Russia has accepted an invitation to attend next month’s Nato summit meeting in Lisbon, according to press reports this week. The announcement was made following two days of talks between President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the French town of Deauville. The Lisbon meeting, scheduled for 19-20 November, is expected to set the terms for Nato’s defence thinking and spending over the next ten years, and is likely to cover such topics as structural reform, Nato's strategic concept, missile defence, and, specifically, its relationship with Russia. It is hoped that Russia will play a greater and more harmonious role both in Afghanistan and with regard to European anti-terrorism measures.
Nato’s invitation was first extended several weeks ago, though the decision to accept was only taken after Russia moved to withdraw its troops from the occupied Georgian town of Perevia, where they have been stationed since the two countries’ brief war in 2008. Speaking on Tuesday, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev claimed the move would "further the search for necessary compromises and the development of dialogue between the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic alliance as a whole.”
The news will stoke further speculation regarding the possibility of a closer military relationship between Moscow and the EU, and the consequences this will have for missile defence plans in Europe. Despite reservations expressed by former Warsaw Pact nations, senior Nato officials hope these recent developments will lead eventually to far greater openness between member countries and the Kremlin. There has been considerable improvement in US-Russian relations following President Obama’s election – thanks, not least, to Washington’s offer to include Russia in its European missile defence strategy rather than appearing to make it the subject of such plans. In recent months tensions between the two have been increased by accusations of encirclement, with Russa suggesting that Nato has been dangling the possibility of membership of the alliance in front of Ukraine and Georgia in an attempt to isolate the region’s major power.
Turkey, meanwhile, has re-emerged as a major player in US-Nato thinking, following a trend the has been developing steadily ever since the country was first used as a transit point for US and Allied armed forces entering Afghanistan and Iraq. Although keen to further strengthen its strategic and political influence within the region, Turkey has in the past expressed dissatisfaction at the prospect of something as potentially inflammatory as an upgraded missile system explicitely directed at Iran, a neighbour with which Turkey has reconciled. Whilst not denying that the US does indeed have Iran very much in mind, however, last week US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reiterated that Turkey would not be asked to host missile bases, adding the qualification that "we do look to Turkey to support Nato's adoption at Lisbon of a territorial missile defence capability." Even so, at least one commentator, Semih Idiz of Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, argues that "an increasingly apparent ideological divide is growing between Turkey and the US in particular, and Turkey and Europe to a lesser extent … Turkey could easily end up having to choose between the alliance and Iran."
Islamist rebels attack Chechen capital
An attack on the Chechen parliament in Grozny on Tuesday left six people dead and seventeen more injured. Three militants stormed the building at 0845 local time (0445 GMT), just as members were making their way in. One set off a suicide bomb before the other two rushed inside, exchanging fire with guards as they went. Deputies inside sought refuge on an upper floor of the building before the remaining two attackers were either shot and killed or blew themselves up. It has also been reported that President Ramzam Kadyrov himself arrived to oversee operations to “liquidate” the attackers.
The attack was initially reported as having lasted no more than twenty minutes, though it was known to have caused substantial damage to the building in addition to the loss of life. However, the BBC subsequently reported a statement appearing on pro-rebel news website Kavkaz-Tsentr claiming a “powerful explosion” and gunfire were heard during a period of more than half an hour. Another statement, appearing a few hours later on the website of the Chechen Prosecutor’s Office’s Investigative Committee, said "The special operation on neutralizing rebels who had stormed into the Chechnya parliament building has just been completed [...] All of them were destroyed in a special operation when they showed resistance."
The area around the parliament building was immediately sealed and armoured vehicles deployed to Grozny’s streets. Parliamentary business resumed hours after the incident with a planned session to discuss the republic's budget, at which both President Kadyrov and Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who had been in Chechnya on an official visit, were present. Kadyrov is himself a former rebel, and has faced sustained accusations of complicity in torture and kidnapping.
Afterwards, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin released a statement announcing that the families of the people killed by the attackers would each receive compensation of 1m roubles ($33,000) while those wounded would receive up to 400,000 roubles ($13,000).
This latest incident comes after an all-too-brief lull in reported violence in the unstable region, beset by increasingly frequent attacks from Islamic militant groups operating throughout the Caucasus. Yesterday a Chechen interior ministry official told the Russian news agency Itar Tass the attack might have been the work of a new group – led by 40-year-old Hussein Gakay – who has split off from the better known Doku Umarov: "Attacking the parliament and destroying the leadership would be a way to loudly proclaim that he is the new leader,” the official said, “send[ing] a message to his foreign sponsors."
Rifle fire hits Pentagon
Gunshots – thought to be from a high-velocity rifle – struck the Pentagon today, shattering (but not penetrating) two windows. A total of five to seven shots were heard in the area, though early reports suggest the only damage occurred to the windows on the third and fourth floors, and it is not believed anyone was injured. So far, neither the weapon nor any suspects have been found, though police are examining shell cases found by the nearby I395 highway.
In March a gunman shot two Pentagon police officers at the entrance to the US defence department, before officers returned fire. All three were taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries. On Monday a shooting occurred at a US Marine Corps museum at the nearby Quantico base, Virginia. Police are attempting to discover whether there is any connection between this latest attack and Monday’s, though intelligence filed to indicate any increased threat level in both cases.
Meanwhile, a man has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for attempting to blow up the 60-floor Fountain Palace skyscraper in September 2009. Jordanian Hamid Smadi, 20, pleaded guilty in May to leaving what he believed was a truck bomb in a garage beneath the building, before using a mobile phone to activate it. In fact Smadi had been under surveillance for some time, and the bomb was a decoy supplied to him by US security agents. Speaking to the court after sentencing, Smadi said he was ashamed of what he had tried to do. He also renounced al-Qaida, calling Osama Bin Laden "a bad man."
North Korean black market goes nuclear
With events in the DPRK much in the news lately, its worth having a look at the current iteration of 38 North, the journal of the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), part of Johns Hopkins University. Joshua Pollack – a regular contributor to the specialist blog armscontrolwonk.com – has written a tantalising article on the issue of North Korea’s supposed willingness to sell its nuclear technology to the highest bidders.
Pollack brings his well-informed, albeit characteristically sceptical eye to bear on such claims, which US government officials have been stating with ever-increasing confidence. Not that Jackson doubts entirely the reality of North Korea’s mercantile ambitions. Rather, he cites previous transactions as evidence that Pyongyang may prefer – or find itself compelled – to exchange weapons technology for components and materials rather than cash. Barter, rather than profit, is an under-recognised aspect of the black market, Pollack argues, though future transactions may involve both.
Iran, of course, emerges as one possible partner/customer for the North Koreans, capitalising on a ‘double coincidence of need’: “For the Iranians, North Korea is a potential source of uranium, whereas for the North Koreans, Iran is a center of expertise in uranium enrichment.” The answer? Jackson doubts there is one – at least not until both Pyongyang and its clients no longer see a need for such trade, an event which can hardly be said to be in the offing. One thing he is clear on, however: no current strategy comes close to preventing the dangerous trade in nuclear weapons technology and materials emanating from North Korea which, even assuming it is not happening already, may well start to happen soon.