NATO deploys ships to Aegean Sea to counter human trafficking between Turkey and Greece

NATO’s decision to deploy ships to the Aegean Sea in an attempt to deter the smuggling of migrants from Turkey into Greece focuses on just one aspect of the problem; to Europe’s south, in Libya, a well-established human-trafficking network continues to funnel thousands of people across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy.

NATO’s new mission is in response to calls for help from Germany, Greece, and Turkey to deal with the largest movement of people across Europe since World War II. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the mission is “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” rather it is about contributing “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s February 11 announcement that NATO has agreed to a proposal from Germany, Greece, and Turkey to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas is an important response to a refugee crisis that has enormous implications for Europe. NATO’s naval response, however, opens up several questions to consider.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has ordered Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2) to respond. SNMG 2 was already in the region, with FGS Bonn (Germany), TCG Barbaros (Turkey), and HMCS Fredericton (Canada) having recently concluded exercises with the Turkish Navy. NATO Maritime Command also lists ITS Libeccio (Italy) and HS Salamis (Greece) in SNMG 2.

“The goal is to participate in the international efforts,” said Stoltenberg. In other words, the NATO naval response will be cooperating with national coast guards and the European Union border agency Frontex. This is important and highlights the challenges of the comprehensive approach discussed in NATO’s 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy. Coordinating between multiple national entities and two international organizations is inherently complex.

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China-Taiwan relations have warmed significantly as a consequence of increased economic interdependence, but some analysts believe that Beijing may ultimately use force to settle the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The election in January of Taiwan’s first female President, Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has been viewed warily by Beijing. Soon after Tsai’s election, China’s state-run media warned Taiwan to abandon “hallucinations” about independence. Beijing asserts that there is only “One China” of which Taiwan is an inalienable part. President-elect Tsai has vowed to preserve the status quo in relations with Beijing.

“[T]he status of Taiwan remains unresolved and the possibility of the use of force [by China] to resolve this issue is not entirely off the table,” said Tiffany Ma, Director of Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

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Ukraine's ongoing political crisis offers observers an opportunity to analyze the current state of affairs and determine likely scenarios for the country's political future in the near term.

First, the recent resignation of Aivaras Abromavicius from the position of Minister of Economic Development and Trade did not appear to be coordinated with either the reform camp in government or with Western creditors; otherwise we might have seen mass resignations. Rather, this appears to have been a personal effort by Abromavicius to put the government's reform efforts back on track after significant evidence that established political and oligarchic elites were falling back into their old habits of using the political process for their own interests.

Abromavicius has gone on record suggesting that the country's Western reform orientation is currently in the balance. He has stressed the remarkable reforms instigated thus far—against significant odds—but has added that the old oligarchic and political order is staging a fight to come back. His decision to "fall on his sword" is an attempt to rally the forces of reform, including Western creditors, civil society, and the general population, in defense of the country's reform orientation.

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The prolonged stalemate of Minsk II has provided the Ukrainian military ample opportunity to address a series of longstanding challenges stretching back to the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. While it is clear that the Ukrainian military has improved since its disastrous defeat at Debaltseve in February 2015, evaluating the real effect of ongoing reforms is slightly more difficult due to the current stalemate in the Donbas. Plus, the military hasn't really been tested in battle since the reforms were put into place.

Another part of that difficultly resides in understanding just how far the Ukrainian military had come leading up to Debaltseve. As of March 2014, the military was comprised of roughly 130,000 battle-ready soldiers and was "chronically underfunded, corrupt, poorly-educated, and ill-equipped," according to one account. Moreover, compared to the Russian military, the Ukrainian military was at a complete disadvantage at the onset of the conflict; by 2014, the Russian military was not only six years into an expansive modernization program but was also spending nearly fifty times as much on its forces.

And yet, despite years of being downsized and underfunded, the Ukrainian military performed valiantly in June and July 2014, almost defeating pro-Russia separatists before the Russian military interjected at Ilovaisk. Even during fighting in Debaltseve, the Ukrainian military showed glimpses of effectiveness but ultimately couldn't overcome pro-Russian forces supported by Russian logistical and material support.

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Plan seen taking heat off Gulf Arab states over role in war on ISIS, putting onus on the United States to do more

Saudi Arabia’s offer to deploy ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria is seen as putting pressure on the Obama administration—which has been urging its Arab Gulf partners to ramp up their efforts—to itself take on a greater military role in Syria.

“[US Secretary of State John] Kerry has been going around saying, ‘Everybody has to do more. Our Arab allies have to do more,’” said David Ottaway, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll do more, but you have to do more.’ And they know the US is not going to do more, so they’re not going to have to do more.”

“As a diplomatic ploy, I think it is a wonderful way of taking the heat off them and putting it on the United States,” he added. 

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There is something odd about the upcoming Dutch plebiscite on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. On April 6, the Netherlands will hold a national referendum on a treaty between Brussels and Kyiv that was signed in 2014 and ratified in 2015. Yet, the European Union and the European Community have, during the last sixty years, concluded dozens of association, free trade, stabilization, and cooperation agreements with countries around the world. Association and similar arrangements are neither new nor exceptional; they are a standard tool of EU foreign policy, and are practiced by other international organizations as well. For good reasons, they are mostly ignored by the general public in Europe and elsewhere.

It is true that the recent association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are larger than previous EU treaties. They include provisions to establish so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas between the three countries and the EU. While one can argue that these treaties are somewhat novel, this is hardly enough ground to elevate the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement to an issue suitable for a national referendum. In view of the agreements' relative inconsequentiality for the Netherlands' future, organizing a popular vote on one of these treaties is just plain bizarre.

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One of the most startling examples of the adage "there are two sides to every story" is the difference in perceptions over the implementation of the Minsk Agreements between Ukraine and Russia. Minsk, if handled in good faith, could be the roadmap to deescalate the war in Ukraine and bring peace to the region.

In October, I wrote a scorecard that assigned points to each party responsible for breaching, breaking, or not fulfilling aspects of Minsk. Russia scored minus ten and Ukraine scored minus two. Efforts to pretend that Russia is just a mediator in the Minsk process are a sham. Russia's guiding hand, including resupply of weapons and soldiers, are all over the conflict.

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The resignation of Aivaras Abromavicius from the position of Minister of Economic Development and Trade is another nail in the coffin for the hopes for serious reform in Ukraine. In resigning, he follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Pavlo Sheremeta, who was also unwilling to serve in a government that was more interested in personal gain than true reform.

A smear campaign has once again been started by political factions for whom the truth is inconvenient. “The Minister was incompetent, the Minister moved too slowly, the Minister was inexperienced, the Minister had ulterior motives,” etc. The chorus is both familiar and pathetic. It hails from the best Soviet practice of disinformation, which is still well-practiced in Putin’s Russia and too often echoed in Ukraine.

It cannot go unnoticed that one by one, Ukraine’s finest reformers are being pushed to resign from the cabinet. These include Oleksiy Pavlenko, Minister of Agriculture; Andrei Pivovarsky, Minister of Infrastructure; and Alexander Kvitashvili, Minister of Health. All have resigned but have since retracted under pressure. Rumor even has it that Serhiy Kvit, Minister of Education, is under threat.

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North Korea’s fourth nuclear test followed by a ballistic missile launch have ominous implications—a North Korea in possession of miniaturized warheads and a delivery system.

These developments have rattled nerves and escalated tensions in Northeast Asia. The outrage over North Korea’s flagrant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions has reverberated worldwide, yet China, North Korea’s sole ally, has refused to back tough measures that would raise the cost to Pyongyang of its behavior.

North Korea’s refusal to abide by Chinese entreaties not to launch a rocket is a remarkable display of disrespect toward Beijing. It also raises a key question: Is there a limit to China’s willingness to tolerate North Korea’s behavior?

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