Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Hubertus Hoffmann
Five years ago, in February 2015, the first steps towards a vision for peace in Ukraine were taken with the Minsk II agreement. Five years is a long time not only in human life, but also in European history: World War I only lasted four years, and World War II was only two years longer. Five years after Minsk, the crisis in and around Ukraine is yet to be resolved, and the country remains a bleeding wound of Europe with a profound negative impact on the overall relationship between the Russian Federation and the West. The tragic deaths of more than 12,000 people and more than 23,000 injured remind us of the human suffering in this conflict on all sides.
Many hoped that the Normandy summit in December 2019 would become a historic breakthrough, but the outcome of the meeting was quite modest. At best, the four leaders made a cautious step towards freezing the conflict rather than solving it. Protracted and painful discussions in Paris once again demonstrated that there is significant mutual resistance on both sides regarding a genuine settlement. Too many politicians in both Kiev and Moscow still believe that time is on their side, or, at least, that the risks associated with maintaining the current status quo in Donbass are lower than risks resulting from a status quo change.
In order to reach a breakthrough, we need to demonstrate enhanced creativity and out of the box thinking a la Albert Einstein, who observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge…we can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” One of the ways to ignite creativity is to look beyond the current crisis seeking mindset and adopt the positive crisis resolution experience accumulated in Europe.
Why South Tyrol?
European history knows many examples of how complex territorial, ethnic, confessional and other conflicts can last for many years and even decades without any clear prospects for a “final” solution. Take, for instance, the Armenian-Azeri dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh or the Serbia-Kosovo unfinished divorce. On the other hand, there are also success stories that we should not forget. One of the latter is the Alto Adige (South Tyrol) settlement of the dispute between Italy and Austria. This case, in our view, has certain similarities with the situation in East Ukraine.
South Tyrol was a bone of contention between the newborn Italian Republic and the Republic of Austria for decades. The conflict has never reached the scale of what we are witnessing today in East Ukraine, but it also generated violence, ethnic hatred and victimization. Moreover, it poisoned Austrian relations for a long time. After World War II, from the beginning of negotiations in 1947 until 1971, a series of agreements recognized equal rights for all citizens, despite their language, as well as a balanced decentralization of administrative, legislative, executive and economic competences to be exercised autonomously over the regional territory.
Historical and cultural bonds within the Austrian-Germanic world, Italy’s Trentino- Alto-Adige (South Tyrol) sought a highly autonomous status within the Italian Republic constitution. The process of deriving this status shows the value of reaching an agreement based on a high level of regional autonomy in political, economic, and cultural issues. This status received an appropriate codification within the Italian constitution. This approach eased the institutional balance between the centre and periphery, defusing, in the medium to long term, potentially disruptive political unrest.
South Tyrol successfully consolidated its autonomy over the last decades, fostering ties between the central state authority and the peripheral regional authority. Now, the German-speakers there live peacefully within Italy as citizens of the European Union.
This integration-through-decentralization process into the Italian national identity shows how a widely shared process and agreement recognizing a high level of institutional autonomy would lead, in the medium-to-long term perspective, to constructive and balanced power-sharing, stability and economic development. This achievement is particularly spectacular, given the long history of Austrian-Italian conflicts and even wars.
What Would It Mean for Donbass?
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had every reason to refer to the “South Tyrol model” at his meeting with President Vladimir Putin on March 5, 2015. The Russian leader welcomed it as a “valuable suggestion to resolve the situation”. After three hours of discussion in Moscow regarding the EU-Russia crisis involving Ukraine, Putin and Renzi gave a joint press-conference to review their discussion and proposals.
The Italian Prime Minister said, “I think it’s worth highlighting the crucial step forward made,” regarding the signature of the Minsk Agreement. “We will work to implement the statements of this Agreement. Europe and Italy can become a reference point.” Italy in particular, according to the Prime Minister, might “provide all possible support for a solution concerning the urgent request of a new status and a wider autonomy to be granted to the Eastern Ukrainian Regions held by the separatists. We had a wonderful experience in Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol). This is an excellent example of how you can successfully solve the problems of decentralization.”
“We agree that both the parties have to respect the Minsk II Agreement, paving the way to a peaceful solution,” stressed Russian President Putin. He added the need for a broader political dialogue involving the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk as well. “We expect Italy, in its national capabilities and as a major European Union member, will play a key role in this process,” he argued. Putin told the media, “The Prime Minister made several valuable suggestions about what could be done to resolve the situation in the future. The situation there remains difficult, and we have to stop the fighting, killing and destroying cities.” The conflicting parties should strictly comply with the agreements reached in Minsk. “I count on more active help of the EU.”
If referred to within the context of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, many ingredients constituting the Austrian-Italian deal could help to settle the Donbass conflict, all the differences between the two cases notwithstanding.
The same rights extended to the local German population in Alto Adige (60 per cent in 1971) should be given to the predominantly Russian speaking (and Russia-oriented) locals in the Donbass. Rights similar to those preserved by Rome as the central government in Italy should be assigned to Kiev. Both languages should be granted official status, and no discrimination of any minority and cultures should be practised in Donbass.
Of course, this arrangement implies that the territory will be Ukrainian, including border-control. The Donbass should be de-militarized. That also applies to the Russian-Ukrainian border like it was the case with the Austrian-Italian border. The status of autonomy calls for guarantees embedded in the Ukrainian constitution, rather than merely a law, which could be changed at any time.
The South Tyrol experience also suggests that it would be impossible to solve and formulate all principal or small regulations for autonomy under Ukrainian law, as it adds up to several thousand details. Therefore, a smart framework agreement is needed and would lay the groundwork for ensuring the rights of ethnic Russians in the Donbass on the same level as those of ethnic Germans in South Tyrol. Such an agreement would also guarantee rights to Kiev similar to those of Rome. Leveraging this framework agreement as the model for Eastern Ukraine seems to be the only reliable way to handle the autonomy smoothly and avert further crisis.
The Austrian-Italian experience also suggests that there will be many bumps on the road to reconciliation and reintegration. To deal with these bumps, it would be helpful to establish a standing Donbass committee with ambassadors from each country within the OSCE in Vienna, with a special best practice team involving Austria and Italy. This committee could appoint an Ombudsman to handle complaints and resolve disputes. The Ukrainian government, together with the Donbass OSCE committee, should prepare an annual progress report and present it to the Verkhovna Rada.
What Is Missing?
Matteo Renzi came up with his proposal in March 2015. Unfortunately, not much has been done to apply the lesson of South Tyrol to Donbass. Therefore, the critical question is why implementing a strategy similar to South Tyrol in Donbass is not yet considered.
The answer, in our opinion, is in the international environment and the nature of the Austria-Italy relations. By the time of the South Tyrol deal, both Austria and Italy considered themselves organic parts of a greater European family of nations. This is despite the fact that Austria, even now, is not a NATO member and only joined the EU in 1995, 24 years after the agreement on South Tyrol had been reached.
Neither country had a fundamental identity problem that could feed radical nationalism and block a settlement. Their respective national identities emerged long before the deal was achieved. Neither side was fearful of aggression, deliberate provocation or gross interference into domestic affairs from the other side.
Both Vienna and Rome saw many advantages in building their economic, political and humanitarian ties with each other. Both Austria and Italy experienced rapid economic growth followed by an expanding middle class, vibrant civil society, maturing political institutions and successful fight against populism, political radicalism and nationalism. No external player in or outside of Europe demonstrated any interest in instigating the conflict through supporting one of the sides. In other words, the overall environment for reaching a compromise was overwhelmingly positive.
Unfortunately, most of these preconditions are currently absent in the case of Donbass. Therefore, we cannot push for the application of the South Tyrol model until such prerequisites are created. This will be difficult, but not impossible.
Going Beyond Minsk
Using the best practice from South Africa, one then is lead to think of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Donbas, reporting live on TV in Ukraine and Russia with an annual report. More than twenty countries have done this successfully in the past.
However, the problem of reconciliation is not limited to Donbass only. Both Russia and Ukraine today lack the know-how for true reconciliation, which had been mustered by Austria and Italy after World War II. Let us all learn from the American philosopher Eric Hoffer who said, “A war is only won after you have turned your enemy into a friend.” We can draw upon the lessons of other European states that have mastered the art of reconciliation, including decentralization, after two bitter world wars.
The governments, political parties, opinion leaders and media should learn how to make peace with (former) enemies and utilize European best practices – such as in South Tyrol or Northern Ireland. For the Russian population in Ukraine and all other minorities, including Hungarians and Tatars, fresh Ukrainian Codes of Tolerance should be implemented. The Kiev government should appoint a Minister for Tolerance and Reconciliation with sufficient staff and funding. The United Arab Emirates established the first minister for tolerance in February 2016. The tolerance minister in Kiev would promote respect toward all ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine and report annually to the parliament and the OSCE in the form of a Ukrainian Codes of Tolerance and Reconciliation Report. Within the context of reconciliation, an amnesty committee would be established, as in South Africa, for people from all conflict parties.
Rebuilding trust will not get us too far until we build the economic foundations of the settlement. The goal should be to turn Donbass from a headache into an opportunity for all. We propose establishing a special reconciliation fund for the region, financed equally by the EU, the US, and the Russian Federation, and utilized to rebuild destroyed infrastructure. By rebuilding, we do not mean restoring the region as it was back in 2013 – this is hardly possible and rather undesirable. We suggest turning the devastated war area into a modern and vibrant ecosystem attractive to both international investors and millions of refugees and displaced persons.
Carefully designed and skillfully localized reforms can stimulate new jobs, especially for small businesses. It is essential to address burning issues of documented property ownership, competitive access to capital, legal enforcement of contracts, governmental and regulatory transparency, and rules that promote and safeguard foreign direct investment. The environment presents yet another challenge, but also another opportunity for multilateral cooperation in Donbass with the European Union taking upon a leadership role.
At the same time, the European Union should move in the direction of a free trade agreement with Russia and other members of the Eurasian Economic Union. A new Ostpolitik by Ursula von der Leyen could help to bring Europe closer together via trade and visa-free travelling.
Towards a New European Security Architecture
A new, fresh and intense dialogue between NATO and Russia, including the discussion of a non-aggression pact and new arms control agreements, is now needed. It was counterproductive to freeze the NATO-Russia Council in April 2014 as punishment. This forum, meant for crisis management, is now active again. It took too long to understand that we need more, not fewer, meetings during crises. Despite many state-banquets and vague speeches in the past years, real discussions were missing for far too long. The western “no-talk no-meetings approach” neglected the lessons learned in the months before World War I.
The dialogue about a common security structure in Europe should start with fresh bi-monthly meetings of the NATO-Russia Council in Moscow and Brussels, as well as in other NATO capitals. Russia and NATO should openly discuss all strategic military issues to find solutions to alleviate tensions and promote cooperation, with several working-groups established for major political, technological, or geographic regional concerns, including mutual threats.
A high-ranking NATO-Russia Summit should be held in Moscow to discuss security issues openly. At this summit, NATO and the Russian Federation should declare not to utilize their military capabilities against each other. They will not use their forces, equipment, active or non-active soldiers or allow those activities against each other.
Both Moscow and Kiev should find their rightful places in the new European security architecture. Confidence building measures between Russia and Ukraine should become a part of a broader CBM system between the East and the West of the continent.
In this new environment, we can broaden the limits of what is possible. All sides have to look for a creative compromise, based on respect for international law, recognizing the national interests and minority rights of all stakeholders, while drawing upon best practices in Europe.
The ultra-nationalists on both sides will be disappointed. Still, only a broad political compromise would be in the national interests of Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the EU, the United States of America and the international community.
We all need humanity, creativity and efficiency for a new Europe 3.0.
Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Can Multipolar BRICS-11 Ensure Global Peace and Stability?
At the United Nations General Assembly high-level meetings held in New York, a number of global leaders including those from Africa vehemently called for global peace and sustainable development. Russia and South Africa, both members of BRICS association attended the September meetings, and as it was during previous summits and conferences have renewed their commitment for ensuring peace within the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
“As we gather here, much of humanity is confronted by war and conflict. Solidarity and trust between states is being eroded. At the moment when every human effort should be directed towards the realisation of Agenda 2030, our attention and our energies have once again been diverted by the scourge of war,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said during his speech delivered there in New York.
Ramaphosa added that South Africa has consistently advocated for dialogue, negotiation and diplomacy to prevent and end conflict and achieve lasting peace. From the experience of his country’s own journey from apartheid to democracy, South Africa highly values the importance of engaging all parties to conflicts to achieve peaceful, just and enduring resolutions.
It is these principles that inform South Africa’s participation in the African Peace Initiative, which seeks a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In this conflict, as in all conflicts, and that the UN Charter’s principle of respect for the territorial integrity of every country should be upheld.
South Africa supports the urgent call by the UN Secretary-General in the New Agenda for Peace for Member States to provide more sustainable and predictable financing to peacebuilding efforts. It is South Africa’s desire to see an end to the suffering of those most directly affected by the conflict in Ukraine.
Ahead of the Johannesburg summit that was August 20, Ramaphosa in a speech to the nation indicated that South Africa participated in the African initiative to seek peace in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Through this African Peace Initiative, he said emphatically: “We firmly believe that dialogue, mediation and diplomacy is the only viable path to end the current conflict and achieve a durable peace. We support the principle of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states and peoples.”
South Africa’s foreign policy has been based on what forebears inscribed in the Freedom Charter in 1955 that “South Africa shall be a fully independent state which respects the rights and the sovereignty of all nations; South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of all international disputes by negotiation – not war.”
Brazilian Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return to the presidency in January 2023 has paved the way for a revival of an ambitious and assertive foreign policy set out by the leader during his first term in office between 2003 and 2010. He has been voicing for global peace as well as practical development with geopolitical partners, especially in the Global South.
China insisted on dialogue for conflict resolution. It has also presented its Ukrainean peace plan which Russia keeps on hold. Despite criticisms that it has lured Africa into debts, China is tremendously contributing to Africa’s infrastructure development. China appreciably brings “new opportunities” for diverse cooperation, and has unveiled five new development plans for Africa at the last BRICS summit in Johannesburg.
Even at the end of the 15th BRICS summit, the document adopted encapsulates significant viewpoints on matters of global significance including peace and development. In this document, the BRICS leaders expressed their highest and sentimental concern “to enhance its strategic partnership for the benefit of its people through the promotion of peace.”
It further states… “We reiterate the need for all countries to cooperate in promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms under the principles of equality and mutual respect. We agree to continue to treat all human rights.”
“We agree to strengthen cooperation on issues of common interests both within BRICS and in multilateral fora including the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council. We call for the respect of democracy and human rights,” the BRICS declaration (slightly shortened for space) says.
Records show that Kenya is not a member of BRICS. But in a similar direction together with a few African leaders at UNGA, Kenyan President William Ruto also made reference to the proactive commitment to peace, which is not limited to the continent; African Union was inspired to dispatch the African Peace Delegation, consisting of six African heads of states to Moscow and Kiev with a ten-point peace plan, beginning with efforts to initiate a mediation process to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Although the delegation encountered significant challenges in their mission, Kenya and for the matter the entire Africa remain very proud that the peace delegation showed up. The African Peace Initiative group headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, made serious efforts for recognition as peace brokers.
The delegation included the current Chairperson of the African Union and Comoros president, Azali Assoumani; President of Senegal, Macky Sall; President of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema and Prime Minister of Egypt, Mostafa Madbouly. In addition, the delegation included representatives of Uganda and Congo.
The group put forward a 10-point proposal was presented in Kyiv and St. Petersburg. The key aim of the African peace mission primarily to propose “confidence-building measures” in order to facilitate peace between the two countries. It was to seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict which began late February 2022.
At the United Nations, Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov afresh offered the signal that “Russia can’t give up goals of special military operation in Ukraine.” From several official documents, Russia underlined the reason as – “to de-militarize and de-nazify” Ukraine.
Quoting President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said the West was “truly an empire of lies” which even during the battle against Nazism in World War Two, had plotted an offensive against their Soviet allies.
Soviet and then Russian leaders “were given concrete political assurances regarding the non-expansion of the NATO military alliance to the east”, which turned out to be pure deception.
Washington and Brussels have ceaselessly sought to expand their interests and alliances to subordinate the Global South and East, rejecting Russia’s desire for mutual security guarantees, he stated, and closed his case with an appeal for compromise, saying “humanity is at a crossroads…It is in our shared interest to prevent a downward spiral into large scale war.”
He invoked the Secretary-General’s call for world leaders to meet and negotiate in the spirit of compromise at this year’s UN General Assembly, “when designing our common future for our common good” and concluded that it was an excellent response to those who divide the world up into democracies and autocracies and dictate their neocolonial rules to others.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Security Council session spoke assertively in reference to children who have gone missing, been abducted, are being concealed and starved. Lavrov called them allegations, issues without substantiation.
Lavrov, later at the media conference, attributed the conflict in his country’s backyard to the West’s years-long efforts to transform Ukraine into anti-Russia, while stressing Russia’s policy in a multipolar architecture and, in principle, that strictly seeks adherence for global peace and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Putin Decrees ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine
On 24 February 2022, Russian President declared the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine. In his nation-wide address, Putin emphasized that over the past 30 years have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe.
In the middle of the long speech that February 24, Putin indicated that one could say, with good reason and confidence, that the whole so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, in its entirety, the very same “empire of lies.”
“Despite all that, in December 2021, we made yet another attempt to reach agreement with the United States and its allies on the principles of European security and NATO’s non-expansion. The United States has not changed its position. It does not believe it necessary to agree with Russia on a matter that is critical for us. The United States is pursuing its own objectives, while neglecting our interests,” Putin stressed.
He further pointed; “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack on Russia.”
For the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends. For Russia, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to Russia’s interests but to the very existence of the state and to its sovereignty. It is the red line. They have crossed it.
In this context, in accordance with Article 51 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter, with permission of Russia’s Federation Council, and in execution of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, ratified by the Federal Assembly on February 22, I made a decision to carry out a special military operation, Putin declared ‘Special Military Operation’ on Ukriane.
The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime. To this end, Russia would seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation. The officers of Russia’s Armed Forces would perform their duty with professionalism and courage. It is not Russia’s plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory.
Cost of Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine
Forbes media has reported that Russia already spent over US$167 billion on war against Ukraine. “In a year and a half since the start of its full-scale invasion, Russia spent about US$167.3 billion on the war against Ukraine, of which US$34 billion worth of equipment were destroyed by Ukraine’s Armed Forces alone,” it reported.
Source: Forbes calculations based on data from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Details: According to Forbes, Russia spends about US$300 million a day on its war against Ukraine.
Direct military spending and the cost of Russia’s lost equipment over 18 months of the war (from 24 February 2022 to 24 August 2023) is about US$167.3 billion. This estimate does not include constant defence spending not related to military operations, as well as economic losses of the aggressor country.
The largest items of expenditure: ensuring military operations (US$51.3 billion), salaries of the servicemen (US$35.1 billion), compensation to the families of the dead (US$25.6 billion) and wounded (US$21 billion) and the cost of destroyed equipment (US$34 billion).
After the rapid fall of the ruble, the “cost” of the Russian soldier for the budget of the Russian Federation decreased significantly. If for 2022 the total payments per one serviceman were about US$200 per day, now it is about US$120 per day.
The level of Russian losses in recent months has remained at a significantly higher level than last year, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Accordingly, Russia is forced to spend more on compensation to the families. The cost of compensation to the family of the deceased in the Russian Federation was about US$110,000, now it is only about US$65,000. The amount of compensation to the wounded, respectively, decreased from US$45,000 to US$27,000.
The main item of expenditure of the Russian Federation on the war in Ukraine is ammunition and military support of the army. The total cost of this is US$51.34 billion. At the same time, the Russians spent over US$9 billion on providing for Russian artillery in a year and a half of the great war. The total cost of missiles fired on the territory of Ukraine has already reached a hefty sum of more than US$21.1 billion.
In September 2022, the State Duma (lower house of Russia’s parliament) and the Federation Council (upper house) approved legislation on ratifying treaties, as well as federal constitutional laws on the accession of the four regions to Russia.
On February 24, Russian President Putin said in a televised address that in response to a request by the heads of the Donbass republics he had decided to carry out a special military operation to protect people “who have been suffering from abuse and genocide by the Kiev regime for eight years” and Putin explained – “demilitarization and denazification” in Ukraine, approved by the State Duma and Federation Council of the Russian Federation.
The Solution to Ending the War in Ukraine Lies in the Ability to Get the Other Side’s Point of View
This is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance, yet we ignore it. The key to solving the conflict lies in the ability to see things from a person or nation’s angle as well as from your own. If there is any chance to end this bloody and devastating war where billions of treasures are spent to bend the arc of history and new military alliances are evolving and responsible to prolong the loss of life, then one ought to think in terms of the opposing side’s point of view.
So, the only way on earth to influence the opposing nations is to determine what each leader seeks and show them how to get it. Instead of the never-ending condemnation of each other, let’s try to understand and figure out why they do what they do. That is more beneficial and intriguing than criticism that only breeds resentment and pride rather than tolerance and perhaps a level of sympathy. Simply put, God himself does not propose to judge man until the end of his days. Why should you and me?
Taking a tip from Benjamin Franklin where his success in diplomacy was to speak ill of no man and to speak all the good, I know of everybody. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -and most fools do. It takes character and self-control to be understanding.
First, it is important to understand the recently annexed Donbas regions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea are just as much the historical homelands to both Russia as Ukraine over centuries of war, political upheaval, and shifting control. Fast forward to 1918, troops loyal to the Ukrainian People’s Republic took control of parts of the Donbas with the help of its German ally. Then in 1932, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin confiscated their land.
WW II witnessed further upheaval when Germany occupied the region for resources and forced labor until the Red Army offensive in 1943 returned the Donbas to the Soviet Union. By 1959, there was 2.5 million Russians living in the Donbas; resulting in educational reforms and attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian language. More recently the economy collapsed through the 1990’s where divisions have since escalated with Ukrainians seeking closer ties to the West and Russian separatists taking over key government buildings and declaring a republic.
Furthermore, the history behind the annexation of Crimea by Russia is not short of its own upheavals. With NATO threatening to expand into Ukraine following missile systems set up in Poland and Romania within striking distance of Russian cities, President Putin made a national security decision to annex Crimea. Sevastopol, the Crimean port city where the Russian Black Sea Fleet calls home is a strategic harbor patrolling the shipping routes from Russia and the Don River to Turkey and Southeastern Europe. Russia reclaimed Crimea from Germany in 1944; and a decade afterwards in 1954; the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed over Crimea to Ukraine on the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. Understandably, Putin reclaimed Crimea and its Russian speaking population; and could not permit the Sevastopol Naval base to fall into the control of NATO.
This current war in Ukraine is yet another pivotal moment in a lengthy and tumultuous history that will be added to a long list of regional conflicts that now has the added global component of NATO-creep with the American-led West injecting itself into the conflict followed by Iran, North Korea, and China bolstering the Russians.
So, what does Ukraine and President Zelensky want? Russia to pull its military from Ukrainian territory, they seek to join NATO, and assurances that Russia will not invade in the future. What does Russia and Putin want? No American offensive weapon systems in eastern NATO countries threatening Russia -not dissimilar to Soviet missiles staged in Cuba and minutes away from taking out major American cities. No NATO expansion to include Ukraine where the alliance would be knocking on the door of Moscow. Addressing the wellbeing and future of the ethnic Russians throughout the Donbass and maintaining sovereignty over Crimea which has been in Russian control for nearly a decade and was not a major point of contention prior to the war in Ukraine. Lastly, the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
What does Europe want at this time in the conflict. The ending of this war and a return to greater peace and security on the continent that includes the ongoing fear of nuclear weapons being used in region. The free flow of energy from Russia to provide for their needs, and assurances that Russia has no further intentions to escalate the war into neighboring EU countries. What does the United States and President Biden want? NATO expansion to include Ukraine, Putin put on trial, removed, and Russian forces decimated, and willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the continuation of fighting to the last Ukrainian standing.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to provide solutions to what each party seeks. Here’s what a framework might look like.
- No NATO membership for Ukraine in the near future and to be reviewed in ten years, however immediate enrollment if Russia decides to re-invade. Membership is not off the table and Russia can breathe.
- A total Russian military withdraws from eastern Ukrainian territory in the Donbas. A UN security force is inserted and has oversight of a regional referendum in three years to determine if the inhabitants in the Donbas want to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. Western leaders speak highly of preserving democracy, and self-determination upholds this claim.
- Energy needs of Europe to be addressed with a percentage of Russian oil and gas revenues being allocated as reparations to rebuild Ukraine’s destroyed infrastructure.
- The removal of offensive missile systems in Romania and Poland facing Russian cities in staged timelines to coincide with Russian alignment on the total package.
- An international effort to rebuild Ukraine under the lead of France, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Turkey with the priority on grain and food shipments from Ukrainian ports; including oversight on the reduction of sanctions to coincide with Russia’s alignment and behavior. This would include the removal of arrest warrants for Putin.
- Crimea remains in Russian territory.
Each party should gain from the negotiations. We must demonstrate what can be accomplished and what can be avoided. Zelensky and Putin can both walk away with wins. Rest assured, the leaders in this conflict will all walk away lonely and perhaps despised in history if they cannot agree on a path forward. Scolding, threatening, shaming, and reiterating your final position without understanding the perspective from the opposite point of view will not stop this war.
The world’s leaders failed when they allowed this conflict to escalate out of control. We still have the opportunity to act before this crisis becomes wildly out of control and spreads further under the threat of nuclear war. Stay on the same path and we will only be fools in history and a great failure to the next generation over the pain and wasted treasure that could have been allocated to solutions on poverty, famine, and those truly in need in the most unfortunate circumstances such as the Moroccan earthquake and the victims clinging to life following the Libyan flood.
We can choose to continue to weaponize our scathing words, inundate the theatre of war with mass destruction, and witness young men and boys soaking the soil in their blood on our perches from afar or step forward to see things through the other side’s lenses and understand what each side wants. It would not seem sensible that people are afraid to say something sensible before the whole of humanity collapses.
How is Iran’s growing paranoia affect its relations with Azerbaijan?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics tried to search for their place in the new global structure. It was necessary to discover new neighbours who had been separated for many decades by the “Iron Curtain.” Hence, since regaining independence, Azerbaijan’s relations with nearly all regional states have undergone a tumultuous period. Although the diplomatic relations of Azerbaijan with other regional actors gradually stabilized, the dialogue with Shi’a Iran remained uneasy.
For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First, Iran is one of the biggest neighbours in the south, with about 618 kilometres of land borders. Tehran’s long-standing destructive hybrid warfare strategy toward its immediate neighbourhood and beyond for many years has had a negative impact on relations with Baku and irritated the latter.
Nevertheless, Baku and Tehran established a pragmatic partnership entailing various regional infrastructure projects, particularly transit links. However, 2020-2023 marked the most heightened tensions in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, with deadly consequences for both sides.
Azerbaijan’s Threat balancing
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations have been strained since Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of engaging in terrorism and espionage. The deteriorating relations between Iran and Azerbaijan garner significant attention, raising concerns about the potential impact on the South Caucasus region. The possible consequences of escalating tensions include economic disruptions and border clashes with the involvement of regional and non-regional actors like Turkey, Russia, Israel and possibly the West.
From the Iranian point of view, several important catalysts led to the deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan, such as the claims of Baku harbouring Israeli intelligence on its soil and the strengthening of the Baku-Ankara axis at its doorstep. As such, in an attempt by Tehran to flex its muscles and intimidate Azerbaijan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted large-scale military drills on the border with Azerbaijan in October 2022. Unlike previous years, the exercises provoked an uneasy reaction within Azerbaijan and triggered anti-Iranian sentiments throughout the country. During the military drills in October, codenamed Mighty Iran, Iranian forces practised setting up pontoon bridges and crossing the Aras River, part of which forms a section of the border between the two countries. It marked the first time that Iranian forces had conducted such exercises. Moreover, the tensions reached a critical level when the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran came under attack by an armed man, leaving one dead and others injured. As a result, Azerbaijan put diplomatic relations on halt and shut down its embassy, and shortly after, expelled several Iranian diplomats from the country, citing their “undiplomatic activities” in the country.
Although Iran’s MFA denied that it bore responsibility for these incidents, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it would no longer buy Iran’s excuses and took action both rhetorically through official statements and with arrests. While Iran deemed the attack merely an individual acting on a personal vendetta, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev rejected Iran’s explanation and called it a “terrorist attack.” With denials of involvement in all of these provocations from the Iranian government being flimsy at best, Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it will no longer give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and with this, has ushered in a new chapter of open tension between the two countries.
Notably, Iran’s main criticism of Azerbaijan can be attributed to its concerns regarding the potential border shifts in the South Caucasus, thus diminishing Iran’s already weakened soft power influence. In addition, Iranian aggression toward Azerbaijan is undoubtedly a symptom of a reshuffling of alliances in the region and a shifting of global dynamics, resulting in new partnership blocs.
Despite Tehran’s claims that it maintains the leading regional power, its influence over Azerbaijan and the region gradually declined even before the 2020 events. Moreover, Iran appeared to be comfortable with the long-term status quo on Azerbaijani borders and uncontrolled territories in Karabakh for three decades, as it actively used the war-torn region as a major corridor for drug trafficking, oil smuggling and other sanctions-busting activities that helped alleviate economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. It was also apparently used to send Russian weapons to Armenia via Iran.
Tehran is cautious that in the post-war period, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel trio will do everything to fence off Iran from the region, thus establishing new red lines. As Baku and Ankara fill the void in the South Caucasus that Russia is leaving behind, Iran is left with Armenia as its key regional partner. For instance, in October 2022, Israel’s then-defence minister, Benny Gantz, visited Azerbaijan, and the two countries signed several military and security agreements, which angered Iran and caused a flood of criticism toward Baku in the Iranian state-run media.
The situation further ignited when Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, ahead of a trip to Turkmenistan, visited Azerbaijan in April 2023 to open Israel’s first embassy in the country, located just 20 km from the Iranian border. Cohen’s remarks regarding the “close partnership between Tel Aviv and Baku against Iran” inevitably triggered harsh rhetoric in Tehran. However, this time, official Baku largely ignored all threats from Iran. Baku’s attempt to reinvigorate regional alliances with the Turkic world in Central Asia and establish new transit routes bypassing Iran reinforced the latter’s preexistence fears about the potential irredentist minority groups. While Iran has many minorities, of greatest importance to regime stability are Azeris, Turkmens and Kurds. The ethnic Kurds are in a latent rebellion against the regime, while the Azeris and Turkmens have remained relatively pacified.
On the other hand, the potential shifting borders in the South Caucasus would come with a cost for Iran, as it may lose its leverage over Azerbaijan as the only land route linking it with Turkey. In the post-war period, Azerbaijan proposed establishing a land corridor with Nakhchivan via Armenia’s Syunik province, thus circumventing Iran. Undoubtedly, such perspectives angered isolated and politically unstable Iran.
Consequently, Iran gained very little from the deliberate escalation of diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, as the latter is an important trade partner of Tehran and a key country in terms of connectivity and infrastructure projects, particularly within the North-South Transit Route.
Iran – Azerbaijan partnership: Trade amid war of words
The diplomatic standoff between Tehran and Baku came in light of the unprecedented violent riots against the Islamic regime after the security forces tortured and killed Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurd. The violent uprising reached nearly all Iranian provinces and still has not fully died down. Iran’s population comprises many ethnic minorities, and these protests have demonstrated the discontentment of many of these communities.
The political and economic instability ignited dramatically when conservative president Ebrahim Raisi assumed office in 2020. The absence of a pragmatic visionary and long-term strategy of Raisi’s hardliner government led to the deterioration of political relations with the immediate neighbourhood, including Azerbaijan. However, despite diplomatic escalation with the neighbourhood, Iran increased trade volumes with several countries in the region, highlighting the long-established IR system control that economic and political ties are developing separately. Thus, despite existing turmoil with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, Iran traded 58.25 million tons of goods worth $35.11 billion with the Persian Gulf’s six littoral states, namely Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, registering a 10.05% rise in value compared with the previous year’s corresponding period.
As in the case of Azerbaijan, Baku has long been standing as Tehran’s leading trade partner amid its struggle with harsh inflation and mounting unemployment rates. According to the Azerbaijani media, the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Iran in January-May 2023 amounted to $212,612,000, up 7.6 per cent from the same period in 2022. During the reported period, the exports from Azerbaijan to Iran made up $7,558,000, and from Iran to Azerbaijan – $205,053,000, respectively.
Consequently, trade is not the only determinant factor in Azerbaijan-Iran relations, as both countries were intensively engaged in several regional infrastructure projects, particularly railway links and new highways at the border areas. In this vein, Azerbaijan played a crucial role in linking Iran to Russia within the INSTC framework. In May 2023, Russia and Iran agreed to complete a railroad that would link Russia with ports on the Persian Gulf, providing a transportation lifeline – via Azerbaijan as a critical link – for the two sanctions-hit countries. Due to insufficient funds, Russia is set to be the project’s main sponsor. However, in the wake of diplomatic tensions, the response from Azerbaijan has been quiet. The local governmental bodies preferred not to comment much on this deal, thus signalling that the INSTC-related projects are not a priority for Baku anymore, which instead touting its growing role on another key transit route – the Middle Corridor, shipping goods between Europe and Asia while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Indeed, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a vital part of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Iran’s main route for transit and trade with the densely populated western regions of Russia, Georgia, and Belarus. The Astara border crossing is the main transit route between Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Russia; on average, a truck crosses the border at Astara every seven minutes. The Azerbaijan-Iran transit route has become even more important recently as a result of the Ukraine war, the extensive Western sanctions against Russia, and the preferential trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that is being upgraded to a free trade agreement.
As this paper discussed, trade and communication occupied a central place in Iran – Azerbaijan partnership in recent years. Therefore, even at the beginning of diplomatic escalation in 2022, Baku and Tehran signed another important agreement that envisioned establishing a new transport and electricity supply link connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Iran. According to the memorandum, the two countries planned to establish a new railway, highway, communication, and energy supply lines connecting Azerbaijan’s East Zangazur economic region and the Nakhchivan region through the territory of Iran. In addition, four bridges will be built over the Araz River, including two motorways and two railway lines on them.
Despite the significance of the agreement’s scope, the further deterioration of relations halted this agreement. Consequently, Tehran’s staunch anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric that became more vocal since 2021 caused costly delays and setbacks in terms of economic partnership and regional connectivity, while Baku established new interregional partnership formats to diversify its portfolio.
Hence, Iran decided to take a step back and return to the diplomacy track as a part of the broader strategy of reconciliation with the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Baku on July 5, 2023, to attend the high-level meeting of the Non-Align Movement (NAM), where he managed to hold a vis-à-vis meeting with President Ilham Aliyev at the sidelines of the event. While the meeting was concluded with positive remarks, it became a good start for Baku and Tehran to rekindle the bilateral relations after months of confrontation.
Shortly after Abdollahian visited Baku, the Deputy of the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, Shahin Mustafayev and Minister of Roads and Urban Development of Iran, Mehrdad Bazrpash, reached a new agreement to complete the construction of a road bridge across the Astarachay River and put into operation within the next four months. The foundation of a new bridge across the Astarachay River was laid on the border of Azerbaijan and Iran on January 25, 2022.
Moreover, on September 14, 2023, Prosecutor general of Iran paid an official visit to Baku and his Azerbaijani counterpart Kamran Aliyev to discuss the investigation into the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. The visit of a high ranking Iranian governmental official was also a positive signal in terms diplomatic thaw.
In this spite, the aide of President of Azerbaijan Hikmat Hajiyev acknowledged that Baku is receiving positive signals from Tehran, thus confirming the news of the ongoing diplomatic normalization.
Domestic turmoil in Iran, mounting international pressure and isolation, and the shifting geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus have added further complexity to the tense relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran in the last three years. Although minor de-escalation recently occurred in Baku-Tehran relations, a smooth intraregional partnership based on mutual trust is yet to be achieved. As such, factors like economic and trade partnerships could be game-changer factors for re-establishing regional dialogue and restoring the pragmatic partnership.
However, if not successful, Iran’s bellicose rhetoric against Azerbaijan could force the latter to take additional strict measures in order to protect its borders and regional stability, which in turn could prompt a military response from Iran with the aim of securing its borderline with Armenia, as this is the only crucial leverage of Tehran over Baku.
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