A building shows signs of heavy shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Semenivka, September 18, 2014. (Flickr/UN Ukraine)

The Europe-Asia Summit in Milan, Italy, delivered little, if any, tangible progress to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Relations between Russia and Ukraine’s major European allies remain just a few degrees above a new Cold War-style ice age. And with only a preliminary gas deal achieved between Kiev and Moscow, this may be quite literally true for Ukrainians as winter approaches.

Agreements achieved in Minsk between Russia and Ukraine and between Kiev and the separatists over a military de-escalation, the withdrawal of combat troops, and the establishment of a buffer zone have made some incremental progress, but a cease-fire that was meant to have been in force since September 5 has been frequently breached—in particular during the protracted battle between separatists and Ukrainian forces for the airport in Donetsk.


A partial view of the terminals at the Zawiya Oil Refinery, some 40 km west of Tripoli, October 27, 2011.  (Alessio Romenzi/Corbis)

On Sunday, Islamist militants consolidated their hold on the capital city of Libya and its international airport after a week of intense fighting against rival militia groups. Clashes between the militants over control of Tripoli erupted in July and are the most serious episodes of violence in the city since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The clashes come in sharp contrast to the quick recovery of the country’s oil sector in the east, where on Wednesday last week, the state-owned oil company said that Libya’s largest terminal in Es Sider was resuming its exports. The announcement came after a year-long stoppage and stated that a tanker was ready to leave port with 600,000 barrels of oil on board. 

Yet Libya’s oil wealth has created obstacles on the country’s road to democracy and statehood, said Dr. Younes Abouyoub, a Political Adviser to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

“Ironically, it’s a curse in a way, because Libya does not have an economy—it has wealth,” he said. “For 42 years under Gaddafi, it was used just to buy allegiance, not to build the state, the nation, the institutions, and the economy.”


A makeshift memorial at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, July 20, 2014. (Roman Boed/Flickr)

The horrific human tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), which was shot down over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, risks to be remembered as the accelerator of today’s deteriorating geopolitical relations between Russia and the West.

All indicators point toward a renewed Cold War between the East and the West, where the new dividers are not the –isms of the past (Capitalism vs. Communism), but the economic and political interests of the present.

In fact, while some have suggested the MH17 tragedy is an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut his support to the rebel groups in east Ukraine, it is very unlikely. He still sees Russia’s influence over Ukraine and the prevention of it joining NATO as a national security interest. He still finds the global order that emerged from the end of the Cold War unacceptable, and will continue to undermine it. Other countries, including China, will ride with the tide.


The Mavi Marmara set sail from Antalya, Turkey, in May 2010 in an attempt to break Israel's naval blockade against Gaza; the incident resulted in 9 deaths and created a rift between Turkey and Israel. (Wikipedia)

Earlier this month, about 3,000 people marched through the streets of Istanbul in memory of the eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American killed by Israeli Defense Forces when the Mavi Marmara ship, known as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, tried to break through Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. The incident marked a nadir in Israel and Turkey’s strained relationship in recent years, and neither country’s ambassador has since returned to his former post.

Four years later, a possible reconciliation agreement between these former allies has fueled speculation of a normalization of relations between the two countries. The agreement would entail reparations for the Mavi Marmara victims’ families; a mechanism to rescind all legal claims against Israeli Defense Force officers implicated in the attack; and approval to facilitate Turkish civilian aid to the Gaza Strip. While the proposed agreement does not fully satisfy all of Turkey’s outstanding demands following the incident—an Israeli apology, compensation for the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, and a lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza—it gets close. During a visit with US President Barack Obama in March 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and offered his apologies. Details of payment of compensation are being worked out, as stated by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and while the blockade has not been lifted (nor is this likely anytime soon), Israel and Turkey have agreed to its easing by which Turkey would be allowed special status to deliver humanitarian assistance.


A woman cooks using an old stone stove that previously had sat unused in the shed. Electricity is often cut in Gaza, forcing people to adapt. (Mona Christophersen)

As the John Kerry-led round of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations approached the finishing line in April, the world was taken by surprise when Fatah and Hamas announced an agreement for reconciliation. Much of the subsequent attention has focused on how this might affect relations with Israel and prospects for financial aid from the United States and Europe; however, this analysis will focus on how this agreement will affect the people living in Gaza.

After Hamas’ bloody takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel put this strip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean under a tight blockade, hoping that Gazans would revolt against the Hamas regime. Instead, smart business people, with the Hamas leaders’ blessing, built a sophisticated network of tunnels under the border with Egypt. For years, these tunnels supplied Gaza with most of its basic needs, and at a cheaper price than goods previously coming via Israel; some reports claim 1,200 tunnels have been in operation since 2008. Most have collapsed or stopped functioning, but the last 220 tunnels were operational until the fall of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt last summer.


The Serbian section of the Russian gas company Gazprom's South Stream pipeline, as shown in a November 2013 drawing from the company. (Gazprom)

Empires never go away completely, even after power shifts from one hegemon to another. However, with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, few social scientists would have predicted that Russia’s diplomatic influence would ever manage to reassert itself in any of the countries of Eastern Europe. Indeed, over the last decade, as NATO and the European Union have crept further eastward, Russia’s foreign political clout seems to have forever disappeared from countries in which the Soviets had once so robustly intervened or nearly intervened: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. 

One Eastern European country, however, has not only maintained its ties to Russia, but has significantly deepened its relationship across multiple domains: Serbia. Once the pillar constituent republic of Josip Broz Tito’s unifying South Slavic project (the “second Yugoslavia”), Serbia, unlike any other country, has positioned itself as Russia’s closest European ally. But this friendship may be tested and grow more complex as the crisis in Ukraine continues to spiral out of control. At a minimum, the ethnic conflict in eastern Ukraine bares some similarities to the Yugoslav conflict of the 1990s. 

In light of its deep ties to Russia and its aspirations of membership in the European Union, Serbia’s situation merits attention beyond the wider US-EU-Russia debate, especially as the country navigates its way between the pressures of Brussels and its historical friendship with Moscow. 


Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Crimea, February 28, 2014. (Elizabeth Arrott/VOA)

A few months ago, no one seemed to predict Russia’s grab of Crimea and the fast-moving events that are now threatening to further destabilize the political, social, and economic situation in Ukraine. As events unfold, it seems clear that Russia is intent on changing Ukraine’s governance system by forcing it to implement a new constitution that would devolve power to the eastern parts of the country. 

The Kremlin’s ideal outcome is a loose federation, which, unlike American federalism, would allow for far greater independence of Ukraine’s provinces. This independence would allow Russia to cooperate with the eastern provinces without having to go through Kyiv, which could be beneficial to various sectors of the Russian and local eastern Ukrainian economies—especially their arms industries.

This is why, in my opinion, Russia is trying to inspire a revolutionary mindset in eastern Ukraine and use pro-Russian inhabitants and forces as a way to destabilize the situation in the whole country and provoke the Ukrainian government into using force against the separatists instead of concentrating on societal reforms. The unrest is certainly proving to be a test for the Ukrainian government, and could allow Russia to determine if Kyiv is really able to control all of the country’s territory, while also providing a possible pretext for Russian armed intervention, ostensibly to protect the separatists, especially if some kind of civil war starts. Nevertheless, the cost of an intervention would be very high, which is probably why Russia is pressing for the federalization of Ukraine by using other tools of influence, most of them economic. 

The first such tool is the price of Russian natural gas on which most of Ukraine is dependent. After the new government came to power in Kyiv, the giant Russian monopoly Gazprom terminated an existing gas contract with Ukraine and imposed an increase in gas prices from about $268 to $485 per thousand cubic meters. This dramatic increase not only will hurt the Ukrainian economy but also the pocketbooks of ordinary people who will suffer large increases in heat bills; food and household costs will also increase to reflect associated fuel costs. Moreover, Gazprom is pressuring Ukraine to pay back its outstanding gas debt of $2.2 billion, accrued over recent years, knowing full well that Ukraine doesn’t have the money to repay it. These two issues are being used by Gazprom to conjure a threat that it will turn off the tap. With summer coming, this threat does not hold as much power, but come autumn, it could find traction, translating (the Kremlin may be hoping) into people protesting against the government in Kyiv. 


Syrian children wait with slips of paper entitling them to collect bread for their families, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, September 4, 2013. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Three years into the Syrian conflict, one million Syrians have officially sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon, a country of 4.2 million people. Lebanon's hospitality is steadily being stretched to the limit. Syrian refugees have self-settled all over Lebanon, but mainly in the north and the Bekaa valley. The Lebanese authorities have so far refused to let the United Nations set up separate camps to house the refugees. They fear that the refugee camps could turn into permanent settlements and increase the likelihood that the Syrians may decide to stay. 

The absence of refugee camps means that Syrian families are settling in local communities ill prepared to accommodate the mass influx. After the presence of Syrians in Lebanon has reached one quarter of Lebanon’s population, the pressure on limited resources is felt in every community. How can Lebanon cope with this challenge? Are refugee camps the solution?

More than two thirds (70%) of Lebanese expressed a wish that the UN establish refugee camps for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The finding derives from a 2013 study of a representative sample of 900 Lebanese respondents by the Fafo Foundation, an independent research organization. A case study I conducted in the northern Lebanese village of Bebnine, part of the same Fafo study, indicates that finding shelter is increasingly challenging for refugees. In the beginning, people believed the crisis would be short-lived, and local residents showed generous hospitality towards the refugees. When the first refugees arrived in Bebnine, apartments were available, and some refugees were even provided for by a benefactor who paid the rent. Later, refugees had to accommodate themselves by staying with relatives and friends or rent available shelters. As a result, the monthly rent for an apartment in Bebnine increased from around $200 in 2011 to $450 in 2013. 

Refugees we met expressed anguish about their inability to pay the rent after their savings had been exhausted. Those who cannot afford the open rental market live in makeshift shelters designed for other uses than accommodations, usually without adequate water, electricity, and sanitation. Refugees in Bebnine have turned shops, garages, store rooms, hallways, and even a slaughterhouse into makeshift shelters. The latest arrivals to the village were often only offered improvised tents constructed with wooden poles wrapped in plastic. These shelters had only rudimentary water and sanitation facilities and are not weather-proof. A local charity organization in Bebnine was in the process of renting some land to accommodate 100 more plastic shelters for refugees. Clusters of such informal living arrangements have popped up several places in Bebnine, and more than 400 informal tent camps are registered around Lebanon to accommodate Syrian refugees. 


A few weeks ago, Taiwan sent a team of geologists to explore for oil and gas on the Spratly Islands, a group of islands, reefs, and islets in the South China Sea that is one of the most delicate territorial disputes in the region, not least due to the sheer number of claimants. Earlier this year, Manila made a move to take Beijing to a UN tribunal over them; Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also claim them to various degrees. If the Taiwanese team–part of the state run petrochemical giant CPC Corporation–confirms the existence of large reserves of oil and natural gas, then we may expect the stakes to rise and the dispute over ownership to intensify.

China's Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry puts the oil and natural gas reserves at an estimated 17.7 billion tons. If this is accurate, the Spratly Islands would have the fourth largest reserve bed in the world. The islands also have strategic significance, as they are located along the main shipping lane that links the Pacific and Indian Oceans. According to a study by Jorn Dosch for the Harvard International Review, this crucial sea passage is witness to 50% of all global marine traffic, and 80% of all crude oil transport headed to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. 

The history of this dispute isn't helping unravel the complexity of the situation. When Japan signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, it renounced its claim to sovereignty over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands. Given the thorny nature of the issue, they were not reassigned to any other country. Today, these islands remain legally under the collective custody of the treaty’s 48 other parties, which include modern-day claimants to the islands such as the Philippines and Vietnam. China, who does not recognize the San Francisco Peace treaty, is also claiming sovereignty over the islands. All claimants— except for Brunei—occupy some part of the archipelago. 

Tensions have risen recently following the claim made by the Philippines to the International Tribunal of the United Nations Law of the Sea. It was the first time for China to be taken to a UN tribunal, and they were rather unhappy about it. China blasted the Philippines for its legal recourse, and accused Manila of deviating from the agreed upon dispute settlement guidelines. China refused to participate in the case, and, as the Wall Street Journal points out, even if the tribunal does decide it has jurisdiction over the case and finds in the Philippines favor, China would very likely simply ignore the verdict.



Because of a broadening of actors involved in water security, and decreases in irrigation demand in some areas, so-called 'water wars' will likely be avoided, though the failure of governments to provide basic municipal services in cities could be a source of conflict, said Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It's quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation, and, more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy,” he said. 

Water use and access is shifting, Mr. Crow said; for instance, some countries now need more water for hydroelectric power, and less for irrigation. And climate change is proving to be a wild card in predicting problems. “Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas,” he said. “They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that's available. It's not really clear how that's going to change, but there's a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it's not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.”

“I think we need to have adaptation to recognize the big challenges of climate change coming in the future,” he said. “But, more generally, I think there are issues of water justice where injustices are built in to existing allocations of water and the way that various infrastructure works—pipe networks or dams or roads and irrigation facilities. There are substantial injustices between the rich and the poor, and movements to open questions about water justice, I think stand a chance to improve people's lives very substantially.”

Mr. Crow favors a multitrack and multilateral diplomacy framework for international river negotiations and management, and though countries like India tend to negotiate bilaterally, he said, “I think in an age of new media, and in an age of growing democratic representation, it's possible that the aims of multilateralism can be achieved even when governments want to negotiate only two at a time.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I'm here today with Ben Crow, professor and department chair of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He specializes in development and global inequalities. Ben has written extensively on water security, including international river management in South Asia and water access in Kenya's urban settlements. Ben, thank you for speaking with me today on the Global Observatory.

According to some experts, disputes over water are set to become the defining crisis of the 21st century, from the islands of the Asia-Pacific to the urban centers of Africa. In your view, will access to water be a dominant source of conflict in the decades to come?

Ben Crow: Well, I think there are two different questions here. Frequently, people have talked about water wars over international rivers. I think that's unlikely for essentially three reasons. That virtual water, the trade in cereals which consume a lot of water, can take away the need for very large quantities of water—so food trade, food imports can prevent a lot of the battles over waters.

Secondly, increasingly, there are growing pressures towards what we've called multitrack diplomacy, meaning that different elements of civil society and business interact around issues over rivers. I think that broadening of the actors and the issues makes war unlikely. So, those are the two reasons why I think it's unlikely on international rivers.

The question of access to domestic water, particularly in big cities—it's not clear if that will lead to conflict. It's quite possible that the failure of governments to provide access to water and sanitation and more broadly, to the rights of city living, could be a cause of instability and lack of government legitimacy. I think it's hard to predict how far that will lead to conflict, but it's certainly a question of justice—that there are large injustices which are most easily seen through this absence of basic necessities like water and sanitation.

AOS: To go back to the international rivers issue—you've researched negotiations over the Himalayan rivers in South Asia, and countries in the region have been discussing cooperation for five decades, but today they face new pressures and uncertainty. Why are tensions over these rivers increasing?

BC: Well, it's not clear yet that tensions are increasing. There are new players, particularly China, because China is beginning to develop the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which becomes the Brahmaputra as it moves from Tibet into India. Certainly, China is building some hydroelectric dams on this Tsangpo/Brahmaputra. That could improve the situation for flats and hydropower in parts of India and Bangladesh, but there is a longer-term uncertainty that significant groups within the Chinese governments have been interested in the diversion of water. That could be a cause of conflict, particularly with India and Bangladesh—and there are a lot of uncertainties over the border there where China claims part of the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh.

But, there are a couple of other things that are happening that I think are particularly interesting. Climate change is certainly melting glaciers in the Himalayas. They are major source of water, so the seasonal distribution of water is changing, and possibly the amount of water that's available. It's not really clear how that's going to change, but there's a chance that it will cause a reduction in the dry season flows, which are what are crucial for irrigation. So, climate change will have a number of consequences, and it's not clear that the adaptation responses have emerged very well.


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