1. President Obama Heads to Europe
But it’s a more contemporary confrontation that will overshadow the president’s trip to Europe. Ukraine will loom large at every turn. Russia’s Vladimir Putin will also be in France for the D-Day commemorations – but he’s likely to be short of friends. President Obama will use a speech in Poland next week to reinforce his “Obama Doctrine” unveiled at West Point.
His visit marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War. But events on the ground will reinforce the new frostiness in relations between East and West. Next week the newly reconstituted “G7” nations will meet in Brussels – without Russia. The leaders of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and the EU had expected to go to the annual G8 summit, this year scheduled to be beside the sea in Sochi, Russia. But that was before Ukraine. Now, instead, the rest will meet in Brussels having shunned Putin’s invitation to the Black Sea, and booted Moscow out of the club. The downside: if you think London’s weather is dull, you’ve not been to Brussels!
2. Russia Turns Up Heat on Kiev
And things in Ukraine could be heating up just as Obama and Putin come face-to-face in France. Russia is about to turn up the pressure on Kiev. Ukraine owes Russia’s biggest gas company in excess of $3.5 billion, and Gazprom has threatened to stop supplying the country with gas if it fails to make a pre-payment for June supplies by June 2. It’s the first real test for Ukraine’s new “Willy Wonka” president, chocolate king Petro Poroshenko.
An acute energy crisis in Ukraine is all but certain. Ukraine stockpiles its gas supply for the winter heating months during the summer. In 2006 and again in 2009, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe. They could be about to do so again.
3. 70th Anniversary of D-Day
Next week sees the 70th anniversary of the most brilliantly conducted mission in military history. On June 6, 1944, 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Northern France on D-Day. Some 24,000 airborne troops had been dropped into Normandy just after midnight to prepare the ground for the infantry and armored divisions that began landing at 6:30 a.m. An American force of 73,000 landed at Utah and Omaha Beaches – America’s biggest amphibious assault since Ulysses S. Grant landed at Bruinsburg during the Civil War. Bad weather had convinced the Germans that an invasion wouldn’t happen, and a brigade of inflatable tanks had been assembled on the British coast opposite Calais, to make the Germans think any invasion would take place further north, rather than in Normandy! Within a month, a million allied troops were moving east through France towards the German border. Less than a year later Hitler was dead, and World War II was at an end. On Friday, President Obama will join Queen Elizabeth and French President Hollande to mark the anniversary of “Operation Overlord” – the code name given to D-Day – to remember the fallen and give thanks for a moment in time that truly changed course of history.
4. 25th Anniversary of China's Crackdown in Tiananmen Square
It’s a big week for anniversaries. Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of China’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square. In the early hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled into the heart of Beijing, ending a seven-week long protest by students in the Chinese capital. What began as mourning for a reformist leader evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. When the military moved in, an image of a student, known only as “Tank Man” standing defiant in the face of overwhelming force, flashed around the world.
The number who died that night is still unknown, with estimates ranging from the hundreds to the thousands. The protests came within inches of toppling the Communist party. But while next week, the world will remember the scenes in Tiananmen Square, in China itself, the party has scrubbed mentions of the events from histories and punished those who have tried to commemorate the protests. Officials this year detained a dozen people for criminal investigations. On Sunday, protestors will gather, not in mainland China, but in neighboring Hong Kong. In 1989, a million Hong Kongers took to the streets of the then British colony to show solidarity with those in Beijing. Twenty-five years on, the protests in Hong Kong are theirs as they fear China is reneging on promises about democracy made when it took back the territory in 1989.
5. Presidential Election in Syria
Strange but true: On Tuesday, Syria goes to the polls to elect a president. And it’s likely the winner will be…President Assad. He will inevitably defeat his two little-known rivals to win a third seven-year term — defying almost three years of demands by the United States and others that he should go. His two “opponents” are Maher Hajjar, a low-profile parliamentarian from Aleppo and Hassan al-Nouri, a businessman from a prominent Damascus family and a onetime government minister. But a restrictive electoral law which requires candidates to receive the backing of 35 members of parliament makes it impossible for anyone to run without government approval. And millions of Syrians will be prevented from reaching the ballot box! Voting is out of the question for residents of rebel-held areas, while refugees who fled Syria unofficially could not cast ballots when voting abroad took place Wednesday. The White House and other western leaders have condemned the election as a “parody of democracy” but on the ground, the regime has scored a string of military successes in recent months, raising the heat as election day edges closer, reclaiming the Old City of Homs and breaking the rebel siege of Aleppo central prison.