The current ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine, the so-called Minsk-2 agreement, was signed last February, but they never actually ceased firing. At least a thousand more people have been killed in the fighting since then, and on one night last month (14 August) the monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded 175 separate ceasefire violations.
On a visit to Kiev that week, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the conflict was “still red-hot” and that he could not see an end to the fighting “any time soon.” As late as 11 September Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was condemning Russia’s “neo-imperial aggression” in eastern Ukraine, where an estimated 9,000 Russian soldiers are on the ground in support of the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
But then the music changed. When the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum opened in Kiev on 12 September, Poroshenko announced that the previous night had been the first in the whole conflict with no shelling. “This is not the end of the war,” he said, “but instead a change in tactics.”
Maybe that’s all it is, but if it stops the shooting, that would certainly be a step in the right direction. And by and large the shooting really has stopped in the past two weeks, although there is no sign yet that Russian troops are leaving Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Poroshenko claims that the shift in Russian tactics is merely a switch from military offensives in the east to political attacks intended to destabilise Ukraine “from the inside.” He was presumably referring to a grenade attack outside the parliament building in Kiev on 31 August that killed three soldiers and wounded more than one hundred people. But it’s very unlikely that Russia was behind it, and Poroshenko should know that.
The demonstrators outside the parliament were from various extremist right-wing nationalist parties. Moreover, the proposed law they were protesting against was one that would change the constitution and give greater autonomy to the regions now held by the separatists. It’s clear why Ukraininan ultra-nationalists would want to stop that, but why would Russia want to stop it?
It was really Russian President Vladimir Putin who took the initiative to stop the fighting, although it was his local allies declared that they would observe a complete ceasefire from 1 September. Since the better-armed rebels, with Russian support when necessary, have consistently outfought Ukraine’s ill-trained forces – all the changes in the front line since the ceasefire have been rebel gains from Ukraine – it was the rebels who had to move first.
They moved because Moscow has decided to freeze the conflict, which has now served its main purpose of saving Putin’s face. He was deeply embarrassed when the Ukrainians overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev eighteen months ago. His illegal annexation of Crimea, like his encouragement and military support for the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, was partly motivated by his need to restore his political position in Russia.
Having “lost” Ukraine, Putin also needed to ensure that it didn’t become a base for Western influence, and maybe even NATO troops, on Russia’s southern border. The best way of doing that was to ensnare the new government in Kiev in a chronic low-level conflict with Russia that would cripple Ukraine’s economy and make Western governments very nervous about getting too close to it.
Those goals are now accomplished. Ukraine has effectively lost three provinces (all with Russian-speaking majorities), and a permanent military stalemate between Kiev and its rebel-held provinces means that the likelihood of its ever joining the European Union or NATO is approximately zero. There is no need for further shooting, and Russia does have other fish to fry.
Right through the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow has avoided doing other things that would alienate the West. It went on providing essential transit facilities for the American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. It cooperated with the West in the negotiations that led to the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It continues to transport Western astronauts to the International Space Station, since they have no transport of their own.
Putin never wanted a “new Cold War” that Russia would surely lose. The cost of the old Cold War broke the Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia is much weaker. He just wanted to limit the options of a hostile Ukraine. Now that he has succeeded it’s time to freeze the situation – and both Poroshenko and his Western supporters have tacitly accepted that this is the least bad outcome.
They took a poll of the assembled experts at the end of the YES conference earlier this month, asking what they thought Ukraine would look like three years from now. 53 percent of the Ukrainian participants, and 58 percent of the international guests, believed that it would see economic growth and stabilisation despite a contained, “frozen” conflict in the east.
Only 3 percent of each group believed that it would see “economic decline, destabilization, and a further loss of territory.” So move along, please, sir. There’s nothing more to see here.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Poroshenko…it”)
The sheer dithering cluelessness of the European Union’s leaders, faced with an unexpected surge in the number of migrants seeking refugee status in EU countries, challenges all our previous definitions of incompetence. A new standard has been set.
All of a sudden, in July, the main stream of refugees arriving in Europe switched from the trans-Mediterranean track out of Libya to the Aegean Sea, where the crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands just offshore is less than one-tenth as far. People are drowning on this Aegean route too, but far fewer of them.
They don’t want to stay in Greece, of course – and although Greece is part of the Schengen area, which abolishes border controls between most EU members, it has no common border with any other Schengen member. Migrants wishing to claim refugee status in some richer EU country must therefore trek on up through the Balkans, seeking to reach some other Schengen country like Hungary or Slovenia.
They don’t want to stay in those countries either, but once they are in any Schengen country other than Greece they can travel on freely to their real destinations, usually Germany, Sweden or France. Or at least they could until about two weeks ago. Then the panic started.
Heading up from Greece, the migrants first reached Macedonia (not a Schengen country). It tried to protect its border for a while, then realised they just wanted to cross Macedonia and let them all through. Serbia (also not a Schengen country) did the same – which delivered them to the southern border of Hungary.
Hungary has been building a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along its southern frontier to keep asylum-seekers out, and it used considerable violence against the mostly Syrian refugees at first. But then Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, wearing her Lady Bountiful cloak, announced that Germany would accept as many as wanted to come.
So Hungary opened its border and the refugees surged through, on their way to Austria and thence to Germany. That lasted precisely two days. Then Merkel panicked at the numbers arriving in Germany and “temporarily” closed the border with Austria. So to stop refugees from piling up in Austria, Vienna closed the border with Hungary – and Hungary shut its border with Serbia for the same reason.
Nothing daunted, the refugees stuck on the Hungarian border turned left and headed for Croatia (not a Schengen member). Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic declared that the government was “entirely ready to receive or direct those people where they want to go, which is obviously Germany or Scandinavian countries.” He knew they really just wanted to cross Croatia to get into Slovenia or Hungary (which ARE Schengen members).
But 24 hours later the Croatian government, shocked by the numbers that were coming, shut its border too. Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said his country was “absolutely full” and told the migrants: “Don’t come here any more. Stay in refugee centres in Serbia and Macedonia and Greece. This is not the road to Europe.”
Meanwhile Hungary declared that it was extending its razor-wire fence to cover the border with Croatia as well, and Slovenia began to stop trains coming from Croatia to search for refugees. There will be a summit this week at which EU governments will try to come up with a coherent common policy, but don’t hold your breath while waiting for the good news.
The EU probably will sort it out eventually, because the numbers are not really all that huge. Around 500,000 migrants (most of whom will claim refugee status) have entered the European Union this year, which is only one percent of the EU’s population.
It is not beyond the wit of the EU’s leaders to work out legal ways to send false claimants home, to settle the refugees already in Europe, and to strengthen the EU’s external border controls. Some lasting damage may be done to the EU’s ideals in the process, but for most practical purposes life in Europe will return to normal – for a while.
However, this refugee crisis is only a rehearsal for the main event, which will probably arrive in ten to twenty years’ time. It will be driven by global warming, which will devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa and produce a five- or tenfold increase in the number of refugees heading for Europe.
This is not what MIGHT happen IF the world’s governments don’t make the right deal at the climate summit in Paris in December. This is what almost certainly WILL happen even if they do make the right deal now. A considerable amount of warming is already locked into the system no matter what we do about the climate now – enough to produce that kind of refugee flow in the future.
There is not the slightest sign that EU policy-makers have taken this on board. If they are taken by surprise again, the European Union may collapse. So may several southern European states.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…Hungary”)
“We understood the responsibility to stay alive over choosing suicide,” said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, defending his decision to end his rebellion against the European Union’s tough terms for bailing out the Greek economy. He needed to defend it, since he finally gave in to even harsher terms. Sometimes defiance at all costs is a mistake.
If Tsipras really knew he was going to lose his David-and-Goliath struggle with the EU eventually, shouldn’t he have settled earlier for better terms? If he didn’t realize that, what was he doing in the prime minister’s office? So now the firebrand who turned Greek politics upside down is a bit of a zombie.
Back in mid-August, when Tsipras called the snap election that will be held this Sunday, he was still basking in the after-glow of the defiant ‘No’ that Greek voters gave to austerity in his July referendum, and the opinion polls gave his Syriza party 42 per cent support. At least Tsipras had stood up to the wicked Germans and their rich allies in the EU, even if it meant that the banks closed for three weeks and the economy went into a nosedive.
But a lot of Greeks are having sober second thoughts. Tsipras’s quixotic battle with the EU killed what was starting to look like a modest outbreak of growth in the Greek economy, and analysts are now predicting a further decline of up to four per cent in Greek GDP this year. Unemployment is still at 25 per cent (50 per cent for young people). Was it all worth it?
Maybe not, and that thought may even have occurred to Alexis Tsipras by now. He was certainly very subdued in his television debate with Vangelis Meimarakis, leader of the New Democracy Party, last Sunday, and well he might be.
In the past six weeks, Tsipras’s own Syriza party has split, with 25 of its members of parliament forming a new Popular Unity party. They condemn him for accepting austerity and want Greece to quit the euro instead. They have taken a lot of Syriza’s former voters with them, so Syriza and the centre-right New Democracy party are now neck-and-neck in the polls, with less than one percentage point between them.
That one percentage point matters a lot, since in Greek elections the party that wins the most seats is then given another 50 seats as a bonus. But even if Syriza is that party, it will still be very hard to form a new government after Sunday’s election.
During the last debate, Tsipras rejected Vangelis Meimarakis’s call for a broad coalition, saying that it would be “unnatural” for his party and New Democracy to be in government together. It’s hard to see what would be unnatural about it, considering the deal Tsipras signed with the EU, but he is still in denial about what he has done.
Tsipras, like many, maybe most Greeks, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to keep the euro, because he calculates that Greece would have to leave the European Union if it went back to its old currency, the drachma. That is not technically inevitable, but most Greeks reckon it is very likely, and they desperately want to stay in the EU.
But neither Tsiras nor Greek voters want to live with perpetual austerity, which is probably the price of staying in the euro. Countries like Greece, that have run up huge foreign debts, usually deal with the problem by devaluing their currency, but there is no way for Greece to devalue the euro.
There is one way out of this dilemma, of course: get your creditors to give you “debt relief.” If they would agree to cut the amount Greece owes by half, it could probably service the remainder of its debt and still grow its economy. In fact, that’s exactly what Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told the eurozone finance ministers last month.
“I remain firmly of the view that Greece’s debt has become unsustainable,” she said. (It’s now heading for 200 per cent of GDP.)
So she called on the European Union to make “concrete commitments … to provide significant debt relief, well beyond what has been considered so far.”
The rich eurozone countries don’t want to do that, because other highly indebted members of the EU would then demand the same relief. If they refuse to do it for Greece, however, the IMF will not take part in the 86-billion-euro bailout of the Greek government and banks.
If the IMF won’t play, several EU parliaments (notably the German) may not ratify the deal, whose final details must be settled next month. But a solution will probably be found in the end, most likely by giving Greece a very long grace period, say 30 years, during which it only has to pay the interest, not the principal, on a large part of its debt.
But it’s increasingly unlikely that Alexis Tsipras will be the Greek prime minister who negotiates that deal — even though you could argue that it was really his defiance and brinkmanship that forced Greece’s creditors to consider such a deal at all.