Looking back at the outgoing year, one will certainly notice the growing tensions on every level of political functioning – from domestic social issues to international conflicts, sanctions, terrorism and cyberwarfare, among others. In what can be described as probably the most tumultuous year in more than two decades, we witnessed profound shifts in the global geopolitical balance. It almost seems as if certain periods of the 20th century have suddenly come back to life, with some peculiarities of our time added into the mixture to give us an uncertain taste.

The Crimean Crisis and the Ukrainian conflict

The events in Ukraine undoubtedly had the largest impact on geopolitics. Ukraine’s change of government – a “democratic revolution” according to the West and a “coup” according to Russia – resulted in a stir that was unpleasant for everyone involved. For the EU and the United States, this was the last chance of putting Ukraine in a Western orbit by associating it with Western governments before the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union. The 2004 Orange Revolution did not alienate the former Soviet republic from Moscow, as most had expected. In a rather unbelievable turn of events, overthrown prime minister Viktor Yanukovych won the 2006 parliamentary elections and became President in 2010, temporarily strengthening Ukraine’s geopolitical neutrality.

Yanukovych’s de facto second overthrowing in February was a signal to Russia: both domestic and foreign factors wanted its sizeable southwestern neighbour to align with Washington and Brussels. Unlike the previous “colour revolution”, which eventually failed in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan as well, this time it seemed Ukraine will take a step in the opposite direction. Unlike before, blood was being shed. The threat of a comfortably neutral state of 45 million people turning to the EU and NATO was becoming real. From an economic, military and diplomatic point of view, this is a threat that nobody in Moscow would take lightly.

In what seemed a hastily-organised (but nonetheless well-organised) move, unidentified troops began to establish control over key locations in the majority-Russophone Crimean Peninsula in late February and early March. The region was already wary of the intentions of Kiev’s new government, especially after it repealed a law protecting minority languages, including Russian. The peninsula ended up being incorporated into Russia after a largely unrecognised referendum – the first change of this kind since World War II. According to polls, a vast percentage of Russians supported the move.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk across the lawn at Winfield House, the U.S. Ambassador's Residence in London, United Kingdom, on March 14, 2014, as they hold a one-on-one discussion about de-escalating tensions in Ukraine. (U.S. Department of State)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk across the lawn at Winfield House, the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in London, United Kingdom, on March 14, 2014, as they hold a one-on-one discussion about de-escalating tensions in Ukraine. (U.S. Department of State)

The situation couldn’t be any more different in the West. The stakes were too high – any intervention could ignite a disastrous military conflict with Russia. The solution was to bring back the Cold War talk of “us versus them” and isolate Russia economically and diplomatically. The paranoia bells started ringing again. The ever-lasting ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights are being threatened by an aggressive state which uses backward tactics and force to subdue a smaller, innocent nation. The Russians are coming. A template which apparently failed to captivate everyone as many Germans for example obviously thought that the Russian stance in this case should be accepted. Most, however, continued to criticise the annexation as illegal, and rightly so. But when percentages on one side of the fence are firmly supportive of the government’s position, one should think about the thin layer of causes behind Putin’s move.

When small bands of armed civilians and former Berkut police forces mounted an armed resistance movement (likely with Russian logistical backing, and later on, troops) in eastern Ukraine, the EU and the United States imposed a series of sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy. And when a passenger airplane was shot down over eastern Ukraine by an unknown perpetrator, seasoned analysts and diplomats were quick to point the finger at Moscow in a fashion reminiscent of the 1980s. Russia, on its part, underlined the thousands of civilian casualties caused by Ukrainian army forces – something that went largely unnoticed in Western media.

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A local resident stands in front of a ruined building in Kurakhove, Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine, November 2014. (V.O. Svoboda)
A local resident stands in front of a ruined building in Kurakhove, Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine, November 2014. (V.O. Svoboda)

Whatever the actions undertaken by all sides in this conflict, the damage has been done. The post-war European order established by the EU has been hacked apart. Russia has lost billions due to capital flight and declining oil prices and will need years to recover investor confidence. Ukraine is nearly bankrupt, has suffered warfare and social tensions and will now have to abandon its previous neutral status with no chance of going back. Whatever measures the involved parties take from now on, they will have to include the management of a new, unstable European order with numerous global implications.

The Rise of ISIS

And while all eyes were on Ukraine, another force began its silent, deadly rise in the Middle East. At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, there was a clear line between government troops and the rebellion. While the international community was deeply concerned about atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian Arab Army,  what is now dubbed the “moderate” insurgency was losing its secular cover, gravitating towards a new, extremely dangerous regional player. And when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – then still part of al-Qaeda – swept its Free Syrian Army allies aside and raised the black jihadist banner over ar-Raqqa in November 2013, many realised something was not quite right.

In the months to follow, the group carried out an increasing amount of brutal atrocities. It massacred civilians and prisoners of war in the hundreds, regardless of their faith or ethnic background. Even al-Qaeda distanced itself from ISIS because of its brutality, which did not mean anything as the latter was now entirely on its own. Its power gradually increased; after the EU lifted the oil embargo on Syria with the idea of boosting the “moderate opposition”, ISIS and the al-Nusra Front quickly profited from the situation and expelled the “moderates” from oil installations outside government control. With weapons it captured from Syrian government stockpiles and, more remarkably, US and Gulf arms shipments to the FSA, it had enough power and confidence to launch a sweeping offensive into northern Iraq in early June. At the end of the month, on 29 June, the group proclaimed itself as a “caliphate” in a symbolic demonstration of its self-confidence.

By October, ISIS had carried out its largest massacres yet – 500 Yazidis in the Sinjar area, more than 1,500 Iraqi Air Force cadets at Camp Speicher, nearly 900 members of the ash-Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzor province, and hundreds of others in smaller incidents around Iraq and Syria. A full-scale international intervention into the region was only launched after the executions of several unfortunate American and British prisoners. ISIS continued to ravage western and northern Iraq despite the massive air campaign by the United States and several of its allies. However, it suffered its key setbacks not in the hands of coalition aircraft, but against local troops.

A U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) launches RGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles against ISIS targets in eastern Syria, September 2014. (U.S. Navy)
A U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) launches RGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles against ISIS targets in eastern Syria, September 2014. (U.S. Navy)

The most widely publicised of them was in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, or Ayn al-Arab. A small group of Kurdish fighters in the settlement on the Syrian-Turkish border managed to halt a massive ISIS onslaught coming from all directions (including from Turkey, according to Kurdish activists and fighters). With the help of U.S. airstrikes, ISIS lost nearly 2,000 fighters. The other two setbacks were scarcely covered by most media, if at all. In the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, Syrian Army units have launched a series of attacks on ISIS positions since September. Militant casualties were in the hundreds. The Iraqi Army, on its part, has made far less certain gains in Western Iraq, but the shuffle in its top brass and the arrival of foreign military aid has stabilised the situation and prevented the complete fall of the country under the black jihadist banner.

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Despite this, ISIS continues to be the single largest terrorist threat globally. It has partially succeeded in establishing a quasi-government which distributes food and runs markets, gas stations and administration in the territories it holds. ISIS keeps itself functioning through foreign sponsors, oil trade, which generates more than $ 1 million in revenue every day, and intimidation of the populace with public executions and torture. Its armed wing has 15,000 to 30,000 fighters from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, China and Indonesia, who captured American-made weapons from Iraq sufficient to arm 200,000 troops. It has a fair amount of sympathisers in numerous countries all over the globe. Finally, it has created a new brand of jihadism. Some, like Nigerian Boko Haram, emulate it by establishing “Islamic states” and applying similar cleansing tactics. Others simply swear allegiance to the “caliphate”, as is the case of some Afghan militants.

ISIS will remain an international challenge throughout 2015, and possibly the next few years to come. Its momentum is significant to the point where it can probably survive a loss of all of its strongholds. While not unbeatable, the group will stay afloat so long as there is no significant, concerted military effort against it. Arab States, the U.S. and its allies have so far refused to cooperate with the largest enemies of ISIS, Syria and Iran. Unless this situation is resolved, there will be little chance of completely eradicating ISIS. It will simply regroup, stay in the shadows and wait for the next political vacuum or failed state to appear.

The Gaza conflict

From 8 July to 26 August, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) carried out Operation Protective Edge, a combined arms effort involving air power and ground troops. The primary objective was to disrupt Hamas rocket infrastructure and military assets such as underground tunnels and weapons caches. Yet another Israeli operation in Gaza, resulting in thousands of casualties among civilians and Hamas ranks, widespread damage and unclear outcomes. But this time repercussions were deeper than both Israel and Hamas thought they would be.

Earlier in June, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank. Israeli authorities responded with a massive campaign of arrests and an investigation which eventually revealed the perpetrators, two Hamas members. While it was never conclusively established whether Hamas’ top leadership was implicated in the event, the organisation’s leaders were unwise enough to proclaim their support for those involved. When the suspects were murdered in a gunfight and the dead bodies of the teenagers found, the IDF began a punitive operation against all Hamas assets in the Gaza strip.

The final result of the 50 days campaign was more than 12,000 killed and wounded on the Palestinian side (most of them civilians) with 66 killed and 469 on the IDF side. Six Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas rocket fire as well. As per usual, both sides claimed victory, but the long-term consequences of the operation seem to present a picture of both sides losing a lot more than they have gained.

A pro-Palestinian rally in Wellington, New Zealand, 2 August. (William Stadtwald Demchick, Commons)
A pro-Palestinian rally in Wellington, New Zealand, 2 August. (William Stadtwald Demchick, Commons)

Shortly after the end of the campaign, Hamas and Fatah forged a shaky unity government, in what might seem to some a step toward a more stable, unified Palestinian entity.  Nothing like this should be expected. Gaza is now tasked with $7.8 billion worth of reconstruction work. Nearly everyone in the small territory now relies on food assistance. More than 100,000 have become homeless. Hamas lost a good deal of its weapons stockpile and its tunnels, but most importantly it failed to lift the siege. Sweden’s recognition of Palestinian statehood may prove to be a major benefit, but it remains to be seen whether other European Union members follow suit.

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There is not much in for Israel either. It suffered a minimal amount of damage, but the rockets kept flying toward its territory until the last day of the operation. The IDF has certainly crippled Hamas military infrastructure, though recovery is almost certain. But even if the negligible military threat that Hamas is recovers, Israel is now facing much bigger issues. The rift between Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its Western partners is growing bigger. Neither Washington nor the European Union appreciate how Israeli foreign policy jeopardises diplomatic progress on topics like the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear programme.

The Cuban-American Thaw

Another major, long-lasting shift in international relations might have occurred when U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro agreed to hold discussions on the establishment of diplomatic relations. For two governments that have been hostile over the past 60 years, even this is a major step forward. The breakthrough came with the exchange of prisoners between Havana and Washington after several months of secret negotiations, where Pope Francis had a key role.

What is the motivation of the United States to finally begin a rapprochement with Cuba ? There are many factors behind these overtures. The stalemate in relations is so severe and multi-faceted that any move in the wrong moment is doomed to fail, if not worsen the situation. The alignment of international events is now comfortable for both Obama and Castro to seek some form of change. Havana has been facing many questions over its economic prospects since Hugo Chavez’ death in Venezuela, where domestic politics seem increasingly unstable. Washington is preparing itself for a tough 2015 where Iran, Syria, Ukraine and East Asia will be on the agenda. The American government has enough issues on the table as it is, and this may well be the moment to close a regional wound that has been aching for several decades.

A man fishing in the Cuban capital of Havana. (Jorge Royan, Commons)
A man fishing in the Cuban capital of Havana. (Jorge Royan, Commons)

Needless to say, Cuba is in need of reform. The embargo has long played its part in stifling the economy. Over the past 20 years, it has only been an additional burden on the country’s already exhausted command economy. Should Havana pursue some market-oriented reforms, it needs to remove two major obstacles to their success – U.S.-imposed trade barriers and its obsolete designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. It is highly unlikely for Cuba to face radical domestic changes, but its future is somewhat uncertain given Castro’s age.

For the United States, Cuba is currently not of much value. It does not host any foreign forces and is not part of any military alliances, but there is no certainty that things will stay this way for the next few years to come. It remains to be seen whether U.S. concessions will later turn into a new instrument for pressure on a more economically flexible Havana, or they are genuinely a desire to settle a long-outdated issue.

To sum it up

The year was certainly a watershed in international relations. Many of the events will continue to sizzle into 2015 from several major hotspots. Along with Ukraine and the Middle East, there will certainly be new developments around Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, China’s policies regarding Japan and North Korea, the latter’s military capabilities and the ebola epidemic in West Africa. Difficult times require skilled politicians, and we can only hope there will be more of those in 2015.

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The International News Desk reports on issues and events world wide.

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