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Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

Governing Ukraine is No Laughing Matter

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Comedy, it is often said, is unusual people in real situations and farce is real people in unusual situations. No doubt, it can be said that by electing comedian Vladimir Zelensky as their new president in a landslide victory in Sunday’s runoff, the people of Ukraine find themselves in a farcical situation. To be sure, the country’s embrace of an inexperienced showman represented a verdict on three decades of political failure.

Ukraine’s first president in the ‘post-Soviet’ era Leonid Kuchma told the Russian paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, “Ukraine is tired of its politicians, who for 28 years have been unable to organise life, deliver democracy, well-being or peace. The people are tired, and believe it’s time to turn over a new page.”

The Ukrainian voters perceived Zelensky as an upright candidate, a straightlaced and open person without a corruption-related past, who personified hope. He was quite tight-lipped about his policies or even about the team he’s picked to govern Ukraine. In fact, it’s a bit too early to form a full opinion about this political rookie.
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Russia Throws Down the Gauntlet to US on Venezuela

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The Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova acknowledged in Moscow on Tuesday that Russian “specialists” are indeed in Venezuela within the ambit of a 2001 military-technical cooperation agreement with Caracas. Zakharova underscored that Russia’s bilateral military cooperation with Venezuela is in accordance with the latter’s constitution and has legal underpinning, which “doesn’t require any additional approval from the (opposition-controlled) National Assembly of Venezuela.” 

This followed media reports that two Russian air force planes landed at Caracas on Saturday carrying Vasily Tonkoshkurov, chief of staff of the ground forces with nearly 100 military personnel and some 35 tonnes of material. An unnamed official at the Russian embassy in Caracas told the Sputnik that the Russian personnel had arrived to “exchange consultations. Russia has various contracts that are in the process of being fulfilled, contracts of a technical-military character.”

Zakharova’s remarks came a day after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received a phone call from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on March 25. The Russian readout said Pompeo was “interested in certain issues related to the developments in Venezuela.” It added, “Sergey Lavrov emphasised that Washington’s attempts to organise a coup d’etat in Venezuela and threats to its legitimate government are a violation of the UN Charter and blatant interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state… After stating principal differences in Russian and US positions, the officials agreed to stay in touch and continue to exchange assessments.”
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US Leaves Trail of Bitterness in Syria

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On December 17, Ankara was notified of President Trump’s decision on troop withdrawal from Syria. During an earlier phone conversation between him and President Recep Erdogan on Dec 14, Trump had pointedly asked and elicited a positive response from the Turkish leader as to whether Turkey would have the capability to eliminate the remnants of the ISIS in the Syrian tract east of the Euphrates in the event of a US withdrawal from Syria. Erdogan reportedly “reaffirmed” Turkey’s commitment to fight the ISIS.
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Trump’s Fawning Over Saudi Ties Backfires

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The G20 is an economic club and it has traditionally stuck to that groove. And Saudi Arabia has traditionally been represented at G20 events by government ministers, usually the oil minister. But this time around, the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is just a heartbeat away from becoming the king of Saudi Arabia, showed up.
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US Doublespeak Hinders Afghan Peace

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Within hours of the announcement on Saturday by the Russian Foreign Ministry that the second meeting of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan will take place on November 9, the US government-funded Radio Free Europe and Liberty has announced that the Afghan government will not participate in the forthcoming meeting.

The text of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement is reproduced below:
On November 9, Moscow will host the second meeting of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan at the level of deputy foreign ministers and specialized special representatives. Invitations to participate in the event were sent to the participating countries – Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, as well as the United States. The President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, A. Gani, decided to send a delegation of the High Peace Council of this country to the meeting. For the first time, a delegation of the Political Office of the Taliban Movement in Doha will participate in an international meeting of this level. The agreement of the final document is not provided.
The meeting will be opened by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey V. Lavrov.

The Russian side reaffirms its position that there is no alternative to a political settlement in the IRA and the need for active coordinated work of the neighboring countries and regional partners of Afghanistan in this direction.
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US-Russian Exchanges Gather Momentum

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If a single exchange stood out during the tense interview of President Trump with the CBS News 60 Minutes on Sunday — Washington Post listed 8 of them — I would say it was when he tried to filibuster Lesley Stahl over the topic of ‘Russian meddling’ in the American elections.

Stahl kept taunting Trump but all she’d get was Trump repeating, ‘But China also meddled in the US elections.’ When she pointed out that she was asking about Russia, Trump repeated calmly, “And I think, frankly, China is a bigger problem”. Later, Stahl recounted that out of all 4 interviews she’s taken with Trump in the past 2 years, he was different this time: “He’s truly President. He felt it, I felt it.” Now, that was fulsome compliment from someone who is known to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Most certainly, Trump is unceremoniously shifting the narrative on Russia by laterally inserting China into it. He calculates that it pays, since ‘Russia collusion’ did not turn out to be a campaign issue in the midterm election in US, after all. Besides, the tide of opinion in the US regarding China has changed so dramatically and the focus is no longer on Russia. Arguably, engaging Russia as ‘counterweight’ to China might even appeal to the American opinion. Henry Kissinger long advocated it.
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US-Saudi Relations Enter Unchartered Waters

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The disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in mysterious circumstances while on a visit to his country’s consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday still remains unexplained. The plot is thickening by the day. The latest reports suggest that he may not even be alive.

The Istanbul Prosecutor has ordered an investigation. President Recep Erdogan has called Khashoggi a “journalist and friend”. Turkey has a troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has a complicated history dating back to the Ottoman era and is entangled with Erdogan’s brand of Islamism. A serious diplomatic rupture may ensue, depending on the outcome of the Turkish investigation.

So far, the Khashoggi affair has been a matter between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Khashoggi has influential backers in the Washington Beltway too. A chorus of condemnation of the Saudi regime is building up to a crescendo in the US, portraying Khashoggi as a human rights activist meeting a tragic end.

The US takes a selective approach to human rights. Which way will it act? In the present civil war conditions in the US, President Trump’s opponents will use the Khashoggi issue to draw attention to his erratic behavior – wildly swinging from obsequiousness to the Saudi ruler to rank contempt.

But, there is also a lavishly funded Saudi lobby, which can pull strings among the American elites. Trump chose Riyadh for his visit abroad and son-in-law Jared Kushner is reputed to be a close confidante of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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India, Russia and the Post-American Century

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India’s impending purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has come to be the leitmotif of the “2+2” dialogue of the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States due to take place in New Delhi on September 6. However, the issue here is not about a single defence transaction, either. There are far wider geopolitical ramifications.

The heart of the matter is that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August 2017, endangers India’s long-standing defence relationship with Russia across the board for many defence goods. The cutting edge of the CAATSA lies in regard of Sections 231 and 235 of the law. Section 231 requires the US president to impose sanctions on any entity that “engages in a significant transaction” with Russia’s intelligence or defence sectors. Section 235 provides for prohibiting transactions in US dollar (which is the currency used in India-Russia arms deals.)

Now, the US Congress has given waiver authority to the president under certain highly constraining conditions – that is, if he can certify that the waiver is fundamentally in US national security interests, that the country concerned is taking “demonstrable steps” to reduce its defence dependence on Russia and that it is cooperating with the US in advancing critical strategic interests. In effect, the CAATSA provides an underpinning for the US’ global hegemony, which is far beyond its stated purpose of sanctioning Russia over the Crimea.
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