Syria: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported today that more than half of Syria's declared stockpile of chemical weapons has now been removed.
OPCW said the two most recent consignments were delivered to Nordic cargo ships docked at Latakia on 14 and 17 March. They included both "Priority 1" chemicals and less hazardous "Priority 2" chemicals.
A total of 10 consignments have been shipped, including all of Syria's sulphur mustard, a blister agent. The OPCW's target is to destroy or remove the country's entire arsenal by 30 June.
Comment: Skepticism is prudent when monitoring a country that is handing over its strategic weapons for destruction. The Syrian transfer is behind the initial schedule, but that seemed crafted to ensure the Syrians could not meet it. Nevertheless, the OPCW, the Syrians and the supporting coalition have persisted. OPCW appears satisfied that the Syrians remain committed to the agreement and will make the 30 June target.
The language of the OPCW statement, however, contains a warning. In specifying "Syria's declared stockpile of chemical weapons", OPCW implies that it suspects or knows that there remain undeclared stockpiles.
Finland: Finland's air force has intensified its surveillance of domestic airspace as a result of the crisis in Crimea. The Karelian Air Command in Rissala, in south central Finland, is on higher alert than usual, according to the unit's commander on 20 March.
Comment: The primary air combat weapon of the Finnish Air Force is the US F-18 Hornet, of which the Finns have more than 60. Finland has about 30,000 Russian citizens and about 70,000 people, or 1.3% of the population, speak Russian. Russia might harass the Finns for having lost to them in hockey at the Olympics, but little else. Nevertheless, the Finns are taking no chances at this time.
Russia-Estonia: On 19 March at the U.N. Human Rights Council a Russian diplomat said Russia is concerned about Estonia's treatment of its ethnic Russian minority. He said, "Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups." comparing language policy in Estonia to language policy in Ukraine after the ouster of Yanukovych.
Comment: Estonia requires all citizens to learn Estonian. In February the new Ukrainian regime rescinded the law that allows local regions to use Russian as a second language to Ukrainian.
Old Russian hands know that under the Tsars and the Soviets language was politics. The leaders of all the former Warsaw Pact states know that as well. Many activist groups in the former Soviet republics made freedom to use local languages their first demand. In fact it always signified opposition to Russian/Soviet authority.
The Putin government is using the age old language issue in reverse to assert a protective umbrella over ethnic Russians anywhere in reach. Estonia has more than 321,000 ethnic Russians, who constitute 24 percent of the population.
Latvia: Latvian press published remarks by Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis today in which he stressed that Latvia must strengthen the National Guard,
"Increase the number of home guards with patriotic citizens; well-equipped and trained National Guard; National Guard combat units of enforced readiness (sic) who are ready to defend Latvia's independence -- these are the most important and urgent tasks for Latvia's self-defense. The government in the nearest time has to decide on allocating money for efficient equipment and training of the National Guard," said Vejonis.
Focus on development of the National Guard would also help to implement Article 3 of the NATO Treaty, providing that each member state has to take care of its self-defense, said the defense ministry.
Vejonis said that the ministry has to arrange the database of reserve troops and revise mobilization plans that have been ignored by former defense ministers. He also said Latvia should continue intense cooperation with the US and other NATO members and partners in the region, including Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland, to strengthen Latvia's defense.
Comment: Crimea's reunification with Russia is a wake-up alarm for the Baltic states, all of whom are NATO members. All presumed Ukraine would have stood up up to Russia much better than it did. Ukraine has a competent defense industry and, on paper, had one of the largest armed forces in Europe.
Vejonis' comments indicate Latvia has allowed its defense preparedness to lapse as much as Ukraine did. Latvia contains more than 556,400 ethnic Russians, who constitute 26.9 percent of the population.
Lithuania-Poland: Defense ministers of Lithuania and Poland agreed on Thursday, 20 March, to start new projects and acquisitions in air defense and to develop the three-country brigade with Ukraine.
Lithuania's Defense Minister Juozas Olekas and his Polish counterpart, Tomasz Siemoniak, met in Byalystok to discuss regional security and the situation in the Ukraine.
"The ministers agreed to proceed with the bilateral cooperation between Lithuania and Poland, continue the existing projects and acquisitions and start new ones, especially in the field of air defense," the Lithuanian Defense Ministry said in a press release.
Olekas said the ministers also agreed to continue the development of the three-country brigade with Ukraine, LITPOLUKRBRIG, but said discussing practical application or deployment is still too early.
In May, Poland will take its turn in the NATO Baltic air-policing mission in Lithuania. After the Crimean referendum on union with Russia, the UK offered to send six Typhoon fighters to join the Polish F-16s.
Comment: Lithuania has 176,900 ethnic Russians, who constitute 5.8 percent of the population.
Russia: Update. On 20 March, Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, overwhelmingly approved the treaty of Crimean reunification. After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had presented the treaty and urged lawmakers to accept the region as a part of the Russian Federation, the document was approved on a vote of 443 to 1.
Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, will vote on Friday, completing the ratification process.
Speaking "on behalf" of President Putin, Lavrov told the State Duma that folding Crimea into Russia was needed to protect ethnic Russians there.
As for sanctions, "There should be no doubt: each hostile attack will be met in an adequate manner," the Russian foreign ministry said. It announced that it was targeting nine Obama aides and senators.
Moscow's blacklist contains the following:
Caroline Atkinson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics;
Daniel Pfeiffer, Assistant to the President of the United States and Senior Advisor to the President for Strategy and Communications;
Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication for to the President;
Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader;
John Boehner, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives;
Robert Menendez, Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations;
Mary Landrieu, senator;
John McCain, senator;
Daniel Coats, senator.
President Putin on 20 March signed an order recognizing the military rank of Ukrainian officers transferring to serve in Russia's armed forces, Voice of Russia reported
Russia-Moldova-Transnistria: Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin said in a TV interview on 20 March that Russia and Moldova's breakaway Dniester region will be "tied by the closest links."
Rogozin's interview coincided with the arrival of the leaders of the Dniester region in Moscow for talks. On 19 March, pro-Russian politicians and activists in the Dniester region asked the Russian parliament to allow their territory to join Russia.
Rogozin said, "There are 200,000 Russian citizens there, of 500,000 people. The rest are not Russian citizens because the Moldovans don't allow a Russian consulate to open in Tiraspol (the capital of Dniester region). But in their hearts, they are all citizens. They are all our compatriots, our people; they are part of our Russian world. There is no doubt about this."
Comment: Transnistria or Trans-Dniestr is a strip of land that borders southwestern Ukraine. It declared its independence from Moldova in 1990 and fought a brief inconclusive war of independence with Moldova in 1992. A Soviet Army based in Moldova ended the fighting before the Soviet Union ended. Russia brokered a federation agreement between Moldova and Transnistria under which Transnistria still hosts Russian military forces.
A well-informed, perceptive and Brilliant Reader suggested in feedback that Transnistria and another region known as Gagauzia - also part of Moldova -- would be the next regions to request union with the Russian Federation, using Crimea as a precedent.
Rogozin is a former Russian ambassador to NATO and known for his bombastic statements. Nevertheless, the Russian government's handling of Transnistria might provide the next best indicator of Russian intentions to extend their protective umbrella wider than Crimea. As to the Baltics, the language issue has them all rattled, which is Moscow's intent at this time.
As a reminder, when Medvedev was President, he indicated that Russia did not consider Baltic state membership in NATO to be permanent.
Turkey: For the record. During a campaign rally in Bursa on Thursday, Prime Minister Erdogan told the crowd, "We now have a court order. We will wipe out Twitter."
"I don't care what the international community says. They will see the Turkish republic's strength," Erdogan added. He also threatened to block YouTube and Facebook.
The HurriyetDaily reported that starting at midnight, Twitter is blocked in Turkey.
Comment: Turkey's election season is in progress. Local elections will be held on 30 March, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. Erdogan has been embarrassed by supposed Twitter, YouTube and Facebook recordings in which he is heard giving directions on how to hide funds and illegally meddling in political, legal, business and media affairs, according to the press.
This action will generate a powerful backlash among the youth, but without social media they might have trouble assembling flash mobs. The government also enacted stricter controls over the Internet.
Israel-Hizballah: Kuwaiti press reported that sources close to Lebanese Hizballah's leadership claimed responsibility for the bombing that injured four Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights on Tuesday. Those sources boasted Hizballah is "ready for war."
They also said that, unlike Syria, Hizballah will not hesitate to respond to Israeli attacks.
Comment: This is the first report of any group claiming responsibility for Tuesday's roadside bombing on the Golan Heights. It has not been confirmed and might not be genuine. It is a bit preposterous because of the lack of symmetry between an Israeli airstrike and an improvised explosive device.
End of NightWatch
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