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Historical background of the Ukrainian statehood

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The German occupation forces were those who have been the first to create and recognize a short-lived state’s independence of Ukraine in January 1918 during the time of their-own inspired and supported anti-Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917−1921. As reoccupied by the Bolshevik Red Army, the eastern and southern parts of the present-day territory of (a Greater) Ukraine joined in 1922 the USSR as a separate Soviet Socialist Republic (without Crimea).

According to 1926 Soviet census of Crimea, the majority of its population were the Russians (382.645). The second largest ethnic group were the Tartars (179.094). Therefore, a Jew V. I. Lenin has to be considered as the real historical father of the Ukrainian statehood but also and as of the contemporary nationhood. Ukraine was the most fertile agricultural Soviet republic but particularly catastrophically affected by (Georgian) Stalin’s economic policy in the 1930s which neglected agricultural production in favour of the speed industrialisation of the country. The result was a great famine (holodomor) with around seven million people dead but majority of them were of the ethnic Russian origin. A territory of the present-day Ukraine was devastated during the WWII by the Nazi German occupation forces from 1941 to 1944 who installed in Ukraine a puppet and criminal regime of S. Bandera (1900−1959) under which a genocide on Poles, Jews and Russians was committed [on Stepan Bandera, see: Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist. Fascism, Genocide, and Cult, Stuttgart, ibidem, 2014]. For instance, the Ukrainian militia (12.000) directly participated in the 1942 holocaust of some 200.000 Volhynian Jews together with 140.000 German policemen. The Ukrainian mass killers learned their job from the Germans and applied their knowledge as well as on the Poles [Timothy Snyder, Tautų rekonstrukcija: Lieuva, Lenkija, Ukraina, Baltarusija 1569−1999, Vilnius: Mintis, 2009, 183].

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Stepan Bandera declares independence of Ukraine (June 30th, 1941)

After the war J. V. Stalin, supported by the Ukrainian party-cadre N. Khrushchev, deported about 300.000 Ukrainians from their homeland as they have been accused for the collaboration with the Nazi regime during the war and the participation in genocide done by S. Bandera’s government. However, after the war the Ukrainians have been and directly rewarded by Moscow for the collaboration with the Germans and participation in S. Bandera’s organized genocide as the lands of Transcarpathia, littoral Moldova (Bessarabia), Polish Galicia and part of Romania’s Bukovina in 1945 followed by Crimea in 1954 became annexed by the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. These territories, which never have been part of any kind of Ukraine and overwhelmingly not populated by the ethnolinguistic Ukrainians were included into the Soviet Ukraine primarily due to the political activity by the strongest Ukrainian cadre in the USSR – N. Khrushchev, a person who inherited Stalin’s throne in Moscow in 1953. On this place, a parallel with Croatia is an absolute: for the Croat committed genocide on the Serbs, Jews and Roma by A. Pavelić’s regime (a Croat version of S. Bandera) during the WWII on the territory of the Independent State of Croatia a post-war (Socialist Republic of) Croatia was awarded by a Croat-Slovenian dictator of Yugoslavia J. B. Tito with the lands of Istria, Adriatic islands and Dubrovnik – all of them never have been in any kind of the state of Croatia before the WWII.  

M. Gorbachev’s policy of deliberate dissolution of the USSR from the time of Reykjavik bilateral meeting with Ronald Reagan in 1988 caused a revival of the ethnic nationalism of the Ukrainians who proclaimed an independence on August 24th, 1991 (confirmed on referendum on December 1st, 1991 only by those who did not boycott it) in the wake of anti-Gorbachev’s military putsch in Moscow (mis)using the political situation of paralyzed central government in the country. The state’s independence of Ukraine was proclaimed and later internationally recognized within the borders of a Greater Stalin-Khrushchev’s Ukraine with at least 20% of the ethic Russian population living in a compact area in the eastern part of the country and as well as making a qualified (2/3) majority of Crimea’s population. The coming years saw the rifts with neighbouring Russia with the main political task by Kiev to commit as possible as the Ukrainization (assimilation) of ethnic Russians (similar to the policy of the Croatization of ethnic Serbs in Croatia orchestrated by the neo-Nazi government in Zagreb led by Dr. Franjo Tuđman). At the same time the Russian majority in Crimea constantly required the peninsula’s reunification with mother Russia but getting only an autonomous status within Ukraine – a country which they never considered as their natural-historical homeland. The Russians of Ukraine were becoming more and more unsatisfied with conditions in which they have been leaving from the time when in 1998−2001 the Ukrainian taxation system collapsed what meant that the central government in Kiev was not able to pay the salaries and pensions to its own citizens. A very weak Ukrainian state became in fact unable to function normally (“failed state”) and as a consequence it did not have a power to prevent a series of politically motivated assassinations followed by popular protests which had been also very much inspired by economic decline of the country [on history of Ukraine and the Ukrainians, see more and compare with: Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2009; Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, New York: Basic Books, 2015; Anna Reid, Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, New York: Basic Books, 2015].

As a matter of fact, it has to be stressed that the Ukrainian historiography on their own history of the land and the people is extremely nationalistic and in very cases not objective like many other national historiographies. It is basically politically coloured with the main task to present the Ukrainians as a natural ethnolinguistic nation who have been historically fighting to create a united independent national state and unjustifiably claiming certain territories to be ethnohistorically the “Ukrainian”. As a typical example of such tendency to rewrite history of the East Europe according to the nationalistic and politically correct framework is, for instance, the book by Serhy Jekelčyk on the birth of a modern Ukrainian nation in which, among other quasi-historical facts based on the self-interpreted events, is written that the USSR in 1939−1940 annexed from Poland and Romania the “West Ukrainian land” [Serhy Jekelčyk, Ukraina: Modernios nacijos gimimas, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2009, 17]. However, this “West Ukrainian land” never was part of any kind of Ukraine before the WWII as Ukraine as a state or administrative province never existed before V. I. Lenin created in 1923 a Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine within the USSR but at that time without the “West Ukrainian land” as it was not a part of the USSR. Moreover, the Ukrainians were either not leaving or being just minority on this land what means that Ukraine even did not have ethnic rights over the biggest part of the “West Ukraine”. Even today around half of Ukraine’s state’s territory is not populated by the Ukrainians as a majority of the population. Moreover, in some regions there are no Ukrainians at all. Therefore, the cardinal question became: On which principles the Ukrainian borders are formed?

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How historical parts of Ukraine voted in 1994 Presidential elections

As another example of the Ukrainian historiographic nationalistic misleading we can find in an academic brochure on Bukovina’s Metropolitan’s residence, published in 2007 by the National University of Chernivtsi. In the brochure is written that this university is “…one of the oldest classical universities of Ukraine” [The Architecturial Complex of Bukovynian Metropolitan’s Residence, Chernivtsi: Yuriy Fedkovych National University of Chernivtsi, 2007, 31] that is true only from the present-day rough political perspective but not and from a moral-historic point of view. Namely, the university is located in the North Bukovina which in 1775 the Habsburg Monarchy had obtained. The land was from 1786 administrated within the Chernivtsi district of Galicia and one hundred years after the affiliation of Bukovina to the monarchy, the Franz-Josephs-Universität was inaugurated on October 4th, 1875 (the name day of the emperor). In the other words, the university’s origin as whole Bukovina has nothing to do with any kind of both historical Ukraine and ethnic Ukrainians as before 1940 it was outside of administrative territory of Ukraine when the whole North Bukovina on August 13th, became annexed by the USSR according to the Hitler-Stalin Pact (or the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) signed on August 23rd, 1939 [Ibid.]. Therefore, two notorious bandits (one Nazi another Bolshevik) decided to transfer the North Bukovina to the USSR and the land became after the WWII part of a Greater (Stalin’s) Ukrainian SSR. Nevertheless, while the Ukrainian nationalists claim that “Russia” (in fact anti-Russian USSR) occupied Ukraine, the annexation of the North Bukovina and other territories from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1940 are for them a legitimate act of historical justice. Here we have to notice that according to the same pact, the territories of the independent states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are as well as annexed by the USSR that is considered by their historians and politicians as “occupation”, what means (illegal) act of aggression that is braking international law and legitimate order. Nevertheless, they never accused Ukraine of doing the same in regard to occupied lands from its three western neighbours in 1940/1944 [see, for instance: Priit Raudkivi, Estonian History in Pictures, Tallinn: Eesti Instituut, 2004 (without numeration of the pages); Arūnas Gumuliauskas, Lietuvos istorija (1795−2009), Šiauliai: Lucilijus, 2010, 279−295].  

Political assimilation of certain separate Slavonic ethnolinguistic groups in Ukraine was and is one of the standardized instruments for the creation and maintaining of the Ukrainian national identity in the 20th century. The most brutal case is of the Ruthenians (Rusyns) who are simply proclaimed as historical Ukrainians known under such name till the WWII. Their land, which was in the interwar period part of Czechoslovakia, that was annexed by the USSR at the end of the WWII and included into a Greater Soviet Ukraine is simply renamed from Ruthenia into the Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. However, the Ruthenians and the Ukrainians are two separate Slavonic ethnolinguistic groups as such officially recognized, for example, in Serbia’s Autonomous Province of Vojvodina where the Ruthenian (Rusyn) language is even standardized and studied together with Ruthenian philology and literature at a separate department at the University of Novi Sad. Unfortunately, the Ruthenian position in Ukraine is even worst in comparison with the Kurdish position in Turkey as the process of Ruthenian assimilation is much speeder than of the Kurdish case.

From the current perspective of the Ukrainian crisis and in general from the point of solving the “Ukrainian Question” it has to be noticed a very historical fact that a part of the present-day East Ukraine became legally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1654 as a consequence of the decision by the local hetman of Zaporozhian territory Bohdan Khmelnytsky (c. 1595−1657) based on a popular revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian (the Roman Catholic) occupation of Ukraine which broke out in 1648 [Alfredas Bumblauskas, Senosios Lietuvos istorija, 1009−1795, Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2007, 306; Jevgenij Anisimov, Rusijos istorija nuo Riuriko iki Putino: Žmonės. Įvykiai. Datos, Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras, 2014, 185−186]. It means that the core of the present-day Ukraine voluntarily joined Russia, therefore escaping from the Roman Catholic Polish-Lithuanian oppression. Subsequently, B. Khmelnytsky’s ruled territory has to be considered from a historical point of view as the motherland of all present-day Ukraine – the motherland which already in 1654 chose Russia.  

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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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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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