On March 26, an estimated 70,000 Russians participated in anti-Kremlin rallies in 99 cities across the country. Geopolitical Futures forecast that Russia would have economic and political problems in 2017 due to continuously low oil prices. Mounting wage arrears, localized banking crises, cuts to government spending, and decreased purchasing power have laid the groundwork for social unrest, particularly in the country’s interior regions. These protests show seemingly coordinated unrest, including in metropolitan centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg. This suggests that control by the regime in Moscow is becoming more tenuous, and it raises the question of whether our forecast was too conservative.
Our forecast envisioned a scenario of sporadic, minor unrest in small towns and cities that would increase in magnitude and intensity throughout the year. But it is only March, and tens of thousands of people already have taken to the streets, including in major urban areas, to express disapproval of President Vladimir Putin’s administration. The increase in scope and intensity has occurred at a faster pace than originally thought.
On March 26, opposition forces demonstrated a higher level of organization and strategic sophistication than previously seen in the last five years. The nationwide protests marked the culmination of a detailed campaign orchestrated by the opposition, which has proven its ability to successfully incorporate strong media elements into its strategy. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation spent months compiling research for an in-depth report proving extensive corruption by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The foundation also organized a media campaign to promote the report’s release, including an English translation of the report. Furthermore, activists extensively used Russia’s largest social media network, VKontakte, to help organize and increase participation.
The opposition has managed to grow its political presence throughout Russia by setting up and maintaining campaign offices. Navalny has offices in Vladivostok, St. Petersburg (where his headquarters are located), Nizhny Novgorod, Chelyabinsk and Kazan, among other locations, though the sizes and numbers of these offices are unknown. Navalny’s offices and those of other opposition forces helped build a nationwide network. Multiple locations became engaged in protest planning, including requesting protest permits 10 days before the actual march.
The Balkan Peninsula has long stood at the edge of empires. The region, with its jumble of ethnicities, religions and political movements, has been a playing field for competing world powers throughout its history. Russia began to vie with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires for influence over the area in the 19th century. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia became a battleground between the Soviet Union and the West, despite its officially nonaligned status following World War II. While the West tried to woo the country with economic aid, the Soviets played to its ruling Communist Party, and the two sides continued in deadlock through the 1980s. Once the country dissolved in 1991, however, the tides turned. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Moscow in no position to see Yugoslavia's constituent states through their transition to sovereignty, leaving that task to the European Union. The West has dominated the Balkan states' economic and security relationships ever since.
Russia still maintained its footholds in the Balkans, though. And today, as the European Union's divisions deepen and uncertainty prevails within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Moscow has turned its focus to the region once more. The Balkans' stability has been such a hot topic in Russian President Vladimir Putin's meetings with the Kremlin Security Council this year that the council's chief even said it was a top priority for Moscow. Incidents of Russia's meddling in the Balkans have been on the rise, meanwhile, raising questions about whether it will the next theater in Moscow's ongoing struggle against Western power and unity. After all, stoking tensions in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offers the Russian government a convenient means to increase its influence and further distract the West.
In a slick online video, 22-year-old Turkish student Ali Gul sits in front a drum kit and framed artwork while making tart remarks about Turkey's political leadership. He wraps up by musing that he'll probably get arrested if the video goes viral.
The video clocked tens of thousands of hits. This month, Gul was detained.
Times have been hard for Turkey, buffeted by bombings, violence between government forces and Kurdish rebels, refugee flows from the war in neighboring Syria and a failed coup attempt that unleashed a huge government crackdown under an ongoing state of emergency. Now the nation is on the cusp of what could be drastic change in its political system that would, backers say, impose badly needed stability or, according to Gul and other critics, nudge it toward autocracy.
Next month, Turks will decide whether to make the post of president more powerful in a constitutional referendum that is a big gamble for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the tough-talking president who is arguably Turkey's most transformational figure since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Ottoman-era army officer and national founder who died in 1938.
The constant stream of revelations that members of President Donald Trump’s administration and his surrogates had direct contact with Russia during and after the 2016 presidential election provokes a series of questions: Does it matter? And is Russia really our enemy? The answer might surprise you.
To call Russia our enemy right now is not exactly accurate. It would be rather more fitting to call Russia our rival. This might seem like a minute distinction, and yet it is a telling one. A rival is a strategic competitor -- an equal who competes for superiority and who strives for the same goal. An enemy, on the other hand, is the hostile opposition -- an antagonist that seeks the destruction of its opponent.
It is basically incontestable that Moscow’s interests and strategic goals directly counter Western and democratic values, and more importantly, the liberal world order. Much of what Russia does or hopes to achieve directly clashes with the international system America helped set up to manage conflict and promote cooperation.
So why then is Russia merely a rival to the United States, rather than an unequivocal enemy to the order that America traditionally upholds? As it happens, this distinction stems from a change in the value America places on its own traditional ideals.
Recent reports that Russia deployed special forces to an air base in Egypt near the border with Libya highlight the Kremlin’s growing concern with the domestic situation of the long-standing Soviet client. Strategically located and abundant with oil deposits, Libya since the violent overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi has become a battleground contested by numerous local tribes and militant groups, as well as two rival governments.
The current state of affairs in Libya does not correspond with Moscow’s new role, nor with its vision for the Middle East. A power struggle between governments based in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Tobruk has left a security vacuum across the country, one that invites and shelters Islamic terrorists from all across the region.
The Kremlin views Fayez al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli as weak and incapable of ensuring order and stability. Many in Moscow also see it as a puppet regime installed by NATO in order to diminish Russia’s sphere of influence and help the West lay its hands on Libya’s oil fields.
Quite simply, Russia’s goal in its relations with Libya is to install the pro-Kremlin regime. With its predilection for stability and secular strongmen, Russia also sees in Libya an opportunity to expand its greater vision for the Middle East and North Africa.
This French election was expected to be like none before. After the Brexit camp's victory in last year's British referendum to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency, the pressure had grown on France. The country’s presidential election, whose outcome will be known on May 7, seemed bound to be the third major edition of the fight brought by populists on the West’s liberal democracies.
But right now, the reason why this campaign is unprecedented is quite different. Alain Juppe, who for months appeared to be the election favorite, failed to win the primary within his own party. Then president Francois Hollande stunned all by declining a run for re-election. In turn, his prime minister, Manuel Valls, lost his own camp’s primary.
Yet the victors have failed to seize the opportunity. On the left, Benoit Hamon is slowly gaining ground, but remains a fourth choice in the polls. On the right, Francois Fillon was quickly embroiled in a nepotism scandal, to the point that the future of his candidacy has been questioned even in his own camp in recent weeks. Indeed, the Fillon case has largely overshadowed the political debate since the beginning of the year.
Others have managed to take advantage of this situation. It should come as no surprise that they are political outsiders -- or at the very least, they cast themselves as such. Emmanuel Macron has made assets of his handicaps -- the centrist leader of En Marche! is rather inexperienced and isn’t backed by a major political party. Macron now seems bound to reach the second round; so does Marine Le Pen. In spite of her own judicial liabilities, Le Pen capitalizes strongly on the harsh criticisms against the political establishment initiated by her father decades ago, even more so after her efforts to turn her extreme-right platform into a serious-looking alternative rather than a fringe program.
For six months in 2016, North Korea regularly conducted theater missile testing, establishing a pattern before it stopped in late October. Pyongyang then launched one more ballistic missile on Feb. 12 -- one day before Kim Jong Nam, half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was murdered in Malaysia -- and four more on March 6.
Much of the national security community suspects North Korea of being responsible for the nerve agent attack carried out by two women, both of whom have been charged with murder. Pyongyang continues to suggest that a heart attack was to blame.
What would lead North Korea to carry out two frightening provocations just a day apart, and to follow up with another provocation less than a month later? Like most developments involving the Hermit Kingdom, it is impossible to know. But the nearly four-month break between missile launches may have more to do with the political crisis in South Korea than anything else.
North Korea probably took a break from launching missiles in large part to keep the Korean media focused on the failures of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in December on charges of corruption. Park’s impeachment, which was upheld earlier this month, opens the door for a friendlier, more dovish leader in Seoul. The current slate of progressive candidates have suggested that they would treat North Korea far more favorably than their conservative predecessors have, but continued missile tests could create a political atmosphere more conducive to South Korea’s conservatives.
The Supreme Leader's two New Year's speeches provide a valuable look at the regime's internal dynamics as it attempts to balance economic concerns, electoral maneuvers, regional pan-Shiite issues, and the nascent policies of a new American administration.
On March 21, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered his annual Nowruz speech in the holy city of Mashhad, his most important public address of the year. In addition to setting the stage for the country's upcoming presidential election, his remarks focused on domestic economic issues as usual, but without much of the anti-American belligerence that has colored past New Year's speeches.
FROM THE AIRWAVES TO THE SHRINE
Since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has delivered two Nowruz speeches every year. The first is a recorded address known as his "Nowruz message," which is traditionally broadcast on state television and radio immediately after the vernal equinox (March 20 this year). He usually speaks about fifteen minutes while sitting in a chair alone in a room -- an understated contrast to his subsequent public speech before massive crowds in a Mashhad shrine.
On March 13 the White House announced that President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. This could be helpful. Personal connections ought to be subordinate to national interests, but good relations at the personal level are more likely to help than hinder future cooperation between the two world leaders.
President Trump has already expressed some of his ideas about the U.S.-China relationship. As president-elect, Trump repeated his campaign accusation that China has manipulated its currency to take advantage of the United States. On Dec. 4, Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so.”
Trump is understandably concerned about both the commercial relationship between the United States and China, and the security challenges that China’s actions in the region have raised over the past few years.
Testifying before a congressional committee, FBI Director James Comey has confirmed that his agency is investigating links between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia.
Recently, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed concern over Moscow’s apparent involvement in an attempted coup in my home country.
From 2010 to 2015, I was the ambassador to NATO from Montenegro, a young democracy in southeast Europe that is part of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro was targeted by an apparent coup attempt during its last parliamentary election on Oct. 16, 2016. While Russia has denied involvement, details of the plot shared by a Serbian man arrested at the scene point to what The New York Times called “Russian efforts to sow mayhem.”
The debt ceiling is back. As of March 16, the U.S. Treasury has reached its legal borrowing limit; the most recent suspension of the debt ceiling has expired. Less than two months into Trump’s presidency, addressing the debt limit is an early test of his ability to get a fiscal deal with the Republican-controlled Congress. However, unlike in 2011 and 2013, when political brinkmanship between Democrats and Republicans led to fears of default, reaching a debt ceiling agreement will be easier -- at least for now.
Initial signs from the Trump administration show that they are not willing to play with fire on the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed during his confirmation hearing and in a recent letter to Congress that honoring the U.S. debt is a “critical commitment” and urged lawmakers to “raise the debt limit at the first opportunity.” Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, holds a different philosophy but has sounded less dogmatic since joining the Trump administration. Though he is considered a fiscal hawk and never voted to raise the debt ceiling when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said during his recent confirmation hearing that he would not recommend President Trump “negotiate or govern by crisis.”
In addition, although Republicans won’t abandon fiscal conservatism, they will be reluctant to prompt a showdown in the first year of Trump’s presidency. While in the past Republicans have often only agreed to raise the debt ceiling in return for spending cuts, this time around they might not insist on this. Many trust that Trump’s economic policies will lead to economic growth of 3-4 percent, and they see this as the best chance of balancing the budget and bringing the debt trajectory under control.
“Extraordinary measures” that the treasury secretary can take, such as temporarily suspending payments to federal retirement funds, should buy enough time for policymakers to agree to raise the ceiling before fall -- when default becomes imminent according to the Congressional Budget Office.
When Romania broke through the headlines last month with protests against government efforts to enable corruption, it came as a surprise to many outside observers. Romania doesn’t usually get very much attention, but the protests this time seemed to go against narratives of rising populism and the longer view of a hopelessly corrupt and pliant European East. Indeed, as elections and long-simmering crises hint at a new European era, no part of the Continent is affected more than Central and Eastern Europe.
The European Union is troubled and changing. To the extent it continues to matter, it will be shaped by that enduring and resurgent reality, the national interest. The consequences of this are most immediate in the East, where an always dynamic region now meets a dynamic period in history. The question is whether states in this region can build on the advances made in the last 25 years. Romania at least in some measure suggested hope.
For states from the Baltic-to-Black seas bridge, such changes to the regional order are a great concern. Countries as diverse as Romania, Serbia, and Estonia know that when history’s doors open and close, their territories have been the hinge over which those doors swing. At worst, states like these fall into categories imposed from outside. They are seen as borderlands -- a periphery, a zone of influence, or a strategic gateway to greater fields of battle.
President Trump’s budget is out. As expected, it slashes the State Department and foreign aid dramatically.
Pundits are throwing fits over the proposed cuts. Certainly, there are areas like embassy security where more funding is needed.
But in most cases, Trump is right: It is time to do more with less.
In 2010, after my then-boss, Congressman Trent Franks (R-Arizona) proposed tying Egyptian aid to its respect for religious liberty, the Egyptian government invited me for a visit. During one meeting, Egyptian military leaders harangued congressional staff over looming cuts to “their” foreign assistance. After awhile, another congressional staffer reminded them that the aid was not theirs -- that the money belonged to U.S. taxpayers and we must account for every cent.
The Indonesian archipelago is a place of relative calm in a restive neighborhood. To its north, China and its neighbors are disputing Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and democracy is on the wane in Thailand; to the west, India and Pakistan are glowering at each other, and Afghanistan is, well, Afghanistan.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country, its third-largest democracy, and its largest Muslim-majority country, so it is important that the Trump administration make an early approach to Indonesia to confirm Washington’s long-standing relationship with Jakarta and to seek new opportunities for cooperation and commerce.
Indonesia’s most visible characteristic is its position astride the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and offers the shortest sea route from China to India. The strait is the world’s busiest shipping lane, hosting more than 80,000 passages in 2016 alone. And the strait isn’t just busy: its daily traffic includes a significant amount of liquefied natural gas shipments and 15 million barrels of oil, a quarter of the world’s seaborne oil, mostly bound for China, Indonesia, and Japan. More than 40 percent of the world’s seaborne trade traverses the strait each year.
All that cargo traffic attracts the attention of two parties: pirates and China. In the early 2000s, piracy increased to a point where the strait was the site of 40 percent of piracy worldwide by 2004. A concerted effort in 2005 by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to increase patrolling and coordination reduced the incidence of piracy.
North Korea’s missile launches last week are an early warning that the Trump administration’s Asia strategy could end up triggering the world’s next major war.
Spurred by the launches, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is touring Japan, South Korea and China this week. But Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities are not Trump’s priority in Asia.
For Trump and “inner circle” advisers like Steve Bannon, the top concern is economic. Trump and his team see U.S. trade deficits, concentrated in Asia, as draining America’s wealth and threatening its national security. Trump claims he is out to redefine U.S. economic ties to Asia’s major economies.
Whatever this goal’s merits, from my experience at the National Security Council, on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and as a visiting scholar at Peking University, I believe it is dangerously flawed as a basis for U.S. Asia strategy. Asia today is more economically interdependent than any other part of the world. It also has serious security challenges. Besides competitive posturing on the Korean peninsula, these challenges include escalating disputes in the East and South China seas.
Geert Wilders, the nationalist candidate for prime minister of the Netherlands, lost the election on March 15. This has brought comfort to those who opposed him and his views on immigration and immigrants. It is odd that they should be comforted. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that someone of his views would have won any seats in parliament. The fact that his party is now the second largest in the Netherlands, rather than an irrelevancy, should be a mark of how greatly the Netherlands – and Euro-American civilization – has changed, and an indication that this change is not temporary.
Wilders’ views are coarser than most. He called Moroccans scum and called for closing mosques in the Netherlands. But more alarming from my point of view is the inability of his enemies to grasp why Wilders has risen, and their tendency to dismiss his followers as simply racists. This comforts his critics. They feel morally superior. But paradoxically they are strengthening Wilders – and his allies in the rest of Europe and the United States. By willfully misunderstanding the movement and attempting to delegitimize the nationalist impulse, they make it impossible to shape a movement that cannot be resisted.
I have written before on the intimate connection between the right to national self-determination and liberal democracy. The right to national self-determination is meaningless without the existence of a nation. And a nation is impossible to imagine without an identity. There is something that makes the Dutch different from Poles, and both different from Egyptians. Nationalism assumes distinctions.
For Europe, Nazi Germany and the wars of the 20th century were seen as manifestations of nationalism. Without nationalism – or more precisely the obsession with national identity – these things would not have happened. One of the results of this was the European Union, which tried bafflingly to acknowledge the persistence and importance of the nation-state while also trying to reduce the nation-state’s power and significance. The European Union never abolished the differences between nations and their interests, because it couldn’t. In an embarrassed way, Europe acknowledged the sins of nationalism, while clinging to it.
There is something ominous-sounding in the deep state. It implies that beneath constitutionally ordained systems and principles, there is a deeper and more potent power in control of the nation. It implies a unified force deeply embedded in the republic that has its own agenda and the means to undermine the decisions of elected presidents and members of Congress. Its power derives from control of the mechanisms of power and being invisible.
The deep state is, in fact, a very real thing. It is, however, neither a secret nor nearly as glamorous as the concept might indicate. It has been in place since 1871 and continues to represent the real mechanism beneath the federal government, controlling and frequently reshaping elected officials’ policies. This entity is called the civil service, and it was created to limit the power of the president.
Prior to 1871, the president could select federal employees. He naturally selected loyalists who would do his bidding. Occasionally, he also would hire people as a political favor to solidify his base. And on occasion, he or one of his staff would sell positions to those who wanted them for a host of reasons, frequently to make money from the positions they were given.
Carl Schurz, a German-born Union Army general, proposed the idea of a nonpolitical civil service. It would be both a meritocracy and a technocracy – not his words, but his idea. Civil servants would be selected by competitive exams measuring their skills for the job. And the job of civil servants would be to implement laws passed by Congress in the manner the president wanted them enforced.
Talks this week with the Saudi deputy crown prince are expected to cover current issues including Iran, "radical Islamic terrorism," Syria, and Yemen, as well as perspectives on the longer-term future of the Middle East.
The visit by thirty-one-year-old Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a son of King Salman, who turns eighty-one this year and is now on the Japan leg of a monthlong foreign tour, has the potential to reconfigure the U.S.-Saudi relationship. MbS, as he is known, is widely perceived to have been given an almost plenipotentiary role by his father. As such, in this visit MbS will be outflanking if not outranking his older cousin, fifty-seven-year-old Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, known as MbN, who remains in Riyadh.
MbS left the kingdom for the United States on March 13, but the official part of his trip will only begin March 16. In terms of protocol, as Saudi defense minister, MbS will probably be the guest of Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He will also likely have meetings with the intelligence community, particularly CIA director Mike Pompeo, even though for many years MbN, as Saudi counterterrorism chief, has been the principal intelligence interlocutor, earning himself the sobriquet "Washington's favorite Saudi." With Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveling in Asia, the State Department's role in any meetings will be much reduced.
But the most important discussions will be those in the White House, where MbS is expected to meet with chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior advisor (and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, who is only a few years older than the prince. A meeting with the president himself is also expected, during which it would be surprising if Trump did not mention his ideas for a grand plan ("a much bigger deal") on Middle East peace including "many, many countries," which he referred to last month at his news conference with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The most urgent issue would appear to be the continuing failure of a Saudi-led coalition to reestablish the internationally recognized Yemeni government in the capital, Sana, occupied for the last two years by Iran-supported Houthi tribesmen and supporters of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The stalemate has allowed al-Qaeda to create safe havens in the interstices of the civil war, prompting recent U.S. military action, including a commando raid and airstrikes. Last week, Washington appeared to offer Riyadh an incentive to appear to change tactics, when the State Department announced approval for the resumption of the sales of precision-guided munitions to the kingdom. The decision still needs White House approval, however, which could give the U.S. side important leverage in this week's discussions.
There are some ideas in politics that do a lot of laps around the track before they finally find sufficient favour to turn into government policy. Few have done the distance that the proposal for a super national security department has.
Recycled in various forms for more than a decade, the idea of bringing together the national security responsibilities of various security agencies, units within different departments and law enforcement bodies under one superstructure is now on the desk of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Just why it is back is not clear.
Various suggestions have been put forward, from conspiracy theories about it being used as a vehicle for the ambitions of Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration, and his department head Michael Pezzullo, to the more prosaic idea that Prime Minister Turnbull is looking at it as part of a big shake up of administrative arrangements and a major Ministerial reshuffle after the May Federal budget.
The initial reaction to speculation that the idea of a major restructuring of the existing security machinery to create a US-style Department of Homeland Security is back on the agenda indicates that it is still an idea with only luke-warm support.
The Dutch election of 2017 was one of fragmentation. For the first time in history, a Green party may enter government. Yet the left is altogether decimated, while the populist anti-European Union, anti-internationalist vote remained a small minority.
A swing to the right, Labor crushed, Wilders underperforms
Leftist parties in the Netherlands were dealt a significant blow on Wednesday night as voters gave center-right parties the nod. Of the leftist parties, Groenlinks, the Green-Left, was the only one to make significant gains. The ruling Labor Party, or PvdA, which had been the junior member of the previous ruling coalition, was crushed as voters opted instead for Groenlinks and the social-liberals of D66.
The ruling free market-conservative VVD also lost seats but remained the biggest party.