PESCO: EU paves way to defense union

The majority of EU nations have committed to a joint defense cooperation, focusing on military operations and investments. Europe is looking to cement unity, especially since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

Defense and foreign ministers from 23 European Union countries signed up to a plan to establish the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which will allow countries to cooperate more closely on security operations and building up military capability.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini described the signing of PESCO as a “historic moment in European defense.”

“This is the beginning of a common work – 23 member states engaging both on capabilities and on operational steps, that’s something big,” Mogherini said.

The decision to launch PESCO indicates Europe’s move towards self-sufficiency in defense matters instead of relying solely on NATO. The EU, however, also stressed that PESCO is complimentary to NATO, in which 22 of the EU’s 28 countries are members.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the launch, saying that he saw it as an opportunity to “strengthen the European pillar within NATO.” Stoltenberg had previously urged European nations to increase their defense budget.

“I’m a firm believer of stronger European defense, so I welcome PESCO because I believe that it can strengthen European defense, which is good for Europe but also good for NATO,” Stoltenberg said.

Who is involved?

Under the scheme, EU member states will be able to develop greater military capabilities, invest in joint projects and increase the readiness of their troops.

  • Participation in PESCO is voluntary for all of the EU’s 28 member states
  • 23 countries have signed up to the plan
  • Ireland, Portugal and Malta are still undecided whether or not to join
  • Denmark, which has a special opt-out status, is not expected to participate
  • The United Kingdom, which is scheduled to leave the EU in 2019, is not part of PESCO either but can still choose to take part in certain aspects even after Brexit – if that participation is of benefit to the entire EU.
  • Those who didn’t sign initially can still join at a later date and countries not living up to their expected commitments could be kicked out of the group.

With the notification signed, a final decision to launch the defense cooperation framework is expected in December.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (Reuters/I. Kalnins)EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (pictured left) and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the launch of PESCO

The reaction from Germany

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said it was important for Europe to stand on its own feet when it comes to security and defense – “especially after the election of the US President,” referring to President Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude towards NATO.

“If there is a crisis in our neighborhood, we have to be able to act,” she said.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel meanwhile also lauded the agreement as “a great step toward self-sufficiency and strengthening the European Union’s security and defense policy – really a milestone in European development.”

Gabriel said that working together under the framework of PESCO was “more economical than if everyone does the same. I think that European cooperation on defense questions will rather contribute to saving money – we have about 50 percent of the United States’ defense spending in Europe, but only 15 percent of the efficiency.”

Watch video01:07

Pence: ‘Europe’s defense requires Europe’s commitment’

ss/rt (AP, dpa)

Courtesy: DW

West eyes recolonization of Africa by endless war; removing Gaddafi was just first step

Dan Glazebrook
Dan Glazebrook is a freelance political writer who has written for RT, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Independent and Middle East Eye, amongst others. His first book “Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis” was published by Liberation Media in October 2013. It featured a collection of articles written from 2009 onwards examining the links between economic collapse, the rise of the BRICS, war on Libya and Syria and ‘austerity’. He is currently researching a book on US-British use of sectarian death squads against independent states and movements from Northern Ireland and Central America in the 1970s and 80s to the Middle East and Africa today.
West eyes recolonization of Africa by endless war; removing Gaddafi was just first step
Exactly six years ago, on October 20th, 2011, Muammar Gaddafi was murdered, joining a long list of African revolutionaries martyred by the West for daring to dream of continental independence.

Earlier that day, Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte had been occupied by Western-backed militias, following a month-long battle during which NATO and its ‘rebel’ allies pounded the city’s hospitals and homes with artillery, cut off its water and electricity, and publicly proclaimed their desire to ‘starve [the city] into submission’. The last defenders of the city, including Gaddafi, fled Sirte that morning, but their convoy was tracked and strafed by NATO jets, killing 95 people. Gaddafi escaped the wreckage but was captured shortly afterward. I will spare you the gruesome details, which the Western media gloatingly broadcast across the world as a triumphant snuff movie, suffice to say that he was tortured and eventually shot dead.

We now know, if testimony from NATO’s key Libyan ally Mahmoud Jibril is to be believed, it was a foreign agent, likely French, who delivered the fatal bullet. His death was the culmination of not only seven months of NATO aggression, but of a campaign against Gaddafi and his movement, the West had been waging for over three decades.

Yet it was also the opening salvo in a new war – a war for the militarily recolonization of Africa.

The year 2009, two years before Gaddafi’s murder, was a pivotal one for US-African relations. First, because China overtook the US as the continent’s largest trading partner; and second because Gaddafi was elected president of the African Union.

The significance of both for the decline of US influence on the continent could not be clearer. While Gaddafi was spearheading attempts to unite Africa politically, committing serious amounts of Libyan oil wealth to make this dream a reality, China was quietly smashing the West’s monopoly over export markets and investment finance. Africa no longer had to go cap-in-hand to the IMF for loans, agreeing to whatever self-defeating terms were on offer, but could turn to China – or indeed Libya – for investment. And if the US threatened to cut them off from their markets, China would happily buy up whatever was on offer. Western economic domination of Africa was under threat as never before.

The response from the West, of course, was a military one. Economic dependence on the West – rapidly being shattered by Libya and China – would be replaced by a new military dependence. If African countries would no longer come begging for Western loans, export markets, and investment finance, they would have to be put in a position where they would come begging for Western military aid.

To this end, AFRICOM – the US army’s new ‘African command’ – had been launched the previous year, but humiliatingly for George W. Bush, not a single African country would agree to host its HQ; instead, it was forced to open shop in Stuttgart, Germany. Gaddafi had led African opposition to AFRICOM, as exasperated US diplomatic memos later revealed by WikiLeaks made clear. And US pleas to African leaders to embrace AFRICOM in the ‘fight against terrorism’ fell on deaf ears.

After all, as Mutassim Gaddafi, head of Libyan security, had explained to Hillary Clinton in 2009, North Africa already had an effective security system in place, through the African Union’s ‘standby forces,’ on the one hand, and CEN-SAD on the other. CEN-SAD was a regional security organization of Sahel and Saharan states, with a well-functioning security system, with Libya as the lynchpin. The sophisticated Libyan-led counter-terror structure meant there was simply no need for a US military presence. The job of Western planners, then, was to create such a need.

NATO’s destruction of Libya simultaneously achieved three strategic goals for the West’s plans for military expansion in Africa. Most obviously, it removed the biggest obstacle and opponent of such expansion, Gaddafi himself. With Gaddafi gone, and with a quiescent pro-NATO puppet government in charge of Libya, there was no longer any chance that Libya would act as a powerful force against Western militarism. Quite the contrary – Libya’s new government was utterly dependent on such militarism and knew it.
Secondly, NATO’s aggression served to bring about a total collapse of the delicate but effective North African security system, which had been underpinned by Libya. And finally, NATO’s annihilation of the Libyan state effectively turned the country over to the region’s death squads and terror groups. These groups were then able to loot Libya’s military arsenals and set up training camps at their leisure, using these to expand operations right across the region.

It is no coincidence that almost all of the recent terror attacks in North Africa – not to mention Manchester – have been either prepared in Libya or perpetrated by fighters trained in Libya. Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, ISIS, Mali’s Ansar Dine, and literally dozens of others, have all greatly benefited from the destruction of Libya.

By ensuring the spread of terror groups across the region, the Western powers had magically created a demand for their military assistance which hitherto did not exist. They had literally created a protection racket for Africa.

In an excellent piece of research published last year, Nick Turse wrote how the increase in AFRICOM operations across the continent has correlated precisely with the rise in terror threats. Its growth, he said, has been accompanied by “increasing numbers of lethal terror attacks across the continent including those in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia.

In fact, data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland shows that attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM’s establishment. In 2007, just before it became an independent command, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000. By AFRICOM’s own official standards, of course, this is a demonstration of a massive failure. Viewed from the perspective of the protection racket, however, it is a resounding success, with US military power smoothly reproducing the conditions for its own expansion.

This is the Africa policy Trump has now inherited. But because this policy has rarely been understood as the protection racket it really is, many commentators have, as with so many of Trump’s policies, mistakenly believed he is somehow ‘ignoring’ or ‘reversing’ the approach of his predecessors. In fact, far from abandoning this approach, Trump is escalating it with relish.

What the Trump administration is doing, as it is doing in pretty much every policy area, is stripping the previous policy of its ‘soft power’ niceties to reveal and extend the iron fist which has in fact been in the driving seat all along. Trump, with his open disdain for Africa, has effectively ended US development aid for Africa – slashing overall African aid levels by one third, and transferring responsibility for much of the rest from the Agency for International Development to the Pentagon – while openly tying aid to the advancement of “US national security objectives.”

‘US has enough roles’:  not interested in  nation-building

Read more: https://on.rt.com/89ft 

In other words, the US has made a strategic decision to drop the carrot in favor of the stick. Given the overwhelming superiority of Chinese development assistance, this is unsurprising. The US has decided to stop trying to compete in this area, and instead to ruthlessly and unambiguously pursue the military approach which the Bush and Obama administrations had already mapped out.

To this end, Trump has stepped up drone attacks, removing the (limited) restrictions that had been in place during the Obama era. The result has been a ramping up of civilian casualties, and consequently of the resentment and hatred which fuels militant recruitment. It is unlikely to be a coincidence, for example, that the al Shabaab truck bombing that killed over 300 people in Mogadishu last weekend was carried out by a man from a town in which had suffered a major drone attack on civilians, including women and children, in August.

Indeed, a detailed study by the United Nations recently concluded that in “a majority of cases, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa.” Of more than 500 former members of militant organizations interviewed for the report, 71 percent pointed to “government action,” including “killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend” as the incident that prompted them to join a group. And so the cycle continues: drone attacks breed recruitment, which produces further terror attacks, which leaves the states involved more dependent on US military support. Thus does the West create the demand for its own ‘products.’

It does so in another way as well. Alexander Cockburn, in his book ‘Kill Chain,’ explains how the policy of ‘targeted killings’ – another Obama policy ramped up under Trump – also increases the militancy of insurgent groups. Cockburn, reporting on a discussion with US soldiers about the efficacy of targeted killings, wrote that: “When the topic of conversation came round to ways of defeating the [roadside] bombs, everyone was in agreement. They would have charts up on the wall showing the insurgent cells they were facing, often with the names and pictures of the guys running them,” Rivolo remembers. “When we asked about going after the high-value individuals and what effect it was having, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, we killed that guy last month, and we’re getting more IEDs than ever.’ They all said the same thing, point blank: ‘[O]nce you knock them off, a day later you have a new guy who’s smarter, younger, more aggressive and is out for revenge.”’

Alex de Waal has written how this is certainly true in Somalia, where, he says, “each dead leader is followed by a more radical deputy. After a failed attempt in January 2007, the US killed Al Shabaab’s commander, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, in a May 2008 air strike. Ayro’s successor, Ahmed Abdi Godane (alias Mukhtar Abu Zubair), was worse, affiliating the organization with Al-Qaeda. The US succeeded in assassinating Godane in September 2014. In turn, Godane was succeeded by an even more determined extremist, Ahmad Omar (Abu Ubaidah). It was presumably Omar who ordered the recent attack in Mogadishu, the worst in the country’s recent history. If targeted killing remains a central strategy of the War on Terror”, De Waal wrote, “it is set to be an endless war.”

But endless war is the whole point. For not only does it force African countries, finally freeing themselves from dependence on the IMF, into dependence on AFRICOM; it also undermines China’s blossoming relationship with Africa.

Chinese trade and investment in Africa continues to grow apace. According to the China-Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University, Chinese FDI stocks in Africa had risen from just two percent of the value of US stocks in 2003 to 55 percent in 2015, when they totaled $35 billion. This proportion is likely to rapidly increase, given that “Between 2009 and 2012, China’s direct investment in Africa grew at an annual rate of 20.5 percent, while levels of US FDI flows to Africa declined by $8 billion in the wake of the global financial crisis”. Chinese-African trade, meanwhile, topped $200 billion in 2015.

China’s signature ‘One Belt One Road’ policy – to which President Xi Jinping has pledged $124 billion to create global trade routes designed to facilitate $2 trillion worth of annual trade – will also help to improve African links with China. Trump’s policy toward the project was summarised by Steve Bannon, his ideological mentor, and former chief strategist in just eight words: “Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road.” The West’s deeply destabilizing Africa policy – of simultaneously creating the conditions for armed groups to thrive while offering protection against them – goes some way toward realizing this ambitious goal. Removing Gaddafi was just the first step.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Courtesy: RT

NATO report casts doubt on ability to defend against Russian attack on eastern flank

A confidential NATO report has questioned the alliance’s ability to defend against a Russian attack. Eastern European members of the alliance fear Russian aggression.

Spanish soldiers of the 7th Airborne Light Infantry Brigade 'Galicia' fire a howitzer Light Gun L118 in Zargoza, Spain, 19 April 2016, during maneuvers with other units from the Training Center 'San Gregorio' in preparation to NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) within the NATO Response Force (NRF). (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Cebollada)

NATO would be unable to repel a Russian attack on its Eastern European members, according to an internal alliance document cited by the German magazine Der Spiegel (German language) in its Saturday edition.

The internal document, titled “Progress Report on the Strengthened Deterrence and Defense Capability of the Alliance,” questioned the ability of the NATO Response Force to “react rapidly and – if necessary – sustainably.”

Read more: Baltics battle Russia in online disinformation war

“NATO’s ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the strongly expanded territory of the European commander’s area of responsibility has atrophied since the end of the Cold War,” Der Spiegel quoted the document as saying.

It attributed NATO’s deficiencies to a smaller command structure since the end of the Cold War and logistical difficulties on the alliance’s eastern flank.

Infografik NATO Expansion Europa ENG

NATO’s relations with Russia have soured over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

Poland as well as Scandinavian and Baltic member states feel threatened by Russia and have urged the alliance to bolster its eastern flank against possible aggression.

Read: Russia is hacking and harassing NATO soldiers, report says

In response, NATO has sped up the deployment and increased the size of the Response Force to 40,000 troops.

In 2014, NATO members decided to create a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force consisting of four battalions to act as a spearhead and deterrence against a possible Russian attack.

cw/aw (AFP, dpa)

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The Atlantic Council: ‘Debates’ between people who hate Russia & people who really hate Russia

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
The Atlantic Council: ‘Debates' between people who hate Russia & people who really hate Russia
Welcome to the Atlantic Council. A think tank which isn’t given to introspection and which ultimately amounts to NATO’s propaganda arm. This week, I endured an Atlantic Council echo-chamber to spare you the bother.

The list of lobbyists retained by the club (who prefer to call each other ‘fellows’) reads like a veritable who’s who of professional Russia bashers. From Eliot Higgins to Anders Aslund and Michael Weiss to Dmitri Alperovitch. And its main  financial backers include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, the Ukrainian World Congress and the United States Department of State. All entities for whom promoting the “Russian threat” is a profitable, and essential, enterprise.

On Tuesday, the pressure group held a sort of social day for its staffers and admirers. The event was billed as “The First Transatlantic Forum on Strategic Communications and Digital Disinformation in Washington, DC.” And it certainly seemed to feature a lot of trans-continental flights as the diaspora flocked back to the mothership for the festivities.

There were three main forums on the day and, as the final one concerned ISIS, I decided to suffer the first two only. Here is what I experienced.

Panel One – “Transatlantic Response to Disinformation: Paving a Way Forward” (all times EDT)

10:12 AM: Your correspondent joins 36 other YouTube viewers for the opening salvos. Five men, all in navy suits, sit down. They are Daniel Fried (an Atlantic Council employee and former US ambassador), Tacan Ildem (a Turkish diplomat until last year, now at NATO), Nils Svartz (a Swedish civil defense director) and Jakub Durr (the Deputy Foreign Minister of Czechia, incidentally lazily described as the “Czech Republic” by the organizers). The moderator, Jim Sciutto, introduces himself as the “bad news correspondent of CNN.” Immediately I start thinking that if all 37 viewers paid €25 a piece each for access, it’d barely cover a return flight from Istanbul to DC. But, luckily, today’s nod-fest is directly supported by NATO and a few other vested interests.

10.22AM: Jakub Durr seems really happy to be there. Coming from “Prague, with love“, he rejoices in how US government broadcaster RFE/RL is based in the city, dedicated to “fighting propaganda.” This suggests poor Jakub has never read the charter of RFE/RL’s parent, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Because its mission statement obliges the network to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” and to maintain “the capability to provide a surge capacity to support United States foreign policy objectives during crises abroad.” Which sounds like something very much created to spread agitprop.

10.31AM: Tacan Ildem is now talking about media freedom. With a straight face. He’s from Turkey, the country with the most jailed journalists in the world (81 from a global total of 259). Now, if Ildem were an opposition activist, you could cut him some slack, but, until last year, he was Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s representative at the OSCE in Vienna. He then says NATO “has to have its story dominating the information space. If there is a vacuum, others will exploit it.” So perhaps this explains why almost all western media parrots the NATO line?

10.40AM: Sciutto implies that Russia hacked Emmanuel Macron’s emails and timed it precisely for the pre-election news blackout. French intelligence said they found no trace of Russian hacking. Nobody corrects him. And this will become a trend for the rest of the day when panelists spout utter rubbish.

10.45AM: Everybody agrees. About everything. Thirty-five minutes in and there has not been one shred of dissent. Meanwhile, 41 brave soldiers are now watching the video feed.

10.48AM: Sciutto says (in the US) you have “newspapers that are thriving… even bought by Amazon billionaires.” He’s so bored, it appears he has lost touch with reality. As it happens, the American newspaper industry has been dying for some time, much to the chagrin of those of us who love the print medium. The fact Jeff Bezos (the Amazon billionaire) was able to purchase the Washington Post from the Graham family is a direct result of the malaise.

10.49AM: Fried compares RT and Sputnik to Nazi propaganda, which was “world class at the time.” He is animated, but everyone else just looks disinterested.

10.54AM: Sciutto, citing a Twitter question, wants to know if Russia is responsible for the AfD’s success in last weekend’s German election. Durr starts waffling about the CSU, says their fall in support (49 to 36 percent) was down to active communication with Moscow and their support for Nord Stream (a gas pipeline). Sciutto asks if Russia is financing the far right in East Germany and Durr replies that it’s an overall strategy we can see in all countries. Of course, he provides no actual evidence for this assertion and seems unaware that the likes of UKIP and Marine Le Pen are domestic creations in the UK and France and that RT is not Breitbart in the American context.

11.04AM: Turkey’s Ildim is now talking about “responsible journalism.” Again, nobody pulls him up on how the Ankara authorities treat reporters. If it weren’t so early in the day, I’d probably be starting a drinking game at this stage.

11.09AM: The audience questions are very mad. One guy from Lithuania asks how we can stop Russia “getting money.” Sweden’s Svartz says the Russians are very open about what they are doing: because “it’s on the internet.” Sciutto throws out “like the (pronounced like Geronimo) GER-A-SIM-OV doctrine.” Svartz answers “yes.” This is the level we are at now. Two misinformed people, way out of their depth, confirming stuff that isn’t even real.

Nobody pulls them up. Currently, 35 people are watching this torture.

11.16AM: Simon from Bild Newspaper in Germany says RT is not pushing fake news, rather a different narrative. And he asks “how do we counter it? “

As odious as RT is,” Fried says… “ I am not in favor of censorship or shutting them down.” He explains that he does agree with the FARA idea (forcing RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents being floated in the American press. “RT can make stuff up much cheaper than CNN can discredit it. Everything coming out of RT is suspect… In the US, journalists who work for RT are not considered journalists but rather paid agents of foreign propaganda,” he outlines.

And, with that, part one ends, and everyone heads out for a ten-minute break.

Panel Two: Straight Out of the Kremlin’s Toolkit: Strategies of State Actors

11.44AM: Everyone has had their cup of tea, and part two is about to kick off, with 35 brave souls hanging in there on YouTube. Here we are supposed to have Peter “RUSSIAN PSY-OPS” Pomerantsev (a lobbyist, author, and London School of Economics visiting fellow), Toomas Ilves (a former RFE/RL reporter and President of Estonia), Edward Lucas (a lobbyist and journalist) and Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, who’s is best known for predicting that Donald Trumps’ aides will get jail time after the “Russia investigation” concludes. Which is presumably why he has been picked to perform today. The emcee is Miriam Elder, a senior editor at Buzzfeed, who used to be Moscow correspondent of the Guardian. She is best remembered in the Russian capital for inspiring the reform of its dry-cleaning industry. Thanks to her efforts, you can now get a 24-hour turnaround on a suit or dress, all managed online. Bless her heart.

11.46AM: It appears Congressman Castro hasn’t turned up. But Elder makes no attempt to explain why he is not there. Nevertheless, Ilves may not have noticed his absence because he is busy playing with his phone as proceedings begin. So, from now on Castro will be both the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this event, just waiting for King Claudius to summon him to ascertain the cause of the madness.

11.48AM: Pomerantsev speaks for three minutes. None of his speech makes much sense. He contends that you can’t argue with conspiracy theories. Which will warm the hearts of any 9/11 “truthers” or moon landing doubters among the 47 folks currently watching this charade.

11.56AM: Lucas remarks how “it’s terrific that a new industry is being created out of Stratcom.” Of course, it is, Edward, for you at least! He then claims Russia has been trialing political warfare for 20 years and alleges how it started in the Baltics, back in the 1990’s.

12.03PM: Elder brings up the German elections and, amazingly, we have now passed the big ‘5-0’ because 56 people are watching! She asks Pomerantsev what the Russians were doing during the campaign. He observes how “every election is a Russian election nowadays” and claims the AfD and the Kremlin are natural allies, “feeding together,” further observing that 20 percent of Germans are living in an alternate reality with no relation to the center anymore. German voters will surely be amused to learn about this Brit who thinks anybody who doesn’t support the status quo in their country lives in “an alternative reality.” But Pomerantsev doesn’t seem self-aware enough to realize his own myopia. 

12.09PM: Ilves says Thuringia was known as the “valley of the clueless” during the Cold War because it didn’t get West German TV. He then insists the region mostly votes for Die Linke and AfD, missing how Angela Merkel’s CDU won the most votes there during the last state election, only three years ago. Ilves also fails to take into account that Thuringia is one of Germany’s poorest länder (states.) But, anyway, it wasn’t Thuringia which was referred to as the “valley of clueless” in the first place – it was actually Dresden, which everyone called “Tal der Ahnungslosen.” In reality, Thuringia bordered the West and had no signal problems. Once again, nobody pulls Ilves up on this. Instead, they all just laugh, adrift in their own cluelessness. And this is the level of dialogue here. Meanwhile, I am almost falling asleep.

12.15PM: Ilves brings up Valery Gerasimov and his non-existent “doctrine.” He observes how it outlines that information is now a weapon. He then insists the EU is too focused on Burma (sic), at Ukraine’s expense. This will surely be news to any Rohingya people taking time out from being persecuted by Myanmar’s Western-backed regime to watch this bore-fest.

12.19PM: Lucas claims “the Russians” have infiltrated Germany’s FDP, CSU, and SPD. Of course, he doesn’t take into account that these parties may feel it’s in Germany’s national interests to have good relations with Moscow. Naturally, this point is never allowed oxygen, and they just assume Berlin is better off being subservient to US interests.

12.20PM: We are now 37 minutes into the second panel, and not a single bit of dissent can be observed. But, to be fair to Elder, she is trying to ask at least half-intelligent questions, unlike Sciutto who obviously didn’t prepare. There are now 61 viewers. Will we break the magic 100 mark? Or even the 70?

12.23PM: Lucas laments the attention given to Russia-Belarus Zapad military exercises. But doesn’t mention that his own CEPA lobby group ran a dedicated webpage with a countdown clock to drum up fear ahead of the exercises. This is the pot and kettle having an argument about the color black.

12.34PM: Nothing much happens for ten minutes. Then, Lucas says EUvsDisinfo (an EU-backed “Mythbusters” operation) is “fantastic.” I am falling asleep. So is Peter Pomerantsev.

12.36PM: Elder wants to know should the EU launch a Russian language TV service? Pomerantsev says he does a lot of work with the European Endowment for Democracy and they are trying to back such a project. Ilves says Russia’s TV Rain is based in Riga. This is not true, it’s headquartered in Moscow.

12.40PM: There are now 62 souls watching. Has so much ever been directed at so few?

12.44PM: This farce has totally run out of steam. Pomerantsev is talking about kittens and cocaine. Meanwhile, Lucas can’t stop coughing and Ilves is startled. Pomerantsev repeats the fake Thuringia line. Poor Elder is trying vainly to pull things back on track.

12.47PM: Lucas says you can find yourself dead in Washington, having killed yourself with a blunt weapon. Ilves says “like the founder of RT.” Something, again, which is not true.

12.50PM: Ilves says Russia won’t invade the West because that’s where half its money is. Only Borderlands – like the Baltics – are in danger, in his view. And now it’s all over. Everyone looks excited about lunch, and 51 people are still watching the feed. We still don’t know what happened to Congressman Castro. Perhaps he fell asleep during the first panel? Or defected to Moscow and nobody noticed?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Courtesy, RT

Zapad-2017: ‘Normal military business’

Was the recent Russian and Belarussian Zapad-2017 military exercise really preparation for a major conflict as some neighbors feared? DW spoke with Thomas Möller, a Swedish army observer who was there.

Tank drills at Zapad

DW: What brought you to Belarus to watch Zapad-2017?

Thomas Möller: In accordance with the Vienna document (2011 OSCE agreement aimed at strengthening trust in security area – Ed) seven countries were invited on voluntary basis from the Belarus side to observe the Belarus part of the exercise. There were two of us from each country. We were in Belarus from September 16-21 observing the exercises.

Read more: NATO eyes in the sky zoom in on Zapad

Where exactly did you go and what did you see?

Upon arrival on the Saturday, we had an initial briefing from the Belarus escort team. On Sunday we were transported to Ruzhanski poligon, which is a training area. We observed Belarus and Russian aircraft and helicopters bombing different targets for a couple of hours. We had the opportunity to ask questions all the time and – this goes for all the observation days – all our questions were answered in an open and transparent manner. On Monday we were transported to the Osipovichski poligon, which is an artillery training area, where we watched land forces training, live firing with artillery, tanks and APCs, supported by aircraft.

Watch video04:33

Russian War Games in Belarus

On Tuesday, we were transported to the Domanvski poligon, an anti-aircraft training area. There was a training sequence with three different aircraft systems. There was also a long-range air defense system S-300 (in NATO language SA-11), which they couldn’t fire on this small field. On Wednesday we were transported to the Borisovski poligon. Here it was more or less the same as on Monday, but on a much larger scale, as it was the final part and Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko was present.

Read more: Russian officials tight-lipped on Zapad games

You said that all questions were answered. But could you also see what you wanted to see or did you have to stick to a tight schedule? 

We had a tight schedule. According to the Vienna document the hosts are in charge of the programme and they decide who will be coming, how long the observation will be and what they want to show.

Thomas MöllerThomas Möller attended Zapad-2017 as an observer

Did you have a chance to talk to officers and soldiers?

We had plenty of opportunity to talk to officers, but very limited access to soldiers. We asked for it several times. All the soldiers were in the vehicles – tanks, APCs, self-propelled artillery pieces. They were in the field the whole morning and when the exercise ended they were five kilometres away. There might have been possibilities to talk to soldiers on the last day, but no one really wanted to interrupt the ceremonies with the president.

Before the exercise, Western politicians voiced concern. One of the critical points was the number of soldiers. Some estimated that the actual number was almost 100,000. What were your impressions?

You can always discuss the numbers of soldiers. The Vienna document is mainly about land forces. What the Belarus verification agency reported – 12,700 Russian and Belarus soldiers – is a correct number I think. In Sweden we are conducting a similar exercise at the moment. The media talks of about 19- 20,000 participants. We reported about 12,400. But that’s what you have to report according to the Vienna document, because you don’t count anything to do with the navy or air force. When you come to Russia and Belarus you don’t talk about strategic rocket forces, railroad and interior troops. From an observer’s point of view I would say it is impossible to tell if it was 12,700 or 13,061. I believe the Belarus agency.

Listen to audio03:25

Inside Europe: Flying high with NATO over Russian war games

Sweden is not part of NATO, but after the Zapad-2017 exercise a NATO spokeswoman said the concerns of the alliance had proved to be true. She said that Russia and Belarus trained “a large-scale conflict between countries“. What would you say?        

The scenario for the Belarus part of the exercise is like any other exercise. A small part of Belarus was marked out as a fictive country. Belarus and Russia stopped the attack from this “country”. They met the attack, stopped it and made a counter attack. I would not say that they were enacting a battle between two major highly-equipped countries. But Sweden is not a NATO-member and I will not enter a discussion about NATO spokespersons.

Was it a preparation for a big war as some in the West and neighboring countries feared and were concerned about?

This is normal military business as we do in all countries with armed forces. This is not training for attacking anyone. You meet the enemy, you stop the enemy, you defeat the enemy with a counter attack. We are doing the same thing in Sweden.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Moeller from the Swedish Armed Forces observed the joint Russian and Belarus military exercise in Belarus in September 2017. In the past, he has observed military exercises in Finland, Estonia, Spain and Poland. 

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Turkey needles NATO by buying Russian weapons

Turkey appears to be building a military infrastructure independent of NATO – much to the annoyance of Washington. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might need that new S-400 missile defense system at home.

Russian S-400 at parade in Moscow

Turkey has risked the anger of the United States and its fellow NATO members by signing a contract with Russia to buy a missile defense system.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish media on Tuesday that Ankara had put down a deposit on the Russian-made S-400 missile batteries, a system that can – according to the manufacturers – shoot down up to 80 targets at the same time, and has a range of 400 kilometers (248 miles).

Washington had long been warning Ankara against this purchase, and made increasingly disgruntled diplomatic noises about it. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, suggested that the purchase could violate US sanctions against Russia.

Read more: Özdemir: Erdogan wants to establish Turkey in Germany

For its part, Moscow remained sanguine in response. Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the Russian state news agency TASS, “I can assure you that all the decisions made for this contract strictly comply with our strategic interests. In this regard, the reaction of some Western countries that are trying to put pressure on Turkey is completely understandable to us.”

Russians at the top

For NATO, the trouble with the S-400 weapons system is that it is not technologically compatible with the systems it has in place in Turkey – in other words, Erdogan seems to have decided to build a military capacity independent of NATO. “It makes sense [for the Turkish government],” explained Guney Yildiz, Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “because if everything is integrated with NATO, NATO commanders have full control over Turkish military systems.”

G20 Erdogan and Putin (Reuters/K.Ozer)Erdogan and Putin appear to have found much in common

On the other hand, a Russian missile system also means Russian control.

“It is a very significant development,” said Marc Pierini, former EU diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe. “This is a missile defense system that is going to be hosted by the Turkish air force, and the Turkish air force has no experience of anti-missile systems, therefore it is going to come with a significant number of Russian advisors, trainers, and operators and so on. So at the top of the Turkish air force defense architecture, you’re going to have Russians.”

Yildiz believes that a nationally controlled defense system has become a strategic priority for the upper echelons of the Turkish government in recent years.

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Merkel: ‘We have changed our stance on Turkey’

“They feel they might need a non-NATO air defense system in case they come under attack by some factions in their own military,” he said. “Turkey was the scene of an attempted coup last year, when Turkish fighter jets were bombing Turkish institutions.”

Yildiz pointed out that there have been signs of US jealousy about Turkey’s arms deals before. He remembered that a similar narrative played out over Ankara’s attempts to buy a Chinese missile system a few years ago, when US diplomats managed to successfully dissuade the Turks. “But since then several things have changed,” said Yildiz.

“The US left a vacuum in the Middle East and Turkey tried to fill it in Syria and elsewhere by trying to directly confront Russia and Iran, and it failed really badly.”

Tit-for-tat weapons deals

The low-point of this attempt at regional self-assertion came when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had encroached on its territory in late 2015 – which makes the new rapprochement more surprising.

Read more: Russia, Turkey agree to reinvigorate relations after diplomatic row

“If you’d asked me six months ago I would’ve said that it was unthinkable that Turkey chooses to purchase S-400 batteries – so this does mark a significant change in Turkey’s approach,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara.

Since then, Ankara has changed tack, “pivoted away” from the West, as the jargon goes, and is now seeking regional allies anywhere it can – i.e. Russia. Not only that, Turkey is not exactly pleased by the way the US has been arming and training Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

Sigmar Gabriel (imago/foto2press/M. Täger)Sigmar Gabriel’s new tough line has not gone down well in Ankara

Meanwhile, as if to give Turkey even more reason to shop elsewhere, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed this week that Germany would put all arms exports to Turkey “on hold,” because of the tensions between the two countries.

Read more: Sigmar Gabriel: ‘Turkey will never join EU under Erdogan’

The response from Ankara was prickly: “Germany should keep its security concerns out of political discussions,” said Europe Minister Omer Celik, arguing that the decision would weaken Turkey’s fight against terrorism – or against Erdogan’s enemies at home, some might say. In any case, the move has added spice to Germany’s strange, paradoxical new relationship with Turkey – a major trading partner and biggest political adversary.

This all helps Russia’s cause, according to Unluhisarcikli. “Russia has discovered that it can influence Turkish foreign policy through supporting Turkey’s military industry,” he said. “And if the United States and European Union are unwilling to do the same thing, then actually Turkey might feel compelled to move away from the western orbit and closer to Russia. Russia has a very clear strategy of driving a wedge between Turkey and the United States, and particularly between Turkey and Germany.”

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Things to know about international military exercises

Military drills by the US and South Korea heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and Russia is playing war games in Belarus. Are there any international rules for such exercises – and are they followed?

Zapad-2013 (picture alliance / dpa)

Late August and early September appears to be the season for major military maneuvers. The recent 11-day Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill on the Korean Peninsula was enormous. Some 50,000 South Korean troops and 17,500 US soldiers, largely using computer simulations, practiced what to do if North Korea launched an invasion.

It was also not unusual – the two countries carry out the operation at the end of August ever year, though of course that did not stop North Korea condemning it as a preparation of invasion.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Moscow is about to launch its seven-day Zapad exercises in northwestern Russian and allied Belarus, involving nearly 13,000 soldiers, and drawing demands from the German Defense Ministry for more transparency.

With these two scheduled events, coupled with heightened tensions around the world, countries regularly conduct military exercises to test their procedures and tactics.

Vladimir Putin (picture-alliance/dpa/A.Druginyn)It’s a good idea to let your neighbors know when you’re planning a military drill

Why be transparent?

But whether the exercises are carried out by single countries or by military alliances, there are few international rules governing such operations.

There are regional exceptions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did draw up some rules governing military operations in its 2011 Vienna Document. Designed to promote transparency, this documents stipulates, among other things, that OSCE states, which include Russia, give 42 days’ prior notification of “Certain Military Activities” for operations of over 9,000 troops, and it must invite all OSCE states to observe such activities if they exceed the 13,000-troop threshold.

These rules are mainly designed to build trust between the signatories and to prevent such training exercises from spiraling into open conflict in Europe. But, as Sebastian Schulte of Jane’s Defence Weekly pointed out, “the OSCE rules are not in the form of a formal treaty, but rather that of a non-binding status.”

“In reality, not adhering to these self-imposed restrictions concerning military exercises leads the buildup of trust to unravel and ‘bad press,’ but no direct penalties as organizations such as the OSCE or the UN are in no position to enforce any legal or political sanctions,” he said.

A gentleman’s agreement

In fact, Schulte calls the OSCE regulations “soft indicators,” whose purpose is to help identify “when and where one of the signatories is leaving the agreed upon group consensus, rather than hard law that prohibits and penalizes certain behavior.”

South Korea protests (Getty Images/AFP/J. Yeon-Je)Some protesters have called for an end to Ulchi Freedom Guardian in South Korea

In other hot spots, such as the Korean peninsula, the rules are even softer – in effect, they are little more than “gentleman’s agreements” designed with a similar intention to the OSCE’s rules in Europe.

“The difficulty lies of course with the fact, that by definition a nation’s military and its military affairs are at the core of any nation’s sovereignty,” said Schulte. “In other words, a country that lets a foreign entity, state or organization dictate its military policies, isn’t really sovereign.”

On the other hand, obvious secrecy concerns notwithstanding, countries have many good reasons to keep their military exercises transparent. For one thing, it’s a good idea to announce a major exercise in advance to avoid surprising your neighbors and to make sure they don’t think they are veiled build-ups for an invasion. For another, most countries publish the schedule of their exercises in advance to show off their military potency.

For its part, NATO has recently stepped up its military exercise program in light of what it called the “changed security environment” around the world.

According to the current schedule, as many as 100 NATO exercises are planned for this year, plus 149 national exercises led by individual member countries, which represents a slight increase from 2016.

Also, NATO claims that its military exercises are harmless – and about seeking “transparency and predictability, not confrontation.” In 2016, 17 of its exercises were made open to observers from partner countries, as well as from international organizations like the European Union.

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