New suspicions over the status of Abkhazia emerge along with every political move of Russia. While the leadership of South Ossetia has been wholeheartedly obedient to Moscow and expressed its readiness to join the Russian Federation, Abkhazia insists on retaining formal independence. The de facto foreign minister of Abkhazia declared, “The political status of the Republic of Abkhazia is not subject to revision and is irreversible”. Due to the willingness to be a “loyal ally” but not a part of Russia, Abkhazia never held a referendum on the matter.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has enhanced the geopolitical framework of the debate and after the event, many Abkhaz started to worry that the prospect of being “swallowed” by Russia may come to reality. Following recognition, assimilation steps have been met with ideological resistance. However, with Russia not only maintaining its position through friendly rhetoric but also with military and economic presence – all of the de facto republic’s economy depends on Russian aid – the resistance may be the question of time. The weak organizational capability of the governing elite even strengthens the leverage of patronage. It is for clinging to the money received in aid that mainly directs internal political processes. Taking Russian influence and leverage into account, Abkhazia, along with South Ossetia, has every characteristic of a Russian protectorate. Growing economic, political, and social linkages reduce the legitimacy of the claim of the Abkhazian government.
This article explores the nature of Abkhazian sovereignty and the prospects of its complete integration with Russia. It puts the spotlight on the possible political shift in the region stemming from the strong dependence and the shift in generation mindset as well as geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation which can become a decisive factor in the future status of Abkhazia.
Breaking Away from Georgia
Following a de facto break away from Georgia, all motives behind the actions of Abkhazia have been about gaining recognition of its independence. In 2008, the recognition was received from Russia but what it means for the Kremlin and what Abkhazia wants it to be has nothing in common. It was more about separating from Georgia rather than freely conduct one’s own affairs.
After dismantling the bipolar structure, intensified ethnic conflicts in Europe fell under the geopolitical alteration zone, leading to their internationalization in nature. Today’s Russia sees post-Cold War state sovereignty as a by-product delivered from the power struggle (Russia and liberal West) in contrast to its representation in international legal documents. The speeches of Russian politicians often indicate that from Russia’s point of view, Ukraine is rather a territory combining a different group of people than a sovereign state. The rhetoric, following the recognition of Kosovo, illustrated that Putin understood the idea of sovereignty as a mere subject of geopolitical manipulation. Georgian government in the period of pre-war of 2008 voiced the concerns that Russia still did not take Georgia as an independent state. After the recognition of Kosovo, the Kremlin started a proactive policy in order to exploit the idea of sovereignty and link the South Ossetian and Abkhazian case to it. Respectively, the war in 2008 was followed by Russia’s recognition of the independence of the break-away regions.
Getting on Truck with Russia
Since the recognition of independence of Abkhazia, the aid from Moscow amounts to half of the budget. Russia also provides additional funds for aid projects and infrastructure. It spent about 465 million to build and renovate military infrastructure, including the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus and a strategic naval base in the Black Sea. In addition, Abkhazia uses Russian roubles as its main currency, it has adopted Russian technical and commercial standards, and almost all of its main infrastructure is owned and overseen by Russian companies. Most of the financial aid is in the form of loans that imposes a financial restraint over Abkhazia. Interestingly, in 2009-2011 when money was pouring in, people have been taking out loans from Russian banks but now they cannot repay them.
Financial incentives such as social benefits were introduced for people holding a Russian passport. Nowadays, a large majority of Abkhazians have Russian passports. This process, also known as “Passportisation”, in the long term, will create a perfect opportunity for Russia to invoke self-determination for Russian citizens as in the case of Crimea.
Right after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, two sides signed the agreement linking Abkhazia to the Russian Federation in the main areas of defense, border controls, customs, social issues, and public order. Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Russia obliges Abkhazia to coordinate foreign policy with the former and unite with Russian armed forces. This step was criticized as “de facto annexation”. After coming to power in 2014, Russia-backed de facto president Raul Khajimba has been actively demanding a closer bond with the Russian Federation. It is why after the protests over rigged polls in 2020, Khajimba’s resignation has been positively taken by Tbilisi. He was succeeded by Aslan Bzhania, who expressed the willingness for dialogue and establishment of a bilateral channel with the Georgian side. Still, the toneless response of the Georgian government and the public views in Abkhazia showed again that no changes are to be expected any time soon. It has been Kremlin curators who contributed to removing Khajimba from the post, and Bzhania, the former employee of Federal Security Service in the Russian Federation, has the least to do with being the non-Russian political actor.
While Georgian leadership is constantly afraid of making the mistake of totally losing the break-away regions by taking an actual step ahead, it only contributes to the status quo that is already the lost game. The extensive linkage does not automatically derive from foreign economic aid and soft power. When defining leverage, the organizational power of leadership is an important variable. When naming Abkhazia as a protectorate of Russia, the weak organizational power and limited administrative capabilities are also taken into account. On the forefront of bilateral agreements and declaration of independence, there is a strong one-sided dependence. Moreover, the recognition of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation has only enhanced the isolation and pushed it into the hands of Moscow. It matters little to the Kremlin who wins elections. There is no real force willing to counter Russian influence and even if there is any, the lack of outside support would undermine all its capabilities. As well said, “there is no opposition or coalition in Abkhazia; there are only politicians waiting for their turn”.
Abkhazia has no serious social links or civil society ties with other countries, especially with Western states. Another noteworthy trade partner remained Turkey, which accounts for the second-largest source of import due to the high number of Abkhazian diaspora there. But Russia’s intention rests on limiting any other actor which intervenes in its zone of interest. It proved to be true in 2016 when Abkhazia was pressured to impose sanctions on Turkey and give a major blow to one’s own economy while Abkhazia’s impact on Turkey’s economy had always been close to zero. Abkhazia later justified its actions under Article 4 of the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Russia that makes it align its foreign policy with Russia. The political risks and unpredictable environment reduced all the incentives for Turkish citizens to conduct business in Abkhazia and left alternative potential investors out. Apart from this, Russia reimposed the visa requirements for Turkish citizens that created problems for the diaspora, which tries to maintain ties with Abkhazia. They were made to travel from Turkey to Abkhazia through the airport in Sochi, which is part of Russia. These events clearly show that Russia stays unwilling to compromise creating other options for the region.
The lasting socio-political and economic crises, as well as lack of organizational order, questions the formally retained sovereignty of Abkhazia. The ruling of the de facto parliament that Abkhazia will not consider unification with Georgia, neither with Russia nor will it hold the referendum on the matter, may be subject to revision when the past will not be enough to justify future decisions.
A Third Party
Although today Abkhazians are decisively against joining Russia, the view of the future generation leaders with a Russian mindset, who are educated in Russia and think in Russian finds solid ground. The majority of the older generation who remembers the war and justifies all the sacrifices by its independence will be substituted by a new cohort of young people. There have been active discussions about the third party which will replace the current leading figures on the political playground. The most prominent in this respect is Inal Ardzinba, currently chairman of the Inter-Religious Public Council for Youth Affairs, existing under the Patriarch of Russia Kirill and the former head of the department in the president’s administration. He is also famous for lobbying Donbass and Luhansk separatists and is considered to commit crimes against the state of Ukraine such as the shift of the border and undermining the constitutional order. Inal Ardzinba seems to be preparing for an ambitious political future that is well known to and supported by Putin’s closest circle such as Vladislav Surkov, the closest adviser and one referred to as an ideologist of Putinism. The frequent show up in media where he voices thoughts on emerging future Abkhazian political leaders serve this cause. Ardzinba announced the creation of the new party representing and empowering youth politicians around.
The Kremlin proved many times that it stays vigilantly on the watch to seize opportunities to engineer support of specific groups for its foreign policy goals. Obviously, it does not waste time to exploit its advantages in Abkhazia. It supports a new generation of politicians in Abkhazia who have the least to do with Georgia and, unlike the older generation of the Abkhazian political elite, are much more enthusiastic about integration in Russia. While Georgia has the image of an aggressor, Russia is seen as a friend and security guarantor. The above-mentioned development of processes could definitely build more barriers with Georgia, which is already left outside the processes.
As in the case of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia actively uses soft power tools in Abkhazia as well as in South Ossetia. If in the former instances tools apply to the concept of Russkiy Mir to promote language and culture with ethnic Russians, in Abkhazia it is the geopolitical premises that make ideal ground for securitizing the political identity. Abstract ideas relating to nationalism and cultural characteristics remain highly volatile to be integrated into political discourse. And usually, Russia promotes traditional Russian culture and values as well as counters Western liberal influence through the Orthodox Church. It seems no accident that Inal Ardzinba works in the Youth Affairs Council which functions under the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. For informal or formal incorporation, the Kremlin has a perfect candidate backed by the majority of Abkhazian youth to serve Russia’s cause.
Crossing Another Red Line
Even though the de facto government of South Ossetia has expressed the willingness for succession to the Russian Federation, the latter has been unreluctant to accept the call. The leadership always preferred uniting “two Ossetias” over the claim of the state sovereignty. After Crimea, it is the most likely region to be annexed. So, why Russia does not cross another red line to unveil its power and hegemony over the region?
When information about annexation is spread, it is difficult to draw a line between individual statements and the strategic communication at the behest of the Kremlin. There are many factors unknown for us, particularly, when one needs to deal with Russia’s disinformation campaigns. What we know is that considering the current circumstances, the annexation of South Ossetia does not seem to have as many advantages for Russia to outbalance the possibility of maneuvering with Georgia. With the status quo, the Kremlin already poses effective leverage to have an extensive influence over the country. For now, neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia may be on the agenda to be a target of Russia’s expansionist ambitions but all it matters for Russia is securing its spheres by all necessary means.
When talking about possible annexation, Russia’s geopolitical interests should be well analyzed. The location of Abkhazia at the Black Sea creates opportunities for connections with the outside world. And although today Abkhazia is heavily dependent on Russian assistance, it has many other potentials to become a strategic point in the region. For Russia, the Black Sea has always been seen as “near abroad”, which has been instrumental for its projections as a great power. In response to the so-called Color Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s foreign policy became more assertive to secure its presence around the Black Sea. The most important event to reestablish its military presence has been the annexation of Crimea, making it a Russian “platform for power projection”. The event directed attention away from Abkhazia since Russia has already established a strategic military base in the sea. Yet, there is no guarantee when it will be up to cross one more red line to reimpose its dominance in the region. It will be largely defined by the willingness and readiness of the West and political forthcomings in the bordering countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova as well as Turkey. In case Russia senses any possible encroachment on Abkhazia, there seems no way Moscow will allow to take a risk and let the status of Abkhazia play a positive role in developing the ties with external powers. Apart from the mentioned, regional energy dynamics can make the Black Sea a global arena of competition leading to assertive steps from the Russian side. If annexation will not be the logical end after the disappointment and exhaustion in Abkhazian society, then Russia’s decisive step can finalize the process overnight.
The means adopted by the Russian Federation leads to the legitimate doubt that they might be part of its strategy to annexation. For now, it does not provide many benefits to finalize the process but if the trend continues, whether to formalize the dependence as annexation or not will just be up to Russia’s own will. The increasing gap between Georgia and Abkhazia does not leave many choices for Abkhazia. Unlike the post-Soviet countries, break-away Abkhazia remains isolated from the world and more exposed to Russian influence. Until what stand will it be possible to maintain vigilance towards the threat to self-identity and independence derives from multiple factors. However, the integration of Abkhazia into the Russian Federation is impending and all the factors work in favor of it. This trend does not seem to be disrupted until there is an unpredictable change falling under the wider geopolitical umbrella.
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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.
From our partner RIAC
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