Tag Archives: Russia

How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

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One Europe?

by Rhodri C. Williams

As I type this, the points are rolling in for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Its all a little bit surreal. Having done its best to stave off ‘politicization’ of a 2012 contest handed without strings to autocratic Azerbaijan, the organizers of Eurovision are now finding European politics bashing down the door and tracking muddy footprints down the hallway.

At the other end of Europe, it has been another bloody, divisive day in Eastern Ukraine, which is now described by the Guardian as ‘on the brink of civil war’. As mob rule descended on the Eastern city of Mariupol, one local Russian speaking resident described his view of the casus belli as follows: “This is the Donetsk people’s republic! We will destroy the Kiev junta and the Euro-gays! We will win!”

At this end of Europe, the picture could not be more different, with the Euro-gays sitting rather clearly in the ascendancy as the last minutes of the Eurovision contest roll down. A few minutes back, the astonishing transvestite performer Conchita Wurst of Austria passed the point of no return, taking high points not only from predictable Western countries but also east of the Oder locales like Georgia with rather mixed past records on moving past hetero-normativity.

More sadly, a pair of talented twins who happen to hail from Russia (but probably enjoy fairly little direct responsibility for troop movements on the Ukrainian border) initially drew loud and sustained boos from the crowd every time one of Russia’s few remaining friends in the region tipped them their 10 crony points. By the end the boos seemed to be drowned out by cheers, which indicate a far greater capacity to learn quickly from past mistakes on the part of the Eurovision crowd than the Kremlin regime.

The phenomenon of Conchita Wurst at this moment in European history highlights both the ascendancy of socially liberal values across many parts of Europe and the political division that gapes ever wider between European regimes that can handle individual expression and those that find it threatening. Not that the two never play footsie, mind. Just look at former Eurovision capital Azerbaijan, returned decisively to its draconian ways after the foreign media pulled out and yet all dolled up to assume the chairmanship of Europe’s ever less credible human rights organization, the Council of Europe, in just three days.

And yet, in the afterglow of a Eurovision contest that fell overwhelmingly to an Austrian ‘bearded woman’ who could belt out a power ballad like nobody’s business, the last word is best left to Conchita herself:

Waking in the rubble
Walking over glass
Neighbors say we’re trouble
Well that time has passed

At some point, now or in the future, Moscow will need to decide whether it always wants to be that grumpy neighbor or would rather integrate more meaningfully with a European community it has every claim to be a part of. But Europe would do well in the meantime to be a little more careful about who it welcomes into Conchita’s house.

More cold comfort from Åland in advance of the Crimea referendum

by Rhodri C. Williams

Well the ironies are just flying in thick and fast, as the Russian-speaking local majority on Crimea prepare a referendum to pave the way for the mother of all minority rights protections – secession to the kin state.

There is more and more reporting on how nervous this is making Crimea’s real national minority, the Crimean Tatars – see here in the Washington Post or this Globe and Mail comment by Victor Ostapchuk. And for an eloquent appeal by a forlorn Russian-speaking Crimean who thinks he may have seen the forest for the trees, see this New Yorker piece by Natalia Antelava.

But back to the more obvious ironies. How about this, for starters – Russia, having used arbitrary gas price hikes and occasional winter shutoffs as a disciplinary measure against Ukraine for years, now finds itself sponsoring secession by a Crimean peninsula entirely dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for water, electricity and most of its communications and transportation infrastructure.

Or this one – the Russian sponsors of a Crimean referendum transparently without substantive justification and flagrantly in violation of all accepted procedures for negotiating such processes have now set out an implicit casus belli against the rest of Ukraine by finding fault with the technicalities of its 1991 split from the Soviet Union.

Or simply the fact that Russia’s “support” of Crimea has apparently been justified based on an assertion that the right to external self-determination apparently now applies in situations of contested transfers of power. On this basis, one wonders how much of Russia’s current territory might be interested in a review of their sovereignty arrangements after Putin’s controversial reelection in 2012?

But none of that changes the fact that Crimea is racing toward its referendum, blood has been drawn again in street fighting in Donetsk, and Russian troops are once again massed near the border to Eastern Ukraine. A last minute diplomatic scramble is underway, but Moscow is looking intransigent. So, where does that leave things?

First, a caveat. While I think that the Russian handling of the Ukraine crisis has been dishonest, cynical, inflammatory, illegal, foolish and predictable, I do not deny that Russia has a legitimate stake, and must inherently be as much part of any future solution as it is part of the current problem. I also fear that NATO’s ambitions in the region have a significant and insufficiently examined role in stoking the current conflict, and find arguments for “Finlandization” persuasive.

Second, an omission. In my recent Opinio Juris piece, I forgot to mention that one of the most important similarities between the Åland Islands crisis and that in Crimea may be yet to emerge. Specifically, the Åland crisis began with a controversial referendum in which the local population voted overwhelmingly for union with Sweden. Helsinki condemned it as illegal, but all parties refrained from violence, and the conflict eventually found its way to the League of Nations and was resolved there. 

In all likelihood, the Crimeans will have their say on Sunday. Whether it will be free, fair, representative or meaningful is another matter. But if the ICJ said nothing else in their Kosovo Advisory Opinion, they did uphold some kind of freedom of speech in relation to self-determination movements. The real question is whether the referendum will represent the final word. It should not, and if everyone keeps a cool head, it may not.

Guest-posting at Opinio Juris – Åland and Crimea as distant cousins

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am grateful to the editors at Opinio Juris for facilitating my debut there as a late addition in their Insta-Symposium on the Ukraine crisis. My guest-post (accessible here) focuses on the question of whether the settled autonomy and demilitarization regime in the Åland Islands of Finland hold any lessons for the Crimea crisis. As such, it builds both on my ongoing research on the Åland autonomy and on my more recent commentaries on self-determination issues in the Ukraine crisis.

The Ukraine crisis is really only the latest in a series of post-Cold War crises that have unraveled all the constructive ambiguity built into the UN Charter, slinging concepts like territorial integrity, self-determination and non-aggression into one unhealthy mix and shaking vigorously. As pointed out by Thomas de Waal in the Wall Street Journal, the crisis also invokes many of the baroque debates surrounding sovereignty, regional integration, secession and devolution floating around the EU as Scotland and Catalonia contemplate their futures.

It can all seem dispiriting, but in the midst of the gloom it can be helpful to be reminded that there have been ostensibly intractable and potentially catastrophic geopolitical conflicts that have been successfully resolved, such as the Åland Islands question in the 1920s. And curiously enough, the deeper I dug, the more resonances I seemed to find between the Åland case and that of Crimea in Ukraine. But you, dear reader, should be the judge

Responsibility to provoke? Aggression, self-determination and the Ukraine crisis

by Rhodri C. Williams

With four posts in a row on the tumult in Ukraine, it is starting to feel like this blog has joined Crimea in being overrun by Berkut riot police and Night Wolves biker gangs. But it is impossible not to be distracted by the parade of tragicomedy that almost hourly seems to turn all of our sanctimonious post-Cold War certainties on their head. And the point is that after three posts of, essentially, just trying to keep up with events, this is the one where I finally get to engage with the scrimmage of international law and self-determination discourses being hurled around.

First things first. There is little doubt that the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula is illegal under international law, and more specifically the rule against aggression that constitutes one of the central planks of the UN Charter. US Secretary of State John Kerry splashed out early on, decrying an “incredible act of aggression”, with Russia behaving in a “19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” More soberly, EU Foreign Ministers have condemned “acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces.”

Legally, the charges seem to stick. In a cautious, preliminary analysis in EJILTalk, Daniel Wisehart argues that neither of the relevant conventional exceptions to the non-aggression rule – self-defence or intervention by invitation – can credibly be invoked in this case. A recent appeal by the Ukrainian Association of International Law goes further to claim “not only a violation of the UN Charter and general international law, but also of the bilateral treaty permitting Russia to retain the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, and also of the security assurances given in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 by Russia…” So, what is Russia saying?

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No region for buffer countries

by Rhodri C. Williams

Events in Ukraine continued to metastasise since my earlier post reporting on the Yanukovich defenestration last week. I spent a long weekend in Finland, ironically enough reading a fascinating history of that country’s long and troubled history as a buffer country between Russia and Sweden. I was also sans internet, which always seems like a blessing until you get back and realise that the world moves on without you, occasionally in distressing directions.

What I missed of course, was the creeping Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now by and large recognised as a fait accompli, with the only remaining debate focused on how to keep the de facto Russian border from moving into mainland Ukraine. Its impossible to keep track of the tsunami of commentary that has been triggered by these undoubtedly tectonic events, but it is revealing that much of it focuses on the role of the big blocs putting the squeeze on Ukraine, rather than the poor buffeted Ukrainians themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Western end of the discussion is the dizzying range of responses. At the most parochial end, the mid-term election attack ads on how Obama lost Ukraine are already in the make. However, such arguments only underscore how remarkably far the West has already penetrated the vast territory consigned to Soviet Russian tutelage after World War II. Imagine if Putin was coming under criticism in Moscow for failing to block an extension of the NAFTA, and you might get the idea.

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Ukraine 2.0, and its still February…

by Rhodri C. Williams

Simply amazing. The Ukrainian boat of  state looked set to capsize just five days ago as the Russian Sochi supertanker bore down. Miraculously, she righted herself in its wake, her un-beloved Captain spilling his cooked logbooks left and right as he dashed for his armored lifeboat. But now there is dissension among the crew and the tanker still lurks nearby in the fog, its commander brooding imperiously and sending out his cabin boy to mutter imprecations. It looks better, in other words, but could all be a prelude to getting dramatically worse. 

One issue is the engagement of the West, which is now enjoying a windfall opportunity to support the Ukrainian opposition, despite earlier performances so lacklustre that historian Anne Applebaum was moved in January to lament the death of “the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe and the United States is an important part of it.” Having negotiated the initial truce that eased Yanokovich out (see this fascinating BBC account of the role played by Radislav Sikorski, Polish foreign minister and Applebaum’s husband), Western actors are now frantically engaged in attempting to shore up an interim government composed of the bewildered former opposition.

It is not clear that they are always doing themselves great favors. First, whatever the merits of Russia’s ostensible concerns about Ukraine, airily dismissing them is unlikely to calm the waters. Writing for Stratfor, for instance, George Friedman notes that the ‘truce agreement’ was achieved in part through sidestepping Ukraine’s constitution, but argues that the latter “didn’t have the patina of tradition that a true constitution requires, and few will miss Yanukovich.” In a similarly blithe manner, the US has gone on to dismiss Yanukovich as President and proclaim the non-existence of East-West tensions in the country.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the political split between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West is overstated, beginning with the lack of any groundswell of popular support for union with Russia or its “Eurasian Union” anywhere outside the Crimean Peninsula. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Daniel Bilak asserted that the population of the East are “confused and uncertain” but increasingly joined to the West by joint rejection of the Russian-oriented oligarchs that have compounded their economic misery:

Mired in poverty, the people of Eastern Ukraine have been cynically manipulated by regional political and economic (a.k.a. oligarch) elites for the past 22 years of Ukrainian independence. As they enriched themselves through the cheap acquisition of decrepit Soviet-era assets (a phenomenon common throughout the former Soviet Union), these clans have exercized virtual total economic and political control over the lives of their electorate/employees, who are tied like serfs to the large enterprises that dominate their towns and cities. Fear of losing jobs and pensions makes these people easy to manipulate at election-time, something the ruling clan has used to great effect.

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The “eastern narrative” in the age of globalization and the internet is not sustainable. While they may be more passive than passionate, Mr. Yanukovych’s 20 per cent approval rating shows the degree to which Ukrainians from the east are united with the rest of the country against what most see as endemic bureaucratic racketeering at all levels of government. Anti-Maidan demonstrations have been fleeting at best. On the other hand, “Euromaidan” demonstrations in the eastern oblasts recently gained ground by the thousands, driven by a growing social network-friendly middle class of small entrepreneurs and youth.

On Thursday, this trend reached an apex when Ukrainians of all ages showed solidarity with their compatriots on the Maidan by stopping on roadways busloads of thugs hired by the regime (often burning their buses) and lying on railway tracks to prevent police and troops from reaching Kiev.

In essence, socio-economic problems make all Ukrainians brothers-in-arms. With an economy on the verge of collapse, Ukrainians are facing up to theft of Homeric proportions, as they wonder how Ukraine’s debt went from $36-billion to $72-billion in four years, with no improvement in their livelihoods. Eastern Ukrainians are also patriots of their country – they feel as much cheated by this regime, as their brethren in western Ukraine felt betrayed by the previous government.

On the other hand, it will be important for Western actors to pressure the new interim government to avoid moves that could be seen as unnecessarily provocative. By rushing to strike down legislation recognizing Russian as an official language, for instance, the Parliament has met genuine demands to roll back the Yanukovich legacy with a measure that could unnecessarily alienate potentially sympathetic members of the country’s Russian-speaking community. Meanwhile, major concerns have been raised by the apparent mobilization of the Russian-speaking majority on the Crimean Peninsula, who have threatened to secede, and allegedly sought a Russian intervention.

Russia itself appears bewildered, furiously condemning the new authorities while repeatedly affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Where the Beijing Olympics provided useful cover for the 2008 war in which Russia disciplined Georgia, another former Soviet Republic, the Sochi Olympics constituted a distraction that prevented a more assertive response to the rumblings in Ukraine. Likewise, the penumbra of corruption and human rights abuses that overshadowed Sochi’s glitz hardly constituted an advertisement for closer ties.

As argued here in the BBC, it is quite likely that Moscow has realized applying further pressure at this stage is only likely to burn whatever bridges it has left to Kiev without bringing tangible gain. Still dangerous circumstances, but Yanukovich’s corruption, repression and abrupt abdication may have left the best possible legacy – a set of incentives for all actors to allow Ukraine to fumble its way forward to cleaner and more representative government.