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Russia-Ukraine War Alert: What’s Behind It and What Lies Ahead?

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Perhaps the most important thing for the Russian leadership in this episode was to prevent the need to actually go to war against Ukraine in the future. Going overkill in terms of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border now may avoid the need to do terrible things at a later point.

The troops are not yet back at their bases, but the war alert along the Russo-Ukrainian border has passed. In fact, a war was never in the cards. Yet the alert, while it lasted, was profoundly disturbing. For the West, it highlighted the dangers of a large-scale direct clash between Russia and Ukraine. For Russia, which heretofore has dismissed the Donbas conflict as a civil war in Ukraine, it opened up the prospect of having to wage a real war against a large neighboring country. And for Ukraine, such a war might have been existential.

With the threat of war receding, it is important not to waste this dangerous experience, and instead to draw conclusions from it. For that, it’s essential to understand what was driving the behavior of the parties involved, to explain the moves that they made, and to consider the short- and medium-term results of the face-off.

Drivers

Seven years after its Maidan revolution, Ukraine is a country in considerable difficulties. Economically, its GDP is still 20 percent below its pre-Maidan level. Politically, it has not yet established a stable balance among the vested interests. Ideologically, and in many ways culturally, it continues to be split. Ukraine has become a ward of the West, but its prospects of being admitted to NATO, not to mention the EU, are very remote: essentially nonexistent for the foreseeable future. Since being elected president in 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky and his party have lost much of their once astounding popularity. The Servant of the People party has come under hard pressure from the Russophone opposition based in the east of the country, and the nationalists rooted in Ukraine’s west.

Seven years after the start of its confrontation with the United States, Russia is bracing itself for even more pressure from Washington. For U.S. President Joe Biden, Russia is a lower foreign policy priority than it has been for any U.S. administration since FDR. Biden talks tough, imposes sanctions, and is going after Russian interests such as the Nord Stream II pipeline. Russia’s relations with Europe are worse than they have ever been since the days of Mikhail Gorbachev. The special relationship with Germany is no more. The dialogue with France, always superficial, has definitively stalled. At the same time, coordination between U.S. and European policies on Russia has substantially increased under Biden.

The self-proclaimed people’s republics in the Donbas have been in limbo throughout these years. They are increasingly distancing themselves from Ukraine and integrating ever more closely with Russia. The ruble is the currency; Russian is the only official language; and 10 percent or more of the population of 3.6 million have already acquired Russian citizenship. Yet their future is unclear. Still wedded to the Minsk peace process and unwilling to sever its remaining ties with Europe, Moscow will not formally recognize the republics or allow them to accede to Russia. Frustration is mounting.

Behavior

It was Zelensky who moved first. He dealt a serious blow to the Russophone opposition by closing down its TV stations and charging its leaders with high treason. From a staunchly nationalist position, he advanced into the political territory of former president Petro Poroshenko. He took on the legal system head-on and elevated the National Security and Defense Council to the top position in the Ukrainian government. Most recently, he also demonstrated his willingness to stand up to Russia.

In February, Zelensky ordered troops (as part of the rotation process) and heavy weapons (as a show of force) to go near to the conflict zone in Donbas. He did not venture out as far as Poroshenko, who dispatched small Ukrainian naval vessels through the Russian-controlled waters near the Kerch Strait in late 2018, but it was enough to get him noticed in Moscow. The fact of the matter is that even if Ukraine cannot seriously hope to win the war in Donbas, it can successfully provoke Russia into action. This, in turn, would produce a knee-jerk reaction from Ukraine’s Western supporters and further aggravate Moscow’s relations, particularly with Europe. One way or another, the fate of Nord Stream II will directly affect Ukraine’s interests. Being seen as a victim of Russian aggression and presenting itself as a frontline state checking Russia’s further advance toward Europe is a major asset of Kyiv’s foreign policy.

Even though Kyiv’s moves at that time were not preparations for a military offensive (Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s senior official responsible for dealing with Ukraine, said he saw them as a PR stunt), the Kremlin decided to seize upon them to raise the stakes. Given the current state of Russian-U.S. relations, Moscow felt it had nothing to lose and something to gain by acting boldly and on a larger scale. Russia decided not so much to test the new U.S. president as to warn him early on of the dangers involved regarding Ukraine.

The Russian military massed troops along the entire Russo-Ukrainian border, from the north to the east to the south. It did so visibly and made sure that Western observers could analyze the maneuvers and conclude that they might not necessarily be a drill. Some reports, for example, spoke of field hospitals being brought to the border. In making its move, Moscow was pursuing several objectives:

To intimidate and deter Ukraine’s leaders, whom the Kremlin regards as inexperienced and irresponsible (in Kozak’s disparaging words, “children with matches”);

To send a message to the United States urging Washington to take better care of its wards, lest they get America itself into trouble (there were repeated references to Mikheil Saakashvili syndrome, referring to the then Georgian leader launching an attack in 2008 against the Russian-protected breakaway region of South Ossetia in the belief that he would be supported by a U.S. military intervention, which never came);

To convince the Germans and the French that supporting everything that Ukraine says or does carries a cost for Europe;

To reassure the people of Donbas that Russia will not abandon them to the Ukrainian army should it attack the two enclaves.

During the crisis, Kozak, who is also the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, essentially repeated President Vladimir Putin’s earlier stern warning that a Ukrainian offensive in Donbas would spell the end of Ukrainian statehood.

Having made their points by means of actions on the ground, the Russians were then available to discuss the situation, both with German and French political leaders and the top U.S. military commander. In those conversations, they dismissed out of hand all European criticisms about the troop movements on their own territory and only engaged in a detailed professional discussion with the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, simply to help him avoid a dangerous miscalculation.

Results

It appears that in the short term, President Zelensky got what he was aiming for. Having burnished his patriotic credentials, Zelensky strengthened his position. In foreign policy terms, it was amid the crisis along the border that President Biden called Zelensky for the first time, ending an awkward pause. Both NATO as an institution and individual U.S. allies voiced their support for Ukraine. The UK, in its new role as a power separate from the EU, convened a meeting of Ukraine’s closest friends: the United States, Canada, Poland, and Lithuania. Against that background, Zelensky repeated Kyiv’s earlier request to be admitted to NATO.

It is hard to say whether Russia has “won” anything. Moscow certainly backed up its earlier verbal warning with a credible demonstration of force. However, it is less clear whether Russia’s demonstration will lead to the United States monitoring its Ukrainian clients more closely and avoiding making misleading statements of the kind that landed Saakashvili in trouble in 2008. As for the Germans and the French, who of course are much more worried about a war in their own neighborhood, they have little influence in Kyiv. Russian pleas for the Europeans to take a less uncritical attitude toward Ukrainian policies and actions are unlikely to be heeded.

Perhaps the most important thing for the Russian leadership in this episode was to prevent the need to actually go to war against Ukraine in the future. It’s unlikely that Putin was bluffing when he said that a major attack against Donetsk and Luhansk would provoke a massive Russian response with catastrophic consequences for Ukraine. Unlike the 2008 war with Georgia, in which Russian objectives were limited to restoring the territory of the South Ossetian enclave and temporarily holding some areas in Georgia proper, it appears a war against Ukraine would be bigger by several orders of magnitude. Such a war would also deeply affect Russia itself and its international position. Going overkill in terms of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border now may avoid the need to do terrible things at a later point. Under that same logic, doing nothing now would sow uncertainty and invite trouble, while doing nothing when trouble arrives would be suicidal for the Kremlin leadership. While Russia is not looking for more U.S. sanctions, it is ready to take them as a price for its muscle-flexing.

Prospects

The passing of the war scare is not the same thing as de-escalation. The high level of tension in the region is now the new normal. Unfortunately, there is no political solution in sight. The 2015 Minsk II agreement, the basis of the diplomatic process for ending the Donbas conflict, was stillborn. To the keepers of the national flame in Kyiv, implementing that agreement would always have been a case of high treason. Poroshenko only signed it because the Ukrainian military was decimated in Donbas, and it was the only way to stop the disaster. Putting the agreement into practice, however, threatened to undermine the work of the Maidan revolution by giving Russia a foothold, and thus was deemed completely unacceptable. Withdrawing from the Minsk agreement is not an option for Kyiv either, however, because the agreement was brokered by Berlin and Paris. Zelensky’s mission to get Russia to agree to a major revision of the Minsk terms in Ukraine’s favor has turned out to be impossible.

Expanding the format of the Normandy talks (currently held among France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) to get the dialogue to result in an agreement is both impossible—Russia is unlikely to agree to U.S. participation—and impractical: even if the United States, which is not particularly willing, were to join, it would not lead to Russia yielding under U.S. pressure.

Absent progress on the Minsk agreement and Normandy talks, however, diplomacy will be increasingly practiced not in the usual way of harrowing but confidential negotiations (tellingly, Russia’s Kozak, frustrated with his counterparts, proposed making the talks public: a nonstarter, of course), but by means of sending messages through specific actions, like Russia’s current exploits on the Ukraine border. The only lifeline to peace left then will be direct contact between the Russian and U.S. military chiefs.

From our partner RIAC

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Eastern Europe

Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum

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In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.

But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.

Background

Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity. After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US. Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia). However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation. Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined.  In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.

However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner. In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.    

The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?

Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets. Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts. Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.

The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?

There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms. However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.

Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.

In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.

China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market

In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’. Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil.  Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.

Turkey- An Emerging Vector

Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.

However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.

Conclusion

The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future. Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow. It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.  

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‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue

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The Western countries’ reaction to the detention of an opposition leader in Minsk has revealed the high degree of readiness of the United States and its allies to create risky situations for the sake of momentary political benefits. No matter how the actions of the Belarusian authorities were consistent with international aviation law and customs, the behaviour of Washington and most of European capitals showed that they are difficult, if not hopeless partners for the rest of the world community. Now we have no reason to fear that developments will turn into an uncontrolled escalation — the attacks of the West against Lukashenko do not directly impact Russian interests. However, what has happened in the media and in diplomatic circles in recent days provides ample opportunity to consider the need for new containment measures in relation to the habit of the US and Europe to take European and international security so lightly.

So far, Russia’s reaction to these emotional outbursts has been restrained, because the actions of the Western countries did not directly harm its interests. But if such hysteria repeats, it will confirm the lack of intentions in the West to establish any kind of stable dialogue with those powers that are not willing to subordinate their respective domestic and foreign policies to its demands. Is this some kind of a “strategic frivolity”, whose appearance in international affairs and the behaviour of the EU and the US has become more and more regular as the balance of power in world politics shifts? Russia, for its part, can show any amount of restraint, but the line beyond which this will become impossible, may be passed unnoticed.

As a matter of fact, such a reaction of the West to the stoppage of an international flight by the Belarusian authorities and the detention of one of the passengers did not come as a surprise. In recent years, Russia, China and others have become accustomed to the fact that the United States and Europe have been quick to sacrifice international stability when it has suited their concurrent goals.

The EU countries have been grasping at any straw in their attempts to confirm their greater relevance in terms of international law on the world political stage. It hasn’t been working out very well so far.

At the summit on May 25, the leaders of the European Union countries approved a resolution calling for a package of measures against Belarus — personal sanctions and broader measures against the Belarusian economy. But it is clear how ineffective these measures will be, even to the European observers. After the failure of the EU to work out a common position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the failure of another attempt to “punish” the government of Alexander Lukashenko will serve as another blow to the international reputation of the EU.

Britain, which left the EU, but remains the closest satellite of the United States, is in principle trying to behave as the main opponent against any country whose position does not coincide with Washington’s wishes. Now London’s position is aligned with that of the Baltic states, which are most irresponsible in their statements and actions. It is unlikely that this will strengthen London’s position on the world stage. The United States, for its part, is acting in its usual way — while lacking any direct interests, it easily creates risks for others. Surprisingly, in this respect, the behaviour of the US resembles the behaviour of Minsk, which is also not always ready to take into account Russia’s diplomatic wishes.

For Russia, the recent diplomatic “plane crash” involving Belarus does not pose immediate threats, but it may become another test for Russia’s legendary restraint. Moscow is clearly accustomed to the fact that the Western states are not always predictable in their actions and, in principle, live “in their own world”, where there are certain rules for them, and completely different ones for others. So far, Russia has reacted to all this in a very reserved manner. The measures the West has taken against Minsk do contradict basic Russian interests in the field of European security, but they do not create threats and do not harm Russia. However, it is the ease with which the West enters a conflict with any nation, at the slightest pretext, that causes Russia’s concern.

It will be extremely fortunate if, during the Russia-US summit, scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, the parties can deliver some appeasement to international or regional politics. It is unlikely that the summit will result in any breakthrough of a general nature; there are no preconditions for this. But the very ability of Russia and the United States to discuss common interests will show that both great powers retain the responsibility necessitated by their strategic importance. So far, however, we cannot be sure even of such a minimal positive outcome of the expected meeting.

Russia concurs that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are no example of prudence. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that Moscow has adequately estimated the scale of Western pressure on Minsk and understands that in the situation that has arisen, reactions such as that of the Belarusian government are quite predictable, and even justified. In 2020, a number of Belarus’ neighbours in the West openly supported a movement to overthrow President Lukashenko. Russia then supported the legitimate Belarusian government and warned of its readiness to provide it with practical assistance.

Lukashenko himself can pursue his interests as much as he wants, and sometimes even refuse to coordinate actions with Russia — Belarus is a sovereign state. However, the alternative to his regime now is an attempt to bring to power such forces that will confidently follow the Ukrainian scenario.

The internal political crisis in Belarus, even if it enters a hot phase, would be beneficial to the interests of the United States and would have a devastating effect on European security. However, as we can see, now the countries of Western Europe are in a state of political “knockdown” and cannot control events that risk putting an end even to the minimal independence and choice possessed by Europe. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are ready to create risky situations, because outside the conflict with Russia, they have no future in international politics. The fact that the future within the framework of this conflict may turn out to be very short for all of them does not bother them at all. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are dominated by forces, for which adventurous behaviour has become the basis of politics inside and outside. Germany and France cannot stop them because they are engulfed in colossal internal problems.

We can hardly expect that the next surge of “strategic frivolity” will have really dramatic consequences. In any case, the world history of all-out wars does not know examples when large-scale armed conflicts would have really insignificant incidents as a pretext. In all known episodes, a “tragic accident” has always involved the interests or security of one of the leading powers. Now we don’t see this, and most politicians in the West are therefore behaving irresponsibly, because they do not expect a serious escalation. Moreover, the Lukashenko government is indeed becoming one of the permanent opportunities for the United States and Europe to stage high-profile political campaigns without a real threat to the world. But this is not a guarantee that if there are grounds for a big conflict, the behaviour of the West would be more reasonable than these days.

From our partner RIAC

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Ryanair Incident: Five Sanctions Risks for the Republic of Belarus

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The detention in Belarus of a plane operated by the Irish company Ryanair has caused a sharp reaction in the US and the EU. The issue of expanding sanctions was again on the agenda. They may turn out to be even more serious than the restrictive measures introduced last year in response to the situation around the presidential elections.

The approach of Washington and Brussels is defined by several lines of argument which converge at one point. First, the detention of the plane resulted in the arrest of opposition politician Roman Protasevich. The incident reignited the theme of democracy and human rights violations, which have long served as a basis for sanctions. Second, the Western powers proceed from the fact that the aircraft was detained under the false pretext of a terrorist attack threat on board. The statements of the Hamas movement that they were not involved in the events added their share of farce. Third, the detention was carried out with the use of an Air Force fighter, that is, this aspect of the incident can be interpreted as the use of force. History knows a number of examples of such detentions, including the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013. From a formal point of view, Minsk acted in the interests of national security within Belarusian territory. However, this formality and the existence of precedents are unlikely to play a serious role. In the USA, the incident is understood as a “shocking act” that endangered the lives of passengers and has served as a new reason to condemn Lukashenko for undermining democracy. Similar assessments were given in Brussels and London. Threats of new sanctions were voiced almost immediately. There are five main sanctions risks for Belarus.

The first risk is that of a ban on the use of the territory of Belarus for aircraft transit, a ban on flights to Belarus, as well as on the reception of aircraft from Belarusian airlines. Threats quickly began to shift to a practical level. The leaders of the EU countries called for a ban on flights of Belarusian aircraft in EU airspace. The UK and France have already introduced such measures. Some airlines have cancelled flights through Belarus. The big questions are: how long will such measures last and how unanimous will states and companies be in implementing them? However, it is clear that all this will complicate supply chains, as well as cause economic damage to the country and its partners abroad.

The second risk is that of diplomatic sanctions. In response to the replacement of the state flag of Belarus with the flag of the Belarusian opposition in Riga (with the participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia), Minsk decided to expel all employees of the Latvian embassy. Similar decisions were made in Riga with regard to the employees of the Belarusian embassy.

The third risk is the denial of EU investment programmes. The government of Belarus would hardly receive such assistance even without the incident with the plane. The condition of assistance is a democratic transition in the country.

The fourth risk is another wave of sanctions against Belarusian officials. Such sanctions were widely used in response to the events in 2020. They play a rather symbolic role and do not do much economic harm. Usually they entail visa bans and the freezing of assets. At the same time, their psychological function should not be ignored. Such sanctions are usually aimed to sow discontent among the political elite, betting on its dissatisfaction with the political course of the country’s leadership. The EU may assume that even the security forces may not like to play the role of pariahs.

Finally, the fifth risk is that of blocking sanctions against strategic enterprises. Such sanctions have also been used in the past. A number of large Belarusian enterprises are already in the sanctions list (SDN) of the US Treasury. Most of them have a general license. Previously, such licenses were extended for long periods (up to two years). However, in April, the license was renewed for only a month and a half. It expires on June 2, 2021. Will the US, and after them the EU, carpet bomb the Belarusian economy? The lifting of the exemptions and the renewal of sanctions would cause serious economic damage. However, the threat of such actions will remain inevitable.

The resumption of blocking sanctions against big companies has not yet been discussed loudly. Despite the visceral opposition to the Belarusian leader and the country’s political system, the West is hardly eager to strengthen Russia’s position in relations with Belarus. This would deprive the Belarusian leadership of room for manoeuvre in its dialogue with Moscow and make Minsk much more dependent. But this is theory. In practice, such sanctions will provide a headache for Russia itself. They will hit the economic ties of Belarusian and Russian enterprises. The latter may fear secondary US sanctions. In addition, Belarus is likely to need large-scale economic assistance. The threat of sanctions poses important problems for the Union State of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Among them is the creation of payment mechanisms that would ensure uninterrupted economic ties in the event of an aggravation of the sanctions pressure.

From our partner RIAC

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Sierra Leone will receive $6.85 million in additional financing to support the COVID-19 education response in the country. Funded by...

Reports11 hours ago

Critical Reforms Needed to Reduce Inflation and Accelerate the Recovery

While the government took measures to protect the economy against a much deeper recession, it would be essential to set...

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