Weekly cables

Week 14 - 2017

Trump’s America is staying the course in the Middle East, pursuing the very same balance of power the Obama administration tried to establish. In order to achieve such a goal, the White House has been focusing mainly on Iran, as to keep the Islamic Republic from becoming the regional hegemon. Being forced by the U.S. defense apparatus to uphold the nuclear deal, no longer willing to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and doing the heavy lifting in Iraq against Sunni Islamic State, Trump is now trying to offset those developments which could greatly enhance Iran’s clout. To that end, one should consider the sensible ramp-up of strikes against Shia Houthis in Yemen and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lifting all human rights conditions on a sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain, a Shia-majority country led by a Sunni monarchy. Rather than being a way to get back in sync with Saudi Arabia and the wider Sunni front, those moves are aimed at balancing off both Sunni and Shias across the region. As proved by the latest round of sanctions approved by the U.S. Congress against Iran’s missile program, being thoroughly devised as to not violate the 2015 nuclear deal. Add to that the ongoing clash with Erdogan’s Turkey marked by America refusing to give up the Kurdish militia or the cool relations with Israel and one gets a clearer picture of how such a balance of power is being pursued.

On March 25 the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly (97-2) to admit Montenegro to NATO, prolonging the Atlantic Alliance’s expansion into Eastern Europe and sending a strong signal against what the Americans perceive as Russian meddling in the Balkans. Moreover, as MacroGeo wrote, the vote greatly complicates any détente between Moscow and Washington as envisioned by Donald Trump and lays bare the White House inability to unilaterally set the U.S. strategy. Now the defense treaty is headed for Trump’s desk and the president is widely expected to sign it, as sending back a measure which passed the Senate with nearly unanimous bipartisan support risks compromising the rest of his domestic agenda.

Much has been made of the protests which took place all across Russia for the past two weekends, especially following opposition leader and blogger Alexei Navalny’s arrest. On a geopolitical level, two contradictory considerations matter the most. On the one hand, for the first time in over 20 years protests also happened in Russia’s far-flung regions, something which utterly surprised Russia’s authorities. People took to the streets not only in Moscow, where the middle class has usually been highly critical of Putin, but also in Siberia, in the Urals, in Dagestan, in the Far East region of Altai Krai. On the other hand, the West tends to overestimate any protest happening in Russia. Economics always submits to geopolitics and the Russians have shown throughout the decades that spread out misery won’t be enough to spur regime change. Russians usually bask in their imperial status and tend to put up with hard restrictions if their national pride is properly fed. Something Putin has been doing for the past few years with his long forays into Ukraine and into Syria’s civil war.