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Ukraine: Geopolitical View of the Interested International Actors

Ekaterina Chimiris

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The geopolitical position of Ukraine at the current stage of development of international order is complicated and somewhat challenging. The country is in the zone of interest of the USA and the Russian Federation, as well as Europe. This makes it a point of contention between powerful international actors.

The first question is — why it is so difficult to find a shared vision for the solution of the conflict? In the discourse of all the sides of the conflict, we see intent on finding and realising a solution. The main problem is the lack of trust between all parties, lack of trust between Russia and western countries. Trust between the Ukrainian and western elite is higher, but also contains some elements of alertness. Trust was destroyed from all the sides, both Russian and western. The situation is complicated by misunderstandings regarding intentions and proposals.

When we are in the situation of crisis — it means a lack of trust between the parties of the conflict. The question is how we can rebuild trust and further negotiations. The discourse in official media and official government statements show the intention to continue the dialogue, but at the same time, we see that the dialogue is quite difficult.

What is it trust? — It is a opportunity to predict the behavior of the trusted partner [1]. The previous behaviour of the partners is not a good base for trust in the situation of the current Ukrainian crisis. Even during peaceful times, each agreement passed through a long and complicated process of negotiations. For example, regular gas crisis’s between Russia and Ukraine.

At the same time, common values present an opportunity to rebuild trust. How can Russia, Ukraine and western partners understand that they have shared values? — the negotiation platforms, on the base of international institutions, such as Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), etc. In this article, I aim to look at the global structure and the roots of the Ukrainian conflict, in the context of historical, socio-cultural and political aspects.

The typology of international actors and the structure of their interests

The Ukrainian case shows different examples of strategies and frames [2] of external politics, used by different types of international actors toward the other state. I will name three types of actors that exist (not taking into account international organizations, global terrorist networks, criminal networks, etc.). In this article, I will discuss the goals and strategies of the Nation-State, Quasi Empire, and Nationalizing State. Each of these actors has certain peculiarities in creating international politics and agenda. All of them are engaged in the Ukrainian situation.

National State

The Nation-State model is most common in the world. It is a phenomenon of the modern period and is considered to be the only variant of state. The borders of a Nation-State are strictly defined and protected by the political regime of the country. State unity is based on a common nation (state language, citizenship). The Nation-State “looks inside” itself and tend to protect the borders and the inside unity of the country [3].

Quasi-Empire Project

Then quasi-Empire elements on the post-soviet space (after the collapse of USSR) the Russian Federation still have not constructed the national state in the classical view. Or the same elements of the quasi-empire project we can observe in the behaviour of the USA. Nowadays, we cannot speak about empires in the full sense of the word, but some elements can still be found. Some previous empires are on the transition way towards Nation-State, but the empire legacy still has its’ impact [4].

The borders of the nation empire are not finally defined and political elites look at the opportunity to enlarge the territory or to influence somehow on the other states and communities. Before the Ukrainian crisis, such ideas were rather marginal, but the political crisis in Ukraine moved the issue into the official discourse.

This approach is typical for quasi-empire and unacceptable by the Nation-States. — Here is the first point of misunderstanding and lack of trust. Why do empire nations believe they have the right to other states? — Because it still does not have a common understanding of its nation. Usually, it is a multinational and multi-confessional state and needs institutions different from those of the Nation-State.

Nationalizing State [5]

The territories, which were under the empires usually, become nationalizing states. Nationalizing state is a kind of transition situation (but it can be so for a rather long period). Such states emerge after the collapse of big empires or other countries. The nationalizing state usually moves towards the Nation-State: so the task is to create a nation and to define the borders.

The nation is also in the process of creation, but usually, it is created on ethnic base. The same situation is in Ukraine now; the current political elites tend to support the idea of the Ukrainian nation (Ukrainian language, certain historical myths), at the same time most of the people who live in the East and South of the country are automatically excluded from this nation criteria. The nationalizing states usually became the sphere of interest of quasi-empires.

Society without a State

After 2014 we also can see the marginal area of Donbasss, on which some unique social and political processes are developing, described by James Scott [6]. These societies try to escape hierarchy of any kind. Based on cultural flexibility, pragmatism and self-reliance of autonomous communities. Once this kind of society is formed — it will be a difficult task to reintegrate it back to a Nation-State.

Why is it important to know the type of actor when we speak about external politics and conflicts? The case is that the behaviour and expectations of a Nation-State will radically different from the ones of a quasi-Empire. The main aim of a Nation-State is to protect the borders, which were defined and legitimized. Quasi-Empire aims to have potential territorial or cultural growth. That is why the idea of soft power was created in the USA and is so prevalent in the Russian Federation now — these states would like to influence the territories much outside their borders. In this case, the external politics of nationalizing states are reactive — they can only react on the impulses from quasi-empires, and struggle for their national identity and diffused borders. Donbasss is in a unique situation as it is not much needed in Europe or Russia. It is more likely that we can find institutes created to avoid any form of state and obedience.

That is why Europe blames Russia for annexing new territories; at the same time, it is seen in Russia as the historically logical process of state-building. And Russia blames the EU and the USA for the violation of regional security. Both of them blame each other for making Ukraine dependent.

The Ukrainian National Identity and Europeanization

Ukraine first embraced the European path during the 2004 revolution. Institutionally, this path implies the country’s aspiration to join the EU and NATO. Recent amendments to the Ukrainian constitution legitimize this drive.

The European identity is historically a superstructure above the national identity. Ukraine’s main problem is its aim not to follow the traditional procedure and therefore try to skip the phase of forming its own national identity in its desire to join the European family.

Essentially, Ukraine is replacing the notion of Ukrainism with that of Europeanism. Democratic institutions are paramount for European countries as they are the integrating base of the rule of law that makes up the Union. However, Ukraine does not give value to the institutions’ content and operation, but to their own existence.

As for Ukraine, the very idea of Eurointegration resulted in an escalation and subsequent loss of part of the country’s territorial integrity in 2014. Historically, European institutions have only been partially effective in heterogeneous societies with contrasting socio-cultural backgrounds. For the population of eastern Ukraine, Soviet values have proven to be even more important than they are for Russian citizens. In his research on national construction in post-Soviet territories, Vladimir Lapkin determines the post-Soviet secession phenomenon, in a process backed not only by a classic nationalist impulse but also by the nostalgia of the Soviet past. Lapkin asserts: “These ‘special separatists’, unlike ‘classical separatists’ who attempt to oppose their ethnonational project to the dominating ethnic nation (or its simulacrum), promoted ideas that were absolutely impossible within the political prevailing of the imperial universality of the 1990s and 2000s. In the absence of a better example, an ‘idealised USSR’ or a ‘revived Russian state’ is often appealed.” [7]

Consequently, Ukraine’s European path towards the EU and NATO easily turns into a semiotic myth because it embraces the idea of a universal solution for many problems Ukraine faces today, including those concerning the economy, social sphere, territorial integrity, and government’s legitimacy. The underlying idea towards European integration and the subsequent introduction of European institutions may actually create the potential and necessary motivation for action. Perhaps, the myth existence regarding the future integration with the EU and NATO may bring about prosperity, nonetheless completely negates any initiative or attempt to actually achieve anything.

None of the presidential frontrunners deny that the drive towards Europe could be difficult or even fatal. The approach of Ukraine needing to become part of the EU and NATO due to Russian aggression is a temporary one. It only aims to secure the current regime legitimacy and will be no longer useful once Russia has begun restoring its relations with the West afterwards the enduring crisis. That is when Ukraine will once again be faced with the great problem of rebuilding its sovereignty statehood.

Russian vision of the Conflict

The global perception of the crisis in Russia is based on the post-soviet legacy. It is closely related to the process of creating a Russian identity, defining the borders and strengthening positions as a global actor.

The interest towards the situation in Ukraine is high among Russians. Therefore, the Russian population is keenly following the Ukrainian elections, given the close economic and other personal ties (likelihood of having family between the two countries). Analysis conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center explored popular opinions within Russia regarding the Ukrainian elections, and the results were quite interesting. “The Russian populations’ awareness of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections is rather high: 79% of Russians have heard of the election campaign including 18% who are following the campaign closely”. At the same time, fears of possible manipulations are widespread among Russians, with 68% of those polled believing that the election results will be falsified by the Ukrainian authorities and thus won’t be representative of the will of the people. More than one and every ten respondents (12%) believes that while there might be certain violations, but they will not influence the overall results. Altogether, the elections do not inspire much credibility in Russian society, doubting even about their legitimacy.

If we consider general attitudes towards Ukraine in Russian society, the radical positions have not changed much. On the one hand, one of them is that Ukraine is an example of fair and transparent elections. On the other — Ukraine is a “historical fault”.

On Russia’s side, Crimea is not an issue for discussion anymore, after Russia feels it has settled questions concerning security in the Black Sea and, more broadly, security for the Russian speaking community in the region. That is why now Russia’s main goal is to move towards a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Ukraine, excluding the Crimea issue from the future negotiation process. Based on my research and observations, I believe Russian interests in Ukraine can be summarized in three key points:

First, Russia is highly interested in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and reintegration of Donbasss in Ukraine. In this respect, the Russian Federation is concerned about the rights of the Russian-speaking population in addition to their safety, and this issue will rank high on Russia’s agenda.

Secondly, Russia aims at rebuilding its economic ties with Ukraine, since Moscow is still Kiev’s largest trade partner: according to World Bank data, in 2017 Ukrainian export to Russia was 3 943 217.84 $ (9.08%), by comparison — Poland is the second (6.28%) and import — 7 196 562.10 (14.56%), China is the third (11.41%).

Third, despite the conflict, labour migration from Ukraine to Russia remains a reality. Russia is interested in qualified workers and students coming to study. Ukraine remains the main country of origin of migrants to Russia, even if the number has decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017) and there is a trend of more Ukrainian citizens to leave Russia.

I would like to attract your attention to one citation from Russian President speech to the Federal Assembly in 2014:

“It was an event of special significance for the country and the people, because Crimea is where our people live, and the peninsula is a place of strategic importance for Russia as the spiritual source of the development of a multifaceted but solid Russian nation and a centralised Russian state. It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus”.

He speaks about strategic importance, development of the Russian nation, and a centralized Russian state. And all of these things are now connected to Crimea. Each country has to have a historical heartland. For the Russian Empire, it should be the Kievskaya Rus, which is now situated in Ukraine. In fact, Russia and Ukraine struggle for the same territories to be their heartland. This citation shows us a new ideological reality in Russia.

Accordingly, Crimea became the centre of civilization for Russian identity. It is a new ideological reality of internal Russian politics, which should be considered as crucial in policymaking decisions. In this sense, we can argue that putting the Crimean issue in the negotiation agenda will lead to a more radical Russian position.

Russian and Ukrainian Struggle for History

In the current situation, we find not only the negotiation of an attempted settlement to the East Ukraine armed conflict, a new stage of information and ideological confrontation also seems to be developing a rivalry between Russia and Ukraine over the interpretation of their past. In fact, the fabric of the history of the Kievan Rus looks very much like a blanket, with each country trying to pull all of it to their side.

What we have seen so far has been sluggish but definitely intensified by the media struggle, textbooks, movies and other cultural areas for the exclusive right to interpret the same historical facts. Why can’t these two states share a common history, and why is it so important to possess a unique past?

In his address to the Federal Assembly (December 2014), President Vladimir Putin mentioned Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the Crimean context, which was perceived by a large part of the society as a legitimation of the peninsula´s affiliation through the myth of restoration, the historical truth and the preservation of continuity in traditions, culture and statehood. To this end, Moscow will erect a memorial to Vladimir on Vorobyovy Hills to honour the 1000th anniversary of his death. In his turn, Ukrainian President Poroshenko released an executive order to commemorate Grand Prince Vladimir as the “founder of medieval state Rus-Ukraine,” while the Russian State Duma responded by accusing Kiev of attempting to privatize the memory of Russia’s Baptizer.

Having made history as the ruler who baptized Rus and bolstered its statehood (the key features attributed to him by history textbooks), Grand Prince Vladimir has recently emerged as a substantial stumbling obstacle of Russian and Ukrainian politicians’ mutual comprehension.

In Russia, the deep-rooted historical legitimacy and continuity of historical epochs have not practically undergone any revisions, with all projects to interpret and describe history (Sergey Solovyov, Vassily Klyuchevsky, Sergey Uvarov’s triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality) working to build a single, non-contradictory historical model of development. With some slight variations, this scheme was taught both in the Soviet period and following the disintegration of the USSR. Nobody questions the Kievan Rus as the source of statehood and the Moscow Princedom and later the Russian Empire as its successor.

However, the political decision to annex Crimea had been perceived ambiguously both in Russia and abroad and hence has required additional legitimization. The new mythologem is intended to smoothly integrate the current political reality into the existing legitimization model and provide it with additional fixtures.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the legitimization of its statehood is a much more complicated affair. The executive order of the former president, Poroshenko, to honour Grand Prince Vladimir was meant as a reminder that this relevant period is an inherent part of Ukraine’s history. Within the current quagmire of problems over the legitimacy of borders, Ukrainian national identity and diminishing political support, this order was designed to preserve available structures and the legitimacy model. Because of this, the political effect appears quite questionable.

Compared to Russia, historical legitimization is a much more complicated endeavour for Ukraine. En route to statehood, Ukraine felt the impact of the powerful state and ideological machines of the neighbouring Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. And it was Mikhail Grushevsky who launched the construction of the model for a unique Ukrainian history when Nation-States emerged after the breakup of these empires. His project primarily reflected the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was briefly implemented during the revolutionary reforms in the Russian Empire. The scheme was revived in 2004 by the instigators of the Orange Revolution and the former president, Pyotr Poroshenko.

In 1898, Mr Grushevsky released the first volume of History of Ukraine-Rus that contained a compilation of facts intended to substantiate the historical independence of the Ukrainian people by tracing an alternative succession of historical stages. He rejected the unity of eastern Slavs, drawing a line between the Ukrainian-Russian people and Great Russians. Before Mr Grushevsky, Ukrainian history had one way or another been integrated into the history of Russia and Poland, the neighbour powers which controlled Ukrainian territories. Accordingly, his innovation suggested an alternative model of historical development and a new succession in the continuity of state entities seen as the forerunners of modern Ukraine.

Mr Grushevsky discarded the Muscovite version of history, insisting that although the Kievan Rus transferred some forms of the socio-political order to the Great Russia lands, there was no full-fledged continuity between the Kievan Rus and Moscow Princedom. The Tatar invasion undermined the socio-political basis of the Kievan Rus. East of the Dnieper River, these traditions were practically ruined, with only some of them preserved on the right-hand side and advanced in the Galitsk-Volyn Princedom and later under the rule of Lithuania and Poland. The history’ version developed by Moscow was also unfit for legitimizing Ukrainian statehood because the emergence of the Ukrainians as a separate people was dated to the 14th-15th centuries, thus something absolutely unsuitable for Mr Grushevsky as the ideologue of the Ukrainian statehood.

As before, the key issue still lies in establishing the successor of the Kievan Rus. Prior to the appearance of Mr Grushevsky’s interpretation, the succession of the Kievan Rus and Tsarist Russia had been universally recognized (see V.M. Solovyov, V.O. Klyuchevsky). The incorporation of the Kievan Rus period into the historical roots of a state proceeds from the establishment of a certain state entity through a certain ethnic groups. Proponents of the unity of the three eastern Slavic peoples agree that the Kievan Rus was set up by the Slavs, who later gave rise to the Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. In his History of Ukraine-Rus, Mr Grushevsky not only substantiated the autochthony of the Ukrainian ethnos’ origin but also firmly insisted that the Kievan Rus belonged to the tradition of the Ukrainian statehood.

This concept smoothly resonates again in the current official Ukrainian debate because it provides grounds for the logical construction of national identity. Ukrainians assert that Moscow was built on its own, borrowing practically nothing from the Kievan Rus under immense Tatar influence.

Although this is ancient history, the two historical paradigms are popular in modern politics, with the described myths being only a fracture of the entire mythology arsenal employed in the debate. The history of the Great Patriotic War actually plays the same role, the most cited issues being the dichotomy of the Soviet troops and collaborationists on occupied Ukraine territory, the odious Stepan Bandera, Golodomor, etc. The interpretation of concrete events and the formation of myths (as semiotic systems) helps to assign friends and foes and additionally validate political decisions.

Conclusion

Although Russian and Ukrainian leaders use the same historical facts surrounding the Kievan Rus, their motivation differs. While Russia wants to add additional legitimacy to its political decision over the voluntary entry of Crimea into the Russian Federation, Ukraine is trying to restore the shattering legitimacy of its state borders and the national identity of its population.

The use of historical facts is a long applied instrument for fueling an entire political context, usually with quite material consequences. In fact, turning the status of Crimea into the historical centre of Russian statehood may create a stumbling block during zero-sum international negotiations. If the partners opt for a more constructive approach to handle other issues, Crimea should be off the agenda. Ukrainian legitimacy appears more threatening. Independent for over 20 years, Kiev has failed to generate a state-wide identity and is now trying to revitalize older models, which have regrettably demonstrated their ineffectiveness after Maidan 2004. The country will face the irreparable loss of its legitimate borders and government, as well as the identity of its population.

In a situation like this, Russia and the West appear to have coinciding interests in handling the issue of Ukraine’s legitimacy because neither would like to see a Somalia-style failed state at their borders. This move should be affirmative, shedding the extremes a la “Ukraine is not a state,” etc. since this is a field for determined efforts to establish a constructive myth for a state on the verge of a breakdown.

Speaking on the possible steps towards the successful Nation-State for Ukraine:

First, Ukrainian politicians need to come up with a uniform set of values and legitimacy that would be relevant to most of the country’s population. We could hypothetically suggest the idea of the country’s independent economic development. With its favourable geography, Ukraine may well become an economic hub, a target for effective investment, and a growth point for innovative projects. For this to happen, however, the country first needs to shed its dependence on any single strong external actor, be it Russia, Europe, the U.S., or, in the longer term, China. It would be fairly possible to create effective, law-governed economic institutions without joining the EU and NATO.

Second, Ukraine needs to mould its youth in a way that would facilitate negotiating practices and an ability to achieve a compromise. No matter how skilful the Western European advisors may be, Ukraine will have a hard time introducing democratic institutions unless society revises its long-standing habits. Introducing brand new institutions is always a complicated process that involves breaking established behavioural patterns. This is primarily the mission of educational establishments. The mere drive towards Europe is not going to unite the nation in any significant way.

Ukraine should also stop picturing Russia, or any other country, as its nemesis because this only works as a short-term solution. Seeking out external enemies is only good as an interim method of legitimising a government and securing public unity. The method has a number of disadvantages. First, consolidating against an external enemy requires a particular exertion of forces; no system is capable of holding out for long under stress. Second, the external enemy’s environment may change radically. Third, a country that is defending itself expends much of its strength on defence, not on development.

Russia is a significant international actor for Ukraine, and Kyiv will need to come up with some new kind of format for relations with Moscow sooner or later. This will happen after the frozen conflict has ceased to suit the key decision-making political actors. Prior to the inevitable talks, both parties will have to establish a negotiating position. It would be wise to start the talks with the less painful issues, but searching for such issues poses a special intellectual problem for conflict mediators. It is fairly possible that one of these steps will involve establishing a dialogue along the lines of Track II expert diplomacy.

A possible conflict solution for Donbass — giving Crimea back — will entail a significant transactional cost and a very high price for Russian elites. It is impossible in the current political situation, as we see the new nation and state legitimacy model. The connection of Donbass and Crimea issues will lead to more confrontation. If we put the Crimean issue outside the agenda, we can look at the following possible variants for the regulation of the conflict.

-Donbass as separate state — the variant of Transnistria.

-Donbass as part of Ukraine. Possible only on the basis of wide autonomy. At the same time, there is needed a process of economic reconstruction, without ethnic or language issues.

-Donbass as the part of Russia, the less possible one.

The second variant is considered to be the most peaceful for the international community. Nonetheless, we still have the army of Donetsk and Lugansk which are interested in their own profit. So for Russia and Europe, it will be very important to change the official discourse and start to see not the enemies, but rather strategic partners.

First published in “Geopolitical Challenges of European Security in the South Caucasus and Ukraine 19th Workshop of the Regional Stability in the South Caucasus Study Group, 16/2019 Vienna, October, 2019”. From our partner RIAC

[1] Uslaner, Eric: The Moral Foundation of Trust. Cambridge University Press 2002.

[2] Uslaner Goffman, Ervin: Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press 1974.

[3] Uslaner For Nation-State see: Habermas, Yurgen: The European Nation-State And The Pressures Of Globalization. In: New Left Review. 235/1999.

[4] Uslaner Kaspe, Svyatoslav: Imperii I Modernizatsiya. Obshaya Model I Rossiyskaya Specifika. Moskva, 2001.

[5] Uslaner Brubaker, Rogers: National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and External National Homelands in the New Europe. In: Daedalus. 124/1995, pp. 107-132

[6] Uslaner Scott, James C.: The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press 2009.

[7] Uslaner Lapkin, Vladimir: Problems of Nation Building in Multi-ethnic Post-Soviet Societies: Ukrainian Case in Comparative Perspective. In: Polis. 4/2016, pp. 54–64.

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Eastern Europe

What awaits Ukraine after US presidential elections?

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Who is the man that Kiev wants in the White House – Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden? For a country like Ukraine, so sensitive to external influences, this is an overarching issue.

Joe Biden’s election in November would bring Ukraine into Washington’s sharper focus. However, important as this may seem to Kiev, this attention may prove excessive. During Biden’s vice presidency this attention was so intense that it bordered on personal interest, and, ultimately, even interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

On the outside, the love affair between Ukraine and a possible Democratic president will most likely express itself in US support for Kiev’s confrontational actions and statements. With Biden at the helm, Washington could even try to influence the Minsk process. Kiev has on many occasions declared its desire to bring Washington and London into the Minsk talks. Neither the British nor the Americans have so far responded to this call, but the US Democrats are sure to ramp up their activity on this track. One should not expect too much here though, and a mere statement by Washington that the Minsk accords need to be revised will already come as a breakthough for Kiev. As for President Trump, he just couldn’t care less about the negotiations on Donbass, which he views as having nothing to do with America’s interests.

On Biden’s watch, Washington could resume the previous format of interaction between the US State Department and Kiev and bring back the post of the State Department’s special representative in Ukraine, which until the fall of 2019 was held by Kurt Volker – a semi-official channel of interaction that formally demonstrated Ukraine’s importance to the United States. The resignation of Volker, who failed to fully implement what he had been tasked by Trump in a country he did not care much about, could lead to the elimination of the position of the State Department’s special representative for Ukraine, as an unnecessary catalyst for US-Ukrainian relations. This means that the usual diplomatic channels (embassy) between countries are quite enough, that the interests of the president can be taken care of by trusted people (Giuliani), and issues of international politics should be resolved with Putin and Europe (Merkel and Macron), which is not doing enough to uphold Ukraine’s interests. To demonstrate the importance of the Ukrainian track, however, Biden may bring back the position of the State Department’s official representative in Ukraine.

With regard to Crimea, Ukraine is already urging NATO to build up its presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia’s alleged “aggression” and its “militarization of the occupied Crimea.” Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhepparova [representative of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, banned in Russia – D.B.) has called on NATO to expand its foothold in the Black Sea region.

“The security of Ukraine and NATO are inseparable, and strengthening cooperation in the Black Sea is our common priority,” Dzhepparova wrote on her Twitter account. Under Biden, the United States can intensify its efforts in this direction.

The issue of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region is always on the agenda, regularly escalating in connection with various events – in 2014 in Crimea, the war in Syria, etc. Last autumn, the RAND Corporation think tank published a report on how best to counter Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region. Its main conclusion is that due to the West’s shortsighted policy towards the two regional powerhouses – Russia and Turkey, as well as its underestimation of the political power wielded by their leaders, who subordinate their domestic and foreign policies to their countries’ interests, and not those of the “new world order” and “democratization,” it has lost this region and something needs to be done about it.

For Biden, the need “to do something” could become a source of confrontation with Russia. Biden could be all too happy to do this “something” through NATO, seeing this as a sign of support for Ukraine and Georgia, an opportunity to rein in Turkey’s growing assertiveness and bring Bulgaria and Romania closer into the game by stoking confrontation and militarization of the region with a possible supply to them of coastal missile systems. In general, one can expect an uptick in military-political interaction in the form of active cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, as well as arms deliveries.

The arrival of a Democrat to the White House may also ratchet up the internal political struggle in Ukraine, where the nationalist opposition, conditionally led by the “friend of the Democrats,” ex-president Petro Poroshenko, may try to regain power. Poroshenko, meanwhile, is being charged with high treason, corroborated, among other things, by his recorded conversations with Biden – both politicians have cases that they would very much like to hush up. Besides, the nationalists’ activity will inevitably impact the Minsk process, and, possibly, the situation along the disengagement line in Donbass.

What can Kiev expect from President Donald Trump? Less interference in its domestic affairs – once reelected, Trump will most likely lose interest in the active search for compromising evidence on Biden, although he is unlikely to give up this matter altogether. It will all depend on further confrontation between him and his opponents. The main danger for Trump after his re-election will be not so much the Democrats as such, but the political and social processes unfolding in the country, above all the Black Lives Matter campaign. The only thing that may get Trump interested in Ukraine is his ongoing confrontation with China. The United States is enthusiastically blocking the sale of Ukraine’s Motor Sich engine building corporation to the Chinese company Beijing Skyrizon Aviation.

The Americans see the deal as a security threat, since it would provide the Chinese with new aviation technologies. As for Motor Sich, the company has been forced to make a deal with the Chinese because of the loss of the market for its products and the breakdown of supply chains with Russia after 2014.

Blocking Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and attempts to disrupt energy cooperation between Russia and Europe (Nord Stream-2 “) is another factor that Trump and Kiev look eye to eye on, even though Kiev says that the continued transit of Russian gas across its territory is a guarantee of Ukraine’s European integration. Trump’s interest in Ukraine will depend on his pragmatic view of geopolitics and economics, as well as the political threats he may see coming from Kiev.

In an hours-long interview, President Zelensky’s former chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, thus described the system of relations existing between the United States and Ukraine: “In general, there are three tracks, three points of negotiations with the United States. The first is intelligence and security services. We are blind kittens here, really, and all our military capabilities, the capabilities of our special services are information that the international community shares with us. And besides the war, these are drugs, crimes, security. These are plans in general, analytics – we have no analytics. The second negotiating track is diplomatic service. [On this track, according to Bohdan, conversations begin and end with the fact that NABU (National Security Agency of Ukraine, headed by Artyom Sytnik) created on Washington’s orders, is an important and untouchable organization – D.B.] And our third negotiation track is financial organizations. ‘Give me the money.’”

Democrats and Republicans alike perceive Ukraine as a buffer zone between Russia and Europe, Russia and NATO. Ukraine will remain a platform for creating reasons for sanctions, justifying sanctions, an active participant in and an accomplice to sanctions processes. Obviously, the sanctions confrontation over Nord Stream-2 is just beginning, and Ukraine, as a party fearing the loss of transit, has long been calling for sanctions against this Russian-European project.

Any of the two contenders for the White House will talk about providing financial assistance to Ukraine, with Trump being more pragmatic, and Biden – more “rhetorical.” With Biden in power, the Ukrainian economy could be reduced to handouts.

The US will not go overboard with its interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs though, because this is a costly affair (Ukrainian oligarchs have enough money to conduct any political campaign of any scale. Why would Washington spend money if it can exert influence or clinch an agreement?) Lobbying the interests of private individuals or politicians that are to Washington’s liking is no problem – suffice it to recall the story of the Burisma Company that tarnished the reputation of the Biden family. Influencing the political landscape by persecuting politicians and oligarchs is also an option (recall the recent cases of tycoons like Dmytro Firtash and Ihor Kolomoyskyi).

President Zelenskiy and many other Ukrainian politicians, dependent on Washington, now face the daunting and, at the same time, important task of choosing the right course of action before the US elections. According to some Ukrainian observers, Zelensky made his choice after long hours of brainstorming with his trusted confidants. It looks like this: “No sudden movements [until November 2020 – D.B.], no progress in the investigation of the criminal case against Biden and his son Hunter, no Burisma and no Derkach tapes. We imitate a “stormy discourse” in the Minsk format, pretend to support the “Belarusian Maidan,” but we lie low and carefully compare the ratings of Trump and Biden.”

In a nutshell, Ukraine is seen by Washington as just a platform for serving America’s geopolitical interests, which is also being used for party-political and private interests. Will anything change for Ukraine depending on who wins the November 2020 US elections? My answer is no.

From our partner International Affairs

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Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

Emil Avdaliani

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Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place. 

The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:

  • Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
  • South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.

In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.

Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.

It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.

Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting. 

In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.

However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.

A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.” 

Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.

Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.

Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.

Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.

However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Eastern Europe

Putting People in Control of Their Land to Realize Ukraine’s Potential

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Land reform will allow Ukraine to capitalize on its economic potential and improve the lives of Ukrainian people – but a lot still needs to be done before a successful land market opening.

I have now had the privilege of being the World Bank’s Regional Director for Eastern Europe for a little over two months. Returning to Ukraine after almost twenty years, I have been impressed by many recent achievements on Ukraine’s reform path.  Many of these are complex, and consequential – creating an independent gas transmission system operator that is already helping safeguard Ukraine’s gas transit revenue; continuing, in the face of opposition and setbacks, to strengthen anti-corruption institutions; undertaking the difficult process of resolving non-performing loans in state-owned banks; and moving, amidst the unprecedented global pandemic, to protect pensioners and other poor and vulnerable Ukrainians.

Today, the immediate challenge Ukraine faces is the COVID-19 pandemic – first to immediately reduce both the mounting toll on health and lives, and then to rebuild livelihoods and incomes. But what reforms are most needed to restore and even improve incomes for the average Ukrainian in the aftermath of the epidemic?

There are many that are required. But for me, the greatest promise is offered by the set of measures around agricultural land reform. Here again, much has been accomplished, most notably when, this past March , the Rada voted to end the nearly two-decade old moratorium on the sale of farm-land. This was a critical first step to unlocking Ukraine’s greatest source of growth. But it is not enough. The next and necessary step is to advance fundamental measures around the governance of land – to allow ordinary people and local governments to benefit from their land without intimidation, bureaucratic interference or corruption.

Land reform that truly allows owners and users to take control of their land can be transformative. By World Bank calculations, for Ukraine as a whole, this can permanently add almost one percentage point a year to economic growth. For landowners currently leasing out their land, this could provide up to  $3 billion every year. For rural residents and small farmers, this can create some  $24 billion of collateralizable assets that allow them to invest in irrigation, horticulture or non-agricultural small enterprises. And for local communities and local governments, this can provide an income stream of up to  $2 billion annually to better the lives of Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian authorities have already made enormous strides in this direction by passing a package of legislation that reduces raider attacks and land-related schemes, makes land data publicly accessible, and allows local communities to plan land use.

But there is much more legislation around land governance that is needed to ensure all the benefits of land reform for every Ukrainian. And just passing the laws is not enough – once that is done, there is the need to draft implementing regulations, to set up institutions to administer these regulations, and to actually implement measures.

Moreover, for improved land governance to lead to more investment, and thus income, it is especially important that Ukrainian landowners or land users be aware of their rights and how to exercise them, and have these rights protected. This is particularly true for small and medium farmers. They must be able to have any actual or attempted violations of their rights redressed quickly. Farmers and other private participants must know how to use land as collateral to access credit. Banks and other financial institutions must be able to professionally assess the value of the collateral and have the incentives to lend to smaller borrowers. Once relevant laws and regulations are in place, there is thus a need for a broad-based legal awareness and a financial literacy campaign.

All of this takes time – and time is running out.

By the most conservative estimates, the needed regulations, institutions and implementation could take at least nine months. The land market opens on 1 July 2021. So, it is essential to pass the appropriate laws by the end of September, at the very latest.

If this deadline is missed because of entirely avoidable delays, there is a real risk that on the date the land market opens, Ukraine will miss this golden chance. Even more, there is the danger that opening the land market in the absence of these strong legal and regulatory safeguards will result in an echo of the 1990s privatization – leaving the market vulnerable to the powerful and well connected and actually worsening land-related corruption and inequality.

Together with our partners, the World Bank has long advocated land reform as a key for Ukraine to develop the productive potential of its abundant land resources. We see this as central to revitalizing the incomes of average Ukrainians, especially in rural areas.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unlock the sector’s growth potential through investment in high value-added crops and agri-processing and, most important, to transform the welfare of millions of Ukrainians. Ukrainian parliamentarians and policymakers have to ensure that we do not miss it.

World Bank The article was first published in Ukrainska Pravda

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