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The crisis between Russia and Ukraine

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Ukraine, the EU and the United States have often interacted with one another and the crisis in Donbass is difficult to stop as the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border has been overheated since mid-March. On April 13, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister participated in the extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Committee and held talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, hoping to gain the NATO countries’ support in the confrontation with Russia.

On the same day, U.S. President Biden spoke with his Russian counterpart Putin. President Biden reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine and proposed to hold a Summit in a third country over the next few months to comprehensively discuss the current issues facing the two countries.

The reason why the parties have fallen into such a tense situation is obviously related to the historical conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Since early 2021, the Ukrainian government has taken a number of actions on issues such as the situation in Eastern Ukraine and relations with Russia.

Photos circulated by Reuters news agency and some social media showed that the Russian troops gathered at the border had anti-aircraft missile systems such as Doyle and Beech, as well as some tanks and armoured vehicles.

BBC, Reuters, Associated Press and other major Western media officially reported that Russia had recently sent a large number of troops to the Eastern border areas of Crimea and Ukraine.

Faced with that tense situation, the Ukrainian government has often taken internal and external actions and it has also intensified its interaction with the Turkish and U.S. governments.

On April 2, President Biden spoke for the first time with the Ukrainian President, the populist and former actor, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky, who said he would not allow his country to face Russia’s pressure alone when the situation in Eastern Ukraine escalated and worsened.

On April 5the State Department spokesman, Edward Price, accused the Russian army of gathering large numbers of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border and asked for explanations from the Russian side. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy had planned to send two warships to the Black Sea through the Bosporus from April 14 to 15 but, on April 15, the Turkish side stated that the plan had been cancelled.

With specific reference to Turkish-Ukrainian relations, President Zelensky visited Turkey on April 10 and met with Turkish President Erdoğan to discuss the situation in Eastern Ukraine, as well as other issues. President Erdoğan also stressed that Turkey supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and his position was not to recognise the annexation of Crimea, which the idiot Khrushchev gifted to Ukraine after a drink in 1954, less than a year after Stalin’s death. Considering his narrow-mindedness and crass ignorance, he did not understand that the Stalinist Constitution of December 5, 1936 had a well-founded legal basis and also respected the secession of the USSR Republics (Article 17: “Every federated republic retains the right of free secession from the USSR”). As is well known, the first destructive consequence of alcohol is the loss of mind control.

Moreover, the recent military cooperation and interaction between Ukraine and Turkey has also raised much concern. According to Al Jazeera, in 2018 Ukraine purchased 6 Turkish-made TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and 200 precision-guided weapons for a total price of 69 million dollars. On March 15, 2021, several C-17 transport aircraft flew from Turkey to Ukraine, carrying weapons and equipment.

According to the report, in the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine sent military experts to closely monitor how the Azerbaijani army used those Turkish-made drones. Some of them said they found that the Azerbaijani army’s war methods “have a lot in common” with the Ukrainian government forces’ war against militants in the East.

On April 13, the military news website Defense Blog reported that the TB2 drone had been deployed near Donbass, while Russian Foreign Ministry’s officials lodged a public protest.

It is worth noting that Turkey was only the first stop on the foreign visit paid by populist President Zelensky. He also met with French President Macron. Beforehand, the leaders of Germany and France had held a video conference with Russian President Putin. President Zelensky’s spokesman commented that all parties should not exclude Ukraine before making any decisions on it.

According to the White House, President Biden expressed concern about the Russian military presence on Ukraine’s border and urged President Putin to de-escalate tension. The White House concluded: “President Biden stressed the firm commitment of the United States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Kremlin underlined: “During the exchange of views on Ukraine’s internal crisis, President Putin outlined the basis for the measures of the “Minsk package” (ceasefire agreement) of February 12, 2015 as a political solution”.

For this reason, in July 2020, the tripartite contact group on Ukraine (Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) held a video conference with representatives of the civilian armed forces in the Donbass region, Eastern Ukraine, in view of achieving a comprehensive ceasefire in the region so as to reach an agreement later.

Nevertheless, since the end of February 2021, incidents and casualties have increased in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian government forces and civilian armed forces in the East have accused each other of breaking the ceasefire agreement.

The Ukrainian government said in late March that the gathering of Russian troops in its border areas posed a severe threat to national security. Conversely, the Russian side believes that it is precisely because the military forces of NATO countries and other parties are becoming more active in areas close to the Russian border that Russia has been forced to remain vigilant, ensuring stability and security on its border.

During that period, the Russian side had reactions that surprised the West. In addition to information on troop mobilisation that was intensively reported in the Western media, Russia also sent more intense signals through media channels. Russia Today publicly raised the issue of “Russian Donbass” for the first time while participating in the “Russia-Donbass” Forum on January 28, 2021. Russia stressed that it was not excluded to bring back the “Crimea model” in desperate situations and directly control the Donbass region.

In support of Ukraine, President Biden’s Administration reversed former President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Germany on April 13. Meanwhile, both U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III and Secretary of State Blinken visited European countries in the first half of April. On April 13 Austin announced that, in addition to halting the withdrawal, the United States would send 500 additional soldiers to Germany. Asked whether the move was designed to conveying a message to Russia, Austin said he was “sending a signal to NATO” to show the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance and to Germany.

At the same time, Blinken met with NATO allies in Brussels and held a separate meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister DmytroIvanovyč Kuleba. Blinken told him: “The United States firmly supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” And the Minister replied that Ukraine urgently needed NATO’s help.

It should also be noted that NATO continued to provide assistance to Ukraine. On March 10, a delegation of NATO ground force Commanders, led by NATO Lieutenant General Roger Cloutier, arrived in Ukraine. According to an earlier report on the Ukrinform news website, the Ukrainian army commented that the trip demonstrated that NATO regarded Ukraine as a “strategic partner”.

According to Secretary General Stoltenberg, NATO is currently providing various forms of aid to the Ukrainian army, including training, joint exercises and military modernisation. Although Ukraine is not a NATO Member State, it has obtained Western weapons such as the Javelin anti-tank missile through various channels.

We wonder whether a third world war is worth it, in case of an invasion of the Russian geopolitical area by NATO? Is it worth having at least 4-5 billion dead people and a devastated planet taken back in time, with whom the 20 million dead of World War II would seem like a car crash by comparison? And for what? For old inter-ethnic hatred that third parties would like to exploit for their own benefit, probably believing they are countering the Panamanian or Grenadian army?

Suppose the People’s Republic of China sent an expeditionary force – with Navy units and missiles – to its friendly Mexico: what do you think would happen?

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Russia

Time for Diplomacy

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When I was hired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union as an interpreter in the mid-1970s, the hardest thing about the job was translating for politicians who somehow “spoke” the language of their partners. They would often want to show off their skills, often interrupting the interpreter to say, “I got it. Go on.” This meant that important nuances, points of emphasis and details were lost in the process, which made it extremely difficult to ascertain the other side’s position with any degree of accuracy, let alone seal any specific agreements.

These days, pretty much everyone fancies themselves as a diplomat or a foreign policy expert at the very least. Without the slightest hint of hesitation, they are willing to voice their opinions on the most sensitive of international issues, brazenly tell us how we should be doing our jobs and share with us their sure-fire ways of quickly resolving long-standing problems, all the while ensuring and securing Russia’s interests. An inevitable consequence of this is that the global community is never quite sure what Russia’s official position actually is, which in turn leads to lopsided interpretations of Moscow’s foreign policy aspirations.

Given the unprecedented numbers of “armchair diplomats” we have today, it is hardly surprising then that politicians have absolutely no qualms about using real diplomats, and sometimes even entire diplomatic missions, as bargaining chips in the current global geopolitical confrontation. Depending on who you talk to, the “ambassadorial war” that is going on between Russia and the West has seen as many as 600 diplomats expelled from host countries. We have never seen anything like this in the history of diplomacy, and the sad truth is that the number of “casualties” will likely continue to grow.

The consequences of such a cavalier attitude towards the diplomatic service could be severe.

By all accounts, the world is already at war. Call it what you want: psychological warfare, information warfare, ideological warfare, hybrid warfare, or any other name you care to come up with. The label itself is not important, while the increasingly real risk of military confrontation is. Even if it does not come to that, the damage caused by the years of conflict is growing in all areas, whether politics, economy or social interactions for that matter.

Typically, there are only two ways a war can end—in a sweeping victory for one of the sides or in a compromise agreement that suits the interests of both sides. Today, there is no single country in the world that is capable of winning a regional confrontation, let alone a global war. This means that we need to look for agreements that would take us off our current path towards global destruction and open up opportunities for countries to work together in a productive manner.

One sure thing is that the parties will sooner or later have to sit down at the negotiating table. Those who’d held on to their best diplomats and experienced negotiators, having put together well thought-out and realistic bargaining positions, will clearly have the upper hand in such talks.

COVID-19 has shaken the global community to expose our vulnerability in the face of a deadly disease. Most experts concur that the mass vaccination programmes launched across the world will eventually lead to global herd immunity, signalling the end of the pandemic. Thankfully, the continued attempts to politicize the issue of vaccination are starting to recede into the background as the international community is becoming increasingly aware of our interconnectedness and the need to reach out and help one another in difficult times.

That said, we have to concede that such an awareness is sadly lacking among individual countries, regions and continents when it comes to issues of security. It would seem that the world’s leading politicians and experts—as well as the international community at large—are not yet ready to admit the obvious: today, any serious international crisis, even in a most isolated corner of the planet, could any time emerge as a global catastrophe, much in the same way that a dangerous infectious disease, no matter where it originated, can end up posing a real threat to human existence.

Most people would be surprised to hear that practically all the “safety” mechanisms set up over the course of decades to prevent isolated crises from escalating into direct military conflicts have in recent years been destroyed. The number of such mechanisms is shrinking, while the number of conflict situations is growing. You don’t have to be an imaginative author of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels to see where this could lead us.

There are no “easy outs” here. Even with all the political will in the world and the accumulated potential of professional diplomacy, no one will be able to effortlessly untangle the tangled knot of international problems. We thus need to prepare ourselves for long and difficult negotiations. Launching this most difficult of mechanisms should be our key priority right now. Perhaps the best way to do this, as President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has suggested, would be to organize a meeting of the leaders of the UN Security Council permanent members as soon as possible.

If such a meeting happens, its participants will need to acknowledge that the world is approaching the proverbial “point of no return”, conceding that a global war knows no winners. As soon as they reach this self-evident conclusion, they could then set about forming a working group under the auspices of the UN Security Council to organize and hold negotiations on the most pressing international relations issues. In doing so, the permanent members of the UN Security Council would be fulfilling its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”, as set out in the UN Charter.

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Isolation Can Only Be Splendid

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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.

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Steering Russia-US Relations Away from Diplomatic Expulsion Rocks

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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.

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