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Reigniting the Civil War in Donbas: Reminiscence of the Crimean Annexation

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Source: MSC / Kuhlmann

Europe has been the stage of calamity since the yesteryear’s shenanigans stirred by regional powers and political deadlocks. Coupled with the havoc subjected by the covid pandemic, the region continues to struggle with a health emergency laced with economic turmoil. Focusing on Eastern Europe, Belarus was the centre of attention following the rigged general election in August ensuing mass protests in capital of Minsk. However, while the internal conflict raging throughout the country posed instability, the region was never near an escalation as severe as the turn of events at the borders of Ukraine.

As the Pro-Russian factions are gripping in Eastern Ukraine, primarily in the region of Donbas, Ukraine fears a repeated episode of the War of Donbas of 2014 when the Russian intervention and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the south resulted in chaos and heavy casualty in the echelons of the Ukrainian military. While the Russian administration continues to veil its position by explicitly denying any inducement of the Pro-Russian voices in Eastern Ukraine, the sinister momentum is continually picking pace with heavy movements of Russian troops along the border of Donbas in the east and Crimea in the south. The timing and placement allude to a significantly graver possibility extrapolating from the notorious annexation not even a decade earlier.

Ukraine is an East European country bordered by Belarus to the North, Hungary, and Poland to the adjoining West, and Romania to the South. The Southern periphery is lined by the Black Sea while Russia stretches the borders in the North and Northeast. The region is scattered with the post-Soviet rendition of Eastern Europe: the countries conflicting and colluding which once stood as the mighty Soviet Union of the 20th century. Albeit Ukraine functioned as the pillar of the Soviet’s flourishing economy throughout the yester century, the country as an independent nation has been at an impasse, unlike its regional counterparts.

Unlike the ex-Soviet nations of Latvia and Lithuania, which incline towards the Western alliance and exist as one of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Ukraine struggles with a bifurcation of factions: one aligning with the European Union (EU) and the United States whilst the other jumping the bandwagon of Russia. While the former faction advocates joining hands with major Western powers, the latter opposes the active involvement of NATO in Ukraine, pushing for a Russian-backed government instead. This divide led to the annexation of Crimea in the South: marking Russia as an ever-looming threat to the sovereignty of the ex-Soviet countries deviating from the objectives of the Kremlin.

In 2014, mass demonstrations against the Pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, led to a dramatic turn of events. The revolution erupted in defiance to the abysmal economic policies of President Yanukovych that quickly erupted into an anti-Russian narrative bustling the streets of the capital city of Kyiv. While the President repeatedly tried to resolve the economic disparity by factoring in his alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his acts were perceived in the light of deception, especially by the Pro-European faction in Ukraine. The rage-fuelled protests eventually managed to topple the government of President Yanukovych, forcing him to step down and flee into exile to Russia. The falling-out of the Russian narrative, however, did not bode well in the echelons of the Kremlin.

In the months following the ousting of President Yanukovych, Russia started to tighten the screws against the surging opposition in Ukraine. While the primary objective was to reinstate the government of President Yanukovych, President Putin had other views. Quoting to his cabinet members, he stated: “We [Russia] must start working on returning Crimea to Russia”. Within days, Russia started to implement its scheme by systematically provoking the Pro-Russian rebels against their Pro-European counterparts.  Russia supported the rebels in East Ukraine as well as Crimea in the South to take over the state infrastructure and grapple for power to induce chaos.

Once the mayhem was too hard to follow, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula whilst blocking the Eastern Ukrainian territory to impede any Western assistance to the Ukrainian military. The EU slammed sanctions over the Russian oil and banking sectors, the US warned of dire consequences and the UN denounced the invasion as an act of ‘Barbarianism’. However, it didn’t hinder the annexation of Crimea: separating it as the ‘Republic of Crimea’ before eventually signing a treaty of accession to incorporate the peninsula as a part of the Russian Federation. Despite the unabating US and UN allegations of war crimes and subsequent sanctions whilst deeming the annexation as ‘Illegitimate’, Russia controls the Crimean Peninsula except for the northern areas of Arabat spit and Syvash which still fall under the contested control of Ukraine.

Unlike Crimea, however, the Donbas region gives way to a different story altogether. Though an identical Pro-Russian sentiment follows through both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the foresight differs significantly. A 2014 referendum in Russia casted a colossal 96.7% voter count in support of subsuming Crimea as a part of the Russian Federation: which ultimately led to the accession of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia despite the UN deeming the vote illegal. Similarly, the perspective of the fate of the Donbas region was on congruent levels during the Crimean annexation. However, the narrative has loosened ever since. The Donbas region, comprising of the major revolt cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, enjoys a popular narrative in Russia to be liberated from Ukraine as independent states: Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) and Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR) respectively, instead of joining the Russian Federation. While the opinion of incorporating the Donbas cities within Russia has diluted since the war of 2014, the narrative supporting a unified Ukraine remains the most unpopular opinion in Russia.

Eastern Ukraine has remained a reminder of the Crimean annexation; the stalemate in the Donbas region has tallied over 13000 fatalities including the Pro-Russian rebels but primarily comprising of the Ukrainian troops ambushed in Northern swathes of Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that a total of 50 troops have perished in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2020 alone. The simmering tensions and the prolonged standoff has multiple roots. President Zelensky is a renowned Pro-European leader ad one of the major critics of the Kremlin intervention in the ex-Soviet countries including Ukraine. He has been crushing the clout of Pro-Russian militants in the pockets of Eastern Ukraine, incessantly blaming Russia for providing militaristic assistance to the rebels. Moreover, President Zelensky has been one of the primary proponents to peddle the cause of gaining NATO membership for Ukraine to put an ultimate end to the unremitting capitulation to Pro-Russian fighters and the Kremlin.

The strengthening of Ukraine-NATO relations has always irked the Kremlin regime: close movement and deployment of NATO forces along the Russian borders has been one of the most contentious and controversial aspects of diplomacy. This has established a grey zone between Ukraine and an official membership of the NATO: an accession that could likely lead to escalation through provocation and, dictated by Article 5 of the NATO charter, would mandate an armed retaliation by other members of NATO against Russia. The resulting devastation could not be even fathomed.

On the counter-side, President Putin is reeling through a tough tenure of his decades-long premiership. Covid fatalities run rampant and mass opposition blooms against the Kremlin in the aftermath of the incarceration of a popular Kremlin Critic, Alexei Navalny. Moscow requires a series of events to turn the stride in favor of President Putin.  While President Putin’s recent stretch of tenure being extended further has done little to appease the raucous Russians backing Navalny, a conflict with a long-despised Ukraine should set his presidency back to a stable trajectory. Russia’s actions in Crimea pulled the popularity of President Putin to a phenomenal rating of 86% in 2014. Given how his government was rattled by the opposition back then and how the annexation instantaneously notched up his image in Russia, moving in tandem, an active intervention in Ukraine could again turn things in favor of the desperate Kremlin.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ruslan Khomchak, estimated a total of 35000 Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine. However, he estimated a tally of 50000 Russian troops lining across the border in Eastern Ukraine as well an additional 50000 troops lining the southern periphery in Crimea. While Kremlin has refused to be preparing for an invasion, a vague intent was implied by the Russian Presidential Spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stating that: “Nobody is planning to move towards the war. However, Russia has always said that it won’t remain indifferent to the fate of the Russian-Speakers in South-eastern Ukraine”. The statement is laced with a threat that led Ukraine to pry for assistance, specifically from NATO. However, despite constant US warnings as well as an invitation to a Summit extended to President Putin by President Biden to ‘Discuss the full range of issues’, Russia continues to claim the deployment as a routine military exercise. However, with expedited NATO movements along the Eastern Ukrainian borders, the US marines infiltrating the Black Sea and Ukraine historically close to obtaining the NATO membership, an invasion could most likely be on cards. The gravity of the ground reality could be gauged by the recent statement of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Of course. We know it from 2014, we know it [Russian invasion] can be each [and any] day”.

The author is an active current affairs writer primarily analyzing the global affairs and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Pakistan.

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The Emerging “Eastern Axis” and the Future of JCPOA

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Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said that Tehran would further strengthen its ties with Moscow via a strategic partnership. Said Khatibzadeh  ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded’

    This agreement will be similar in nature to the agreement signed by Iran with China in March 2021, dubbed as the strategic cooperation pact, which sought to enhance economic and strategic relations (China would invest 400 Billion USD in infrastructure and oil and gas sector while also strengthening security ties). Commenting on the same, Khatibzadeh also said that an ‘Eastern axis’ is emerging between Russia, Iran and China.

    Closer ties with Russia are important from an economic, strategic point of view, and also to reduce Iran’s dependence upon China (many including Iran’s Foreign Minister had been critical of the 25 year agreement saying that it lacked transparency). Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the eve of his Russia visit from October 5-6th, 2021 also stated that Iran while strengthening ties would not want to be excessively dependent upon either country.

Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Russia

    Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian  during his Russia visit  discussed a host of issues with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov including the current situation in Afghanistan, South Caucasus, Syria and the resumption of the Vienna negotiations.

Russia and Iran have been working closely on Afghanistan (on October 20, 2021 Russia is hosting talks involving China, India, Iran and Pakistan with the Taliban).

It is also important to bear in mind, that both Russia and Iran have flagged the non-inclusive nature of the Taliban Interim government. Russia has in fact categorically stated that recognition of Taliban was not on the table. Said the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly,   ‘the whole gamut of Afghan society — ethno-religious and political forces — so we are engaging in contacts, they are ongoing.’

China’s approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan

Here it would be pertinent to point out, that China’s stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan is not identical to that of Moscow and Tehran. Beijing while putting forward its concerns vis-à-vis the use of Afghan territory for terrorism and support to Uyghur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has repeatedly said that there should be no external interference, and that Afghanistan should be allowed to decide its future course. China has also spoken in favor of removal of sanctions against the Taliban, and also freeing the reserves of the Afghan Central Bank (estimated at well over 9 Billion USD), which had been frozen by the US after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

If one were to look at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal, Russia has been urging Iran to get back to the Vienna negotiations on the one hand (these negotiations have been on hold since June), while also asking the US to return to its commitments, it had made under the JCPOA, and also put an end to restriction on Iran and its trading partners.

Conversation between US Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister

The important role of Russia is reiterated by the conversation between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister. Angela Merkel during her visit to Israel also made an important point that both China and Russia had an important role to play as far as getting Iran back on JCPOA is concerned. What is also interesting is that US has provided a waiver to the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. The US has opposed the project, but the Department of State said waiving these sanctions was in US national interest. Both Germany and Russia welcomed this decision.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia may have moved closer to China in recent years, its stance on Afghanistan as well as it’s important role in the context of resumption of Vienna negotiations highlight the fact that Moscow is not keen to play second fiddle to Beijing. The Biden Administration in spite of its differences has been engaging closely with Moscow (a number of US analysts have been arguing for Washington to adopt a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis Russia and to avoid hyphenating Moscow with Beijing).  In the given geopolitical landscape, Washington would not be particularly averse to Tehran moving closer to Russia. While the Iranian spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh spoke about a Eastern axis emerging between Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, it would be pertinent to point out, that there are differences on a number of issues between Moscow and Beijing. The Russia-Iran relationship as well as US engagement with Russia on a number of important geopolitical issues underscores the pitfalls of viewing geopolitics from simplistic binaries.

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New U.S. travel rules excludes foreigners vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V

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Local and foreign media have stepped up reports about rising Covid-19 infections in Russia. While the reports also indicated high deaths in the country, other highligted new trends that are noticeably appearing. Interestingly, directors at the Russian tourism and travel agencies say that many Russians are lining up for vaccine tourism in Serbia, Bulgaria and Germany and a few other foreign countries.

These Russians aim at getting foreign vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

Here are a few facts about Russian vaccines.

Russia’s Sputnik V was the first officially registered coronavirus vaccine on August 11, 2020. Russia is using four vaccines for mass vaccination for Covid-19. These are Sputnik V and Sputnik Light developed by the Russian Health Ministry’s Gamaleya Center.

EpiVacCorona developed by the Vector Center of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), and CoviVac developed by the Chumakov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Clinical trials of the EpiVacCorona vaccine on teens aged from 15 to 17 might begin in the near future.

China has 1.3 billion population and has given the two billionth vaccine by the end of August, the United State has 380 million and attained 60% of its population. In Europe, vaccination rate is highly at an appreciable level.

Overall, Russia with an estimated 146 million people has Europe’s highest death toll from the pandemic, nearly 210,000 people as at September 30, according to various authentic sources including the National Coronavirus Task Force.

More than 42 million Russians have received both components of a coronavirus vaccine, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova.

“The number of citizens who have received the first component of a vaccine has topped 44 million, and more than 37 million people have completed a full vaccination course,” Golikova said.

She gave an assurance back in July that once the population have been immunized with at least the first component of a two-shot vaccine, herd immunity to Covid-19, or at least an 80% vaccination rate, should be reached by November 1.

Reasons: Even though Russia boasted of creating the world’s first coronavirus vaccines, vaccination is very low. Critics have principally blamed a botched vaccine rollout and mixed messages the authorities have been sending about the outbreak.

In addition, coronavirus antibody tests are popular in Russia and some observers suggest this contributes to the low vaccination numbers.

Western health experts say the antibody tests are unreliable either for diagnosing Covid-19 or assessing immunity to it. The antibodies that these tests look for can only serve as evidence of a past infection. Scientists say it’s still unclear what level of antibodies indicates that a person has protection from the virus and for how long.

Russia has registered Sputnik V in more than 150 foreign countries. The World Health Organization is yet to register this vaccine. For its registration, it must necessarily pass through approved procedures, so far Russia has ignored them, according reports.

There have also been several debates after the World Health Organization paused its review process of the Sputnik V vaccine over concerns about its manufacturing process, and few other technical reasons. While some talked about politicizing the vaccine registration, other have faced facts of observing recognized international rules for certifying medical products as such vaccines.

During the first week of October, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has reiterated or repeated assertively that a certain package of documents were needed to continue the process for the approval of the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V by the World Health Organization. The final approval is expected towards the end of 2021.

Still some the problems with the registration as unfair competition in the global market. For instance, Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said in an interview with the Rossiya-24 television channel on October 5: “I think it is an element of competition. Until Pfizer covers a certain part of the market, it is pure economics.”

On the other side, Pyotr Ilyichev, Director for International Organization at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Interfax News Agency, for instance that World Health Organization has been playing politics around Russian vaccine especially when it is need in most parts of the world.

“The world is facing an acute shortage of vaccines for the novel coronavirus infection. In certain regions, for instance in African countries, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The Russian vaccine is in demand, and the UN stands ready to buy it,” he told Interfax.

“However, certification in the WHO is a complex, multi-step process, which was developed in the past in line with Western countries’ standards. It requires time and serious efforts from our producers. We hope that this process will be successfully finalized in the near future,” Ilyichev said.

Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Leonid Slutsky has described as discriminatory a decision reported by foreign media that the United States, under its new consular rules, would deny entry for foreigners immunized with the Russian Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V.

“Thus, the U.S. will blatantly embark on a path of ‘vaccine discrimination.’ There are absolutely no grounds for such decisions. The efficacy and safety of the Sputnik V vaccine have been confirmed not only by specialists, but also by its use in practice,” Slutsky said on Telegram.

He cited an article in The Washington Post saying that from November the United States may begin denying entry to foreigners vaccinated with Sputnik V.

It means that if such additional border measures are adopted, foreigners seeking entry to the United States will have to be immunized with vaccines approved for use either by American authorities or the World Health Organization.

According to an article published in The Washington Post, for the first time since the pandemic began, the United States intends to loosen entry restrictions for foreigners vaccinated against Covid-19.

The new rules, which enter into force in November, will not apply to Russians vaccinated with Sputnik V and citizens of other countries using this Russian vaccine.

Under the new rules, foreigners will enter United States only if they are immunized with vaccines approved for use by the United States Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization. Russia’s Sputnik V is yet to be approved by the World Health Organization and is not recognized by the United States.

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Should Russia Be Worried by the New AUKUS Alliance?

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The establishment of a new trilateral military and political alliance consisting of the United States, Australia, and the UK (AUKUS) and the corollary rupture of France’s “contract of the century” to build a new generation of diesel-powered submarines for Australia elicited mixed reactions in Russia. Some were pleased to see a conflict arise between the United States and France, while some expressed concern that the alliance targets Moscow just as much as it does Beijing. Others were worried about the implications of the U.S. decision to share nuclear submarine technology with a non-nuclear state (instead of the French diesel submarines, Canberra will now get eight nuclear submarines).

These are valid points, but they all focus on the short-term consequences of the creation of AUKUS. Yet the decision to form a trilateral union and the new format of modernizing Australia’s underwater fleet will also have long-term implications, including for Russia.

Above all, the launch of AUKUS has confirmed that the standoff with China is indisputably the number one foreign policy priority for U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration. Standing up to China is apparently worth risking a serious fallout with Paris over, worth putting Canberra in an awkward position, and worth expanding the interpretation of nonproliferation. The fact is that it’s getting increasingly difficult for Washington to single-handedly compete with Beijing in the naval arena, especially in the eastern Pacific Ocean, so it has no choice but to lean on its most reliable partners while ignoring the inevitable costs.

Nuclear-powered submarines have only one indisputable advantage over modern diesel submarines: a greater operating range, thanks to their superior autonomy. If the new submarines were intended only to defend Australia, there would be no need for them to be nuclear. If, however, they are expected to perform covert operations over many months in more remote waters—in the Taiwan Strait, near the Korean Peninsula, or somewhere in the Arabian Sea—then a nuclear reactor would be a significant advantage.

For Russia, this means that any of its actions from now on will be viewed by Washington within the context of the U.S.-Chinese confrontation. The White House will, for example, turn a blind eye to Moscow’s cooperation with New Delhi and Hanoi on military technology, seeing it as a way to shore up the regional counterbalance to Beijing. Russia’s ongoing assistance with China’s naval modernization program, on the other hand, will be closely scrutinized and could become grounds for new U.S. sanctions against both countries.

There has been some speculation that AUKUS will, with time, become an Asian equivalent of NATO, with more countries joining, from Canada and New Zealand to Japan and South Korea, and eventually even India and Vietnam. These predictions have unsurprisingly elicited concern in Russia.

Yet they are unlikely to come true. Countries like South Korea and India have no desire to join a multilateral military alliance that could jeopardize their relations with other countries. In any case, the establishment of a new structure is in itself an indirect acknowledgement by Washington that the twentieth-century rigid model of alliances is not right for this century. If anything, AUKUS is an attempt to find a modern alternative to NATO.

It’s inevitable that the role of NATO in U.S. strategy will decrease, but that’s not necessarily in Russia’s long-term interests if it means the organization will be replaced with structures such as AUKUS. NATO has detailed and clearly articulated decisionmaking procedures and mechanisms for reaching compromises among its many members. Decisions made by NATO may be unpalatable for Moscow, but they are generally consistent and predictable. The same cannot be said of less heavyweight structures such as AUKUS, from which any number of improvised reactions could ensue, inevitably adding to the political risks.

The concept of AUKUS envisages that control of ocean lanes will continue to be a U.S. priority. The United States is not capable of establishing sufficient control over land transport corridors in Eurasia, nor does it need to do so: the main global cargo traffic routes will be maritime for the foreseeable future. For this reason, it is the world’s oceans rather than continental Eurasia that will be the main battleground between the United States and China.

For Russia, as a predominantly land power, that is overall a good thing—as long as Moscow doesn’t strive to position itself at the epicenter of the Chinese-American standoff. In theory, in a couple of decades’ time, Australian submarines could turn up off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island and Kamchatka Peninsula, or even cross the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean, creating a new potential threat for Russia’s Northern Fleet. There is every reason to suppose, however, that their main routes will lie much further south, and will not directly impinge upon Russian interests.

It is noteworthy that at around the same time as the establishment of AUKUS, China submitted an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was actually conceived as part of the strategy for China’s economic containment under former U.S. president Barack Obama, though his successor Donald Trump refused to take part in the initiative. China’s chances of joining the TPP are slim, but in making the request, Beijing is once again demonstrating that for its part, it would like to limit its rivalry with Washington to the realm of trade, investment, and technology. By creating AUKUS, on the other hand, the United States and its partners are increasingly signaling their intention of extending the confrontation to the field of military technology and the geopolitical arena.

Back in May 1882, when Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy agreed to establish the military and political bloc known as the Triple Alliance, it’s unlikely that anyone in Europe gave a second thought to the possible long-term consequences. After all, the aim of the alliance was purely the containment of France, where revanchism was rife following the country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1872. There were no bigger plans in Berlin, Vienna, or Rome at that time. Yet little more than thirty years later, the European continent was awash with the bloodshed of an unprecedented war.

Today, AUKUS looks like a rickety and unstable structure cobbled together in a hurry. But in twenty or thirty years, the logic that prompted its members to establish a new military and political alliance could lead them into a situation that neither they nor their opponents can get out of without the most severe consequences for themselves and the rest of the world. That is the main long-term danger from AUKUS.

From our partner RIAC

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