Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, and the man who has become Pyongyang’s senior negotiator on denuclearization issues, is on his way to Washington DC today. He is expected to meet Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and possibly also hold a meeting with President Trump. Chol’s appearance in Washington is widely expected to mark the beginning of laying groundwork towards a second US-North Korean summit later in the year. Vietnam appears to be the most probable location for a summit. The United States has been cultivating closer ties with Hanoi over the last two years as the South China Sea has become an increasingly dangerous global flashpoint. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rumored to have arranged a visit to Vietnam for February, though it is unclear if his trip is connected to any potential meeting with US officials.
There has been little progress made on denuclearization since the Singapore summit was held last June. Lately, diplomatic activity has picked up considerably, especially in the wake of Kim’s trip to Beijing earlier this month. As was the case in 2018, Kim’s attitude towards denuclearization, and a summit with President Trump was relatively casual until a trip to China brought on a quick change in tune. It appears that a similar cycle is underway now. The US calls for progress on denuclearization, North Korea prevaricates, Kim is summoned to Beijing, and a week later Chol is on his way to Washington for negotiations.
This time around a second summit will not be enough for the US. Trump will be looking for concrete signs that North Korea is moving towards denuclearization, not more of the empty promises and assurances that Kim has been dispensing regularly since Singapore. The flow of recent events also brings to the forefront the current level of influence that China holds over Kim. It’s very possible that the meeting in Beijing earlier this month came about because of the current state of US-China relations. The Chinese may feel that its nudging of North Korea down the path of denuclearization could help lead to an improvement in relations with Washington. The ongoing US-China trade war, as well as the slowdown of China’s economy, are two factors that would certainly prompt Beijing to act now.
The fate of Brexit Withdrawal Agreement crafted by Theresa May and her European Union counterparts will be decided when the House of Commons votes on it Tuesday. The end result of tomorrow’s vote is not expected to favor May and the government. Opposition to the deal has not softened since May called off the vote last month. She could postpone the vote again if she wishes too, however, such a move would not help her cause at this point. She has staked the future of the government, as well as her own political future, on Tuesday’s outcome. If it goes in her favor, May will enjoy a major victory and walk away with a large amount of political capital in her pocket. Should the more likely opposite result come about, May will have to take her medicine, so to speak, and accept the results of the vote, and the consequences it brings about.
Those possible consequences are what have many Britons on edge at the moment. May’s government could collapse. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is expected to file a no-confidence motion after the vote is held. This move could potentially bring about a new general election, though the chances of it going so far are small. Other potential scenarios include a new Brexit referendum, a disorderly UK withdrawal from the EU, or a complete scrapping of the Brexit process. May can also try for another vote in the future, although this step should be avoided entirely as it would drop the British political system, and economy into a extended period of uncertainty that neither can afford to weather.
The Brexit crisis in Britain at the moment represents a point where contemporary global political trends have clashed. Populism, protectionism, and nationalism squaring off against globalism and pluralism in a contest that has created a stalemate closely resembling the Western Front in World War I. Whatever comes about following tomorrow’s vote will have a lasting impact on the United Kingdom, and the European Union. This much is certain.
In two and a half months Ukraine will hold a presidential election. Voters will go to the polls and decide if Petro Poroshenko will remain in office for another term, or if one of the many public figures challenging him will be chosen to succeed him. Judging from the most recent polling data, Poroshenko should be concerned. His popularity has dropped below ten percent and shows no sign of reversing itself anytime soon. Poroshenko’s failure to curb the rampant corruption in government is the main contributing factor to his anemic approval ratings. Most Ukrainians view the government as being no less corrupt than it was before the 2014 revolution, not a good sign for the incumbent president. There are other issues holding Poroshenko down. The war in the east is a major one. It continues on with no end in sight, and the current president has been ineffective when it comes to rallying the West around Ukraine’s cause.
To be fair, Poroshenko has not performed incompetently on the foreign stage, or when comes to the War in Donbass. However, his leadership has not enabled Ukraine to build a strong network of international diplomatic support. Nor has it helped to bring about a favorable permanent conclusion to the conflict in the eastern part of the country. Instead, Ukraine remains mired in a stalemate on the frontlines, and in diplomatic circles abroad. There’s a very good chance that Ukrainians will hold Poroshenko responsible for these setbacks when they go to vote on 31 March. But if they decide that he is not the right man to lead the country into the future, it brings about two critical questions to which there really are no answers for: Who will be selected to replace Poroshenko, and how will Russia respond to a new leader at the helm in Kiev?
The second question is the more crucial of the two. In all likelihood, the candidate who wins March is not going to tilt the balance of influence back in Russia’s favor. Therefore, he or she is going to have to find a way to contend with a more assertive Russia, and do so in a manner that neither compromises Ukraine’s position or escalates the situation. Russia’s actions in the past three months appear to be designed to place and keep Kiev at a disadvantage in the time leading up to the election, and in the period immediately following.
There is still plenty of time remaining between now and the election. Events in Ukraine and the Black Sea should be watched closely and with luck a clue of Russia’s future intentions could pop up.
Disentangling the United States from Syria is proving to be far more difficult than President Trump has anticipated. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s snub of National Security Adviser John Bolton yesterday in Ankara serves as a warning of the difficulties that lay ahead. Bolton’s insistence that Turkey agree to safeguard the US-supported Kurdish militia in northern Syria before a US troop withdrawal begins struck a nerve with Erdogan. He refused to meet with Bolton following the remarks, claiming what Bolton proposed was in direct contradiction to the deal Erdogan and Trump agreed to in December. The Turkish president also made it clear he would prefer to communicate directly with Trump instead of through an emissary like Bolton. Until this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all involved parties, the US troop withdrawal from Syria will likely be put on hold.
Trump is determined to pull US troops out of Syria quickly, and for good reason. Syria has no strategic value for the United States. Critics of the proposed withdrawal are quick to point to the notion that leaving Syria will embolden Iran and undercut US efforts to contain Iranian influence in the region. This is simply not true. The US has been very successful in containing and challenging Iran on multiple fronts across the Middle East. The same critics also argue that a US presence in Syria is needed to counter Russia’s expanding influence and power there. Again, not true. Syria has historically been a Russian ally and therefore Moscow regards the survival of Bashir al-Assad’s government as vital to its national interests.
The United States cannot say the same. Yes, there is a humanitarian disaster going on in Syria. However, after the debacle that post-Gaddafi Libya became, it’s unlikely that Washington will ever mix foreign policy, military action, and humanitarian goals together again. This particular combination has proved to be volatile, especially in the Middle East.
Over the last three weeks the US force level in Europe has become a widely discussed topic in defense, and geopolitical circles. There is concern in Washington, and Brussels that the current level of US military forces stationed in Europe is not sufficient to deter Russia from undertaking military action. The focus is on Eastern Europe, specifically the Baltic states and Poland. Russia enjoys a tremendous advantage in the numbers of troops, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft it has stationed in close proximity to the eastern-most NATO states. The Pentagon is worried that in the event of a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack against the Baltics, or Poland, Russian forces will make significant gains before reinforcements from the continental United States can arrive and turn the tide of battle.
The fact that this subject is receiving more scrutiny is indicative of the Pentagon’s growing concern about Russian military strength in Europe. I personally feel the time has come to examine the current military balance in Europe, and look at options for how the US can increase its military strength in Europe enough for it to be a viable deterrent against potential Russian designs on Poland and the Baltics in the coming months and years.
Towards the middle of the month, around the Martin Luther King holiday here in the US, Today’s DIRT will examine the issue at length and present the findings in a series of articles to be posted here. Last year I did not manage to complete some of the projects I had planned on this topic, and others connected to Russia, and NATO in Eastern Europe. Now in 2019, that is going to change. This will be the first of at least six projects centered on defense matters, and geopolitical flashpoints that Today’s DIRT will present in 2019.
Between now and the middle of January, other areas of interest will be discussed, and presented. However, the military balance in Europe will take precedence in most articles from the middle of the month until early February.