In center of Europe, politics takes a Trumpian turn with rise of anti-immigrant billionaire

The Washington Post reports: The man poised to lead the Czech Republic following elections this week is a polarizing billionaire who vows to drain the swamp of this capital city’s politics, run his country like a business and keep out Muslim immigrants.

He casts himself as the straight-talking voice of the common man and derives support from the country’s forgotten communities. He makes a sport of attacking the European Union and says NATO’s mission is outdated. He pledges to put his own nation’s interests above all else but is dogged by investigations into alleged shady dealings that threaten to cripple his political career.

Andrej Babis is so similar to the U.S. president in profile and outlook that he feels compelled to offer at least one key distinction.

“I was never bankrupt,” the 63-year-old says mischievously in an interview at his featureless office park on the outskirts of this gloriously gargoyle-and-spire-pierced city. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia held a big military exercise this week. Here’s why the U.S. is paying attention

The Washington Post reports: The vast Russian military exercises that ended this week showed off a muscular fighting force practicing state-on-state warfare, NATO’s deputy military commander said, in one of the first assessments of a large-scale operation that put Russia’s neighbors on nervous alert.

The Zapad exercise, which rehearsed a conflict along Russia’s western borders, showed off a force that was marshaling itself “probably more quickly, more efficiently, with this underlying message that if you thought we were in decay, we’re not,” NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, British Gen. James Everard, said in an interview.

The exercise, whose active phase ended Wednesday, is an every-four-years effort that was held this month for the first time since Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine then sparked war in the eastern part of the country. Because Russia used exercises as cover ahead of both its operations in Ukraine and its 2008 invasion of Georgia, its neighbors were cautious this time as the Kremlin fired up its military machine.

Now Western allies are sifting through intelligence reports and starting the arduous work of assessing Russia’s military capability, which is deep into a reform that has translated the force from a neglected and struggling group into one that for two years has been able to project power into Syria, far from Russia’s borders. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia’s Zapad military exercise: A 21st century Trojan horse?

Callie Wang writes: Beginning Thursday, as many as 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will launch major military exercises along the border of three NATO countries.

Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise, which will simulate a response to an attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by an insurgency unfriendly to Russia, has European countries and the United States on edge at a time when relations between the NATO alliance and Moscow are colder than ever.

Zapad has the potential to be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War – despite Russian claims that only roughly 13,000 troops will participate, Western defense officials have put forward estimates closer to 100,000. Many suspect the Russians may hold multiple, smaller, simultaneous exercises as unofficial parts of Zapad, to adhere to the letter, if not the spirit, of the official 13,000 limit.

Why 13,000? According to the Vienna document, an agreement among the nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe of which Russia is a member, any exercise involving more than 13,000 people – including both military and support personnel – requires that outside observers be allowed to attend. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Moscow’s offer to allow three international observers access is not sufficient.

What is of more concern than the actual numbers are NATO fears of Russian duplicity. Russia made similar assurances regarding troop numbers in 2013, ahead of the last Zapad exercise, but the number reached nearly 70,000 – and acted as a prelude to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Here’s how the West is preparing for war with Russia

Borzou Daragahi reports: Sweden, which has long cultivated the image of a peace-loving land of freedom, this month finds itself the focus of two of the largest military exercises since the Cold War. Beginning on Monday, the Scandinavian country will be the staging ground for Aurora 17, which will see 20,000 personnel from nine Western countries, including at least 1,000 US Marines, carry out a massive drill meant to counter any hypothetical attack by Russia. Just a few days later, across the Baltic Sea, Russia is conducting Zapad 17, which will mobilize up to 100,000 Russian and allied troops.

The near-simultaneous war games illustrate the atmosphere of rising military tension and mistrust between Russia and Western Europe following the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and continued meddling in the east of the country.

“My concern is not that the US will attack Russia or Russia will attack the US or the Baltics, but that the assembly of so much military hardware, and so many military exercises will lead to a situation of unexpected consequences,” said Sven Hirdman, a former senior Swedish diplomat who served in Russia, Israel and China and oversaw the regulatory agency that determined to which countries Sweden could sell which weapons.

Scandinavia’s most populous nation, Sweden sees itself as a bastion of social democracy and diplomatic neutrality, choosing not to join NATO even as countries in the Baltic Sea and Eastern Europe did so after the end of the Cold War. More so than other countries, Sweden let its guard down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now, Swedes are scrambling to up their defenses.

Over the last few years, Sweden has reinstituted a version of the draft it jettisoned just eight years ago, begun to increase defense spending, deployed troops to strategic outposts, and tightened up its partnerships with NATO countries. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia-West balancing act grows ever more wobbly in Belarus

The New York Times reports: Western officials and the news media have for years routinely described President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus as “the last dictator of Europe.”

So it may have been jarring for some to hear him expressing deep support for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in an address last month to a large group of United States and European lawmakers who came for a conference to Minsk, the country’s tidy, but utterly uniform, capital.

For Mr. Lukashenko, however, the performance was old hat.

Over two decades, he has perfected the art of playing Russia and the West against each other. Belarus has been both an indispensable ally and ward of the Kremlin, depending on Russian subsidies to keep its economy afloat, and an important buffer for the West against the Kremlin’s growing military aggressiveness.

But with major Russian military exercises scheduled for next month in Belarus, opposition leaders, analysts and even the American military fear that Mr. Lukashenko’s tightrope act may be coming to a close.

There are widespread fears in Minsk that when Russian servicemen come to Belarus for the war games, known as Zapad, Russian for “West,” they will never leave. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia’s military drills near NATO border raise fears of aggression

The New York Times reports: Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.

The troops are conducting military maneuvers known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The drills will feature a reconstituted armored force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army. Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.

The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last week. So far, Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by forcing the expulsion of several hundred employees in American diplomatic posts in the country.

But the move is part of a larger effort by Mr. Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess, and comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia. Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Turkey chooses Russia over NATO for missile defense

Bloomberg reports: Turkey has agreed to pay $2.5 billion to acquire Russia’s most advanced missile defense system, a senior Turkish official said, in a deal that signals a turn away from the NATO military alliance that has anchored Turkey to the West for more than six decades.

The preliminary agreement sees Turkey receiving two S-400 missile batteries from Russia within the next year, and then producing another two inside Turkey, according to the Turkish official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. A spokesman for Russia’s arms-export company Rosoboronexport OJSC said he couldn’t immediately comment on details of a deal with Turkey.

Turkey has reached the point of an agreement on a missile defense system before, only to scupper the deal later amid protests and condemnation from NATO. Under pressure from the U.S., Turkey gave up an earlier plan to buy a similar missile-defense system from a state-run Chinese company, which had been sanctioned by the U.S. for alleged missile sales to Iran. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

NATO jet approached plane carrying Russian defense minister, reports say

The Washington Post reports: A NATO F-16 fighter approached and was then warned away from a jet carrying Russia’s defense minister, Russian media reported Tuesday, the latest in a string of aerial incidents that have marked rising tensions between the West and Russia.

The incident occurred over the Baltic Sea in northeast Europe, according to reporters traveling with the defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, in international airspace crowded with Russian and NATO jets testing one another’s nerve in close — sometimes dangerously — proximity.

There was no immediate comment from NATO, which has been conducted military exercises in Eastern Europe. The Russian reports did not indicate which nation was flying the NATO warplane.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon claimed an armed Russian Su-27 buzzed an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane, closing to a distance of five feet. U.S. officials told Fox News that the maneuver was “provocative.” Russian officials blamed the pilot of the spy plane.

But no incidents yet have involved high-ranking members of the Russian or U.S. armed forces on board. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

France’s new president won’t be shy about using military power

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes: Macron has given many more signals that he intends to be a hawkish commander-in-chief, and one that will act first and seek alliances later. Alongside trade, the first item on the agenda of his first bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was strengthened defense and nuclear cooperation, a move that reflects France’s strategic ambitions in the Pacific (where it has a significant presence through its overseas territories) rather than its NATO or EU commitments.

But the most telling sign came in a little-noticed moment during his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their first meeting. Asked about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Macron responded, “there is a very clear red line on our side,” a blatant dig at Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce that red line. What’s more, he added, “any use of chemical weapons will be met with reprisals and a counterstrike, at least from the French.”

The message wasn’t just intended for Moscow and Damascus, but for Washington, Brussels and Berlin as well: France will act when it must, alone if it must. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Canada is now openly questioning the future of U.S. leadership

The Atlantic reports: First European Council President Donald Tusk described Donald Trump as a threat to European unity. Next German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany could no longer “completely depend” on America, noting that “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” Then, in vowing to “make our planet great again,” French President Emmanuel Macron seized the leadership role on climate change vacated by the United States.

Now signs of tectonic shifts in the Western alliance are cropping up across the Atlantic. On Tuesday—against the backdrop of Trump’s condemnation of NAFTA, withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, and chilly summit with NATO leaders, all three of which have put the U.S. at odds with its northern neighbor—Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a remarkable address in the House of Commons. At times, it almost sounded like she was bidding farewell to a retiring superpower, even as she held out hope that the superpower would agree to stay on a while longer. She never mentioned Trump by name. But the speech was a forceful rebuttal to Trump’s view of how the world should work.

Many American voters in last year’s presidential election were “animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership,” Freeland told Canadian lawmakers. “To say this is not controversial: it is simply a fact.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Angela Merkel hopes to forge an international alliance against Trump

Der Spiegel reports: Many had thought that Trump could be controlled once he entered the White House, that the office of the presidency would bring him to reason. Berlin had placed its hopes in the moderating influence of his advisers and that there would be a sharp learning curve. Now that Trump has actually lived up to his threat to leave the climate deal, it is clear that if such a learning curve exists, it points downward.

The chancellor was long reluctant to make the rift visible. For Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, the alliance with the U.S. was always more than political calculation, it reflected her deepest political convictions. Now, she has — to a certain extent, at least — terminated the trans-Atlantic friendship with Trump’s America.

In doing so, the German chancellor has become Trump’s adversary on the international stage. And Merkel has accepted the challenge when it comes to trade policy and the quarrel over NATO finances. Now, she has done so as well on an issue that is near and dear to her heart: combating climate change.

Merkel’s aim is that of creating an alliance against Trump. If she can’t convince the U.S. president, her approach will be that of trying to isolate him. In Taormina, it was six countries against one. Should Trump not reverse course, she is hoping that the G-20 in Hamburg in July will end 19:1. Whether she will be successful is unclear.

Trump has identified Germany as his primary adversary. Since his inauguration in January, he has criticized no country — with the exception of North Korea and Iran — as vehemently as he has Germany. The country is “bad, very bad,” he said in Brussels last week. Behind closed doors at the NATO summit, Trump went after Germany, saying there were large and prosperous countries that were not living up to their alliance obligations.

And he wants to break Germany’s economic power. The trade deficit with Germany, he recently tweeted, is “very bad for U.S. This will change.”

Merkel’s verdict following Trump’s visit to Europe could hardly be worse. There has never been an open break with America since the end of World War II; the alienation between Germany and the U.S. has never been so large as it is today. When Merkel’s predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, refused to provide German backing for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, his rebuff was limited to just one single issue. It was an extreme test of the trans-Atlantic relationship, to be sure, but in contrast to today, it was not a quarrel that called into question commonly held values like free trade, minority rights, press freedoms, the rule of law — and climate policies. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s national security team got blindsided by his NATO speech

Susan B Glasser writes: When President Donald Trump addressed NATO leaders during his debut overseas trip little more than a week ago, he surprised and disappointed European allies who hoped—and expected—he would use his speech to explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to mutual defense of the alliance’s members, a one-for-all, all-for-one provision that looks increasingly urgent as Eastern European members worry about the threat from a resurgent Russia on their borders.

That part of the Trump visit is known.

What’s not is that the president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.

It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.

“They had the right speech and it was cleared through McMaster,” said a source briefed by National Security Council officials in the immediate aftermath of the NATO meeting. “As late as that same morning, it was the right one.”

Added a senior White House official, “There was a fully coordinated other speech everybody else had worked on”—and it wasn’t the one Trump gave. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” said a third source of the Trump national security officials on hand for the ceremony. “It was only upon delivery.”

The president appears to have deleted it himself, according to one version making the rounds inside the government, reflecting his personal skepticism about NATO and insistence on lecturing NATO allies about spending more on defense rather than offering reassurances of any sort; another version relayed to others by several White House aides is that Trump’s nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy aide Stephen Miller played a role in the deletion. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The vulgar realism of Rex Tillerson’s State Department

Daniel W. Drezner writes: Unfortunately, my prediction from last week has come true, and the European leg of President Trump’s first overseas trip did not go well at all:

Germany’s foreign minister launched a scathing criticism of Donald Trump on Monday, claiming the US President’s actions have “weakened” the West and accusing the US government of standing “against the interests of the European Union.”

Just 24 hours after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Europe could no longer completely rely on traditional allies such as the US and Britain, the country’s top diplomat, Sigmar Gabriel, went a step further.

“Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk,” Gabriel said.

In previous months, Trump’s rhetorical and policy screw-ups were customarily followed by his foreign policy Cabinet cleaning up the mess that was made. In this case, however, it’s been nearly 48 hours since Angela Merkel vocalized her distrust of the Trump administration, and nary a word has been heard from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Instead, the columns explaining why this is really bad just keep proliferating. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Macron gets under Putin’s skin, shows up Trump

Christopher Dickey writes: Russian President Vladimir Putin, the wily KGB veteran, the intruder into the West’s democratic elections, the smug defender of dictators and would-be ally of Donald Trump, looked like he wanted to hide behind the curtains in the Hall of Battles at Versailles.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is only 39 years old and took office just two weeks ago, was calm, cool, collected, and in complete control at their joint press conference Monday afternoon. He talked about the need for dialogue. But he didn’t hesitate for a second to state bluntly and publicly the priorities of France defending Western ideals, Western democracy, and, when it came down to specifics, he took firm positions on everything from Syria and Ukraine to LGBT rights in Chechnya, as well as the need to defend civil society in Russia.

Which is not to say that Macron was undiplomatic. At every turn—almost—he offered a way for Putin to save face by saying that where they differed there is nonetheless a continuing conversation. Even when asked about Russian attempts to influence the French elections by hacking the Macron campaign, Macron said that was something they had spoken about when Putin called him to congratulate him after his victory on May 7. “Now we are moving ahead,” said Macron.

But when asked why, as The Daily Beast was the first to report in April, the Macron campaign banned from its offices reporters for RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik, two of Putin’s pet state-funded media, Macron didn’t hesitate a moment:

“Russia Today and Sputnik have been tools of influence, and they spread untruths about my person and my campaign,” said Macron. “On that point I’m not going to give an inch. Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave like organs of the press and of journalism, but as organs of lying propaganda.”

Whew.

Putin may have been expecting the fresh-faced French president to give him a warmer welcome. The invitation to come to France and open an exhibit at the Palace of Versailles devoted to the visit of Peter the Great three centuries ago was extended only two weeks back, after Macron became president. The two leaders had not expected to meet until the G20 in Germany in July. But Putin jumped at the chance to take the measure of the ingenue head of state.

He probably could not have anticipated—few people had—that Macron would grow so quickly into his job: wowing the cameras and his counterparts at the G7 in Sicily last week; exploiting a death-grip handshake with Trump by telling a reporter there was nothing “innocent” about it; and strolling through the streets of Taormina with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the image of new (very un-Trumpian) global leadership. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Why Trump is a salesman with autocrats and a slumlord with allies

Jeet Heer writes: Since becoming president, Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to explicitly endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member nations to come to each other’s military aid. But that was supposed to change on Thursday, with a speech at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The New York Times reported Wednesday that “Trump is expected to publicly endorse NATO’s mutual defense commitment at a ceremony on Thursday at the alliance’s headquarters, an administration official said, breaking months of silence about whether the United States would automatically come to the aid of an ally under attack.”

Well, either the administration official lied or Trump changed his mind. Because Trump, who has been berating and disappointing America’s allies for many months now, did so yet again on Thursday.

As he has done repeatedly since inauguration, Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the NATO pledge in his speech. (He did say, “We will never forsake the friends who stood by our side” after the 9/11 attacks, the only time the Article 5 commitment has been invoked. Some consider that clear enough.) Instead, he made his familiar complaint that many NATO members are free riders who take advantage of American taxpayers. “We have to make up for the many years lost” due to “chronic underpayments,” he said. “If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today.” He also implied that the alliance was living high on the hog. “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” he said. “I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.” His snide remark ruffled other leaders. “Standing off to the side of Trump’s podium, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel stifled laughter,” the Independent Journal Review reported, “and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel raised his eyebrows and turned his head to the side. Several other heads of state clustered around them cringed.”

Trump treated the NATO leaders like a slumlord who, to justify raising the rent, points to his tenants’ lavish spending habits. Which is fitting, given Trump’s business background. In 1985, the Times described the young Trump as having a dual existence as “doer and slumlord both”: “If he isn’t building a skyscraper castle or a football team, he is trying to harass some tenants out of one of his properties.” (Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, is challenging him for the mantle of the worst slumlord in the White House.) But Trump was also a real estate and brand-licensing tycoon. So he is a salesman and slumlord both: When he wants to close a deal, he’ll lay on the charm and say anything to achieve his ends. When he wants collect payments, he turns blustery and nasty, hoping to shame his mark into paying. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump’s Article 5 omission was an attack against all of NATO

Julie Smith writes: When President Trump spoke to NATO members for the first time on Thursday he failed to say the one thing Europeans were waiting to hear. He never mentioned America’s unwavering commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Twitter erupted in a storm of outrage and, for at least a few hours, #NATO was trending. Sean Spicer, responding to the criticism, stressed that even though the president didn’t say it outright, he is “fully committed” to NATO and Article 5.

Spicer’s logic? Trump’s mere presence at the dedication ceremony at the new NATO HQ was evidence enough. For folks that don’t track NATO issues on a day-to-day basis (and that’s most people), the president’s omission may not seem like a big deal. But Trump’s refusal to repeat what so many members of his own Cabinet have already stated — including his vice president — was a significant blow to the transatlantic relationship and could have lasting consequences.

Why were Europeans so eager to hear Trump utter the words “Article 5”? It was just last summer when Trump, in an interview with the New York Times, alluded to the fact that the United States could make its commitment to Article 5 conditional on whether the country in question was spending enough on defense. That sent a shiver down the spines of many NATO allies as they imagined calling Washington in a crisis — only to be asked first asked whether they had met the 2 percent target. (For many, the answer would be no.) Throughout the campaign, Trump also called the alliance “obsolete” (before he said it was “no longer” obsolete) and has repeatedly claimed — falsely — that NATO allies owe the United States vast sums of money. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump lectures democrats while embracing autocrats

An editorial in the New York Times says: What possesses him to treat America’s allies so badly? The NATO nations are mostly democracies with vibrant free markets that have helped America keep enemies at bay, including in Afghanistan. The question is made all the more pressing in view of Mr. Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of countless autocrats, among them Vladimir Putin of Russia and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, where he just paid a deferential visit and assured Sunni Arab leaders that “we are not here to lecture” despite their abominable records on human rights.

This perplexing dichotomy has been vividly captured in video and photographs — Mr. Trump laughing comfortably with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington during a recent Oval Office meeting, while refusing to shake the hand of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany when she came to town. There was more of the same in Brussels, with Mr. Trump shoving aside the prime minister of Montenegro, which recently defied Russia to join NATO, on his way to a front row spot for a photograph. [Continue reading…]

The evidence is overwhelming and not hard to decipher: Donald Trump despises the notion of human equality. His unshakeable focus is on domination. The only people he admires are those who demonstrate their ability to impose their will on others. And the only appropriate way of dealing with Trump is by standing up to him.

Emmanuel Macron showed a fine example to other world leaders on how they should now engage with the thug in the White House: greet him with a knuckle-crunching handshake and make the little-handed orange man wince.

There is no chance of appealing to Trump’s better nature — the civil inner statesman is non-existent.

Facebooktwittermail