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A Federal Ukraine?

2 April 2014

A Federal Ukraine?

Two things were clear after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s four hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last Sunday. One was that the United States accepts that nothing can be done about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Kerry continues to describe Russia’s action as “illegal and illegitimate”, but Crimea was not even mentioned in the communique released to the public.

The other is that the transformation of Ukraine into a neutral, federal state is now firmly on the table. Kerry repeatedly voiced the mantra that there must be “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine,” but he also agreed with Lavrov that the subjects that need to be discussed include rights for national minorities, language rights, the disarmament of irregular forces and a constitutional reform that would make Ukraine a federal state.

By “rights for national minorities” and “language rights” he meant a special political status for Ukraine’s 17 percent ethnic Russian minority and maybe even for the much larger number of Ukrainians – probably 40-45 percent – who speak Russian on a daily basis. Moscow is asserting its right to intervene in Ukraine’s internal affairs to “protect” these minorities, and Kerry is at least willing to talk about it.

By “disarmament of irregular forces” Lavrov had meant the armed right-wing groups that played a small part in the revolution and still make occasional appearances on Independence Square and elsewhere in Kiev. These groups are Moscow’s pretext for claiming that there has been a “fascist coup” in Kiev, from which it says that it has a duty to protect Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Kerry may also have had in mind the armed pro-Moscow militias that occasionally appear in eastern Ukrainian cities, but he didn’t say so. Nor did he mention the fact that the Kiev government is already moving to disarm, break up and arrest the right-wing groups in western Ukrainian cities.

By talking about “federalising” Ukraine, Kerry was implicitly accepting that the Russian demand for a radical decentralisation of the country (which could give pro-Russian governments in some eastern Ukrainian provinces a veto on decisions in Kiev) is a legitimate topic for negotiation.

It’s no wonder that a satisfied Sergei Lavrov called the talks “very very constructive”, or that the Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson said Russia was demanding “Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.” And although Kerry promises “no decisions without Ukraine,” Kiev might not be able to reject American pressure to accept these concessions in its current gravely weakened state.

If all this makes John Kerry sound like a latter-day Neville Chamberlain appeasing Moscow, well, maybe he is. But that’s not clear yet.

Maybe the United States is getting ready to sell Ukraine down the river, or maybe Kerry is just giving sweet reason a try before the gloves come off. Likewise, maybe the Russians are really planning to turn Ukraine into a satellite – or maybe they just want to make it formally neutral. And how awful would that be?

There is nothing wrong with trying to stop this thing from turning into a new Cold War. Since NATO has no intention of offering Ukraine membership, formal neutrality could be a sensible way out of the current crisis so long as it does not preclude closer trade and travel ties with the European Union. But the Russians are also pushing hard for a “federalised” Ukraine.

“Given the proportion of native Russians in Ukraine,” said Lavrov, “we propose this and we are sure there is no other way.” That could be a deal-killer, especially since Moscow is starting to insist that the constitutional changes and a referendum on them be completed BEFORE the national election in Ukraine that is currently scheduled for 25 May.

These changes would be decided not by the Ukrainian government, but by a “nationwide dialogue” in which all regions would have an equal voice – including the eastern regions where there are many Russians, and 40,000 Russian troops poised just across the border. And, said Lavrov, the regions should have more power over, among other things, foreign trade, cultural ties abroad, and relations with neighbouring states, including Russia.

It is a programme, in other words, for the effective dismantling of the Ukrainian state, and it’s hard to see how even John Kerry and President Barack Obama can support that. Meanwhile, the level of panic is rising in the eastern European members of NATO, and especially in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which also have Russian minorities and border directly on the Russian Federation.

Vladimir Putin, fresh from his Crimean victory, is seriously overplaying his hand. Poland and the three Baltic states are now pushing for permanent NATO military bases on their territory, something the alliance has avoided since they joined in order not to antagonise Moscow. A confidential NATO paper leaked to Der Spiegel even talks about boosting military cooperation with Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all former Soviet republics.

And Moscow is now accusing Ukrainians of plotting terrorist attacks on Russian territory.  The odds on a new Cold War have gone up quite a lot in the past week.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“By disarmament…cities”)

Ukraine: Putin’s Choice

Crimea is going to be part of Russia, and there is nothing anybody else can do about it. The petty sanctions that the United States and the European Union are currently imposing have been discounted in advance by Moscow, and even much more serious sanctions would not move it to reconsider its actions. But Vladimir Putin still has to decide what he does next.

 One option, of course, is to do nothing more. He has his little local triumph in Crimea, which is of considerable emotional value to most Russians, and he has erased the loss of face he suffered when he mishandled the crisis in Kyiv so badly. If he just stops now, those sanctions will be quietly removed in a year or two, and it will be business as usual between Moscow and the West.

If it’s that easy to get past the present difficulties in Moscow’s relations with the U.S. and the EU, why would Putin consider doing anything else? Because he may genuinely believe that he is the victim of a Western political offensive in Eastern Europe.

Paranoids sometimes have real enemies. NATO’s behaviour since the collapse of the Soviet Union, viewed from Moscow, has been treacherous and aggressive, and it doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to see the European Union’s recent policy in Ukraine as a continuation of that policy.

After non-violent revolutions swept the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe from power in 1989, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a historic deal with U.S. president George H.W. Bush. It was unquestionably the most important diplomatic agreement of the late 20th century.

Gorbachev agreed to bring all the Soviet garrisons home from the former satellites, and even to allow the reunification of Germany—a very difficult concession when the generation of Russians that had suffered so greatly at Germany’s hands was still alive.

In return, the elder President Bush promised that the countries that had previously served the Soviet Union as a buffer zone between it and Germany—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – would not be swept up into an expanding NATO. They would be free, but NATO’s tanks and aircraft would not move a 1,000 kilometres to Moscow.

It was a wise deal between two men who understood the burden of history, but they were both gone from power by the end of 1992—and Gorbachev had neglected to get the promise written into a binding treaty. So it was broken, and all those countries were in NATO by 2004—together with three other countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that had actually been part of the Soviet Union itself.

NATO’s eastern frontier is now only 120 kilometres from Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. The Russians were burned again when NATO encouraged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia (a handy precedent for Crimea’s secession from Ukraine), and once more when NATO got Moscow’s agreement to an emergency military intervention in Libya to stop a massacre, and expanded it into a campaign to overthrow the ruler, Moammar Gadhafi.

To Russian eyes, what has been happening in Ukraine is more of the same. If Putin believes that, then he thinks he is already in a new Cold War, and he might as well go ahead and improve his position for the coming struggle as much as possible. Specifically, he should grab as much of Ukraine as he can, because otherwise the western part will be turned into a NATO base to be used against him.

Crimea is irrelevant in this context: the Russian naval bases there are nostalgic relics from another era, of no real strategic value in the 21st century. What Putin does need, if another Cold War is coming, is control of the parts of Ukraine where Russian speakers are a majority or nearly so: not just the east, but also the Black Sea coast. But he shouldn’t occupy western Ukraine, because he would face a prolonged guerilla war if he did.

This is all extremely paranoid thinking, and perhaps it never passes through Putin’s mind at all. But if it does, then he knows that he has just over two months to make up his mind.

If Putin allows Ukraine to hold the scheduled national election on May 25, then even the preposterous pretext he has been using for the past month to justify his meddling—that he is intervening to protect Russian-speakers from a “fascist junta” in Kiev—will vanish. So we should know fairly soon which way he is going to jump.

My money says that Putin will stop with Crimea, because he’s not that paranoid, and because he understands how weak Russia is economically and how quickly it would lose a new Cold War. He has already saved his face; why run further risks? But I have been wrong in the past, once or twice.

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

20 October 2013

Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking

By Gwynne Dyer

Short term beats long term most of the time, even when people understand where their long-term self-interest really lies. Take, for example, that well-known pair, Russia and the Maldives.

Five years ago, it was hard to find senior people in the universities and scientific institutes in Moscow who were even willing to discuss climate change. But the great heat-wave of 2010, which killed one-third of the Russian grain crop, seems to have changed all that.

It was Russia that insisted on putting a reference to geo-engineering, the highly controversial array of last-ditch measures to combat global warming, into the last paragraph of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report. The Russians get it now. And yet….

On 18 September the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise stopped near the drilling platform Prirazlomnaya, the first rig to drill for oil off Russia’s Arctic coast, and launched four inflatable boats. Their aim was to hang a banner on the platform denouncing Russian plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the environmentally sensitive Arctic, especially since burning all that extra oil and gas will speed up the warming process.

There were no weapons aboard the ship, and Greenpeace’s protests are always non-violent. None of the protesters tried to climb up the legs of the platform or damage it in any way. But armed Russian security forces abseiled down from helicopters and took them all prisoner. The ship and all its crew were arrested and taken to the nearest Russian port, Murmansk.

A month later, all thirty crew members, volunteers who come from Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand and eleven other countries, are still in prison. Half of them have already been charged with “piracy”.

It sounds ridiculous, but piracy carries a prison sentence of ten to fifteen years, and the Russian state is deadly serious. The crew have all been refused bail, and it will probably be months before they even stand trial. The Russian state has a long tradition of reacting badly when it is challenged, and the platform belongs to Gazprom, a state-owned firm, but even so this is an extreme over-reaction.

Besides, knowing how hard climate change will hit Russia, why did Moscow let Gazprom start drilling in the Arctic seabed at all? Because Russia’s relative prosperity in the past decade has depended heavily on exports of oil and gas. Because President Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the continuation of that fragile prosperity. And because Russia’s onshore reserves of oil and gas are in decline.

Russian scientists are well aware that the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean is already thawing and releasing huge plumes of methane gas that will accelerate warming further. President Putin is concerned enough about climate change to spend serious diplomatic capital on getting geo-engineering into the IPCC report. But warming is a long-term (or at least a medium-term) problem, and his political survival is short-term.

Short-term comes first, so drill away, and if people protest against it, charge them with piracy. And if you think this is as stupid as politics can get, consider the Maldives.

The Maldives are several hundred tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is only about a metre (three or four feet) above sea level. As the sea level rises, most of the country will simply disappear beneath the waves.

You would think that the prospect of national extinction in two generations would concentrate anybody’s mind, and in the Maldives it did – for a while. In 2008 the long-ruling dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the islands’ first free election by Mohamed Nasheed, a young politician who put great emphasis on fighting climate change.

Nasheed knew that his own country’s actions could have little direct effect on the outcome: China emits about 2,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the Maldives. But he also knew that the extreme vulnerability of the Maldives gives its decisions a high publicity value, so he pledged to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He even held a cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear, to dramatise the country’s plight.

Then, early last year, Nasheed was overthrown in a coup by senior police officers closely linked to the old regime. International pressure forced fresh elections early last month and Nasheed came in well ahead of the other two candidates.

Various interventions by police and judges linked to the former dictator have complicated the issue, and the election will now be re-run early next month. Nasheed will doubtless recover the presidency in the end, but here’s the thing. In the whole election campaign, he didn’t mention climate change once. Neither did the other candidates.

This is a country full of people whose grandchildren are going to have to live somewhere else because the whole place is going underwater, and they STILL don’t want to hear about climate change. You can’t just blame the politicians for the neglect. It’s just too uncomfortable for people to stay focussed on the issue for long.

And by the way, opinion polls reveal that a majority of Russians approve of the piracy charges laid against the Greenpeace crew.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Russian…short-term”; and “Nasheed…plight”)

 

Syria: An Unexpected Rabbit

10 September 2013

Syria: An Unexpected Rabbit

By Gwynne Dyer

When someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it’s natural to be suspicious. Magicians are professionals in deceit – and so are diplomats. But sometimes the rabbit is real.

On Monday morning, the world was heading into the biggest crisis in years: a looming American attack on Syria, a Russian response that could set off the first major confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War, and the possible spread of the fighting from Syria to neighbouring countries. Or alternatively, a Congressional rejection of President Barack Obama’s plans that would have left him a lame duck for the next three years.

By Tuesday morning all that had changed. A Russian proposal for Syria to get rid of all its chemical weapons was promptly accepted by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and the Senate vote on Obama’s planned strikes on Syria was postponed, probably for weeks. If Syria keeps its word, the vote may never be held. What a difference a day makes.

Now for the cavils. Nothing has been signed. Nothing has even been written up for signature. Maybe Syria is just playing for time. Perhaps Obama will want to pursue the Syrian regime legally for the poison gas attacks that he claims it has already carried out (though he sounded very relieved on hearing the news and didn’t mention any “red lines”).

The sequence of events, so far as can be made out, was as follows. At the Moscow G20 summit last week, Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had a one-to-one chat on the side at which one of them broached the possibility of persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons entirely. Which one isn’t clear, and the idea was not pursued by either of them.

Yet both men had reason to want such a thing, for the alternative was that Obama would lead the United States into another Middle Eastern war, not exactly what he was elected for – or that he would not get Congressional approval to do so and end up completely discredited. Putin would feel obliged to respond to a US attack on his Syrian ally, but that could end up with Russian missiles shooting down American planes.

There was then silence until Monday, when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, gave an off-the-cuff reply in London to a question about whether Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American attack. “Sure. He could turn over every bit of his (chemical) weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” said Kerry with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”

Then Kerry got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying that he was about to announce that Russia would ask Syria to put all its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and finally destroy them all.

The Syrian foreign minister happened to be in Moscow, so within an hour he declared that Assad’s regime “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.” By Monday evening Obama was saying that the Russian plan “could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” and the pot was off the boil.

The whole thing, therefore, was made up on the fly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work, but it is a proposal that comes without any of the usual preparation that precedes a major diplomatic initiative. The reason we don’t know the details is that there aren’t any. What we do know is that everybody – Obama, Putin and Assad – is clearly desperate to avoid going to war, and that gives us reason to hope.

Two things that have to happen fast, if this rabbit is really going to run. First, Syria has to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention right away. That could be done within a week, and it would legally commit it to getting rid of all its chemical weapons and the factories that make them.

Secondly, the United Nations Security Council has to pass a resolution demanding that Syria reveal the size and location of its entire stock of chemical weapons and place them under international control. France has already put such a resolution on the Security Council’s agenda; the test will be whether Russia vetoes it. It probably won’t.

There is a great deal of suspicion in Washington that this is merely a delaying tactic meant to stall an American attack and sap the already weak popular support in the United States for military action. Moreover, it will be hard to send international troops in to secure Syria’s chemical weapons (at least forty storage sites, plus some weapons in the hands of military units) unless there is a ceasefire in the civil war now raging all over the country.

But the American military will be pleased, because they were really unhappy about the job that Obama was giving them, and Obama himself looks like a man who has been granted a new lease of life. There will be time to try to make this work.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 11 and 12. (“Now…lines”; and “Two…won’t”)