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 รงa 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. (http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/0428/612131-ukraine/) 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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/uk-ukraine-crisis-osce-idUKKBN0DE1MM20140428) 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, (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_28/OSCE-was-irresponsible-to-send-monitors-to-East-Ukraine-Russia-5043/) a capture including mistreatment of the observers and of Ukrainian prisoners in eastern Ukraine, according to the US State Department. (http://www.kuna.net.kw/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2374598&language=en)

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. (http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140427/russia-must-press-ukraine-separatists-free-osce-team-0) The office of Chancellor Angela Merkel is similarly putting the onus on Russia to solve the situation. (http://www.dw.de/ban-demands-that-separatists-in-ukraine-release-osce-observers/a-17599660)

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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laBj3-QUizY) 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. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/22/ukraine-politician-found-dead_n_5192477.html)

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. (http://rt.com/business/154012-sanctions-russia-stronger-medvedev/) 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. (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_22/Prospect-of-UN-peacekeeping-operation-in-Ukraine-unreal-Russian-diplomat-9486/)

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 (http://www.economist.com/printedition/2014-04-19) and more a bumbling necessity to prove Russia as the great power of which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly reminds us. (http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/world/us-releases-photos-of-russian-troops-russia-us-trade-jabs-over-troubled-ukraine-deal/story-fni0xs63-1226892038216)

Dear Mr Lavrov - your Russia still has one of the highest income inequalities in Europe, if not much of the world (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI/); significant proportions of your male population suffers from substance abuse, losing years of their lives in the process (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/31/russian-men-losing-years-to-vodka); your country appears to be more corrupt than Mali, than Nicaragua, than Pakistan... (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/results/) 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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/22/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3D0C420140422). 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. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-04-13/ukraine-tension-mounts-as-police-face-gunfire-in-east.html) 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. (https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=slavyansk&hl=en&ll=48.857487,37.606201&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: http://uk.reuters.com/video/2014/04/12/armed-men-take-over-police-station-in-uk?videoId=308172540&videoChannel=117759)

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: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/12/east-ukraine-protesters-miners-donetsk-russia). Mining in Ukraine remains a dangerous, low-paid profession - seven miners died just days ago near Donetsk (http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/seven-people-died-in-donetsk-coal-mine-accident-343019.html) - 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.

Russia

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. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-putin-says-russia-will-protect-the-rights-of-russians-abroad/2014/03/18/432a1e60-ae99-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html) 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. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/10/satellite-images-russian-military-ukraine-border)

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. (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_13/Kerry-calls-Lavrov-to-come-up-with-solution-of-de-escalation-of-Ukraines-crisis-3723/) 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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3709O20140412) 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." (http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_12/Naryshkin-calls-for-Russia-France-partnership-to-continue-5472/)

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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-timchenko-idUKBREA3B05X20140412) 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 (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/72ac6954-b06a-11e3-8efc-00144feab7de.html#axzz2yl7STzfI) 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) (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ukrainerussia-crisis-us-sanctions-crimean-separatists-and-chernomorneftegaz-gas-firm-9256282.html). Nevertheless, sanctions are not showing quick results in amending Russian policy.

Ukraine

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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/13/uk-ukraine-crisis-casualties-idUKBREA3C06P20140413)

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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-response-idUKBREA3B0F320140412 ; http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/13/uk-ukraine-crisis-slaviansk-avakov-idUKBREA3C04E20140413). 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. (https://www.facebook.com/arsen.avakov.1?fref=ts)

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. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/12/uk-ukraine-crisis-idUKBREA3709O20140412)

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!  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10763284/Ukraine-Joe-Biden-to-visit-Kiev-as-conflict-escalates.html)

 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! (http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pro-russian-gunmen-take-over-eastern-ukrainian-citys-police-headquarters/2014/04/12/b3cfceed-c9a4-4599-938b-8c033bdb0405_story.html). 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." (http://rt.com/news/marine-pen-russia-ukraine-128/)

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...

Monday, 7 April 2014

On states and quasi-states

States are all equal, but some states are more equal than others - this is the message now projected by the Russian government. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his German counterpart that Ukraine will need "international assistance" to develop a new constitution, which takes into consideration the interests of all groups inside Ukraine. (http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/04/07/uk-ukraine-crisis-lavrov-steinmeier-idUKBREA361DW20140407) That is, a constitution able to empower Russians in Ukraine.

At the same time, of course, separatist movements have now seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine, declaring their wish for a "Crimean solution" to the alleged persecution suffered by Russians in eastern Ukraine at the hands of the acting government in Kiev. While the Ukrainian leadership is left to fear that Russian military forces, poised and ready at the border, will enter Ukraine to support "the people's will" in a referendum on joining Russia, just as we recently saw in Crimea. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ukraine-crisis-officials-in-eastern-city-of-donetsk-proclaim-independence-from-kiev-and-set-date-for-referendum-on-joining-russia-9243750.html)

Will Russian troops cross the border? Most likely not, as things stand, for this time a battle with the Ukrainian military would be almost guaranteed - a fight that Russia could never win even if its troops were victorious on the battlefield. Still, nothing can right now be ruled out as reaction from a Russian leadership that in its actions has recently appeared incoherent, if not unhinged. It is telling that even Germany - so often the mediator between Russia and the West in recent weeks - is now very worried about possible escalation of the crisis. (http://www.itv.com/news/update/2014-04-07/germany-very-worried-after-ukraine-buildings-seized/)

For now, though, thoughts on Russian invasion of Ukraine remain speculative at best. Much more likely remains a Russian wish to keep eastern Ukraine unstable, possibly with the use of inserted provocateurs in the region, to ensure that Kiev (and the West) acquiesce in a future Ukraine a la Russe. And this is where we come to the distinction between states and quasi-states.

The distinction between states and quasi-states is not the same as the distinction between great powers and weaker states. The latter distinction revolves around the concept of external sovereignty - the ability to project power, or influence broadly understood, beyond state borders. Thus, Russia is - regionally at least - a great power, just as the USA (and increasingly China) is a global great power. Ukraine is not a great power by any standard.

The former distinction, however, between states and quasi-states has to do with internal sovereignty. That is, with the ability of a state to control events within its borders and, among other things, exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence/coercion. Again, Ukraine clearly is having problems on this front - what with armed groups taking control in Donetsk and elsewhere. Yet whereas Ukraine as a great power would benefit few (and certainly would not benefit Ukraine itself), a Ukraine with strong internal sovereignty - a Ukraine that is a state and not a quasi-state would benefit all in Ukraine and in neighbouring states, too. This seems to self-evident that even Lavrov repeatedly calls for stability and calm in Ukraine. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/07/sergei-lavrov-russia-stabilise-ukraine-west)

And yet, and yet, the only problem with Lavrov's calming words is, as sometimes happens with the Russian leadership these days, the facts on the ground. Scores of people did die in Kiev when the democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled. The new, acting government did try to enact a law removing official status from the Russian language in some regions of Ukraine. And some people on Crimea did fear that Ukrainian "fascists" (however defined) were ready to attack Russians on the peninsula.

Yet it is not Kiev that sees violence these days, but Crimea - where a Ukrainian soldier was today killed by a Russian soldier (http://www.euronews.com/2014/04/07/russian-soldier-kills-ukraine-navy-officer-in-crimea/). And where recent weeks have witnessed a large number of well-documented assaults on journalists and those opposed to Crimean secession from Ukraine. And during the battles in Kiev both Russians and Ukrainians died in opposition to Yanukovych - although the Kremlin only remembers the former casualties. The language law suggested by the Ukrainian government was unhelpful, but it was immediately vetoed by Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov. And those violent groups of Ukrainian "fascists" never materialised in Crimea, or in eastern Ukraine for that matter. They have at times appeared in Kiev, though, so maybe we shall expect Russian "peacekeepers" there next?

As a state, Ukraine needs economic and political help to establish its internal sovereignty, its statehood. In this, Lavrov is right. Only problem is that Russian troops right now occupy parts of Ukraine, and remained poised to invade elsewhere. No regret is voiced by the Russian leadership that the invasion of Crimea was required; just a call for Ukraine and the West to accept a fait accompli:

"What can one advise our US colleagues to do? Spend more time in the open, practice yoga, stick to food-combining diets, maybe watch some comedy sketch shows on TV. This would be better than winding oneself up and winding up others, knowing that the ship has already sailed...Tantrums, weeping and hysteria won't help." (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/03/us-ukraine-crisis-russia-diplomat-idUSBREA3217B20140403)

Thus the words of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on the annexation of Crimea. These are not the words of a government interested in strenghtening the internal sovereignty of Ukraine. These are words of a regime seeking to create in Ukraine, and elsewhere, quasi-states constantly on the verge of collapse and dependent on Russian goodwill to survive. This is, with a vengeance, a new version of the decades-old idea of a "near abroad" surrounding Russia, in which Moscow has special interests. And it is a warning that Vladimir Putin's regime will not stop its aggression, in Ukraine and elsewhere, before the West and the rest of the world gives a clear signal that Russia will not be allowed to create quasi-states at its leasure. The sooner that signal comes, the better - for Ukraine, for the West, and for a Russia, which is now heading down a cul-de-sac like never before.