Thursday, 27 March 2014

Money and international recognition

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has today announced that it has reached a staff-level agreement with the acting government of Ukraine. The agreement concerns an economic reform programme for Ukraine, which can be supported by a two-year Stand-By Agreement with the IMF. The Fund expects that it will assist Ukraine with an amount ranging from $14bn to $18bn, with an additional $9bn to $13bn expected to be offered by other, so far unidentified international donors. (

In practice, this offer of financial support has been spearheaded by the USA. In the complicated system of voting rights within the IMF each of the 188 member states has a percentage of the votes, to some extent depending on the financial contributions of each state to the Fund. Currently, the USA holds 16.75% of all votes; almost three times the votes of Japan, which holds the next most number of votes. ( Thus, it appears that the USA, once more, spearheads international support for the acting government in Kiev. At the same time, though, it is equally clear that this offer of aid to Ukraine only could have appeared on a background of broad international support for Ukraine - and of opposition to the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

Such opposition also appeared in the UN General Assembly, which today voted on a resolution "calling upon states not to recognise changes in status of Crimea region." 100 member states voted in favour of this resolution, while only 11 voted against it, with 58 states abstaining. Not quite unanimous support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, but quite a strong signal from international society, nonetheless. ( And it is noteworthy that, among the few countries supporting the Russian position in this vote, we mainly find states with a chequered international reputation - such as Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe. Finally, and worth keeping an eye on for the future, note that Russia received support here from just one other post-Soviet state (Belarus) - a fact that says a great deal about Vladimir Putin's dreams of Eurasian union. (

Returning to the question of aid from the IMF, it remains to be seen, though, whether Ukraine can live up to the standards of reform required by the Fund. The IMF has stated publically that there is currently no need for a restructuring of Ukrainian state debt. ( However, it must be remembered that Ukraine has a recent history of reneging on promises to reform its economy. For sure, such lack of economic rigour took place under former president Viktor Yanukovych ( and it is likely that the acting Ukrainian government wants to make as much distance to his policies as possible. Indeed, acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has vigorously advocated Ukraine as a country with which the IMF - and the Western world more generally - can do business. (

Clearly, Yatsenyuk has managed to convince the IMF and thus the USA and its allies that Ukraine after Yanukovych is serious about reforming its economy once and for all. Yet, it is worth remembering that Yanukovych did not resist reforms of the Ukrainian economy simply to spite the US-dominated Fund. Well, a little spite might have been involved... Nevertheless, though, Ukraine of today, like Ukraine of the last couple of decades, remains a state with a seriously troubled economy. One problem remains Ukrainian dependence on Russian energy - and debt accrued by Ukraine in this regard. Partly, such debt has accumulated due to less-than-friendly dealings by Russia (, yet the Ukrainian economy also remains a mess due to many years of half-hearted reforms, corruption, and generally poor governance. ( This problem did not disappear following the Orange Revolution. And, despite Yatsenyuk's seemingly honest pledges now, it remains to be seen whether the acting Ukrainian government retains the domestic political capital to satisfy the IMF in the longer run and, more importantly, to showcase a Ukraine that can get by without Russian subsidies.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

War of the Ban

No, no - the bespectacled UN General Secretary has not suddenly gone all belligerent on us...

Instead, we are witnessing a flurry of activity from Russia and the USA, as they raise the stakes over the recent violent conquest of Crimea by Russia. In a stream of announcements, the USA first banned several members of the Russian elite from entering the USA and from accessing any funds they may have in American banks. Shortly afterwards. a fuming Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs added sanctions on American in return, promising that Russia "will respond adequately to every hostile thrust." (

This can all seem a little bit hyped. Following the high drama surrounding Crimea in recent days, banning a score of Russians from entering the USA is unlikely to make Russian troops flee in fright from Sevastopol, just as John McCain probably long ago understood that Moscow is not yet ready for another wily foreigner to drop by the Patriarch's Ponds...

Nevertheless, we can learn a few things from this War of the Ban - about Russian (and American) politics, and about the workings of international diplomacy now and possibly in the future.

Bring Out the Banned!

So who have actually been placed on the lists of the banned? Russia has banned a predictable list of people: Three members of the White House administration (Caroline Atkinson, Daniel Pfeiffer and Benjamin Rhodes), as well as six vocal members of the US legislature (Harry Reed, John Boehner, Robert Menendez, Mary Landrieu, Daniel Coats, and John McCain [whether McCain's cat has been banned as well is currently unclear]). (

Considering that few if any of the above will have stocks in Gazprom or money saved in Sberbank, it seems safe to say that Russia here simply felt a symbolic need to retaliate in kind against usual suspects in the USA (a theme we shall return to below). Those Russians banned by the USA, however, are a slightly more interesting mix, even if their importance is not always obvious in media debate. Let us begin with the seven Russians banned on March 17th:

The US White House did not provide detailed reasons for why these seven had been singled out for sanctions. Instead sanctions were justified with the official positions held by the individuals; Yelena Mizulina, for instance, "is being sanctioned for her status as a State Duma Deputy." ( By that logic, the USA could sanction all members of the Duma - a course scornfully suggested by the Duma. (

At the same time, as people with long-standing connections to Putin and the regime, if not necessarily people placed at the very top of Russia's leadership, these seven also provided the USA with targets that would be noticed by the Kremlin without panicking the circles directly surrounding Putin. It is also telling that several people on the list have a history of prominent opposition to the West. Dmitry Rogozin, for instance, was renowned for his belligerent views while Russian ambassador to NATO between 2008 and 2011 (see also the launch of his book: The Hawks of Peace, at Vladislav Surkov has been the bogeyman for domestic political opposition in Russia over the last decade. ( And the above-mentioned Mizulina was the author of anti-gay laws, which provided the background for the previous Russo-Western crisis. (

Finally, it is worth noting that the first seven to be hit by US sanctions came from what is ostensibly a range of political backgrounds. Before becoming presidential adviser, Sergey Glazyev and Dmitry Rogozin were among the co-founders of the party Motherland, centred on nationalism and left-wing economic policies. ( Yelena Mizulina used to be a prominent member of the Communist Party and is now a member of the party A Just Russia, known (just as Motherland) for its focus on left-wing economic policies. ( Leonid Slutsky, for his part, is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, known for being neither liberal nor democratic but with a very - erm - noticeable leader in Vladimir Zhirinovsky (; also The main point is, though, that the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party constitute the entire opposition in the Duma (lower house) of the state parliament. So - either Putin's policy towards Ukraine really has support throughout Russian society - or we have yet another example of how political opposition no longer exists in Russia...

Now, let us have a look at the additional Russians sanctioned by the USA on March 20:
This is the list that is really getting interesting Apart from a new host of politicians from the two chambers of the Russian parliament - their inclusion looks mostly like a continuation of the previous round of sanctions - the USA also targets high-profile friends and close allies of Putin. More tellingly, the White House states this outright. (

Much, for instance, have been made of the fact that Gennady Timchenko, co-owner of the oil trading company Gunvor until two days ago (, is named as a close associate of Putin, whose personal financial interest in Gunvor has for the first time been publicly alleged by the USA. (

Andrey Fursenko, Yuriy Kovalchuk and Vladimir Yakunin, are long-time friends of Putin - dating back, in fact, to the so-called Ochero Dacha Cooperative that they co-founded in the early 1990s and whose members have seen their fortunes rise together with those of Putin. (,0,1236120.story). The Rotenberg brothers go even further back with Putin - as judo sparring partners for the President back in the Soviet Union. (

And then there are of course the siloviki - the people from the security services. Sergey Ivanov, now leading the Presidential Executive Office, was very close to becoming Russian president in 2008 following Putin's first terms - and he has remained a possible successor to Putin ( Viktor Ivanov, director of the Federal Drug Control Service, has cooperated with the USA on curbing Afghan drug trade to the West ( Igor Sergun, a secretive figure, leads the military intelligence service ( These three are, arguably, the most influential siloviki bar none in Russia.

So what does this mean?

First and foremost, it means that US sanctions just got serious. Apart from Putin himself, and one or two other persons, the sanctions could not have targeted more senior figures in the Russian regime. The economic element of the sanctions is not the most important aspect. While a number of the above-mentioned people could well have funds now frozen in the West they hardly face penury - just as the one bank targeted, Bank Rossiya, is being assisted by the Russian Central Bank to weather the storm. Putin has, anyway, long publicly told his elites to bring their funds back to Russia - something they will now be very inclined to remember.

What does matter, though, is the fact that the USA has gone personal against the Russian President and his regime. By targeting people around Putin (although, not yet, Putin himself) the guilt for the illegal annexation of Crimea has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Russian regime and not Russia as such. The USA has accused the Russian administration of being run by business associates / friends / cronies with regard for themselves and not for Russia. And, despite previous hints at this from the USA, that development is new.

Unless Putin and his allies continue to overplay their hand and actually invade the rest of Ukraine (or the Baltics) it is almost impossible to imagine use of military means by the West. Clearly, the Russian elites can ride out the immediate consequences of this storm, just as the sanctions may still be slackened after a while. Yet what will remain is that the Russian administration - just as it broke the fundamental norm of international society by annexing the territory of another sovereign state - has now de facto been placed outside the company of "civilised" administrations by the USA, which has attacked the Russian leadership as persons, not as representatives of their country. Under Putin's leadership, Russia could, just possibly, become a "quasi-state" recognised as a menace and not as a member.

This is not the fault of ordinary Russians (however much they may or may not welcome the "return" of Crimea to Russia), but of a regime that has long since been used to acting without much thought for the consequences for their people. It would be very helpful, therefore, if the next Western step following these sanctions would be to ease the access of ordinary Russians into the EU and the USA, while making sure that top levels of the regime were kept out. Such a step would not make Putin cry in his sleep, just as Russia will continue to attract plenty of money to keep his rich friends happy (well, at least for a time...). But it would send a clear signal from the West that everyday Russians are welcome friends and members of international society - and that the Putinistas are not.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Whither Ukraine's National Guard?

Amidst the drama of Russia conquering Crimea, and thus breaking international law with seeming impunity, the future of the rest of Ukraine has been overlooked. Irrespective of Russian aggression, Ukraine witnessed significant violence in Kiev in February. Even, and especially, those who wish Ukraine well must query how Ukraine moves forward now - not just internationally, but in domestic affairs, too.

A pointer to how Ukraine could develop under its new regime may perhaps be found in the new-fangled National Guard, which has been created to "capture the spirit of Maidan," so to speak. But where did this National Guard come from, of whom does it consist, and how can we expect it to develop?


The creation of a Ukrainian National Guard was officially suggested on March 11 by the administration's National Security and Defence Council. Acting Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, made clear that the Guard would be representative of civil society and would be engaged in military activities, such as guarding state borders, as well as civil ones. ( Possibly, Avakov was the right person to announce the creation of such an apparently unifying force, himself having begun as a politician in the eastern city of Kharkiv while supporting politicians identified with Western Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko and then Yulia Tymoshenko.

With Avakov's backing, and the backing of the Council, the Guard was officially voted into existence by parliament the following day, with a projected size of 60,000. The vote was quite clear with 262 of 330 (or 79%) of parliamentarians present voting in favour. Note, though, that the parliament holds 450 seats; thus only 58% of all parliamentarians supported the creation of the Guard. Also, all members present from the Communist Party voted against the proposed law, as did all but one members present from the Party of Regions. ( This means that two parties, which received around 13% and 30% of the popular vote in the October 2012 parliamentary elections (, have come out united against the National Guard.


So far, the Guard is not a fighting force. Its projected size has now been reduced by about half. The few thousand recruits, who have so far showed up for training, are not trained soldiers and would not be likely to inflict much damage on an invading Russian force despite plenty of patriotic speech from the new guards ( Also, it is noticeable that the idea of using the Guard to protect the borders of Ukraine has been quickly dropped, with that task now squarely on the Ukrainian military, which has sent the bulk of its 180,000 soldiers to face Russian troops alongside their shared border. The Guard, however, has been tasked with the potentially important defence of natural gas pipelines running across the country, which are vulnerable to sabotage (unless and until, of course, Gazprom turns off the gas). (

Although the Guard does not consist of soldiers, per se, it is to some extent integrated with the military and other Ukrainian security forces and does include a number of recruits with fighting experience from the violence in Kiev. Indeed, the Guard especially seeks to continue and develop the so-called "Maidan spirit" that helped overthrow President Viktor Yanukovych. This is hope to assist both the development of the Guard and the prestige of the acting government in the face of a still uncertain country. (


Undoubtedly, Ukraine would benefit from a more effective national security programme. Similarly, in case of an emergency it would be very useful for everyone concerned with preserving the Ukrainian state to be coordinated in civil as well as military defence tasks that might keep vital infrastructure running during an attack from Russia.

However, it is far from clear that the Guard will be ready to do so in the far future, let alone within the coming days and weeks. The problem is not just the blatant lack of combat prowess in the Guard, but the potential it has to deeply divide Ukraine.

The stated purpose of the Guard includes 20 points. Of these, 6 refer to the territorial defence of Ukraine, which predictably is a high priority for the acting Ukrainian government. Beyond these 6 points, however, the rest of the tasks set for the Guard are also military in nature, including helping to preserve conditions of martial law when necessary, stopping "violent riots" (the nature of which are left undefined), and helping to restore the constitutional order. (

As such, these of course seem like sensible priorities for an administration, which may yet face internal collapse. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the Guard has been created following the disbanding of the riot police (the Berkut) and the sacking of highly placed officers elsewhere in the security services. (; also

OK - so now we have, on the one hand, a Ukrainian National Guard with wide remit to enforce the new order and consisting of people who, one must assume, are strong supporters of the acting government and thus were opponents of Yanukovych. On the other hand, we have a large number of sacked Ukrainian riot police, consisting of people who, if they have not already declared their undying loyalty to Yanukovych and Putin, might be tempted to do so considering that they and Berkut have been universally blamed by the acting Ukrainian goverment for the deaths that preceded Yanukovych's departure. ( This is a recipe for confrontation between a Guard backed by western Ukraine and ex-Berkut members backed by eastern Ukraine. And with a military unable to prevent potential domestic conflict with Russian tanks parked nearby.

It would have been much more helpful if the Ukrainian administration had constructed a National Guard specifically focused on civilian tasks and on including participants from all of Ukraine. Similarly, while the main blame for the deaths in Kiev does almost certainly lie with Yanukovych and (some parts of?) Berkut much uncertainty has appeared regarding exactly what happened on the Maidan and elsewhere in Kiev. An official inquiry should have been begun, as a priority and with participation from all of Ukraine and all political parties. Instead, a beleaguered Ukrainian administration reacts to a very real Russian danger by constructing symbolic forces displaying Ukrainian nationhood and defiance.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear whether the Ukrainian nationhood symbolised by the Guard can accommodate everyone in Ukraine.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The world of tomorrow

I appreciate that readers might disagree with my comments below; find them unrealistic or even distasteful. Be that as it may, I hope that my words will at least provoke a bit of contemplation of what we are currently witnessing in Eastern Europe.

Today, Russia officially and forcibly annexed Crimea, previously part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine. (

Today, we may have witnessed the most important watershed in international affairs since the Second World War.

I state this based on my belief that post-World War international stability has, to a significant extent, been based on international law within international society; on the existence of the United Nations as the institutional embodiment of such law; and on the prohibition against wars of territorial conquest that is a centrepiece of the UN Charter.

Against this argument, the vast majority of observers and analysts believe that this crisis, while serious, will soon dissipate. The West and Russia will suspend some cooperation for a time, some sanctions will appear on both sides, and after a few years - if not months - everything will be back to business as usual. Ukrainian territorial integrity will be sacrificed, but the great powers and international affairs will remain stable as in the last seventy years. Such reasoning rests on three assumptions:

1) Rationality is stability

All actors act according to rationality. This statement is a mainstay of most international affairs theory, and also of lay understandings of relations between states. Indeed, history has witnessed few, if any, cases of states or other actors acting against what they rationally perceived to be their best interest.

Following from this, it is claimed that any state acting rationally will seek international stability, at least at a systemic level. Revanchist aggression, as per the 1930s, simply cannot happen in a world of nuclear weapons, where war can be so final, so destructive. While nuclear-armed great powers, such as Russia and the USA, can attack and dismember weaker states from time to time, confrontation between great powers is irrationally dangerous for all states and therefore highly unlikely, if not impossible.

Unfortunately, both of the above assumptions are flawed.

While all actors may act according to a rationale, this does not prevent misperception and miscalculation. This is especially the case for states, since states are neither unitary actors nor hold interests similar to each other. Russia, for instance, is not run as a one-man band by President Vladimir Putin, but is controlled in cautious, murky and sometimes faltering cooperation by a range of figures from the business and security services worlds, some of whom may mistakenly believe it would be easy for Russia to take and hold eastern Ukraine. Also, while all states want to increase their security it is difficult to see how annexing Crimea enhances Russian security. If the Russian regime really believes conquering Crimea makes the country safer in the long run from Ukraine and NATO, then we are witnessing a miscalculation of enormous dimensions. And if the West waits for Russia to finish conquering sufficient territory for the Kremlin to view the world as stable, then we may yet blunder into armed confrontation between two sides, which both think their counterpart is bluffing.

Similarly, rationalities may be very different for different actors. While all states may view survival as their ultimate goal, war and conquest may be attempted for a range of "rational" reasons, if the attacking party believes the prize of conquest outweighs any risk to its own survival. What makes a "rational" prize for a given state can be difficult to guess for outsiders - certainly Crimea's historic importance for Russia is at least as important as any strategic value it may have.

And as for the alleged pacifying role of nuclear weapons in the grander scheme of things, the nuclear-sated Cold War world was often unstable - particularly because of nuclear weapons. Only by 1962 was implemented the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, which aimed to prevent major war through the understanding that such war would necessarily lead to widespread desolation throughout the world. ( This MAD policy appeared as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As this Crisis did not result in war it is often overlooked today that the risk of war (and all-out destructive war, at that) was significant at the time - 50/50 by some estimates. (plenty of accounts document this, for instance Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, 2008; Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 1997; and Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision (2nd ed.), 1999).

The point here is not that nuclear weapons may be used today - that is and will always remain extremely unlikely for a range of reasons - but that states may end in war through miscalculations and different rationalities, and despite knowing that fighting may have devastating consequences.

2) Prosperity is the new peace

The second assumption is that the seach for prosperity has replaced the search for peace. Previously, the statesmen of the world were occupied by the thought of how national military and other power could be secured. The peace of your country could only be secured if you challenged the rest of the world constantly and thereby proved you and your community ready to prevail in an international struggle. This was the thought behind treaties and arms races before the First World War, in particular - and behind the phenomenon of mercantilism, which dominated international economy for centuries with its focus on busines serving the interests of the state. Well, today such posturing for power is no longer necessary - or so this assumption goes - for the world of inter-state competition has been replaced by a world of inter-business competition, where national borders are shown as an irrelevance both for companies, seeking to curb or take advantage of that nebulous phenomenon of globalisation, and for individuals seeking their next iPad. (Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State, 1995, is an example of this attitude; as is any work derived from Milton Friedman or Friedrich von Hayek).

If this assumption were correct, we might assume that Russia, Ukraine and the West would tacitly or vocally agree to avoid an escalation of hostilities, as this would not be in the material interest either of these states or of their citizens. Following some discomfort, Russians, Ukrainians, and people in the EU and the USA would go back to looking at the economy. Ukraine would be enriched by much-publicized financial assistance from the IMF and from the USA, just as Russia and the international financial markets would continue to trade with and benefit each other.

This might still happen, at least for a time, but it overlooks two problems. First, the above conditions were equally present before the current crisis escalated. Second, financial motives for individuals might not translate into international state policies. If the Russian regime were interested in simply gaining more prosperity for itself and for Russia, then an annexation of Crimea makes no sense. Financial uncertainty and possible rupture of trade agreements remain risks for a Russia involved in the annexation. Perhaps Russia and its leadership decided such an economic price was worth paying? But then we are left with the question of what is the prize that justifies such an economic sacrifice. No matter the answer here, clearly economic interests do not dominate international affairs.

Similarly, although individual prosperity may be the focus for most people most of the time, clearly this does not always apply. Russian actions here had some support at home, despite the knowledge that Western sanctions and possible economic hardship might follow. More critically, it is clear that state actions in Russia, Ukraine, the West or elsewhere have not been significantly influenced by domestic opinion. If it remains true that the general populace mostly remains aloof to international affairs, then the focus on prosperity held by this populace is of little consequence to the current crisis.

3) We are living in a post-historical world

This assumption really came into general debate with Francis Fukuyama's book from 1992, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama's argument is more nuanced than is generally understood, but he was widely seen to prophesy that the end of the Cold War signalled the end of all wars. That the (neo-)liberal dogma now encompassed the Western world, at least - and that serious international conflict would be almost unthinkable in future.

This assumption may appear to be somewhat similar to that advanced above. However, in the assumption derived from Fukuyama's argument is the idea that the world is not necessarily one entire, but that we must distinguish between "historical" and "post-historical" worlds. Or between "civilisation" and "barbarity," if you will. Thus, while the EU and the USA now allegedly exist in the conflict-less utopia of Fukuyama's making, other parts of the world - such as Russia - remain caught in unstable modernity, or even pre-modernity. "We" in the EU and the USA have reached the end-goal, while other parts of the world must continue to struggle for survival. And if "We" are threatened it is only by incursions from the outside world, which must therefore be tamed or subdued. (Robert Kagan, Paradise and Power, 2004, is a classic example of this, as are the writings by many so-called neo-conservatives). By such reasoning, what is happening between Russia and Ukraine now is simply to be expected from peoples and states, which have not reached the enlightened peace and stability held in the West. The West will therefore do well to stay out of trouble and let the "Others" in Eastern Europe sort themselves out. (inadvertently, Jonathan Steele's recent article in The Guardian is marked by such assumptions:

The problem here is, however, that the world cannot be divided neatly into spheres of "Us" and "Them." And here we come back to my opening argument: that the flagrant Russian breach of a cornerstone of international law can fundamentally change everybody's world of tomorrow.

All law is, to some extent, fiction. Law is a set of rules agreed upon by actors for a range of reasons. Nothing inherent in a legal system ensures that system actors will adhere to the laws. Such adherence is ensured by an actor holding a sovereign monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within the system, and dedicated to upholding the laws.

International law has an even weaker basis. Apart from the fact that international law is far from a coherent body, but instead an amalgam of sometimes contradictory rules, there is no sovereign enforcer in international affairs. A hegemon might fulfil this role, but even when the USA was strong enough to credibly dominate a unipolar system in the 1990s it showed little interest in enforcing international law for the sake of it. A neutral arbiter Washington certainly was not, as Iraq, Iran and Kosovo testified. So, on the face of things, it seems fair to say that international law is an irrelevance in the face of relative power held by states.

Yet as I have sought to demonstrate above, power relations among states are in no way a guarantor of international stability, let alone of international peace. Miscalculations and misunderstandings flourish, absolute economic progress for all is repeatedly sacrificed by individual states for their relative advantage, and from this struggle no part of the world can count itself free in perpetuity.

And yet we are faced with the fact that the world has not suffered major war for seven decades. With the fact that Europe, in particular, has been spared inter-state violence (although civil war has tragically appeared). And I posit that a main reason for such peace has been the existence of a common framework as constituted by international law. When the United Nations was set up in 1945 member states could well fear that the organisation and its world would soon fall victim to another war. For anyone having experienced Hitlerian aggression, the UN Charter's prohibition of territorial annexation would have seemed limpid. Yet the years went by and no state seemed eager to change the borders of the world, especially not in Europe. The USSR could easily have annexed Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 - the West was never close to seriously oppose these quite brutal invasions. Yet it was the Soviet Union that, almost pleadingly, insisted at the 1975 Helsinki Conference that all post-WW2 borders in Europe must be kept. After 1991, post-Soviet Russia may long have been too weak to really undertake international revanchism, but even Putin's reinvigorated state repeatedly emphasised the international importance of avoiding "land grabs." Tellingly, in 2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not become parts of Russia, but were instead recognised by Russia as independent states, knowing that such a step could be accommodated within the cognitive framework of international law, following Kosovo.

Now, Putin appears to have forgotten this lesson. The lesson that, just like domestic societies need its actors to accept the basic agreed rules of the political game in order to function, international society - in order to be a society in which members can function together on a non-violent basis - needs to agree on some basic, common rules for what constitutes acceptable conduct. Refraining from territorial conquest against another sovereign state (as recognised by the UN) was the most basic of all such rules after 1945. And if Russia is now allowed to openly and unapologetically violate this rule, international society is left ruled by the precept of "might makes right." As I have tried to show in the piece, such a precept is no way to international stability in the years to come, for Russia, for Ukraine, or for the rest of Europe and the world.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The EU, Russia and the ambiguities of military arms exports

Russia won the Crimean referendum. No surprises there. Apparently, union with Russia was preferred by 96% of the Crimean population - or at least by that part of the Crimean population that was not scared away from the voting booths - or at least by that part of the Crimean population that filled out the voting ballots in advance... Free and fair voting did not decide the matter; Russian armed force did.

And precisely the question of military arms form an awkward link between the EU and Russia. The EU Code of Conduct on arms exports outlines eight criteria, which supposedly governs this activity. The criteria include: "The respect of human rights in the country of final destination"; "Preservation of regional peace, security and stability"; and "The behaviour of the buyer country with regard to the international community, as regards in particular to its attitude to...respect for international law." (

Now, it could be said that Russia is failing on these counts. Oh, wait, in fact EU member states have been saying just that for years - and are saying so even now:
Straight talk - a clear message all around! And for our next trick - can anyone guess which three countries licensed the most arms exports to Russia in the last year? All together now: Germany, France, and the United Kingdom!!! (Council of the European Union, The Fifteenth Annual Report, 21.1.2014, pages 253-55, at

In fairness, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have three of the largest economies in the world, and they were all among the sixth largest arms exporters in the world during 2009-13. None of these countries had Russia as one of their main destinations for major weapons sales (the fact that, during this period, Germany sold 8% of its weapons to Israel, France sold 13% of its weapons to China, and the UK sold a whopping 42% of its weapons to Saudi Arabia is, perhaps, scant consolation...). ( Yet even if Russia has not been a main market for the arms manufacturers of the giants of the EU, significant activity has still taken place.

Most discussed has probably been the decision by France in 2010 to sell two Mistral-class warships to Russia. These 23,000-tonnes vessels can carry troops and helicopters, and they can be used for amphibious assaults. ( Where might Russia possibly seek to deploy these ships? Why, in the Black Sea, of course! Following the Vladivostok, which was launched in October 2013, by 2016 France is set to deliver the second warship to Russia, which will slot nicely into newly "liberated" Crimean harbours with its beautiful name of Sevastopol... (

France has in recent days cast doubt on whether this and other weapons sales to Russia will go ahead given the current Russo-Ukrainian crisis. For instance, Fabius has threatened that Russian sailors might not now be allowed entry to France in order to train for use of the advanced ships. ( And today Fabius and the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian postponed indefinitely a planned visit to Moscow, also threatening that the warship contract might be suspended. (

But it all seems a bit too little, too late. And, as indicated above, France is far from the only EU-state with significant arms exports to Russia in recent years. Germany, for instance, has agreed to sell to Russia a technically advanced brigade-level training facility. ( And the UK has been preparing an arms treaty with Russia, which would British defence companies working together with their Russian counterparts on projects. (

You do not have to submit to a Cold War mentality to feel a little queasy about such affairs...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Crimean Referendum - three points to consider

The referendum on the status of Crimea is now well underway. By tonight, the Crimean authorities plan to publish preliminary results with the final tally official in one or two days. The results seem certain to be clearly in favour of unifying Crimea with Russia. Yet despite the internationally high profile of the referendum, some analyses still fail to pick up some of the most noteworthy point in the matter.

This is not a referendum on Crimean sovereignty

The referendum taking place in Crimea today does not concern the sovereignty of the peninsula. This has nothing to do with its legitimacy or lack thereof (more of which will be mentioned below). It has to do with the two options provided on Crimean ballot papers (my translation provided below; the text taken from
  1. "Are you in favour of the reunion of Crimea with Russia with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?"
  2. "Are you in favour of the reinstatement of the Crimean Constitution of 1992 and for the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?"
First, Crimea was never part of the Russian Federation, which was a legal entity that came into existence in 1992. Consequently, as a question of sovereignty Crimea cannot "reunite" with Russia in the context of the Russian Federation. Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), but for less than 9 years, between 1945 and 1954. Before that, Crimea had been the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic since 1921, and earlier Crimea existed within the Russian Empire from 1783. In effect, therefore, Crimean potential inclusion in the Russian Federation will be based on 9 years of Soviet rule and 138 years of Russian Imperial rule. The Crimean leadership would probably expect inclusion in Russia as an autonomous republic, along the lines of the 21 existing republics in Russia, such as most of the North Caucasus.

Second, as has been pointed out by several observers, there is a clear discrepancy between the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 and the 1992 Crimean constitution, eventually confirmed in 1998. The Ukrainian constitution states - in section 1, article 2 - that "The territory of Ukraine within its present borders is indivisible and inviolable." (my translation, from The Crimean constitution, on the other hand, is a mess. While this document does state that Crimea belongs within the framework of the Ukrainian constitution (article 1, paragraph 1), Crimea reserves the exclusive right to change its constitution based on a popular referendum on the peninsula (article 48, paragraph 2). ( Crimean parliamentarians have already indicated that they would use, if necessary, such powers to transfer the peninsula to Russia no matter the voting results today. (

Most Crimeans do not favour incorporation into Russia

The problem is that we now very little right now about public opinion on Crimea.

Recently, monitors from the OSCE have been prevented from entering Crimea. Monitors' reports indicate that their lives might have been in danger from armed pro-Russian militias, who fired warning shots. ( UN special envoy to Crimea, Robert Serry, was forced to leave the region by similar militias. ( Ukrainian journalists entering Crimea have been kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint (,45977.html) (; a Bulgarian journalist had a gun pointed to his head by local "self-defence forces" as shown on CCTV footage ( And, last night, the hotel housing most Western journalists in Crimean capital Simferopol was stormed by dozens of armed, masked men, allegedly searching for an "armed criminal." ( At the same time, local opponents of Crimean secession from Ukraine are being threatened on the peninsula. A priest from the Greek Catholic Church, known for its pro-Ukraine stance, was kidnapped by armed men in Sevastopol ( as has been the case for numerous other local activists. (

On this background, the Crimean Tatars - one-eighth of the total population - are boycotting the referendum ( while Ukrainians on Crimea - one-fourth of the population - have constitently supported the position of Ukraine. As for Russians on Crimea their opinion is difficult to gauge. It is telling, though, that - ever since Crimea voted to be part of Ukraine in 1991 with 54% in favour on a 60% turnout - local calls for independence from Ukraine have been few and far between. In the 2010 elections for the Crimean parliament 80% of seats went to the Party of Regions, the party of now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. ( The Party of Regions did not and does not have a policy of handing Crimea over to Russia. While Yanukovych has recently accused the acting government in Kiev of losing Crimea, neither he nor his party - which remains in the Ukrainian parliament - support today's referendum, although they do share some local Russians' concerns. (

Conversely, in the 2010 elections the party Russian Unity, the leader of which Sergey Aksyonov has now taken control of the Crimean parliament and referendum, received a staggering 4% of votes! And precisely 3 seats. Not a big public mandate for Mr Aksyonov. And, by extension, not a big public mandate from Crimeans for independence from Ukraine and accession to Russia. (

Russian actions in this crisis are not based in international law

The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, has - time and time again - stated that Russian actions towards Ukraine and Crimea, and the Crimean referendum, exist in accordance with international law. (see e.g.

Well, no - that is simply not the case.

International law is a somewhat nebulous concept, but it has its modern foundation in the Charter of the United Nations from 1945. In the Charter, it states in article 2, paragraph 4: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state..." ( Supporters of the Russian position may claim, with some justification, that the US and its allies breached the Charter during the invasions of Iraq and Libya, which were both sovereign states ruled by regimes recognised by the UN. But that is not the point. Lavrov is not stating that it is OK to breach international law, because the Americans did it - he says Russia is not breaching international law, full stop. And, in the case of the Charter, Lavrov's claim is untrue.

Lavrov can with more hope look to the "Responsibility to Protect" as outlined in 2005 by the UN World Summit Outcome Document. This document highlights that all states have a "responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." (articles 138-40). Article 138 underlines the responsibility of states to protect their own populations, while article 139 notes that the UN member states "are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council...on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." (

Nowhere in Ukraine - let alone in Crimea - have we witnessed genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing. Even so, should the Russian authorities believe such crimes to take place, the Kremlin is legally obliged to take up the matter in dialogue with Ukraine and with the UN Security Council. Russia has not done so, instead vetoing the draft Council resolution denouncing the Crimean referendum as illegitimate. China abstained from this vote; all thirteen other Council members, including democratic stalwart Chad, voted in favour. What Russia seeks to offer the UN instead of this draft resolution appears to be troops on the ground.

Just three points to consider as the Crimean referendum moves towards its foregone conclusion.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Russian media

"Members of the so-called [Ukrainian nationalist] 'Right Sector' now wield influence throughout Ukraine. Members of the Russian parliament say that they have received calls for help from a range of regions [in Ukraine]." (

"The [Russian] self-defence forces of Sevastopol have seized five homemade bombs stuffed with nuts and bolts...from a young man who tried to smuggle these into the city...Self-defence groups continue to operate under emergency law to prevent [Ukrainian] militants and provocateurs from entering Crimea." (

"The Western nations have spent a tremendous amount of time and efforts in influencing Ukrainian society and leading it to the present situation, believes Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia's federal agency for foreign cooperation." (

...and we say thank you to our commentators tonight from Russian television stations Pervyi Kanal, NTV, and - why of course - good ole Russia Today...

Oh, and on a completely different topic the Russian Ministry of Truth - erm, no of course, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecoms, Information Technologies and Mass Communications - has announced that access to the internet-sites,,, and will be curtailed as these websites are calling for unsanctioned mass protests in Russia. ( and my always impressive friend and analyst Jesper Gormsen).

For the love of...

I appreciate some readers of this blog may sympathise with parts of the Russian position in relation to Ukraine and the West. I certainly agree that a solution must be found whereby Russians and Ukrainians can live peacefully side by side and the rights of people in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine are guaranteed. I am even willing to accept that a large part of the Russian populace may not love President Vladimir Putin, but would be opposed to the mass insecurity, which might well follow a real challenge to his rule. But what will appear next from the cauldron of the Kremlin? A more general "firewall" to restrict access to the internet in Russia, as we already know it in China? A general climate of uncertainty that, as a minimum, prevents proper investigation of attacks on and killings of media personnel? (Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova spring to mind, as do dozens of other high-profile victims, Even more restrictive press laws? In 2013, Russian media was still a little less unfree than that of Azerbaijan - will Putin try to beat his southern neighbour this year in a race to the dregs... (; also

It seems to have become a reflex now for the Kremlin to crack down on things. The above-mentioned restricted websites are not widely read by Russians; and certainly not by the core voters that Putin still commands. The coverage of the crisis in Ukraine perhaps makes more sense, helping the President to keep his apparently high domestic approval ratings... ( Yet Russian internet use is exploding - the average Russian can still access unflattering information about their elites. And control of the major television channels might bolster the Kremlin's attacks on "Ukrainian nationalists" as such, but not on the ordinary Ukrainians, who are friends and family to so many Russians. So does the Russian state now simply use all crises to restrict civil society even more? Or are Russian actions abroad and at home just a sign that Putin and his people have little more to offer - no constructive ideas for taking their great country forward into prosperity and security, but simply some impetus to make Russia "powerful" (however ill defined...)?

We shall know more in the coming days. Especially if all of us in the West, as well as Russians elites and Russians at large, remember with Tim Berners-Lee that it is our privilege and duty to seek information about our world from many sources - both from those approved by the authorities and from those, which might from time to time go against the official line. (

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Meanwhile in Uzbekistan...

These days, it is difficult to see beyond Ukraine and Russia in the post-Soviet world. With the Crimean referendum on independence looming, and with US and EU sanctions against Russian elites drawing near, there seems to be plenty of reason for focusing on these two most populous states in the region. However, the rest of the world is not standing still and, just now, from Switzerland comes the next chapter in the ongoing saga of who should be the next ruler of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is in many ways the crucial centrepiece of Central Asia. While Kazakhstan has the economic advantage, Uzbekistan with its 30 million people has by far the largest population in the region. Uzbekistan is geographically adjacent to Afghanistan, as well as to all other post-Soviet countries in Central Asia; countries which depend on Uzbekistan for any hope of regional cooperation. And while Uzbekistan has not always supported such cooperation its leadership has also been averse to close relations with Russia and the West. In addition, Uzbekistan does have large gas reserves of its own, as well as one of the largest gold desposits in the world. All these elements show that Uzbekistan cannot be ignored. (for summary information, see also

Throughout its post-Soviet existence as a sovereign country, Uzbekistan has been ruled by President Islam Karimov, who was credited with 88% of the vote during his latest election in 2007. Democratic challengers to Karimov appear unlikely - in the 2014 world survey of political and civil liberties by Freedom House, Uzbekistan appears as one of ten countries in the world to score the worst possible marks in both categories. ( Yet Karimov is now in his mid-seventies and potential successors within his elite are beginning to position themselves for his departure.

It is in this context that the Swiss decision now to open money laundering investigations against Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, should be seen. ( Ms Karimova was for long viewed as the heir apparent to her father. Yet as the presidential election approaches next year, the President's elder daughter has openly complained that Uzbek security and political elites, and even her own family, are against her. ( Indeed, last September Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva publicly disowned her elder sister, who allegedly has also been the victim of attempted poisoning. And the Swiss charges come in the wake of criminal cases,k which were opened against Gulnara Karimova's close business associates in Uzbekistan. (

This is mentioned not to challenge the Swiss decision to investigate Ms Karimova for money laundering, but to highlight that her power and her business dominance in Uzbekistan seem to be quickly coming to an end. The benefitors of Gulnara Karimova's fall from grace remain quite opaque. Nonetheless, three names suggested as her direct competitors are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, Head of the National Security Services Rustam Inoyatov, and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov. (

These three are all in their late fifties or older, and they clearly all support central pillars of Islam Karimov's state. Thus, it is unlikely that any of them as president would promote political or civil liberties to a noteworthy degree, just as they would probably all seek to retain for Uzbekistan a wary position between Russia and the US; closer to the former but without being subservient to Moscow. Still, it has been suggested that Azimov has been rumoured to be a favourite choice of the US to succeed Karimov (; that Mirziyoev and Inoyatov are rumoured to be closely allied (, and that Inoyatov in particular has good connections with Russian political and security services elites (

This does not mean that Uzbekistan is likely to follow Ukraine in becoming a new battleground for Russian versus Western influence. Uzbek politics mostly make Vladimir Putin's Russia look like a democratic heaven and no one among the Uzbek elites has an interest in changing this, given the prevalent fear among them for civil unrest and demonstrations. Just such fear resulted in hundreds of casualties among protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan almost a decade ago. ( But the relative closeness of some, but perhaps not all, Uzbek elites to their Russian counterparts can tell us something about the influence of Moscow here - and in Central Asia and Afghanistan more generally - in the coming years.

Finally, it is worth noting that any hint of a messy Uzbek succession - possibly including casualties within the elites - could seriously worry rulers and their supporters in countries throughout much of the post-Soviet region. In Belarus and Tajikistan, for instance, it must have been noted by presidential offspring that their counterpart in Uzbekistan (and in Ukraine, where Viktor Yanukovych's son until February was gaining influence) is now weakening. And if struggle between economic and military security interests among post-Soviet elites is now on the rise it is even worth remembering that the vast majority of serious challengers to sitting regimes tend to come from inside these elites themselves.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Whatever happened to Volgograd?

Time flies so very fast. These days, all news from the post-Soviet space seem to concern the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. And rightly so, you might say. Russian troops have now almost complete control over Crimea. The peninsula shall witness a referendum in a few days; an event that may well result in the most far-reaching challenge to sovereignty in the post-Soviet world, and beyond.

Yet noteworthy events have a tendency to take place in this region; and right now we are in danger of forgetting about one such event. Before the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, before the Sochi Winter Olympics even, all talk was of the terrifying bombings killing and maiming scores of people in the Russian city of Volgograd. This horror is worth remembering still, for several reasons.

To quickly recap, on October 21st, 2013, a suicide bomber on a Volgograd bus killed seven people and injured almost forty. ( Just as the shock from this event had subsided, on December 29th and again the following day, further suicide bombs in the city killed thirty four people in total, injuring more than eighty. (

Why did the bombings take place?

For a while these acts of terror unsurprisingly dominated debate in Russia, and to some extent abroad. It was quickly stated that the suicide bombers were connected to the North Caucasus. More precisely, Dagestan and its militant Islamic groups appeared to have fostered the attacks - at least according to the Russian authorities, who later arrested and killed people suspected of involvement in the attacks. (

While statements from the Russian authorities cannot always be taken at face value there seems little immediate reason to doubt the bombings were planned from the North Caucasus. Volgograd is the first larger city travelling north from the Caucasus and would consequently be the easiest for Caucasian militants to reach. The city has obvious connections to Russian rule, connected as it is to the Second World War that still forms much of Russian state identity. Going further back, of course, Volgograd was founded in the late 16th century (as Tsaritsyn) to protect the southern frontier of Russia. Such symbolics makes the city an obvious target for anyone seeking to terrorise the Russian state. (see also:

Yet, beyond the terrible human cost involved in these bombings it is worth remembering that terror attacks are nothing new for post-Soviet Russia. Following the third of the recent attacks, the British newspaper The Guardian provided a very helpful map of all registered terrorist attacks in Russia since 1991. ( Looking at this map it is immediately visible that a vast majority of all attacks have taken place in the miniscule Caucasian republics, such as Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. Not always names familiar abroad perhaps, but these are areas that still witness almost daily killings, by gun, bomb, or simply "disappearance." It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with any certainty the background for most of these acts of violence - in this region, law enforcement agencies and militants alike are not known for their willingness or ability to inform. What remains certain, though, is the continued volatility of the Russian Caucasus and the sheer inability (or unwillingness?) by the Russian state to lessen the problem by non-violent means. It is certainly too simplistic to state that the Volgograd bombings were directly caused by the misery of the North Caucasus, yet it does remain clear that Russia cannot hope for freedom from terror as long as parts of its territory remain so unstable.

What has happened since the attacks?

Given the scale of the problem suddenly so visible in the wake of Volgograd, it might have been expected that decisive action would be taken by the Russian authorities to prevent repetition. Clearly, Russian law enforcement must have done something right for the high-profile Sochi Winter Olympics passed without a glitch (outside the Caucasian republics that is). Sochi itself and the Olympic venues were so heavily guarded that the risk of a renewed Munich was always minimal. Nevertheless, it is pleasantly surprising that other areas of Russia were not subject to spectacular terror while the Games took place. The lack of violence might have to do with lack of resources amongst perpetrators; or it might have to do with the response of the authorities. President Vladimir Putin, in his practiced He-Man style, vowed the "total annihilation" of terrorists immediately after the bombings (well, immediately after the second round of bombings, anyway). ( Certainly, as mentioned above, before the beginning of the Olympics the Russian authorities did claim to arrest or kill several people connected to the bombings. Subsequently, stricter anti-terrorist laws have been adopted by parliament in order to stymie future attacks. ( Yet it remains to be seen how effective such laws are - given the tendency of terrorist suspects to die "following shootouts with Russian security services" wanna-be terrorists might expect to be killed during or after their crime without having time to consider whether to commit a ten-year or a twenty-year terrorist offence...

It would probably be more effective - in the shorter, medium, and longer term - if the Russian state helped to turn the spiral of violence in its Caucasian republics. The Kremlin can with some justification state that Chechnya, previously centre for vicious civil war and general lawlessness, has now been pacified under former rebel turned Kremlin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Yet Kadyrov is probably not the man to foster widespread dialogue and conciliation in his community ( despite his recent, generous offer to send peacekeepers to Crimea... ( It may therefore be feared that violent tension remains close to the surface in Chechnya. As was mentioned previously, terror attacks and violent deaths show no sign of abating in the North Caucasus, which also suffers from widespread socio-economic deprivation and, pace Kadyrov, local regimes that are not as democratically accountable to the local populace, as one might wish. And the Russian state with President Putin seems quite unwilling, or unable, to address this issue.

What can we expect in future?

The immediate answer to what might be expected in future is, unfortunately, further terrorist attacks. Not because unsavoury individuals in Ukraine suggest "armed rebellion" in Russia as nationalist leader Dmytro Yarosh may or may not have said in some unspecified context. Not because terrorist attacks are part of some cunning, evil plan by the Russian authorities to keep its population fearful by using the constant threat of terror. But because the Russian authorities have long since (ever since the outbreak of the first fighting in Chechnya in 1994, one might say) lost the plot over what to do with the Caucasus. Anti-Caucasian and anti-Muslim sentiments might appear in Russia with somewhat unpleasant frequency, but there is little reason to believe that Putin and his elites share such automatic antipathy. The Russian state instead adds to the problem by continuing to promote authoritarianism and support for individual strongmen in the area - a technique used to some stabilising effect elsewhere in Russia but not here where, among other things, memories from the Chechen Wars and other regional violence has now damaged entire generations to the point where original nationalism has been significantly challenged and partly upstaged by militant Islam, so-called.

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the obvious interest for Russia and all who care about it to prevent future attacks on civilians (whomever may be the perpetrators) the Caucasian Republics remains yet another problem questioning the stability of the Russian state. Unless Moscow lets these republics go - which is extremely unlikely to happen - the Caucasian unrest is a persistent example that the Russian state cannot, over a period of years, pacify troubled, ethnically heterogenous areas with its usual method of strong central control. It almost makes one wonder how Russia could ever contemplate taking over Crimea. The peninsula may not be fertile ground for terrorism, and its socio-economic situation may be a whole lot better than that of the North Caucasus - but might it not be sensible for the Russian state to solve its domestic problems before venturing abroad?

Monday, 10 March 2014

The real danger in a Russo-Ukrainian crisis

In the last few days, the Russo-Ukrainian crisis has been tense, but stable. But incidents of shooting have grown. Russian soldiers have repeatedly used warning shots when invading Ukrainian military bases on Crimea. Allegedly, Ukrainian activists trying to enter Crimea from the north came under fire from pro-Russian militias, who shot one of the Ukrainians in the chest with rubber bullets.

So far, there appears to have been no casualties from these Russo-Ukrainian military confrontations. Yet unless such confrontation quickly subside, a real possibility exists that people might die - either soldiers deliberately killed by their opponents or, perhaps more likely, bystanders hit by stray bullets. And such deaths could lead to unforeseen calamity - but not for the reasons generally mentioned these days in media and academic debate. Any individual deaths could swiftly turn into widespread Russo-Ukrainian fighting. And this would not be fighting between states, or fighting between ethnicities, but fighting between groups the distinctions between which could be very difficult to understand for everyone concerned.

It's not about states

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine have only existed as sovereign entities for the last twenty-two years. The borders of the two states correspond almost precisely to two of the republics in the Soviet Union: the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR). However, the Soviet republics were wholly different creations. They existed within a Soviet framework in which all directions came from Moscow, and within a Communist framework in which politics were enmeshed in Marxist-Leninist dogma. Membership in the Soviet Union and in the Communist movement consolidated a joint identity for Russians and Ukrainians; an identity also supported by centuries of imperial heritage, as formulated in 1832 by Sergei Uvarov as the slogan of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality." Benefiting from such a joint identity, Russians had no reason for concern when the notorious transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the UkSSR took place in 1954. So what if the peninsula was formally part of another republic? Everything remained in the Union. Yet after 1991 such certainties had gone. Russia and Ukraine were now different states, but largely in name only. Gradually, a post-Soviet national identity was assembled, but it has yet to really challenge the much longer duration of the pre-Soviet and Soviet identities.

It's not about ethnicities

Still, if Russian and Ukrainian statehood might be a relatively new phenomenon surely Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities are age-old? No doubt, writings about Russians and Ukrainians go back centuries. No doubt, people still easily identify themselves as Russians or Ukrainians. Yet when asked to define precisely what being Russian or Ukrainian means, things get much more tricky. Language is not necessarily a factor; while few Russians speak Ukrainian, almost every Ukrainian can speak Russian to a considerable extent. Religion is not necessarily a factor; apart from the considerable proportion of atheists among the two ethnicities, most religious Ukrainians are Orthodox, just as their Russian counterparts. History is not necessarily a factor; while some Ukrainians would highlight the importance of the Cossacks and Taras Shevchenko for their self-understanding, the joint Russo-Ukrainian origins in the millennium-old Kievan Rus is central to the identity of the clear majority of Russians and Ukrainians alike. Given the significant amount of intermarriage between Russians and Ukrainians it becomes quite difficult to distinguish the two peoples

It's about Russia

What is Russia? I keep coming back to this question? If Russia is not the Russian Federation, a post-Soviet state within post-Soviet borders, what is it? If being Russian cannot be understood as an ethnicity separate from being Ukrainian, then what happens if Russians and Ukrainians start to fight? What happens if Russia and Russians have no identity on which to fall back? Being different from Central Asia and from the Caucasus - sure! Being different from the West - no problem! Russian self-understanding is used to these opposites from the times of the Empire and the Union. But how can you be different from yourself? How can a Russian military force, with a disproportionate number of Ukrainians in its officer corps, battle against Ukrainians? Around which ideological banner will Russians gather? Of course, they can fight against the so-called "fascists" from Galicia but against the many people in central, eastern and southern Ukraine, who want to be Ukrainian?

I genuinely have no answer for this - and, much worse, I do not think anyone else has an answer, either. And that makes for some very frightening times to come, if shots ring out on Crimea.