Sunday, 14 September 2014

Response to Dr Ian Klinke's comments

Thank you for your detailed (and still very lucid :)) response. I follow your argument - with a few exceptions:

Russia's annexation of Crimea is not comparable to Kosovo's split from Serbia. Kosovo became a sovereign state (if only recognised by some existing states), as did Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain largely dependent on their patrons, the patrons' willingness to afford them sovereignty does count. Norms, as you know, tend to get a life of their own. We have already seen Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia act in ways contrary to their patrons (i.e. the USA and NATO, and Russia, respectively). Crimea, conversely, is formally a part of the Moscow vertikal - with no sovereign room. This also creates a dangerous precedent for regions contested by actors outside the post-Soviet space.

The West, as a whole, has had a long-term involvement in Ukraine and Georgia. Yet the West did not support the breakup of the USSR (with the exception of the Baltics), NATO clearly rebuffed Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, and NATO has shown no interest in military involvement in Ukraine - Russia's annexation of Crimea was met with words only; little else has happened in eastern Ukraine. I fail to see how this is NATO's proxy war - NATO would like the problem to go away, thank you very much, so it can concentrate on Isis (and maybe China and North Korea for the US). NATO is strengthening its position in Eastern Europe, but at the request (i.e. demands) of the Baltics and Poland, in particular. I doubt if more weapons in Eastern Europe will promote peace (and no, NATO has no plan for what to do with Russia or itself in the coming years), but Russia has no right to decide Polish or Baltic defence policy (and, indeed, vice versa).

No, I do not expect much on the "war crimes tribunal" front. Kosovars and Bosniaks have perhaps also been treated too lightly, yet we can add plenty of examples from Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel etc. My hope is slightly (or very...) quixotic, but helping Ukraine to address any war crimes their forces may have committed would send a stronger sign to the Kremlin than any guns could.

As per your wish I will refrain here from prolonging the debate on "fascist Russia." I just want to point out that by "fascist" I don't mean "bad" - I mean "fascist," as an ideology such as "liberal,""conservative," etc. The US has plenty of wars and some chauvinism on its record, and for me its democracy leaves much to be desired. Yet corporatism is mainly absent, there is plenty of room for expressing opposition to the state (e.g. shown in popular culture), no president in recent memory has succeeded in becoming a Leader / Strongman, diversity is officially (if not always effectively) promoted. Whether this makes the US a "better" state than Russia is moot - I think so, but that debate would lead us into a long discussion of ethics. My points here simply are: (a) if your remove the epithet "fascist," the Russian elite today (and much of the country) would sign up to fascism's attributes as I outlined them. The (mostly) liberal West would not. That lack of mutual comprehension risks increasing the distance between Russia and the West - a distance which I would like to see minimised as soon as possible; (b) liberalism has plenty of flaws - as seen for instance in the financial crisis and social hardship in the West since 2008. Yet liberalism allows for the existence of minorities and minority opinions. True, such opinions are often suppressed economically, politically, socially and - sometimes - militarily by the West, but the principle of tolerance remains, unlike in fascism. Much worse - and this is really my fear now - much of the West now seems ready to say "sod Russia - that weird country" which leaves adrift not only a glorious country but also those Russians who might not have high opinions of the state. I fear for those Russians, if the Kremlin and the West both abandon them.

The early 1990s certainly witnessed many lost opportunities, including in relation to NATO. Most fundamentally, perhaps, it was a great loss that most countries in Central and Eastern Europe still felt they needed protection from Russia. That is certainly not just Russia's fault; NATO - and the West as a whole - should actively have presented and promoted ideas of a common European security space, instead of simply floundering. Now, we need to start those discussions, even if an inclusion of Russia in such a space would probably have to wait at least 5-10 years (or, I fear, much more...). 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Response to Dr Ian Klinke's article "NATO: the alliance that should have been dissolved"

Dear Ian.

On your article, I find it interesting on a number of points. I think you are absolutely right to note that Russia is not the only cause of instability in eastern Ukraine. Recently, some observers - notably Ben Judah in the New York Times - called for military assistance, and troops, from the West to Ukraine. Among others I was not  convinced how such a step would enhance Ukrainian or indeed regional security. Similarly, I cannot help but see your point that NATO has been anything but a passive bystander in relation to Ukraine. As with the EU this problem began years ago. Ukraine was de facto refused entry to NATO while at the same time the country was expected by NATO to come closer to "our" side, leaving Ukraine in a dangerous limbo. In retrospect, it is perhaps not surprising that some members of the Russian elite perceived a battle - bloody or otherwise - was taking place with the West on the future of Ukraine.

You suggest that NATO has an identity crisis. Few observers, I believe, would fully disagree with you here. Following the end of the Cold War during the 1990s NATO was, for most intents and purposes, simply another Western "club" which former socialist states could join. Subsequently, events in Kosovo and Central Asia have given NATO concrete jobs to do, yet it probably remains most correct to say that these were American projects with a NATO sheen - "coalitions of the willing," indeed, which, certainly, was never the point of NATO where members of course are expected to help each other when they otherwise might be most unwilling to do so. Now, the fear might remain that Ukraine, and Central and Eastern Europe more generally, is the latest American project into which the rest of NATO is being dragged. Clearly, you have a good point in stressing that the Ukrainian military has been responsible for civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine – and that some of this responsibility might constitute war crimes. Arguably not the best partner for NATO to arm.

With all this said, however, I still do take issue with some points in your article. You mention that the fighting in Ukraine is NATO’s “proxy war,” just as you suggest NATO is “beating the war drum.” Now, in order for this to hold up, I think, one of two conditions would have to be fulfilled. Either, NATO would have to have actively helped to start and expand the war in Ukraine; or the mere existence of NATO would have provoked the war in the first place. I am afraid I do not see either of these conditions in place here. That NATO should actively have started and/or expanded the war in Ukraine does not seem to be the message from your article. And, certainly, all signs during the toppling of Viktor Ianukovych showed that NATO (and Russia) were taken aback. I appreciate that some Western politicians, such as John McCain, actively and vociferously campaigned in Kyiv for the removal of a democratically elected president. Yet McCain, for all his follies, does not represent NATO. The organisation, in fact, kept very much in the background until Crimea had been annexed by Russia. The second explanation, that the existence of NATO has provoked this war does ring true for me, but only in the limited sense, I hinted at above. The fact that NATO for many years has been unwilling to state clearly whether Ukraine belongs inside or outside the organisation (or even the “sphere of interests” of NATO) is a contributing factor to the war. Yet, from this point, I cannot conclude that Ukraine and Europe would be better off if NATO disappeared. On the contrary, I believe that NATO now needs to assert itself and its mission in a much clearer fashion than before.

Ian, I do not believe in a Europe, or a world, that is divided into “spheres of interest,” belonging to a range of great powers. Now, I do not claim that your article is advocating this – yet the elite of Russia is, and so are many observers in the West for whom the actions of Russia today are understandable and must be taken into account. Right now, this almost seems to be the dominant tone of the debate in my Denmark. Still, if we are not to have “spheres of interest” as the founding norm of international relations, of what should such a norm consist? Well, I fear that the least bad option here for me remains the norm of state sovereignty. This point comes with a number of caveats, the largest one of which is that I remain a strong believer in humanitarian intervention when required. Humanitarian intervention has been somewhat discredited following the debacle in Iraq (and elsewhere), yet its necessity in rare circumstances remains. Hence, it could be argued that the elites of Russia, having witnessed the violent deposition of Ianukovych, honestly feared that Ukrainian nationalists would assault Russians throughout Ukraine, including in areas with an overwhelming Russian population, such as Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Reports from the UN soon pointed out, that Russians in Ukraine were not threatened by Ukrainian nationalists. The interim government did suggest a law to remove Russian as official language – a suggestion, which a sensible interim president immediately discarded. Ukrainian nationalist candidates had no chance in the subsequent presidential election. Thus, I cannot agree with your assertion that Ukraine has done little to diffuse nationalist tension. Certainly, though, the subsequent war has increased the presence of intolerance in Ukraine, and there is no doubt that very worrying nationalist, racist and other forces now fight as paramilitaries for the separatist and government sides alike. Having said this, however, I fail to see that NATO support for Ukraine equals Russian support for the separatists. All accounts I have seen indicate that conditions in the separatist-held areas have remained dangerously lawless, even when Ukrainian troops were not near. With the deplorable exception of Odessa, this has not been the case in Ukrainian-held territory. Certainly, Ukrainian shelling of civilian areas has been a substantial part of the reason for the lawlessness in eastern Ukraine. Yet the difference remains that Ukrainian military personnel can (and absolutely should) be held responsible for all war crimes committed. The West must insist on this; and while I am not overly optimistic about this happening, at least in the state of Ukraine there is someone to hold to account. Whom do we hold responsible on the nebulous side of the separatists?

But leaving all this to a side for the moment, let us assume – for the sake of the argument – that Russia had somewhat humanitarian reasons to enter Ukraine. Let us agree that the war has cost immense suffering for the civilian population of eastern Ukraine. If, under these circumstances, Putin’s Russian military now entered eastern Ukraine, and Crimea, just to stop the fighting and to hold the Ukrainian regime to account, then the intervention might be justified. Forget for the moment that Russian military assistance has inflamed the fighting for months; forget, likewise, that Russian soldiers and equipment have been part of the fighting for a long time, too. If the Russian regime wants to ensure peace and tolerance for all in Ukraine then Russia, as a neighbouring state, might do well in ending the fighting now – and NATO, by extension, might do well to stay away. In fact, if Russia can begin to play the role of guarantor of stability and civilian safety in the post-Soviet region – if Russia can help to guarantee that the populations of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states can enjoy the sovereignty of their increasingly well-governed states – then NATO should perhaps be drawn back, slowly dismantled, to be gradually replaced with negotiations for pan-European security stretching this time really from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Certainly, the USA would probably be happy to turn his full attention to China and what promises to be some tense years in East Asia.

And yet, Ian, this is not the Russia of which we today can speak. Russia did not insert troops on Crimea in order to force Ukraine to treat the inhabitants of the peninsula better. Instead, Russia promoted a Crimean political party with 4% support from the previous local election to the role of governing force capable of developing an unfree, unfair referendum that justified the first land-grab in Europe since the Second World War. This is not Kosovo – it is not even Abkhazia and South Ossetia for here, at least, the contested areas are recognised as sovereign by Russia. A small difference you may think, yet states whose sovereignty is recognised have a tendency to gain more and more autonomy for themselves; something arguably visible with the two republics in the Caucasus. Yet not with Crimea, which has now become the symbol of the simple premise that “might makes right.” And a world built on such a premise, the Soviet Union and Russia until quite recently clearly understood, is a dangerous world in which states with justification can look anxiously for the possibilities and dangers of conquest.

Now, you and I of course both know that many other factors besides sovereignty guard international stability. Some international institutions, for instance, have shown an ability to solve international disputes with a minimum of tension. Arguably, NATO does not have a good record here; not least due to the exclusive, militarised nature of this institution. Thus, it might seem sensible to dismantle NATO and replace it instead with a body of understandings and treaties that could foster a pan-European security framework, including Russia. Yet, for me it is today difficult to see how such a framework could be created. The elite of Russia today has substantial resentment for the West. In Moscow, there is a clear feeling that the West has treated Russia poorly since the end of the Cold War, and that the West seeks to keep Russia down whenever possible. The merits or otherwise of this impression are moot, yet there is little doubt for me that Russia’s elite saw the deposition of Ianukovych in precisely this vein. Clearly, the activities of NATO during the last decades have contributed to this Russian wish for revanchism, yet removing NATO now would not convince elites in Russia of the beneficence of the West. Unfortunately, for the time being, the resentment will stay in place. It will also be accompanied by a search for justice for Russia; a belief in Russia that there is a just place for Russia in the international system and that Russia should seek this place with whatever means possible. Now, unfortunately, beyond the idea that Russia should be a great power with a regional sphere of interests what would constitute a just world in Russian optics remains rather vague. Consequently, while Russian diplomatic and military manoeuvres in and around Ukraine have often been tactically sound, on a strategic level they have been haphazard. Yet even if a clear Russian strategy for a just world order could be conjured, this does not imply that neighbouring states and their populations should acquiesce. Populations of regions such as Crimea and the Donbass might wish for independence – and this might conceivably be accommodated through democratic means such as is happening shortly in Scotland – yet Russia, just as other actors outside Ukraine, has no right to force this through. And right does matter if we are not to start doubting the entire post-World War II web of (admittedly very constructed) borders – or perhaps have a look at the North Caucasus?

Even though the elite of Russia today is revanchist in relation to the West, and seeks to create a just (as opposed to an ordered) world – and even if we assume these are developments to be resisted by the West – it does not automatically follow that NATO is the instrument with which to check the Russian state. In many ways NATO is a poor instrument for the task. Being blatantly unwilling to send troops and serious military equipment to Ukraine, NATO is reduced to strengthen its presence in its existing member states such as the Baltics and Poland. I am not quite convinced that an increased NATO-presence in Central and Eastern Europe will sufficiently comfort local regimes, who may still fear Russian attacks through non-traditional means, such as by the recent kidnapping of the Estonian security official. Yet NATO remains the least bad option here; at least for the time being. If NATO were disbanded now, a belligerent yet floundering Russia would be opposed by a range of European states, which in many ways are equally floundering and could quickly become equally belligerent, squaring up to Russia. A pan-European security agreement would be ideal, yet I for one see no reason why the current Russian state should be trusted to adhere to such agreements or to respect for sovereignty, for that matter. Unfortunately, in the foreseeable future this lack of trust might well grow.

This is because, I believe, the nature of the Russian state and its development. Russia today is increasingly becoming a fascist state. Mind you – not a Nazi state, although these two terms are often confused, especially in Russia. By a fascist Russia I mean a Russia that has the state (and the leader) as the highest ideal, that favours corporatism and a modicum of expansion in the surrounding region, that is increasingly militarised, and that shows signs of chauvinism. Conversely, racialism and worldwide expansion are irrelevant here. (My apologies for spelling out such basics to you, but I have come into the habit of closely defining fascism, before people accuse me of comparing Putin and Hitler; Putin and Franco might be a better bet). This is relevant here, because such a Russia will increasingly be distanced from the European community of values (and yes, I do believe such a community exists). Possibly, Russia might drag Belarus away, too (although I doubt it), but an iron wall of incompatibility and perhaps incomprehension is being constructed between Russia and the rest of Europe. The existence of NATO certainly does not prevent this development, yet – I believe – the absence of NATO would today not prevent it, either. Instead, unfortunately, the West is forced to retain NATO for the simple reason that lack of trust and mutual understanding between Putin’s Russia and the West will remain for the foreseeable future and, at least, as long as Russian state ideology remains fascist. This is not a shout for all the glories of “democracy,” (however ill defined) but simply my conviction that some basics of Western political ideology – including a respect for individuals and a non-militarised solution to problems in the areas surrounding “us” – are going to, and should, remain. And if I take this normative position I cannot possibly accept any international imposition of a Russian fascist state ideology. This does not mean that the West by force should seek to change Russian ideology – an impossible and in many ways pointless task – but it does mean that we should recognise our fundamental differences with the Russian state of today, and take the necessary precautions against Russia, such as by ensuring the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania that their right to sovereignty will be ensured by the EU and, yes, by NATO.

On a concluding note, however, this leads me to a final concern. Leaving Ukraine to a side, it remains unlikely that Russia would openly intervene in NATO member-states. Low-level provocations will remain yet, frankly, Russia can ill afford a long-lasting dispute. Already, Western sanctions are hurting a stuttering Russian economy much more than Russian sanctions are able to hurt the West (a Russian halt to energy transfers to the rest of Europe would be similarly catastrophic for the Russian economy in the medium term). So some sort of modus vivendi will probably be found as the shooting dies down in Ukraine (Donbass as the next Transnistria remains quite possible). Nevertheless, in such a modus vivendi the Russians will remain “others.” Not such a big problem for the many talented Russians living and working in the West, who should easily be able to carve out a position for themselves, and not such a problem for those people living in Russia who agree to support the glory of the Russian state with their existence. Yet what to do for those people in Russia who do not support the state above all else; who do not see Putin as the ultimate leader; who seek to be politically, economically, culturally, gender-based different? Well these Russians, on whose behalf the West for so many years has been willing to shout, will now be left on their own. Lumped together, by the West, with other people in Russia in the category of “others” / “outsiders” / “barbarians.” These people in Russia may well be forgotten in the coming years. And that would become yet another tragedy in this sad tale.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Endgame approaching

Autumn is approaching - for nature and for Europe. Or at least for the Europe we have known since 1991. At best, we are heading back to a continent with two opposed military parties. At worst...well, let's not go there, quite yet.

What does Russia want? Just a "common-sense peace" if the government is to be believed. For Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, war is outmoded - and sanctions are, too. (Putin o sanktsiiakh) Yet the armed forces of Ukraine shoot at civilians. So of course civilians must be defended by armed fighters in eastern Ukraine (V Evrope predpochitaiut ne samechat' rasstrel ukrainskimi voennymi zhilykh kvartalov) - and perhaps by Russia, too? The Ukrainian government only wants war and try to undermine all attempts at peace, says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Vashington, Briussel i NATO podstegivaiut partiiu voiny v Kieve) So the Ukrainian military must move out of - or be removed from - eastern Ukraine and agree to an immediate ceasefire. (V Minske budet obsuzhdat'sia prekrashchenie ognia) When that has been achieved Russia and Ukraine can again each agreements on natural gas deliveries, to the benefit of all of Europe. (Rossiia i Ukraina gotovy provesti trekhstoronniuiu vstrechu po gazu 6 sentiabria)

There is a kernel of truth to these Russian claims. In eastern Ukraine fighting has taken place in residential areas. And as the state with de jure sovereignty over this area, Ukraine has a responsibility to ensure a minimum of civilian casualties, also to the detriment of military aims. Whether Ukraine has shown such duty of care is not clear now, but the rest of the world must insist - now and later - on complete transparency of the actions committed by the military forces of Ukraine. If necessary, the West must insist on sanctions against any Ukrainian forces found to have committed crimes against the civilian population, through intent or neglect.

Similarly, as much as Ukraine and the West today want to distance themselves from Russia, the issue of energy deliveries remains. The European Union, and perhaps even Ukraine, could scrape through the coming winter without Russian oil and natural gas, yet this will cause economic pain for Europe in a way, which the continent only now seems to understand. In the longer run energy from the USA and elsewhere might help Europe to escape from Russian energy, but that will only enforce the division now strengthening just east of Riga, of Warsaw and of Kyiv.

And the division is there to stay. Russia keeps on seeing NATO as a threat, especially if the military infrastructure of the organisation is seen to threaten Russian territory. That is a sinister message, considering that Russia today sees Crimea as its territory. (Novaia voennaia doktrina). There is little sign so far that Putin will back away from the peninsula and the new, Russian map of Europe (Canada and Russia in Twitter fight over map) - or indeed back away from its "defence of peace and civilians" in eastern Ukraine. (Putin's talk of statehood for East Ukraine puts pressure on Kiev) And now it looks as if Ukraine and the West have finally taken up the challenge.

Have Russian troops invaded Ukraine? In effect, this seems likely. However, what really matters is that everyone now acts as if this has happened. Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, now speaks of a direct Russian attack (Priama agresiia Rosiii proty Ukraiiny dokorinno zminiue sytuatsiiu u zoni boiiv) - and his government has called for the entry of Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine in NATO - if that is not a red line for Putin's Russia, then nothing is. Crucially, not only is the idea of Ukrainian membership not rejected by NATO's General Secretary, Anders Rasmussen, but he has presented plans for a NATO "rapid response force" that is openly directed against Russia. (NATO to create high-readiness force to counter Russian threat).

Now, in itself such a force makes good sense for NATO. Rapid reaction forces are increasingly needed by the international actors of the world to handle modern warfare. Russian military reform has itself been moving in this direction. Similarly, Rasmussen and others in Europe can say with justification in the preservation of peace that the involvement of Russia in Ukraine is unacceptable, and that Russia must be prevented from further aggression, in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The problem is, though, that there currently is no sign that anybody is willing to back down. If Putin is (allegedly) heard saying that he "could take Kyiv in two weeks," (Putin comment on "taking Kiev in two weeks" twisted, aide says), Ukrainian Minister of Defence Valerii Heletei writes that Ukraine must be prepared for a war in which tens of thousands may die. (MES Rosiii nesadovolene zaiavamy Heleteia). Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania, says that Russia is at war with Europe. (Rusija "praktishkai pradejo kara su Europa"). From the US, Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says that the US must arm Ukraine now before another Syria is created. (U.S. lawmakers call for arming Ukraine government). For Heavens sake, even the EU - war-averse little EU - is about to have a foreign policy chief, who sees the "strategic partnership" between the Union and Russia as dead, even if she at least wants to stick to diplomacy. (Putin non rispetta i patti) But not everyone seems to agree with Federica Mogherini, as would largely have been the case just a month ago.

Now, probably the situation is less dire than it seems. Putin's people have been quick to downplay any threat against Ukrainian statehood. Poroshenko and Heletya have not argued for war against Russia, but for Russia to get out of Ukraine. NATO gives no indication that military action against Russia is forthcoming. And the exhortations of Rogers et al seem to have little impact on President Barack Obama, who has plenty to do in Syria. Yet especially the calamity of the Middle East - and other incoming political crises such as Britain's fight to retain Scotland - still prevents Ukraine from getting the undivided attention of the West. The Baltics, and other NATO states, would not suffer from such neglect and Putin's Russia, consequently, will almost certainly not cross that line. Yet if Russia has now invaded Ukraine then two of the largest states in Europe are at war. And the West, still, seems to have no plan for ending this - apart from sanctions that came too late and, at the very least, will need more time to work. Worse, the West seems to have no plan for what to do with Ukraine - or with Russia - in the longer run.

Maybe a solution starts with Europe itself. What sort of Europe do we want? Can it include armed aggression - at a price - or should international law and sovereignty always outweigh economic considerations? If aggression can be acceptable, then Russia is effectively welcome to take over eastern Ukraine (and to keep invaded Crimea). To take whatever else Putin can get his hands on. And Russia and Ukraine alike are welcome to ignore civilian casualties. In return - once a stalemate has been reached - "negotiations for peace" can commence.

Yet if aggression is never acceptable then the West must make that clear now. If it is claimed by the West that Russia directly violates peace in Europe then no collaboration with the Russian state can be possible until Russian forces are completely and unequivocally out of eastern Ukraine, and out of Crimea. No ifs and no buts! With this solution - probably now the least bad of many truly terrible options - the West and Russia are in a state of bloodless war. The consequences of which will be felt for years and maybe decades to come.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Business as usual?

Has the world really changed with the crash of MH17? In fact, what does it take to change a world, a region, a conflict? The shooting down of a civilian airplane? Not at Moneron Island in 1983, it didn't; nor in the Persian Gulf five years later. Moscow delayed, then accused the plane of spying. Washington just stuck to the story of how the crisis was Iran's fault, anyway.

Does it matter that so many of the dead this time are European? No, it shouldn't, but does it? For how much the world / the West gets involved? OK, many Americans died in 1983, but that was the Soviet Union, for crying out loud, the "Empire of Evil" - the Soviets were supposed to do this sort of stuff! (how the deuce Rust ever made it...did he not watch Firefox?) Does the West have the same expectations of Russia now? Should it have? Oh, in what a difficult dilemma does Volodia find himself...

What to do, what to do, if you sit behind the walls of the Kremlin? The Russian leadership mostly seems intent on downplaying the crash. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announces that Russia and the US have agreed an independent inquiry and adherence to the Geneva Principles for peace in Ukraine. Like a great power Russia yearns to be important, to be indispensable in international affairs. But, see, this is what Volodia and his chums have a problem understanding: Being indispensable does not a great power make. It does not even a medium power make. A great power actually tries to solve something; to develop situations, to help somehow. And that, alas, seems very far from the capabilities of today's Russian regime.

Did Volodia and Dima sit at the controls, playing Space Invaders with holiday-goers? You know, I don't think they did. And I don't think many observers, apart perhaps from some members of the Ukrainian leadership, would suspect the Russian elite of having declared war on the world. Yet the crime of which many observers are accusing the Russian leadership is the crime of neglect; neglect in the Pandoran sense where the jack-in-the-box is replaced with warheads. To show that Russia is indispensable, yes. But perhaps irresponsible, too.

Russian political analyst Iulia Latynina very interestingly stated that Russia has now "been caught up with" Gaddafi and bin Laden. No, Latynina is not saying anything as simple as "Russia is a terror-state." Instead, I think, her point is that Volodia is well on his way to making his state (sorry, the state of all Russians over which Volodia has claimed ownership) improper - dare we say "uncivilised" - in international affairs. This is not because Volodia is a "bad man," but because he seems caught between several illusions of what actually makes a civilised state in/of international affairs.

There is an old story, told to me more than a decade ago, about the Soviet embassy in West Berlin. Now, this was of course one of the most important centres of espionage activity for the Soviet Union (and everyone else) during the Cold War. At the embassy was a spy-master, an analyst capable of putting together highly detailed analyses of Western affairs based on information from the myriad of Soviet agents in the field sending him any and all possible pieces of information of which they could get hold. Then, one day the spy-master had to go back to Moscow suddenly, family matters I believe, and his replacement was not quickly found. Yet while his post remained empty, all the little agents milling about kept sending the embassy all sorts of information, in a wonderful confusion of absolutely no order of priority at all, for these little agents could not themselves conduct analysis. It was not their job. Sometimes, it does matter that Volodia is a former field agent in the Soviet foreign intelligence service...

Yet I digress. A friend of mine, a very competent analyst, pointed out shortly after the crash that there was an outside risk Ukraine might have shot down the plane. While I agree with the possibility that Ukraine might have mistaken the plane for a Russian spy plane I would assume that the Ukrainian military would have the technology and training to recognise civilian versus military aircraft, especially considering the frequency with which civilian aircraft overflew the area of the crash. Similarly, all thoughts of the plane crashing "by itself," so to speak, seem to have been debunked. So the quite strong suspicion remains that the plane was shot down by separatists based in eastern Ukraine; separatists over which Russia admits to have influence; and over which Russia has control according to the West.

And here we are back at Volodia's illusions. Hands up, who remembers the Sochi Winter Olympics? Come on - they even had Sugarpova at the opening ceremony... I joke, but the tragedy - and for Volodia this is a tragedy - is that the Sochi Olympics actually went quite well. Good organisation, welcoming to spectators (well, not the Circassians, but you know...), great venues, and engaged spectators. Even quite a few Russian medals. So hunky-dory all! Yet (and now for the tragic part) Volodia meant for the Winter Olympics to change the image of Russia and his regime abroad. The guy really wants to be loved. And, in terms of international perceptions of Russia (or domestic perceptions, for that matter), the Winter Olympics did diddly-squat.

You see, Volodia, you've got to make up your mind now! If you really want to be a scary leader of a scary country, you can be that - well, you can try anyway. Yet you better make damn sure to get better at it real quickly, because - right now - you're not that scary, at all. And if you really want to be lovable, then you can be that, too - maybe, sort of - but you've clearly got some work to do there, too.

Don't get me wrong: the brutal incineration of almost 300 innocent souls, the subsequent mistreatment of their bodies and the (alleged) disappearance of some of their effects is horrifying and has left the world reeling in shock. But the overall picture, emerging more and more clearly, is one of idiotic incompetence - more Clouseau in a Dumb State than Cushing in a Death Star...

No, Volodia, you (probably) did not order that drunk militia-man to fire warning shots at the OSCE. No, Volodia, you (probably) did not order the separatist administrations to move pieces of the wreckage back and forth so many times that separatist leaders now seem uncertain of whether they have the black boxes or not. But, Volodia, nobody in the West gives a damn! You have made so certain to create and consolidate a "power vertikal" not just in Russia but in much of the other successor states, too, that you can now be blamed for pretty much anything bad happening there. You are, in Philip Hammond's slightly hyperbolic words, leading Russia towards the status of a "pariah state." And, in the Daily Mail's phrase, for such a state "THERE'LL BE HELL TO PAY!" (on a side note, could somebody please take the nice people at the Daily Mail into a warm, comfortable room, hold their hands and explain to them, with compassion, that it would be best for everyone if they could now be quiet and let the grown-ups do the talking. Maybe Daily Mail could concentrate on gardening and nature...or maybe not, they'll probably just get their badgers in a twist again...)

Yet if Volodia's Russia can be blamed for all things wicked, and at the same time look oh so befuddled, then it is "business as usual," and then Volodia is in the worst of all worlds. If he didn't care about the West, Volodia's problem would be less. As a state Russia remains easily strong enough to ward off direct threats to its sovereignty; threats to Volodia's sovereignty will come from inside his regime, if at all. Sanctions can hurt Russia, yet now China offers a way out (well, a redirection to a slightly slower-cooking soup, but anyway...). Yet Volodia's Russia is not a great power, and won't become a great power, for "with great power comes great responsibility." Right now, I'm afraid, Russia is showing neither.

There is a story that then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in 1993 responded to public panicking over chaotic monetary reforms with the words:

"Хотели как лучше, а получилось как всегда." 

No, Volodia is not a nice fellow, but neither is he a tough decisive leader (Nicholas I would find the comparison rather insulting) and the above sentence is very much in danger of becoming Volodia's epitaph.

Especially is he continues with his "business as usual."

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Into the maelstrom

This is what we know so far:

  • At 4.41 pm BST today reported that a Malaysian airplane had crashed on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
  • The flight was MH17 from Malaysian Airlines flying at 10 kilometre altitude from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
  • An official from the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior stated the plane had been shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile, and that all 295 passengers and crew had died. The Ukrainian government stated it was not involved, and suggested the plane may have been shot down, comparing it to recent attacks by separatists on Ukrainian military planes.
  • Aleksandr Borodai, prominent in the separatist forces, claimed the plane had been shot down by the Ukrainian Air Force.
  • A range of commercial airlines have declared they now will not fly over eastern Ukraine.

It is now certain that the plane did crash, leading to the death of almost 300 people. Which are the possible explanations for this horrific event?

  1. Could the airplane have crashed by itself? This is highly unlikely. There are no reasons to suspect that the plane should have malfunctioned to the point of crashing; air traffic controllers claim all messages from the plane were normal until it disappeared from their screens.
  2. Could the airplane have been hit by a bomb; either in the hold or a suicide bomber? There is little reason to suspect that a bomb should have been slipped through the safety checks at Schiphol Airport; and it would be a remarkable coincidence if a bomb in the airplane would detonate precisely over an active combat zone where military planes were shot down just days ago.
  3. Could the airplane have been shot down by the Ukrainian military? These troops would have the ability to shoot down the airplane, but it is difficult to see why they should do so. There is little reason why the Ukrainian military should have mistaken the airplane for a separatist plane, consider the separatists have not flown any airplanes so far. 
  4. Could the airplane have been shot down by the separatists in Ukraine? It is possible that the separatists have acquired the BUK missile systems that allegedly was used to shoot down the plane, but it is difficult to see why they should have done so, or why they should have mistaken the airplane for a military airplane, especially given the height at which it was flying. An analyst on BBC has speculated, however, that the separatists, unlike governments, might not be able to distinguish electronically civilian versus military aircraft.

If, and this remains a big if, the airplane was shot down deliberately there remains the question of motive. 
  • Why would the Ukrainian military shoot down the airplane? Ukraine is winning the military battle in the region and has little reason to escalate the conflict.
  • Why would the separatists shoot down the airplane? They are losing the battle but shooting down a civilian airplane would not help their cause.
  • Why would any Russian-led forces shoot down the airplane? Elements in the Russian state may have an interest in keeping the trouble in eastern Ukraine going to some extent, but scaring international airlines from using the airspace makes little political, military or commercial sense.

There remains one, very remote, possibility that some party wants to use this catastrophe to escalate the current crisis beyond the area to which it has so far been contained. If this is the case - and I have currently seen no strong indications that it is the case - then the reasonably calm reactions from all sides so far is a sign that such a plan might fail.

This does not mean that a possible shooting down of the aircraft should not have consequences for the parties responsible; even if this was a mistake. But the next days must be focused on fact-finding before such steps are taken.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Democracy Blues in Ukraine

It's a funny thing; this business of democracy.

These days in Ukraine, everybody claims to be democratic. Everybody claims to represent the people. The acting government in Kiev can point to the fact that 77% of people in Ukraine have told pollsters from Pew Research that they want the borders of Ukraine to remain unchanged. Pro-Russian secessionists can point to the fact that 54% of Crimeans want regions to be able to secede from Ukraine; and that - in eastern Ukraine - the 27% of Russian-speakers who feel the same cannot simply be ignored. ( Pro-Russian secessionists can, of course, also point to the fact that Pew Research is based in Washington, DC (although, by that standard, what are we to think about Russia Today...)

...and a vast majority of people in Ukraine can point to the fact that they would like peace now, please, and could all those nice pollsters please go away.

Anyway, so much for the hoi polloi. All the statespeople want to be democratic, too, yes they do. That is why Petro Poroshenko and the West want that Ukrainian presidential election to take place on May 25 across the country - apart from in the nasty terrorist towns, of course ( And that is why Vladimir Putin was for the east Ukrainian secessionist referendum - until he was against it, of course. ( How fortunate for democracy that eastern Ukraine, as represented by those most illustriously non-elected militias, have decided to ignore Uncle Volodya and press ahead with their voting, nonetheless. (

Why is it, by the way, that Maria Lipman, Vladimir Solovyov and so many others seem to think Putin planned this snub of him from the start? ( OK - I get why Solovyov thinks so; as a Putinista he would have to do so. But hasn't it occurred to anybody that Putin has been a politician for a good fourteen years now. As all other politicians in the world, Putin has long since learned to make mistakes - and now he just looks like someone who can't control his troops.

Anyway, I digress from my digressions. Democracy, it's about DEMOCRACY (the word around which all statespeople of the world must unite!)!!! Democracy - C'est la lutte finale / Groupons-nous et demain...

Look, I get it that democracy is a lovely thing in many ways; least evil and all that... ( I'm all for the power of the demos. But can we please all start agreeing on a simple starting point:

Democracy is based on fiction!

This doesn't mean we should get rid of democracy, far from it. And it doesn't mean there is not qualitative difference between the lumpy porridge served in much of the West and the rancid meat of the Russian political system - because, my God, there is such a difference! ( But it does mean that all this search after a "truly democratic" election that will "save" Ukraine, or "save" Russians in Ukraine, is futile.

If the referendum on secession in (parts of) eastern Ukraine takes place this Sunday it will in itself provide no legitimacy to a region uncontrollable from Kiev (and from Moscow?). Just as the referendum, so-called, in Crimea provided no legitimacy, either, carried out as it was under the barrels of automatic weapons. And without legitimacy, on Crimea and in the rest of Ukraine, the status of the peninsula will remain uncertain. Similarly in eastern Ukraine - how can people vote in a free and fair manner with all sorts of armed bugbears running around? (and yes, there are bugbears on both sides of the divide).

Now as for that Ukrainian presidential election of May 25... William Hague, who has otherwise been sensible recently, states that the failure to hold this election would be very serious, because "Once postponed, who knows when they would be held." ( Very true - and once held, who knows when the new president will be accepted throughout Ukraine? Of course Poroshenko wants this election to take place - he's bloody in the lead! (outside Slavyansk, anyway) (

Neither the referendum, nor the presidential election will solve anything as such. Certainly, neither shall the "will of the people(s)." What will work? Well, to start with - there must be an agreed demos, a people on which all the goodies of democracy can centre (how the deuce do we do this? Well, might a "Truth and Reconciliation" committe be an idea - possibly supported by a Ukrainian government in which each minister represented a region in Ukraine?). That demos must be everyone resident within and holding the citizenship of Ukraine; a citizenship which should be straightforward to get. Yes - the demos includes people from Western Ukraine ("fascists" and all). It includes Crimeans. And yes - it includes, too, Mr Poroshenko's "terrorists" in Slavyansk. We can punish by law all wrongdoers, for sure, but until we know who "we" are, we can't do a thing - at least that must be the reality for everyone in Ukraine.

Yet, if we agree that crimes have been committed by those on both sides of the fighting in Ukraine (and I certainly agree - as much as I sympathise with the Ukrainian position, I watched the live, savage beating of a pro-Russian militaman in Odessa and almost vomited...) then why are the borders of Ukraine such a non-negotiable? Why can't regions of Ukraine become independent or join Russia if their populations so wish?

Well, because democracy and its purported legitimacy may be fictitious - but they are based in a more fundamental fiction, and that is called sovereignty and the international stability that this confers. If Crimea can secede based on the fact that a majority of Crimeans want to secede (assuming this referendum had been free and fair, which it most certainly wasn't) then why couldn't Chechnya become independent (Dzhokhar Dudayev arguably had a republican, if not nation-wide, majority for that)? Why can't the Basque Country and Catalonia become independent? And why does Kharkiv necessarily have to follow Slavyansk into Russia? What is "eastern Ukraine" anyway?

...oh, that's right, "eastern Ukraine" is a fiction, just like "western Ukraine," just like "Ukraine." But "Ukraine" is a fiction with twenty-two years history, at least, and that beats twenty-two days. History, in its crooked way, can slowly confer some sort of legitimacy and normality - that normality back to which all people in Ukraine must now seek. For their sake, for the sake of the Russian Federation (with its own twenty-two years of history), for the sake of us all.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Why the Russian economy matters

In Ukraine, fighting spread from the east to Odessa. Each day witnesses new battles and deaths, most recently in southern Mariupol although the now familiar battleground of Slavyansk continues to burn. Now, in a callow (or callous?) move, pro-Russian militias let civilians man the barricades in the east. Certainly, this may slow down the advance of Ukrainian troops, but it does nothing to protect ordinary people, Russians or Ukrainians, of eastern Ukraine. The nationwide elections of May 25th do seem hopeless, now, but so does the referendum planned in eastern Ukraine for May 11th. Russian troops may yet officially invade Ukraine.

On this dark background it seems perhaps misguided to focus, for a moment, on the state of the Russian economy. Yet we cannot avoid looking at this economy if we are to properly guess at the longer-term involvement of the Russian state in Ukraine - and in Russia itself.

Three questions are particularly pertinent.
  • Is the economy of Russia in trouble?
  • Is the state of the economy of Russia connected to Western sanctions?
  • Do Russian elites care about the state of the Russian economy? 

On the first question: Yes, the economy of Russia is in trouble, in the short term but, much more importantly, over the medium to long term, too. In Q1 for 2014, Russian GDP contracted by 0.5% according to the Russian Ministry for the Economy, which also states that growth may not exceed 0.5% for the year. Now, Maksim Oreshkin of the Russian Ministry of Finance has confirmed that Russian GDP is set to contract again in Q2, meaning that Russia is technically in a recession.

This is not, or not primarily, due to Western sanctions, however. Russian economic growth has been sluggish for a while. Last year, for instance, the IMF measured Russian GDP as 1.3%. Admittedly, this growth has now been downgraded to a projected 0.2% (the OECD project a 0.5% growth rate for 2014), but even if growth for 2014 were to equal that of 2013, it would hardly be impressive. Remember, this is a BRIC we are talking about - one of the four great developing economies (together with Brazil, India, and China - and South Africa for BRICS) immortalised for a decade by Jim O'Neill of Goldman Sachs. You cannot really blame O'Neill for the comparison; it made fine sense in 2001 and the years thereafter.

But now... In 2013, admittedly, according to the IMF Russia remained the eighth-largest economy of the world, with China second, Brazil seventh, India ninth (and South Africa thirty-third...). The Russian economy still matters - but look at growth rates. According to the IMF DataMapper for April 2014 (which even has Russian growth rates at 2.5%), India is at 6.8%, China is at 6.5%, and even Brazil has a projected year-on-year growth of 3.5%. ( Also, tellingly, with the exception of Ukraine (for which no secure data can be obtained presently by the IMF), all other post-Soviet states have a higher economic growth than Russia. For sure, the Russian economy is so much larger than that of its neighbours that its relative sluggishness still conceals assets much larger than those of the neighbouring states. Yet, clearly, the Russian regime is in no position to promote their state as the powerhouse that shall drag surrounding states into a glorious economic future. So much for that Customs Union, perhaps? Much more importantly, so much for Russian aspirations to show their country as an economic powerhouse of the world.

Western sanctions against Russia do have an impact; as does the uncertainty fostered among Russian and international investors by the persistent unrest next to, and partly fomented by, Russia. Apart from sharply curtailed GDP growth, inflation in Russia is rising with the Central Bank recently rasing the base rate by 50 basis points to 7.5%. Yet if this was the Russian economy of the early noughties it could probably ride out the storm. Now, sanctions may not force the Russian regime to be constructive in Ukraine. Russian elites do (mostly) care about the state of their country and its economy, but the fight for Ukraine and the incendiary anger against the West is taking precedence. So far, so understandable.

But what comes next? As mentioned above, Russia can no longer show itself internationally as a quickly growing economy. For better or for worse, the Russian economy has "matured" - and this thanks mainly to great world market oil prices over the last decade. And how has Russia and Russians benefitted from this? Especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg? Not very much, it seems. For 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit compared living standards in 80 countries (that is, "where is it best to be born?"). Russia was not last. Oh no, only number 72 - and it beat Syria! (while losing to Indonesia, but there we are...). ( Surveys of political and civil freedoms, and on corruption levels, do not make for more cheerful reading for Russia.

Maybe these measurements are misguided, run by Western, subversive agencies? Well, if so - why, in June 2013, did almost half of all Russian students dream of emigrating? Why did 38% of businesspeople want to leave. This according to Russian pollsters, from the respected Levada Centre. (

The real problem is not that the Russian economy is getting sluggish. The real problem is that Russians (and everyone else) are ever less convinced in the Russian economy, and in the ability of their regime to better ordinary people's living standards. Russians and Westerners alike know of the American Dream; it stayed alive and well even when the American economy was in the doldrums. There must be a Russian Dream, too. It should be brave and optimistic. Instead, it seems just unrest and death. And that, it seems, is all that President Vladimir Putin and his staff is able to leave behind.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Russia and the context of the hi-tech sanctions

Thus a new round of sanctions have appeared against Russia and Russians, on behalf of the USA and of the EU. Plus ça change, it is tempting to say. While it is inherently difficult to conduct counter-factual history, it seems reasonable to say that Western sanctions so far have had little impact on Russian policy in relation to Ukraine. And as Western military intervention in Ukraine would be both very difficult and probably counterproductive it may be feared that the USA and the EU are running out of options to keep Russia from threatening the integrity of the Ukrainian state.

Yet there is a fine balance to be trod here, between raising the cost for the Russian regime while ensuring that ordinary Russians are faced with a minimum of difficulties. This is why personalised sanctions have been directed against Russians and Ukrainians deeply involved in the Ukraine crisis, in Vladimir Putin's regime, or both. And it is why the EU, in particular, and to some extent the USA is careful imposing sanctions that may further disrupt the Russian economy. Certainly, the latest round of sanctions may have been inadequate: the Moscow stock market rose 1% on the news that more serious and wide-ranging sanctions were not imposed. Yet the Rouble continues to perform very poorly, and Russia is judged by some analysts to have witnessed $60bn capital flight already in 2014, equivalent to the total for all of 2013. Hence the amount of personalised sanctions can also be seen as a Western indication that no collective economic punishment of Russians or Russia is sought.

The personalised sanctions are only one side of the story, though. Although some American politicians, in particular, continue to clamour in vain for widespread sanctions on Russian financial institutions and energy companies, other industry sectors are being severely hit by the USA, in particular. Previously, the White House had banned NASA from having any contact with the Russian government, apart from issues concerning the International Space Station (which is currently only accessible with Russian rockets). Now, the USA is denying export licences to Russia for any high-technology items that may contribute to Russian military capabilities. Existing licences of this kind are being revoked. This is unlikely to hamper Russia's military ability in the short run. Russia remains a globally significant arms exporter in its own right, does currently have some sophisticated military hardware, and can probably buy more from China if required. What these sanctions will do, however, is to prevent Russians from learning from their cooperation with American colleagues in a range of spheres, including space technology where the two countries have previously cooperated extensively on the development and deployment of sattelites.

More fundamentally, by sanctioning high-tech cooperation with Russia the USA is putting Russian development on the spot. Under the previous Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev (currently Russian Prime Minister) technological development officially became a high priority for the state, most obviously exemplified in the Skolkovo innovation centre. The fetichising of technological development as a symbol of success, and perhaps even a symbol of civilisation, has deep roots in Russian and Soviet history. And always a Western connection appears. Peter the Great drags Russia definitively into the European system of states by copying techniques of shipbuilding and administration assessed during his extensive stay and even work in the Dutch Republic and in England. Emperors following in his wake were mostly only too keen to obtain and implement for their own uses Western technologies that could improve Russian infrastructure, industrial production and, indeed, arms. Even the Bolshevik leadership, so ready straightaway to announce its departure from everything to do with the "bourgeois" system of states, happily invited American engineers, architects and other technological developers to teach and develop the first generation of Soviet technical experts. And the Russian Federation has similarly taken advantage of technological cooperation with the West.

All this does not mean that Russia and Russians had no technological developments of their own. As the space race showed, when the Soviet state put its mind to something results did follow. Today, Russian technical experts, not least in the computer industry, remain sought for all over the world. What Russia does lack, however, is a sustainable infrastructure helping to support, maintain and develop its high-tech industries. It is all very well that President Vladimir Putin now obliquely threatens the West with possible future energy disruptions; or that Finance Minister Anton Siluanov foresees no immediate danger for Russian companies from the sanctions. If the repercussions from the current crisis drag into the far future, and they most likely will, then the Russian regime has to adjust its policies and mentality to technological autarky, as well as autarky in a number of other spheres. Russia may have the resources to do this, for a while anyway. Whether its regime has the will to do so is a different matter.

Monday, 28 April 2014

What place for the OSCE in Ukraine?

And thus international organisations once more fall foul of Russia and of the pro-Russian militias in Ukraine. First, a UN observer was chased out of Crimea when Russian troops and their allied were busy securing Russian control of the peninsula. Then OSCE observers were kept away from Crimea with armed road blocks and warning shots to help ensure a minimum of international scrutiny of the referendum preceding Crimean accession to Russia. Russia was sanctioned by the Council of Europe, while the UN produced a report stating in clear terms that Crimea and eastern Ukraine have not witnessed any systematic attacks on Russians. And now OSCE observers have been captured by militias in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine; the fate of all but one of them precarious.

We have repeatedly heard how unpopular NATO is in Russia (and with many people in Ukraine, too). The EU, as well, has received widespread censure in Russia for the public support shown to the Maidan rebellion and to the acting government in Kiev. Yet this is nothing new. In Moscow, NATO has been seen as the enemy ever since 1949. The EU has come under increasing criticism during the last decade following disputes over energy and trade policies, human rights, and the (somewhat haphazard) competition between Russia and the EU for influence in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. So far, so predictable. However, the UN and the OSCE have repeatedly been mentioned by the Russian regime as the two international organisations within which Russia and the West could do business; around which a new European security structure could be built. Well so much for that pipedream, it would seem.

The OSCE did have its main mission to Ukraine approved by Russia. The observers now prisoners in Slavyansk were part of a secondary mission by the OSCE, which did not require Russian approval. Still, it might have been expected that Russia would seek to protect OSCE staff in Ukraine, to highlight that this organisation (in which Russia would hold a veto and a commanding voice) should be the future institutional solution (or cul-de-sac) within which to manage Ukraine. Instead, after the observers were captured by militias accusing them of spying for the West the Russian regime has mostly kept quiet. Russian ambassador to the OSCE, Andrey Kelin, has assured the world that Russia is taking "some steps" to help secure the release of the observers. ( It remains to be seen, however, what if anything Russia is actually doing to defuse the situation. Kelin also pointed out that the OSCE were highly irresponsible to send in the monitors in the first place. ( The OSCE observers have been mentioned as prisoners of war and as spies by the pro-Russian militias in Slavyansk and, indeed, it is possible that these militias captured the observers by mistake in an increasingly tense situation. Yet if Russia did not want OSCE observers present, and since Russia has previously ruled out UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, it appears that Russia does not want any international observers, at all, in the region. Ukrainians must be left to decide their own fate; just a rickety regime in Kiev, well-armed and seemingly violent militias in eastern Ukraine, and thousands of Russian troops waiting at the border...

While Russia continues to insist that it has nothing to do with the militias holding numerous towns in eastern Ukraine, the USA is not convinced. Maybe because the behaviour and look of the pro-Russian militias appears strikingly similar to that of Crimean militias, who eventually turned out to contain many members of the Russian armed forces. From the OSCE, Gary Robbins as US Deputy Head of Mission has deplored Russian unwillingness to condemn the capture of the observers, ( a capture including mistreatment of the observers and of Ukrainian prisoners in eastern Ukraine, according to the US State Department. (

From the EU such direct accusations take longer in appearing. Yet what is remarkable now is the willingness with which Germany not only appears as the semi-official interlocutor for the EU with Russia, but also as a vocal critic of Russian unwillingness (and inability) to implement the recent Geneva peace deal. On the OSCE observers, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been in contact with the OSCE as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Without much success so far, apart from the release of one observer on medical grounds, Mr Steinmeier's diplomacy has not shown much result. And he is clear that Germany holds Russia fully responsible for the release of the observers, and for ensuring that it is up to Russia to prevent humiliating treatment of the observers by the militias. ( The office of Chancellor Angela Merkel is similarly putting the onus on Russia to solve the situation. (

Now, it is possible that the OSCE observers were captured without the knowledge of Moscow. Further, it is possible that the Russian regime is working clandestinely to pressurise the militias in Slavyansk into releasing the remaining observes. Apparently, the militias were not prepared to let an observers risk serious health problems, and thus let him go. Similarly, the leader of the captive observers has stated that they are being well treated by their captors, even though they have received no indication of release. Yet watching this leader mechanically read through this statement, it is clear that the observers have, at least, been subjected to substantial psychological pressure by their captors ( and, as mentioned above, their mistreatment is repeatedly mentioned by Western governments. Possibly, this is all against the wishes of Russian President Vladimir Putin; or, at least, against the wishes of some of his aides. Nevertheless, no one from the Russian regime seems keen now to point to the positive role the OSCE might have in defusing the Ukrainian crisis. And, until the opposite is demonstrated, Russia appears not to be prepared to help protect the staff of the OSCE in Ukraine. Thus, the Russian state appears, once and for all, to have abandoned the pretence that international organisations are the way forward to ensure Ukrainian, and European, security. What may ensure such security remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Requiem for a peace?

Once more, fires flare in eastern Ukraine. Violent deaths are now becoming an everyday occurrence. The Geneva deal is fading. And across Europe governments call to defence against the Russian threat. Could all-out war ensue between Russian and Ukrainian troops? Or is there a way back to stability and peace in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere?

When Ukrainian tanks last week rolled into Slavyansk, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour for the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold their fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians, lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the "battle for Slavyansk" indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is seeping through. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and now has been found the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister's party, no less. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on. (

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open fighting with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred to the act by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be anticipation or confusion. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions; that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. ( UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down - and, following the recent UN report dismissing the claim of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, Churkin now wants UN far removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. (

On the bright side, this is hardly belligerent talk from Medvedev and Churkin. At worst, if the Russian administration is connected to the militias currently occupying parts of eastern Ukraine - and if recent casualties on both sides have been at least partly provoked by Russian intents to keep Ukraine unstable - at least the tens of thousands of Russian troops lined up along the border with Ukraine do not seem to be on their way in. Certainly, their continued presence is ominous - unless Moscow fears a Ukrainian spearhead attack towards the Ural mountains there is no credible domestic reason why Russian tanks in these numbers need to be facing the border. Undoubtedly, Russia would consider an attack if actions by the Ukrainian state resulted (even indirectly) in civilian casualties, but so far this has mostly been avoided.

Having said this, though, developments in eastern Ukraine have left the acting government in Kiev in a difficult dilemma. One month remains before the presidential election to decide the successor to the exiled Viktor Yanukovych. Such an election seems impossible under current circumstances, with the most populous (and richest, bar Kiev) part of the country subject to unelected, masked rule. Even if the militias (or some of them) in eastern Ukraine are genuinely concerned with locals' welfare (unlikely given the readiness with which militias let unarmed civilians face down armed Ukrainian soldiers and tanks) they have not been elected by any significant part of the local population in any of the cities they occupy. Everything you need to know about the official Russian view of democracy is encapsulated in its willingness to let politics be decided through the barrel of a gun - that was the case on Crimea and it is the case in eastern Ukraine. Let us say, for the sake of the argument, that a majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Let us say that most people in eastern Ukraine feel the same way. Well, why could observers from the OSCE and the UN not be admitted to Crimea before or during the referendum? Why does Churkin want to keep the UN away now? And, if regions in Ukraine can vote to join Russia (an idea for which arguments may be found), why could Chechnya not vote to secede from Russia? Should Russia even be in the North Caucasus anymore? Maybe Russia is welcome there - but Moscow will never allow a local referendum to decide the matter. Thousands have died in the North Caucasus during recent decades - many Russians among them - but apparently Dagestan is lower priority than Donetsk. Or maybe it is simply easier for Russia to deal with unrest in Ukraine, where the Kiev government can still be blamed for any trouble? Or maybe Ukraine, like the North Caucasus, remains subject to Russian "off the cuff" politics, in Tor Bukkvoll's wonderful phrase; resulting in reactive Russian responses to whatever may be happening on a given day.

It seems increasingly clear to me, anyway, that the crime of Vladimir Putin's Russia right now is less the imperial gluttony suggested by The Economist ( and more a bumbling necessity to prove Russia as the great power of which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly reminds us. (

Dear Mr Lavrov - your Russia still has one of the highest income inequalities in Europe, if not much of the world (; significant proportions of your male population suffers from substance abuse, losing years of their lives in the process (; your country appears to be more corrupt than Mali, than Nicaragua, than Pakistan... ( It is all fine and well that your government wants to protect Russians living in Ukraine; please remember to protect Russians living in Russia, too!

Unfortunately, Lavrov and his colleagues may not have much time in the coming days and weeks to focus on domestic challenges. Following recent events, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov both directly blame Russia for the violent surge. And, in worrying tones, the militias occupying cities in eastern Ukraine are now uniformly referred to as "terrorists," to be treated as criminals, one would suspect, and not military representatives of a foreign state. I cannot but agree with Turchynov's (and the West's) call for Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea (leaving the Black Sea Fleet, one would assume) and to unequivocally condemn any violence in eastern Ukraine. Yet Turchynov does not stop here - he is also calling for Ukrainian security forces to re-launch in the east. ( Last time the Ukrainian offensive here ended in farce; let us hope we will not soon see farce turn into widespread tragedy.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Eastern Ukraine - a summary

 So, this is how things currently stand - or at least seem to stand - in eastern Ukraine.

Recent events in eastern Ukraine

Since last weekend, som government building in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk have been occupied by groups demanding referendums on secession from Ukraine and incorporation in Russia. This weekend, events there have been somewhat static, although the regional police station in Donetsk has been taken over by militias. ( Donetsk and Luhansk are the 5th and 11th largest cities in Ukraine, with populations of over a million and half a million, respectively, so their fate is crucial for what happens to Ukraine as a whole. Yet, for now, the standoff between the acting Ukrainian government and pro-Russian state protesters continues here.

Events have been much more dynamic lately in the smaller cities of Kramatorsk (population: 181,000) and Slaviansk (population: 125,000). The size of these cities make them less central for eastern Ukraine, yet they are cities within 10 kilometres from each other, making it easier for the militias to coordinate their actions, and they straddle the major highway running from the border with Russia near Rostov-on-Don via Donetsk and Luhansk in the far south-east of Ukraine to Kharkiv further north-west. So Kramatorsk and Slaviansk are useuful places to control for anyone seeking to move military equipment through the heartland of eastern Ukraine. (,37.606201&spn=5.118148,13.392334&sll=51.48931,-0.08819&sspn=0.605411,1.674042&hnear=Slov'yans'k,+Donetsk+Oblast,+Ukraine&t=m&z=7)

In Kramatorsk and Slaviansk militias have taken over local police stations, and they have stolen allegedly hundreds of weapons belonging to the security forces of Ukraine. Roadblocks have been placed around Slaviansk, where it seems a potential battle between local militias and the security forces of Ukraine would be most likely to appear. Civilian protesters in their hundreds have gathered to protect the militias' hold on the government buildings in Slaviansk. (see stills and listen to brief audio here:

As was the case on Crimea, and has been the case so far in eastern Ukraine, it is clear that the majority of local residents in Kramatorsk and Slaviansk (let alone Donetsk and Luhansk) do not actively support the pro-Russian state militias. The degree of any tacit support is, of course, difficult to measure, but what protests we have previously witnessed in eastern Ukraine have generally shown a clear majority in favour of remaining part of Ukraine. Some miners have now come out to protest "for Donbass" in Donetsk, but their protests seem very much directed in favour of their region's autonomy and not for unification with Russia. (In the picture in the link attached here from a recent Donetsk protest notice the almost complete absence of Russian flags - as well as the Soviet flag in front: Mining in Ukraine remains a dangerous, low-paid profession - seven miners died just days ago near Donetsk ( - and it is perhaps to be expected that miners in this region wish to ensure more funds for them, their profession and area in a future Ukraine. This, however, is not the same as wishing to join Russia, where miners' conditions are poor, too.


The Russian regime has kept noticeably quiet over the last few days. Previously, President Vladimir Putin has mentioned how Russia would use "political, diplomatic and legal means" to defend Russian-speakers abroad. ( Apparently, such "non-military" means included the armed occupation and annexation of Crimea with the assistance of local militias. So the fact that Russia is again calling for calm and non-violent measures is perhaps not to be taken at face value; not least since a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops and military equipment remains along the border with Ukraine. (

The militias now occupying Kramatorsk, Slaviansk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine are very similar to those that occupied Crimea; and they are almost certainly again controlled from Moscow (although it should not necessarily be assumed that they would follow all of Putin's orders, especially if they were ordered to withdraw). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is using their presence to state that Ukraine is "demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country," and Lavrov warns that Ukrainian use of force against Russian-speakers "could undermine the potential for co-operation...including the holding of planned 4-party talks in Geneva" on April 17 between Russia, Ukraine, the USA, and the EU. ( The planned Geneva talks are possibly key here - not only to understand Lavrov's statement, but to understand the militias' presence in eastern Ukraine. As has been suggested by Serhyi Leshchenko from Ukrainskaya Pravda, Russian wishes for federalisation and effectively fragmentation of a future Ukraine are much more likely to be heeded by the West if Russia on Thursday can appear in Geneva with de facto control of eastern Ukraine. ( For similar reasons, Russian parliamentarians, such as Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin, are calling for peace and accusing the West of fomenting "Russophobia [and] anti-Russian campaigns." (

And as for those sanctions, so vaunted by the West - they may well be hurting those placed under sanctions, but for now complaints are not forthcoming from the Russian elites. Gennady Timchenko, prominent energy trader and seemingly close to the Russian regime, now talks of how being sanctioned by the USA is an honour for him. Timchenko says that Russian elites, knowing such sanctions could come, withdrew many funds to Russia - and that Russia itself, given increasing European hostility - will start selling more natural gas to China. ( The latter statement, in particular, is dubious given the horror with which Russian elites have for decades viewed control by an increasingly powerful China (and if Russia started to export most of its energy to China it would be wholly beholden to a Beijing leadership that can be very commercially aggressive). Similarly, Timchenko did make sure to officially divest himself of shares in the oil trader Gunvor immediately after he was sanctioned ( so the Western actions had some effect. Just as Russian state giant Gazprom's entry on the Crimean energy market has been complicated by US sanctioning of the Chernomorneftegaz company, in a clear warning to Gazprom not to get involved here (since Gazprom cooperating with or taking over a sanctioned company would be subject itself to US sanctions) ( Nevertheless, sanctions are not showing quick results in amending Russian policy.


From Ukraine, it is just now being reported that fighting with casualties has taken place in Slaviansk. Ukrainian acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has stated that one Ukrainian security officer has died, as have, possibly, a number of fighters on the separatist side. It is unclear whether there are civilian casualties. (

It seems clear that the acting Ukrainian government is not ready to let eastern Ukraine go without a fight, as was (almost) the case on Crimea. Avakov has openly accused Russia of fomenting the armed separatism in eastern Ukraine and (unlike the Russian regime and the pro-Russian state militias) Avakov has openly called for civilians to leave the centre of Slaviansk to avoid being caught in fighting. Avakov is talking about Ukraine fighting against "terrorists" and while he keeps saying that the Ukrainian regime is open to dialogue it appears as if the decision has been taken to remove militias by force. ( ; Currently, on his Facebook page, Avakov is decrying (unofficially and emotionally by his own description) provocations taking place across the largest cities of eastern Ukraine. (

Acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia has been echoing Avakov's accusations against Russia, while Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan warns that Russia is close to turning off gas deliveries to (and through) Ukraine - a fear that has been stated by Ukraine for weeks now and that is shared by many in the West. (

The West

And speaking of the West, plans for going forward seem very limited. US Vice President Joe Biden has announced his arrival in Kyiv to show support for the acting Ukrainian regime. A useful gesture - apart from the fact that it will take place in 9 days' time... So, Biden might arrive in Kyiv just in time to tell the Ukrainian government that he completely shares their misgivings about Russia now controlling all of eastern Ukraine. And that the Geneva talks (which by then will have taken place almost a week before) were really unfair!  (

 Apart from Biden riding to the rescue on his snail, US Secretary of State John Kerry has threatened Russia with "additional consequences" if Russia does not immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine! ( The EU seems to say little, at all - allowing Marine Le Pen and other nationalist extremists talking for "Europe" about how Russia is really the victim of EU "Cold War thinking." (

OK, I expect little else from Ms Le Pen, or from her fellow souls Heinz-Christian Strache and Geert Wilders, who all seem to see the devious hand of the EU behind the world's troubles. And, indeed, Kerry, Biden, Catherine Ashton et al might have offered much stronger warnings to the Russian regime behind closed doors than what we know of.

With this in mind, though, I am still thinking - has the West simply run out of plans?

Kerry, Biden, Ashton etc. have all clearly, correctly and repeatedly condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine - in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. Significant financial aid is forthcoming to Ukraine - unanimously supported by the West (and by China) to ensure a viable Ukrainian state. And yet, with military options ruled out, and sanctions taking a while to function, the West is taking one Hell of a gamble here. Ukrainian troops are right now fighting with pro-Russian state militias in eastern Ukraine. If those remain the only combatants the fighting will finish soon - the Ukrainian forces are much superior.

But if the Russian military decides to cross the border - then the two largest states in Europe are at war. And that could get really bloody.

Looking further ahead, Russia, as many have pointed out, will (probably) not touch NATO countries, as this would almost certainly provoke armed response from NATO (and, excluding nuclear weapons, that is a fight Russia would lose).

OK - well, these are European countries that border Russia yet are not protected by NATO:
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Finland
  • Georgia
  • Kazakhstan
  • Moldova (through Ukraine)
  • Sweden is pretty close, too
Just saying...