The crisis in Ukraine now dominates the Russian foreign and domestic policy agendas. Domestically, Putin has done well out of recent events. According to the Levada-Centre, a polling organisation, just before major protests erupted against former President Yanukovich in Ukraine, Putin’s approval ratings were at their lowest since he came to power 15 years ago. By May 2014, however, they had shot up to 83% – some of the highest levels he has ever enjoyed.
There are several reasons for this development. One is the simple fact that Crimea’s – ‘return’ to Russia is popular in its own right. But there has also been a sea change in public option since the 2011 anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow. Although many Russian citizens remain frustrated by government incompetence and corruption, the prevailing mood in Russia is that bad government is better than no government at all like in eastern Ukraine.
The manner in which the annexation of Crimea was carried out – quick, efficient and ruthless – proved that Putin is ready to take risks and capable of delivering results. The successful holding of the Olympics in Sochi also reinforced the official narrative of a ‘functional Russia’. And although Moscow fears that a third wave of Western sanctions could be damaging, current measures do not seem to have made much of an impact. Russian markets are recovering, as is the rouble, and expectations of economic growth have been revised upwards. With post-revolutionary Ukraine seemingly descending into civil war next door, more and more Russians appear content with the fatalist and minimalist slogan of a famous phrase from a 1960s Soviet movie “lish by ne bylo voiny” (anything but war). Read the rest of this entry »
For most of the last two decades virtually every Ukrainian election or opinion poll has displayed two Ukraines – one Western-leaning and another looking to Moscow; one voting Timoshenko or Yushchenko and another pro Yanukovich; one against Putin and another in favour of him. Unsurprisingly, many feared that the ousting of Yanukovich, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the infiltration of eastern Ukraine by Russian military intelligence would lead Ukraine to split in two or collapse altogether like a house of cards.
Ukraine still faces four interconnected existential crises: economic, political, territorial and diplomatic (with Russia). It is also clear that even if the country manages to overcome these challenges, it will not be left unscathed. The past three months, however, have shown that Ukraine was not a powder keg waiting to explode, despite several matches having been thrown at it.
The country’s resilience has proven stronger than many assumed (both in Russia and the rest of Europe) and while its blend of problems might be poisonous, they are not insurmountable. Petro Poroshenko’s unexpectedly smooth popular election – with support drawn evenly across Ukraine – represents a potential turning point in the spiral of overlapping crises that have characterised its recent past.
One Ukraine, not two
Both Sunday’s elections results and the localised nature of the armed insurgency in east suggest there is neither two Ukraines nor a distinct ‘southeastern’ Ukraine. Although electoral preferences in Ukraine may have differed in the past, there is overwhelming popular and elite support for maintaining Ukraine as one state in the majority of its regions. Read the rest of this entry »
When it comes to foreign policy, Russia is good at sprinting, while the West – and especially the EU – is better at marathons. The use of kinetic military force by Moscow is to a large extent a sign that other, long-term foreign policy means failed in Ukraine: Russian coercive diplomacy – based on sticks (embargoes and sanctions) and carrots (offers of cheaper gas and greater market access) – did not have the desired effect.
Moscow believes it can achieve its goals with rapid bursts of sprinting, and that the West will not quicken its pace in response. In Crimea, the territory was captured in a manner that was both quick and bloodless, with the weak state institutions of Ukraine simply crumbling in the face of Russian aggression. The problem is that other post-Soviet states are equally weak (or even weaker) and although they have successfully withstood periodic Russian embargoes over the last two decades, they are unlikely to be able to resist any form of military action. Worryingly, the option of sending armed, masked men to take over public buildings in a third state is very much on the table – particularly because this has proved not only easy, but also effective – and is therefore dangerously appealing. Read the rest of this entry »
With every new major international crisis – be it the Arab Spring, the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, recurrent emergencies in Africa, or the current Ukrainian-Russian tensions – it does not take long for diplomats and observers to start wondering ‘what does China think’. It is increasingly frequent during such crises for China to be put in the spotlight and expected to have a position on events and regions on which, until recently, Chinese opinions were barely worth a footnote. This is also true for the Crimean crisis. A few days into the crisis, the Russian foreign ministry announced that the Chinese and Russians shared “broadly coinciding points of view” on the situation.
Looking at China for comfort is driven by many factors. The rise of Chinese power is just one. In international public opinion China is often seen as a sort of ‘swing’ power, capable of tipping the political balance between entrenched political warriors whose preferences are already well known. On a crisis like the one in Crimea – which elicits completely different narratives from Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and US on the other – the Chinese are seen by some as a potentially less subjective or biased source of opinions. In this sense, China can offer surprises. After the 2008 Russia-Georgian war the Chinese maintained public politeness towards Russia but, in private, were clearly against the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – thereby helping Central Asian countries resist alleged Russian pressures to recognise the independence of those entities.
Hence the rush by Russia to claim Chinese support for its actions in Ukraine – as an effort to claim greater legitimacy for its military invasion of a post-Soviet state. However, the claim that China is on Russia’s side is spurious. Read the rest of this entry »
In two weeks Ukraine has gone through two major shocks. The Ukrainian revolution was one of the most violent transitions to date, and not just in the post-Soviet space. And the Russian military intervention in Crimea arguably constituted the biggest European security crisis since the Balkans wars of the 1990s.
The events in Ukraine will long be contested by competing narratives and propaganda both inside and outside Ukraine. What matters now is managing the political fallout from the crisis and learning the right lessons to prevent any future recurrence of similar events. A useful way to consider future policy responses is to organise them around possible scenarios. For Ukraine, there may be at least three: a return to the status quo ante, a ‘Transnistrisation’ of Crimea, and a future of more military interventions.
Status quo ante?
The status quo ante would mean the return of Crimea within the legal realm of the Ukrainian state. It would mean that local authorities in Crimea are subordinated to Kiev and that local police, border guards and tax authority operate within Ukraine’s legal framework. Such a scenario appears very unlikely now.
Once Russia moved in militarily and dismantled the normal functioning of the Ukrainian state institutions – from the army to police and border guards – there is not much that could reverse this fait accompli. If one compares the developments in Crimea with the events in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the late 1980s/early 1990s, one notices that whereas it took 2-3 years for the secessionist entities to gradually and painfully secede – de facto – from Georgia and Moldova, it took 3 days for the same to happen in Crimea. The reason is that, in the early 1990s, the process was mostly bottom-up: Russia offered some support but was mostly confused and consumed by its own crisis.
In Crimea, the opposite is true. First Russia moved in troops, then local actors mobilised to dismantle the Ukrainian state institutions in the region through a swift and targeted military action that took hours, not years. Read the rest of this entry »
For the best part of the last two decades, EU-Russia summits have alternated between being upbeat events where new grand integration initiatives were launched – the creation of four common spaces in 2005, the partnership for modernisation in 2010 – and rather unfriendly encounters where success was seemingly measured on how impolite the partners could be to one another.
In recent years, summits turned less mercurial and became mainly box-ticking affairs. This is arguably a sign of the emergence of a more mature relationship based on ever higher levels of interaction in the fields of energy, tourism, business, and education. But it is also a sign of mutual disenchantment and reduced expectations, to the extent that the relationship is now practically stagnating. As a result, no grand projet is likely to help re-launch the partnership. The latest such initiative – the partnership for modernisation – is now being undermined by a conservative backlash in Russian domestic politics. Despite this relative gloom, however, the relationship can still move forward and there is progress to be made on specific initiatives.
Still trading a lot – but less
Although the EU-Russia economic partnership rests on solid foundations, it has lost its momentum. The EU is Russia’s single biggest trading partner, with 41% of Russia’s total external trade (and 45% of its exports) going to the EU in 2012, far ahead of China (9.8%) and Ukraine (3.7%), in second and third place respectively. In contrast, Russia is the EU’s third biggest trading partner – after the US and China – accounting for 9.7% of the EU’s external trade. Read the rest of this entry »
The run-up to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Vilnius has been one of the most dramatic episodes in the recent diplomatic history of the EU. The events that followed have been even more extraordinary, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians taking to the streets in protest against the non-signature of the Association Agreement with the EU.
The three key EaP countries – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – are all suffering to differing degrees from a form of pre-electoral fever. The EU is faced with the challenge of how to proceed with Ukraine whilst keeping Moldova and Georgia on the EaP track.
Ukraine: choosing not to choose
The halting of the Association process just a week before the Vilnius Summit has largely been presented as something of a geopolitical catastrophe, with Ukraine choosing Russia over the EU. This is, however, not the case. In fact, Kiev chose not to choose at all between Russia and the EU and tried hard to maintain the status quo in Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies. Yet in his bid to buy time, President Viktor Yanukovich inadvertently precipitated the biggest crisis of his presidency to date. Read the rest of this entry »
The Eurasian Union, Russian nationalism and the Moscow riots
It is a sad but quintessentially European story. A rich capital attracts migrants, which in turn creates tensions between the local population and the newly arrived immigrants. At some point, a trigger – in this case, the killing of a local man – causes those social and ethnic tensions to escalate into violence, with looted shops and burned cars. Such a scenario has unfolded in Paris, London and Stockholm before. But a few weeks ago Moscow joined the ranks when, in the district of Biryulyovo, hundreds of people rampaged through shops and the city’s biggest fruit and vegetable wholesale market.
The recent Moscow riots highlight several parallels between Russia and the rest of Europe in terms of societal politics, starting with social tensions in large urban centres and growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The riots are just one manifestation of a significant mutation in Russian nationalism – which has evolved from an expansionist, imperial and ethnically inclusive type towards an ethnically exclusive one. Thus the Biryulyovo riots – alas, neither the first nor the last of their kind – constitute a serious challenge for a Kremlin in search of a new modus operandi in domestic politics as well as foreign policy.
A more demanding public
The Biryulyovo riots and the anti-Putin protests of last year are part of the same trend whereby Russians are demanding a greater say in how society is run – a trend with both positive and negative consequences. The demonstrations by tens of thousands of people in Moscow against electoral fraud and Putin’s style of governance, back in 2012, were a sign of a rising middle class tired of authoritarian rule. This year, the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny took a significant share of the vote (27%) in the Moscow mayoral race and mobilised an unprecedented army of volunteers to campaign on his behalf. The mayoralty of Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth biggest city and the capital of the industrialised and relatively prosperous Ural region, went to another opposition campaigner, Evgenny Roizman, an anti-drug vigilante turned politician. This may not (yet) be considered as a democratic awakening – but a societal pushback against the status quo is clearly discernible.
The public’s demands for a greater say in political decision-making are far from confined to the desire for fair elections or traditional middle-class aspirations. Much more widespread is concern over immigration. Russia is one of the world’s major poles of immigration – second only to the US in absolute terms, though ranks well below the 30th place in per capita terms. The post-Soviet states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus are the main sources of such flows. A recent poll showed that over half of Muscovites identify immigration is the single most important issue today, and over 80% support the idea of introducing visas for Central Asian countries. A telling factor is that negative attitudes apply not just to migrants from other countries, but also to Russians from the North Caucasus (who are mostly Muslim and a highly visible minority), even though – as full Russian citizens – they are not officially migrants. Another significant factor is that tolerance vis-à-vis non-Russian but Slavic-speaking and Christian Orthodox Ukrainians or Belarusians is much higher than vis-à-vis Muslims – regardless whether they come from inside or outside Russia.
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A few weeks ago, Armenia stunned EU foreign policy watchers when it gave up on its association and free trade deal with the EU just a few weeks after negotiations had been finalised. The move followed Russian demands on Armenia to join the Russia-led Customs Union, thereby preventing the state from entering into a free trade with the EU. But even if Armenia’s U-turn was the direct consequence of Russian pressure, it nevertheless touched a raw nerve in the EU. It is therefore relevant to ask what Yerevan’s U-turn means for EU foreign policy in general, and for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in particular.
The shape of things to come?
That a country of 3 million people and a nominal GDP of $10 billion would turn its back on the world’s biggest market (over half a billion people and a $16 trillion GDP) would have previously been virtually unthinkable. The EU, which has spent the last two decades managing a queue of almost two dozen countries vying to enter the club, is simply not used to being rejected by countries such as Armenia.
Armenia’s sudden change of direction seems to suggest that one of the most prized things the EU can offer (access to its market) can be countered by other powers – and offers. It was not Armenia’s decision per se that shook the EU foreign policy community, but a fear of the possible shape of things to come – and a feeling that a multipolar world is emerging not only at the expense of US power, but also of EU influence. Read the rest of this entry »
The year ahead will be a crucial one for the success of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). While Ukraine and the EU work towards the eventual signature of an Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, Moldova and Georgia will only initial the Agreement, and are not due to sign it until autumn 2014.
Since the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) will only become a legal reality for them towards the end of 2014, between now and then they will be vulnerable to external pressures – diplomatic, commercial or energy-related – aimed at disrupting the signing of the agreement.
The recent U-turn by Armenia (which chose to join a Russia-led Customs Union rather than sign up to the DCFTA), as well as rising trade pressures on Ukraine and a new wine embargo on Moldova, probably mark just the beginning of a longer escalation of trade-related hostilities. The aim of these pressures is to either divert some of the Eastern partners from their EU association agenda, or drastically increase the costs of pursuing this option and weaken the political forces behind pro-EU moves. As a consequence, they will start paying the economic and geopolitical price for association with the EU well before they start reaping the benefits of it. Read the rest of this entry »