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”.
Isolation Can Only Be Splendid
The coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in Russia exactly a year ago, in April 2020, greatly exacerbated the issue of the modern state’s resilience to challenges that have an objectively external origin. Of course, one cannot compare the scale of the threat to that of the military interventions the country has experienced throughout its history. However, the ubiquitous nature of this challenge from the very beginning made such comparisons the most appropriate, especially in contrast to the crises and disasters of the 1990s and early 2000s; in any case, it had not been a product of the Russian state. The exogenous nature of the problem was combined with the fact that, for the first time, it did not have a specific source in the form of an adversary which could be defeated through a single exceptional effort.
The most important cultural consequence of the pandemic has been Russia’s pivot inward. First, because the national media focused on news from the regions related to the peculiarities of the pandemic in each of them. The increased attention to the activities of the regional authorities, which received rather broad powers, contributed to the formation of a single information space from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. For the first time in national history, major news stories across a vast territory were devoted to a single topic.
Second, for the first time in the past 30 years, the citizens of Russia had to spend their holidays at home — in cities, at their dachas or traveling domestically. The issue of the accelerated creation of recreation infrastructure within the country has become relevant. No one disputes the fact that most Russian destinations are seriously inferior in terms of amenities to those in Europe or the Middle East. Not to mention the climate factor, which no state policy can overcome. But even if, in the future, international borders become open again (this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future), the emergence of such infrastructure and the habit of taking holidays without going abroad will further contribute to the localisation of the interests of Russian citizens.
Thus, for Russia, the pandemic has become an important factor in national cohesion and the localisation of interests within its own borders, the real consequences of which we will be aware of in the coming years. First of all, we can talk about the understanding that internal stability and development are more important for survival than the ability to respond to external challenges or to take advantage of opportunities that arise outside the Russian state.
These changes are of a strategic nature and inevitably affect foreign policy, keeping in mind those features of strategic culture that, while maintaining the same level of openness, would hardly be in demand. It is no coincidence that the most important issues of Russian foreign policy over the past year have been the deepening split in relations with the West, a more outspoken approach to interaction with China, and attempts to create a new system of relations with Russia’s neighbours: the countries that emerged from the former USSR. The latter can be interpreted as a distancing from them, to some extent.
The acute conflict between Russia and the West is the product of a massive change in the balance of power at the global level and the evolution of Russia itself 30 years after it acquired a new quality and borders. The former requires most of the world’s states to strive to maximise their advantages and provokes mutual pressure, attempts to change the balance in their favour. The latter forces Russia itself to abandon foreign policy attachments that have been established over the centuries. These changes seem especially dramatic in comparison with the period after the end of the Cold War, when Russia felt the need to constantly search for a compromise with the most powerful nations, which received the maximum benefits from the disappearance of the bipolar international order.
Until recently, the desire to preserve the most constructive relations with the West remained the central element of the post-Soviet Russian foreign policy. Now it is present only in the form of rhetoric, the main purpose of which is to point out to other nations that their behaviour is unacceptable. The completion of the post-Soviet stage of development for Russia requires an end to attempts to integrate systemically with the European Union and a willingness to establish a formula for stable working relations with the United States.
Contemporary relations between Russia and China are the product of a changing global balance of power and historical experience. The rapid rapprochement of the positions of Moscow and Beijing, as well as the coordination of their actions on the world stage, are, of course, the result of pressure on both partners from the West. Both powers understand that for quite a long time, their success in the fight against the main enemy will depend on their ability to act as a united front. In this respect, there are fewer reasons for hesitation — Moscow and Beijing have begun to move towards the creation of a formal alliance. Moreover, it is China that has shown fairly good results in the fight against the pandemic. Historical experience suggests that it would be wrong to strive for a clear distribution of roles according to the principle of “leader and follower” that can lead to instability in the long term. Therefore, now Moscow and Beijing are trying to avoid such a scenario of relations, although it is not easy.
Most importantly, the year of the pandemic set in motion Russian politics in the other states of the former Soviet Union. Here, surprisingly, Russia’s inward focus on itself has the ability not to weaken, but to strengthen its position in relations with partners in the region and non-regional players. First of all, because Russian politics is gradually becoming more demanding and diversified. By adopting this outlook, it refutes well-established notions about itself and immerses its partners in an unfamiliar situation, which is extremely useful for Russia.
One of the most important issues connecting international politics, history and geography in Eurasia is the question of the transformation of the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space over the past 30 years. The traditional point of view is that as historical experience was gained, each of the sovereign states that emerged from the USSR obtained unique characteristics and gradually their scale became so significant that it overcame the factors that ensure the existence of a certain community.
Finally, the history of this community should be completed by the transformation of Russia into the “last empire” — a power resembling Russia of 1917 in terms of its resource potential, and in terms of foreign policy behaviour — a 21st century nation-state which participates in the global balance of power. This is what is happening now, and the practical consequences are encouraging for some countries and discouraging for others.
Russia’s ability to somewhat distance itself from the former Soviet countries has a serious material basis — the preserved and partially increased resources and power capabilities of Russia, which make it possible to speak of a certain self-sufficiency in the international arena.
The understanding of the scale of these resources and opportunities came as Russia developed independently, including through the intellectual conceptualisation of the wealth that Siberia and the Far East represent for the Russian state. In this sense, the pandemic laid the groundwork for self-reflection and a focus on domestic problems.
The “turn to the East,” which has remained significant in Russian foreign policy discussions over the past 10 years, meant, first of all, strengthening ties with Asian countries and attempts to forge regional trade, economic and political relations. In many ways, it was carried out reluctantly — there was a lot of inertia of orientation towards Europe, Asia presents Russia with no security threats, while the creation of truly serious economic relations is practically impossible, amid the current conditions.
The development of Siberia and the Far East has never been a central focus of the political “turn”. However, Moscow has become more far-sighted, and now considers the territory beyond the Urals to be the most important, albeit as a by-product of the “turn”. In a sense, the “turn” has helped Russia to realise its own geopolitical dimensions, which became important in the context of a return to real, forceful international politics.
It would probably be wrong to interpret the current state of Russian policy towards the countries of the former USSR in terms of a “farewell”. Natural security considerations will remain as binding as ever, as well as ethical notions, despite the fact that Russia’s military capabilities allow it to solve many problems without directly controlling territory. Russian policy is becoming more flexible. Despite the fact that ethically Moscow still perceives Russia and the other former republics of the USSR as part of a kind of community, the methods of diplomatic interaction and the depth of involvement in its partners’ affairs are already the result of a separate assessment of every situation. The CIS issue is disappearing from Russian politics, and this can only be welcomed.
At the same time, it may be important that the consequence of internal changes is the drawing of external players into the Russian security periphery. For example, Turkey, Iran or Afghanistan. This process may not be unambiguous, but it is taking place. As a result, we can observe both an increase in requirements for the policy of Russia itself, and an expansion of its room for manoeuvre. We cannot be sure that the policy of Turkey, for example, will continue to move towards independence from the West. But now Turkish activism is bringing obvious benefits to Russia, and Erdogan’s elements of adventurous behaviour make him a “pleasant and comfortable” partner for Moscow.
Apart from modern Russia, there is hardly any other major power in the world whose resources and power capabilities would so much encourage the culture of self-isolation, and whose geographical position and associated historical experience would so much hinder it.
However, discussions on this topic are constant and sometimes take the form of the political concept of “a bear that walks in the taiga”. For national foreign policy, the challenge of the pandemic had an indirect effect — on the world stage, the country behaved, in general, like most states. The fact that Moscow’s actions were less selfish than those of Western countries reflected a desire to consolidate a new field of world politics and, at the same time, to fulfil a moral duty, without which Russia cannot exist.
However, this indirect effect was very likely more significant than any direct foreign policy challenge. The fight against the pandemic changed Russia from the inside and these changes are more important than any foreign policy manoeuvres or adaptation to international affairs.
From our partner RIAC
Steering Russia-US Relations Away from Diplomatic Expulsion Rocks
As the recent expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic demonstrate, this measure is becoming a standard international practice of the West. For the Biden administration, a new manifestation of the “Russia’s threat” is an additional tool to discipline its European allies and to cement the transatlantic partnership. For many European NATO members, expulsions of diplomats are a symbolic gesture demonstrating their firm support of the US and its anti-Russian policies.
Clear enough, such a practice will not be limited to Russia only. Today hundreds, if not thousands of diplomatic officers all around the world find themselves hostage to problems they have nothing to do with. Western decision-makers seem to consider hosting foreign diplomats not as something natural and uncontroversial but rather as a sort of privilege temporarily granted to a particular country — one that can be denied at any given moment.
It would be logical to assume that in times of crisis, when the cost of any error grows exponentially, it is particularly crucial to preserve and even to expand the existing diplomatic channels. Each diplomat, irrespective of his or her rank and post, is, inter alia, a communications channel, a source of information, and a party to a dialogue that can help understand your opponent’s logic, fears, intentions, and expectations. Niccolo Machiavelli’s adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” remains just as pertinent five centuries later. Unfortunately, these wise words are out of circulation in most Western capitals today.
A proponent of expulsions would argue that those expelled are not actually diplomats at all. They are alleged intelligence officers and their mission is to undermine the host country’s national security. Therefore, expulsions are justified and appropriate. However, this logic appears to be extremely dubious. Indeed, if you have hard evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a front office for intelligence officers, and if operations of these officers are causing serious harm to your country’s security, why should you wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? You should not tolerate their presence in principle and expel them once you expose them.
Even the experience of the Cold War itself demonstrates that expulsions of diplomats produce no short-term or long-term positive results whatsoever. In fact, there can be no possible positive results because diplomatic service is nothing more but just one of a number of technical instruments used in foreign politics. Diplomats may bring you bad messages from their capitals and they often do, but if you are smart enough, you never shoot the messenger.
Diplomatic traditions do not allow such unfriendly actions to go unnoticed. Moscow has to respond. Usually, states respond to expulsions of their diplomats by symmetrical actions – i.e. Russia has to expel the same number of US, Polish or Czech diplomats, as the number of Russian diplomats expelled from the US, Poland or the Czech Republic. Of course, each case is special. For instance, the Czech Embassy in Moscow is much smaller than the Russian Embassy in Prague, so the impact of the symmetrical actions on the Czech diplomatic mission in Russia will be quite strong.
The question now is whether the Kremlin would go beyond a symmetrical response and start a new cycle of escalation. For example, it could set new restrictions upon Western companies operating in the country, it could cancel accreditation of select Western media in Moscow, it could close branches of US and European foundations and NGOs in Russia. I hope that the final response will be measured and not excessive.
The door for US-Russian negotiations is still open. So far, both sides tried to avoid specific actions that would make these negotiations absolutely impossible. The recent US sanctions against Russia have been mostly symbolic, and the Russian leadership so far has demonstrated no appetite for a rapid further escalation. I think that a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin remains an option and an opportunity. Such a meeting would not lead to any “reset” in the bilateral relations, but it would bring more clarity to the relationship. To stabilize US-Russian relations even at a very low level would already be a major accomplishment.
From our partner RIAC
Russia becomes member of International Organization for Migration
After several negotiations, Russia finally becomes as a full-fledged member of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It means that Russia has adopted, as a mandatory condition for obtaining membership, the constitution of the organization. It simply implies that by joining this international organization, it has given the country an additional status.
After the collapse of the Soviet, Russia has been interacting with the IOM since 1992 only as an observer. In the past years, Russia has shown interest in expanding this cooperation. The decision to admit Russia to the organization was approved at a Council’s meeting by the majority of votes: 116 states voted for it, and two countries voted against – these are Ukraine and Georgia. That however, the United States and Honduras abstained, according to information obtained from Moscow office of International Migration Organization.
“In line with the resolution of the 111th session of the IOM Council of November 24, 2020 that approved Russia’s application for the IOM membership, Russia becomes a full-fledged member of the organization from the day when this notification is handed over to its director general,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a website statement in April.
Adoption of the IOM Constitution is a mandatory condition for obtaining its membership, which opens “extra possibilities for developing constructive cooperation with international community on migration-related matters,” the statement stressed in part.
It is significant to recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an order to secure Russia’s membership in the organization in August 2020 and submitted its Constitution to the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) in February 2021.
Headquartered in Geneva, the International Organization for Migration, a leading inter-government organization active in the area of migration, was set up on December 5, 1951. It opened its office in Moscow in 1992.
IOM supports migrants across the world, developing effective responses to the shifting dynamics of migration and, as such, is a key source of advice on migration policy and practice. The organization works in emergency situations, developing the resilience of all people on the move, and particularly those in situations of vulnerability, as well as building capacity within governments to manage all forms and impacts of mobility.
IOM’s stated mission is to promote humane and orderly migration by providing services and advice to governments and migrants. It works to help ensure proper management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, be they refugees, displaced persons or other uprooted people. It is part of the structured system of the United Nations, and includes over 170 countries.
Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of Russia’s Federation Council (Senate) Committee on International Affairs, noted that the organization’s constitution has a provision saying that it is in a nation’s jurisdiction to decide how many migrants it can receive, therefore the IOM membership imposes no extra commitments on Russia and doesn’t restrict its right to conduct an independent migration policy.
On other hand, Russia’s full-fledged membership in IOM will help it increase its influence on international policy in the sphere of migration and use the country’s potential to promote its interests in this sphere, Senator Dzhabarov explained.
Russia has had an inflow of migrants mainly from the former Soviet republics. The migrants have played exceptional roles both in society and in the economy. The inflow of foreign workers to Russia has be resolved in accordance with real needs of the economy and based on the protection of Russian citizens’ interests in the labor market, according to various expert opinions.
The whole activity of labor migrants has to be conducted in strict compliance with legislation of the Russian Federation and generally recognized international norms.
State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many state officials have repeatedly explained the necessity of holding of partnership dialogues on finding solutions to emerging problems within the framework of harmonization of legislation in various fields including regional security, migration policy and international cooperation. Besides that, Russia is ready for compliance with international treaties and agreements.
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