Russia's Military Modernization: Where Next?

Following years of rumors, and its initial showing during a military parade in Moscow last year, Russia's newest battle tank, the Armata, continues to make headlines.

The Uralvagonzavod factory tabbed to produce the machine announced recently that it could produce an unmanned Armata as well, calling such a tank the weapon of the future.

The famous military production plant already has experience with unmanned machines -- it produces a robotic fire truck on the basis of the T-72 battle tank. According to plant management, mass production of the newest manned Armata tanks could begin later this year -- field testing is well underway.

Uralvagonzavod will be busy in the coming years as it answers numerous government orders for the production, modernization, and upgrade of a broad selection of military equipment. The orders include T-72B3 tanks, BMP-2 armored vehicles, MSTA 2S19M1 self-propelled artillery systems, BTR-82AM armored personnel carriers, airborne combat vehicles, and other products -- all told, the factory will deliver more than 1,400 vehicles to the Russian armed forces.

For the past several decades, the American Humvee armored car, or HMMWV, has set the standard by which other military vehicles are judged, having served in all of America's conflicts spanning the globe, enduring every climate and every imaginable terrain. The Russian military has worked hard to develop its own alternative, finally fielding the Tiger armored vehicle in 2006. Since that time, Russia's GAZ manufacturer and the Russian Defense Ministry have worked to bring Russian design up to domestic and international standards, offering upgrades and pushing the vehicle to compete with American and similar Western designs. In 2010, Brazilian law enforcement eyed the Tigers for use in its SWAT teams, and in 2013, that country completed testing and evaluation of the car for major sporting events in 2014 and 2016.

During the upcoming annual May 9 military parade that will mark the 71st anniversary of the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II, the Russian military will showcase its newest vehicle version, the Tiger-M, equipped with the Arbalet (Crossbow) DM remote controlled weapon system. According to Sergey Suvorov, the official spokesman of the company that manufactures Tigers, the vehicle was supposed to have been equipped with an Italian weapons system, but then the sanctions against Russia kicked in, making the transaction impossible. Besides, the "Italian technology proved too fragile for our climate," while Crossbow performed well in temperatures ranging from -50C to +50C.

According to Suvorov, the Crossbow unit is fully stabilized, and its fire control system has the function of capturing and of automatic target tracking, which allows the operator to conduct effective fire while stationary or when moving -- the vehicle can also be operated remotely when necessary. Crossbow includes two types of guns and an automatic grenade launcher, and the operator can switch between different types of weapons via a computerized fire control system. The future use of of newly equipped Tigers can be surmised from their place in the May 9 parade -- they will accompany Yars mobile strategic missile complexes, suggesting that Russian Strategic Missile Forces will be the first to receive such vehicles. They will guard mobile launchers and ballistic missiles.

Weapons of higher learning

As a sign that the famed Kalashnikov semi-automatic weapon is maturing as a production and export platform, the Kalashnikov weapons company, part of the Rostec state corporation, is about to open its own corporate university. According to Mikhail Nenyukov, deputy director of quality and development at the factory, such a decision should ensure the development of knowledge management among company personnel, claiming such a university would be "a unified system of leadership development, talent management and production competencies" among Kalashnikov employees at all levels, from assembly workers to the most senior managers.

Igor Korotchenko, the editor of Russia's National Defense magazine, considers it necessary to create educational structures within the large corporations and enterprises of the nation's military-industrial complex:

"We have almost no other form of training skilled workers, therefore, such initiatives are welcome. The defense industry today is the locomotive of the Russian economy, and it is necessary to train personnel, especially since there is an ongoing large-scale modernization of production, there are modern machines with digital controls, new technologies and materials being used."

It should be noted that in Soviet times, the country's military-industrial complex drew the best and the brightest workers and designers, offering high, steady salaries and an unmatched system of benefits. Today's Russian defense industry has suffered major attrition and brain drain to the private sector, and the Russian government is trying to ensure that it can train and retain the next generation of skilled workers.

The Heat Is Rising as Russia's Economy Falters

The worsening state of the Russian economy is under increasing scrutiny, as are divinations of its meaning for the Russian regime. Most prognostications stop short of issuing a verdict on the future of the Russian state should its economy plunge even further. Despite a state of affairs that would alarm a truly Western-style economy, the Russian economy continues to function, and even shows short spikes of growth in the face of the broad sanctions imposed on Russia. While arguments in favor of Russian stability in the face of continued economic instability are probably correct, many analysts in the former Soviet Union are nonetheless ringing alarm bells as the Russian economic outlook continues to darken, without any significant rebound or restructuring of an economy whose health depends on the price of oil. Ukrainian daily Obozrevatel.ua published an analysis that concentrates on Russian so-called mono-cities. These are single-industry towns with one dominant employer, usually an industrial plant or a factory that depended on state orders in Soviet days and continues to depend on Moscow today.

"What is particularly frightening," reads the analysis, "and may cause a collapse in such company towns, is a difficult post-Soviet legacy, where, after 30 years from the beginning of perestroika under (former President Mikhail) Gorbachev, nothing was done. Such towns will simply stop functioning, as happened in Pikalevo in the Leningrad region in 2008. Back then, Putin put out the fires singlehandedly, having arrived there by helicopter, calling on (industrialist and state enterprise manager) Oleg Deripaska, forcing him to sign a document on the resumption of production at known loss-making enterprises." Similar situations, and the plight of towns such as Tver, where Carriage Works industries stopped all production for two months in 2015 and the Kremlin had to buy off protest leaders, are also noted in the analysis.

A key point:

"In such single-industry towns, unlike in Europe and the United States, Russian labor mobility tends to be zero. People cannot change their place of residence, and people will start losing their jobs because their companies will stop paying and go bankrupt.

"People will not have the means for existence, which may lead to chaos in the regions, and may perhaps result in secession of regions and acts of separatism."

The analysis points out that this can happen in regions that are "difficult to suspect of disloyalty to Moscow, such as Bashkortostan, a rich region with the Bashneft oil company; or Tatarstan, a wealthy region home to the Tatneft oil company.

"Such regions may determine that with potential chaos across Russia, why should they pay into the federal budget, that ‘black hole,' with the money going to Crimea, Donbass, or for the maintenance of Chechnya and (its President) Ramzan Kadyrov."

This line of thinking is often cited as the reason that the Soviet Union broke apart. Many in the Russian government, including then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, thought back in the pivotal years of 1990-1991 that the Russian Soviet Republic was feeding other regions of the Soviet Union that could not sustain themselves economically. Yeltsin's push to get Russia out of the Soviet Union was partially motivated by such economic indicators, among other complex factors.

"Once such acts of separatism start," continues the Obozrevatel.ua analysis, "Putin will send his security forces to restore order. Previously, no one knew that the National Guard would be created, and it was thought earlier that Putin would likely send FSB troops, army, and airborne units in such a scenario, and there would be bloodshed. But now it is clear why he is creating the National Guard with a purported strength of 400,000 troops. ... All this can lead to civil war."

Naive forecasts by the IMF on the health of the Russian economy, the analysis maintains, failed to take into account what might happen if some 250 out of the 320 Russian single-industry towns see economic activity grind to a halt.


Dire predictions are not just limited to Russia -- across the United States, many small and even mid-sized cities and towns have been hit hard by the plunging fortunes of coal-producing plants, causing widespread unemployment and carrying significant social implications, such as departure of younger generations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the American Rust Belt suffered through a massive economic realignment, when numerous steel mills and industrial plants were shuttered, leaving workers and their families to fend for themselves. Though such economic changes did not produce violent social upheavals, Russia stands to learn from the American experience of managing major economic changes that affect the treasury, the workforce, and state stability.

Let's Have One Corporate Tax for Europe

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," wrote Benjamin Franklin. That truism seems a bit less true after the Panama Papers exposed one of the biggest tax dodging scandals in history. The reveals from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showed that yes, death is inevitable, but some of us can avoid taxes. It is time to bury what lies at the heart of the problem: tax competition.

"The problem is bad laws."

That is what U.S. President Barack Obama said in response to the Panama Papers revelations about companies and people engaging in tax evasion and avoidance. Obama perfectly encapsulated what lies at the heart of the problem: that it is made possible by laws drafted by politicians. Lawmakers are the enablers.

Many smaller countries in Europe such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Liechtenstein, to name but a few, have in the past decades made tax avoidance legal. Bigger countries carry the blame too -- countries such as Great Britain, with its Virgin Islands, or the United States, with Delaware and Connecticut, or China with its Hong Kong territory, or Singapore with, well, Singapore. This is without mentioning some African nations, which appear to be the next refuge for dark money.

The Panama Papers scandal sheds a bright light on something morally untenable in society, which is that if you have enough money, you can avoid paying taxes.

To make matters worse, if you as Joe Sixpack make a small mistake in your tax return, or if you fail to mention that you had some money underneath your mattress and the tax man finds out, you're in deep trouble. This is not the case for those able to hire the right firm.

The scandal proves to many that the system is rigged. It also shows that those who represent us not only made it all possible, but some of them even benefited themselves.

The prime minister of Iceland had to resign after mass protests following revelations in the Panama Papers that showed his ties to dubious fiscal constructs. British Prime Minister David Cameron had to come clean about his own tax shenanigans. Just five days after being elected, the Panama Papers allege, members of the newly ruling left-wing party in Malta set up fiscal constructs to avoid taxes for themselves and some of their buddies, leading to protests similar to those in Iceland.

Schizophrenic

One of the linchpins of legal tax avoidance schemes is The Netherlands. Thanks to tax rulings and dual tax prevention measures, organizations such as Oxfam and Tax Justice estimate that between 8 trillion and 10 trillion euros flow through the small country annually.

Leftist parties felt they had to do something following the revelations. And so a parliamentary inquiry is to start soon, and it will force people to testify under oath. Chances are that the conclusion will be that tax avoidance would be impossible had the members of parliament doing the questioning prevented it.

Yes, one could say that the Dutch body politic has been somewhat schizophrenic about its approach to tax avoidance. It is also emblematic for the discussion in many other European parliaments.

In 2013, the right-wing firebrands of the nationalist Party for Freedom tabled a motion that forbade anyone in government or parliament to dub the Netherlands a "tax paradise." The motion drew the support of a majority of parties, including the center-left Labor party.

When news leaked that the Dutch embassy in Ukraine extolled the advantages of the Dutch international taxation regime during a presentation for Ukrainian businessmen, the Dutch government's foreign minister -- now European Commissioner Frans Timmermans -- said there was nothing wrong with it.

And just several weeks, ago the Socialist SP party publicly called in the Dutch parliament for a new tax avoidance scheme for Dutch harbors. It turned out that the Dutch state for years had granted its harbors -- among them Rotterdam -- a special tax exemption that made them more attractive than, say, its French, Belgian, and German counterparts to sea transport companies.

In the preceding years several European governments, the Dutch among them, have pushed the European Commission to enforce a level tax regime across the European Union for harbors. So when the Commission finally came through, with a directive to normalize the tax regime for Dutch harbors, the first thing Dutch parliament -- including the left-wing SP -- did was publicly press the government to establish tax avoidance measures to safeguard employment.

Yes, that's correct: a party that is probably far to the left of Bernie Sanders publicly advocated tax avoidance measures for companies. Why? Because tax avoidance is legal. Tax evasion isn't. Or so the corrupted Dutch political mind argues.

This example shows the hypocrisy. European creditor nations are constantly pushing debt-ridden countries such as Greece to eradicate bad tax morals, yet the creditors themselves engage in similar practices whenever it suits them.

Do the right thing

If countries truly wish to stop companies and people hiding their taxable wealth, they have to plug the self-created holes. This will prove a tough challenge.

National leaders never tire of touting the strengths of their societies. International companies, they invariably ruminate, invest in their country because of the excellent infrastructure, fantastic education system, and available resources.

If only this were true.

Countries increasingly engage in tax competition to lure companies. When OECD or G20 members crack down on tax avoidance and push out tax avoiders, the latter immediately seek out other countries to service them. And it works.

So if limiting one market leads to another market opening up, eliminating markets seems to be the only way to solve the problem. As a worldwide tax crackdown revolution doesn't seem to be the in the cards, a pan-European corporate tax rate (one applicable to faraway European territories) could at least provide a start. A lot of wealth originates within the European Union, so many companies would be hard-pressed to flee the Continent.

Especially when they're publicly named and shamed if they do.

So this is what we can thank the Panama Papers scandal for: It pushes leaders to show their true colors. The coming months will tell how principled they really are.

Europe's Six-Headed Crisis

Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.

Crises are nothing new. However, in Europe six crises reinforce each other. The list includes migration, populism, Brexit, a lingering economic crisis, the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and terrorism.
 
The deal on refugee exchange reached between the European Union and Turkey has at least one hopeful aspect: For the first time since the onset of the migrant crisis, the 28 EU members more or less acted in unison. The deal will cut numbers -- already, people smugglers say they have seen business dwindle. Yet history shows that when one route closes, another opens.
 
We are skeptical that the deal will put an end to the crisis. Its grounding in international law is in doubt, and Greece still faces significant shortages in the manpower needed to protect borders and carry out paperwork to return migrants to Turkey. I also doubt that the relocation of refugees already in Greece will go smoothly -- an old deal to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers across Europe has been a failure.
 
My view on the EU-Turkey deal is that seeing is believing. Speaking of optics, public opinion could sour on the deal when media show families being muscled onto boats and airplanes. And we must not forget that this deal can only be one part of the solution. So long as the violence in the Middle East continues, people will continue to flee. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey already house between 10 and 100 times as many refugees as the European Union, relative to their respective populations. These societies can't cope with continuing inflows much longer.
 
Populism on the rise
 
The refugee crisis is a boon to populist parties. Parties like the Party for Freedom, or PVV, in the Netherlands, Front National in France, and Alternative for Germany, or AfD, show no signs of losing momentum. If Dutch elections were held now, Geert Wilders' PVV would win 40 seats in the 150-seat Lower House of Parliament and would be the largest party by far. In Hungary and Poland, populists have already taken over, and democracy is under threat as politicians ignore the verdicts of the highest courts and media outlets are placed under government control. We will witness the real potential for populist parties next year when Germany, France, and the Netherlands are scheduled to hold elections.
 
To Brexit or not to Brexit
 
The risk of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will keep pundits guessing at the repercussions of a Leave vote until June 23, and possibly thereafter as the United Kingdom and European Union enter years of negotiations to establish a new relationship. I don't have a clear answer to what the repercussions of a Brexit would be. The calculations from think tanks, banks, and other experts are confusing.
 
For example, credit agency Moody's recently concluded that the impact of Brexit would be small and unlikely to lead to big job losses. MSCI is less sanguine -- the provider of stock market indexes concludes that in the most benign of two scenarios for Brexit, growth in the British economy would slow by 2.2 percentage points over the year that follows the vote. In the second scenario, Brexit would shatter the eurozone and drag down growth across the world.
 
I could go on with other examples of Brexit research, but I have made my point: Nobody really knows what the effects of a Brexit would be, except that it will have at least a minor negative impact. As the vote comes closer, markets will probably get more nervous.
 
Eurocrisis
 
Markets may also lose patience with the eurozone. The European Central Bank has signaled implicitly that it is running out of ways to address the economic malaise. Politicians aren't making enough progress on reforms to streamline labour markets, pension systems, and the like. Economic data are a mixed bag, and it doesn't look like the eurozone will be treated to a big boost in productivity or income growth. The Economic and Monetary Union will also continue to be slowed by its missing parts: fiscal and political union.
 
The Russia threat
 
One reason the pace of reforms is disappointing could be a new preoccupation with geopolitics -- namely, with Russia's behavior. Putin has booked success in Syria. In addition, Moscow was able to draw attention away from Ukraine, while regular Russian troops remain in the Donbas region, and Moscow plays on EU divisions over sanctions on Russia.
 
In the long run, Russia may be weak, with a shrinking population and a lopsided economy on the brink of collapse, but for now Putin has managed to play his cards right. Europe still lacks the grit, skills, unity, and will needed to formulate a powerful answer to Putin.
 
Terrorism as the new normal?
 
The Paris and Brussels attacks have proven that terrorism does pose a risk to Europe. The political capital, time, and money that leaders need to battle terrorism are resources that cannot be used to enact structural economic reforms. And money invested in more security - essentially an investment in unproductive activities - is no great economic multiplier. Moreover, implementing far-reaching antiterrorism laws could pose just as big a threat to open societies as terrorists do - they can undermine the basis of open markets and democracy.
 
Terror attacks usually don't have a large negative impact on the economy. However, if terror attacks go from sporadic to endemic, the whole calculus changes. ISIS would like to instil a climate of terror in Europe. If it succeeds, all bets are off as to how much economic damage terror will cause.
 
Troubled Europe
 
What is most worrying about these six risks is that they are mutually reinforcing. The Brussels attacks will aid those arguing that Europe should close its borders and that refugees are nothing but a threat. Just minutes after the news of the Brussels attacks came out, UKIP issued a press release blaming Schengen for the bombings. Populist parties and pundits all across Europe will seize the opportunity to connect terrorism, borders, Islam, and refugees.
 
Recent developments could also have a huge impact on the Brexit referendum. Half of the respondents to a recent poll by The Observer said they would cast their Brexit vote based on immigration. If the terror threat lingers on, and the likes of Nigel Farage succeed in making the trinity of refugees, terrorism, and Schengen stick, chances of an Out-vote will increase.
 
I could go citing more self-explanatory connections between the six European threats, but they should be clear by now and regrettably they all point to one conclusion: More European instability looks to be guaranteed, and it will be hard for the eurozone to pick up economic steam in the coming quarters.  

Will Israel Reach Age 100?

The State of Israel turns 68 next month.

Is Israel doomed? Will bad demography, bad neighbors, and bad Israeli behavior turn the once hopeful and idealistic notion of a thriving Jewish democratic state into a veritable Middle Eastern Sparta -- isolated in the international community and struggling to survive in a hostile region even as it occupies a restless and growing Palestinian majority?

Having worked the Israel issue for half a dozen secretaries of state, I certainly wouldn't want to minimize the challenges Israelis face at home and abroad.

Still -- and I concede up front that the view from Washington, DC isn't the same as the one from Jerusalem -- I'm more convinced than ever that Israel is here to stay. I may not be around to mark Israel's 100th birthday. But Israelis will. And here's why.

Highly Functioning State: The region in which Israel lives is melting down at a rate no one would have anticipated. Indeed, if there are any state disappearing acts, these may be on the Arab, not the Israeli, side. States such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria are fragmenting, while dysfunctional states such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt are saddled with political, economic, and identity challenges they just can't overcome. In short, with the exception of the Arab monarchs, a good part of the Arab world, including many of Israel's traditional adversaries, have gone offline.

On the other hand, even with all of their problems, the region's three non-Arab states --Israel, Turkey, and Iran -- are probably the most highly functioning polities in the region. All are domestically stable; all have tremendous economic power; and all are capable of projecting their power in the region. Of these three, Israel by far has the best balance of military, economic, and technological prowess and brain power. The state seems likely to maintain that edge for the foreseeable future. By any significant standard -- GDP per capita; educational assets; share of Nobel prizes; even the global happiness index -- Israel leads the region, and much of the rest of the world, by wide margins.

Security Environment More Favorable Than Ever: Compare the situation Israel faces in 2016 with any other period since the founding of the state, and there is little doubt the country is stronger, more secure, and holds a more pronounced qualitative military edge than it ever has. Furthermore, with the exception of Iran, its traditional adversaries are weaker, and amid their disarray they are falling further behind.

The situation of course is far from perfect, and there are no guarantees it will last long. After all, this is the Middle East. Israelis face a rash of individual attacks by young Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as a more substantial threat of terrorism from groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and aspiring ISIS wannabes in Sinai. But these aren't existential security threats to the state. Iran's putative quest for a nuclear weapon has been constrained for now. Functional cooperation with Jordan, improving ties with Turkey, close relations with Egypt, and an emerging alignment of interests with Saudi Arabia against Iran, all suggest a certain lessening of the Arab state allergy to Israel.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship: There's no arguing that the U.S.-Israel relationship has been through pretty tough times. Still, despite the highly dysfunctional relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States and Israel maintain an extraordinarily close bond. The two sides are now negotiating another 10-year security arrangement that will increase U.S. assistance to Israel, and several Republican and Democratic candidates have all pledged they will invite Netanyahu to Washington early on in their administrations.

Tensions over the unresolved Palestinian issue will persist. And even on the Republican side, the next president will find Netanyahu a difficult partner. Still, in a region with not a single Arab democracy, a rising Iran, and threats from transnational jihadists, Washington will almost certainly continue to look to Israel as an ally in a turbulent and violent region. Indeed, a Middle East in meltdown will provide the best set of talking points for the continuation of the U.S.-Israel special relationship. The threat of significant terror attacks on domestic soil in the years to come will only further emphasize the commonality of the challenges that bind the two countries together, even though other issues may divide them.

The real question is not whether the state of Israel will exist at 100, but what kind of state it will be. Much of course will depend on how the two dimensions of the Palestinian issue that threaten Israel's stability, security, and democratic and demographic character play out. Can a national minority of 1.7 million Palestinian citizens be integrated and more readily accepted into an Israeli polity based on the concept of Jewish statehood? Secondly, can a sustainable solution be found to the national aspirations of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians living in territories that Israel either occupies or controls to varying degrees?

Thirty-plus years shy of the centennial, these questions are impossible to answer, and the odds of resolving them anytime soon are long indeed. Still, Israel -- now well into its seventh decade -- isn't some hapless piece of driftwood floating aimlessly on a turbulent sea. It is a highly functional state that has powerful agency, extraordinary human resources, a demonstrated capacity to deal with its security challenges, and neighbors who seem to be growing weaker, not stronger.

Israel will reach its centenary and have many good reasons to celebrate its 100th birthday. But Israel's neighbors, and the challenges that are likely to remain, won't make it an entirely happy occasion, nor allow Israelis to completely enjoy it.

Russia's Interest in Nagorno-Karabakh: It's About Europe

European sanctions against Russia are set to expire on July 31, barring a unanimous vote to extend them the next time EU heads of state meet. Russia has developed several ways to influence Europeans. Over the long term, Moscow has chosen economic diplomacy, while also supporting any movement that seeks to unravel European integration and disrupt Transatlantic links.

This support covers all kinds of actions: from funding European far-right parties, to supporting roundtables focused on issues of national self-determination, to fostering dialogue on national spiritual awakening -- especially in those countries where Russia can involve the Orthodox Church in the debate. These measures are of little help in the short run -- they are not designed to round up citizen support to press governments to lift EU sanctions in July.

The only way Russia can change the European perception of its actions is through, well, the actions themselves. And we can see Moscow starting to change tack. The first positive reports in the Western mainstream media about Russian operations in Syria came after the liberation of Palmyra. Before that happened, on March 24 U.S. Secretary John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow to discuss Syria and Ukraine. The meeting validated the idea that Russia's involvement in the two conflicts has in fact been linked from the very beginning. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh now presents Moscow with its latest opportunity to create a better image for Russia in the eyes of the Europeans - again, through its actions.

The Kremlin used its intervention in Syria to bolster the perception of a strong Russia - and a weakened United States - and that perception, it hoped, would change the dynamics in Eastern Europe. This was the greater value-added to the genuine interest that Moscow had in Syria itself. Moscow intervened after the anti-Assad coalition failed to take hold and the Islamic State had risen to prominence. Syrian President Bashar al Assad was certainly preferable to the thought of an Islamic State that could reach Damascus, but the United States was unable to reverse its earlier posture that Assad must go. In a way, Washington needed to allow Russia's show of defying American wishes. Putin took the chance, and in so doing he put Ukraine back on the negotiation table. Russia's recent withdrawal from Syria had much to do with events on Russian borders. Putin needed approach talks about Ukraine from a position of strength, considering Russian interests in keeping Ukraine out of Western military alliances on one hand, and unfreezing economic relations with the European Union on the other. Seeing Palmyra liberated, and issuing the public announcement just days after the meeting between Lavrov and Kerry, plays as a splendid PR exercise.

But it's still far too little to impress the Europeans. Enter Nagorno-Karabakh. The Caucasus appear to most Americans as a faraway place, even if their strategic position is well understood, considering that this is where Russian interests meet up against those of Iran and Turkey.

For Europeans, the Caucasus are much closer. Azerbaijan is a key country that the European Union is courting for energy resources, while Armenia is said to be the oldest Christian polity. Nagorno-Karabakh's is a frozen conflict that every so often thaws -- but it hasn't broken into full-fledged war since the 1988-1994 conflict ended. If it did, such a conflict could draw in Russia, Turkey, Iran, and ultimately, Europe and the United States - so the topic is quite sensitive.

This is why the way Russia handles the story is in turn shaping how the European public perceives it. On April 5, a cease-fire agreement had been reached between Armenian and Azerbaijani military chiefs after they met in Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Yerevan on April 7 and to Baku on April 8.Lavrov was in Baku on April 6 and was set to meet his Armenian counterpart in Moscow on April 8. All this indicates a clever play on behalf of Russia, balancing its diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and building on its newfound peacekeeper image.

Moscow is trying to show it can be responsible. Putin understands that governments can't change their minds without the support of their publics. If European publics see Russia more as a peacemaker and less as an aggressor, pressure on European governments to take a softer line will increase. There is little to nothing that the Russian game in the Caucasus actually changes, and as such, Moscow's maneuvering on Nagorno-Karabakh entails little risk. Restructuring Europe's perception of Russia, on the other hand, is important. This is yet another step towards convincing the Europeans that Russia doesn't deserve sanctions: a political switch out of a geopolitical problem.

Time To Write Off Some Of Greece's Debts

It was off the radar screen for some time but it looks to return with a vengeance this summer: the Greek Question about debt relief. Pressure is on eurozone nations to finally write off some of the debt Athens owes them but cannot easily pay back.

"We will get every cent back, with interest."

That is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other heads of state of northern eurozone countries promised their voters when they loaned money to Greece.

The Greeks then used that money to pay off loans to German and Northern European banks, so as to prevent a so-called credit event -- a default -- that would have reverberated throughout Europe, potentially causing the collapse of Southern European banks and economies.

This July, some of the emergency loans made to Greece by the so-called troika -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission -- need to be be renewed or paid off. In recent days, details leaked of a telephone conference of top IMF officials during which the participants discussed walking out of the arrangement unless eurozone creditors (who really call the shots) agree to a debt write-off.

A write-off in any form is unpalatable to most eurozone leaders -- if not for financial reasons, then for political ones. As said, heads of state at the time sold the bail-outs to Greece to their voters on the promise that the debtors in Athens would pay it all back.

With severe voter unrest swirling about the refugee crisis, seen by many as a problem exacerbated by the European Union, and a referendum looming in Great Britain on the topic of continued EU membership, the last thing these heads of state now want is to have to renege on their promises.

The sensible choice

Yet a write-off is the sensible thing to do. Unhelpfully to European politicians, their American ally agrees and is pushing them to make the logical decision. Other figures such as eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem -- also Finance Minister for the Netherlands -- think along the same lines.

Recently Dijsselbloem was heard telling a European Commissioner after a press conference that a debt relief debate among eurozone nations was necessary.

Dijsselbloem thus seemed to be walking back positions he and previous Dutch Finance ministers have taken that echoed the tough "every cent back" line.

Dijsselbloem is currently in what is widely seen as his last tour of duty as eurogroup chairman. At home in the Netherlands, polls show that Dijsselbloem's center-left party, which is part of the ruling coalition, is destined to lose the upcoming 2017 elections by record numbers. A renewed stint as Finance Minister therefore seems highly unlikely. As such, he no longer has much to lose.

It is true that Greece is largely responsible for many of its financial troubles. They began in 2009 and 2010, when it turned out that previous Greek governments had cooked the books, purposely inflating economic fundamentals in the manipulated statistics it provided to the world.

Filling a hole with another hole

Banks in Greece and the government itself had taken on loans from European financial institutions. When the fantasy bubble burst, it became clear that Greece was in the tank for more than it could hope to repay.

As the saying goes: When you owe $5000 to your bank, you have a problem. But when you owe the bank $500 million, the bank has a problem.

And so it was with Greece's lenders. The fear was that a Greek default would lead to not just the collapse of some banks, but to international contagion.

Lenders would take a second look at their loans to Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish banks and governments, quite possibly resulting in a string of collapses and national defaults. As these banks and their governments had taken on large loans from banks in Northern Europe, troubles would soon spread to northern eurozone countries.

With the world sorting through the fallout of the credit crisis, a much worse economic crash was in the cards in such an event. Greece therefore had to be prevented from crashing.

So eurozone nations got together and handed Greece loans under harsh conditions -- loans which Greece had to use to pay off its debts. The Greek debt problem became a problem not of foreign banks, but of foreign governments.

Some debt relief

Over the past years, Greece has paid dearly for its profligacy. Government programs have been cut severely. Poverty has shot up. The country has suffered immensely. Yes, on some levels reforms demanded by Greece's creditors still have to be executed. Yet a renewed and further crackdown on pensions could push Greece over the cliff.

There are those in Northern European governments who could not care less about what happens to Greece: The risk of contagion has subsided, and they would like to give Greece that extra push.

Yet this would serve no purpose but show to the few supporters of the European Idea that the eurozone consists of a bunch of loansharks chasing their own national interests; like a bunch of well-to-doers beating up a homeless person on the street.

It is time to show some spine and offer Greece some conditional debt relief. With a concerted communications strategy to voters at a time of rock-bottom interest rates, it is the sensible thing to do.

Oh. And "debt relief" means just that: writing off debt. Not extending loans against zero-bound interest. That's just kicking the can further down the road.

How Ukraine's Military Will Defeat Russia's Rebels

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia show no signs of abating, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was unsparing when he recently criticized Russia for destabilizing his country.

Speaking on March 25 at a government meeting marking the creation of the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, Poroshenko said that of the more than 200 terrorist attacks prevented by Ukraine in 2015, most were prepared in Russia. The president said such attacks were meant to to destabilize the political situation in the country and were planned for Kiev, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv, and Lviv -- the nation's major cities and regions.

"The attacks ... are a key element of the hybrid war that is now being waged against our country," Poroshenko stressed. Ukrainian security services are successfully countering such attacks "by being effective in the information campaign and presenting to society sufficiently convincing evidence of the effectiveness of their work. The Ukrainian people today have something to thank the SBU for," Poroshenko summed up.

A Stronger Military

Meanwhile, two years of armed conflict with Russian-backed rebels in their country's east have begun to transform the Ukrainian military into a stronger and more professional armed force. Obozrevatel.ua looked at several new weapons in a recent report that cited improvements, upgrades, and acquisitions by Ukraine's armed forces.

When major hostilities broke out in 2014 in the Donbas, Ukraine's embattled eastern region, Ukrainian artillery and military units found themselves outmatched by rebels armed with the Russian-made Grad multiple launch rocket system, which, first developed by the Soviets decades ago, is the most widespread weapon of this kind in use throughout the world. Today, the answer to the army's needs is the "Verba," or Willow, a domestically-produced 122 mm multiple rocket launcher.

According to the report, the biggest differences in the new system, developed by the Kharkiv Morozov Design Bureau, are the automation of combat use; the introduction of modern navigation systems; and the chassis, changed to the domestically-produced KrAZ heavy trucks. The report notes that in earlier multiple launch rocket systems, the launcher was loaded manually, whereas Verba automates the process with special charging machines, increasing the re-armament rate sevenfold. The report adds that switching to Ukrainian KrAz truck beds not only ends system dependency on Russian-made Ural cars, but also significantly increases the vehicle's terrain navigation capabilities.

Additionally, Obozrevatel.ua notes that the rocket launcher can equip the domestically-developed Raptor armored truck, which is built on the KrAz chassis. According to Roman Romanov, General Director of Ukroboronprom, the nation's main defense conglomerate, "the time has come to leave the Soviet past behind and to start looking to the future. Willow is new technology that can be supplied to the military on an industrial scale."

Obozrevatel.ua's report also covered the most widespread weapon in the ongoing conflict -- the semi-automatic descendants of the ubiquitous AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle. Ukraine's defense sector wants small-arms procurements to be domestic. The varied Kalashnikovs in Ukrainian storage since Soviet days fall far short of modern battlefield requirements. According to the report, on the front lines fighters are forced to improvise upgrades to their Kalashnikovs, mounting modern sights, anatomical handles, and other improvements, making the weapon more convenient and saving precious seconds of combat that can prove absolutely crucial.

Creation of a new weapon was undertaken by the experts from InterProInvest, a design enterprise that decided to modify the existing Kalashnikov. They ended up creating a new type of small arm, leaving only the barrel and the receiver from the original weapon. The main feature of what they dubbed the Maluk semi-automatic gun is the use of a forward-looking bullpup layout, which significantly reduces the size of the weapon and has a positive effect on its balancing, allowing the fighter to maintain accurate automatic fire. This design is already incorporated into a number of rifles made in the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Austria. The Maluk has already passed military tests, grading out with the highest scores on most testing parameters. The new weapon is now recommended for adoption by the Ukrainian special forces, and its serial production has been taken on by Ukroboronprom.

Ultimately, it is not just the weapons, old or new, that will determine the success of Ukraine's military in its struggles against Russian-backed rebels. That success will depend on raising professional standards for all fighting units, and on incorporating new tactics, techniques, and procedures that would allow for the waging of a modern warfare, where older forms of fighting coexist with state-of-the-art communications, observation, and command and control technologies.

(AP Photo)

Now Is the Time to Break ISIS

Victory or defeat in war is often as much psychological as it is military. Military forces fight to impose their wills, and at a certain moment, even if the weapons are not yet silent, one side or the other loses heart. Its will to resist breaks, and defeat becomes a matter of time. Arguably, we are getting to that point in the war against the so-called Islamic State group.

Classical military theory broadly emphasizes that the battlefield advantage lies with the defenders, because defense requires fewer soldiers and weapons to hold positions than the attacker needs in order to overrun them. But when ISIS swept out of northern Syria two years ago, they staged a blitzkrieg offensive, replete with sophisticated strategy and tactics, including unprecedented barbaric treatment of soldiers and civilians to win through terror as well as by weapons. The ISIS onslaught was in effect a months-long rolling surprise attack on disorganized, demoralized, poorly equipped, internally divided adversaries. Syria and Iraq had been battlefields in failed-state territories even before ISIS arrived on the scene. ISIS just took advantage of the chaos.

ISIS thus had the initial advantage. But once its initial rampage was stopped, beginning with Kobani in February 2015, the battlefield turned into a stalemate. Effective counter-attacks began on Islamic State positions late last year. Armed with conventional weapons and no air force, ISIS was soon put on the defensive. Battlefield momentum changed. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Islamic State's military was bound to lose, because even with the advantages of defense (including the barbaric use of human shields), it was totally outnumbered and outgunned.

ISIS turned out to be much overrated as a military force capable of sustained warfare. Its resilience lay always more in the fervor, commitment, and reckless courage of its fighters than in its numbers and military capacity. From the battle for Kobani onward, the Islamic State has been regularly beaten in ground engagements. There were still a few victories (for example, taking Palmyra) but by the end of 2015 one could see that the Islamic State group was going down.

Anti-ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq are now experiencing few setbacks as they push ISIS back. The biggest victories so far have been at Tikrit and the Baiji oil refineries in April 2015; Sinjar in November; Ramadi in December; and Palmyra two weeks ago, which was the Islamic State's first big defeat in Syria. Scores of villages have been retaken, and initial operations have begun to dislodge ISIS from its positions on the Euphrates River. Anti-ISIS forces are better organized and armed than before, with the increasing morale that victory brings. Destruction of the Islamic State as a geopolitical entity is no longer just possible or probable, it looks like a certainty. The only unknown is how long it will take and how much destruction will be wrought.

In this unrelenting series of defeats, the will to resist of the central ISIS leadership and its militants -- the fighters but also the Islamic State's bureaucratic officials in occupied cities and towns -- is at stake. Fighters are running away rather than insisting on martyrdom. Ramadi was the first instance: Fighters fled the city back to Mosul where they were rounded up and burned alive. It's not clear yet whether some of the Palmyra defenders ran away. In any case they put up little resistance. Two of the five top ISIS government leaders -- its effective ministers of war and of finance -- have recently been killed by American forces. It's logical that at some point ISIS, like any army, will lose heart -- the climactic moment when the will to resist shatters.

The creation of the Islamic State was always a temporary affront to the logic of military force in geopolitics. It was implausible that it could durably hold off the big regional powers and the United States once these determined it had to go. Now the fundamentals are reasserting themselves. Military force matters.

But what about ISIS's morph into essentially a global terrorist network? Isn't ISIS stronger than ever? What about Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and the many other devastating attacks of the past few months? ISIS, while losing in Syria and Iraq, seems to be a greater threat to Europe and the United States than ever. There is some truth to this, but once again we need a sober, realistic view of what's going on.

The new ISIS, without its Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, will be a different phenomenon requiring a different intellectual conception. For two years ISIS was primarily a geopolitical conquest, the Islamic State, at the center of an international terrorist network. The raison d'être of the enterprise, what drew fighters from around the world, was building the caliphate. Now this jihadist dream is disappearing. The new ISIS will be the inverse, a loose network of international terrorist operations without a core, run by die-hard romantic jihadists and brutal warlords. Over time, Islamic State's dismantling will likely produce a gradual demoralization in global jihadist hearts and minds. The rank-and-file will to some extent disintegrate, with some militants joining al-Qaeda or other splinter groups, and others going back to civilian life. It will be interesting to see how former jihadist war criminals try to earn a living.

What does this mean for the United States and Europe?

Looked at objectively, the number of jihadist networks at any given moment is not incalculable, it is finite. Some are more or less organized than others, and the total number can rise or fall. But the networks as such could be counted if the information were available.

This means that sufficient, determined counter-terrorist forces can reduce the total number at any given moment and over time. Counter-terrorism works. High numbers of terrorist plots have been disrupted in the United States and in Europe. The Brussels catastrophe should eventually result in an upgrading of Belgium's woeful counter-terrorism capacities, including their connection with EU neighbors. (Paradoxically, terrorist attacks may stimulate greater European integration.)

No counter-terrorist effort will be entirely successful, but the number and success of terrorist networks can be reduced and the destruction limited. ISIS is not eternal, nor is al-Qaeda, or jihadist terrorism in general. A war that takes a generation to win is not an unwinnable war.

Obama's 'Tear Down This Wall' Moment in Cuba

Weeks before President Obama's arrival in Havana, uneasiness was already perceptible in the ranks of the Cuban government. For sure, President Raul Castro knew how much his regime could benefit from a historic event that would signal, better than anything else, the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was no less aware, however, of the risks associated with hosting an American president who was intent on openly defending the cause of human rights and liberty during his journey.

The ruling government's anxiety was all the more understandable considering that a poll carried out in April 2015 found President Obama's popularity among Cubans (80 percent) soaring well overhead that of the Castro brothers (47 percent for Raul and 44 percent for Fidel).

To unnerve the regime further still, there was Obama's sine qua non condition for visiting the island, namely: to be able to meet with representatives of the Cuban dissidence, including the Ladies in White, who are beaten and detained practically every Sunday after they take to the streets of Havana and other major cities of the island to call for freedom of expression and association.

Compelled to tolerate the meeting requested by Obama, the Cuban authorities attempted to dilute its impact by pressing the U.S. negotiators to include regime-picked representatives of so-called civil society -- a move that would enable the Cuban government to infiltrate its pawns and police informers into that gathering. Obama's negotiators, however, made it clear that the list was non-negotiable: only the Cubans chosen by U.S. authorities would be invited to the meeting.

The malaise on the Cuban side manifested itself from the very first minutes of Obama's journey. In a departure from the practice of protocol, the Cuban president was not present on the tarmac of Havana's airport to welcome his American homologue.

All things considered, that absence played into Obama's hands, for it was in consonance with his unhidden aim of making the trip not so much a state visit as an encounter with the Cuban people.

Rain was falling when Air Force One landed, and President Obama came out of the plane holding an umbrella -- which he shared with his wife Michelle -- instead of asking a subordinate to do so for him. The gesture had a successful -- and probably intended -- PR dimension, all the more so as Latin Americans will have noted the contrast between that moment and the moment, a few months ago, when Bolivian President Evo Morales -- a political heir of the Castro brothers and an all-out egalitarian leftist -- instructed one of his bodyguards publicly to kneel down and lace Morales' shoes.

The press conference held on the first official day of the visit was a chance to show to Cubans the abyssal difference between a democracy and a dictatorship in the realm of communications and public debate. While Obama looked relaxed throughout the exercise, President Castro lost his temper when a CNN journalist dared to ask about the existence of political prisoners in Cuba.

Unable to conceal his annoyance, President Castro had the gall to assert that there were no prisoners of this kind on the island under his charge, and he challenged the journalist to submit a list of such prisoners so he could free them before the end of the day. Cuba's internal dissidents and exiles swiftly submitted lists showing the existence of 87 to 89 prisoners of conscience.

President Castro's reply on that occasion likely will embarrass the Cuban government in the weeks and months to come. From now on, when the Ladies in White and other dissidents are beaten in the street after their Sunday march, and taken by force to a police station, Raul Castro's denial of the existence of political prisoners will resonate worldwide as blatant hypocrisy.

The high point of the journey undoubtedly was the speech delivered by Obama at the Grand Theater of Havana -- a speech that the regime grudgingly agreed to broadcast nationwide at Washington's request.

In front of Raul Castro and an audience carefully selected by the Cuban government, President Obama made an unambiguous plea in favor of freedom of expression, pluralism, and free enterprise. References to human rights spread throughout the speech and must have been felt, both by the government and the population, like political darts aimed at the Castros.

Like all historic speeches, Obama's will be remembered by one sentence -- one addressed to President Castro: "I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders."

It is a safe bet to argue that Cubans yearning for Liberty vibrated with delight as they heard -- via state-controlled radio and television -- this request, comparable to Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall," addressed to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

A few hours after the speech, the meeting between Obama and Cuban dissidents took place at the U.S. Embassy. That such an encounter even took place no doubt helped to increase the international profile and visibility of the courageous men and women whom no head of state -- not even Pope Francis -- had hitherto dared to meet.

At an earlier event, President Obama had expressed admiration for Cubans' ingenuity, which in his view is at the core both of the economic vitality of Miami ("one of the world's most dynamic cities") and of the resourcefulness of Cuba's incipient entrepreneurial class, the cuentapropistas -- namely self-employed workers who, although tolerated, are straitjacketed by absurd restrictions and smothering taxes and confined to very few areas of activity. By hearing Obama's words, those cuentapropistas could not but dream of how far they can go, and how they might prosper the day free enterprise is fostered, rather than vilified, on their island.

Aware of the lasting impact that Obama's visit would have on his fellow countrymen, the Cuban government organized a Rolling Stones concert (whose songs had remained prohibited for decades and anathematized as a symbol of capitalist decadence). The concert took place in Havana in the wake of President Obama's departure. One cannot help but think that the timing of the Rolling Stones' performance was aimed at making Cubans forget what Obama had said during his journey.

It is far from sure, however, that a rock ‘n' roll show, famous though the performers may be, can erase the impact of the visit of a president of the "Empire" who, by his multiple gestures and words, will have managed to instill hope (Sí, se puede -- Yes, we can) in the hearts and minds of the Cuban population.

Obama's Cuban Disgrace

I had the opportunity to visit Havana with the permission of the U.S. government in March 2013. Thankfully, I am blessed with a vivid imagination, and I could see that it must have been an incredible city prior to 1959 -- certainly the crown jewel of the Caribbean. That is no longer the case. The torment of communism is absolute, and it eats away at buildings the same way it does mankind.

Those buildings tell their own story. Once-beautiful facades, paint chipped and fading, hid rotting wood floors and crumbling walls. Famed cars from the 1950s drove past these buildings, several now serving as taxis, driven by doctors who pick up fares to supplement their measly incomes. Nothing brought home the lasting impact on everyday life of the Castro regime so much as to see the homes along once-spectacular boulevards once bedecked with flowing water fountains. These served as single-family homes. The former owners of the remarkable buildings, however, fled long ago to American shores, and the homes now are filled by three or four families that hang their clothes on wires from window to window and sit hunched over listening to radios, while their 60+ year old car, if they have one, sits idle in the driveway.

So I wanted to observe President Barack Obama's visit in Cuba without any bias. After all, I had been to Havana, and unlike so many others I know, I do not have a personal connection to Cuba, nor was my family displaced because of the Castros and their band of thugs. But I know too much -- not just what has been written about the Cuban revolution, but the real, often unpublished, gut-wrenching personal accounts from first- or second-generation Cuban-American families who are in utter disbelief that Obama would visit the failed state of Cuba to kiss the ring of President Raul Castro when this could have been accomplished from Washington -- without the president shaking the bloodstained hands of old men in Havana. Why could he not just send a mid-ranking official from the State Department to do this dirty work, they wonder.

Nevertheless, all those feelings aside, I watched hoping President Obama would not just roll over upon his arrival. I hoped that he had learned from his past foreign policy fiascoes in Libya and in Syria, from the bad Iran deal, from the failed reset with Russia, and from the rise of the Islamic State group.

I do not, moreover, entirely disagree that the embargo has probably run its course and remains an outmoded relic of the Cold War. It is however the moral imperative of the United States to be doing all that we can to help the Cuban people break the chains of their decades-long communist bondage.

An incredible history binds the United States and Cuba. Almost since the beginning of our republic, Cuba has been held in high regard. Early American leaders advocated for the inclusion of the island into the Union at first chance. Americans fought for Cuban independence. And our nations only became closer when Cuba gained its independence -- that is, until the brutal Cuban Revolution, and the beginning of the Castros' reign of terror. I had therefore hoped that when the U.S. government eventually advocated for the end of the embargo, it would also mean the end of the Castros. Unfortunately, it does not.

The policies of the Obama administration serve to fill the coffers and prop up the Castro regime and their ilk, enriching another crop of communist thugs so that they will remain in power after the eventual death of Fidel and Raul, whenever the devil should take them. The visit of an American president should have been to usher in a new era of freedom and democracy in Cuba, not inflict another generation of Cubans with the soul-crushing disease of communism.

The United States has lost its way. Our moral compass is broken. We used to stand for something. We are supposed to be the nation that shines as a beacon for freedom and democracy. We used to believe there is only one simply truth to life: live free or die.

Yet when given the chance, we turned our back on the political prisoners and dissidents who have been killed, imprisoned, or exiled by the Castro regime. We have disgraced all Cubans who have left everything behind over the years and traveled to this nation, making perilous journeys without the guarantee they would reach our shores or borders. Obama could not bring himself to acknowledge the Ladies in White, who rallied for human rights on the day of his arrival and were subsequently imprisoned. Even Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Obama, turned into a shill for the Castro regime's deplorable detention of political prisoners by stating, "It's their [the Cuban government's] belief that they are not political prisoners, that they are in prison for various crimes and offenses against Cuban law."

Furthermore, President Obama chose to stand side by side with Raul Castro, a military dictator, not a president, legitimizing the violence and brutality of a "revolution" that overturned a democracy. This would be like a future president standing side by side with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, six decades from now. That would be incomprehensible and unacceptable, and so too should be this meeting between Obama and Castro. While Brussels burned, Obama sat coolly next to Raul, a man whose reign of terror was just as heinous as the enemy we now seek to eliminate.

This is not merely hyperbole. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Cuban revolutionary, homicidal maniac, and the Castros' brother-in-arms, eerily echoes leaders of ISIS of today:

"The U.S. is the great enemy of mankind! Against those hyenas there is no option but extermination. We will bring the war to the imperialist enemies' very home, to his places of work and recreation. The imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves. Thus we'll destroy him! We must keep our hatred against them alive and fan it to paroxysms!"

Now, President Obama shakes the hand of a man that helped blindfold people as Che prepared to shoot them. Not to mention, he stood in front of this man's likeness for a photo-op. This is change I cannot believe I am witnessing.

The years of communist rule have taken their toll; on Cuba's buildings, on its people, on its economy. The Castros long ago submitted to Soviet overlords, only to be abandoned and left in ruins. The communist Cuban Revolution failed. The United States should have come to put them out of their misery; instead we gave them life.

The Blood on the Hands of Belgian Politicians

Several days after the terrorist mayhem in Brussels, reflection on how the attacks could happen is in full swing. Part of the answer: Belgian politicians simply don't care about the safety of their citizens.

Ever since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, and the leading roles Belgians played in them, Europe and the Belgians have wondered why so many of the leading perpetrators hailed from one quarter in Brussels.

When the questions were answered, security experts across the globe were left baffled when they found out that the Brussels agglomeration counts no fewer than 19 separate municipalities. The mayors rule over police forces divided over 6 police zones.

Of course, many factors are at play. But since the devastating attacks this week in Brussels itself, many stories have surfaced about dysfunctional police bureaucracy. Anti-EU pundits and publications were quick to compare Belgium with the bureaucratic European Union.

Were it only this simple; the truth is far more complicated. The Belgians themselves know better. As this story by Belgian media outlet Newsmonkey shows, the main problem isn't bureaucracy itself but the deep divisions in Belgian politics. The resulting dysfunctional bureaucracies were intentional.

The 19 municipalities and 6 police zones in Brussels are the product of bitter political wars among various parties on a horizontal level and exacerbated by divisions along cultural lines on the vertical level.

Belgium is a fairly recent construct. Founded in 1830 after a revolt against its Dutch overlords, and recognized after much wrangling by the dominant powers of the age in 1839, the country is divided by two main languages, and actually by three: Flemish-Dutch in the north, Wallonian-French in the south, and a Belgo-German zone in the east.

In the past decades, political parties of all stripes have used the bitter linguistic divisions to their own benefit in a cynical game of divide-and-conquer.

These cultural divisions were layered atop a political landscape polarized between left and right. As the Newsmonkey article reveals, mayors of the Parti Socialiste and the liberal MR simply refuse to cooperate, much less to be directed by politicians of a competing party. As a result, the exchange of information among various police forces has been dismal.

The parties claim to be doing all this because they are representing the will of the people. They are not. It smacks of old-fashioned clientelism, with the sole aim of retaining power.

It is telling that the parties are still not willing to change their ways, even after all that has transpired since the Paris attacks. As a result, the terrorist enclaves in Belgian societies are thriving while parties bicker.

By their willful inaction, the parties have the blood of their own citizens on their hands. But in the end, those very citizens are the real decisionmakers in any democracy, even such a dysfunctional one as Belgium.

It is time that Belgians show their parties where priorities must lie: in providing safety and security. This is non-political, and above all, non-negotiable.

And even if Belgian voters prove to be victims of Stockholm Syndrome and are beyond help, then the governments of countries bordering Belgium should put the dysfunctional political parties under severe pressure to change their deeply polarizing and egotistical ways.

(AP Photo)

New Missiles, Old Trains: The Future of Warfare in the Former Soviet Union

In the near future, Ukraine plans to conduct test launches of domestically produced ballistic missiles built without the involvement of foreign companies, said National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchinov in an interview with Interfax-Ukraine news agency. According to Turchinov, resuscitating the domestic missile industry is a priority for Ukrainian authorities. "We need to develop as a space-faring nation, producing high-tech spacecraft, but we also need to restore the necessary production line of combat missiles that will protect the country," added the secretary. "We will soon carry out test launches of missiles of indigenous production, created by exclusively Ukrainian enterprises."

Turchinov noted that the domestic rocket industry has struggled since the loss of close cooperation with Russian enterprises after 2014. Turchinov would not specify the missile types, citing the interests of strategic partners, but he stressed that Ukraine has strengthened its defense without violating any of its international obligations. This development follows plans laid out in 2014 by the newly elected pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko -- his "Strategy 2020" plan called for major overhaul of the nation's armed forces, a plan that involved increasing domestic development of the armaments industry and decreasing reliance on certain exporters, such as Russia, which drove domestic military production without leaving much for Ukrainian forces.

In Soviet times, Ukraine produced numerous rockets, satellites, and missiles, most notably at its Yuzhmash factory, which Kiev inherited after 1991 and which sold much of its production line to Moscow until Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Back to the Future

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry is once again considering reviving a century-old military concept - the use of armored trains. Last year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu decided to overturn an order by his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, to eliminate the four armored trains still in country's service. During Russian military operations in the North Caucasus and Chechnya from 2002 to 2009, the Russian military created an entire group of armored trains. However, once military operations in Chechnya wound down, the Defense Ministry has decided that a modern army no longer needed such trains.

According to Russian daily Izvestia, the decision to save these special armored trains was made personally by Minister Shoigu. When Serdyukov unexpectedly resigned in late 2012, many of his orders on the reorganization of various units of the Ministry of Defense were not fulfilled, explains Izvestia. After Shoigu audited all military assets, he overruled his predecessor's orders on the reduction of military educational institutions, refused to disband mobile and airborne units, and decided to keep armored trains in the nation's Southern Military District. "When he was the head of the Emergencies Ministry (the Russian equivalent of FEMA), Shoigu, while in Chechnya during the counter-terrorist operation, saw these special trains working and found them useful for the Armed Forces," Izvestia explains.

Russian military officers emphasized that these armored trains proved themselves ably in Chechnya, where it was necessary to protect military cargo and personnel transported via rail from Chechen insurgents. Such armored trains were also essential to protect combat engineers who cleared the railway tracks of improvised explosive devices. Each of the trains included repair teams capable of restoring damaged tracks within hours. The four trains, built in the middle of the last century, were on duty in the Soviet Far East until the 1980s -- there they guarded bridges and railways along the Soviet-Chinese border.

Such armored trains have near-legendary status in Russia. When mobility and concentrated firepower were scarce during the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War that raged across long stretches of today's Russia and Ukraine between 1917 and 1921, trains equipped with cannon and other weapons allowed Bolshevik forces to gain an upper hand over their opponents, at times deploying more than a dozen such trains in a single battle. By the end of the conflict, the newly formed Russian Red Army had 121 such trains in service, which were also used in World War Two and were immortalized on propaganda posters and numerous Soviet and Russian films. However, in the following decades, advances in artillery, missile guidance, aviation, and other technologies made such trains easy targets and therefore virtually irrelevant in large-scale military operations.

Today, Russian military experts have differing opinions on using such old technology for future operations. According to retired Col. Victor Litovkin, a military expert, it is still too early to retire such trains. "Of course, during a modern war with NATO, such armored trains don't carry any defensive or offensive advantage. However, in local conflicts -- such as the ones in the North Caucasus -- armored trains proved indispensable." According to Litovkin, the armored trains were ideal for the destruction of militant formations that operated near railways, as well as for the evacuation of the wounded and during demining operations. In addition, special trains housed modern Russian offensive weapons, such as the MSTA long-range howitzer or Tornado multiple launch rocket systems. However, Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, considers it archaic to use World War One-era technology in a modern military: "Now, in the 21st century, an armored train is a relic of the past, which is useless in modern warfare."

Whether right or wrong, the experts may be debating the use of old military technology in modern warfare for a long time: For instance, the American B-52 strategic bomber may fly for up to 100 years after its initial use in the early 1950s, given its versatility as a diverse platform for a variety of weapons and the absence of a viable replacement for at least two more decades.

(AP photo)

Brussels Then, Now, and in the Future

My daily digest of reading this morning started on a troubling if relatively speculative note. As a naturalized Dutch citizen living in the United Kingdom, I take a personal as well as professional interest in Britain's June 23 vote on whether to remain in the European Union. This article in the Financial Times encapsulated the concerns of the 2.9 million EU citizens living here, as it described a rush on applications for British citizenship by long-time residents hoping to avoid their status being subject to "negotiations between the UK and Brussels" in the event of a so-called Brexit.

I'll come back to that topic in proper context. No sooner was that article digested than Twitter feeds, smartphone alerts, and front pages across the web began to blaze with the news of just the latest vicious attack on Europe's open forums. The details are still coming in now, three-quarters of a workday later, with the latest updates being the inevitable claim of responsibility by the Islamic State group, and the disarming, reported by AP, of a third bomb at Zaventem Airport.

Brexit suddenly mattered very little. What mattered, instead, was the safety of friends and colleagues in Brussels. Messages fly across WhatsApp, status updates on Facebook. The defiant face of the Je Suis social media emblem popularized when Paris was attacked last year turns to an acerbic grimace. This is the new normal, and it's sinking in. Projecting further down the line, we in Europe consider our daily commutes -- the trains connecting Utrecht to Amsterdam or Amsterdam to Brussels, or the Eurostar that flies the flag of white-collar European integration under the English Channel between Paris and London -- every journey, every day, is its own small risk. It is a secular reality that is not changing any time soon.

Where security is no longer a given, the politics will only turn ever more sour. Brussels is a synecdoche. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the Belgian and European capital knows the hopes it physically embodies: With its smart, polyglot mix of workers from across the Continent populating the areas around Schuman Square where the European institutions have their home, it gives credence to the ideal of a Europe that works better when it builds together, if you'll excuse the sloganeering. In its own smaller, grittier way, it is as vibrant as London or New York, and every bit as intelligent.

Yet its darker realities in their own parochial way epitomize everything that has gone wrong on a Continental scale within the European Union. The capital of a country divided among itself between Flemish and Walloon aspirations, Brussels has 19 municipal mayors - nineteen! -- creating what German publication Der Spiegel calls a "tangle of bureaucracy" that makes a muddle of basic policing, and helps perhaps explain why the capital of Europe has become the European capital of jihad. Take the view of former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official Clint Watts, quoted today by CNBC:

"'It is hard to conceive that this would happen on such a large scale when it was so obvious that these guys were operating there,' Watts said of ISIS. ‘After [Abdeslam's] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had.'

"‘After the Paris attacks, it was a question of not being able to run all the leads down,' Watts said. After Tuesday, "It's no longer a capacity problem, it's a competency problem.'"

So who does one blame, as the new normal sets in? Some will blame lax security measures, and cry for more enforcement. Some will blame the lack of earnest dialogue on immigration and integration, pointing the finger at failed policies decades old. Perhaps it's the fault of the refugee crisis, or of the inability to track the flow of fighters between Europe and the Middle East. Maybe the neglect and marginalization of immigrant groups will be part of the conversation.

One thing is sure: A citizenry must feel safe before it can be idealistic. Europe as an integrated entity is an ideal, it's a notion. It feels good to take down borders when those borders are seen as hampering prosperity, and when the lack of an external threat keeps harder, more practical questions at bay.

Those questions are now baying. It's hard to say what security measures could keep a handful of society's most motivated losers from acting out their delusions. It is simply too easy, in an open society, to kill lots of people.

So today's new normal moves tomorrow's ever closer: If we aren't safe when we are open, we will close. Europe's mainstream politicians struggle to respond in the aftermath of attacks like this. France's centre-left President, Francois Hollande, put on a tough guise, reiterating bellicose rhetoric he had already used in the aftermath of attacks in Paris in November 2015, but each of these attacks strengthens his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. And it does the same for the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, who sounds perfectly sensible in calling for a closure of the borders. And it does the same in the United Kingdom for Nigel Farage, the original Brexiteer, who wasted no time.

This is where the Old Continent starts to feel, well, old. The idealism that is the European Union is under pressure from every side, but beneath its idealism there has always been a practical intent, which is to bind the Continent in shared peace and prosperity. To paraphrase what a colleague recently told me, it is right now as though the Continent has lain under a blue pan-European veil for decades. As that veil is lifted, it turns out, the same nationalisms, the same mutual suspicions that lay dormant for so long, are still alive. Their voices are getting louder, and as Brussels becomes a symbol for failed ambition -- ambition to open borders without securing them, ambition to open up the economy without unifying it -- their chorus may overwhelm the rest. That is the crescendo that brings us to the Brexit vote on June 23 -- a key test for whether Europe as a whole can survive the moment.

If it doesn't, yesterday's Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or Je Suis Paris, may well turn into a new, unspoken reality: On est seul. Today, from Brussels to Bristol, that reality feels as close as ever.

(AP photo)

This Is Not the Path to Cuban Freedom

The U.S. president had not set foot in Cuba when the regime began to drop rhetorical bombs. First came a long editorial in Granma. Its essence? That Cuba won't budge an inch from its socialist and anti-imperialist positions, including its support for the Chavismo it spawned in Venezuela, an enormous source of subsidy for the Cubans, of woe for the Venezuelans, and of unease for its neighbors.

Then, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, the Castros' diplomatic errand boy, warned that his government would not appreciate it if Obama spoke about empowering the Cuban people. Or if the United States tried to impose the Internet on the Cubans. Cuba, he said, "will protect the technological sovereignty of our networks." In plain language he meant that the political police will continue to control communications. They live for that and make a living from that. 

The U.S. president was undeterred. He will speak openly about human rights on his visit to Cuba. He has said so and will do so. But there's more: Barack Obama apparently won't visit Fidel Castro. (Caution: Never say never about this dictator.) At least for now, he will downplay the anthropological curiosity that this elderly tyrannosaurus always arouses. Today, Fidel is a slouched caricature of himself, but there is a certain morbidity in talking with a historical figure who has managed to spend 60 years flitting through TV newscasts.

Besides, Obama will be generous enough to meet with some of the democrats in the opposition. There's a whole message there. It's a good lesson for Mauricio Macri, who has still not gone to Cuba, and for François Hollande, who went through Havana and didn't have the civic valor to perform a gesture of solidarity with the dissidents. Obama will meet with the hard-liners. He will place his arm over the shoulders of the fighters, the most abused and the most seasoned. Those whom the political police describes falsely as terrorists and CIA agents.

In any case, I think that Obama has not quite realized the hornet's nest he has walked into. He has unilaterally decreed the end of the Cold War with Cuba, even though the island nation insists on assisting the North Koreans with weaponry, helping terrorists in the Middle East, and backing Syria's Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian ayatollahs.

It also seems unimportant that Havana leads the orchestra of 21st-Century socialist countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua), all of which are decidedly anti-American and intent on reviving the battle that the Soviet Union left unfinished.

Obama feels invulnerable. He rides a huge elephant, the greatest that history has ever known and, from his perspective of the world's leading power, those colorful Latin American pygmies are like fleas that will naturally be crushed by the weight of a reality that's inevitably overwhelming. 

That might be, but there's a serious flaw in his logic. In Panama, Obama stated that the United States had given up trying to change the Cuban regime, but that it would continue to push for the defense of human rights and the West's democratic vision. That's a clear contradiction.

The Castro brothers' dictatorship violates human rights precisely because it subscribes to the Leninist vision that the very idea of such right is subterfuge by the calloused capitalist bourgeoisie. It doesn't believe in them. "The revolution" subscribes to other values, expressed in the so-called social rights. To achieve them, the Communist Party deserves sole and total control over society. That's written in the Constitution, inspired by the one that Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

When a Cuban expresses his opinion freely, and that opinion contradicts communist dogma, he is not exercising his right to the free expression of thought, but is committing a crime. When two or more Cubans try to meet to defend their ideals or interests outside of official channels, they are not exercising the right to assemble. They are committing a crime.

These abuses won't stop until the island changes regime. It is possible that the thaw will improve the living conditions of some Cubans, and it is probable that certain U.S. exporters will profit from the opening of this famished market, even though the bill will eventually be paid by U.S. taxpayers.
But there will be no freedoms granted, no respect for human rights, and anti-American zealotry will not end until the totalitarian regime ends and is replaced by a real democracy. And that will hardly be accomplished by granting concessions to the dictatorship. Appeasement is never a good policy.  

Hard Times for Castro's Latin American Heirs

These are hard times for Latin America's populist left, the one that, inspired by the Castro model, was brought to power at the dawn of the present century by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil. After claiming the moral high ground for years, it sees its popularity and electoral weight shrinking by the day.

In Argentina, the hard-left Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner handed over the country's presidency to the pro-market Mauricio Macri, after the latter defeated the candidate of Ms. Kirchner's party in elections held last December. Around the same time, Venezuela's regime, led by President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's uncharismatic handpicked heir, was dealt a crushing blow at the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 6. More recently, Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum that he organized to allow him to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa's popularity fell in 2015, from 60 to 41 percent. More worrisome for him, in a poll conducted last December, 60 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track and 72 percent regarded as "incorrect" the way the government has been dealing with economic problems.

In Brazil, Lula's successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating at an abysmal 11 percent, the lowest in Brazil's contemporary history, while 56 percent call for her resignation.

Maduro's popularity is no better. According to a poll carried out last February, 70 percent regard him as incapable of solving the country's crisis, and 72 percent want him to leave the presidency before the end of his mandate in 2019.

Such disaffection stems to a large extent from the limits and flaws of the anti-market model that Latin America's hard left has put in place.

As long as the region was profiting from the unprecedented boom in world markets for commodities, hard-left governments were able to manage in a capricious and inefficient manner the resources at their disposal. Export earnings were enough to fund practically everything: social programs with a high patronage content, of course, but also bloated bureaucracies, lavish public spending and, last but not least, corruption networks.

As soon as the commodities boom came to an end, however, the economic model of the populist left began to crumble and has fared worse than the pro-market agenda implemented in other Latin American countries (Chile, Colombia, and Peru, in particular).

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America forecasts that Venezuela and Brazil will be the region's worst performers in 2016. Venezuela will be in recession for a third consecutive year, and its annual inflation rate is expected to reach 720 percent, according the International Monetary Fund.

Regarding Kirchner's Argentina (that is to say, before Mauricio Macri's presidency), the IMF warned that the country is showing "unsustainable trends" that will only lead to higher levels of inflation and deficit.

To the public discontent aroused by a deteriorating economic situation, we should add the discredit brought by the rampant corruption that prevails in many if not all of the countries ruled by Latin America's populist left. Scandals involving high-level authorities in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, to name just a few, have torn into pieces the myth of a left keen on, and capable of, ensuring probity in the management of public funds.

A third and no less important cause of public discontent lies in the tendency of those governments to hinder and eventually suppress fundamental rights and freedoms.

Harassment against the independent press and even simple cartoonists, elimination of the autonomy of the judicial system and of the national electoral board, suppression of the constitutional prerogatives of parliaments controlled by the opposition, beating of opposition MPs, arbitrary detentions, as well as torture, form part of the methods employed by those governments with the purpose of quelling criticism and discontent.

The recent electoral setbacks should induce Latin America's hard-left governments to think out of the box and refurbish their economic strategies and governance methods.

A change of tack, however, doesn't seem to figure in their agenda; quite the contrary. The trend is toward "radicalizing the revolution," which in hard-left jargon means to crack down with greater virulence on the opposition, the independent press, and the entrepreneurial class.

Thus, in Venezuela, President Maduro has vowed not to change course. He promises more socialism and more revolution.

Recent moves aimed at tightening Maduro's grip include making career advancement in the military dependent on filling a questionnaire stating allegiance to Hugo Chavez's legacy, and the issuance of a so-called Bolivarian card for followers of Chavismo. Needless to say, those who do not request that card will be identified as opponents to the regime, and they may have serious difficulties in securing or maintaining a job in the public sector (government and state-owned firms) and in obtaining food and medicines at subsidized prices.

Bolivia's Evo Morales, for his part, envisages taking on social media -- responsible in his view for his referendum defeat -- and has requested the resignation of public officials who voted no.

The taste for coercive and repressive methods has much to do with the populist left's fascination with the Castro regime. Since Fidel and Raul Castro have succeeded in holding power for more than half a century by smothering dissent, their emulators in the region seem to think that they can reproduce the Castro brothers' prowess by resorting to similar strong-arm methods.

The calculation is risky at best, for the Cuban experience can hardly be transposed today to other countries of the region.

It will indeed be difficult, if not impossible, for any government in the region to apply the level of repression that has enabled the Castro regime to cling to power. In today's Latin America, the political conditions are not the same as those prevailing in Cuba at the time the Castro brothers consolidated their dictatorial grip. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that, however hard Venezuela's leadership tried to prevent an electoral defeat through intimidation, imprisonments, torture, control of the media, gerrymandering, and other dirty tricks, that defeat ultimately took place.

At the turn of the 19th century, the French writer (and disenchanted socialist) Charles Peguy coined a sentence that may be used in due time as an epitaph for Latin America's hard left: "Parties live from their mystique and die of their policies."

(AP Photo)

The Curious Case of Succession in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has long been a model of post-Soviet cooperation with Moscow and a cornerstone of the Kremlin's plan for a Eurasian economic block drawing on the allegiance former Soviet states have to their onetime motherland, or the Russian Federation. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader the littoral Caspian state has ever had. Nazarbayev gained power for good in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and he stayed firmly ensconced at the top through suppression of the political opposition. Today the Russian-Kazakh relationship is one of Moscow's closest in terms of post-Soviet leadership.

However, there are troubles ahead for this cozy alliance. Nazarbayev is aging, and his health is failing. There is no clarity on who will succeed him, says Alexandre Mansourov, adjunct professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the Security Studies program at Georgetown University. Nazarbayev's daughter, as well as the current prime minister, Karim Massimov, have been floated as possible successors, but neither is seen as reliable to the Kremlin. The next leader of Kazakhstan will most likely be less pro-Russian and more open to better relations with China or engagement with Europe, an outcome that is Moscow's worst nightmare.

Russia has invested a great deal of diplomacy into the development of the Eurasian Economic Union,or EEU. President Vladimir Putin has seen this economic alliance as a way to further his efforts to bring back the economic and political power of the Soviet Union -- without the communism, and controlled of course by Russia. The EEU also has the benefit of preventing prior Soviet satellites from migrating their allegiances to the West. Nazarbayev himself suggested the creation of the entity in 1994 while giving a speech in Moscow, but has refrained from allowing further political integration out of concern for Kazakh sovereignty.

The Kremlin really can't afford for a successor in Kazakhstan to be less friendly to Russia or more oriented to other places economically, as the rationale for the union would fall apart. Hence the Kremlin's dilemma in Kazakhstan, and Moscow's efforts to lock in as much Eurasian economic integration as possible before Nazarbayev's passing. The relationship with Belarus -- the only other major state in the EEU -- is tenuous as well for Moscow. Belarus also has more political integration with Moscow in the Union State arrangement. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are minor players in the economic block.

Additionally, with all of Putin's talk about defending Russian-speaking minorities around the globe, which was his primary justification for annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the plight of Russian-speaking people in the north of Kazakhstan has gone unheeded.

"The Kremlin doesn't want to hear about the problems in the north," says Dr. Mansourov. "Even when [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky has brought up the issue, highlighting that Nazarbayev has repressed the Russian-speaking people of Kazakhstan, where Zhirinovsky was born, the Kremlin turns a deaf ear. Moscow has given marching orders to ignore the Russian minority and to deal with the government in Astana."

Interestingly enough, this was the same tack the Kremlin took with Crimea, saying it would deal with the government in Kyiv while ignoring the pro-Russian population in Crimea for decades; that is, until it became advantageous for Moscow to do alter course when the Maidan Revolution removed pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych from power.

When Nazarbayev is gone, there will be great uncertainty regarding the Kazakh relationship with Moscow. The entire construct of Eurasian economic integration will be called into question. If the EEU cannot outlive the current government in Astana, this outcome will deal a severe blow to Putin's efforts to control the old Soviet periphery.

(AP Photo)

The EU's Deal With Turkey: What Comes Next?

Turkey and the European Union achieved a Herculean feat, finally sealing a deal that has been in the works since October. According to the agreement, Syrian refugees fleeing to the Continent via Turkish-Greek waters will be sent back to Turkey. With this, European leaders hope to put a stop to the hitherto unstoppable influx of asylum seekers from the Syrian civil war. However, now comes the hardest part, one at which the European Union has in the recent past proven incredibly inept: actually executing the agreement.

Starting this Sunday, Syrian refugees reaching Greek shores will be processed in Greece and then sent back to Turkey. From there, the deal stipulates, the European Union will take refugees and redistribute them among the member states that are willing to accept them. This will happen according to the so-called 1-for-1 rule demanded by Ankara: For each refugee taken back by Turkey, another one will be taken in by an EU member state.

The goal of the deal with Turkey is to stem and regulate the flow of asylum seekers. The deal should also allow the European Union and Turkey to better distinguish proper war refugees from migrants fleeing economic and social hardship in other countries.

Once Syrian refugees understand that there is no point in fleeing to Greece, as they will be sent back to Turkey anyway, they will stop undertaking the perilous journey to Greece -- so goes the reasoning. On paper, this should turn Turkey into one big, EU-financed refugee camp. Of course, this assumes the erratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not use refugees as a tool to blackmail the European Union into accepting new demands.

Right now, such concerns lie in the future. The immediate problem now facing the European Union is whether its member states actually will follow through on their promises.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte -- the temporary chairman of the Council of Ministers of the European Union -- recently lamented that the Union's biggest problem has always been the delivery on promises made.

The very reason why the Syrian refugee crisis became a sudden, massive problem for the European Union was that member states in the past decade simply refused to put their money where their mouth is. Former European Commission chairman Jose Manuel Barroso on Dutch television criticized EU member states for refusing to commit themselves to an EU-wide border regime and delivering the goods for it: money, personnel, and ships to monitor and guard the Mediterranean Sea.

Properly enforcing a tight border regime along the Mediterranean shoreline and the Bulgarian Black Sea shore will be paramount to preventing smugglers from finding new routes to herd refugees into Europe.

If the member states again fail to live up to their promises, the expensive deal with Turkey will have been for naught.

How Much Did Russia 'Win' in Syria?

Russia's announcement that it is pulling troops out of Syria has been met with surprise from the Obama administration and a fair amount of clucking from pundits who see it as a vindication of Vladimir Putin's strategy in the region. It is also proof, many of those same pundits argue, that the Russian leader out-maneuvered U.S. President Barack Obama. Alexander Titov has a good rundown of the prospective gains that Russia will supposedly reap from its adventure in Syria, including the preservation of the Bashar Assad regime and Putin's ability to have a seat at the table for future negotiations.

But how much did Russia actually win in Syria?

First, it's important to emphasize that Russia hasn't actually withdrawn from Syria. They've merely announced their intention to do so. As the New York Times notes, they've pulled out about 10 planes and no sizeable number of troops. The United States should be acutely cautious about politicians claiming 'mission accomplished' before fully extricating themselves from a foreign entanglement. Even without frontline forces, Russian military advisers will undoubtedly still remain in the country.

Second, Putin's biggest accomplishment is unquestionably that Russia turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor. With Russia's help, the Assad regime has managed to cut rebel supply lines and reclaim territory in the north and south of the country. Militarily, a regime once reeling is no longer on the ropes.

In other words, instead of having Syria devolve into a totally lawless failed state, it's only now a semi-failed state with a ramshackle government that is still not in full control of its territory and has an Islamist insurgency raging in its borders. Assad's forces are unquestionably better positioned today thanks to Russian help, but Syria is a long way from being a viable, functioning state. Russia's client government is probably an assassination or two away from utter turmoil.

More importantly, what tangible good has propping up Assad done for Russia? Has it boosted the Russian economy? No. By all accounts, the Russian economy is performing poorly. Has it improved the standard of living for ordinary Russians? No, things look pretty bleak on that front too. Has it broken open new markets for Russian enterprises to sell into? Perhaps if Assad gets back on his feet, but not now. Has it gained Russia a powerful geopolitical ally? Even before it was a failed state, Syria was no regional powerhouse.

Meanwhile, Russia was flushing roughly $4 million a day into Syria as of October 2015 -- cheap by the standards of America's extravagant Mideast boondoggles, but costly nonetheless. It's not clear how many Russians have been killed in Syria, in part because Moscow is going to great lengths to obscure those figures, but Russia has seen its share of lives lost as well.

Still, Russia has achieved a limited set of results. It successfully propped up Assad and helped that regime recoup some of its lost territory. It has also ensured that it will be consulted in any negotiations involving the long-term fate of Syria's internal governance. Whether Syria was a prize worth investing in, only time will tell.

(AP Photo)

Turkey Delights

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's police forces close newspaper after radio station after news website, and while Turkish armed forces pursue a veritable civil war with the Kurds, the European Union signals that it is ready to forever stain whatever reputation it once had.

After 29 years of humiliation and being held at arm's length, Turkey delights in the fact that it has completely turned the table on the European Union. On April 14, 1987, Turkey formally applied for membership of the European Community, which has since become the European Union. After almost three decades of standstill and of insults to Turkey's pride, it is now President Erdogan who calls the shots.

For this, Turkey needed no army. This time, there was no Ottoman force at the gates of Vienna.

Nor is the host of refugees Turkey's biggest ally. Erdogan can unleash a stream of refugees at his beck and call. Within Turkey's borders resides a huge number of refugees from a variety of nations, most of them Syrian. And as Turks, Kurds, Assad's forces, and fundamentalist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State battle it out, more desperate Syrians join the ranks of the refugees every day.

No, Erdogan's real army is the millions of very angry European voters who simply want an end to the influx of refugees. Erdogan is counting on voter fear among his European peers.

The heads of state do not fail to disappoint. The elected leaders of the EU member states appear to be in a state of shock. As poll numbers turn against them because of the refugee crisis, they desperately want a deal -- any deal -- to stem the refugee tide.

They will look away from Erdogan's many atrocities against his own people and especially against the Kurds, if only Erdogan signs a contract that will oblige him to take back refugees from Greek islands and prevent people from stepping into leaking dinghies, choosing peril over uncertainty in Turkey.

The European Union's leaders in principle have now agreed to taking refugees "one for one," as per Turkey's suggestion. Every Syrian taken back by Turkey from the Greek islands will be processed in Turkey and then flown to EU nations that sign up to the deal. Most Eastern European member states have already flat-out refused to accept any refugees within their borders, so it will be a sort of coalition of the willing -- mainly Western European countries -- that will have to redistribute the refugees among themselves.

Aside from this, Turkey has demanded a doubling of the annual funds promised by the European Union for shelter relief for the approximately 2.7 million refugees already in the country. Yet all that didn't quite satisfy Erdogan. At the last moment, he added the demand that the European Union restart in earnest the stalled accession process. The EU member states swallowed the poison pill and agreed.

Principles don't vote. People do

Western Europe's leading politicians privately wince at having to deal with Erdogan. But they also admit that they have little choice.

Poll numbers show that many voters want an end to the seemingly endless stream of refugees trudging along Europe's pastures in search of a better life, of peace and prosperity. Right-wing extremist parties are either winning elections or seem more destined with each image of refugees to do so.

Huge logistical problems in some countries are also forcing hands. Sweden's resourcefulness has been pushed to its limits, while in the Netherlands, the government is having severe difficulties finding enough shelter to house the many displaced. In Germany, local government services have effectively collapsed, unable to cope with the influx.

What these nations are looking for is an orderly way to distribute refugees -- to buy time and increase their societies' absorption capacity and public support for giving shelter. And all this before spring sets in, when the weather in the Aegean Sea calms down, temperatures rise, and refugees will again set out on boats in the mass numbers seen at the end of last summer.

The agreement to restart Turkey's accession talks is publicly ridiculed by some leading players in the European Union. The party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who currently heads the rotating chair of the presidency of the Council of the EU, cynically said that sure, they will talk to Turkey about EU membership, but that it will never happen. There is no doubt that the Turkish embassy relayed those remarks to Ankara.

Between a rock and Erdogan

The European Union doesn't have much of a choice indeed. It either deals with Erdogan, or it will in the end have to take more desperate and certainly harsh measures. Leaders of some right-wing parties now making strong gains in polls are increasingly giving voice to what those harsher measures would be.

The leader of the Alternativ für Deutschland, or AfD, for instance suggested that German police be allowed to shoot at refugees trying to cross the border. The vice-chairwoman of the AfD later clarified that children should be left alone, but mothers and women are "sensible," so border police should be allowed to use lethal force against them if needed.

And so this is why Europe's leaders are prepared to dance with the devil in Ankara. Their successors may have very different views on how to solve the humanitarian problem. Better to take the initiative now and solve the problem.

(AP photo)