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Vitalizing Russia- Japan relations

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A top nuclear power with a veto on the UNSC, Russia enjoys, almost at par with US super power, certain privileges and international prestige that Japan, a non nuclear and non veto power, does not. USA looks after Japan’s interests in the UNSC.

A close NATO ally of USA, Japan is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its veto ambition in the UNSC is a very important topic for the country. However, since there are other more important veto claimants like Saudi Arabia and Turkey Americans hesitate to undertake steps to make Japan a veto member. Moreover, Strategic experts view Japan’s veto status would even be detrimental to US global interests.

Russo-Japanese relations have been strained for decades manly due to four islands that the mighty Soviet Union had annexed from Japan in the WW-II. The four Kuril Islands — Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai — have been administered by Russia since the end of World War II, but Japan still lays claim to them.

Ties between the two countries deteriorated two years ago after Tokyo announced that it would support Western economic sanctions imposed on Moscow over its alleged interference in Ukraine, but the lack of stable relations actually goes back decades.

Kuril Islands

Commenting on the background to the diplomatic good will visit in analysis Russian geopolitical analysts noted that at first glance, Russian Japanese relations are exceptional in their astonishing irrationality.

Relations between Russia and Japan are not on the positive side and they are a continuation of tensed Empire of Japan–Russian Empire relations, covering 1855-1917 and equally tensed Japan–Soviet Union relations covering 1917-1991. The two countries have been unable to sign a peace treaty after World War II due to the Kuril Islands dispute.

It appears Russia seeks to upgrade its relationship with Japan and on April 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tokyo for a two-day official visit, discussing political and economic issues. Lavrov invited Prime Minister Abe to visit Russia.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe left on May 01 for a weeklong visit to major European countries and Russia to lay the groundwork for the Group of Seven summit he will host this month and to address a decades-old territorial row with Moscow. Abe conferred with European leaders on how to support the world economy amid China’s economic slowdown. He visits Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Britain before traveling on to Russia. He also plans to discuss counterterrorism measures and appeal to European members of the G-7 to emphatically denounce North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches at the summit.

On his way back from Europe, Abe is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks in the southern city of Sochi on issues including the long-standing dispute over four Russian-held islets off Hokkaido. “I hope to resolve the issue by patiently negotiating based on a policy of resolving the issue of the ownership of the islands and concluding a peace treaty,” Abe said at the airport. The government hopes Abe’s meeting with Putin in Sochi will pave the way for the Russian president to visit Japan, something once tentatively planned for 2014 but postponed due to tensions over Ukraine.

The specific character of the Japanese-US alliance shows that Tokyo, as a part of NATO, is occasionally forced to subordinate its interests to those of the Americans. For example, because of US pressure, the Japanese were forced to join in on the West’s anti-Russian sanctions, and cancel a number of high-level meetings between officials.

This, of course, is something Lavrov reminded his partners about in Tokyo.” “In order to find compromise, it is necessary to maintain a continuous, uninterrupted dialogue. But Japan made the decision to limit contacts with us at a certain point. In my opinion, this does not meet the interests of the Japanese government or the Japanese people,” Lavrov emphasized. At the same time, the minister noted that “despite pressure from its partners, and particularly the United States, our Japanese friends are nevertheless committed to maintaining these relationships.”

Moscow hopes that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming visit to Russia will give impulse to the entire complex of Russian-Japanese relations. “We understand that contacts during this visit will allow for additional impulse in advancing the entire complex of our relations in line with the joint statement of the two leaders in 2012 and the following agreements,” Lavrov said during a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.

Next round of Russian-Japanese peace treaty talks will be held shortly after the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Russia.

Russia’s top diplomat Lavrov said in a positive tone that Russia-Japan peace treaty issue cannot be reduced to “territorial claims” at the very least because the only document that was signed and ratified by both sides — the joint declaration of 1956 — states that the sides have agreed to renounce all claims against each other, and the next task is to sign a peace treaty,” Lavrov said in an interview with Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian media.

Lavrov said Prime Minister Abe expressed interest in visiting Russia. As for a possible visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov stated that there are “absolutely no obstacles.” “In order for the visit to take place, we need for the invitation… to take the form of a specific date,” he added.

Lavrov also said USA does not like any credible improvement in Russo-Japanese relations and that disapproving statements coming from Washington regarding high-level contacts between Russia and Japan are simply outrageous. “I think our Japanese colleagues understand this and assess it in a way such unacceptable manners should be assessed.”

The United States’ exerting pressure on Japan undermines Russian-Japanese bilateral relations. US pressure on Japan leads to narrowing of dialogue between Moscow and Tokyo, Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said responding to a request to comment on the Japanese media reports that US President Barack Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, asking him not to come to Russia. Japan narrowed Russian contacts and curtailed the work in bilateral direction, under the pressure and insistent recommendations of the United States.

Japan’s officials have been recommended not to pay or exchange visits to or with Russia in a rather harsh manner before. However, the official Washington spokesman has recently said that if one contact with Russian officials takes place, then it’s alright, thus giving the go-ahead.

Lavrov said that overall the upcoming Russian-Japanese summit agenda looks very dense both in terms of bilateral and international issues. “We would like to see Russia and Japan move from just exchanging opinions to coordinating approaches to urgent international issues”

Experts and diplomats acknowledge that they have been preparing this series of visits for several months. The main obstacle had been for Abe and Putin to voice at least a framework for a compromise. And given that the visits have been discussed, this seems to indicate that a formula for a compromise framework has finally been determined.

Territorial dispute

Nearly 71 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, Russia and Japan still have no peace treaty between them. However, they never fought a war since WW II. The dispute over the Russian-held islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the two countries from peace treaty to officially end World War II.

Ties between two countries deteriorated after Tokyo announced support for certain Western economic sanctions against Russia imposed in 2014 over Moscow’s alleged interference in the eastern Ukrainian conflict. Russia has resolutely denied the accusations. The dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands deteriorated Russo-Japan relations when the Japanese government published a new guideline for school textbooks on July 16, 2008 to teach Japanese children that their country has sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. The Russian public was generally outraged by the action and demanded the government to counteract. The Foreign Minister of Russia announced on July 18, 2008 “these actions contribute neither to the development of positive cooperation between the two countries, nor to the settlement of the dispute,” and reaffirmed its sovereignty over the islands.

And the territorial issue is the key stumbling block. The two sides cannot agree on the territorial issue. The Japanese demand all four islands and will not agree to any compromise solution. Both countries discussed the issue for years but could not reach a credible solution. The two sides agreed to seek a resolution over the persistent Kuril Islands dispute, but the decision of the dispute is not expected in the near future. Despite the territorial dispute, Hata offered some financial support to Russian market-oriented economic reforms. In March 1994, then Japanese minister of foreign affairs Hata Tsutomu visited Moscow and met with Russian minister of foreign affairs Andrei Kozyrev and other senior officials.

Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991. Moscow took a stand in opposition to relinquishing the disputed territories to Japan. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in contributing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Tokyo and Moscow remained poor. Russian president Boris Yeltsin postponed a scheduled September 1992 visit to Japan to October 11, 1993. He made concessions on the Kuril Islands dispute over the four Kuril Islands (northeast of Hokkaido), a considerable obstacle to Japanese-Russian relations, but did agree to abide by the 1956 Soviet pledge to return two areas (Shikotan and the Habomai Islands) to Japan. Yeltsin apologized repeatedly for Soviet mistreatment of Japanese prisoners of war after World War II.

In 2010, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to take a state trip to the Kuril Islands. Medvedev shortly ordered significant reinforcements to the Russian defenses on the Kuril Islands. Medvedev was replaced by Vladimir Putin in 2012. In November 2013, Japan held its first ever diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation, and the first with Moscow since 1973. Further talks are expected in 2014, with a formal peace treaty on the table as both sides seem willing to compromise

As of 2016 matters remain unresolved, and these disputes have effectively soured relations between the two countries. Since governments are not maintain good relations, peole in both countries do not have a positive view of each other. According to a 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, compared with 22% who viewed it favorably, making Japan the country with the most anti-Russian sentiment.

Japan’s demands

The Kremlin considers all for islands as strategic territories. As Japan demands all the four islands, Russia’s leadership was willing, in 2004, to make a compromise along the lines of the 1956 proposal – to transfer two islands and sign the peace treaty after that. Moscow said two of the four islands is the compromise. Japan has held and continues to hold a different position: for them these two islands are just the start of negotiations in which a compromise can be found, which should include at least a third island.” Moreover, Tokyo has also suggested another option: that Russia gives up two islands now, launching strong bilateral relations and two more at a later point.

In fact Japan wants all four islands from Russia.

In any case, now Russia is not planning on giving anything up, as the Foreign Ministry’s statement shortly before Lavrov’s departure made perfectly clear. The statement clearly said that progress on any peace treaty would remain impossible without Japan’s recognition of post-war realities.

And Russia’s stubbornness can be explained not only by the fact that Moscow does not want to throw away its strategic territories, and not just because Japan needs the peace treaty and an improvement in relations more than Russia does but also because the Kremlin is not convinced in the reliability of any agreements with Japan.

New effort for Mutual benefits

The status of disputed islands and unstable bilateral relations continues to disturb any normal relations but the NATO of which Japan is an important financing member did not let the relations to take any positive plunge. However, Moscow says it wants to stabilize ties with Japan. Sergei Lavrov’s Tokyo visit was meant essentially to hold a comprehensive discussion on bilateral and international issues. His visit to Japan comes partly in preparations for Abe’s possible arrival in Russia to discuss the territorial issue. The visit aimed at laying the groundwork for improved relations between Moscow and Tokyo, and to iron out details on a future visit to Russia by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Russian business magazine experts mull the prospects for Russian-Japanese relations.

There are other options for solving the territorial dispute that do not involve Russia giving up its sovereignty over the Kuriles. This, for example, may include the creation of a special economic zone with preferences for Japanese investment. Such a scenario would bring a number of benefits for both Japan with Prime Minister Abe being able to say that he has returned partial control over the islands, and for Russia, since Japanese investments would help the islands’ economy. It appears this will be one of the topics to be discussed by Abe during his visit to Russia,” which could be held as soon as next month.

The Japanese prime minister is set on resolving the territorial issue and has said so more than once and is ready to discuss the various options personally with Vladimir Putin. These discussions would continue, most likely in Tokyo, where the Russian president would arrive with a return visit, a prospect which requires only the setting of a specific date, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

It would seem that both countries would benefit from almost a strategic partnership level of relations. Russia can offer Japan the energy it requires, as well as resources and a market for the expansion of Japanese capital. But more importantly, the Kremlin could become a geopolitical balance, helping Tokyo to find a formula to defend against an ever-strengthening China. After all, Russia is one of the few countries in the region that does not hold animosity for Tokyo over Japan’s war crimes in the first half of the 20th century.

In turn, Japan can provide Russia with technology, industrial goods, investment and innovations, and actively participate in the development of the Russian Far East.

The Kremlin, for its part, is ready to sign such a treaty immediately, and then begin to build a strategic partnership. Without effective cooperation with Japan, there can be no complete ‘eastern pivot’ in Russian foreign policy, but only a ‘Chinese tilt’.

However, Tokyo has one condition: the Japanese want the South Kuril Islands, which the USSR took from Japan after the Second World War. The problem of the peace treaty is directly linked to the issue of the northern territories, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said ahead of Lavrov’s visit, referring to the Kuriles.

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Legitimate soft power or malign influence?

Celine Emma la Cour

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The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.

There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.

For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.

The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.

In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.

From state to people

I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.

Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?

Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.

Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).

Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.

Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.

From digital to physical

In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.

A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.

Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.

Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.

Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?

Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.

A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.

In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.

Good image can be threatening

Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).

In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.

Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.

Litterature:

Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.

Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77

Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363

Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160

Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471

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Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus

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The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.

First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.

Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.

Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.

And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.

Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.

Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.

Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.

There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.

The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.

Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.

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Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As expected, Alexei Navalny’s case is seriously tearing apart relationship between European Union and Russian Federation. The alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on August 20 in Tomsk (Siberia), has similarities to the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and that of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury, England. Russia’s political history is dotted with that well-colored inerasable image.

Navalny is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. As a citizen, he has the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to associate with social and political groups. But his activities has angered the officialdom and becomes most hated politician. He has been detained several times by Russian authorities.

Now Navalny, who was “allegedly poisoned” in August, stands a determining factor shaping the relationship between Western world and European Union and Russia. Sanctions are the punitive measures against Russia. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital in Omsk, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.

Specialist labs in France and Sweden have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government Spokesman Steffen Seibert said mid-Sept, and confirmed that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had also received samples and was taking steps to have those tested at its reference laboratories.

According to Seibert, the European Union’s summit, set to take place on September 24-25. The world would be looking for what measures be collectively adopted with regard to Navalny and against Russia.

On Sept 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the local media that there were another series of anti-Russian sanctions being initiated by the West amid the situation involving Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, all these designed to deliver a blow to relations between Russia and the European Union.

“The main goal today, at least it appears to be this way, is to deliver a blow to the relations between our countries and the European Union, and countries that are part of the union. Everything is going in this framework,” Zakharova said in the 60 Minutes show on the Rossiya 1 (VGTRK) television channel.

On Sept 15, during its session the European Union planned to create a global regime sanctioning human rights violations around the world and the intention to name it after Alexey Navalny. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that will erode the basic principles of international law and undermines the prerogatives of the UN Security Council through endless illegitimate unilateral sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington.

As for whether it would be advisable to name this sanctions regime after Alexei Navalny, it viewed  “this exclusively as an undisguised attempt to give a manifestly anti-Russia tonality to the new EU restrictions. At the same time, Berlin persists in brushing off proposals to work together in order to get to the bottom of what happened, using clearly far-fetched pretexts. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and our partners will renounce the arbitrary practice of assigning blame and in the future will draw conclusions based on real and confirmed facts.”

That however Moscow readies to hit back on EU sanctions. Local daily newspaper Izvestia also wrote that Russia vows to retaliate against potential European Union sanctions. Even though the European Union is trying to elbow Russia out of the gas market, it is unlikely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will be abandoned over the incident with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, quoting sources in the Russian Federation Council (Upper House of Parliament).

The resolution approved by the European Parliament (EP) stresses the need for an international investigation into the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok-type toxic agent. European MPs called for suspending Nord Stream 2 and slapping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is urging Berlin to cooperate in the investigation of what happened to Navalny. If the EU levies sanctions on Russia, Moscow can provide a tit-for-tat response, Russian MPs told the paper.

“I don’t think this option will come to life, because it is difficult to connect the situation with Navalny to the construction of Nord Stream 2. This is just an excuse to push Russia out of the gas market. We need to react calmly and not be dragged into those discussions,” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov told Izvestia, commenting on the resolution.

Similarly, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Chepa explained to Izvestia that in the event of any real anti-Russian sanctions, Russia could provide a tit-for-tat response. For example, if the European Union approves personal restrictions and a sanctions list, Moscow will do the same.

“Of course, we will respond. However, this will impact both our economy and the economy of Germany and the European Union. No one wins here. However, there may be a tit-for-tat blacklist that would include, for example, the MPs that called for anti-Russian sanctions or for the suspension of Nord Stream 2,” the MP said, stressing that Moscow will only retaliate if the European Union introduces real sanctions against Russia.

Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that European Union to loosen legal mechanism for new sanctions against Russia. It said that the European Commission is working on broadening its legal instruments that would enable the introduction of personal sanctions against human rights violators in different countries, counting Russia among them. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced plans to adopt Europe’s version of the Magnitsky Act and suggested adjusting the mechanism for approving sanctions in such a way that does not require the support of all European Union member states.

According to Kommersant, this amendment, if adopted, will no longer allow Moscow to count on friendly European countries that have called on European Union allies not to impose tough sanctions on Russia. According to von der Leyen, the proposals for a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ will be ready soon. She explained the European Union should be able to respond clearly and quickly to what is happening anywhere, whether in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk.

The German Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that the European Union will be able to agree on an extensive package of sanctions against Russia soon. Rather, an agreement on a blacklist similar to the ‘Magnitsky list’ could be expected. According to experts, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany and the European Union would rather allow the project be implemented in full, and then introduce some measures to restrict or prohibit transportation of gas through the pipeline.

“With the crises around Navalny and Lukashenko unfolding, the freezing of Nord Stream 2 seems to be in the cards. Nevertheless, we are not talking about a complete breakdown of relations. Even during the Cold War, economic ties between the USSR and the West were not completely severed,” Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),Nadezhda Arbatova, told Kommersant newspaper. “Today’s confrontation between Russia and the West is a struggle of ideology and real politics. Minimal interaction will be maintained, but this will not change the quality of relations between Russia and the EU,” she predicted.

European Union and Russia have strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 but that was later challenged following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Russia has five member states: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland share its border. The relations are determined by European Union member on bilateral basis, but all the members adopt common or collective policies toward the Russian Federation.

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