Weekly Global Briefing: Rising Tensions And Fallen Heroes

Military unease in Eastern Europe, US-Iran policy confusion, Brazil’s former President’s conviction, and a farewell to Liu Xiabao

Romanian soldiers take part in a joint exercise with US troops during Argedava Saber 17, a stage in Saber Guardian 17 exercises, in Bordusani, Ialomita, Romania — Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP/Andreea Alexandru)

Romanian soldiers take part in a joint exercise with US troops during Argedava Saber 17, a stage in Saber Guardian 17 exercises, in Bordusani, Ialomita, Romania — Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP/Andreea Alexandru)

NATO conducts military exercises in Eastern Europe, as Ukraine begins accession talks to join. Russia responds with its own show of force.

The military of both NATO members and those allied to Russia are not taking the summer off. This week, forces from six countries kicked off Saber Guardian, a massive live-fire military training exercise. The exercise began in the Romanian countryside, complete with infantry mobilizations, artillery fire, and air-force support. It simulated a response to an invasion of the Black Sea region from a hypothetical “near-peer adversary with the same capabilities as NATO nations” (so, Russia.) Along with similar iterations planned in Bulgaria and Hungary, Saber Guardian marks the biggest NATO exercises in the region since the end of the Cold War.

The exercises are part of an effort by NATO to reassure its members and deter further Russian aggression in the region. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in Ukraine have put renewed emphasis on bolstering Europe’s eastern front. Increased Russian submarine activity in European waters and close calls in the skies above the Baltics has further raised alarm. The US has responded with deployments of troops in the Baltic states, as well as increased missile sales in the region, with Romania becoming the first Eastern European country to acquire the Patriot missile system.

One participant in Saber Guardian is sure to anger Russia most: Ukraine. Its partaking in the exercises was actually not even the most noteworthy event there this week. Rather, it was President Petro Poroshenko’s announcement that Ukraine will begin talks to join NATO. Russia, who sees Ukraine as its geopolitical back yard due to its location and deep cultural ties, is bound to see this move as the ultimate provocation. Putin’s press secretary said as much, calling Ukraine’s decision a threat to Russian security “and the balance of forces in the Eurasian region.”

Ukraine will likely not become a member of NATO anytime soon. The country is still dealing with separatists in its Donbass region. The presence of Russian forces there, Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea, and Putin’s obsession with reigning in Ukraine, all make it a volatile hotbed for a potential confrontation. Given this, NATO countries will not want to provide Ukraine will all the benefits of membership, particularly Article 5 protection, which would require direct military interaction against Russia should it ever attack Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Russia is deploying its own military exercises. Codenamed Zapad 2017 (the Russia word for West), the quadrennial war games will be held in September in locations in Russia and Belarus. They will feature 13,000 troops per Russian claims, though NATO officials believe there will be many times more soldiers involved than that. Zapad 2017 is already making NATO countries nervous; such large scale exercises have usually been followed by actual Russian military operations, most recently in Georgia then Crimea.

While we are still far away from Cold War-style relations between Russia and the West, the battle lines are certainly being drawn.

The US certifies that Iran is complying with nuclear deal, then levies new sanctions.

The Trump administration has confirmed that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal it reached with the US and five other countries in 2015. This is the second time that Trump has had to certify the Iran deal, which he has previously called “the worst deal ever made” and vowed to tear it up several times as a candidate last year. Other members of his cabinet, such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have reportedly had to convince Trump of staying in the deal, which has so far kept Iran from advancing its nuclear program.

Almost in the same breath, the administration also announced new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and other “malign activities” they have conducted in the Middle East, saying it was “in default of the spirit” of the deal. The deal is to be re-certified to Congress every 90 days, so the administration also reserves the right to back out of it if it chooses.

This move highlights the incoherence, clumsiness, and short-sightedness for which this administration’s foreign policy has come to be known for. Iran, a chronic sponsor of terrorist groups, is not undeserving of the sanctions. However, the nature in which this was done creates more problems than it solves.

The true “spirit” of the deal was to ensure Iran does not come to own a nuclear weapon by committing it to reduce its stockpile and nuclear sites in exchange for measured reductions on sanctions. There were no provisions regarding ballistic missiles or sponsorship of terrorism, though the US did reserve the right to target Iran on these issues.

By tying the new sanctions to the previous nuclear deal, Trump has made improving relations with Iran all the more difficult. Iran can now claim the US is violating the deal, reducing its incentive to honor it, and potentially setting back years of diplomatic progress. Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani, fresh from re-election by a wide margin, now has less room to maneuver in implementing reforms, giving more fuel to his hardliner foes intent on scrapping the deal. Simply staggering the announcement of the new sanctions, making them clearly focused on the other issues, could have avoided this, and made the case for them all the stronger.

This has broader geopolitical consequences as well. Sanctioning Iran over its terrorist activities while turning a blind eye to other violators like Saudi Arabia, emboldens terrorist groups funded by the latter. They also make it less likely for cooperation with Iran elsewhere, notably in Syria. The constant uncertainty regarding American support for the deal also weakens it and sends a clear message to the global community that the US may not honor the commitments they make. This is neither in the spirit nor in the art of “deal.”

Lula convicted in Brazil’s ever deepening corruption scandal.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was convicted on charges of corruption and money laundering last week, and sentenced to nine years in prison. He will appeal the decision, a process that could take more than a year, and will remain free until then.

Lula, as he is popularly known, is the latest Brazilian politician to be convicted in Operation Car Wash, one of largest corruption cases ever, involving bribes paid to politicians and executives at Petrobras, the state oil firm, in exchange for inflated building contracts and other political favors. The investigation has already led to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor; threatens to implicate Michel Temer, Ms. Rousseff’s successor; and has already implicated the Speaker of the lower House, several ministers, scores of executives at Petrobras and other firms, and politicians in Brazil and several other Latin Americans countries.

Out of all these, Lula is the most prominent involved. He was not only Brazil’s President but one of the country’s most successful. He is credited with lifting millions out of poverty during his tenure, using social programs like Bolsa Familia to boost schooling, health, and reducing inequality for the poorest Brazilians. He still maintains a strong following in Brazil. Many will see the conviction as politically motivated, especially given Lula’s intention to run for president again next year.

Nevertheless, the conviction gives corruption efforts renewed clout, both in Brazil and elsewhere. Judge Sergio Moro’s statement in announcing Lula’s verdict rings a bit truer:

“No matter how important you are, no one is above the law.”

RIP Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died last week, succumbing to liver cancer while in custody. He had been serving an 11-year sentence for government subversion, and Chinese officials refused to transfer him to an adequate health facility abroad, condemning him instead to a slow and painful death. There are now concerns for the well-being of Mr. Liu’s widow, who has been under house arrest.

As Chinese censors rushed to block any grieving posted online in the country, many around the world paid tribute to his life’s work. A poet and literary critic, Mr. Liu championed democracy through his writings and nonviolent resistance efforts. He was a key figure in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, for which he was imprisoned.

Liu continued to protest against the government and was imprisoned several more times. The latest sentence was for subversion of state authority after he published Charter 08, a manifesto published in 2008, calling for an end to one party rule and respect for human rights and the rule of law. In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a move that prompted China to suspend relations with Norway for several years.

Mr. Liu’s vision and ideas will continue to inspire after his death; the call to freedom cannot be censored.

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News // Brazil / Europe / World