Ukraine’s recent provocation in the Black Sea has become another pretext for unraveling the Yalta system of international institutions and legal accords, which has been actively and openly done since 2014. Before that, it was Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, a bungled attempt to do the same in Syria, as well as a series of “color revolutions,” orchestrated in close vicinity of the Russian borders, including the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, however, these attempts hit another snag after Crimea reunited with Russia, southwestern Ukraine rebelled against Kiev’s nationalist ideology and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were declared as a culmination of the disintegration processes set forth by Maidan. These attempts have equally failed in Syria after President Bashar Assad asked for military assistance from Russia and, in August 2015, signed an agreement to deploy Russian military aircraft in Syria in line with the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that the Soviet Union and the Syrian Arab Republic inked in October 8, 1980.
Fully aware of the failure of previous attempts to use limited troop contingents in different parts of the globe, the West in general and the US in particular, were very skeptical about the success of the Russian military mission in Syria. Still, backed by the Russian Air Force group, quickly deployed in the country, the Syrian army took a mere two years to turn the course of the war all around.
Since 2004, the Ukrainian leadership has been diligently kowtowing to some Western powers’ attempts to dismantle the system of international agreements and the balance of forces existing since the end of World War II and, therefore, has ceased to be an independent one. Kiev is trying hard to put its self-serving interests in the context of the general political line of its Western patrons. To this end, Kiev is doing everything possible to give the West a reason to impose sanctions on Russia and to further exacerbate tensions between Moscow and the West. One of the results of the recent provocation in the Black Sea was the cancellation of President Vladimir Putin’s planned meeting with US President Donald Trump in Argentina, and the introduction of martial law in some Ukrainian regions.
Speaking of recent history, squeezing the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol and the creation of a NATO naval base there was one of the much anticipated and planned outcomes the “Revolution of Dignity.” Ukraine’s plans to join NATO alienated the country’s mutinous southeast, and Crimea’s rejoining Russia put “paid” to Brussels’ dreams of setting up a base on the peninsula.
However, even though the “Ukrainian project” in its original sense fell flat, the strategic goals haven’t gone anywhere. It’s been decided to keep up pressure on Russia with a plan dubbed “Azov tension,” whose implementation very curiously coincided with the completion of the construction of the automobile section of the Crimean Bridge.
Did the provocation in the Black Sea come as a surprise for the Russian military and diplomats? By no means, because the Western actions being taken as part of Operation “Azov tension” were too obvious to ignore. In an interview given on November 23, on the eve of the provocation, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that “… the Azov [incident] was intentionally injected into the information space. The Kiev regime, in coordination with its foreign mentors and patrons, has found another anti-Russian theme created from scratch. Moscow has recently been facing a series of unwarranted accusations of allegedly engaging in some illegal actions in the Sea of Azov. This should have been expected though, because now that the issue of Crimea as an instrument of pressure on Russia has lost its acuteness, they need a new pretext, and the Azov [incident] has been chosen as exactly such a pretext.”
The November 25 provocation in the Black Sea unfolded against the backcloth of frequent flights by US reconnaissance aircraft, and served as an excuse for increasing the number of NATO military observers in the Black Sea region. This is evidenced by the following chronology:
- On October 8, US Air Force and Navy planes flew many hours of reconnaissance flights off the coast of Crimea and Krasnodar Region (the RQ-4A Global Hawk strategic drone cruised from Crimea’s westernmost tip along its southwestern and southern coasts, near the Kerch Strait and further along the entire length of Krasnodar Region, all the way to Sochi). Almost simultaneously, a P-8A Poseidon US Navy anti-submarine patrol plane flew along the Russian coast from Sevastopol to Novorossiisk in close vicinity of Russia’s sea border on the Black Sea.
- On November 5, it was reported that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet had intercepted and escorted a US EP-3 Aries reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Black Sea.
- On December 2, a US Air Force RQ-4B Global Hawk strategic UAV flew a second, eight-hour, reconnaissance mission off Russia’s Black Sea coast, cruising near Crimea, the Kerch Strait and Kuban Region.
- On December 4, two American reconnaissance aircraft, an RC-135V strategic reconnaissance plane and an EP-3E Aries II long-range electronic reconnaissance aircraft, flew for many hours off the coast of Crimea, near the Kerch Strait and Krasnodar Region.
This may not be the most detailed chronology, but it is still enough to understand the amount of attention paid to the region ahead of and after the November 25 Ukrainian provocation in order to gauge the reaction of the Russian Navy.
The following statements further clarify the US strategy in the Black Sea region:
- Speaking during the International Conference on Maritime Security in Kiev on November 29, Ukraine’s top naval commander, Igor Voronchenko, said that “due to the Russian ships’ aggression against Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov, Ukraine will insist that passage through the Bosphorus in Turkey be closed to Russia.”
- On December 3, US Senator John Barrasso proposed sending US ships to the Black Sea and “have NATO do it as well” to present “a forceful response” to Russia. He also called “to give [Ukraine]anti-aircraft [weapons] and give them weapons also in terms of anti-ship.”
To better understand the situation in the region, one should consider Turkey’s position on this issue. Ankara claims regional leadership, is actively involved in the Syrian conflict, is a member of NATO, has been included the US program of supplying the latest F-35 fighter jets, is building the Turkish Stream pipeline and a nuclear power station with Russia and is buying the latest S-400 missile systems from Moscow. Diverse and multidirectional as Ankara’s interests are, its close cooperation with Russia still makes Turkey a stabilizing factor in the Black Sea region. This is evidenced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offer made on November 29 to act as a go-between in resolving the incident in the Black Sea. He also discussed the initiative with the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and the United States.
It seems, however, that neither Erdogan’ proposal, nor his independent position on arms purchases resonate with the US strategy in this region. In view of Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 air defense missile system from Russia and the planned supplies of F-35 fighter jets from the US, Washington has told Ankara that it must make a choice whether it stays with the West or sides with Russia. In response, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Janikli dismissed as unacceptable the US demand that his country should not go ahead with the purchase of S-400 missiles as a condition for getting F-35 fighters.
Ukraine’s call to close the Bosphorus to Russian ships is also an attempt to make Turkey decide whose side it is on. This proves once again that executing foreign instructions to the detriment of their own country’s long-term interests, is now topmost on the minds of the big shots in Kiev, who have neither a development strategy or any vision of their country’s future. By subordinating itself to the will of others, Kiev stays the course of breaking off ties with Russia and setting the stage for new anti-Russian sanctions. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has already announced the cancellation of 40 bilateral agreements with Russia. On November 30, Ukraine lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights about the incident in the Black Sea. On December 3, President Petro Poroshenko submitted for parliamentary approval a proposal to terminate a treaty of friendship with Russia. The Ukrainian president also said that Kiev was going to lodge a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice to make Russia liable for the “recent act of aggression” in the Black Sea.
Well, a provocateur’s place in history has never been an enviable one. People usually forget his name the very moment his mission is over.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Western Influence Wanes in South Caucasus
Over the course of past year, Georgia’s relations with its Western partners have notably cooled. Under the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party which came to power in 2012, ties with the West had strengthened. But recently, as the popularity of the party declined and the political landscape in Georgia altered, distrust has grown, accusations have flown, and questions regarding the sustainability of Georgia’s pro-Western path are loudly discussed.
A primary driver is an internal political crisis which followed the 2020 parliamentary elections. That worsened following a July 28 decision by GD to walk back a deal it reached with the political opposition to end a month-long internal political crisis. The process was supervised by EU diplomats along with the U.S. ambassador. A six-point plan was produced that envisaged long-sought electoral and judicial reforms, and power-sharing in parliament. It also involved stipulations on the possibility of new elections and the issue of political prisoners (though the government says there are none.)
The decision to withdraw from the deal might be also linked to the upcoming local government elections and troubles faced by the ruling party. IRI-produced polls showed that GD is backed by only 28% of the population, with the United National Movement, traditionally the biggest opposition party, coming second with 15%. Other polls showed only slightly higher support for the ruling party.
Georgian Dream also faces serious dissent within its own ranks. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s active political campaigning and growing popularity (9% according to the IRI polls) have taken significant support from Georgia Dream to his new party, called For Georgia. The proliferation of parties as well as the steady process of generational change is breaking the political status quo. Gradually, older parties are losing popularity, while newer groups manage to attract support in the 5-10% range. Diffusion of political power among multiple parties is thus a significant development which breaks with traditional Georgian politics of single party dominance of the entire political landscape.
Although pro-EU sentiment within the Georgian public remains fairly high, for the political elites it has become increasingly clear that membership prospects are bleaker than ever before. Reasons range from troubles in the liberal world order, to the rise of illiberalism and the divisions within the EU on expanding onto Russia’s doorstep.
America’s failures should not be magnified, but its prestige has been shaken by the Afghan withdrawal, meaning U.S. authority is being diluted. President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region has provided an opportunity for Georgia’s government to consider a more balanced approach to the Black Sea neighborhood. This involves the establishment of more equidistant external ties, both to regional and global powers. Ukraine, another long-time EU-hopeful, did something similar when the country was essentially shunned from EU and NATO membership. The country turned to China, and signed a large investment deal to improve railway and ports infrastructure. Reaching out to Turkey is another option.
In Georgia’s case, its fixation with the West no longer provides the expected results. However, this does not mean Georgia will abandon its pro-Western stance. Ideally, constructing closer foreign ties with other actors would allow the country to partially compensate for its inability to win EU/NATO membership. A multi-vector foreign policy is already visible in Turkey, Iran, Russia and other neighboring states. Even Armenia, much constrained by asymmetric dependence on Russia, is actively looking at diversifying its foreign policy options by actively seeking a rapprochement with Turkey.
One possibility is that Georgia seeks an improvement of relations with Russia — badly marred by the 2008 war — as part of a more agile and balanced foreign policy. As ties between Georgia and the West deteriorate, Russia seems to want an understanding. A series of offers on normalizing bilateral relations was suggested by the Kremlin, aiming to exploit the rising disagreements between Georgia and its Western partners.
In the end, the shift from fixation on the West to a policy of criticism as part of a broader foreign policy reflects changes in the balance of power. The West is no longer seen in the wider Black Sea region as a decisive power. The rise of an illiberal alternative to the Western liberal democratic model allows countries to take another path. That of course ultimately harms the U.S. and its friends, reduces their credibility, and may reverse liberty’s advances, achieved over several decades, both in Georgia and Ukraine.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe
Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.
Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.
In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.
The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.
In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.
President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.
Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.
Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…
Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement
Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.
Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”
On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”
So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.
Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.
Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.
As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.
Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.
Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
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