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Fate of disarmament: Russia-USA tension; Putin suspends weapons-grade plutonium deal

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It might amount to over-simplification of the facts if one says USA or Uncle Sam, using militarism as its key foreign policy tool, is the root cause of all troubles and tensions the world and humanity facing today. How come having got largest WMD on earth and having tested the efficacy of bombs on humans in Japan, USA has also been able to dictate its terms to the world nations?

Today world is being threatened by the menace of nuclear weapons (nukes or WMD), capable of dismantling entire world along with living beings and non-living things. Yet, the world’s top nuclear weapons’ states like USA, Russia, UK and China have not made any sincere attempt to rapidly reduce nuclear weapons according to a reliable time table plus easily verifiable methods and briskly make the world free from WMD.

Instead of taking steps to realize the objective of total disarmament and denuclearization, super power USA and other world nuke powers just threaten Iran, North Korea, among others who want to acquire nuclear technology at par with others seeking it for peaceful purposes, thereby giving a false impression that they seek to destroy their own nukes. These naughty powers threaten them because they just do not want more countries to join the nuke club to share its bogus prestige.

Nuclear weapons like climate disorder complicate the international environment and add to the human insecurity. A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission (fission bomb) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear weapon). Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first test of a fission (“atomic”) bomb released the same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT (84 TJ). A nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation. Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control have been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for the purposes of testing and demonstration. Only a few nations possess such weapons or are suspected of seeking them. The only countries known to have detonated nuclear weapons—and acknowledge possessing them—are (chronologically by date of first test) the USA the Soviet Union (succeeded as a nuclear power by Russia), the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to USA and other western veto members, Israel also possesses undeclared and unlawful nuclear weapons, though in a policy of deliberate ambiguity to confuse the IAEA and UN, it does not acknowledge having them. Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands are nuclear weapons sharing states.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) aimed to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, but its effectiveness has been questioned, and political tensions remained high in the 1970s and 1980s. As of 2016, 16,000 nuclear weapons are stored at sites in 14 countries and many are ready for immediate use. Modernisation of weapons continues to occur. But outdated nukes retained in arsenals pose danger to the world.

US-Russia deal

USA and Russia, with the largest nuclear assets and arsenals, do not have any plan for credible disarmament to make the humanity fear less.

During the cold war, both the then super powers USA and Soviet Union amassed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons as defense measures against each other. The highly destructive potential of these arsenals were meant to deter direct conflict between the United States and USSR, since any direct war between two powers with that amount of nuclear destruction would completely wipe out both sides. After the fall of the USSR, relations between the two countries began to normalize, and portions of these stockpiles began to be eliminated. But relations between the US and Russia have begun to sour again. The Russian presidential decree claims that “a fundamental change of the circumstances” has taken place between the two countries since 2010, according to the state-owned TASS Russian News Agency.

A nuclear deal signed by the USA and Russia in 2000, hailed as a step forward in cooperation between former enemies towards the common goal of eliminating cold war nuclear stockpiles, has been suspended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The deal, which was expanded in 2010, put both countries on a course to securely dispose of over 34 tons of plutonium, enough for almost 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the Russian presidential edict that suspended the agreement on October 03 cited “unfriendly actions” on the part of the USA, but said that Russia’s plutonium would still only be used for peaceful purposes.

The treaty, on the disposal of plutonium, the material used in some nuclear weapons, was concluded in 2000 as one of the framework disarmament deals of the early post-Cold War period. It required Russia and the USA to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium, a deal which represented another encouraging step away from nuclear doomsday and an insurance policy against the materials falling into the hands of “terrorists or rogue states”. The deal has no bearing on the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia or the United States. Instead, it concerns 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country that might go into a future arsenal, none of which has yet undergone verifiable disposal.

Under the agreement, which was signed in 2000 and expanded in 2006 and 2010, Russia and the USA each were to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads. When it was signed, the deal was touted as an example of successful cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation between Washington and Moscow.

The deal of disposal of weapons-grade plutonium has been a symbol of US-Russian rapprochement that has fallen apart amid tensions over Ukraine, Syria and other disputes. A 1993 agreement allowed Russia to sell blended-down uranium bomb cores to American utilities for use as fuel rods in civilian power plants, in a swords-to-plowshares program called Megatons to Megawatts. This program generated about 10 percent of all electricity in the United States for 20 years, until 2013. The plutonium program, while smaller, held the potential to also yield energy for civilian electrical networks.

Russia will withdraw from the original pact and subsequent amendments, the decree says, meaning that the country will no longer be treaty-bound to destroy its plutonium stockpiles. But the decree also offers an assurance, backed by no bilateral agreement, that the plutonium will not be used for military purposes. These agreements were designed to limit and circumscribe the future chances of getting back into a competition over nuclear arms. It was an important step in defusing the strategic nuclear arms race.”

Other US-Russian nuclear deals still stand, including the pivotal New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each country. In its statement, the State Department said Russia had not lived up to the terms of an agreement last month to restore the cease-fire in Syria and ensure sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged cities.

Russia had viewed the agreement as rendering disarmament irreversible by destroying the fissile materials accumulated during the Cold War. In this light, the Russians had interpreted the treaty as requiring that the plutonium be irreversibly transformed into nonexplosive materials by using it in civilian nuclear power plants as a type of fuel, called mixed oxide fuel, or mox. Russia is pressing ahead with that. But glitches and cost overruns in the mox plant at Savannah River, S.C., delayed the American program. President Obama proposed canceling the program in the 2017 budget and instead sending the plutonium for long-term storage at a nuclear waste site in Carlsbad, N.M. The US State Department has said the move complies with the treaty, but the Russians have said it does not, as Putin reaffirmed on Monday.

The plutonium decision follows the failure of a USA-Russia ceasefire in Syria last month. Washington and Moscow continue to trade accusations over which side was responsible for breaking that agreement, even as fighting escalates around Aleppo. “President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria has led to international sanctions and at least a partial isolation internationally,” John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 tells the Monitor in an email. “He blames the USA for these problems and has few instruments that he can use to effectively retaliate. So he has chosen the renunciation and violation of arms control agreements as a way to express his unhappiness with US policy.”

Collins, who was the US ambassador to Russia when the agreement was signed, called the abrogation a “strange move,” given the extraordinary danger, not least to Russians, should plutonium fall into terrorist hands. He added that it was “in my understanding the first time they have withdrawn from a specific nuclear agreement,” highlighting the slide in relations lately. Russia and the United States had reaffirmed the plutonium disposal agreement in 2009, as President Obama pursued the “reset” policy with Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president.

Separately, the US State Department said it was suspending bilateral contacts with Russia over Syria, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s threat to suspend contacts amid new attacks on the city of Aleppo.

USA says it remains “interested” in arms control and would be ready to sit with Russia to discuss the agreements that the Kremlin has either violated or renounced. But the USA is not willing to acquiesce in Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine or its revisionist aims in Europe. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the government was disappointed by the Russian decision since “both leaders in Russia and the United States have made nonproliferation a priority.” “We’ve also been quite disappointed by a range of Russian decisions both in Syria and inside of Ukraine,” Earnest said, adding that the decision on the plutonium deal was part of a problematic pattern.

Putin’s decree cited as reasons for Moscow’s move the “emerging threat to strategic stability as a result of US unfriendly actions,” as well as Washington’s failure to meet its end of the deal. It said, however, that Russia will keep the weapons-grade plutonium covered under the agreement away from weapons programs.

Putin pointed to the stalled plant construction earlier this year when he accused the US of failing to meet its end of the deal. He also argued that the policy change would give the U.S. “return potential,” or a chance to recycle the material back into the weapons-grade plutonium. “Russia has been observing the agreement unilaterally for quite a long time, but now it no longer sees such a situation as possible amid the tensions,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Commenting on Putin’s move, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the USA has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation,” citing US sanctions on Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis and deploying NATO forces near Russian borders. “We would like to bring Washington back to understanding that it can’t introduce sanctions against us in areas where it’s quite painless for the Americans, and at the same time continue selective cooperation in areas it sees as advantageous,” the Foreign Ministry said. It emphasized that Moscow was suspending the deal and not annulling it altogether, adding it would be ready to restore the plutonium agreement if the USA takes Russian concerns into account.

Tension

The increasing tension between the two superpowers stems in large part from conflicts in Crimea and Syria, with the US and Russia constantly finding themselves supporting opposing powers in local conflicts in the manner evoking Cold War skirmishes. In Syria, for instance, both countries have a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State. But the countries back different factions in the Syrian civil war, making chances of genuine cooperation between the US and Russia slim at best.

Russia and the USA last signed a nuclear disarmament accord in 2009, when both sides agreed to a new limit on delivery vehicles such as bombers or cruise missiles of 500 to 1,100, and a limit on deployed warheads as low as 1,500. In the chaos surrounding the end of the Cold War, the USA embarked on a sweeping program to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and fissile materials by returning them to Russia from former Soviet states and upgrading security at storage areas. The Soviet nuclear program was so entwined with the economy and society that slowing the Cold War military machine took years and cost United States taxpayers billions of dollars. In several cities, specialized nuclear reactors, for example, continued to pump out plutonium because they were also used to heat water for residential use in showers and space heating in nearby towns..

The Kremlin had signaled previously that it planned to cut back on mutual efforts with the USA to secure nuclear material on Russian territory. Times have changed, Putin wrote in the decree signed on Monday. “The threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the USA against Russia, and the inability of the USA to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties” forced Russia’s hand, he wrote.

Russia said last year it had started up a plant that produces mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel known as MOX from weapons-grade plutonium. Meanwhile, the construction of a similar US plant in South Carolina has been years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

In April, Russia began to express concerns that the USA was not living up to the 2010 agreement. The agreement stipulates that the plutonium is supposed to be disposed of in a specific, but expensive, way. A Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, which would have recycled the plutonium into mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel, was supposed to be built for $1.7 billion, but ballooned to $7.7 billion in 2013, according to RT. The facility, which is expected to cost at least $1 billion per year to operate, has yet to be completed. As the cost and problems with the MOX facility piled up, the Obama government proposed a different, more cost-efficient method involving diluting the plutonium and storing it in special facilities. Russia expressed concerns that the US chemical process of disposal would be easily reversible, allowing for the reclamation of weapons-grade plutonium. The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a proposal the Russian position had “little technical merit,” and went on to point out that Russia’s disposal approach would produce fissile material that might not be “weapons-grade” but could still be “weapons-usable” itself.

The USA wants to cancel the Savannah River Site’s MOX project and use an alternative method for disposing of excess plutonium. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state-controlled Rosatom nuclear corporation, said that while MOX makes sure that weapons-grade plutonium can’t be used for any military purposes, the U.S. intention to dilute and stockpile the material means “it could be dug up again.”

In Putin’s second term in office, Russia pulled out of a treaty governing conventional forces in Europe in retaliation for the Bush regime’s abrogation of the antiballistic missile treaty that prohibited missile defense systems.

As part of the suspension, the USA is withdrawing personnel that it had dispatched to take part in the creation of a joint US-Russia center to coordinate military cooperation and intelligence if the cease-fire had taken hold. The suspension will not affect communications between the two countries aimed at de-conflicting counter-terrorism operations in Syria.

Observation

A strain in ties between the former Cold War rivals has escalated in recent weeks followed the collapse of a truce in Syria and the Syrian army’s massive onslaught in Aleppo under the cover of Russian warplanes.

It seems unlikely that the two countries will resume cooperation on plutonium soon. The abrogation signals that the nuclear agreements that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and were to lead the world back from the hair-trigger brink of atomic conflict could be open to revision, as Russia’s relations with the West sour on a range of disputes today, including Syria and Ukraine and the Kremlin’s interference in the domestic politics of Western democracies.

As ties with the West have frayed under Putin, analysts in Moscow have floated the prospect of a Russian pullback from an array of disarmament agreements dating from a period of greater friendliness. Two years ago, for example, Washington accused Russia of violating another bedrock security agreement by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.

In a draft bill on suspending the plutonium agreement sent to parliament, Putin specified the document could be restored if the USA reverses its moves to deploy its forces near Russia’s borders and pulls them back to areas in Europe where they were in 2000. He added that the US should also “renounce its unfriendly policies” by revoking anti-Russian sanctions and compensating Russia for the damage incurred by them and by “putting forward a clear plan for the irreversible disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium in line with the agreement.”

Russia has only suspended weapons-grade plutonium deal with USA and not entirely withdrawn from the deal, giving rise to speculation about its expectations from USA in order to subsequently withdraw the suspension and resume the bilateral deal action. Saying relations with the USA have deteriorated in a “radically changed environment,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia withdrew from a landmark nuclear security agreement, in a troubling sign that the countries’ cooperation in a range of nuclear areas could be threatened.

The Kremlin first wants the removal of all economic sanctions and compensation for the damage they have caused; the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which allows Americans to freeze the assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations; and reductions in the American military presence in countries that joined NATO after Sept. 1, 2000.

The suspensions of the deal will likely further strain tensions between the two powers, which have been increasingly at odds in recent years. The presidential decree for the suspension could still be overruled by the Russian parliament. However, the chances are “near zero,” particularly as Russia looks to regain cold war-level influence. The suspension can be undone quickly if that is what Putin wants.

Unless the USA shows the way to the world by dismantling its own nukes first and then works for total disarmament and denuclearization, the world would continue to manufacture more and more nukes. Terrorism of states and illegal invasions and destruction of alien nations by NATO and allies like Israel cannot do away with nukes.

Peace cannot be established in the world so long as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, requiring nukes to threaten weak nations, decide policies for the humanity.

Humanity is shivering, including Americans!

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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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Russia

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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