It happened by accident: I read an interesting post by Dan Ariely where he described a gift he had asked his friends for his fifty-year birthday. In my comment, I enquired (with the reference to and quoting Mauss’ masterpiece) whether he was ready to reciprocate, and to do so with even higher value (“We must give back more than we have received”) of the gift he has so humbly suggested (a favourite book with explanation why the giver loves it so much—what I called the key to their soul). Naturally, it served as a trigger… the next thing I did was retrieving the soft copy of The Gift from my archive and diving into its so familiar and still mysteriously so precious content…

Three episodes, the same philosophy

Life is going on however, and the geopolitical game’s current phase was unfolding with three episodes linked to each other, to indicate an abrupt shift in the strategies and tactics the major players opt to employ.

In one episode, which started with the use of chemical weapons in Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, the moves and counter-moves by key players (Americans and Russians in this case) haven’t resulted in any tangible alteration of the previous balance on the ground: the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution (vetoed by Russia); initial enquiry by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has established that sarin or similar gas was used, but further investigation is under question mark (Russians demanding “an objective investigation” by a body representative of all sides concerned); meanwhile, chemical weapons were used by ISIL in the vicinity of Mosul, Iraq, against the Iraqi military (with American and Australian advisers in presence); and it seems that the American airstrike only emboldened the stands of Assad and his allies.

In another episode, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US Military’s arsenal ever used in combat, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, aka Mother of All Bombs) was thrown on the ISIL-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) base in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. According to initial reports, 94 militants had been killed in the strike. No civil casualties were reported, while the Pentagon has not released any information on the physical and environmental damage caused.

The bombing has evoked mixed reactions. The Government of Afghanistan demanded even more MOABs. The opposition (for example, the former president Hamid Karzai) strongly condemned it. Some speculated that the seemingly bold move was in response to the Russians’ and Pakistanis’ attempts to negotiate with the Taleban, and thus to broker an Afghanistan deal in own favour.

Russians, in their turn, responded with reports about their Father of All Bombs, which they claimed to be four times as destructive. While the global players were engaged in power showcasing, the Taleban proceeded with attacks: At least 140 soldiers were killed and many others wounded in Mazar-e Sharif—the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base.

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The third episode is unfolding around the U.S.-North Korea stand-off. This confrontation thus far is about muscle flexing and trash talking. Examples of muscle flexing include North Koreans launching, albeit unsuccessfully, yet another missile test; while Americans, in addition to demonstrating their resolve in the previous bombing episodes described above, started the inspection of their nuclear arsenal and ordered an “armada” of the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Sea of Japan as a warning.

In turn, the trash-talk on both sides is exemplified by numerous verbal attacks and warnings of a devastating “pre-emptive attack”, including Vice President Mike Pence’s bombastic rhetoric all through his Asia-Pacific tour, reiterating that “the era of strategic patience” was over and that Kim Jong-un would do well not testing the President Trump’s resolve; North Korea responding with accusations of America’s warmongering and warning that they were “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.” and so forth—but in all instances it has been much beyond the “usual” limits, rather recklessly pushing the boundaries.

And to be sure, this go playground is not solely about America vs. North Korea. A lot of pressure the U.S. puts on China (one would wonder, why the bombing of the Syrian airbase had to be conducted exactly at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., and announced over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”). China feels uneasy and struggles to keep the balance, because it is going to bear most of consequences of the war between the two. Obviously, Japan and South Korea are in game; and even Russia is concerned and has reportedly moved some of its defence systems to the Korean border.

Towards new principle

Three episodes of geopolitical game of go are developing simultaneously in three discrete hot spots (Middle East/Syria, Central Asia/Afghanistan, South East Asia/North Korea) and with involvement of different sets of global and regional players (U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, to name a few) in each case. What is common though is the resolve of all the players to engage in zero-sum game where winner takes all. (And not only in these three episodes—in foreign engagements we seem to be guided by only one principle, that is “give as least as necessary and take as much as possible”.) This raises the stakes while increasingly making clear to anyone that with such an attitude we as humanity risk ending this game with losers all around.

Good books are always relevant. They are always contemporary. They are always insightful. Every time you read them you find something new, which leaves you wondering how it come you have not found it out in your previous readings of the great thing. Take for example one of concluding notes of The Gift: “Thus, from one extreme of human evolution to the other, there are no two kinds of wisdom. Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment.”

Mauss then proceeds to illustrate his thought with a Maori proverb: “Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.” Sounds as perfect principle for international relations and a new global order to me.

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Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

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                                                 Rally of the Houthi supporters in Sanaa, Yemen                                                    Image credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“U.S. policy toward Yemen has failed catastrophically. …  Allured by the prospect of scoring a huge win against Iran and global jihadists and showing there was a new sheriff in town, the Trump administration … is driving U.S. policy into a deeper ditch. By catering to the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered AQAP, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

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Chemical Attack in Syria: Events, Implications, Lessons

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A poison hazard danger sign in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on 5 April, 2017.         Image credit: Ogun Duru / Anadolu Agency

Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There has been a lot of outrage and condemnation of the use of poisonous (supposedly nerve) gas during the bombardment of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Deservedly so: The stockpiling and use of chemical weapons is banned in Syria (since 2013, when the government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequently started handing over its chemical stocks) and an appropriate action must be taken against those responsible.

This is all clear. What is not clear is who is responsible for what has happened. In spite of wild speculations that evoked the waves of emotional talk exacerbated by the shocking imagery of suffocated children there is not much evidence at this point—neither of the kind and source of the chemical weapons used, nor of those who used it (deliberately or not) in Khan Sheikhoun. And I guess this is rather irrelevant question in the game of geopolitics played in front of our eyes. Whatever happened and whoever did it, the events of this one week have changed the positioning of parties to the Syrian war, at least for the time being. And that is the only thing that matters in this game.

Action—Reaction—Counteraction

Action. Things took off immediately after the airstrike on Tuesday, 4 April by the Syrian Army resulted in the gas poisoning and numerous deaths and injuries among civilians. The media deriving their stories (quite uncritically) from the third (and vaguely defined) sources and the politicians relying on those reports were quick to declare the “crime against the humanity” (which undoubtedly the use of chemical weapons is) and as by default pointed their finger at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a culprit.  The next day Nikki Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was all around with the pictures of victims and emotional speeches at the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, her claim seemed to target Russia more than Assad’s regime: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Reaction. President Trump reacted sharply. In his first response (at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday 5 April) he stated that Assad had “crossed many, many lines”. It did not take him long to move from statements to action: on Thursday, 6 April the U.S. President authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield Shayrat “in retaliation after a chemical attack against civilians”.

Counteraction. Russia’s response followed immediately. President Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law.  In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents with the U.S. aimed at avoiding collisions in the Syrian airspace and has called on the UN Security Council to hold (yet another)  emergency meeting “to discuss the latest developments.”

Whose move is next? What is it going to be about? Whatever it is, at this stage of the game the short combination described above already have scored good points for some, opened opportunities for others, while altering more promising horizons for those who thought to be in more advantageous position before the recent developments.

Implications

The chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun has had instant implications on a number of important dimensions of the Syrian war. It immediately reversed the tolerance towards Assad as remaining in power and called again for his unconditional removal. Second, it undermined the negotiation process between the regime and the opposition—both the Russians and Turks-facilitated in Astana and the UN-led Geneva talks.

Next, it put in confrontation the Americans and the Russians (given that they rejected each other’s narratives about who was responsible, and later on strongly disagreed about the response) and thus risks undermining their (not an easy otherwise) cooperation in fighting the Islamist militants (both al-Qaeda and ISIL) in Syria and in the region. And altogether it incredibly complicated the course of the war in Syria, which seemed moving towards some sort of settlement.

Of course, there shall be an international independent commission. But it will take time. And its findings may not necessarily be conclusive. The complexity of the Syrian war and its potential to directly influence a broad array of regional and international security issues do not allow for taking much time however. The events in Syria and around are unfolding at high pace, and with this dynamics and the implications of each and every move on multiple directions there is an imperative to clarify certain and very important issues right away.

If not addressed right away, those issues (whatever important they deem at the point of occurrence) lose their significance being displaced or overshadowed by a new wave of events in Syria or elsewhere in the region and across the world. We live in incredibly event-intensive times, after all. So it well may be that next week will see Americans and Russians renegotiating their positions with calm pragmatism they customarily exhibit, while others waiting for their turn to make adjustments. The chemical attack in Idlib (sadly so) would become the fact of history, as did many other no less brutal and outrageous acts of this war.

Scenarios

Okay, one would enquire, if this is the case then what is a point in establishing the responsibility for using the chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. I would argue that there is a point. Because whatever happens in Syria is not necessarily about Bashar al-Assad, whatever the official rhetoric by the politicians from all sides. Interestingly, this concerns not only external actors but even the domestic opposition groups.

The endgame going on in Syria looks beyond Assad—it is about who is going to control which and how much territory in Syria once the war ends. (As for the regime change… it is more about stability and regional interests as seen by influential external players than about human rights and democratic aspirations of local activists. Example? Well, is there anyone thinking that the regime of al-Sisi in Egypt is any better than the rule of Mubarak seen from this point of view?) Therefore, it makes sense understanding what is going on behind the scene.

One way to find out the culprit(s) is to understand who is interested in such a situation and who benefits from it. And if you look at how things stand from this perspective, you face a paradox: It appears that the Assad regime is the least interested party, among all the internal and external, state and non-state actors taking part in the war, directly or through proxies. All have some unsettled issues, big and small. All but Assad (at least prior to this week).

Things were going perfectly well for Assad and his aides recently, both in terms of military and territorial gains (from the Islamist militants and the rebels alike) and with regards to political positioning (as vis-à-vis the opposition so internationally). Why on earth would Assad “score an auto-goal” (to borrow from Elijah J Magnier) which may reverse the final outcome of the entire game at the time when he is firmly moving towards the win anyways? What is the necessity of using particularly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun? Was it so strategically important, if not imperative to use? There are a lot of questions to be answered. Just few possible scenarios of what has happened.

Assad. One cannot dismiss any option unless it is proven unjustified. Therefore, the possibility of the Syrian army conducting the chemical attack remains on the table (with all the doubts I raised above). However, all the possible explanations to Assad’s motivation offered thus far sound naïve and even more, desperate to find at least something that sounds convincingly reasonable: “Why did Assad use nerve gas in Idlib? It’s impossible to know. Maybe it was a signal to an increasingly aggressive Israel that he still had chemical weapons, or maybe it was a warning to Russia that he wasn’t a pawn to be traded in a grand bargain with Trump. But most likely, it was a reaction to the free hand he was seemingly given when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a few days earlier during a visit to Turkey that Assad’s future ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’ — meaning that the United States no longer demanded his departure.”

Coincidence (or good/bad luck for players, depending on their positioning). As always in this life, there is a possibility that this was a sheer coincidence—this is the explanation that Russians are promoting (that the “regular” airstrike by Syrian Army has by accident, randomly hit the militants’ chemical weapons storage while bombing the militants’ general munition warehouse, also used for supplies to Iraq). With little success though, if to judge by the other sides’ rejection of this narrative. Moreover, Tillerson went as far as to suggesting to reporters on Thursday that, “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tough an accusation.

Third parties. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but this time around the timing, the selection of subject and even victims (more than twenty children among the overall reported seventy-four people killed), and the immediate and unequivocal reaction—all point to a possibility of well-thought out, in advance planned and timely executed plot.

Lessons

Whoever stands behind it (we may never learn for sure), one lesson to learn is that this war has tied up in one knot so many interests of too diverse actors that ending it is not going to be an easy task, if at all possible.

I recently argued in one discussion that we may have to redefine the notions of “victory” and “the end of war” when it comes to Syria (and perhaps some other places, such as Libya) so that to be realistic of what we as international community (considering that there is still a common interest to qualify as “the community” with regards to this war) actually can and aim at achieving. A year ago, I wrote about Syrian war warning that it was becoming a “perfect war” with no control over it and hence, no peace in sight. A lot of things have changed since, but only tactically.  Strategic interests of major players in this geopolitical game remain unchanged. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was just another reminder.

That is why it does not come as surprise that experienced politicians saw a window of opportunity for them to re-engage and to attempt at changing, if not reversing, the power balance in Syria (which was shaping towards favouring Russia, Iran and its proxies, and Turkey to certain degree). What else would you read from a statement made by the EU President Tusk made via Twitter: “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the U.S. to end brutality in Syria”?

One of commentators this week has concluded his article by drawing the following lesson from the alleged gas attack of Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that “In general … what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them.” I would dare suggesting that the scope of usual suspects to be extended in this case as to read that those at greatest risk of chemical (and any other brutal) attacks are those whom the domestic and external players alike wish to make an example in their game. And that means each one of us.

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Tied-up in the Rashomon Controversy: Information Warfare & Political Divides

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Reflections on the week passed

by Elbay Alibayov

The Rashomon effect

Perspective matters. The way we look at things, especially if we have a strong emotional connection with the object, has a potential to (at times, profoundly) influence what we will arrive at in the conclusion. And given our natural inclination to explain things by either establishing strict cause-effect relations between two or more events or finding a pattern (trend) of the things occurring this conclusion often-time is not exactly reflecting what is out there (put simply, is false) but comes with appearance of being reasonable.

How else would you explain a circumstance when a number of witnesses offer their own—contradictory but equally plausible—accounts of the very same event? Moreover, this happens in a situation when there is no other (“verifiable and objective”) evidence to counter any and all of those statements. This is known as the Rashomon effect, owing its name to Kurosawa Akira’s 1950 famous film. In the original story it concerns the human recollection, but is equally applicable to perception. Interestingly, the film’s plot is based on two short stories by a brilliant Japanese writer of the early 20th century, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, who also happened to hold that how the story was told was more important than its content and plot—quite a relevant hint to understanding the psychological effect he coined.

The campaign

Psychologists have studied this sort of phenomena (known as biases and fallacies) for decades, yet in controlled, lab conditions. While there are numerous real life cases unfolding right in front of our eyes. Take for example the ongoing story about the alleged Russian (dis)information campaign in an attempt to influence the outcome of the last year’s presidential election in the United States. Not one, but three separate investigations have been set up to look into the issue—the House, the Senate, and the FBI-led. And I suspect the story is only gaining momentum.

Everyone is excited, this way or another. Especially politicians and the media—as soon as they smell blood, they are instinctively driven there with the growing hype. This explains (in big part I assume) the overwhelming number of articles, posts and reposts, statements, comments and opinion pieces in the mainstream and social media alike—ringing alarm bells that the American democracy is under threat. Quite a campaign, in its own right.

In turn, those who reject any connection with the alleged Russian information attack, and especially dismiss its influence on the election outcome, build their counter-argument. Customarily, President Trump also took the issue to the social media, in a tweet which became instant classic (if to measure by the number of media referencing it): “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”

The real threat

Well, to be fair, everyone can be caught up in the perspective trap. And I mean it—everyone. Even experienced political analysts and intelligence experts for whom the propaganda/counter-propaganda game is daily bread (including those who join a certain camp because they have to). I read this week numerous comments on the subject, and what I found common among those otherwise politically distinct view holders was almost unanimous conviction that a Russian disinformation campaign targeting the 2016 election was (almost solely) responsible for generating deep social and political divisions within the American society and aggravating the mistrust to a degree that poses a direct threat to the underlying values of liberal democracy.

Really? One propaganda campaign? By a well-known rival? Let’s not fool ourself: no external actor (whatever strong and technically savvy) can create “serious socio-political divisions” (and especially in such a short time span) anywhere, let alone in America. Those divisions are there as a result of decades-long (and mostly overlooked) processes—that are continuously influenced (constrained or reinforced) by and, in turn, themselves exert influence onto a set of internal, country-specific (e.g. wealth redistribution) and external (e.g. globalisation) contexts and structures—that signal their existence through a broad range of manifestations, at any given point in time. And it is not something specific to America—today, almost all countries across the globe, from liberal democracies to those run by authoritarian regimes, face similar social, political and ideological problems.

And to be sure, it was not a “conflict-ridden” election campaign of both the Republican and the Democrat candidates that divided the society, but to the contrary—they merely resulted from, reflected the existing divides. To sum up, if there is a serious threat posed to American democracy, it definitely comes from within. I understand that it is very tempting to find someone from the outside (especially if this “someone” is a decades-long foe who does not need further introduction to the audience) and blame all the problems on them… but it is not the case I am afraid.

Getting it right

This is not to say that the Russian intelligence services haven’t disseminated certain symbols (words, images, etc.) and manufactured information products (like “fake news”) with an intention to deliberately influence perceptions, attitudes and behaviours of the Americans. They do it all the time, to be sure. This is known as propaganda. But they are not alone—reciprocally, so does the intelligence service of any major player on the territory of their rivals (and allies too, at times), be it the intelligence community of the United States, Britain, China, or Israel.

Nothing new here. Simply this time around the FSB (or GRU) took advantage of what was already there. Just like the CIA did to the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s (when the latter struggled to reform while facing deep social, economic and political divisions married with the rise of nationalism, lack of trust in the system and institutions of power, particularly the elites). As a respected security advisory firm has rightly observed: “The U.S. is already so politically divided that Russia and its online army have had to do little more than plant a conspiracy theory, fan the flames, and then watch as it burns across social media and into the belief systems of millions of Americans.” Now this looks as correct perspective.

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Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

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Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

by Elbay Alibayov

Political skills are frequently compared to chess-playing. However, it is the game of Go that comes closest to the art and craft of geopolitics. Go is a territorial game, where objective is to control more territory than the opponent. And the playground is big enough to allow performing poorly (or failing) in some areas but still winning the game by doing better on the board as a whole. Ukraine is the case in point.

Another milestone

Three years ago, on 18 March 2014, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Crimea signed an accession agreement with Russia that resulted in forming new constituent entities within the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed two days after the citizens of Ukraine’s then Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol voted to join the Russian Federation at the independence referendum (which was not recognized by the Ukrainian authorities). The move was (and still is) regarded in Russia as an historic act of “reunification”, while it was met with an outcry on the West and in the neighbouring countries, and was largely branded as the final act in “Russian annexation” of the Crimean peninsula (further to military occupation in February that created the conditions for the referendum).

For those observers who are familiar with historic background of the Russo-Ukrainian relations and their geopolitical context, it did not come as surprise though: the issue of Crimea (and especially the port of Sevastopol) and subsequent eastern Ukraine separatism are just another milestones on a long route of settling the relations between Russia and Ukraine in contemporary, post Soviet, history. Which itself is just a small section of a millennium long common history, with its numerous zigzags, highs and lows, infightings, controversies and moments of common pride (it is enough to remind that the Russian and Ukrainian statehood has started from Kievan Rus’ of 9-13th centuries; while Crimea becoming firmly part of the Russian Empire after the 1783 annexation and then changing hands in the course of the 20th century).

Sevastopol and national security

The irony of Russian geography is that, in spite of having a vast territory stretching from East Europe to the Far East, Russia is comparable to a land-locked country in terms of useful naval access to the world’s main theatres of action. That is why Crimean peninsula scores high in Russia’s national security strategy, and she cannot afford losing it. It is obvious that Crimea’s annexation was only an issue of time. The work in this direction started early in the post-Soviet times—already in the 1990s some Russian nationalist politicians were declared persona non grata, for meddling into Ukrainian internal affairs (under the pretext of protecting the interests of ethnic Russian or “Russian speaking” population).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were negotiating the division of fleet and military and naval bases inherited by the newly independent states. From 1997 Russia was leasing the military bases of Sevastopol port from Ukraine, as per Partition Treaty. For quite some time, the sides were using their bargaining chips (gas supply and transit from Russia vs. Sevastopol bases of Ukraine) within tolerable margins.

Things became complicated once the United States and the European Union backed pro-democracy opposition groups started challenging the established status quo. Even worse for Russia, once coming to power after the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004-05, they began openly threatening to discontinue the leasing (which was due to expire in 2017). The situation temporarily normalized when the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was installed in Kiev. The agreement was immediately renewed and extended for another twenty-five-year period until 2042 (known as the Kharkiv Accords).

However, the Euromaidan protests of the opposition forces in 2014 saw Yanukovych ousted, and that was a signal for the Russian military that the time has come for action. Russia simply could not allow this happening. Honestly speaking, no one (at least among actual or those aspiring to be great powers) would.

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Crimea: a done deal

So where is Crimea now? The answer is simple and clear: Crimea is gone; forget it. It has quickly passed a grey zone (limbo, if you wish) of “no return—no further transformation” and has comfortably integrated into the Russian state. And it seems that, over time, everyone has accepted this stand of affairs.

No return means that there is no chance Crimea will be part of Ukraine ever again, given its strategic, even existential, importance to Russia: Crimean peninsula is the only place that hosts its Black Sea Fleet—one of very few outposts from where Russia can defend its southern borders and geopolitical interests in the region, as well as project its strategic offensive capabilities globally. Moreover, since the annexation Russia has deployed additional forces to strengthen its surface and sub-surface combatants and amphibious primary based in Sevastopol, Karantinnaya and Streletskaya Bays, as well as naval aviation and air defence located in nearby bases along with naval infantry.

On the other hand, there was a smallish chance that Crimea would be formally recognized as an independent state by other states and the UN any time soon. That meant no transformation into a fully fledged sovereign state; and declaring independence while being de jure part of Ukraine and de facto Russia’s satellite did not seem a feasible option, either. The only transformation from the grey zone practically justifiable (and the one that Russia did not hesitate undertaking) was integration—that is, Crimea becoming formally the part of Russian Federation. Therefore, for Russia (and by extension for all others) Crimea can be considered (at the very least, for the visible future) as fait accompli.

Eastern Ukraine: a prize no one dares to win

Eastern Ukraine, particularly people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk of the Donbass region (acronym for Donetsk [Coal] Basin), is following suit. The circumstances of Donbass are different from those of Crimea, but the destination is the same—into the grey zone where it becomes a low intensity irritant and a bargaining chip. The principal difference being that the Donbass entities are going to stay there at least in the immediate to medium term, if not indefinitely. There are reasons for that.

First comes the superiority of objectives. For Russia, the Donbass uprising has served as a supplement, to distract attention from Crimea and allow settling the primary issue (i.e., everyone to accept Crimea’s secession and integration, or annexation, even though without overwhelming formal recognition internationally) while creating a buffer zone and a constant irritant in Ukraine that will make the neighbor’s government vulnerable and more dependent on Kremlin, to extent necessary for keeping it on a safe distance from the meaningful, full-blown Euro-Atlantic integration.

Moreover, there is a principal difference between Crimea and Donbass in terms of conflict dynamics and political economy. The former was taken in a clinically performed operation and today is firmly controlled by Kremlin and does not seem to create any problems neither within its federal entity borders nor to its neighbours (I even read the reports in Russian media about how much Crimean Tatars, who initially were opposed to secession from Ukraine, come to “appreciate their newly obtained liberty”). For anyone raising their voice of concern (it still occasionally happens nowadays), the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has an immediate response pointing to Kosovo. Legalists may debate the nuances of course, but it hardly would affect the real situation on the ground.

This is not the case with Donbass and its two self-declared entities—Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Political economy of the conflict here includes numerous non-state actors, ranging from separatist groups to anti-Russian paramilitary battalions with diverse ideologies and allegiance, and various gangs who proliferate from the chaos and lawlessness and thus are interested in sustaining the present situation rather than ending the war. They have seized control of many industrial sites and are engaged in all sorts of illicit production and smuggling activities as within the region so across the borders.

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According to reports, separatists have seized control of steel mills, coal mines and other enterprises, and up until recent were trading with the government controlled territory.  In turn, paramilitary battalions (such as Azov, Aidar, Tornado), as revealed in international investigations, ignore the rule of law and “have been involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Paradoxically, such groups may be of lesser headache in a low intensity conflict and lack of state control than in post-conflict situations when they play a destabilizing role and undermine the rehabilitation and state-building attempts of central authorities.

Next, Donbass is not of existential importance to Russia. Given the outdated infrastructure, degraded condition of coal mines and steel mills of the region (all demanding quite urgent and considerable investment with doubtful prospects of competitiveness), it does not represent such a great economic value to Ukraine either. The cost of physical rehabilitation is estimated in tens of billions dollars; who is going to pay for that?

To sum up, today neither Russia nor Ukraine has an appetite for fully embracing the Donbass, for it will come at prohibitive economic, social and political cost. The intricacy of Ukraine’s position is well summed in one of recent articles: “The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.”

Power the aim, people not in equation

For the time being the strategic positioning of sides to the conflict over control of territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been temporarily settled. “Temporarily” here may mean without meaningful change for decades to come, however. It appears that such a solution serves the interests of all state and non-state actors involved, directly or indirectly.

This is true for the status of Crimea, but becomes increasingly so with regards to Donbass and the implementation of Minsk II agreement that ought to bring peace to the troubled region. Two years after its signing, some analysts observe that “as the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and ‘neither war nor peace’ scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.”

“Benefits everybody”… well perhaps it is fair to say that it serves all but the ordinary citizens. And they are those who are paying the ultimate cost of the conflict. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner’s data, about ten thousand people have been killed (including two thousand civilians) and close to twenty-three-and-half thousand injured since the mid-April 2014. And it does not count the displacement, loss of jobs and hard earned property, the minimalist services and quality of life, insecurity of daily life and uncertain future, etc.

But hey… let me put it straight: people (whether human lives or their well-being) are never taken into geopolitical calculus by group actors, independently of what they claim in their public statements. Just look around… Whether we like it or not, the rule established by humankind since the dawn of civilization is that in political game, including the geopolitical game of Go, anything else but power can be sacrificed.

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