THE ISTANBUL CANAL AS AN INSTRUMENT OF ERDOGAN’S MULTIPOLARITY

South Front

Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

From Father of Turks to Father of Ottomans

Turkey’s president Erdogan will no doubt go down in history as the leader who overturned the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and ended the country’s experiment as a secular nation-state. Perhaps that experiment was doomed to fail from the start—Turkish leaders over the decades have never found a workable formula for including the Kurds in the larger Turkish body politic, except through policies of forcible assimilation. Erdogan, however, was the first to decide to put an end to it and instead reorganize Turkey around principles of neo-Ottomanism and pan-Turkism, in which the economically powerful, politically viable, and culturally proximate Turkish state would no longer seek to join the European Union. Instead it would become a source of international governance, development, and security assistance to the polities which emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and even to those which were not part of the empire.

As this policy was guaranteed to provoke a negative reaction from every other power player in the region, including Turkey’s ostensible allies in NATO, Erdogan ended up pursuing a policy of “equidistance” with every politically relevant player in his neighborhood. NATO, yes, but also S-400 from Russia. Allowing Russian military flights to use Turkish airspace, yes, but also sales of Bayraktar attack drones and other military equipment to Ukraine. Turkish Stream, yes, but also the Instanbul Canal.

Ending Montreaux

The 1936 Montreaux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits is but one of many Ataturk’s legacies. Signed in 1936 in the Montreaux Palace in Switzerland, it is arguably the only arms control treaty of the interwar era still extant. At the time, it represented an effort to put an end to the centuries of conflict over the control of the Black Sea Straits by giving Turkey control while at the same time limiting other powers’ ability to project naval military power in or out of the Black Sea. In some respects the restrictions on the passage of warships are very real. For example, the Convention allows no more than nine warships with a total displacement of 15 thousand tons to pass through the Straits at any one time. In practice it means a single US AEGIS cruiser or destroyer, and while nothing prevents additional ships from passing later, the total tonnage of foreign warships belonging to powers that do not have Black Sea coastlines of their own cannot exceed 30 thousand tons (45 thousand in exceptional cases), which, again, limits the US Navy to no more than 2-3 AEGIS ships. Combined with a ban on capital ships, which includes aircraft carriers, from foreign navies, it means NATO would be hard-pressed to mount a serious aeronaval operation against any target on the Black Sea. While Montreaux was not greatly tested during World War 2, and the Warsaw Pact aerial and naval preponderance meant challenging it would be a futile exercise in the first place, it has proven its worth in the last decade, particularly after the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation. Had it not been in place, NATO’s demonstrations of force in the Black Sea might have been considerably more muscular, to the point of accidentally triggering an armed confrontation. While Russia has always been a supporter of the Montreaux Convention, its current relative military weakness in the Black Sea, where it faces the navies of three NATO member states and currently also that of Ukraine, means the Convention is all the more important to its security.

However, the proposed Istanbul Canal is not covered by the Montreaux Convention, as it specifically pertains to regulating military traffic through the Straits. To be sure, interested parties are bound to argue the intent of the Convention was to cover the passage of naval warships in and out of the Black Sea, and establish a certain level of collective security there. With that in mind, it should not matter whether foreign warships enter the Black Sea via the Straits or through the new Istanbul Canal. Moreover, even when the Canal is functioning any warship entering the Black Sea will have to have passed through one of the two straits—the Dardanelles, since the Istanbul Canal, if completed, will bypass only one of the two straits. The Montreaux Convention specifically refers to the “regime of the Straits”, not a regime of the Bosphorus. Nevertheless, one can be equally certain that some interested parties will make the legalistic argument that that the Montreaux Convention only regulates the passage of warships that pass through both of the straits. Ships may, after all, gain access to the Sea of Marmara that separates the two straits without restrictions placed on ships passing into the Black Sea. Turkish officials have been ambiguous on the future status of the Montreaux Convention, should Istanbul Canal enter into operation.

Gas Warfare

The second dimension of the proposed canal is economic. While the Montreaux Convention does not regulate the passage of cargo ships through the straits, the Bosphorus in particular remains a relatively narrow and convoluted passageway. When one also considers the high population density on both banks of the Bosphorus, the use of this strait by oil tankers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers raises particular safety concerns. Indeed, up to about 2015 the Turkish government prohibited LNG carriers from traversing the Bosphorus. While this changed during Erdogan’s rule, the ever-present danger of a serious incident means it is only a temporary solution.

Thus even if Turkey opts to apply Montreaux Convention rules on passage of warships remain unaffected, Istanbul Canal will have the potential to considerably increase tanker traffic in and out of the Black Sea. In view of Erdogan’s interest in building up relations with Ukraine, and Ukraine’s search for alternative sources of natural gas, the Canal would have the effect of increasing Turkey’s sphere of influence over the Black Sea. At the moment, there is not a single LNG terminal anywhere on the Black Sea. However, that could change once the construction of the canal moves forward. The most likely candidates are Ukraine, with a proposed site in Odessa, and Romania, with the natural location being Konstanta. US interest in promoting its own interests and expanding political control through oil and gas exports means that either or both projects would be met with enthusiastic US support.

The Mentally Sick Man of Europe

While even the most optimistic estimates do not predict the canal could be built in less than a decade, at a cost approaching $100 billion. Turkey’s own financial situation is not such that it can allow itself such a luxury without undermining other projects, and Erdogan’s ability to alienate other leaders means outside funding might be difficult to come by, particularly if outside funding means outside control over the canal. Yet the whole idea behind the canal is that it should serve the sovereign needs of Turkey. In such circumstances, who would be willing to bankroll Erdogan’s unpredictable whims? No amount of refugee crises is liable to extract that kind of a contribution from the European Union, and US funding would naturally come with US control. So it is no surprise the project’s initial construction start date of 2013 has slipped rather dramatically. Even right now, in 2020, the Turkish government is only talking about launching a tender to select firms that would be engaged in its construction.

Therefore at the moment Istanbul Canal is confined to the realm of pipe dreams. In order for it to be completed, it would have to become the biggest state priority in Turkish politics, and would require international financial and possibly also technological support. While there is no doubting Erdogan’s determination to transform Turkey into a power player capable of dictating its will to its geopolitical neighbors and rivals, the country he governs lacks the capacity for transforming his dreams into reality.

Russian naval presence in Indian Ocean

By Nat South for The Saker Blog

I am interested in the way that narratives that shape individual events are crafted, curated and disseminated, because ultimately there is a tendency to focus mostly on specific events and ignore the wider context. Ultimately, we end up with being presented with a series of disjointed events, not really understanding the history or the detailed framing of these events. One such example would be “Russian ships are prowling around undersea cables”, in the tenor of overstating the Russian threat. Often, the complexity and background of the issue is left completely blank and important facets are blurred. At worst, we are simply presented with a series of ‘soundbites’ such as this stark example: “Russia invaded Crimea”.

The starting point for this naval oriented briefing is the widely reported incident between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a lightly armed Russian navy intelligence reconnaissance ship somewhere in “northern Arabian Sea”. The U.S. Fifth Fleet alleged that on January 9, a Russian Navy ship ‘Ivan Khurs’ (AGI),“aggressively approached” USS Farragut, an Arleigh Burke DDG (guided missile destroyer), “conducting routine operations in the North Arabian Sea”, (in the words of the U.S. Navy press release). Subsequently, Moscow dismissed Washington’s claims.

Note the tone of stating “aggressively approached”, not really a nuanced interpretation of events. What wasn’t mentioned the likelihood that this took place not far from the carrier, ‘USS Harry S. Truman’. No context whatsoever was provided by authorities on this incident. A classic example of a specific event being framed without any further details as to why and how it happened. Nothing mentioned on what took place before the video snippets that don’t make much sense. What is the wider context to this incident? (More on this specific incident later on in this article).

Without getting into details on the well-publicised Iran / U.S. tensions and U.S. naval deployment to the region, I would like to turn to other broader aspects touching upon the Russian naval presence in the region. In January, a series of articles appeared on the geopolitical aspects of the Indian Ocean, such as this on China’s increased presence , “the Russians are coming”, and this that gives an all-round Indian focused overview. Taking an excerpt from the latter:

During the unipolar moment from 1991 till 2010s, Washington still felt comfortable in its position; however, over the last few years, the situation has changed dramatically.”

The most recent element in the turning point that shows the dramatic change would certainly be the late December trilateral naval exercise between Russia, Iran & China. The high-profile, three-day naval exercise took place in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea. Although not a major strategic exercise, the naval drills conveyed a slight political undertone, particularly with the presence of the Chinese Navy. China’s regional policy remains the same, to engage with all countries in a cautious and balanced manner. This is reflected by the fact the PLAN also held joint naval exercises with Saudi Arabia in November 2019, with the practically the same theme of enhancing maritime security.

The Pentagon’s plan for continued domination of the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean as per Mahan Doctrine in a unipolar world, is started to be eroded by the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, (PLAN). On paper, the numbers involved is very small compared to the overall U.S. Navy presence in the region. Yet, Chinese encroachment into a space seen by Washington as their turf is already enough of an issue to warrant increased attention in recent years. So far, this has resulted in the creation of dedicated military structures, namely the Indo-Pacific Command, (USINDOPACOM) in 2018 and the release in June 2019 of a US military strategy report specifically on the region.

On top of all of Washington’s angst, is also the presence of the Russian Navy in the region. So, are the Russians just coming to the region now? No. The only noticeable change of recent is the taking part in multi-national exercises, (in Iran and South Africa) jointly with the Chinese.

The Russian Navy has been an occasional visitor for two decades, limited to one combat ship with two support deploying to either bilateral exercises or simply showing the flag as part of naval diplomacy. Take for example the annual bilateral exercises between Russia with India since 2003, (INDRA), with Pakistan since 2014, (Exercise Arabian Monsoon). Both of which are aimed at: “increasing inter-operability amongst the two navies, developing common understanding and procedures for maritime security operations.” Both activities clearly underline the “naval diplomacy” being used by Russia, striking a balance between two significant opposing countries.

What is changing is the nature and format of other newer joint or multilateral exercises. A glimpse of this is the Army International Games “Depth-2019”, competition in July 2017 in Iran. The Black Sea Fleet based rescue tug “Professor Nikolai Muru”, (Project 22870), made a first-ever passage to the Gulf to participate in the event. Insignificant, in the greater scheme of things, probably yes, but interesting the Russian Navy did this.

Lastly let’s not forget that the Russian Navy had infrequently participated in the Horn of Africa anti-piracy missions, probably best remembered by an epic video of the Russian Navy dealing with a pirate boat. Conversely, the PLAN has been a more consistent participant of these types of missions for almost two decades. Nevertheless, as I write this, the Baltic Fleet based ‘Yaroslav Mudry’ is out in the region having recently called in to the Omani port of Salalah. It is in the Gulf of Aden as part of the latest Russian anti-piracy deployment to the Indian Ocean.

A first in the Southern Hemisphere took place in late November 2019 in Cape Town, when Russia and China held their first trilateral naval exercise with South Africa. Exercise ‘Mosi’ was the first time that three countries belonging to BRICS exercised together. Participants included a type 054A frigate Weifang (550) and Slava-class Project 1164 cruiser Marshal Ustinov (055) and the South African Valour class frigate ‘Amatola’.

9th January 2020

Back to the 9th January incident, reminiscent of the era of the Soviet Navy, when there were numerous ‘interactions’ of this kind on and below the waves. Any naval Cold War veteran is able to attest to this. An example of maybe hundreds of incidents and accidents is when the Soviet destroyer ‘Bravyy’ on 9th November 1970, while observing a NATO exercise, collided with the British aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal. Other notable incidents were the Black Sea “bumping incidents”, although the context for this was slightly different, taking place in home waters, involving both the USS Caron and the ‘USS Yorktown’, under the activity of “innocent passage and freedom of navigation”. An issue that still provokes intense debate and U.S. FONOP activities, (notably in the South China Sea) as mentioned in a previous article on the Arctic. A snapshot of this rationale for carrying out freedom of navigation voyages can be found in the introduction of a paper presented here.

I had a deja-vu feeling when I heard about this incident. It seems to me practically a re-run of the ‘USS Chancellorsville’ & ‘Admiral Vinogradrov’ incident back in June 2019. I see that many instant experts on Rule 15 have suddenly popped up on social media, hence this specific commentary.  Essentially several things could have done been done to avert this close call situation. The U.S. ship could have speeded up considerably to give the Russian ship more sea room to cross astern with plenty of space. There’s a lot more to this incident than just the videos extracts released by the U.S. Navy. However, this and the June 2019 incident needed to be contrasted with the shenanigans done in 60, 70s and also the 1988 Black Sea bumping incidents. Personally, this is pretty tame stuff in comparison.

The question is why this happens in this manner, (maybe due to saving face or not backing down). The carefully selected excerpts of videos, showing a fraction of the incident in question don’t help to understand the length, context or extent of the incident. The tetchy moments on who had ‘right of way’ (the nautical version of the Road Code – known as COLREGS) regarding the ‘Ivan Khurs’ close encounter with ‘USS Farragut’ can be regarded as just a “braggadocio” event aimed at media sensationalism. Well, not quite. There’s more the story than what it first seems.

As with the June 2019 incident, the U.S. ship was on the port side of the Russian vessel, considered to be a “Constant bearing, decreasing range” (CBDR) situation. Many arguments happened over whether the Ivan Khurs was in crossing situation or overtaking one, (was it 22.5 / 30 degrees angle? Essentially that’s a redundant point given the closeness and the continued CBDR situation, running out of safe sea space). A grey area well-known to mariners, hence the need to be quite clear in intentions from the outset. The video excerpts are equally unhelpful in determining the situation since some time must have passed between the video snippets.

The question that no one asked was why did both sides act early enough to avoid such close approach in the first place. It seems to me, in general one side was blatantly ignoring the CBDR situation and the finer points of Rule 15 or 17 COLREG, while the other won’t try or consider slowing down or bearing away from US ship. Essentially, a total farce where both sides seem to wind each up until the last minute, when finally, the U.S. destroyer actually opens up a bit the throttle. Given that it is a DDG, I’m sure that the USS Farragut has a higher speed than the ‘Ivan Khurs’, so the Russian ship can cross astern safely. Seemingly, neither budged and importantly both sides were basically ignoring parts of Rule 8 which sets out good seamanship practice, well before the Rule 15/17 situation arose, as both had each other on radar and visually for many nautical miles.

The other question is why did this incident occur? Essentially, eyeing each other for intel gathering. Scenario 1: I suspect it is the U.S. ship taking a keen interest, given the ‘Ivan Khurs’ is a probable newcomer to the waters, but was this was close to the area of the U.S. carrier operations. Scenario 2: Possibility of the USS Farragut either wanting to keep the Russian ship away from the U.S. carrier or maybe possibly deploying ASW array.

Of interest to note is the ad hoc presence of Russian AGIs and intelligence reconnaissance ships in the vicinity of U.S. carrier groups. This has been the case elsewhere, in the Eastern Mediterranean particularly, but seemingly a first for the Arabian Sea, (in many decades).

Summary

The Russian Navy is not the Soviet Navy in scope or numbers. As such the remaining current cold war era CCGs & DDGs that visit the region will gradually fade away, to be replaced by a smaller fleet of FFGs & corvettes; yet it will continue to visit the Indian Ocean. Although many pundits see this as a growing Russia’s return to the Indian Ocean as being relatively recent, when in fact it isn’t. So, the muted outcry by Washington of “the Russians are coming” is rather feeble and reveals a deep level of geopolitical insecurity. To paraphrase the Chinese delegate’s question at the Munich Security Conference recently, (see here):

“Do you really think the U.S. Navy presence in the Indian Ocean is so fragile it could be threatened by the occasional visit of Russian and Chinese warships?”

Seemingly yes.

Russia has a new limited strategic presence in the Middle East and Africa and the naval visits are part of the bigger picture. Russian presence will continue given the backdrop of the U.S. public wish for an expansion of a NATO footprint into Gulf & Iraq, adding to the ongoing presence in Afghanistan since 2001.

Russia also has defence-cooperation agreements with about 15 African countries. This is somewhat reflected in the port call make by the ‘Marshal Ustinov’, (en route to South Africa, including Egypt & Algeria, Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde.

NB:The ‘Marshal Ustinov’ also called into Greece, Cyprus, Turkey (some are NATO countries).

By looking at the Russian Navy’s timid visits, the Indian Ocean is not a high priority regarding Russian maritime presence. Nevertheless, Russia has certainly stepped up its naval diplomacy in the region in different ways, making infrequent regular yearly visits to ports in the region, such as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka and high-level working visits by heads of navies. Russia is also attentive to maintaining special relationships that it already has with countries like India and Pakistan.

Lastly, I cannot compare the minuscule presence of Russian Navy in region with that of the PLAN which is quickly building a larger force projection capability than the Russian VMF can realistically hope for these days. Let’s be frank, the Chinese PLAN is expanding considerably each year. 2019 alone saw another: 1 aircraft carrier, 1 LDP, 1 LHD & eight 7000t & two 13000t destroyers commissioned) plus 17 corvettes in one year!) The new tonnage must eye watering hard for the West to contemplate.

Further Reading

See this detailed article below I entirely agree with the author, as a civilian ex-mariner.

Who provokes whom and with which goal? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/us-russian-navy-near-miss-incident-gunter-sch%C3%BCtze

Extra information on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean:

Indian Ocean: strategic hub or zone of competition? https://uwidata.com/7211-indian-ocean-strategic-hub-or-zone-of-competition/

An visual overview of both recent Chinese and Russian naval port visits in the Indian Ocean is presented on the blog Warvspeace.org


Nat South’s sideline is occasionally commenting on maritime & naval related subjects ,with a special interest in the polar regions.

Perspective on current Russia

The Saker

February 03, 2020

by Alexey Mineev (Проект Кино telegram in Russian) for the Saker’s blog.

“It is the economy, stupid.” It is the corruption, stupid.

The reason that President Putin just undertook the major government shake-up axing PM Medvedev, his economy handling deputies and the minister, as well as several underperforming ministers, is undoubtedly the government’s failure to invigorate economic growth in last years. The plague of the country’s poverty is only the consequence of the government’s impotence in turning around the prolonged under-par economic growth.

Russia’s business environment has indeed made considerable progress evidenced by the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings. In 2019 Russia made the 28th place, rising from #124 back in 2010.

Inflation went down from 6+% to lower than the targeted 4% level.

However, surprisingly the real growth did not pick up. Instead, the economy slowed down from longer-term annualized 2% real GDP growth to around 1% level.

Although one might attribute the economy’s underperformance to the Western sanctions, this is hardly the primary reason.

Admittingly, Russia had to pay dearly for the reuniting with Crimea. The Rouble lost 50% of its value at the end of 2014. However, inflation did not spike accordingly. It remained lower than 13% annually in both 2014 and 2015. The explanation is that newly built domestic manufacturing had already been in place, ready to meet the increased demand for the locally produced goods driven by the cutting down on expensive imported ones. Here comes the failure. Instead of building upon the improved ease of doing business and capitalizing on the advantage in the form of weak local currency for local manufacturing, Russia continued growing tepidly – lower than 2% annually.

Besides, the highly touted 26 T RUB. (~0.4 T USD) National Projects program turned out to be just minor if any help to the economy in 2019. The government had developed the six-year plan 2019 – 2024 to meet the economic targets, envisioned by President Putin in his annual address to the Federal Assembly in May 2018. The 2024 objectives are as follows:

  1. Stable population growth (As of December 2019, in 2020-2035 annualized 0.5% decrease as low case and still negative 0.2% for mid case in the Russian population is officially forecasted. The high case is estimated as +0.1% annualized growth);
  2. Increased life expectancy to 78 years from the current 74 years (As of December 2019 for 2024 low, mid, high cases officially are: 47.1, 75.5, 76.8 — still short of the target);
  3. A meaningful increase in real income and pensions (basically, the failure of the 20-year term of President Putin);
  4. Decrease twofold in the poverty level;
  5. Improved housing for 5 million households annually;
  6. Accelerated technological innovation;
  7. Digitalization of the economy and social services;
  8. Making #5 largest world economy and keeping inflation at lower than the 4% level;
  9. Creating the export-oriented sectors in the selected core industries of the economy by ensuring the availability and use of modern technology and top-notch professionals.

2019 was the first year of National Projects. The economy is not picking up.

No wonder, though. Because the federal budget remains flattish in real terms over ten years, indeed, we can hardly talk about any meaningful growth driven by government spending.

To this end, in December 2019, Alexey Kudrin, Head of Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation – government-sponsored auditor of the countrywide finances accountable to the Federal Assembly of Russia, eloquently articulated: “The execution of National Projects is not going to translate to the meeting of the national targets.” This clearly is indicative of a significant disconnect between, on the one hand, the 3+% target real GDP growth and the 25% off the GPD level for capital investments and, on the other, the current level of the budgeted government spending. This disconnect is the real cause of the replacement of the economic block of the Russian Federation government.

The negative slope of IHS’s Purchasing Managers Index (Manufacturing) over the last two years currently diving deep below the 50% level could also evidence the seemingly unreasonably swollen expectation of the effect on the economy from the National Projects effort.

The above discussion of the travails of the Russian economy by no means tells us about any upcoming recession. A lot of factors will likely be shoring up the GDP growth just above the 2% level:

  1. Ongoing infrastructure development countrywide;
  2. Inflation in check, improved access to finance;
  3. Likely improvement of meeting the budget spending targets (a current issue), and the implementation of KPI-based performance accountability for governors;
  4. Ample room for an increase in federal budget spending to meet the additional social measures promised by President Putin in the last address to the Federal Assembly on January-15th 2020;
  5. The expected extra effort to revitalize large-scale corporate investment programs (“the list of Belousov” — in the name of the newly appointed first deputy PM Belousov) through custom-tailored government support.

The above analysis leads up to the conclusion that there must be something more than the purely economic factors that have been in play all-time long, making Russia undergo clearly under-par growth last ten years.

The impotent government had been kicking the can down the road too long, doing little to fight corruption. In the meantime, the elites also grew impotent delivering scarcity of meaningful accomplishments in their homeland to be really proud of but enjoying hundreds of million dollars worth yachts, contently presuming that their money was good enough for the West. The abundance of second citizenship or green card among not only business elites but across all elites, including the top government officers, has become a national threat. However, geopolitics took over in 2014. In West’s books, Russia crossed the red line with the reuniting with Crimea and the military involvement supporting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian elites were caught off guard. It is really excruciating now for the government to play a catch-up game wrestling the entrenched corruption.

The January 2020 reshuffling of Russia’s government has a clear economic underlying rationale — to turn around the years-long underperformance of the economy. However, looking forward, the country faces the problem that dwarfs the challenge of the ongoing structural economic revamp, which so far gains little traction with investors and entrepreneurs investments-wise.

It is corruption and the lacking-in of law enforcement that, in the long term, drag the economy down, providing breeding soil for groupthink in government ranks, self-censorship in media, brain drain, and messed up social values rather than just taking away from investments.

One might think that the change of Russia’s tack is part of the 2024 presidential election game. While this is undoubtedly the case, this all is merely part of ongoing Russia’s wakening and finally dealing with the economic policy execution issues.

More importantly, though, it is the end of the government’s impotence. Targeting 3+% GDP growth, the government is in dire need to strike a long-term deal with Russian businesspeople, making them start investing to reach the 25% off GDP target for capital investments. The government is to offer a substantial increase in government spending, effectively guaranteeing the investment returns.

In the way stands Russian-style “business as usual”- embezzlement. It will be dealt with, as this is a must. Yet, this is not enough. The eradication of corruption is the most significant moving part in the longer-term country’s fate-defining question about whether Russia manages to defend its sovereignty or, otherwise, Russia is bound to be subdued by the technologically more developed part of the world.

Erdogan Urges Russia to ‘Assume Obligations’ in Idlib, Says Crimea Annexation ‘Illegal’

 February 3, 2020

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Monday for Russia to honor its pledges under a 2018 agreement after five Turkish soldiers were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces in northwestern Syria.

“I hope that everyone will assume their obligations under the Astana and Sochi agreements,” Erdogan told a news conference in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, in an implicit reference to Russia.

Syrian forces killed five Turkish soldiers and three civilians in shelling in Idlib, the last opposition bastion in northwestern Syria, early on Monday, according to Erdogan.

“It cannot continue like this and a response has been given,” Erdogan said. “We will make them pay the necessary price and will continue to do so.”

Crimea Annexation ‘Illegal’

He was speaking on a visit to Ukraine, where he also reiterated his opposition to the “illegal” Russian annexation of Crimea.

Turkey does not recognize Russia’s ‘illegal’ annexation of Crimea, Erdogan told the joint news conference with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Turkish president expressed Ankara’s “ongoing support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” as quoted by Anadolu news agency.

Last week, Erdogan accused Moscow of “not honoring” agreements made with Ankara in Idlib, where Russian and Syrian forces have stepped up an offensive in recent weeks.

As part of the Sochi deal, Turkey set up 12 observation posts, one of which was surrounded by Syrian government forces in December.

Erdogan said Turkey had been ‘too patient’ in Idlib.

Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.7 million Syrians, fears a further influx of refugees fleeing violence in Idlib.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and the two sides agreed to “look in detail” at the situation in Idlib, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

Source: AFP and Anadolu

Russia Challenges Turkish Narrative on Idlib Fire Exchange

February 3, 2020

Confusion reigns over what has happened in the past few hours between the Turkish army and the Syrian government forces in Syria’s Idlib province, where the military campaign against Takfiri terrorists continues.

AFP news agency cited Turkish media as saying that Turkey raided Syrian Army positions in Idlib Monday, in response to the Syrian fire that claimed lives of Turkish soldiers.

Five Turkish soldiers and a civilian attached to the army were killed on Monday by Syrian forces’ shelling in the northwestern province.

“Our F-16 aircraft and artillery are currently bombing targets defined by our intelligence services” in response to the Syrian shelling, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, reports on the number of casualties among the ranks of the Syrian Army were conflicting. AFP reported that 30 to 35 Syrian soldiers were killed, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 13.

However, the Russian Defense denied there have been Turkish air raids against Syrian Army positions, assuring that Turkish planes have not violated Syrian airspace over IdlIb province which is under control Russian forces.

This narrative is close to that of SANA news agency which reported that there was sporadic fire between the Syrian and the Turkish sides, but denied there were casualties among the ranks of the Syrian Army.

The exchange of fire comes as the Syrian Army has intensified for several weeks their offensive in this province and in the western regions of the province of Aleppo, to clear the area of Nusra Front terrorists.

After having liberated the key town of Maarat al-Noaman, then that of Khan Touman, the Syrian Army is now advancing towards Saraqeb.

Source: Agencies

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LIVE: Putin holds annual press conference in Moscow

December 19, 2019

The version from RT on Twitter is the best one available currently:

https://twitter.com/i/broadcasts/1dRKZLQDDYDJB

English Soundtrack:

Putin holds annual press conference in Moscow

Vladimir Putin addressed State Duma deputies, Federation Council members, heads of Russian regions and civil society representatives in the Kremlin.

Dear friends, we have gathered here today in connection with an issue that is of vital, historic significance to all of us. A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms.


More than 82 percent of the electorate took part in the vote. Over 96 percent of them spoke out in favour of reuniting with Russia. These numbers speak for themselves.

To understand the reason behind such a choice it is enough to know the history of Crimea and what Russia and Crimea have always meant for each other.

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea. This is also Sevastopol – a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge. Each one of these places is dear to our hearts, symbolising Russian military glory and outstanding valour.

Crimea is a unique blend of different peoples’ cultures and traditions. This makes it similar to Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries. Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and people of other ethnic groups have lived side by side in Crimea, retaining their own identity, traditions, languages and faith.

Incidentally, the total population of the Crimean Peninsula today is 2.2 million people, of whom almost 1.5 million are Russians, 350,000 are Ukrainians who predominantly consider Russian their native language, and about 290,000–300,000 are Crimean Tatars, who, as the referendum has shown, also lean towards Russia.

True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.

Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland. I believe we should make all the necessary political and legislative decisions to finalise the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars, restore them in their rights and clear their good name.

We have great respect for people of all the ethnic groups living in Crimea. This is their common home, their motherland, and it would be right – I know the local population supports this – for Crimea to have three equal national languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.

Colleagues,

In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. This firm conviction is based on truth and justice and was passed from generation to generation, over time, under any circumstances, despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century.

After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, despite the fact that it was a federal city. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of his – a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine – is for historians to figure out.

What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol. They were faced with the fact. People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine. But on the whole – and we must state this clearly, we all know it – this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened.

Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart. Things developed so swiftly that few people realised how truly dramatic those events and their consequences would be. Many people both in Russia and in Ukraine, as well as in other republics hoped that the Commonwealth of Independent States that was created at the time would become the new common form of statehood. They were told that there would be a single currency, a single economic space, joint armed forces; however, all this remained empty promises, while the big country was gone. It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realised that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.

At the same time, we have to admit that by launching the sovereignty parade Russia itself aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union. And as this collapse was legalised, everyone forgot about Crimea and Sevastopol ­– the main base of the Black Sea Fleet. Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.

Now, many years later, I heard residents of Crimea say that back in 1991 they were handed over like a sack of potatoes. This is hard to disagree with. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests. However, the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice. All these years, citizens and many public figures came back to this issue, saying that Crimea is historically Russian land and Sevastopol is a Russian city. Yes, we all knew this in our hearts and minds, but we had to proceed from the existing reality and build our good-neighbourly relations with independent Ukraine on a new basis. Meanwhile, our relations with Ukraine, with the fraternal Ukrainian people have always been and will remain of foremost importance for us.

Today we can speak about it openly, and I would like to share with you some details of the negotiations that took place in the early 2000s. The then President of Ukraine Mr Kuchma asked me to expedite the process of delimiting the Russian-Ukrainian border. At that time, the process was practically at a standstill. Russia seemed to have recognised Crimea as part of Ukraine, but there were no negotiations on delimiting the borders. Despite the complexity of the situation, I immediately issued instructions to Russian government agencies to speed up their work to document the borders, so that everyone had a clear understanding that by agreeing to delimit the border we admitted de facto and de jure that Crimea was Ukrainian territory, thereby closing the issue.

We accommodated Ukraine not only regarding Crimea, but also on such a complicated matter as the maritime boundary in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. What we proceeded from back then was that good relations with Ukraine matter most for us and they should not fall hostage to deadlock territorial disputes. However, we expected Ukraine to remain our good neighbour, we hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilised state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law.

However, this is not how the situation developed. Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation. Moreover, Russians, just as other citizens of Ukraine are suffering from the constant political and state crisis that has been rocking the country for over 20 years.

I understand why Ukrainian people wanted change. They have had enough of the authorities in power during the years of Ukraine’s independence. Presidents, prime ministers and parliamentarians changed, but their attitude to the country and its people remained the same. They milked the country, fought among themselves for power, assets and cash flows and did not care much about the ordinary people. They did not wonder why it was that millions of Ukrainian citizens saw no prospects at home and went to other countries to work as day labourers. I would like to stress this: it was not some Silicon Valley they fled to, but to become day labourers. Last year alone almost 3 million people found such jobs in Russia. According to some sources, in 2013 their earnings in Russia totalled over $20 billion, which is about 12% of Ukraine’s GDP.

I would like to reiterate that I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people. However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.

The new so-called authorities began by introducing a draft law to revise the language policy, which was a direct infringement on the rights of ethnic minorities. However, they were immediately ‘disciplined’ by the foreign sponsors of these so-called politicians. One has to admit that the mentors of these current authorities are smart and know well what such attempts to build a purely Ukrainian state may lead to. The draft law was set aside, but clearly reserved for the future. Hardly any mention is made of this attempt now, probably on the presumption that people have a short memory. Nevertheless, we can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.

It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to. Many government agencies have been taken over by the impostors, but they do not have any control in the country, while they themselves – and I would like to stress this – are often controlled by radicals. In some cases, you need a special permit from the militants on Maidan to meet with certain ministers of the current government. This is not a joke – this is reality.

Those who opposed the coup were immediately threatened with repression. Naturally, the first in line here was Crimea, the Russian-speaking Crimea. In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities.

Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded; we could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress. This would have been betrayal on our part.

First, we had to help create conditions so that the residents of Crimea for the first time in history were able to peacefully express their free will regarding their own future. However, what do we hear from our colleagues in Western Europe and North America? They say we are violating norms of international law. Firstly, it’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law – better late than never.

Secondly, and most importantly – what exactly are we violating? True, the President of the Russian Federation received permission from the Upper House of Parliament to use the Armed Forces in Ukraine. However, strictly speaking, nobody has acted on this permission yet. Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea; they were there already in line with an international agreement. True, we did enhance our forces there; however – this is something I would like everyone to hear and know – we did not exceed the personnel limit of our Armed Forces in Crimea, which is set at 25,000, because there was no need to do so.

Next. As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word. Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?

Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent – a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities. Pursuant to Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations Charter, the UN International Court agreed with this approach and made the following comment in its ruling of July 22, 2010, and I quote: “No general prohibition may be inferred from the practice of the Security Council with regard to declarations of independence,” and “General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.” Crystal clear, as they say.

I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo. Again, I quote: “Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” End of quote. They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged. Over what? The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were. For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why.

We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case. What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues? It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties. Is this a legal argument? The ruling of the International Court says nothing about this. This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow. According to this logic, we have to make sure every conflict leads to human losses.

I will state clearly — if the Crimean local self-defence units had not taken the situation under control, there could have been casualties as well. Fortunately this did not happen. There was not a single armed confrontation in Crimea and no casualties. Why do you think this was so? The answer is simple: because it is very difficult, practically impossible to fight against the will of the people. Here I would like to thank the Ukrainian military – and this is 22,000 fully armed servicemen. I would like to thank those Ukrainian service members who refrained from bloodshed and did not smear their uniforms in blood.

Other thoughts come to mind in this connection. They keep talking of some Russian intervention in Crimea, some sort of aggression. This is strange to hear. I cannot recall a single case in history of an intervention without a single shot being fired and with no human casualties.

Colleagues,

Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. After the dissolutionof bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading. Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine. In 2004, to push the necessary candidate through at the presidential elections, they thought up some sort of third round that was not stipulated by the law. It was absurd and a mockery of the constitution. And now, they have thrown in an organised and well-equipped army of militants.

We understand what is happening; we understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration. And all this while Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West. We are constantly proposing cooperation on all key issues; we want to strengthen our level of trust and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But we saw no reciprocal steps.

On the contrary, they have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact.This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They kept telling us the same thing: “Well, this does not concern you.” That’s easy to say.

It happened with the deployment of a missile defence system. In spite of all our apprehensions, the project is working and moving forward. It happened with the endless foot-dragging in the talks on visa issues, promises of fair competition and free access to global markets.

Today, we are being threatened with sanctions, but we already experiencemany limitations, ones that are quite significant for us, our economy and our nation. For example, still during the times of the Cold War, the US and subsequently other nations restricted a large list of technologies and equipment from being sold to the USSR, creating the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls list. Today, they have formally been eliminated, but only formally; and in reality, many limitations are still in effect.

In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a cornerbecause we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.

After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.

Today, it is imperative to end this hysteria, to refute the rhetoric of the cold war and to accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs; like other countries, it has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.

At the same time, we are grateful to all those who understood our actions in Crimea; we are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always consideredthe situation in Ukraine and Crimea taking into account the full historical and political context, and greatly appreciate India’s reserve and objectivity.

Today, I would like to address the people of the United States of America, the people who, since the foundation of their nation and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, have been proud to hold freedom above all else. Isn’t the desire of Crimea’s residents to freely choose their fate such a value? Please understand us.

I believe that the Europeans, first and foremost, the Germans, will also understand me. Let me remind you that in the course of political consultations on the unification of East and West Germany, at the expert, though very high level, some nations that were then and are now Germany’s allies did not support the idea of unification. Our nation, however, unequivocally supported the sincere, unstoppable desire of the Germans for national unity. I am confident that you have not forgotten this, and I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

Let me say quite frankly that it pains our hearts to see what is happening in Ukraine at the moment, see the people’s suffering and their uncertainty about how to get through today and what awaits them tomorrow. Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbours but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.

Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.

We want to be friends with Ukraine and we want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country. Ukraine is one of our biggest partners after all. We have many joint projects and I believe in their success no matter what the current difficulties. Most importantly, we want peace and harmony to reign in Ukraine, and we are ready to work together with other countries to do everything possible to facilitate and support this. But as I said, only Ukraine’s own people can put their own house in order.

Residents of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, the whole of Russia admired your courage, dignity and bravery. It was you who decided Crimea’s future. We were closer than ever over these days, supporting each other. These were sincere feelings of solidarity. It is at historic turning points such as these that a nation demonstrates its maturity and strength of spirit. The Russian people showed this maturity and strength through their united support for their compatriots.

Russia’s foreign policy position on this matter drew its firmness from the will of millions of our people, our national unity and the support of our country’s main political and public forces. I want to thank everyone for this patriotic spirit, everyone without exception. Now, we need to continue and maintain this kind of consolidation so as to resolve the tasks our country faces on its road ahead.

Obviously, we will encounter external opposition, but this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves. Are we ready to consistently defend our national interests, or will we forever give in, retreat to who knows where? Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent? We consider such statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive in tone, and we will respond to them accordingly. At the same time, we will never seek confrontation with our partners, whether in the East or the West, but on the contrary, will do everything we can to build civilised and good-neighbourly relations as one is supposed to in the modern world. 

Colleagues,

I understand the people of Crimea, who put the question in the clearest possible terms in the referendum: should Crimea be with Ukraine or with Russia? We can be sure in saying that the authorities in Crimea and Sevastopol, the legislative authorities, when they formulated the question, set aside group and political interests and made the people’s fundamental interests alone the cornerstone of their work. The particular historic, population, political and economic circumstances of Crimea would have made any other proposed option — however tempting it could be at the first glance — only temporary and fragile and would have inevitably led to further worsening of the situation there, which would have had disastrous effects on people’s lives. The people of Crimea thus decided to put the question in firm and uncompromising form, with no grey areas. The referendum was fair and transparent, and the people of Crimea clearly and convincingly expressed their will and stated that they want to be with Russia.

Russia will also have to make a difficult decision now, taking into account the various domestic and external considerations. What do people here in Russia think? Here, like in any democratic country, people have different points of view, but I want to make the point that the absolute majority of our people clearly do support what is happening.

The most recent public opinion surveys conducted here in Russia show that 95 percent of people think that Russia should protect the interests of Russians and members of other ethnic groups living in Crimea – 95 percent of our citizens. More than 83 percent think that Russia should do this even if it will complicate our relations with some other countries. A total of 86 percent of our people see Crimea as still being Russian territory and part of our country’s lands. And one particularly important figure, which corresponds exactly with the result in Crimea’s referendum: almost 92 percent of our people support Crimea’s reunification with Russia. 

Thus we see that the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea and the absolute majority of the Russian Federation’s people support the reunification of the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol with Russia.

Now this is a matter for Russia’s own political decision, and any decision here can be based only on the people’s will, because the people is the ultimate source of all authority.

Members of the Federation Council, deputies of the State Duma, citizens of Russia, residents of Crimea and Sevastopol, today, in accordance with the people’s will, I submit to the Federal Assembly a request to consider a Constitutional Law on the creation of two new constituent entities within the Russian Federation: the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, and to ratify the treaty on admitting to the Russian Federation Crimea and Sevastopol, which is already ready for signing. I stand assured of your support.

Ukraine Peace Hostage to Washington’s Russophobia

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December 15, 2019

After Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky finished multilateral peace talks in Paris, the emphatic media message was that “no red lines had been crossed” in negotiations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It sounded like Zelensky was far more concerned with trying to reassure observers he hadn’t “capitulated” to Putin, rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue to resolve his country’s conflict.

The so-called Normandy Four format of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is scheduled to meet again in four months. The meeting in Paris on December 9 was the first time leaders had convened after nearly a three-year hiatus. It is to be welcomed that President Zelensky, who was elected in April, shows a willingness to engage with Russia, unlike predecessor Petro Poroshenko, in order to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The region has been mired in nearly six years of civil war.

During the Paris talks, there was agreement to uphold a ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and to extend deconfliction zones by withdrawing troops and artillery. There was also agreement on the exchange of all prisoners between Ukraine government forces and the pro-Russia rebels in Donbas. All very good. But what about the full implementation of the Minsk Accord signed back in 2015?

That accord obliges the government in Kiev to permit elections and regional autonomy in the Donbas. It also obliges a full amnesty for rebels who took up arms against the Kiev administration, which came to power through an illegal US-backed coup in February 2014. The Kiev power grab ushered in an ultra-nationalist Russophobic regime intent on dominating the pro-Russian eastern region. The dramatic shift in power in Kiev towards Neo-Nazi demagogues and paramilitaries was the decisive factor in Donbas taking up arms and also in pro-Russia Crimea seceding in March 2014 and joining the Russian Federation.

Regrettably, President Zelensky appears unwilling to implement the Minsk deal which his predecessor signed up to. In fact, at the concluding press conference jointly held by the four leaders at the Paris talks, Zelensky was given to trying to re-write Minsk. He insisted on “security issues” being settled before political issues. That suggests he wants rebels in Donbas to disarm without Kiev recognizing the region’s autonomy. Zelensky also insisted on “not giving up Donbas and Crimea”, and of regaining control over all of Ukraine’s borders, including those adjacent to Russia.

The Minsk deal – which France, Germany and Russia are in concurrence on as being the only viable way forward to peace – does not say anything about Crimea “being returned” to Ukraine. The accord does not precondition autonomy in the Donbas on a prior disarmament.

In other words, Zelensky is going off script on the Minsk terms for finding a peace settlement. His position is still not adhering to the obligations his government signed up to. Perhaps over the coming months, the Ukrainian president may come round to fulfilling responsibilities as stipulated by the Minsk accord.

But there are, unfortunately, reasons to be skeptical. That’s because the relentless Russophobia residing in Washington leaves Zelensky with little room for maneuver. The shaky Kiev regime is totally reliant on Washington’s patronage for its IMF financial life-line, as well as for military support. Zelensky is the president of a vassal state. Washington calls the tune and the tributes.

As could be seen more than ever during the recent impeachment hearings on President Trump, the consensus in Washington is that Ukraine is “at war with Russia”. American politicians and media are convinced in their Cold War delusions that Russia has invaded Ukraine and is the “aggressor” against a “freedom-loving nation”. That propaganda narrative, of course, reinforces the delusions of the Russia-hating ultra-nationalists in Ukraine who have threatened Zelensky’s life if he “surrenders” to Russia.

Hence, the conflict in Ukraine is not being addressed as the internal one that it really is. Instead, it is being viewed through the Russophobic lens as an external problem, allegedly created by Russian aggression. That means the “solution” is about standing up to Russia with lots more US military aid, rather than addressing the core issues of Kiev’s toxic politics and policies towards its separatist regions.

Russia is a guarantor of Minsk, just like France and Germany are. It is not a party with obligations to fulfill. Those obligations are on the politicians in Kiev and the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

With Washington pressing Zelensky to stand up to non-existing “Russian aggression” that means the search for peace in Ukraine will remain elusive. Peace will only come to Ukraine when Washington stops kicking Kiev around like a political football to gratify its Cold War hostility towards Russia. That’s unlikely to happen in the near future.

When Zelensky seeks to reassure that “no red lines” have been crossed, his mind is not on genuine peace negotiations. Rather, he is seeking to placate Ukraine’s hostage-takers in Washington.

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.

MintPress Sits Down with Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

MintPress Sits Down with Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova weighs in on Syria, Crimea, the Moscow protests and more.

Moscow — In a simple meeting room at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry building, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova gave me a generous hour of her time in a conversation peppered with bemused laughter at Western allegations about Russia and clear frustration at the West’s incessant vilification of all things Russia.

I traveled to Moscow in August, where to my delight I had the opportunity to interview Zakharova. Given that Russia is the focus of obsessive and largely negative Western media reporting, and also the country’s role in eliminating the proliferation of terrorist groups that once controlled large swaths of Syria, I wanted to ask Zakharova for her take on a variety of topics related to both Russia and Syria.

In our wide-ranging discussion, Zakharova spoke of the U.S. sanctions regime against Russia and of the Western interference in Russian domestic issues — such as the protests seen in Moscow in July and August.

On Syria, she addressed the issue of exploitation of children in propaganda against Syria and Russia — notably Omran Daqneesh, a child whose image was splashed across newspapers and screens worldwide in 2016, incriminating Russia and Syria in an airstrike that was later proven to have never happened. An official apology from one of the most adamant perpetrators of that narrative, CNN’s Christian Amanpour, also never happened.

One cannot discuss the war in Syria and related propaganda without addressing the massively-funded White Helmets. In discussing the group, Zakharova gave examples of its role in fomenting support for Western military intervention, including in pushing responsibility on the Syrian government for the alleged but unproven and, by most honest accounts, staged chemical attack in Douma, eastern Ghouta, in 2018. Footage of the attack included video starring the White Helmets and another exploited Syrian boy, Hassan Diab, whose testimony of the events ran in stark contrast to the allegations against the Syrian government that were being circulated in the Western media.

Zakharova also addressed the inconsistencies around the Skripal case, the historic importance of Crimea’s referendum, and the U.K. “media freedom” conference of July 2019, where cases of imprisoned journalists like Julian Assange and Kirill Vyshinsky were notably not part of the conference program.

In an unexpected development since my discussion with Zakharova, Ukrainian-Russian journalist and editor Vyshinsky was released from his over 15 months of imprisonment without trial by Ukraine. Referring to his imprisonment, Zakharova described him as a hostage.

The interview took place at a time when Western media reporting would have one believe that the streets of Moscow were full of chaos and unrest with the protests. In fact, contrary to media reporting, Moscow was calm, as were the protests I attended on August 10. Once again, it seemed, the media was hyping and distorting reality, as they have so often done elsewhere in the world.

Zakharova’s words are a reality check and offer an informative insight into the Russian perspective on Russian, Syrian, and global events.

Feature photo | Maria Zakharova sits down with Eva Bartlett at a Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry building in Moscow, Russia in August, 2019.  Eva Bartlett | MintPress News

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian independent journalist and activist. She has spent years on the ground covering conflict zones in the Middle East, especially in Syria and occupied Palestine, where she lived for nearly four years. She is a recipient of the 2017 International Journalism Award for International Reporting, granted by the Mexican Journalists’ Press Club (founded in 1951), was the first recipient of the Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism, and was short-listed in 2017 for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. See her extended bio on her blog In Gaza

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