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The 1915−1916 Armenian Metz Yeghern

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On May 6th, 2016 appeared on Foreign Policy Journal’s website an article on the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide (Metz Yeghern) in the Ottoman Empire written by Raffi K. Hovannisian, an independent Armenia’s first minister of foreign affairs, currently chairs the opposition Heritage Party and directs the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan which once again launched the public debate on responsibility of those who did it and a compensation to the posteriority of those who perished in the genocide. It also rose the question of collective responsibility of the nation (the Turks and the Kurds) to which the perpetrators belonged as well as of the state that is a legal successor (Turkey) of that one in which the genocide (the Ottoman Empire) occured.

Nevertheless, we belive that many new facts and proves on this issue are going to reach the public audience soon as the Catholic church recently reveals unpublished Armenian Genocide documents from its secret Archives in Vatican. The 1915−1916 Armenian Metz Yeghern is a case of genocide that is requiring the implementation and futher development of the international norms on human and minority rights. Finally, we can not forget and the Great Catastrophy or the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks from 1914 to 1923 organized and committed by the same authority as the Armenian one.        

Introduction

A massive destruction of the Ottoman (Orthodox Christian) Armenian population in 1915−1916 is probably the greatest atrocity committed during the WWI and for sure a first 20th century case of the genocide as up to 1.500.000 ethnic Armenians were executed by the Ottoman authorities and their collaborators (the Kurds). As a consequence, the survivors are scattered across the globe. Today it is already a century old event, but the issue of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide is undoubtedly still alive and divisive political issue firstly between the Armenians and the Turks but also and among the western “liberal democracies” on the question of their responsibility in the genocide similarly to the question of the western indirect participation in the WWII Jewish holocaust.

The Ottoman Empire, as all other empires in the world history, was multiethnic, multiconfessional, multilingual and multicultural state. At the eve of the WWI it was being located at three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) with approximately two million Christian Armenians who have been living in historical-ethnogeographic Armenia, Istanbul and other towns within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman (Turkish-Kurdish) committed genocide on the ethnic Christian Armenians, organized and realized a century ago, was one of the most comprehensive examples of ethnic cleansing ever happened and recorded. It started on April 24th, 1915 in the Ottoman capital Istanbul (a Greek Constantinople) and soon was spread over the whole empire when thousands of well-known and well-to-do Armenians were firstly arrested and detained and later tortured and murdered. The organized genocide was over in August 1916 when its second phase happened (March−August 1916) with a massive killings of the Armenians who were at that time deportees in the Syrian Desert, in or around Del el-Zor. It is today estimated that the genocide cost up to 1.500.000 Armenian lives what practically means that after the WWI left only a minority of the pre-war Armenian population (one quarter). In our days, as a direct consequence of the genocide from 1915−1916, for instance, it is very hard to find the Armenians living in the interior of Asia Minor (Anatolia, a word of the Greek origin that means the East).

Ideological background of the Armenian genocide

As all genocides, the 1915−1916 Arminian Genocide had its own ideological background. In principle, if the mass killing is not based on certain ideology it is considered to be “just” the mass killing but not either the ethnic cleansing or the genocide. Of course, every genocide ideology has its own historical background.

The rapid process of declination of the Ottoman Empire (Sultanate) started with the Serb (1804−1815) national revolution and the Greek War of Independence (1821−1829) against the Ottoman yoke. Prior to the WWI the Ottoman authorities lost almost all their European possessions followed by the establishing of the French, British and Italian protectorates (colonies) in the Ottoman North Africa from 1830 to 1912. What concerns the Armenians within the Ottoman Empire; they had very important economic and financial influence before 1915. The Ottoman government throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was allowing to the Armenian financial and industrial elite to develop their businesses. The Armenians became even responsible for the Ottoman state’s mint, having in their hands cannon and shipbuilding industries and above all the Ottoman Armenians dominated trade in the country. Especially the Armenian businesses located in Istanbul were well known in Europe. Such economic prosperity of the Ottoman Armenian higher social strata gave a foundation for the Armenian national-cultural revival in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. The Armenian economic superiority can be seen the best perhaps from the very fact that there were 32 Armenian bankers out of total 37 throughout the Ottoman Empire. However, the Armenian elite did not possess any political power in the Ottoman Empire for the very common reason and rules as this area of activity was reserved exclusively for the Muslim believers regardless on their ethnolinguistic origin.

Nevertheless, a year of 1889 is one of the most important turning points in the history of the Late Ottoman Empire as it was established illegal the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP) by a group of well-educated civil servants and military cadets with the ultimate political-national goal to stop further declination of the state which could bring the Ottoman Empire to the end of its existence. More immediate goal was to restore the 1878 Constitution which was proclaimed as a consequence of the 1877−1878 Russo-Ottoman War and the 1878 Berlin Congress. The establishers of the CUP were the Young Turks, the Turkish intellectuals imbued by the West European nationalistic theories, of whom majority have been living in Paris where they were spreading propaganda against the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876−1909). The CUP party’s leaders were Mehmed Talaat, Major Ismail Enver Pasha and Dr Bahaeddin Shakir – all three of them later became mostly responsible for the Armenian genocide in 1915−1916.

When the Young Turks took power in Istanbul in 1908 by the revolution their party’s ideology became more crystallized and threefold divided into the Ottomanism, Islamism and Turkism. The main ideological point developed by the CUP was that all Ottoman citizens have to accept the Turkish nationalism as the crucial ideological principle of the Ottoman state and society. Therefore, the policy of Turkification of the whole Ottoman Empire was unavoidable in the areas of language, confession, culture and ethics. However, as the Turks were the Muslims, a policy of Turkification in practice meant the Islamization of non-Muslim segments of the Ottoman society. Being already in power, the CUP government expressed open hostility towards non-Turkish and subsequently non-Muslim Ottoman population – a hostility that became the foundation of the Armenian genocide. A fact was that simultaneously with the declination of the state the party’s ideology, based on profoundly ethnic Turkish nationalism, was becoming more and more radicalized with, according to David Kushner, anti-Armenianism as one of the most radical issues.  

Three factors as the main causes of the Armenian genocide

There were three factors which mostly influenced the Turkish-Kurdish committed genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915−1916:

1.The Ottoman loss of the First Balkan War and as a consequence the loss of almost all Ottoman land possessions in Europe in 1912−1913.

2.The putsch by the Young Turks of January 23rd, 1913 during the First Balkan War.

3.The beginning of the WWI.

1.The First Balkan War started in October 1912 with the war declaration to the Ottoman Empire by Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria (the Balkan Alliance) for the sake to expel the Ottoman state from the Balkans and to share its Balkan possessions between themselves. Regardless to the German help in the improvement of the Ottoman military under the Young Turks the Ottoman army was in general not enough prepared and ill-equipped to successfully fight especially after the exhausting Italo-Ottoman War, 1911−1912 over the province of Libya. The Treaty of London signed between the Balkan Orthodox Christian states and the Ottoman Empire on May 30th, 1913 left to the Ottoman state in Europe only a strip of land around Istanbul and as an aftermath it had a very deep traumatic impact on the Muslim segment of the Ottoman society. After the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913 the Armenians and Greeks became two largest Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire. As both the Orthodox Christians, it was only a question of time when both of them will experience the Muslim Ottoman revenge: the Armenians in 1915−1916 and the Anatolian Greeks in 1922−1923. After the Balkan Wars the Ottoman society, culture and even identity suffered a heavy blow that brought an idea of revenge including and an option of genocide as the most radical instrument of its realization. The CUP’s leadership well understood that after 1913 a project of the Ottoman identity was over as unrealistic and unacceptable by all non-Muslim subjects of the empire. However, the most important impact of the Balkan Wars to the Muslims of the Ottoman society, especially to its ethnic Turkish segment, was the creation of a mental schizophrenia of a “knife in the back” by the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. The CUP’s MPs openly were accusing in the parliament the Ottoman Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians for the state’s treason during the Balkan Wars.

2.A new putsch by the Young Turks, who never have been elected to power, committed on January 23rd, 1913 was the second factor of the main causes of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide. After the 1913 Coup a CUP’s dictatorship (Talaat-Enver) was established (1913−1918) that was followed by the restriction of a free-speech in the Parliament and terrorizing the members of the opposition. The final result of the putsch was a complete concentration of power in the hands of the CUP which started a policy of transformation of the Ottoman multiethnic society into a homogenous national state of the ethnolinguistic Turks. Such policy required either assimilation or extermination of non-ethnic Turkish Ottoman population. In addition, the course of the Armenian genocide was strongly influenced by the internal rivalry within the CUP’s dictatorship between Enver Pasha as the Ottoman military commander and Mehmed Talaat who was the civil leader of the empire.

3.Nevertheless, the beginning of the WWI was the crucial factor of the causes of the Armenian genocide. From the very start of the WWI it was clear which side the Ottoman Empire is going to support as the Ottoman government signed an agreement with Germany on close bilateral cooperation on August 2nd, 1914 including and the issue of mobilization. The Ottoman army’s commander-in-chief Enver Pasha became directly responsible for the start of military operations against the Entente as he ordered to the Ottoman navy to bomb the Russian sea coast on October 29th, 1914 without official proclamation of war. That was reason for the Entente to declare war on the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, the Armenian position became very delicate as the Armenians were living on the very border with Russia and as such they were seen by the Young Turk’s regime as a potential collaborators with the Entente and even as a dangerous “fifth column” in the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, from September 1914 the CUP’s government started with persecution of the Armenians by different means as, for instance, arbitrary war requisitions, arrests, closing the Armenian-language schools, banning Armenian political-national parties and societies, etc. The Ottoman Empire became officially at war with the Entente on November 11th, 1914. For the Young Turks’ government the Ottoman participation in the WWI was a good opportunity for both recovering the empire and implementation of radical solutions to the acute internal cluster of problems. One of the crucial motifs for the participation in the war was territorial expansion of the empire that was possible only in the East, i.e. at the expense of Russia. However, on the very border with Russia there were the Armenians who were in principle supporting the Russian Empire as a potential liberator of them from the Ottoman yoke. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army suffered heavy losses as a number of the Ottoman invasions finished with catastrophic results. But the crucial point was that Enver Pasha accused exactly the Armenians for these abortive military campaigns as a nation who betrayed the Ottoman national interest. The Turkish propaganda openly accused the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire of state’s treason, calling the Turks and other Muslims to boycott all Armenian businesses and even it was spreading stories about alleged crimes against the Turks committed by the Armenian nationals. As a consequence, Mehmed Talaat Pasha on December 26th, 1914 ordered the resignation of all government’s officers of the Armenian origin and arresting of all who defy these measures. From January 1915, more radical anti-Armenian policy was implemented as the Armenian-language newspapers are shut down and some of prominent Armenians, especially in Istanbul, have been arrested and later murdered.

A course of the Armenian genocide

The Armenian genocide was deliberate action of systematic destructions, executions, dispossessions, deportations, forced assimilation, induced famine, ethnic cleansing and annihilation of material signs of the Armenian culture and national existence on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Originally, the genocide started with the massive killings of the economic, religious, political and intellectual elite of the Armenian society in Istanbul on April 24th, 1915, but it soon became a pattern for whole-range genocide on all segments of the Ottoman Armenian national elite throughout the empire who were arrested, imprisoned, terrorized and ultimately exterminated. The entire higher social and national strata of the Armenians became eliminated during only several weeks up to June 1915. The executions of the Armenian dignitaries have been organized even on the public squares of the towns according to preserved documentary material (photos) in Armenian National Institute and Armenian Genocide Museum Institute in Yerevan.

The next and real genocide’s phase started when Mehmed Talaat Pasha as a Minister of Internal Affairs issued on May 23rd, 1915 the official order for the ultimate deportation of all Armenian population. The CPU’s government of the Young Turks introduced new provisional Law of Deportation on May 29th, 1915 which gave a legal provision for the beginning of the mass deportation of the ethnic Armenians to very inhospitable Syrian Desert’s city of Der el-Zor and its vicinity. This law was followed on June 10th, 1915 by new law that was providing a legal ground for appropriation of the Armenian properties in business and trade. More precisely, it was a law on establishing of the Abandoned Property Commission with the only task to organize collection of the Armenian properties after their deportation or killings. That was a final blow to the Arminian economy as all Arminian property simply became legally transferred to the Ottoman government and put to its disposition. The administration for the deportation of the Armenians was given to the Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants that was under direct authority of the Ottoman army. It is known that a Minister of Internal Affairs was all the time well informed about the course of deportation by telegraph correspondence and other means. For the matter of illustration, for instance, there is a report by the German consul in Erzurum on deportation from Erzurum when around 40.000 Armenians living in the city were sent by force to Der el-Zor. According to the report, that was “an absolute extermination” of the Armenian city’s population. During the march the Armenians were tortured and killed and their bodies are thrown to the Euphrates River. Finally, only about 200 Armenians from Erzurum succeeded to reach a city of Der el-Zor. In the other words, a destruction rate was in this case almost 100 percent.    

Very quickly after the start of the “Final Solution” of the Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire the Armenians were uprooted and bound for the Syrian Desert (by mid-July 1915). In many cases the Armenians had to travel around 1.000 km. throughout inhospitable territories during the hot summer time and constantly tortured by the Ottoman army who was escorting them to the final destination to which overwhelming majority never came. The essence of the whole issue is that the members of the Young Turks’ government in Istanbul knew very well that chances to survive on the road to the region of Der el-Zor are basically zero especially for the children, pregnant woman and elderly people. In fact, that was a “March of the Death”. Nevertheless, those survivors of the death march found simply nothing to be arranged for them. The bad living conditions in Der el-Zor caused a terrible famine at the beginning of 1916 to prolong a progress of genocide. Moreover, Talaat Pasha’s decision in the summer of 1916 was that too many Armenians survived the march to Der el-Zor, and consequently gave an order to the local city’s authorities to collect the Armenians into the surrounding caves and to exterminate them.  

The forced loss of authentic ethnolinguistic, cultural or confessional identity is a part of the genocide definition accepted by the contemporary post-1945 international law. That was exactly implied to the Armenians in 1915 and after by the Young Turks’ regime as a part of the “Final Solution”. More precisely, the Armenians, especially children and women, had to renounce their original Christian (Orthodox) religion and identity and to be converted into Islam. The Armenian orphan children were placed in the Muslim orphanages (like in Konya or Beirut) where they became converted into Islam, allowed to speak only Turkish language and changed their original names into the Turkish according to the Ottoman pattern of “devshirme” (“taxation in blood” of non-Muslim subjects) from the 14th to the mid-17th centuries. Therefore, many Armenian survivors of the march through the desert lost their collective national identity and original cultural-linguistic characteristics.

Material culture of the Armenians became destroyed or transformed into different purposes. The Armenian churches have been systematically destroyed and inscriptions in the Armenian language removed from the buildings. The purpose of such policy of genocide was clear and successful: to as much as eliminate cultural-national traces and roots of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Knowing that, it is “understandable” why the Turks destroyed a number of Armenian medieval churches and monasteries. As the Armenians have been understood as the first nation to accept Christianity, a destruction of their medieval Christian shrines by the Muslim Turks and Kurds had the feature of the “Clash of Civilizations”. The destruction of Armenian material culture and private property, as in all similar cases of the genocide and ethnic cleansing, had at least a dual aim:

1.To make an impression that the Armenians as a nation never existed on certain territories.

2.To ensure that the Armenian survivors will never return back to their original places of living.

The cardinal perpetrators directly involved in the Armenian genocide have been the Turks and the Kurds (both Muslims) composed by almost all social strata. The main force taking open actions in the murdering of the Armenians were the Muslim bands of violent convicts who were at the beginning of the WWI released from the prisons to fight against the Russian troops. When the Armenian genocide started their new task has been to eliminate the Armenian population. The main engineer of the genocide was Mehmed Tallaat Pasha as a Minister of Internal Affairs who created a propaganda framework of it by accusing all Armenians as a collective national body of high treason, disloyalty and practical sabotage actions against the Ottoman army and state. It is clear from his conversations with the German consul that his government has to use the war situation to get rid of all internal enemies of the empire but on the first place of all indigenous Christians. More precisely, the Turkification of the Asia Minor by ethnic cleansing of all Armenians was a prime goal of such policy. However, Dr Bahaeddin Shakir, as one of the most prominent CPU’s members, had a crucial role in the process of practical implementation of the genocide which had its second stage in 1916 from March to August when were the massive killings of the Armenian deportees in Syrian Desert and in vicinity of Der el-Zor.

Consequences

The Armenian genocide is one of the most important and influential instances of ethnic cleansing, people’s transfer and economic dispossession in the history of modern times. As the first 20th century’s genocide, the Armenian genocide has to be, and is, taken into consideration as an example and pattern for subsequent genocides in the coming decades. As such, it is of cardinal historical significance, and it is critically important that today’s generations can properly understand this case study of inhumanity.        

Before the act of genocide, the Ottoman Armenian community possessed around 2.600 churches, 450 monasteries and 2.000 schools. However, after the WWI around 3.000 Armenian settlements were depopulated. Today, the Armenian population in Turkey can be practically found only in Istanbul. Present day Armenian community in Turkey has only six churches and no single school or monastery.  

The evidences and records of genocide are numerous but probably the most valuable archival material are gone forever when on November 2nd, 1918 the ultra right wing members of the CUP burned documents before the government’s top politicians and main organizers of the genocide escaped the country in a German submarine to Odessa. A new liberal government of the Ottoman Empire on February 5th, 1919 established a special tribunal in Istanbul for the war crimes which officially accused the previous Young Turks’ government of “deportation and massacre” but only after the British pressure. As a final result of a court procedure, the CUP’s government in April 1919 was sentenced to death and the court proclaimed that:

“The disaster visiting the Armenians was not a local or isolated event. It was the result of a premeditated decision taken by a central body… and the immolations and excesses which took place were based on oral and written orders issued by that central body”.        

However, probably and unfortunately, the cardinal consequence of the 1915−1916 Armenian Genocide is a fact that this unpunished crime became a pattern for the other genocides in the 20th century. It is clear at least in two cases:

1)The Jewish holocaust during the WWII committed by the Nazi Germany’s NSDAP regime in occupied Europe.

2)The Serb holocaust on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia, 1941−1945 committed by the Ustashi Croat regime.

Namely, in both of these holocaust cases, a cardinal motif for the genocide was the fact that exactly the Armenian genocide became absolutely forgotten, no spoken and unpunished by the international community. In the other words, if very soon after the genocide the world was not remembering the Armenians and not punishing the perpetrators of the genocide it can be very likely to be the same with the Jews and Serbs or with any other nation in the coming future.                      

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Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum

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In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.

But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.

Background

Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity. After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US. Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia). However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation. Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined.  In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.

However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner. In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.    

The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?

Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets. Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts. Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.

The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?

There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms. However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.

Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.

In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.

China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market

In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’. Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil.  Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.

Turkey- An Emerging Vector

Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.

However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.

Conclusion

The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future. Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow. It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.  

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‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue

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The Western countries’ reaction to the detention of an opposition leader in Minsk has revealed the high degree of readiness of the United States and its allies to create risky situations for the sake of momentary political benefits. No matter how the actions of the Belarusian authorities were consistent with international aviation law and customs, the behaviour of Washington and most of European capitals showed that they are difficult, if not hopeless partners for the rest of the world community. Now we have no reason to fear that developments will turn into an uncontrolled escalation — the attacks of the West against Lukashenko do not directly impact Russian interests. However, what has happened in the media and in diplomatic circles in recent days provides ample opportunity to consider the need for new containment measures in relation to the habit of the US and Europe to take European and international security so lightly.

So far, Russia’s reaction to these emotional outbursts has been restrained, because the actions of the Western countries did not directly harm its interests. But if such hysteria repeats, it will confirm the lack of intentions in the West to establish any kind of stable dialogue with those powers that are not willing to subordinate their respective domestic and foreign policies to its demands. Is this some kind of a “strategic frivolity”, whose appearance in international affairs and the behaviour of the EU and the US has become more and more regular as the balance of power in world politics shifts? Russia, for its part, can show any amount of restraint, but the line beyond which this will become impossible, may be passed unnoticed.

As a matter of fact, such a reaction of the West to the stoppage of an international flight by the Belarusian authorities and the detention of one of the passengers did not come as a surprise. In recent years, Russia, China and others have become accustomed to the fact that the United States and Europe have been quick to sacrifice international stability when it has suited their concurrent goals.

The EU countries have been grasping at any straw in their attempts to confirm their greater relevance in terms of international law on the world political stage. It hasn’t been working out very well so far.

At the summit on May 25, the leaders of the European Union countries approved a resolution calling for a package of measures against Belarus — personal sanctions and broader measures against the Belarusian economy. But it is clear how ineffective these measures will be, even to the European observers. After the failure of the EU to work out a common position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the failure of another attempt to “punish” the government of Alexander Lukashenko will serve as another blow to the international reputation of the EU.

Britain, which left the EU, but remains the closest satellite of the United States, is in principle trying to behave as the main opponent against any country whose position does not coincide with Washington’s wishes. Now London’s position is aligned with that of the Baltic states, which are most irresponsible in their statements and actions. It is unlikely that this will strengthen London’s position on the world stage. The United States, for its part, is acting in its usual way — while lacking any direct interests, it easily creates risks for others. Surprisingly, in this respect, the behaviour of the US resembles the behaviour of Minsk, which is also not always ready to take into account Russia’s diplomatic wishes.

For Russia, the recent diplomatic “plane crash” involving Belarus does not pose immediate threats, but it may become another test for Russia’s legendary restraint. Moscow is clearly accustomed to the fact that the Western states are not always predictable in their actions and, in principle, live “in their own world”, where there are certain rules for them, and completely different ones for others. So far, Russia has reacted to all this in a very reserved manner. The measures the West has taken against Minsk do contradict basic Russian interests in the field of European security, but they do not create threats and do not harm Russia. However, it is the ease with which the West enters a conflict with any nation, at the slightest pretext, that causes Russia’s concern.

It will be extremely fortunate if, during the Russia-US summit, scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, the parties can deliver some appeasement to international or regional politics. It is unlikely that the summit will result in any breakthrough of a general nature; there are no preconditions for this. But the very ability of Russia and the United States to discuss common interests will show that both great powers retain the responsibility necessitated by their strategic importance. So far, however, we cannot be sure even of such a minimal positive outcome of the expected meeting.

Russia concurs that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are no example of prudence. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that Moscow has adequately estimated the scale of Western pressure on Minsk and understands that in the situation that has arisen, reactions such as that of the Belarusian government are quite predictable, and even justified. In 2020, a number of Belarus’ neighbours in the West openly supported a movement to overthrow President Lukashenko. Russia then supported the legitimate Belarusian government and warned of its readiness to provide it with practical assistance.

Lukashenko himself can pursue his interests as much as he wants, and sometimes even refuse to coordinate actions with Russia — Belarus is a sovereign state. However, the alternative to his regime now is an attempt to bring to power such forces that will confidently follow the Ukrainian scenario.

The internal political crisis in Belarus, even if it enters a hot phase, would be beneficial to the interests of the United States and would have a devastating effect on European security. However, as we can see, now the countries of Western Europe are in a state of political “knockdown” and cannot control events that risk putting an end even to the minimal independence and choice possessed by Europe. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are ready to create risky situations, because outside the conflict with Russia, they have no future in international politics. The fact that the future within the framework of this conflict may turn out to be very short for all of them does not bother them at all. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are dominated by forces, for which adventurous behaviour has become the basis of politics inside and outside. Germany and France cannot stop them because they are engulfed in colossal internal problems.

We can hardly expect that the next surge of “strategic frivolity” will have really dramatic consequences. In any case, the world history of all-out wars does not know examples when large-scale armed conflicts would have really insignificant incidents as a pretext. In all known episodes, a “tragic accident” has always involved the interests or security of one of the leading powers. Now we don’t see this, and most politicians in the West are therefore behaving irresponsibly, because they do not expect a serious escalation. Moreover, the Lukashenko government is indeed becoming one of the permanent opportunities for the United States and Europe to stage high-profile political campaigns without a real threat to the world. But this is not a guarantee that if there are grounds for a big conflict, the behaviour of the West would be more reasonable than these days.

From our partner RIAC

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Eastern Europe

Ryanair Incident: Five Sanctions Risks for the Republic of Belarus

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The detention in Belarus of a plane operated by the Irish company Ryanair has caused a sharp reaction in the US and the EU. The issue of expanding sanctions was again on the agenda. They may turn out to be even more serious than the restrictive measures introduced last year in response to the situation around the presidential elections.

The approach of Washington and Brussels is defined by several lines of argument which converge at one point. First, the detention of the plane resulted in the arrest of opposition politician Roman Protasevich. The incident reignited the theme of democracy and human rights violations, which have long served as a basis for sanctions. Second, the Western powers proceed from the fact that the aircraft was detained under the false pretext of a terrorist attack threat on board. The statements of the Hamas movement that they were not involved in the events added their share of farce. Third, the detention was carried out with the use of an Air Force fighter, that is, this aspect of the incident can be interpreted as the use of force. History knows a number of examples of such detentions, including the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013. From a formal point of view, Minsk acted in the interests of national security within Belarusian territory. However, this formality and the existence of precedents are unlikely to play a serious role. In the USA, the incident is understood as a “shocking act” that endangered the lives of passengers and has served as a new reason to condemn Lukashenko for undermining democracy. Similar assessments were given in Brussels and London. Threats of new sanctions were voiced almost immediately. There are five main sanctions risks for Belarus.

The first risk is that of a ban on the use of the territory of Belarus for aircraft transit, a ban on flights to Belarus, as well as on the reception of aircraft from Belarusian airlines. Threats quickly began to shift to a practical level. The leaders of the EU countries called for a ban on flights of Belarusian aircraft in EU airspace. The UK and France have already introduced such measures. Some airlines have cancelled flights through Belarus. The big questions are: how long will such measures last and how unanimous will states and companies be in implementing them? However, it is clear that all this will complicate supply chains, as well as cause economic damage to the country and its partners abroad.

The second risk is that of diplomatic sanctions. In response to the replacement of the state flag of Belarus with the flag of the Belarusian opposition in Riga (with the participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia), Minsk decided to expel all employees of the Latvian embassy. Similar decisions were made in Riga with regard to the employees of the Belarusian embassy.

The third risk is the denial of EU investment programmes. The government of Belarus would hardly receive such assistance even without the incident with the plane. The condition of assistance is a democratic transition in the country.

The fourth risk is another wave of sanctions against Belarusian officials. Such sanctions were widely used in response to the events in 2020. They play a rather symbolic role and do not do much economic harm. Usually they entail visa bans and the freezing of assets. At the same time, their psychological function should not be ignored. Such sanctions are usually aimed to sow discontent among the political elite, betting on its dissatisfaction with the political course of the country’s leadership. The EU may assume that even the security forces may not like to play the role of pariahs.

Finally, the fifth risk is that of blocking sanctions against strategic enterprises. Such sanctions have also been used in the past. A number of large Belarusian enterprises are already in the sanctions list (SDN) of the US Treasury. Most of them have a general license. Previously, such licenses were extended for long periods (up to two years). However, in April, the license was renewed for only a month and a half. It expires on June 2, 2021. Will the US, and after them the EU, carpet bomb the Belarusian economy? The lifting of the exemptions and the renewal of sanctions would cause serious economic damage. However, the threat of such actions will remain inevitable.

The resumption of blocking sanctions against big companies has not yet been discussed loudly. Despite the visceral opposition to the Belarusian leader and the country’s political system, the West is hardly eager to strengthen Russia’s position in relations with Belarus. This would deprive the Belarusian leadership of room for manoeuvre in its dialogue with Moscow and make Minsk much more dependent. But this is theory. In practice, such sanctions will provide a headache for Russia itself. They will hit the economic ties of Belarusian and Russian enterprises. The latter may fear secondary US sanctions. In addition, Belarus is likely to need large-scale economic assistance. The threat of sanctions poses important problems for the Union State of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Among them is the creation of payment mechanisms that would ensure uninterrupted economic ties in the event of an aggravation of the sanctions pressure.

From our partner RIAC

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