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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

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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