Archive for category Russia

After Crimea: Putin’s Balance Sheet

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 »

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Ukraine: the view from China

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 »

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Three scenarios for Ukraine

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 »

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EU-Russia: facing stagnation

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 »

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Eurasian Union’s problem with Russian nationalism

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 solidarity package for the eastern partners

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 »

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Keeping the Eastern Partnership on track

Sir Humphrey Appleby, the suave civil servant in the British sitcom ‘Yes Minister’ known for his wise but cynical pessimism, once remarked that diplomacy is about surviving until the next century – while politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.

Such differences in time horizons apply also to the pace of European foreign policy when dealing with post-Soviet realities, as the EU and most of its Eastern partners enter the finishing line on Association and Deep and Comprehensive FreeTrade Area agreements. For in the case of EU-Armenia relations, things have not survived intact until Friday afternoon. After having been engaged for years in the preparation and negotiation of an Association and Free-Trade agreement with the EU, Armenia has aborted the process just before its conclusion and announced its intention to join the Russian-led Customs Union. Read the rest of this entry »

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Russia-Syria: The Odd Couple

As the world awaits a possible military strike – led by the US – on Syria, the leaders of the G20 are gathering for their annual summit in St Petersburg. This time round, the issue of war is likely to overshadow discussions on the economy, finance and trade, with the meetings and media platforms of the summit being used to exchange arguments over Syria between advocates of military action and the dwindling group of friends of Bashar al-Assad.

Some Western leaders will no doubt try to persuade President Putin to alter his hitherto obstructive stance on Syria. In public, they are likely to make appeals on humanitarian grounds, arguing that the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population cannot go unpunished. In private, they will appeal directly to Russia’s rational self-interest and urge Moscow to come down on the right side of history in the eyes of the Arab world. In all likelihood, Russia will respond with lectures on the sanctity of international law, state sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of others. As a result of these two seemingly unbridgeable positions, it may well become another dialogue of the deaf.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria may have emboldened some countries in the West to take a more pro-active stance on Syria, but it does not seem to have had any real impact on the Russian standpoint. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Russian support for Assad is not primarily motivated by the interests of arms dealers, the desire to hold on to its military base in Tartus or a cynical attempt to simply antagonise the West. Although driven by all of these concerns to varying degrees, Russian support for Syria is mainly rooted in the historical relationship of the two countries and in respective domestic political developments of the last few decades. Consequently, appeals to either humanitarian sympathies or naked interests are highly unlikely to change the Russian position. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Russian-Ukrainian Trade Spat

In mid-August, Russia blocked virtually all imports from Ukraine. Although the cross-border flows between the two countries have since resumed following a week of heightened tension, the issue is far from over. On the contrary, the trade spat was probably just the first warning shot in what could escalate into a full blown trade war, the ultimate aim of which would be to prevent Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November, thereby preventing further economic integration with the European Union and steering it in a Eurasian direction instead.

It is in Ukraine’s political interest to sign the Association Agreement, containing a free trade component, with the EU, while maintaining the existing free trade agreements it has with other post-soviet states, including Russia. Although a country can have multiple free trade agreements and such an arrangement would be a win-win situation for Ukraine, Russia is adopting a more zero-sum stance towards the matter. This is primarily due to the fact that, once Ukraine signs the Association Agreement with the EU, it will no longer the able to join the Russia-led Customs Union – or the proposed  Eurasian Economic Union – due to the differing standards and tariffs in place. An EU-Ukraine free trade deal will mean greater access for Ukraine to the EU market through lower customs and non-tariff barriers, higher export quotas for certain sensitive goods, and the adoption of EU standards in a wide range of domains.

Until recently, Russia was relatively at ease, feeling secure in its belief that the EU would not sign the already finalised and initialled Association Agreement with Ukraine as long as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko remained in jail, and that President Yanukovich was unlikely to release his main political rival a year and a half before the next presidential elections, due in early 2015. However, in the last few months there has been some progress made, with the European Commission putting forward a proposal for a Council decision on the signing of the Agreement, and the EU and its member states working more actively to seal the deal with Ukraine in Vilnius. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ukraine’s gas loop

For many years, most countries in central and eastern Europe – from Bulgaria to Latvia, from Ukraine to Hungary – have complained of their dependence on Russian gas. All have tried to reduce this dependence through a combination of the development of new infrastructure (interconnectors, compressor stations for reverse gas flow), frantic searches for alternative gas suppliers (Nabucco, Norway), anti-trust procedures against Gazprom (as launched by the European Commission), and regulatory changes affecting the sale of gas in Europe (the ‘third package’).

An interesting sideshow of this struggle is now occurring in Ukraine. While most analysts assumed that a decreased dependence on Russia would come from access to non-Russian resources – in the form of shale gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG) or Norwegian gas – Ukraine and the German energy giant RWE seem to have found a way to limit Gazprom’s sway over Kiev, while continuing to consume Russian gas. Read the rest of this entry »

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