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Ukraine: Peace at Last?

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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Poroshenko…it”)

Syria: Russia to the Rescue?

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning him not to “escalate the conflict” by increasing Moscow’s military support for the beleaguered Syrian regime. He stamped his foot quite hard, telling Lavrov that his government’s actions could “lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria.”

What the Russians have actually done, so far, is to send an advance military team to Damascus of the sort that is normally deployed to prepare for the arrival of a much larger military force. They have also sent an air traffic control centre and housing units for its personnel to a Syrian airbase.

It suggests that Moscow is getting ready to go in to save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has given Assad diplomatic support, financial aid and some weapons over the course of the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but it will take more than that to save him now. That would include at least an airlift of heavy weapons, but maybe also direct Russian air support for Assad’s exhausted troops.

They need it. Since the fanatical fighters of “Islamic State” (or Isil, as the US State Department calls it) captured Palmyra in central Syria in May, they have advanced steadily westward from their new base.

One month ago they captured the mostly Christian town of al-Qaratayn, north-east of Damascus. (The inhabitants fled, of course). And now IS forces are within 30 km. of the M5, the key highway that links Damascus with the other parts of Syria that remain under government control.

The jihadis captured Palmyra, by the way, because the “anti-Isil coalition” – the US Air Force, in practice – did not drop a single bomb in its defence. It made at least a thousand air strikes to save Kobani, the Kurdish city on the border with Turkey that was besieged by IS fighters, because the Kurds were US allies. Whereas Palmyra was defended by Assad’s soldiers, so the US let Islamic State have it.

One can imagine Kerry’s (and Obama’s) horror at the idea that by defending Palmyra they would be seen as protecting Assad’s brutal regime, but if Islamic State troops manage to cut the M5 it will be seen as a sign of the regime’s impending defeat. At that point, up to half the people who still live in government-controlled areas – around 17 million – may panic and start trying to get out of Syria.

They would obviously include the religious minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze), some 5 million people who have good reason to fear slavery, rape and murder at the hands of Islamic State. The millions of Sunni Muslims who have served the Syrian government and its army would also be at risk. So let’s say 4 or 5 million more refugees pouring out across Syria’s borders, to join the 4 million who have already fled.

What they left behind would be a Syria entirely controlled by the extremists. The only remaining question would be whether the jihadis roll on through behind the refugees, overrunning Lebanon and Jordan as well, or whether they fall to fighting among themselves.

All three major Islamist groups – Islamic State (which Turkey and Saudi Arabia no longer support), and the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (which they still do) – are virtually identical in their ideology and their ultimate goals. However, they have some tactical differences, and Islamic State and al-Nusra fought a quite serious turf war last year, so maybe they will get distracted again. But even if they do, Syria will be gone.

This is what the Russians see coming, and they may be willing to try to stop it. When asked on Friday if Moscow intended to get involved directly in the Syrian fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin would only say that the question was “premature”. Nobody, including the Russians, likes Assad’s regime, but it is the least bad remaining option.

Indeed, it is the only alternative left to a jihadi victory. Most of the “moderate” anti-regime rebels went home or fled abroad years ago, unable to match the jihadis in firepower, in money or in frightfulness. The notion that the US can now create a moderate “third force” able to defeat both the jihadis and the Assad regime is a shameful face-saving fantasy

Moscow used diplomacy to save the Obama administration from itself two years ago, when Washington was getting ready to bomb Assad’s forces in response to a (possibly spurious) allegation that they had used poison gas on civilians. The only way Russia can avert disaster this time, however, is to put its own air force into the fight – and maybe its own ground troops too.

If it does, the key question will then be whether the United States lets Russia do the job that it is too fastidious to do itself, or whether it gives in to the clamour of its Turkish and Saudi allies – and they would be clamouring – to “stand up” to the Russian intervention.

Since the United States doesn’t actually have a coherent strategy of its own, it’s impossible to predict how it will respond. For all Kerry’s bluster, they don’t know yet in Washington either.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10 . (“The jihadis…it”; and “All…gone”)

Ukraine Cock-Up

This is what former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, subsequently driven from office by mass protests in Kiev, said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel just one year ago, at the start of the crisis. It was recorded by a Lithuanian television crew, eavesdropping on the conversation with a directional mike, at the European Union summit in Vilnius where Yanukovych announced that he was not going to sign an EU-Ukraine trade deal.

“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” Yanukovych explained to Merkel in Russian (which they both speak fluently). “I would like you to hear me. I was left alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”

The Ukrainian president was not overthrown by a “fascist” plot, as Russian propaganda would have us believe, nor was NATO hoping to make Ukraine a member. (Indeed, NATO had repeatedly told the previous Ukrainian government, which was very pro-Western, that under no circumstances could it ever join the Western alliance.)  Exactly one year into the crisis, it’s useful to remember what really happened.

The basic question you have to ask about any international crisis is: conspiracy or cock-up? The Ukrainian crisis definitely falls into the latter category. Nobody planned it, and nobody wanted it. Here’s how they stumbled into it.

Yanukovych inherited the negotiations for a trade deal with the EU from the previous government when he returned to the presidency in 2010. (He was overthrown by the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, after winning a rigged election, but in 2010 he won narrowly but cleanly.) And he didn’t break off the talks with the EU because that would have alienated half the country: the western, mostly Ukrainian-speaking part.

Yanukovych was a typical post-Soviet political figure, deeply corrupt and almost comically greedy – the presidential palace he lived in on the banks of the Dnieper was so lavish it could have been in the Middle East – but he was a competent politician. Almost all his votes had come from the eastern and southern, mostly Russian-speaking parts of the country, but he knew that he couldn’t simply ignore the west.

On the other hand, he couldn’t ignore Moscow either. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin saw the EU as a stalking horse for NATO, and was trying to persuade Yanukovych to join his own “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) instead. Moreover, Russia had huge economic leverage, since it provided most of Ukraine’s energy and bought half of Ukraine’s exports (mainly coal, steel and heavy industrial goods made in eastern Ukraine).
So for three years Yanukovych temporised, trying to get financial guarantees out of the EU that would make up for the economic punishment Putin would inflict if Ukraine signed the trade treaty. The EU wouldn’t budge: there would be no special help for Ukraine. It would just have to take its punishment, Yanukovych was told, but the trade deal would be good for the country in the long term.

Politicians have to live in the short term, however, and in 2012-13 Ukrainian exports to Russia fell by half as Putin turned the screws tighter. Those exports mostly provided income for people in industrial eastern Ukraine, i.e. Yanukovych’s own supporters. The EU had left him “alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one” – so in late 2013 he made his choice: break off the EU talks, and sign up with Putin’s EEU instead.

Did Yanukovych foresee that there would be big demonstrations against him in Kiev, where people had pinned their hopes on association with the EU? Of course he did, but he probably didn’t foresee that the protests would be fuelled by the ham-fisted resort to violence by his own officials. He certainly didn’t foresee that he would ultimately be overthrown – nor did Putin, who had put him in that impossible position.

All the subsequent escalations of the conflict in Ukraine – the Russian annexation of Crimea, the pro-Moscow revolts in the two eastern provinces with the largest ethnic Russian minorities, the direct Russian military intervention that saved those revolts from collapse last August – have been driven by Putin’s determination to reverse his original error.

If Ukraine cannot be brought back into Moscow’s sphere of influence, then Putin’s strategy is to neutralise and paralyse it by maintaining a permanent “frozen conflict” in the east. In coldly rational terms, Ukraine’s best strategy now would be to abandon those two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are basically open-air industrial museums, and leave it to Russia to subsidise them instead.

But it’s not going to do that, because sovereign states never give up territory voluntarily. Realistically, therefore, Kiev’s best option is to strengthen the current ceasefire and let the front lines congeal and stabilise into de facto borders, while maintaining its legal claim to the two provinces. It remains to be seen if Moscow will even let that happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“If Ukraine…happen”)

Caspian Games

Russian politician Andrei Zhirinovsky is all mouth, so it would not normally have caused a stir when he suggested earlier this year that Russia should simply annex the parts of neighbouring Kazakhstan that have a large Russian population. But the ultra-nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party actually frightened the Kazakhs, because there is a bigger game going on.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since before Kazakhstan got its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, was so alarmed that he openly expressed doubts about whether Kazakhstan should join Moscow’s “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) when it launches next January. “Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence,” he said in August.

The EEU is the same organisation that Ukrainians rebelled against joining last year when their pro-Moscow former president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned plans for closer ties with the European Union (EU). But Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has always been on good terms with Russia, so Russia’s autarch, Vladimir Putin, immediately cracked the whip.

“Kazakhstan never had any statehood (historically),” Putin said. Nazarbayev merely “created” the country – with the clear implication that it was an artificial construct that might, if the wind changed, just be dismantled again. With Russian troops in eastern Ukraine “on holiday” from the army (but taking their armoured vehicles and artillery with them), it was a veiled threat that Kazakhstan had to take seriously.

There has actually been a Kazakh state. Almost the entire area of the current country, and substantial parts of neighbouring countries, were ruled from the 15th to the 18th centuries by a powerful Kazakh khanate, the traditional form of state among the Islamic, Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The reason it never evolved into a modern state is that the whole area was conquered and colonised by the Russian empire.

Russia is still the only great power within easy reach of the Central Asian states, and it underlined its displeasure with Nazarbayev by holding military exercises near the Kazakh border in early September. But Putin was not just restoring discipline in a prospective member of the EEU, his pet project to rival the EU.

Putin’s strategic objective is to control oil and gas traffic across the landlocked Caspian Sea. The last thing Moscow needs is cut-price competition from Central Asian producers in its European markets.

Moscow at the top of the Caspian Sea and Iran at the bottom have their own pipelines to get oil out to the markets. Azerbaijan, on the western shore, has built pipelines through Georgia into Turkey, one of which reaches the Mediterranean, so Russia cannot control its exports. But Moscow still has a stranglehold on the big oil and gas producers on the eastern side of the sea, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Neither of those former Soviet republics can escape Moscow’s grip unless it can move its oil and gas in pipelines across the Caspian seabed to Azerbaijan and out to the Mediterranean from there. So Putin has been trying for years to get a Russian veto on any such pipelines. He’s nearly there.

If the International Law of the Sea applied, then each country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, with control over seabed developments, would extend 300 nautical miles from its coast. The Caspian is not that big, so all five EEZ’s would meet in the middle – and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s zones would both touch Azerbaijan’s, so the question of trans-Caspian seabed pipelines would be beyond Moscow’s control.

But since the Caspian Sea is not part of the world ocean, the five countries around it can agree on any local rules they like. Russia is by far the greatest power on its shores, and the rules it likes would confine each country to a 15-nautical-mile sovereign zone and a 25-mile exclusive fishing zone.

Under this regime, the middle of the sea would remain a common area where any development would need the consent of all five countries. Hey presto! A Russian veto on any pipelines crossing the Caspian Sea, and continuing control over oil and gas exports from Central Asia to Europe.

Following a summit meeting of the five countries’ leaders in Astrakhan at the end of September, it’s practically a done deal, although the final treaty will not be signed until 2016. Late last month Richard Hoagland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, visited Astana, the Kazakh capital, and said that the US firmly supported Kazakh independence and territorial integrity, but everybody knows who’s boss in the region.

Sidelining Kazakh and Turkmen competition in the European gas and oil markets will not help Moscow much, however, if Putin’s behaviour on Russia’s western borders continues to frighten the Europeans. They will be scrambling to cut their dependence on Russian gas and oil as fast as they can, and the fracking Americans, with their soaring production, will be more than happy to help.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “There has…EU”