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Observations of an Expat: A Black Russian Sea

By Tom Arms

The landlocked 420,000 square mile Black Sea straddling the Europe Asia divide is fast becoming a maritime hotspot to rival the manmade islands of the South China Sea.

That is why this week the Russians buzzed the British warship HMS Defender, shot missiles into its path and then summoned the British Ambassador to the foreign ministry.

The British Type 45 frigate, said the Russians, had invaded Russian territorial waters. Wrong, said the British. Their ship could not possibly have been in Russian waters because it was off the coast of Crimea which was unilaterally annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. This annexation was not recognised by Britain –  or the rest of the world. Therefore, HMS Defender was in Ukrainian waters not Russian and was establishing its legitimate rights under international freedom of navigation law.

The attack on HMS Defender is not the first Russian manoeuvre designed to establish its maritime dominance and rights in the northern part of the Black Sea. Russian-claimed and occupied Crimea also guards the maritime link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Linking the two seas is the narrow and easily controlled Kerch Straits.

The Sea of Azov is bordered by Ukraine and Russia, and Ukraine regularly ships goods to and from its port at Mariupol. But in 2015-2016 Putin built the 11.8-mile road/rail Crimea Bridge linking the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula. He then posted naval patrols operated by the FSB, successor to the KGB, to obstruct Ukrainian trade between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dispatched a three-ship flotilla of coastal naval craft from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in November 2018. The ships were first blocked, then rammed and confiscated by the Russians. Their crews were thrown into a Russian prison to await a prisoner exchange.

The “Kerch Incident,” as it was called, occurred a few days before a G20 summit. It was strongly denounced and resulted in a new round of sanctions; a demand that Russia respect international maritime law and a decision by NATO to send more ships to patrol the Black Sea. HMS Defender’s cruise was part of that policy.

Russia responded by increasing its Black Sea fleet. It now has 45 surface ships in the region, and the number is growing. The other countries bordering the Black Sea are worried. They include Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania and wannabe NATO members Ukraine and Georgia. German Vice Admiral Hans-Joachim Stricker said that Russia’s aim is to turn the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea into a Russian lake.

READ LSO: Observations of an Expat: Feed Me, Says Kim

Romania has been particularly vociferous in expressing its fears and asked for a regional naval command to be established on its Black Seashore. But for the time being, NATO naval operations are operated from the Joint Forces Command in Naples.

One of the main reasons for NATO reluctance to establish a more conspicuous Black Sea presence is Turkey’s stated concern that it would be “provocative.” President Erdogan’s attitude towards Russia is probably best described as ambivalently flexible. His policy towards NATO and the neighbouring EU is politely described as just plain ambivalent.

Turkey is a key – and at the moment difficult –  NATO member in the Black Sea naval equation. With 25 surface ships, it is the only local power that comes close to matching the Russian naval presence. But more importantly, it controls the Southern entrance and exit to the Black Sea at the Bosporus and Dardanelles.

Passage through the sea lane that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the wider world is governed by the 1938 Montreux Convention which limits the size, type and number of naval vessels that can transit through the Turkish-controlled bottleneck. Aircraft carriers, for instance, are banned. Russia has managed to circumvent the bar by classifying its ship the Kuznetsova as a “carrier cruiser,” but its supercarrier Ulyanov remains blocked.

All this is likely to change in 2025 when Turkey is expected to open the $13 billion Istanbul Canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean. The canal will enable ships to circumvent the increasingly crowded Turkish Straits and the restrictions of the Montreux Convention as the treaty only applies to the Bosporus and Dardanelles. It will also enable Turkey to operate a more flexible foreign policy. Its government, rather than an international treaty, will determine which ships can pass through its waters. The Istanbul Canal (or Kanal Istanbul) is being built to accommodate the largest aircraft carriers or supertankers.

One final question: Why did the British government deny that HMS Defender was harassed/attacked, or at least minimise the incident? Especially as the BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Beale was on board to report the details. Was it because they were kowtowing to Russian sensibilities as part of their love for everyone except the EU Global Britain policy? Or was it another example of Boris Johnson’s incompetence? Or perhaps a bit of both.

World Review

The US Congress had a choice this week. To be more precise the Republican Party had a choice: The protection of voting rights or the protection of a congressional procedure designed to encourage bipartisanship – the filibuster. The latter won with the help of two rebels Democratic Party Senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kysten Sinema. The filibuster has received quite a bit of bad press lately because it is being used to block President Biden’s legislative agenda. But there are some good reasons for the filibuster. Basically, when invoked, the filibuster requires 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to vote for a bill to be passed, rather than a simple majority. As one party is highly unlikely to have 60 Senators, the measure is meant to encourage the politicians to seek consensus through bipartisanship. A worthy objective, especially in today’s politically divisive America. The problem is that Republicans chose the issue of the protection of voting rights to protecting the filibuster at the expense of the voters. They moved en bloc to prevent a Senate debate on the For the People Act which would have overwritten the current crop of Republican states’ efforts to restrict voting rights. Republicans are disarmingly honest about their reason for making it more difficult to vote. They acknowledge that the more people who vote, the more people who will vote for Democratic Party candidates. Voting against the fullest possible franchise seems like a strange position to take for one of the two major political parties of the world’s self-declared bastion for Democracy. The current band of Republicans, however, appear to be more interested in power at any price then protecting democracy.

The instant shoot from the hip assessment of the first round of French local elections was that President Macron is in deep trouble and right-winger Marine Le Pen is not far behind him. The centre-right Les Republicains, however, are coming up fast from behind. And, finally, the incredibly high abstention rate – nearly two-thirds of the electorate – indicates that French voters are fed up with politicians and their inability to overcome special interests, political realities and the dead hand of bureaucracy. The last point is valid and is not good for democracy in France because voters who don’t vote eventually don yellow vests and turn to extra-legal means. But you have to take into account the fact that local elections do not enthuse the voters quite like a federal campaign. Then there is the question of the future of President Emmanuel Macron after his En Marche party won only 11 per cent of the first-round votes. This result is not good for Macron but it is not a disaster. It is more of a result of the party’s failure to develop a grassroots structure. Macron is En Marche in a top-down party structure. This means that Emmanuel Macron will do much better in next May’s presidential elections than this year’s local ballot. It is a slightly different story for Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Rally, which was widely predicted to have their first victory in the French Southwest PAC region (Provence, Lyon and Cote d’Azur). But they failed. In recent years Marine Le Pen has been edging her party away from its ultra-right position in a bid to win more mainstream voters. In doing so she may have lost key differentiators and some supporters. Finally, there is Les Republicains who appear to be the big winners with 27 per cent of the first-round vote. The problem here is that the vast majority of their candidates were incumbents while most of the National Rally and all of the En Marche candidates were newbies. Local elections, especially those with low turn-outs, favour incumbents. The smart money, therefore, is still on a Macron/Le Pen run-off in next May’s presidential battle. No bets, however, on the ultimate winner.

Joe Biden is desperate to avoid the addition of America to the sad list of states buried in Afghanistan’s imperial graveyard. That is why he invited President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Chairperson of the High Council for National Reconciliation to Washington. His solution: Throw money, not American soldiers, at the problem. This has been an expensive 20-year war. It has cost the US Treasury roughly a trillion dollars. Most of the cash has gone on defence. But something like $145 billion has been spent on aid to build roads, schools, hospitals etcetera. An estimated $19 billion has ended up in the pockets of corrupt politicians. About 2,300 US soldiers have lost their lives and 45,000 Afghans have died fighting against the Taliban. The latter will continue fighting and dying after the US pulls out its remaining troops in September. Biden is promising President Ghani that the US will continue to supply weapons and training. But the emphasis of American aid will shift to economic reconstruction in an effort to lure hearts and minds from the theocratically-driven Taliban. Most strategists think Biden will fail and President Ghani will end up as an asylum seeker in London or New York, or possibly Los Angeles with Afghan veteran Prince Harry. The Taliban is confident of victory once NATO forces withdraw. The BBC reported in January that the Jihadists were in varying degrees in control of 72 per cent of the country, and well-placed for an all-out offensive. They have refused a peace deal with President Ghani.

The Australian government is a big problem for the climate change community. For proof, just look at the way it has this week handled the UN Heritage Committee’s recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef be added to UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage Sites. An outraged Susan Ley, Australia’s Environment Minister, promised to “strongly oppose” the recommendation. The Great Barrier Reef, she said, is being properly managed. Ley, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the rest of the Australian government need to pull their climate change denial heads out of the Australian sand and look at the reef. In the past 20 years, half of the hard coral in the 133,000 square miles of the Great Barrier Reef has died as a result of rising ocean temperatures. The reef creates 64,000 Australian jobs and provides the national economy with $6.4 billion. But more importantly, is its inestimable contribution to the wider Western Pacific. The Great Barrier Reef is the spawning ground for 1,500 known species of fish who swim forth to support millions of fishermen throughout the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. The Australian government knows this. They have been hearing but not listening to dire warnings for more than two decades. But they deny the maritime threat to themselves and others because the Australian economy is heavily dependent on coal exports, especially high value anthracite. Admitting to the problems of the reef means admitting to climate change which means damaging coal exports worth about $55 billion a year in 2020.

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