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Nikol Pashinyan’s Imprint on the 2020 Karabakh War: Did He Instigate the War?



The Karabakh issue has always been an issue shaping Armenian politics. In September 2020, Azerbaijan initiated large-scale hostilities against the unrecognized Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and Armenia attempted to defend its compatriots in the region. I believe that Armenia [1] suffered a systemic defeat during the 2020 Artsakh [2] War, since it is not prudent to separate the authorities from the army or any other institution from the nation’s remaining institutions.

The structure in which Armenia has been living since its independence (1991) both influences and constrains its foreign and security policies. Various stakeholders—domestic opposition parties, diaspora, the media, regional and extra-regional powers—and realities of a landlocked nation with closed borders with its two neighbors as well as the unresolved Karabakh conflict: all these factors impact and place limitations on the foreign policy decision-making process. Still, even under such circumstances, leaders in Armenia’s decision-making process matter, with researchers identifying several conditions of this: leaders’ diplomatic training, regime type, leaders’ personal interest in foreign policy, etc[3]. Two other variables also stand out in Armenia’s case: political culture and constitutional toolkit. Although Armenia has undergone a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system, it is de-facto a single-party parliamentary regime rather than a long-established parliamentary democracy, where the leader of the (ruling) party (usually the chief executive of the country) has many formal and informal authorities. If a leader wields power that matters, leaders matter, their personal characteristics matter as well too.

Research shows that a leader’s behavior and actions as well as the situational context (others’ presence, time constraints, stakes, roles, and norms) are affected by their mental model and cognitions; the latter, in turn, are influenced and shaped by personality traits, perceptions (which is filtered through biases, stereotypes and heuristics), motivation/emotion[4].

Nikol Pashinyan’s diplomacy?

Nikol Pashinyan, with no prior diplomatic training and interest in foreign policy, is known for his emotional and fiery speeches, which often contain insults, outbursts of anger, threats. Emotions are capable of altering humans’ normal cognitive function. Often Pashinyan acts out of anger, such as making emotional expressions. There are many instances when he cannot restrain himself; there are examples of his outbursts, anger, and threats. For all that, there are instances where he acts very calmly. Pashinyan’s speeches are often accompanied by instant changes in facial expressions and abrupt transitions from an angry to a happy state. It seems Pashinyan lacks emotional stability. He is even suspected of having some mental health problems, and his mother is rumored to have psychological issues (schizophrenia), which could pass to Pashinyan.

The status of Artsakh and its surrounding seven territories are perhaps the most critical issues. Armenia has advocated for Artsakh’s right to self-determination, meaning independence from Azerbaijan—something unacceptable for Baku. Armenia was ready to hand the seven regions (on a “5+2” basis) over to Azerbaijan on condition of independence or at least a path to independence (through a future referendum once refugees return). In 2011, Baku refused to sign a document implying such a scenario, insisting that any status of Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan is not acceptable. This, in turn, was unacceptable for Yerevan.

Then the so-called Lavrov plan, a set of Russian proposals, was circulated (in 2015), which, according to Pashinyan, implied the return of the seven regions (5+2) and refugees and deployment of Russian peacekeepers bypassing the issue of status. Russian Co-Chair in the OSCE Minsk Group Igor Popov openly denied Pashinyan’s arguments, saying that the phased proposal implied the return of the five regions to Azerbaijan in the first stage, while the return of the remaining two regions was in conjunction with affirming the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This, at least, points out Pashinyan’s misperception, if we leave out that politicians often lie. But the other part is Russia, with whom you cannot have such a game, especially in these challenging times of security. In Pashinyan’s cognition, Russian proposals bypassed the very status of Karabakh, which, as he explained in his article, was rejected both by his predecessor and himself. However, his predecessor in a recent interview claims that he had agreed to the Lavrov plan.

Upon coming to power, Pashinyan acquainted himself with what he believed to be a stalled negotiation process, and, according to him, there was a simple choice: to give the territories back to Azerbaijan or try to change the negotiation logic. He argues that he had chosen the second path, which was doomed to fail since it was impossible to stop the train. Meanwhile, he knew very well of Azerbaijan’s intention to solve the Karabakh issue by military means. Therefore, every uncalculated and heedless action could ignite a military conflict. In such a situation, Armenia’s leadership had to be very careful in its statements and activities so as not to aggravate the already tense situation. Instead, Pashinyan’s government made several hawkish statements. Where did such overconfidence come from? A likely answer is the perceived military balance. The last war proved it was a misperception.

Importantly, misperception and overconfidence were not common only to Pashinyan. Artsakh president Arayik Harutyunyan in June 2020 stated that “the air of Artsakh is entirely protected”. Samvel Babayan, then Secretary of Artsakh Security Council, said in August 2020 that even if Turkey joins Azerbaijan in a possible war, Artsakh will definitely win. As the war showed, both statements were miscalculations.

Research shows that emotion plays an essential role in psychology and decision-making. McDermott posits that “emotions can facilitate motivation and arousal”[5]. From the very beginning, Armenia’s political opposition accused Pashinyan of at least two things—anti-Russian views and being soft on the Karabakh conflict (handing over some territories to Azerbaijan). In response, Pashinyan attempted to prove that the opposite is true. Like all humans, leaders also have their motivations. In Pashinyan’s case, the motivation for achievement of showing that he is a hardliner is observable. His motivation could be showing that he is not less of a hardliner than his predecessors (except Levon Ter-Petrosyan) or, at least, not a dove. To this end, he and his government made emotional, tough, and shortsighted statements: “Karabakh is Armenia, and that’s it”; “new war for new territories”, etc.

Pashinyan also insisted on the return of Karabakh to the negotiating table. True, this was rather noble and crucially important for Armenian diplomacy. However, given that Artsakh’s more representative place had been lost because of Armenia’s shortsighted policy previously—and more importantly, Azerbaijan would by no means agree to that claim—it was naive to expect any success in this regard. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs’ stance was also predictable: for such an outcome, all parties must agree. Azerbaijan disagreed. In the end, by September 2020, Pashinyan proved to be even more hardliner on the Artsakh issue than any Armenian chief executive.

Although Pashinyan’s government did not completely overlook the Vienna and S. Petersburg statements reached immediately after the 2016 April War, these advantageous (for Armenia) agreements were somewhat sidelined in the context of the aspiration of bringing Artsakh back to the negotiating table. Instead of consistently highlighting the implementation of the agreements on creating OSCE investigative mechanisms for ceasefire violations and increasing the number of international observers, Pashinyan’s administration prioritized the agenda of Artsakh’s participation in the talks.

Was the new formula necessary?

Armenia’s reformist ex-defense minister David Tonoyan in March 2019 publicly redefined the “land for peace” formula with a “new war for new territories”, meaning that if Azerbaijan undertakes a new offensive, Armenia may take more territories[6]. Besides, he pointed out that Armenia will get rid of the constant trench defense strategy and increase the number of military units that can transfer the hostilities to the enemy’s territory. The defense minister spoke confidently about the future. While he was voicing what he would do, why would his antagonist have waited to modernize his army and increase its combating capabilities? Knowing that its army has just started reforms, Armenia’s government hurried to declare overconfident and ambitious plans and readiness.

This still begs the question of “Why”. Given Armenia’s inadequate capabilities vis-a-vis Azerbaijan, instead of irritating statements, it should have been prudent to choose a restrained phrase, which would not nurture the already existing overconfident moods within the society. Had Tonoyan’s formula been stated by the foreign minister, things could have been different, as a same statement made by the Defense ministry and the Foreign ministry conveys different messages.

After the war, Russian foreign minister Lavrov stated that the “new war for new territories” statement was emotional, and these words materialized with very negative strength. Tonoyan recently clarified that his statement was a response to Azerbaijan’s statements to solve the Karabakh conflict through war. Leaving aside whose cause is right, it is significant to understand whose capabilities were real to win a war.

Though in hindsight, Azerbaijan was capable of winning a war against Armenia. Even if Azerbaijan was not ready for war and made provocative and belligerent statements, Baku was confident that Armenia would not start a war over such kinds of statements. Armenia did not need a war. One can infer that Azerbaijan’s leadership voiced such statements from time to time to provoke the Armenian side, and they succeeded in Pashinyan’s tenure when—apparently—they were ready for war much more than ever.

In his August 2019 speech at Artsakh capital city, Stepanakert, Pashinyan presented Armenia’s strategic goals and announced, “I feel that many of you may wonder that I said nothing about Artsakh. The answer is very simple: Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it”. He also chanted “Miatcum” (unification), hinting at the unification of Armenia and Artsakh. Miatcum was a popular nationalistic slogan of the Karabakh movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later explaining his proclamation, Pashinyan mentioned that his claim that Artsakh is Armenia was a response to Azerbaijan’s maximalist approach that Artsakh has to be part of Azerbaijan. Instead of a ‘tit for tat’ approach, Pashinyan should have expressed in a much more restrained way, claiming, for instance, that Artsakh’s right to self-determination was exercised in accordance with both Soviet and international law, hence, this did not conflict with Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Doing so, he could also blame Aliyev for not being constructive at the negotiating table.

Nikol Pashinyan’s statement soon raised criticism. Former American Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group Matthew Bryza claimed that the “Artsakh is Armenia” proclamation stops the entire negotiation process, making it impossible. Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov noted that the statement “doesn’t help create an atmosphere for renewing the political process.” Certainly, the nuances between the concept of the “Armenian world” and the “Republic of Armenia” were lost in translation. Still, the statement was shortsighted in terms of anticipating the reaction from the external audience.

In a sense, Pashinyan’s statement that “Karabakh is Armenia, period”, was also a response to Aliyev’s assertions that the Armenians are alien people or Yerevan is an Azerbaijani city. Aliyev’s motive, inter alia, for such kind of statements was provocation and propaganda. Should Armenia somehow react? The answer is positive, since there was no need to appease the opponents. But Armenia’s leaders shouldn’t have expressed emotional and dangerous (for negotiations) statements, as Pashinyan did, unlike his predecessors. Many times Azerbaijan’s presidents made such kinds of statements, but Armenia’s top leadership did not respond emotionally.

After the war, Nikol Pashinyan stated that as of 2018, the Karabakh issue was in deadlock, from which there was only one way out—an unconditional handover of territories, since Aliyev demanded so. “The alternative was the following: either we have to hand over the seven regions without the status of Karabakh, or it is a war”, he continued. Pashinyan rejected Aliyev’s demands. Hence, he clearly knew that a war could break out any day. Surprisingly, in one of his interviews after the war, he said that the war had always been anticipated, based on the last ten years’ [military and intelligence] reports hinting that that anticipation was general and there had not been any specific date for the start of the war. Moreover, he said that Armenia’s military-political leadership by September 25, 2020 assessed that the war would not begin.

Coming to grips with Pashinyan’s behavior

What is the rationale for such an assessment when Nikol Pashinyan stated after the war that the alternative of Aliyev’s demands of the unconditional return of the seven surrounding regions of the NKAO was the war, with Pashinyan refusing to act on that demand? Once again, the war could start any day, and Armenia’s leadership did not know about this.

In June 2020, Armenia’s Chief of General Staff reported that “Our opponent is not only Azerbaijan but also Turkey. Therefore, Armenia cannot effectively resist the military potential of those states. It is necessary to direct all the political and diplomatic potential to avoid or at least postpone a war.” This is a clear and open warning that Turkey is in the game more seriously than ever before.

After this, the July clashes of 2020 happened when Azerbaijan suffered a mini-military loss. Commenting on the events of 2020 July, Pashinyan said, “The Azerbaijani myth that its army can defeat the Armenian army, and thus Armenia and Artsakh should no longer have to make concessions. For a long time, we have been urging Azerbaijan not to talk with us from the positions of force, war-mongering and threat of use of force. We can now confidently say that Armenia has both rejected the threat of use of force on the diplomatic table and showed in the battlefield that those claims are unfounded and do not reflect the real balance of power”.

Then PM Pashinyan delivered a speech in quite a symbolic place and manner dedicated to the 2020 July fighting, where he presented several outcomes of that clash. He notably declared, “The victorious July battles proved the credibility of our political statements; they showed that our assessment of the military-political situation in the region and the balance of power was well-calculated and accurate”. He continues, “The victorious July battles demonstrated Armenia’s ability to meet its own security challenges on its own”; that Armenia has “an efficient and intelligent army with a decisive influence in the region.”

What was the rationale for organizing a big event and ceremony celebrating a very local victory? The small success was presented as a significant achievement. How is it possible to draw several ambitious and strategic outcomes based on low-scale and positional fighting, even though you won those battles? How can local and positional fighting judge the real balance of power? Pashinyan could say that “the Armenian army fulfilled the challenge it faced in July with success, thus increasing its combat effectiveness”. One can even claim that there was no need to publicize the event at all.

Arguably, this speech was not an attempt to delay the war as the Chief of General Staff had advised. If someone asks Pashinyan about his claim that Azerbaijan’s army cannot win the Armenian army, he will probably argue that Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s army in the recent war. Fair enough, but equally reasonable is the counterargument that he had the Chief of the General Staff report well before the 2020 July escalation, which proves that the balance of power was broken at least by June 2020. Importantly, several months after the war, the same Chief of the General Staff and 40 other high-level officers of the armed forces demanded the Pashinyan administration’s resignation, criticizing its foreign and domestic policies.

Beliefs are important constructs of an individual’s mental model. Pashinyan believed that the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan by 2020 July was in place. This belief was affected and shaped by the July battles and its result, which in Pashinyan’s cognitions was a viable indicator of the conflicting parties’ real capacities. Pashinyan’s memory probably lacked Turkey’s years-long assistance to Azerbaijan.

But what about the report of the Chief of General Staff? Did he forget about this report? Still, this raises some suspicions about his sense of reality. The 2020 Artsakh War showed that the belief about power balance was misleading. As one commentator observed, the Karabakh “conflict continues to illustrate the gap between political leaders’ perceptions and military reality.” Furthermore, Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan insisted that Armenia had provoked the border incident in 2020 July. Pashinyan did not deny that Armenia had taken the path of aggravating the situation.

Although people are considered rational actors, their rationality is always limited. People, including politicians, live in bounded rationality—“behavior that is adaptive within the constraints imposed both by the external situation and by the capacities of the decision maker”[7]. In other words, people cannot know everything, think about everything and understand everything, including themselves. Bounded rationality tells that Pashinyan could not know the true aims of Azerbaijan. Misperceptions and heuristics led to Pashinyan’s overconfidence during the post-2020 July speeches, which, in a sense, could be regarded as a provocation in Baku or at least irritate it.

Another problem with the official analysis and assessments regarding the 2020 July escalation is that Armenia was able to confront Azerbaijan on the battlefield and will in the future also be able to do so if they fight one on one. I speculate it was misconceiving in a sense that Azerbaijan did not concentrate all its efforts in those clashes, letting it be a very local clash so as (a) to give a bait to the enemy and (a) not to instigate an all-out war with a possible interference of Russia/CSTO. Probably, Azerbaijan, calculating the realities on and around the conflict, chose not to respond heavily for a chance of starting an all-out war with Armenia per se. It is highly possible that Aliyev did so later to blame Pashinyan for provocation.

Pashinyan on a par with Aliyev?

All this happened after the September 2018 meeting in Dushanbe between Pashinyan and Aliyev (this was their first talk), where they agreed to establish a direct communication line and reduce borderline tensions. Reaching such an agreement usually takes some trust and compromise. (Theoretically, the deal could have been achieved without compromise: one party asked to observe the ceasefire regime, the other one agreed either for the sake of gaining trust or for other unknown reasons, e.g., negotiation gambit). According to Pashinyan, Aliyev asked him to stop talking about the lack of democracy in Azerbaijan in return for the ceasefire regime to be respected. Libaridian supported this, basing on his sources from Azerbaijan and adding that Pashinyan asked Aliyev to observe the ceasefire, while the latter agreed. Libaridian continues, “Probably, Aliyev said something like “Ok, we will do it, but the essence of the [Karabakh] issue must be discussed”, and Pashinyan said something in the spirit, “Ok, but give me time.” And after this, to state that “Artsakh is Armenia”, “new war for new territories” is not a constructive move. Instead, it was provocative and damaged not only the personal trust of Aliyev towards Pashinyan but also the negotiation process. Put it very simply, “If Artsakh is Armenia, then what to negotiate.”

Understandably, this statement was also directed to the internal audience, given the accusations mentioned above by political opposition to the address of Pashinyan that he is not a hardliner. The essence of short-sightedness is that by paying tribute to those accusations and trying to prove the opposite, Pashinyan made dangerous and uncalculated statements and steps.

Look at Armenia’s statements from the eyes of Aliyev. He has never hidden his readiness to use force, while Armenia’s new authorities at some point started to use aggressive and arrogant statements. Aliyev could simply think, “Well, Armenia, you think that if a new war starts, you will seize new territories; you announce that Artsakh is Armenia; you think that your little success in the July 2020 clashes means you are ready to wage a large-scale war with us; fine, you will see what we can do.”

All the actions and moves by Armenia’s government cannot be considered steps to avoid the war. Instead, one can opine that they aggravated the situation and brought the war closer. In the very least, for Azerbaijan those statements served as a legitimizing ground to start the war, which is Armenia’s diplomatic failure. Later Aliyev would blame Pashinyan for provoking Azerbaijan—both military and diplomatically—as he implicitly legitimized launching the latest war against Karabakh. The international context was also conducive to Azerbaijan to start the war—this meaning competition between Turkey and Russia, Western sanctions against Russia, post-election political crisis in Belarus, the pre-election United States, disagreements and management crisis in the European Union and NATO as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Nikol Pashinyan and his team are often accused of unwise and shortsighted diplomacy, which triggered the war. An important counterargument is that Azerbaijan had calculated that if Armenia continues its intensive armament strategy and makes its army stronger, it can bring the balance of power back, although it had been broken during recent years. Moreover, Armenia has officially adopted several plans to modernize and develop its army, procure large-scale arms and military equipment for the period of 2018-2024. Therefore, using the conducive geopolitical atmosphere, Azerbaijan initiated the war in 2020, not leaving it to another year, when chances to win might be less realistic. No doubt, Baku had been preparing for this war for quite a long time.

Two factors stand out: (a) Aliyev’s readiness to solve the conflict by force and (b) and his extensive military procurement. Aliyev assured himself that he could solve the conflict by force, of which he had started to talk long ago, such as immediately after the failed Kazan talks. Given his extensive military procurement and Turkey’s explicit support, including militarily, the possible war shouldn’t have been excluded in the minds of Armenia’s military-political leadership. In February 2019, Aliyev said that “the might is right” principle currently prevails in world politics, and Azerbaijan must be ready for this reality. Once again, Aliyev asserted that if negotiations break down, Azerbaijan will not hesitate to use force.

In the past, Aliyev lambasted the OSCE Minsk Group, particularly right before the 2016 “Four-Day War” and the 2020 “44-Day War”. Thus, Aliyev accused Minsk Group Co-Chairs of freezing the Karabakh conflict and using double standards in February 2016, charged the troika of “freezing the conflict instead of resolving it” just days before the Four-Day War. Notably, the Minsk Group’s mandate is to facilitate the peace process to find solutions for the conflict but not to resolve it, as incorrectly argued by Aliyev. On July 6, 2020, he also qualified the peace process under the aegis of Minsk Group as “meaningless”, while charging the Co-Chairs of that the conflict had been dragging for so long. Seemingly, by these statements, Azerbaijan informed Armenia that the war is looming large and it would be sooner rather than later.

What was the role of Nikol Pashinyan in this drama? Pashinyan’s policy was not the reason for the war, nor was it the result. Did he incite the war? I insist that he indirectly brought the war closer by his diplomacy. Why publicly adopt the “new war for new territories” formula when you are at the beginning of the mentioned plans? Why did the Armenian authorities assure the public that if a new war starts, new territories will be taken, when they knew the modernization of the army had just begun? It was utterly unnecessary and inefficient to enter into a dangerous war of words. Armenia’s authorities knew that Armenia was beginning the long road of reforming and strengthening its army. Why not wait for the year 2024 to have a more powerful and modernized army and then be more confident? Furthermore, despite the balance of power (including military) has been broken between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the recent years and in spite of the success of the July 2020 clashes, Armenia’s leadership had to be hyper-careful in its statements and actions so as not to incite a military conflict. In other words, Armenia’s military-political leadership had to have a realistic and unemotional evaluation of where the country stands in terms of power relations. However, as the above discussion shows, Pashinyan’s administration, wittingly or unwittingly, instigated the 2020 war.

Aiming to solve the conflict by force, Aliyev used the conducive international environment as well as the shortsighted diplomacy of Nikol Pashinyan to wage the war, not leaving it for the years to come, when the balance of power could be restored. Arguably, Pashinyan’s unwise and emotional policy coincided with Aliyev’s decisiveness to solve the conflict by military means. Touching upon the origins of the war, Pashinyan claimed that the point for any event to take place in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had matured. This analysis argues that he wittingly or unwittingly facilitated that point to be matured.

  1. If otherwise not specified, whenever I use Armenia, it includes Artsakh as well
  2. Armenian name of the Karabakh.
  3. Hudson, V.M. Foreign policy analysis: classic and contemporary theory [2th edition]. Rowman & Littlefield. 2014. pp. 40-41.
  4. Ibid.
  5. McDermott, R. Political psychology in international relations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. p. 167.
  6. Davit Tonoyan’s statement could not be made without Pashinyan’s knowledge and permission; otherwise, Tonoyan would have been fired.
  7. Simon, H. Human nature in politics: the dialogue of psychology with political science. American Political Science Review. 1985. No. 79, 293-304. p. 294.

From our partner RIAC

MA in International Relations, Research Assistant, Manoogian Simone Research Fund, American University of Armenia

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Eastern Europe

Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum



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.


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.


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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Eastern Europe

‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue



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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Eastern Europe

Ryanair Incident: Five Sanctions Risks for the Republic of Belarus



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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