It is more of a job to interpret interpretations than to interpret the things M.Montaigne «The Complete Essays Опыты»
The fast pace of a settlement process in Nagorno-Karabakh and the arrival of Russian peace-keepers in the conflict zone took those Russian and foreign ”experts” that cashed in on the one-sided presentation of Russia’s policy, by surprise. Their interpretations of events while they were hot smack of confusion and mutually exclusive conclusions. The impression is that a guidebook for the “analysis” of the situation and “interpretation of interpretations” has yet to be written, so they interpret things at will, thereby creating their own “plausible” myths. Such free judgements range from the allegedly well-planned winning operation by “intriguing” Moscow in Nagorno-Karabakh to V.Putin’s 10 defeats in Trans-Caucasus. What comes to one’s mind in connection with Moscow’s so-called “wicked games” to incite the conflict, is the parable about a man who saws a tree he is sitting on. A passerby tells him: «Don’t cut it – you will fall down», but the man continues to cut the tree. As he falls, at last, he exclaims: «Was it witchcraft that did it?». This can easily be applied to Armenia. It was Y.M.Primakov who warned the Armenians years ago that in the absence of a compromise deal the armed conflict in Karabakh was bound to erupt anew sooner or later: «Azerbaijan can work and wait. And it has the resources. 10, 20, 30 years, and they will gain strength and will grab EVERYTHING from you». The same warning came from Armenia’s first President Levon Ter-Petrosyan in 1997, and in 2011.
The Armenians, while fully aware of the impending war, demonstrated inability to collect themselves to counteract the threat. They did not boost their defenses or purchased the required armaments. The country’s combat readiness decreased as well: the new government, fearing a military coup, opted for the support of the army and replaced professional commanders with government-loyal laymen who had no links to the previous top brass. Moreover, the government, which came to power as a result of a color revolution and consisted of officials who used to work for Soros organizations, began to gradually distance itself from its only true ally – Russia, closing Russian-language schools, launching ungrounded persecutions of Russian companies, imposing restrictions on pro-Russian media, think tanks, politicians and civil campaigners. All these measures were presented under the slogan of the versatility of foreign policy and the need to fight against corruption. The versatility of Armenian policy led to an equally versatile attitude on the part of Moscow: it demonstrated the same policy with regard to Armenian allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Azerbaijani partners. Thus, considering the suicidal can’t-care-less approach on the part of the Armenian leadership, it would be absurd to talk about the wicked intrigues of Moscow, which allegedly orchestrated the capitulation of Armenia with a view to “punish” its “democratic” leadership. Armenia orchestrated its own defeat (see below).
A common stance in favor of an immediate end to the bloodshed and a ceasefire control mechanism was repeatedly discussed with countries co-chairing the OSCE’s Minsk Group (the United States, France) at the presidential level, at the level of ministers, and by special envoys. But the formulation of a final three-party statement did not appear possible – a delay was out of the question as it would jeopardize thousands of lives.
Russia, which put an end to the senseless slaughter while other members of the Minsk Group chose to keep a low profile, could hardly be blamed for ill-doing. Nevertheless, the ardent opponents of the “criminal regime” are set on presenting the entire conflict as a number of V.Putin’s defeats. А. Illarionov argues that there were exactly 10.
Firstly, the Kremlin’s former economic adviser blames the Russian president for being unable to prevent and stop Azerbaijan’s aggression in the initial stage, and for failing to prevent the capitulation of Armenia. These are presented as V.Putin’s first three defeats.
What became a target for using force is Karabakh – an unrecognized republic, which received no recognition even from Armenia proper after nearly thirty years of its independence. Under UN resolutions, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan, which is particularly relevant speaking of territories, occupied by the Artsakh Defense Army in the 1990s and comparable in size to the unrecognized republic itself. The problem is that since then Armenia has done nothing to legalize its paternalism in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh. The uncertainty of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status for Armenia, Russia’s ally in the CSTO, prevented Moscow from coming out in defense of this territory. Technically, the conflict was Azerbaijan’s internal affair: it did not attack Armenia’s territory, carried out military operations against separatists on its own territory. The Artsakh Defense Army was a good deterrent. Even Armenia chose not to deploy its army units in Karabakh but dispatch volunteer corps instead.
Given the situation, deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces was possible only on condition of approval from both parties. The negotiations were under way from the very first day of the conflict but N.Pashinyan, who counted on western assistance, would not agree to the conditions proposed after consultations with western curators. As military operations continued, the terms for a peace settlement became less attractive until on November 9th the situation grew critical with possibilities for a ceasefire deteriorating further.
Undoubtedly, co-chairing countries of the Minsk Group could have stepped in to guarantee an earlier ceasefire, by introducing a balance of strength, by imposing a strict ban on Turkey’s attempts at intervention in the conflict. This could have been secured within NATO, or by threatening with UN Security Council sanctions. However, in early November, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (needless to guess, it was Britain) blocked a draft resolution proposed by three co-chairing members of the CSTO’s Minsk Group to ensure an immediate ceasefire and prevent third countries from meddling in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, while NATO did not even raise such an issue. Given the situation, the Kremlin could not prevent an attack and neither could it force N.Pashinyan to sign a statement earlier, as the latter, until the very last moment, hoped that “the West will help us”. Therefore, it is the West that should be blamed for being unable to prevent military operations and to nip the conflict in the bud. Meanwhile, if we follow A.Illarionov’s logic, we must ascertain the defeat of the USA in 2008, when Washington proved unable to prevent M.Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia.
Russia entered Georgia after M.Saakashvili attacked Tskhinval from Grad multiple rocket launchers killing Russian peacekeepers who were deployed there on the basis of an official agreement signed by both sides. The fact that M.Saakashvili was the first to start the war (having more than 100 military advisers from the USA and more of them in Georgia’s government agencies) – was pointed out in a EU report. This report, compiled by the EU independent panel, was ready in spring 2009 but was published only in the autumn, after the western media celebrated one year to RUSSIA’s attack on “small” “democratic” Georgia. The report by the EU panel was mentioned in passing. What will be the case this time? If Russian peacekeepers come under attack from either of the parties involved and Russia takes retaliatory action, what will be the reaction of well-wishers, like A.Illarionov?
The war was stopped thanks to intensive peace-keeping activity by V.Putin personally, while Armenia’s capitulation was the result of its “versatile foreign policy” and assistance of western advisers (capitulation can be described as partial, since except Shusha and Hadrut, Karabakh remained under peacekeepers; the other, earlier occupied areas would have surrendered anyway sooner or later – in general, Armenians did not settle there).
As the fourth defeat, A.Illarionov cites the fact that Turkey’s assistance to Azerbaijan proved more effective than Russia’s aid to Armenia, which is rendered in full compliance with Moscow’s commitments as an ally.
An economist by qualifications, A.Illarionov could compare the budgets of the two countries and the oil money on which Azerbaijan for 26 years purchased cutting-edge weapons. Armenia has neither oil, nor the oil money, and the diaspora are not quick to loosen their purse-strings. According to experts, it would cost Armenia 10 yearly budgets to mount an appropriate defense of Karabakh, which, of course, was unaffordable, considering that even the available resources were spent irrationally. For example, Armenia chose to buy the old Osa missile systems from Jordan, though it could have bought ultramodern systems from Russia at prime cost or on credit. It was unclear why Armenia purchased Russian fighter jets which were absolutely superfluous for the country’s military needs and did not make a single flight in the course of military operations. A report to this effect was made a few days ago by an Armenian general, who serves in the capacity of chief military inspector of Armenia.
As it happens, it is not enough to have the resources – it is also vital to have competent military experts. But the incumbent Armenian prime minister, as was said above, got them out of the way as he fought for power.
It is not Russia’s fault that Armenia could not use the opportunity of getting the assistance it needed. It was only after the start of military operations that the Armenian leadership became aware of the shortages of military hardware. Russia was quick to offer assistance but this aid took long to be delivered as it was transported via Iran after Georgia had shut the land and air border with Armenia because of the conflict. Georgia opened the air corridor for Russian peacekeepers alone after the signing of the statement.
V.Putin’s fifth defeat in the interpretation of A.Illarionov is (and this is strange for a liberal) the Russian president’s mediation in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan instead of “dictating their will to smaller nations”.
As far as the Russian mediation is concerned, it would be more appropriate to blame co-chairing countries of the Minsk Group – the USA and France, which failed to act on their commitments to establish peace. They thus tend to shift responsibility from the guilty to the innocent. Should they have followed what Aliyev “dictated” (A.Illarionov writes this about the three-party statement), Azerbaijan would have captured the entire Karabakh, there would be no Russian peacekeepers there, and the observer center would have been opened without Russia. Armenia wouldn’t have welcomed it.
What A.Illarionov also blames the Russian president for is the absence in the final document of any mention of the status of Karabakh.
In the early days of the war, when the terms of peace were much more favorable for Armenia, N.Pashinyan, assisted by western advisers, missed the chance of reaching agreement on the status of Karabakh. After the defense crumbled and Shusha surrendered, this chance was lost altogether – status was not on the agenda, what was necessary was to keep what remained. V.Putin’s hint: talks on the status could be on the agenda in the future, at the moment the most important thing is to put an end to military operations.
In addition, A.Illarionov cites V/Putin out of context, by selecting some words and leaving out the main idea: “Speaking about recognition-unrecognition of Karabakh as an independent state, there can be different opinions to this effect, but what proved essential was that the mere position of non-recognition of Karabakh, including on the part of Armenia, left a visible footprint on the course of events and on how these events were perceived».
V.Putin continued: «We must say about it openly: after the criminal, without doubt, activities of the former Georgian leadership, namely the strikes against our peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We acknowledged as fair the wish of Crimean people to become part of Russia, we acknowledged their free will, we did it openly. Some may be in favor, some may be against, but we did it in the interests of people who live there, in the interests of entire Russia, and we do not hesitate to openly say so. This was not done with regard to Karabakh, which made a tangible impact on what has been happening there».
While taking for granted the presence of NATO military contingents from Britain, Canada and Germany in the Baltic countries in 2017, А. Illarionov lashes at V.Putin for voicing no objections to the dispatch of Turkish military to Azerbaijan and their participation in the peace-keeping operation. This suggests a selective approach, a kind of “liberal logic”, under which the presence of NATO military in some former Soviet republics should be seen as appropriate while the presence of NATO servicemen in other former Soviet republics should be seen by Russia as inappropriate. The disfavored liberal economist is also indignant over V.Putin’s recognition of the sovereignty of Azerbaijan and his consent to the presence of observer centers consisting of Russian and Turkish experts on the territory of Azerbaijan.
The Turkish influence on Azerbaijan became reality in the 1990s, as a result of the irresponsible policies of Yeltsin/Kozyrev. While we are allies with Armenia, we are only partners with Azerbaijan, so the latter’s desire to win the support of one more guarantor is quite understandable. Had the co-chairing countries of the peace process – the USA and France – not withdrawn from the scene at a critical moment, they could have taken Turkey’s place. Now, instead of demanding, within NATO, that Turkey account for its actions to incite conflict in Southern Caucasus, which were perpetrated in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, western partners in the Minsk Group require Russia to account for the role of Turkey in the Karabakh conflict. They ought to ask themselves first.
About the peace-keepers, A.Illarionov distorts the facts: the statement envisages the presence of only Russian peace-keepers in Karabakh and empowers Turkey to establish a Turkish-Russian ceasefire monitoring center on the territory of Azerbaijan.
For an even score, A.Illarionov argues that among V.Putin’s other defeats is the use of drones in an online regime to monitor the situation along the division line, as the drones, he says, caused the death of Armenians. Does it need to explain that technical means can both carry death and control the peace process, depending on the set purposes.
What A.Illarionov disliked was V.Putin’s support of N.Pashinyan, who opted for putting an end to the bloodshed, eventually. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to assume that the interview by an initiator and mediator in the peace settlement was designed to obtain all but backing the Armenian prime minister, though at the present, his resignation could take place only as a result of an anti-constitutional coup. Deputies from the ruling My Step bloc, who control two thirds of seats in parliament, made it clear that they want N.Pashinyan to stay. So much public disappointment means that there is a chance that radical groups may come to power in Armenia, such as terrorist organization «Sasiatser», and these groups may disrupt all the agreements and unleash a war to a complete self-destruction of Armenia.
Considering an overwhelming public support (over 70%) for N.Pashinyan’s bloc My Step at parliamentary elections in December 2018 and in the absence of any alternative leader or party that would be equally popular, Moscow exerted every effort for 2,5 years to hit it off with N.Pashinyan, despite his apparent tilt towards the West.
When still in opposition, N.Pashinyan called for withdrawing from the CIS, from the Eurasian Economic Union, to join the EU and NATO, and for removing a Russian military base from the territory of Armenia. The “street” were hilarious. After becoming prime minister and waking up to the Armenian reality, N.Pashinyan stopped calling for an immediate breakaway from all integrational Eurasian organizations. Instead, he proclaimed versatility of the country’s foreign policy. In domestic policy he introduced the doctrine of so-called “transitional justice”, which enabled him to get rid of political adversaries under the pretext of fighting against corruption and without any legal instruments. He gave top government posts to a bunch of non-professionals who used to work in Soros organizations and had no experience of public administration.
The Armenians were either hilarious about what was happening, or condescending. For 2,5 years government-supporting media cultivated Russophobic attitudes among the public. It got so bad that some Yerevan residents complained that they found it “unpleasant” to see Russian border guards at Yerevan Airport, or Russian servicemen moving to Erebuni Airport via Yerevan (but there is no other way) – and all this instead of thanking their defenders with flowers. Russian border guards have been protecting Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran under a bilateral agreement of 1992, since Armenia lacks the resources to secure the protection of its borders on its own.
Even now, after a crushing military defeat, n.Pashinyan’s supporters tend to distort the course of talks on a statement signed on November 9th . As it seems, V.Putin gave an interview which is being “analyzed” by A.Illarionov for the purpose of providing undistorted account of the course of the negotiations. As for accusations of backing the Armenian prime minister, it’s either that the author knows nothing and is absolutely unaware of V.Putin’s manner of allegorically ironizing over political opponents, or he is set on deliberately misleading the reader. For example, as the Russian president spoke about the closeness between the US Democratic Party’’s slogans (BLM support) and the CPSU, he definitely spoke with tongue in cheek. In the case of Pashinyan the support by V.Putin of the Armenian prime minister made it possible for the Russian president to inform the people of Armenia about progress at talks with N.Pashinyan and the proposals made in the course of these talks (the latter would spread misinformation on the talks to justify his actions). In addition, Russia’s President “is defending” the Armenian prime minister because for V.Putin, what matters is not the person but the policy he pursues, which at the present stage meets the interests of Armenia and Russia – the national interests of BOTH countries.
If we are to examine the outcome of the conflict from the point of view of the “zero sum” (victory-defeat), I recall an interview of one year ago with one of the commanders of the Artsakh Army, a hero of the first Karabakh war. Asked about the future of the unrecognized republic he said that the best solution would be to deploy Russian peace-keepers in Karabakh, while for the republic itself the best option would be the status of a mandate territory like Palestinian Autonomy (until 1948) or Cyprus (until 1974). At that time I found it utopic as neither the co-chairing countries in the Minsk Group (the USA and France), nor Azerbaijan would never agree to such an option. Life, however, (or our diplomacy?) has made the impossible possible. Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have got protection, Russia – the possibility of controlling both parties in the conflict. Of course, the peace-keepers’ mission is dangerous as there could be provocations on the part of the conflicting parties and on the part of the “co-chairs” as they run trying to jump on the step of a leaving train.
Many interpreters will try to compromise the Russian foreign policy, including those in the West who describe the successful establishment of peace in Karabakh on the principle of “a game with a zero sum” as a defeat of their countries.
Peace has come, but history does not stop there.
From our partner International Affairs
Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum
In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.
But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.
Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity. After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US. Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia). However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation. Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined. In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.
However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner. In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?
Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets. Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts. Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.
The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?
There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms. However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.
Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.
In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.
China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market
In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’. Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil. Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.
Turkey- An Emerging Vector
Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.
However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.
The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future. Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow. It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.
‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue
The Western countries’ reaction to the detention of an opposition leader in Minsk has revealed the high degree of readiness of the United States and its allies to create risky situations for the sake of momentary political benefits. No matter how the actions of the Belarusian authorities were consistent with international aviation law and customs, the behaviour of Washington and most of European capitals showed that they are difficult, if not hopeless partners for the rest of the world community. Now we have no reason to fear that developments will turn into an uncontrolled escalation — the attacks of the West against Lukashenko do not directly impact Russian interests. However, what has happened in the media and in diplomatic circles in recent days provides ample opportunity to consider the need for new containment measures in relation to the habit of the US and Europe to take European and international security so lightly.
So far, Russia’s reaction to these emotional outbursts has been restrained, because the actions of the Western countries did not directly harm its interests. But if such hysteria repeats, it will confirm the lack of intentions in the West to establish any kind of stable dialogue with those powers that are not willing to subordinate their respective domestic and foreign policies to its demands. Is this some kind of a “strategic frivolity”, whose appearance in international affairs and the behaviour of the EU and the US has become more and more regular as the balance of power in world politics shifts? Russia, for its part, can show any amount of restraint, but the line beyond which this will become impossible, may be passed unnoticed.
As a matter of fact, such a reaction of the West to the stoppage of an international flight by the Belarusian authorities and the detention of one of the passengers did not come as a surprise. In recent years, Russia, China and others have become accustomed to the fact that the United States and Europe have been quick to sacrifice international stability when it has suited their concurrent goals.
The EU countries have been grasping at any straw in their attempts to confirm their greater relevance in terms of international law on the world political stage. It hasn’t been working out very well so far.
At the summit on May 25, the leaders of the European Union countries approved a resolution calling for a package of measures against Belarus — personal sanctions and broader measures against the Belarusian economy. But it is clear how ineffective these measures will be, even to the European observers. After the failure of the EU to work out a common position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the failure of another attempt to “punish” the government of Alexander Lukashenko will serve as another blow to the international reputation of the EU.
Britain, which left the EU, but remains the closest satellite of the United States, is in principle trying to behave as the main opponent against any country whose position does not coincide with Washington’s wishes. Now London’s position is aligned with that of the Baltic states, which are most irresponsible in their statements and actions. It is unlikely that this will strengthen London’s position on the world stage. The United States, for its part, is acting in its usual way — while lacking any direct interests, it easily creates risks for others. Surprisingly, in this respect, the behaviour of the US resembles the behaviour of Minsk, which is also not always ready to take into account Russia’s diplomatic wishes.
For Russia, the recent diplomatic “plane crash” involving Belarus does not pose immediate threats, but it may become another test for Russia’s legendary restraint. Moscow is clearly accustomed to the fact that the Western states are not always predictable in their actions and, in principle, live “in their own world”, where there are certain rules for them, and completely different ones for others. So far, Russia has reacted to all this in a very reserved manner. The measures the West has taken against Minsk do contradict basic Russian interests in the field of European security, but they do not create threats and do not harm Russia. However, it is the ease with which the West enters a conflict with any nation, at the slightest pretext, that causes Russia’s concern.
It will be extremely fortunate if, during the Russia-US summit, scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, the parties can deliver some appeasement to international or regional politics. It is unlikely that the summit will result in any breakthrough of a general nature; there are no preconditions for this. But the very ability of Russia and the United States to discuss common interests will show that both great powers retain the responsibility necessitated by their strategic importance. So far, however, we cannot be sure even of such a minimal positive outcome of the expected meeting.
Russia concurs that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are no example of prudence. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that Moscow has adequately estimated the scale of Western pressure on Minsk and understands that in the situation that has arisen, reactions such as that of the Belarusian government are quite predictable, and even justified. In 2020, a number of Belarus’ neighbours in the West openly supported a movement to overthrow President Lukashenko. Russia then supported the legitimate Belarusian government and warned of its readiness to provide it with practical assistance.
Lukashenko himself can pursue his interests as much as he wants, and sometimes even refuse to coordinate actions with Russia — Belarus is a sovereign state. However, the alternative to his regime now is an attempt to bring to power such forces that will confidently follow the Ukrainian scenario.
The internal political crisis in Belarus, even if it enters a hot phase, would be beneficial to the interests of the United States and would have a devastating effect on European security. However, as we can see, now the countries of Western Europe are in a state of political “knockdown” and cannot control events that risk putting an end even to the minimal independence and choice possessed by Europe. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are ready to create risky situations, because outside the conflict with Russia, they have no future in international politics. The fact that the future within the framework of this conflict may turn out to be very short for all of them does not bother them at all. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are dominated by forces, for which adventurous behaviour has become the basis of politics inside and outside. Germany and France cannot stop them because they are engulfed in colossal internal problems.
We can hardly expect that the next surge of “strategic frivolity” will have really dramatic consequences. In any case, the world history of all-out wars does not know examples when large-scale armed conflicts would have really insignificant incidents as a pretext. In all known episodes, a “tragic accident” has always involved the interests or security of one of the leading powers. Now we don’t see this, and most politicians in the West are therefore behaving irresponsibly, because they do not expect a serious escalation. Moreover, the Lukashenko government is indeed becoming one of the permanent opportunities for the United States and Europe to stage high-profile political campaigns without a real threat to the world. But this is not a guarantee that if there are grounds for a big conflict, the behaviour of the West would be more reasonable than these days.
From our partner RIAC
Ryanair Incident: Five Sanctions Risks for the Republic of Belarus
The detention in Belarus of a plane operated by the Irish company Ryanair has caused a sharp reaction in the US and the EU. The issue of expanding sanctions was again on the agenda. They may turn out to be even more serious than the restrictive measures introduced last year in response to the situation around the presidential elections.
The approach of Washington and Brussels is defined by several lines of argument which converge at one point. First, the detention of the plane resulted in the arrest of opposition politician Roman Protasevich. The incident reignited the theme of democracy and human rights violations, which have long served as a basis for sanctions. Second, the Western powers proceed from the fact that the aircraft was detained under the false pretext of a terrorist attack threat on board. The statements of the Hamas movement that they were not involved in the events added their share of farce. Third, the detention was carried out with the use of an Air Force fighter, that is, this aspect of the incident can be interpreted as the use of force. History knows a number of examples of such detentions, including the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013. From a formal point of view, Minsk acted in the interests of national security within Belarusian territory. However, this formality and the existence of precedents are unlikely to play a serious role. In the USA, the incident is understood as a “shocking act” that endangered the lives of passengers and has served as a new reason to condemn Lukashenko for undermining democracy. Similar assessments were given in Brussels and London. Threats of new sanctions were voiced almost immediately. There are five main sanctions risks for Belarus.
The first risk is that of a ban on the use of the territory of Belarus for aircraft transit, a ban on flights to Belarus, as well as on the reception of aircraft from Belarusian airlines. Threats quickly began to shift to a practical level. The leaders of the EU countries called for a ban on flights of Belarusian aircraft in EU airspace. The UK and France have already introduced such measures. Some airlines have cancelled flights through Belarus. The big questions are: how long will such measures last and how unanimous will states and companies be in implementing them? However, it is clear that all this will complicate supply chains, as well as cause economic damage to the country and its partners abroad.
The second risk is that of diplomatic sanctions. In response to the replacement of the state flag of Belarus with the flag of the Belarusian opposition in Riga (with the participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia), Minsk decided to expel all employees of the Latvian embassy. Similar decisions were made in Riga with regard to the employees of the Belarusian embassy.
The third risk is the denial of EU investment programmes. The government of Belarus would hardly receive such assistance even without the incident with the plane. The condition of assistance is a democratic transition in the country.
The fourth risk is another wave of sanctions against Belarusian officials. Such sanctions were widely used in response to the events in 2020. They play a rather symbolic role and do not do much economic harm. Usually they entail visa bans and the freezing of assets. At the same time, their psychological function should not be ignored. Such sanctions are usually aimed to sow discontent among the political elite, betting on its dissatisfaction with the political course of the country’s leadership. The EU may assume that even the security forces may not like to play the role of pariahs.
Finally, the fifth risk is that of blocking sanctions against strategic enterprises. Such sanctions have also been used in the past. A number of large Belarusian enterprises are already in the sanctions list (SDN) of the US Treasury. Most of them have a general license. Previously, such licenses were extended for long periods (up to two years). However, in April, the license was renewed for only a month and a half. It expires on June 2, 2021. Will the US, and after them the EU, carpet bomb the Belarusian economy? The lifting of the exemptions and the renewal of sanctions would cause serious economic damage. However, the threat of such actions will remain inevitable.
The resumption of blocking sanctions against big companies has not yet been discussed loudly. Despite the visceral opposition to the Belarusian leader and the country’s political system, the West is hardly eager to strengthen Russia’s position in relations with Belarus. This would deprive the Belarusian leadership of room for manoeuvre in its dialogue with Moscow and make Minsk much more dependent. But this is theory. In practice, such sanctions will provide a headache for Russia itself. They will hit the economic ties of Belarusian and Russian enterprises. The latter may fear secondary US sanctions. In addition, Belarus is likely to need large-scale economic assistance. The threat of sanctions poses important problems for the Union State of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Among them is the creation of payment mechanisms that would ensure uninterrupted economic ties in the event of an aggravation of the sanctions pressure.
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