Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler



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Much of the interest in Russia centres around its experienced and skilled political leader in Vladimir Putin, speaking here with Donald Trump.
Reuters

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.

So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.

Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.

Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.




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Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.

Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.

On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.

Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.

That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.




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The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.

Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.

Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.

As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.

Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.

Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.

From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.

In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.

The ConversationBut what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The first charges over Russian involvement in the US election have been laid – are there more to come?



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Special Counsel Robert Mueller (centre) has laid the first charges from his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Reuters/Aaron Bernstein

Sandeep Gopalan, Deakin University

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued an indictment outlining charges against the Internet Research Agency LLC (and two related entities which had “various Russian government contracts”) and 13 Russian individuals. The defendants are charged with:

knowingly and intentionally conspiring with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.

The defendants, posing as activists, allegedly created “false personas” and fake accounts to operate social media accounts and pages on divisive social issues. The indictment does not specifically state that the individual defendants were connected to the Russian government, although at least one of them is known to be close to Putin. Specific to the 2016 election, the defendants’ goal was “supporting” the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and “disparaging” Hillary Clinton.

Their activities were not merely online. They gathered intelligence, staged rallies posing as Americans (in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida) and “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”

Some of their efforts were effective. For instance, the fake Twitter account “Tennessee GOP”, which falsely claimed to be operated by the Republican Party in that state, attracted 100,000 followers.




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The indictment lists political advertisements taken out by the defendants. These included such messages as “Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it”, “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”, and “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”

Their tactics were insidious. They targeted vulnerable groups such as African-Americans and Muslims to sow hate and reduce Clinton’s turnout.

The indictment provides rich detail about the Russian agency: it was incorporated in 2013, based in St Petersburg, employed hundreds of people for its online work, and had a budget of millions. It described its work as “information warfare” against the US and wanted to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” during the 2016 election. Again, no direct link to the Russian government or Putin is mentioned in relation to these actions.

It is alleged the company and the named individuals conspired to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which stipulates certain informational requirements for agents of foreign principals who attempt to influence US public opinion, policy and legislation. They also violated the Federal Election Campaign Act, which prohibits foreigners from making contributions etc relating to electioneering communications. The indictment also alleges identity theft, bank and wire fraud, and violations of visa laws.

Crucially, the indictment does not state that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. It clearly notes that any contact with the campaign was “unwitting”.

Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein also clarified there was no allegation of collusion in the indictment and he stated that the Russians did not affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Following the indictment, President Trump has tweeted that his campaign “did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

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The president has also tweeted:

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This marks an important step for Trump. He is now apparently dismissing Russian influence after repeatedly refusing to condemn them, seeking to downplay their involvement in the election, and labelling it a hoax.

He has since pointed out that the indictment shows Russian involvement began in 2014 – before he entered the campaign. Moreover, the evidence shows that the Russians did not support only Trump. They also supported Bernie Sanders (who has blamed the Obama Administration for not doing more to tackle it), although this fact has not been adequately covered in the media. Further, the goal of the Russians was to sow distrust in the political system and undermine the electoral process – not specifically to help Trump.




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Does the indictment mean that the president and members of his campaign are in the clear? The answer is difficult to determine at this stage. The indictment leaves open the question as to whether other US individuals might have aided the defendants.

Subsequent actions by Mueller might bring forward additional charges against Trump or his team. Further, the indictment does nothing in relation to the potential obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, although the evidence on this is likely to be weak.

The ConversationFinally, from a purely political standpoint, it is hard to see from the evidence outlined that the Russian involvement was decisive. To be sure, they propped up fringe groups and spread discord, which local groups were fully capable of doing and did throughout the election. In addition, the sums of money documented in the indictment are small change in the context of the gargantuan amounts both campaigns spent during the 2016 campaign.

Sandeep Gopalan, Professor of Law, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in east Afrin, Syria.
Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.

A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.

Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.

The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.

Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.

Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.




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Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.

Displaced Syrian children look out from their tents at a refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria.
Reuters/Osman Orsal

The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.

Erdogan called the proposed force a “terror army” and wowed to “nip this terror army in the bud”. Within days, the Turkish military operation had begun.

This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.

What America wants

For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.

The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.




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According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.

This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.

What Russia wants

Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.

Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.

Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.

What Turkey wants

Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan’s main aim is to thwart any US or Russian plans to carve up Syria post-IS.
Reuters/Umit Bektas

Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.

Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.

Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.

Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.

This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.

The ConversationTurkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When Trump met Putin, and how the Russian won the day



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The much-anticipated meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump finally took place at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Kumuda Simpson, La Trobe University

It was the meeting we’ve all been waiting for. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany.

The key question was whether Trump or Putin would emerge as the stronger leader, with most backing Putin’s ability to manipulate and control the exchange. Trump’s lack of diplomatic or political experience, and his unwillingness to prepare for the encounter, inspired very little confidence that he would walk away with any serious concessions from Putin.

The meeting was scheduled to take half-an-hour. In fact it lasted more than two hours, and an indication the two leaders found a significant amount to talk about. The only other people present were US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and two interpreters. The little we know of what was actually discussed has come from statements Lavrov and Tillerson gave to the press following the meeting.

Russian interference in the US election

Tillerson said Trump pressed Putin over Russian interference in the 2016 election, but seemed to accept his denial that Russia did any such thing.

President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.

Tillerson said the White House was not “dismissing the issue” but wanted to focus on “how do we secure a commitment” that there will not be interference in the future.

The big question going in to the meeting was whether or not Trump would raise the accusation with Putin. While he clearly did, the ease with which he appears to have accepted Putin’s protestations of innocence, and his reassurance that it won’t happen again, is remarkable.

According to journalists’ reports on Twitter, Lavrov had a slightly different spin on Trump’s reaction to the issue. He said:

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In light of Trump’s remarks in Poland the day before, when he called into doubt the reliability of US intelligence on the issue, this has further undermined the credibility of the US intelligence community. That Trump did this during a face-to-face meeting with Putin can only deepen the mistrust between the CIA and FBI have for the White House, and further damage morale.

It can also be read as a clear victory for Putin, who came away from the meeting without having to seriously address charges that Russia systematically engaged in what is a gross violation of the democratic integrity and sovereignty of another country.

Syria

There was a clear opportunity for Trump to use the meeting to pressure Putin over his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

While any significant agreements over how to resolve one of the most complex conflicts in the region were highly unlikely, the two leaders did agree to support a ceasefire in an area of southwestern Syria. There were no other details, and Tillerson himself admitted that ceasefires in Syria have tended to fall apart very quickly.

While Russia and the US have a shared interest in fighting Islamic State in Syria, they disagree over the almost every other aspect of the conflict, particularly the future of Assad and the role of Iran.

Trump has recently ratcheted up to anti-Iranian rhetoric and it seems the Russian relationship with Iran could become a significant point of conflict between the US and Russia in the future.

No transcript of the meeting is available so it’s impossible to know exactly what was discussed here. But if Putin was not pressed on these points, it is certainly a missed opportunity.

Shared interests

While both Lavrov and Tillerson highlighted the shared interests the two countries have, neither Ukraine nor the ongoing nuclear crisis in North Korea could be counted among them.

North Korea’s testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile guaranteed that it would be high on the list of issues that would be discussed. Russia has contradicted the consensus among the other G20 leaders over the missile’s range, and blocked a resolution by the UN Security Council calling for “significant measures” in response to the test.

So, what do we make of this highly anticipated meeting?

With very little detail about what was actually discussed, and with the narrative firmly controlled by Lavrov, Trump would seem to have gained very little while conceding much.

Putin has come away with an implicit agreement to move on from the question of election meddling, without promising more than “dialgue” on Ukraine, no agreement on how to deal with North Korea, and no real movement on the horrific human tragedy in Syria.

The ConversationAlong with Tillerson’s affirmation that the two leaders shared “a clear positive chemistry”, it’s hard not to recall George W. Bush’s claim to have seen into Putin’s soul, and conclude that Putin has once again expertly played a US president.

Kumuda Simpson, Lecturer in International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Challenges persist for multiple legal actions regarding MH17



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Reuters/Michael Kooren

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Multiple parallel actions are ongoing with the aim of achieving truth and justice for the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The flight was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The Conversation

An investigative team, led by the Dutch aviation authority and endorsed by the Australian government, concluded that the aircraft was shot down by a BUK missile. More than 100 individuals were identified in the 2016 report as linked to the incident. The investigation is ongoing.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, advocated for a war crimes tribunal to apportion blame for the incident. However, this proposal was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council.

This week, focus has turned to an action lodged in the European Court of Human Rights by lawyer Jerry Skinner on behalf of 33 relatives of MH17 victims. Skinner claims that the application has reached the stage of “ready for judicial determination”.

As reported last year, each applicant is seeking A$10 million in compensation from Russia. The claim is that Russia is responsible for violating the right to life of those killed due to its alleged supply of the missile that was launched from Ukraine, bringing down the aircraft.

However, the case lodged by Skinner is not yet listed in the court’s database. It is unclear how far the application has progressed but it certainly faces a range of major obstacles. The status of “ready for judicial determination” does not appear to be an official stage of proceedings in the court.

The European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 and sits in Strasbourg. It has jurisdiction to hear complaints from individuals and countries, alleging violations by countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court has delivered more than 10,000 judgments, which are formally binding on the countries subject to them. It receives more than 50,000 applications each year.

The application from Ayler and others is not the first to be lodged in the court in relation to Flight MH17. The case of Ioppa v Ukraine was lodged with the court in 2016.

The four applicants in that case are family members of three of the passengers killed on board Flight MH17. They have complained against Ukraine, rather than Russia. Specifically, they argue Ukraine violated their relatives’ right to life by failing to close the airspace above the military conflict zone that was active in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The applicants allege that Ukrainian authorities intentionally failed to close the airspace despite their knowledge of the dangers posed to civilians travelling over Ukraine in passenger aircraft.

The application is currently noted as a “communicated case”, meaning it is awaiting judgment. The court has asked the applicants to identify what they have done to exhaust any available domestic legal remedies before applying to the court – particularly any legal avenues available in Ukraine.

The court has not yet published a preliminary finding on the admissibility of the case. This is the necessary first step before notice will be given to Ukraine to respond to the application. The case is certainly a long way from any potential judgment by a chamber of the court.

The Council of Europe

The European Court of Human Rights is not a creature of the European Union, but rather of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation of 47 members, 28 of which are also EU members. All Council of Europe members have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe seeks to promote goals central to the international human rights framework, including freedom of expression and of the press, minority rights, and the abolition of the death penalty.

As a Council of Europe member, Ukraine is subject to judgement by the European Court of Human Rights. The applicants in Ioppa v Ukraine are all nationals of Germany, another member. Other Council of Europe members central to the MH17 situation are the Netherlands – because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – and Russia.

Should the European Court of Human Rights find Ukraine liable for a breach of the convention, Ukraine will be bound by that judgment. The committee of ministers of the Council of Europe monitor the execution of judgments by countries subject to them, including compliance with any orders to pay damages to complainants.

However, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe both lack enforcement capacity within the domestic jurisdiction of members, and would rely on diplomatic pressure to compel compliance with a judgment. Such pressure may be more or less effective depending on the status, power and political stance of a given member.

Prospects of success

Skinner has called on Australia to support the Ayler application. Bishop has responded that such litigation is a private matter for the families involved and those they are taking action against.

Bishop’s position is that Australia’s role is to support the ongoing investigation into the causes of the incident and then to pursue a justice mechanism with other countries.

It is important to note that Australia has no standing to join any action before the European Court of Human Rights, as it is not a member of the Council of Europe. However, Skinner argues Australia could exert diplomatic and political pressure to support the action.

Unfortunately for the families engaged in the European Court of Human Rights applications, litigation before that court appears to be a very indirect and unreliable route to gain compensation for the loss of their loved ones.

In the case against Ukraine, beyond the as-yet-uncrossed jurisdictional barriers, it may be necessary to prove that Ukrainian authorities knew of a direct threat to those on board MH17. This is a much more difficult standard to prove than a general awareness of threat to any civilian aircraft.

In action against Russia, setting aside the considerable jurisdictional issues and matters of proof, there is a major added barrier to satisfaction for the applicants. Russia has passed a law permitting it to overrule the decisions of international courts.

The Russian Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that Russia is permitted to overrule international judicial decisions where these would conflict with the Russian Constitution.

Russia disputes the preliminary findings of the ongoing MH17 investigation and rejects suggestions of its responsibility for the atrocity. This suggests that Russia would not accept responsibility for any finding of human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights.

Beyond the human rights context, yet another action has been launched in the International Court of Justice. In that application, Ukraine asks the International Court of Justice to find Russia responsible for the MH17 disaster and order reparations.

From an international law perspective, the stakes of such an action are higher for Russia than human rights litigation launched by victims’ families. However, Russia’s response is likely to be the same. While the International Court of Justice has progressed the case beyond the initial stage, a finding against Russia may well be disputed and any orders ignored.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The US, Russia and China: a twisted tale of personal ego, profound mistrust and foolish nationalism



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In Russia and China, Donald Trump now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing or feel the need to comply with America’s interests and priorities.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Alarm bells are ringing a mere three months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The two global flashpoints, Syria and North Korea, are worrying enough. The Conversation

More troubling still are America’s relations with Russia and China. These are now mired in angst, uncertainty and mutual suspicion. They underlie the failure to create a viable system of crisis prevention and crisis management.

Global power shift

Trump’s first 100 days as president have dramatically demonstrated this failure. For all the rhetoric about “making America great again”, Trump is rapidly discovering that the US has limited capacity to impose its will on the rest of world.

The trend is visible everywhere – in international trade and finance, diplomacy, and numerous conflicts around the world.

In Russia and China, the US now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing to comply with America’s interests and priorities.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been busy reasserting its influence after years of humiliation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Starting from a low base, China has sustained over the last three decades the most remarkable rate of economic growth in modern history. Now it is seeking to exert the political influence commensurate with its new economic status.

America’s relative political decline goes back to its military defeat in Vietnam. Temporarily obscured by the end of the Cold War, it became fully apparent during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump is the first president to have run on a platform openly stating that the US is in decline and promising to reverse the trend.

Militarism not isolationism

In his inauguration speech, studded by more references to “America” than any inauguration speech in US history, Trump vowed:

We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.

The nationalist card – the one unifying plank of his otherwise chaotic discourse before and since his election – is meant to strike a chord with the many disenchanted Americans hankering for a “golden age” that has long since passed. Trump now faces the immense challenge of delivering on this pledge despite intractable problems at home and abroad.

On the international stage, he has chosen to rely on showing off America’s unmatched military might. This position is supported by some of the most powerful voices in the US military and political establishment.

Soon after taking office, Trump gave the military expanded authority in the conduct of operations against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, the US carried out 70 airstrikes in March alone. This is more than twice the number for all of 2016.

In the first two weeks of April, the Trump administration:

Yet the utility of military power is diminishing. As one centre of power declines and another rises, new faultlines and tensions emerge, and with them new uncertainties. This helps explain why the US finds it so difficult to set a clear policy direction for relations with Russia and China.

The Russia conundrum

In the case of Russia, Trump’s task has been greatly complicated by the findings of the US intelligence community that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election.

Hoping to deflect attention from his campaign’s links with Russia, Trump has allowed relations with Russia to continue on their downward slide. Perhaps it was never his intention to reset the US-Russia relationship.

In any case, he is under considerable pressure from his most senior security advisers to act tough with Russia. Almost certainly, he failed to appreciate that his actions and statements on Syria would provoke Putin’s fury.

The end result is clear. In Trump’s words, US relations with Russia have reached “an all-time low”. Not surprisingly, he has now reversed his previous position on NATO, and announced the alliance is “no longer obsolete”.

Russia, for its part, remains unbending in its support of the Assad government in Syria. It has mercilessly denounced the illegality of the US missile attack, and used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

And now Russia has forced the US to accept a significant watering down of the UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch.

Russia has been busy reasserting its global influence under the leadership of Vladimir Putin (left).
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

China’s rise

During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly lambasted China for its currency manipulation and threatened to apply tough restrictions on Chinese exports. Before and immediately after his election he flaunted America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security, and challenged China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.

Yet the tone has since changed markedly. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US became an occasion to discuss differences on trade and agree to a 100-day plan for reducing the current US trade deficit with China.

At least in public, Xi stuck to his script about the virtues of bilateral co-operation. Trump presented the talks as forming the basis for “an outstanding relationship”.

The North Korea crisis has exposed the limits of US power. Neither increased US economic sanctions nor the threat of military action are likely to force the North Korean regime into submission.

The US needs China’s help to have any chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s response has been to increase pressure on North Korea while issuing a stern warning to both parties.

And so, the relationship remains at best unpredictable. As much as China and the US need each other, the hawks in the Trump administration – and there are many – will not easily abandon their plans to contain China, challenge its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and maintain the US military’s pre-eminence in the region.

However, none of this will halt China’s rise.

What does the future hold?

The months ahead are less than promising. The use and threat of force will do nothing to resolve any of the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East or east Asia.

The projection of military muscle and modernisation of nuclear arsenals are far more likely to produce greater local and regional instability, and heighten the risk of miscalculation from any of the three major centres of power.

Trump and Putin lead countries that hold some 14,000 nuclear weapons, or close to 95% of global stockpiles. These arsenals cast a shadow over US-Russian security, which seems likely to darken with the advent of new technologies and rising levels of mistrust and suspicion.

Pursuing “America First” or “Russia First” policies in conditions of such mutual vulnerability is an exercise in futility.

A more profitable course for these three centres of power is to recognise each other’s legitimate interests, expand the opportunities for economic and diplomatic co-operation, and develop a co-ordinated approach in the management of actual and potential flashpoints.

To bear fruit, such efforts need to have solid foundations – in particular decisive steps to eliminate nuclear weapons, enhance the effectiveness of international law, and strengthen the UN’s capacity for conflict management and peace-building.


Professor Camilleri will explore these issues in depth at a keynote lecture to be delivered at St Michael’s on Collins, Melbourne, on May 9 and 16.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too



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Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson head to a meeting in Moscow.
Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

A week has passed since US President Donald Trump rained 59 Cruise missiles down on Al Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. But we are not much closer to answering the question: what next? The Conversation

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow late this week hardly answered that question, with the two sides agreeing to disagree – but not necessarily agreeably – on Syria’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters after meetings with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin.

This might be regarded as an understatement.

Tillerson also re-stated what had been the position of the Obama administration: a resolution of the Syrian crisis could not involve President Bashar al-Assad.

Where all this leaves Australian policy on Syria is unclear beyond a hardening of Canberra’s position on Assad continuing to hold power.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the Syrian leader to go, and indeed face war crimes charges.

Turnbull’s liberal interventionist line posed some problems for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has been on the record for several years insisting that Assad should be part of any transition arrangement.

Now Bishop says Australia’s position on Assad is “hardening”, thus indicating a shift.

If nothing else, she is displaying characteristic nimbleness in bringing herself into line not only with her leader’s position, but that of an evolving American attitude. During Trump’s first 100 days, his administration has been more antagonistic towards the Damascus regime.

At last the penny seems to have dropped with the Canberra foreign policy establishment – conspicuously light on for Middle East expertise – that Assad cannot be part of any solution that hopes to bring order to his civil war-ravaged country.

In any case, the Syrian pieces may well have moved far beyond being put back together again and we will be looking at best at a sort of Dayton Accords Bosnian solution in which the country becomes cantonised.

But all that is far off, as warring factions continue to tear each other and the country apart. Assad has demonstrated there are almost no limits beyond which he will go to defend his regime.

From Canberra’s perspective, these are testing moments in a broader chess game as Australian policymakers seek to make sense of a Trump foreign policy not only towards Syria and the wider Middle East, but in a confrontational US stance towards North Korea.

It is much too soon to begin talking about a Trump Doctrine, but whatever was said on the campaign trail by an “America First” candidate intent on avoiding foreign entanglements that position now seems to be fungible.

Based on Trump’s actions in Syria and his threats against Pyongyang, backed up by the deployment of an American battle group, what is emerging is an apparent willingness to use force, or at least employ the threat of force overtly to advance US foreign policy interests.

How then should an Australian government respond to what is shaping as a significant departure from business as usual under a restrained Barack Obama administration, whose preferred approach was to use drone strikes and other such methods to assert American foreign policy interests more subtly?

Australian policymakers would be advised to proceed with extreme caution. Turnbull and his advisers should be especially wary of any moves that would involve Australia more deeply in Middle East conflict.

Australian military forces are in the region to help the Iraqi government stabilise Iraq, not become enmeshed in a vicious civil war in Syria beyond limited air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and eastern Syria.

Turnbull and his national security team need to be mindful of the risks involved in any sort of deeper engagement, including especially the commitment of ground troops.

Syria is a mess, and a treacherous one.

What remain unclear is whether the Trump missile attack was a one-off strike aimed at sending a message to Assad not to resort to chemical weapons again, or whether it will be followed by other such actions.

At this stage, it seems to be of a piece with missile strikes that Bill Clinton launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan when those countries crossed a line, in Washington’s view. But you can’t be sure.

What is the case is that Trump’s warning shot has got Moscow’s attention.

As things stood, Vladimir Putin more or less had his way in Syria in a loose alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the toxic Assad regime.

Now, Moscow has been put on notice. There are limits to Western tolerance of Assad’s war against his own people, in which more than 400,000 have died and half the country’s population of 22 million displaced.

This brutal campaign has involved the widespread use of barrel bombs and other such cluster devices that inflict carnage on those in the vicinity. These devices have been used mercilessly, and have drawn the condemnation of governments and human rights organisations under various Geneva conventions.

Putin may be willing to put pressure on Assad to forego the use of chemical weapons again, but it is hardly likely he would abandon him, or his regime.

Russia has too much invested in Syria, including an agreement on Mediterranean berthing rights for its navy, use of airstrips and other such facilities, and perhaps most important the message Russian involvement delivers to the rest of the Middle East.

Russia is back four decades after it was bundled out of Egypt by President Anwar Sadat, and is not about to withdraw.

What vastly complicates Western policy in Syria is how to sanction Assad on one hand and deal with Islamic State on the other, without the country unravelling completely, thus enabling a jihadist takeover.

Western policymakers tell us the aim is to “defeat’’ IS, but what does this mean?

IS might be pushed out of Mosul in northern Iraq and its stronghold in Raqqa, but it will not be “defeated’’ in any formal sense. There will be no armistice agreement in which both sides negotiate a truce.

Whether we like it or not IS, or whatever its mutations, will remain a threat to regional peace and stability, and further afield a continuing terrorist menace across the globe.

What we have on our hands is a generational struggle. This is all the more reason to hasten slowly in Syria outside an internationally-backed settlement involving the US and Russia that would end the bloodshed.

This would represent the best case outcome, but how to fashion such an arrangement given Moscow’s resolute support for Assad is the question.

A bloodstained Assad or his immediate henchmen should not be part of these transitional arrangements. Their place is before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

_This column has been corrected. The paragraph beginning “Australian military forces are in the region …” went on to read “air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and western Syria”. It has since been corrected to central and eastern Syria.“ _

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: the war in Syria and the possibility of removing Assad



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The future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reign lies with Vladimir Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure.
Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

The devastating gas attack in Syria, attributed to the Assad regime, and the swift US missile response is a game-changer for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This is a complex war, but it helps to look at the key players in three interlocking layers. The Conversation

First layer

In the first layer are the local players within Syria. Since the 2011 Arab spring uprisings, all local players wanted to get rid of the 17-year-old regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad. He desperately tried to cling to power and proved surprisingly resilient under immense political and military pressure.

Assad’s strength comes from Russian, Chinese and Iranian support – as well as support from the large portion of secular Arab Syrians and religious minorities (Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Druze).

Initially, there were three main insurgent groups opposing Assad. The first was the moderate Islamic coalition made up of Sunni Syrian elite who established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of officers who had defected from the Assad forces. The FSA’s initial promise soon gave way to pessimism, as it could not deliver a decisive blow against Assad.

Second, Kurds in northern Syria organised themselves as the YPG (a militia group whose name translates to “People’s Protection Units”) and established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They received widespread acclaim and support, particularly from the US and other Western nations, for their strong defence against Islamic State (IS) forces.

Third are the Salafist jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which changed their name to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, and claimed independence from al-Qaeda. It was these jihadist groups that led the chief military opposition to the Assad regime for the last six years, including in Aleppo until its fall in 2016.

IS emerged as a key political and military force in Syria in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups, it did not fight Assad. Rather, it opportunistically claimed large swathes of uncontrolled land and declared an independent caliphate state, becoming the chief source of radicalism threatening Western societies.

Second layer

The second layer in the Syrian conflict is occupied by regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran has been a longstanding ally of the Assad regime because of its sectarian, political and economic interests. Assad and his entourage are Alawites, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.

Syria is an important corridor for Iran to press its influence over Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and provide access to the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional ambitions require the continuation of the Assad regime.

Worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafist insurgent groups. Fearing the spread of IS ideology and popularity in its realm, the Saudi government has supported US-led air strikes on IS since 2014.

Turkey has been the most active regional player in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported all Sunni insurgent groups with weapons, training and logistics since the beginning of the conflict, with the exception of the Kurdish YPG.

Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish region in Syria (combined with Kurdish northern Iraq) would encourage its Kurdish population to also seek separation.

Erdogan pushed the Turkish army into Syria in August 2016. Although he desperately wanted to become involved in the impending US-backed offensive on the IS capital of Raqqa, he was left out of the US plans.

Third layer

The third layer of the Syrian conflict is occupied by Russia and the US. They are major geopolitical players whose conflicting interests over Syria are the source of the current impasse, and the reason why removing Assad has become exceedingly difficult.

Unhappy with the increasing US and Western influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to expand his economic and military interests in the Syrian conflict, and staged a challenge to the geopolitical world order.

In the course of the Syrian civil war, Putin has become the custodian of the Shi’ite alliance between Iran, Syria and Shi’ite political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Deep down, Russia fears a destabilised Syria falling under IS control would mobilise radical Muslim groups within its borders.

Under the Obama administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Barack Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to YPG and FSA, hoping they could muster enough opposition to dismantle Assad.

Obama admitted his strategy failed as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016.

This is why it was bizarre that Assad would launch a gas attack at this crucial juncture. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Assad vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons, while Russia claimed the Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical munition depot.

The reason is now irrelevant, as the swift US missile attack has sealed the issue. US President Donald Trump served notice not only to Assad and Russia, but all the players in the conflict.

Even though Russia and Iran responded with no-crossing-red-line tough talk, the missile attack opens a large ground for a US-led offensive on the key IS stronghold of Raqqa. The US intends to use this space to eliminate IS and dismantle the Assad regime.

However, this is not likely anytime soon. Western powers suffer from a dissidence – they would like Assad to go, but cannot see a viable alternative. With his secular outlook and promise of protecting religious minorities, Assad still wields much support.

Trump’s impulsive nature is the US’s greatest weakness in world diplomacy, but counter-intuitively, is its greatest strength in a conflict like Syria.

The impulsive courage of Trump, coupled with the military prudence of the Pentagon, gives the US the best advantage in the region and disturbs the Assad, Iran and Russian alliance. They can no longer act with impunity, knowing Trump would have no qualms about hitting Syrian regime targets, which were untouched by the Obama administration.

Trump has tasted the rush of being commander-in-chief. He is likely to follow with other bold military steps, and insist on the demise of the Assad regime.

Assad’s future lies with Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure. As the FBI investigation into the Trump election campaign’s Russian links deepens, Trump is likely to use Assad card to deflect attention and prove his disassociation with Russia.

Betting all his money on Assad, Putin will use the Syrian leader as a bargaining chip to press Trump to accept a place for Assad in the post-IS Syria, at least in the Western part of the wrecked country. This could save Assad’s skin, but at the expense of Syria remaining a divided country.

The YPG will emerge as the main winner securing an autonomous polity in northern Syria in exchange for its help in the US-led Raqqa military offensive, driving another wedge toward the eventual division of Syria. It will follow the trajectory of the northern Iraq Kurdish region, with the prospect of future independence.

Sunni insurgent groups are likely to be the biggest losers. They may have to contend with the remaining remote regions while Syria harbours the propensity to be another Iraq and a breeding ground for IS-inspired radicalism threatening societies the world over.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.