Friday, December 31, 2021

BGN 59

HIGH-LEVEL RISK MANAGEMENT


THE GLOBAL CONTEXT

December 7th Biden-Putin video conference
©President of Russia Website

The discussion in the media continues to focus on the movement of Russian troops in the vicinity of Ukraine and the possible invasion of Ukraine it may prepare, as well as on the sanctions against Russia this would produce. The December 30th diplomatic discussions between Presidents Biden and Putin seem to have focused much more on the matter of long-term security arrangements between the US/NATO and Russia. The media focus on possible war rather than on possible peace keeps the pressure on both sides to continue their discussion. This is important especially for the US as there is probably neither a full understanding of President Biden’s objectives nor full domestic or Euro-Atlantic support for the negotiation process he has agreed to initiate with Russia. That process is predicated on the pursuit of long-term objectives that may not be shared by the US foreign policy establishment or by the countries of the so-called New Europe such as Poland and the Baltic States. Some, even within the Biden administration, would rather continue the policy of confrontation with Russia and would object to anything that appears to reward rather than punish Russia.

Ever since the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty ceased to be operational in July 2007 there has not been an arrangement that would define the terms of acceptable military presence between Russia and, for all intents and purposes, the rest of Europe. More recently, with the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019, there has also been no framework for the control of nuclear missiles in the European theater of operations.

There have of course been attempts to fill the void, including the short-lived proposals for a new European security architecture by then President Medvedev in June 2008. Since then, with the war in Georgia in August 2008 and the conflict over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the circumstances have not been conducive to discussions on that theme. New START, the US-Russian treaty that limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads was, however, extended in 2021 for another five years.

What also has become clear to Vladimir Putin the course of last year is that tension can be creative. The movement of Russian troops closer to the Ukrainian border in early 2021 fulfilled its expected purpose. The Ukrainian side got the message that the Donbass was not going to be regained through military means. Bringing the troops back to the Ukrainian border might create the tension that would trigger US appetite for wide-ranging security discussions that have not really happened for many years.

Under the pressure of possible war in Ukraine, what Presidents Biden and Putin have agreed to do is to start working on a new broad long-term security arrangement that would deal with the new alignment of forces in Europe. This is what Russia essentially proposed as early as in 2008. In the context of an ever-expanding NATO, the US did not see this as a priority, but may be willing to consider it now as a way to ensure stability while reducing its own military presence in Europe. On a personal note, Biden is old enough, literally, to have been a first-row witness of all the major disarmament treaties that were signed with the Soviet Union beginning with START in 1971. He would be partial to that type of arrangement that could lessen the tension between the US and Russia. Nowadays he would fully appreciate the fact that this would allow him to focus more energy and attention to dealing with the China threat. It might not detach Russia from China but would lessen the prospect of a closer alliance between the two. Vladimir Putin publicising his briefing of Chinese President after his conversation with Joe Biden was both a reminder to Biden of what is at risk and to China that nothing will be done behind its back.

As for Canada, it would find it difficult not to support the Biden approach, but it may need to produce a creative way of reconciling its unconditional support for Ukraine with a process that appears to give less importance to the specific Ukraine-Russia conflict.


--o--

THE UKRAINIAN CONTEXT

In looking at the demands that Russia has made of the US and NATO, many analysts have focused on the idea of denying NATO membership to Ukraine. Paradoxically, it is not the prospect of early Ukrainian accession to NATO that has triggered a sense of urgency on the Russian side. The US and a few other leading NATO countries have made it abundantly clear to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy that NATO membership is not for the immediate future. Some have even used a specific term: at least 10 years. Ukraine has been told it must first go through more significant reforms. It is also understood that a country cannot enter NATO if it is not in full control of its national territory. The Donbass conflict must be resolved, or the rebel regions have to be given up. Crimea must be recovered or given up as well. All this is unlikely one way or another.

President Zelenskyy, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg
NATO Headquarters, December 16th
©President of Ukraine Website

What has become clear to Russia in the past few months is that there is a threat of some ersatz NATO membership for Ukraine in the form of a bilateral military partnership between the US and Ukraine. The flood gates of NATO membership may not open for Ukraine, but there could a creeping growth of US military presence on Ukrainian territory in the form of increasingly more sophisticated military equipment, well beyond Turkish drones and US Javelin missiles.

Joe Biden’s acquiescence to the idea of security discussions with Russia may also be consistent with his approach to the conflict in Afghanistan. The US should not extend its presence or commitment in a case when no resolution is in in sight. Afgnanistan returned to the Taliban, but Ukraine will not return to Russia.

The acquiescence to the discussions is also an indirect but clear acknowledgement that the situation in Ukraine will not be resolved shortly and that, in any event, it is not for Russia to make the next move. One should not expect that this would be well received in Ukraine. This is not to say that the US will stop supporting Ukraine or that the broad question of European security can eventually be resolved without the specific question of Ukraine being resolved or at least frozen in some acceptable way. It does however put some pressure on President Zelenskyy if he wants to avert the risk of Ukraine’s lost territory becoming a Cyprus-like frozen conflict.

Despite all the care that the Biden administration has taken to assuage Ukrainian concerns, it was only a matter of time before a political commentator would suggest that Biden is betraying Ukraine. Ironically, it is Andrey Illarionov, a Russian national, a former advisor of Vladimir Putin and one of his most vocal critics who did it, in unequivocal terms: “Biden once again surrendered Ukraine. On all issues that matter to her, he completely sided with Putin.”

The Kremlin readout of the most recent Biden-Putin meeting also notes that President Biden offered assurances that the US does not intend to deploy offensive weapons on the territory of Ukraine. That would held clear the atmosphere of the upcoming US-Russia negotiations but would once more disappoint the more hawkish elements in the US and Ukraine.

What is not covered thus far is what the US proposes to do with the Ukraine-Russia confrontation. There is still an interest in resolving that conflict. There is now a new truce in place in the Donbass area. It may last longer than previous ones. Reducing militarisation in that region first might be a first step that fits in the resolution of the global conflict. In order to enable Zelenskyy to engage credibly in any peace discussions, he has to be seen as having gained a stronger position both at home and vis-à-vis Russia. This is a tall order. A complete cease-fire, the withdrawal of some Russian troops and possibly the commitment to the presence of neutral peacekeepers might help.

--o--

THE NEGOTIATION

The Russian idea of publicising the draft texts of treaty with the US and with NATO may have appeared as rather unusual. The fact is that this is a negotiation that will have to be transparent in any event given the number of participants and the expected reluctance in some NATO quarters. Ultimately, public discussion could facilitate the work of the leaders. Including a clause that would preclude further eastward expansion of NATO (mostly Ukraine) allows all the NATO spokespersons to posture and repeat their mantras about the unacceptability of Russia deciding for NATO. As noted above, Presidents Biden and Putin already know that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO in the near future. They also know that an outright exclusion of NATO membership will never pass. Renouncing that exclusion can, however, be presented as a Russian concession whenever appropriate. In any event the real goal is to prevent NATO assets (missiles and troops) from being too numerous and too close to Russia and equally for Russian assets to be in comparable number and distance from all NATO countries and NATO-aspiring countries.

Evolution of NATO in Europe
©Patrick Neil

It has been observed that the staging of NATO missiles in the proximity of Russia would be as unacceptable to Russia as the staging of Soviet missiles on Cuba was unacceptable to the US in 1962. This gives a good sense of what has to be negotiated first. It should also be noted the deployment of US missiles is what is at stake, not any British or French ones, and that this would be exclusively a US decision no matter how much the Ukrainians may want them on their territory.

Finally, the staging of the upcoming discussions (US-Russia on January 10th, NATO-Russia on January12th and OSCE on January 13th) may not guarantee success but suggests that the process is carefully choreographed.

--o--

UKRAINE: SCRAMBLING FOR SOLUTIONS

At a time when the need for a strong president is felt more acutely, it looks as though President Zelenskyy has reached his lowest popularity level. His attempts to buttress his nationalist credentials with some anti-Russia trade measures or to appear as a strong leader by allowing for the prosecution of his predecessor, former President Poroshenko, are unlikely to have much positive effect. Zelenskyy is of course coming under all forms of attack from political adversaries but also receives the occasional indirect criticism from the US Embassy for, as an example, the appointment of a key anticorruption official.

President Zelenskyy visiting the Donbass frontlines, December 6th
©President of Ukraine Website


The latest attack from a former Interior Minister is that the Putin administration disposes of compromising material against Zelenskyy. That would seem far-fetched but is revealing of the current atmosphere.

The fact that Zelenskyy was perhaps the only leader not to have received New Year’s greetings from Vladimir Putin would normally have been a badge of honour but seems to have had no positive effect on Zelenskyy’s standing. More timely calls from Joe Biden would probably have been useful. In the context of the current US-Russia conversations, the question remains as to whether Zelenskyy is part of the problem or can become part of the solution.

--o--

MEMORIAL, THE SAKHAROV LEGACY

Andrey Sakharov at the founding of Memorial, 1989

Memorial, the human rights NGO whose work includes researching and keeping the memory of past repressions in the USSR and current repression in Russia, was shut down on December 28th by a decision of the Russian Supreme Court. That decision can be explained in legal terms on account of the restrictive Russian legislation on foreign agents. The decision to prosecute may not have been only based on an attempt to deny the repression of the Stalin era but as well to quell a dissenting voice in the interpretation of historical and current events. The nuance is important in the context of a society that no longer has the likes of Andrey Sakharov and, as a result, has few widely respected and authoritative dissenting voices.

--o--

 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

ISSUE 58

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER

UKRAINE UNDER ATTACK?

The international discussion about the movement of Russian troops within Russia itself and how it might presage a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia has certain elements of déjà vu. Earlier in 2021 Russia moved troops close to the border with Ukraine, probably even closer than they are now. There was not so much speculation then about a full-fledged Russian invasion. The incident faded away and many of us were able to conclude that Russia had responded to Ukrainian moves around the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine by sending a message to Kyiv about the military reaction that could be expected should Ukraine be tempted to follow the recent Azerbaijan example. (In the fall of 2020 Azerbaijan used military force to regain control of a part of its internationally recognized territory in the Karabakh region.) The early 2021 events around Eastern Ukraine were then followed by high-level meetings including the first Biden-Putin summit and a period of relative quiet.

Things are different this time around. On the previous occasion, Dmitry Kozak, the Russian presidential administration point man on Ukraine stated unequivocally that a Ukrainian offensive on the rebel regions would lead “to the end of the Ukrainian state in its current form.” This time the interpretation of military movements has been that there was no pre-condition and that Russia was considering invading the whole of Ukraine. Some commentators have speculated that for Putin Ukraine remains the unresolved conflict of his presidency and that as he moves along in years, he may be inclined to consider more radical measures. There has also been some reference to Putin’s statements about Russian’s red lines and about tensions being useful to get the attention of the other side.



Does Russia really contemplate invading Ukraine? If one looks at the question from the point of view of Russian national interests, the answer is an obvious no in virtually every respect. Does Vladimir Putin contemplate invading Ukraine? To give that answer Putin turned to his long-term associate  Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (Russian acronym: SVR), to re-state that Russia has no intention to invade Ukraine. In the response to the claim of an unusual presence of troops near the border the Russian authorities had earlier chosen to use the SVR as the agency to rebuff the claims of an unusual presence of troops. The SVR statement even compared what it called a US propaganda exercise as something taken from Goebbels’ book, no less.

When it was made earlier this year, the above-mentioned Kozak statement was not understood to imply an invasion of Ukraine but rather a strong military and political response to any attempt by Kyiv to recover through military action the rebel territories of Eastern Ukraine. The conditional aspect was clear. What it also made clear is that Putin would not consider ever abandoning the Russian-speaking populations of Eastern Ukraine.

The one leader who seems to have understood the situation clearly and said so is President Zelenskyy. During his late November marathon press conference, he did not deny the risk of war but criticized alarmists for predicting imminent open armed confrontation. He nevertheless emphasised that Ukraine is now much more ready to defend itself than it was a few years ago. “We have been at war for eight years. And the likelihood of large-scale or continuation of a strong escalation by Russia or militants backed by the Russian Federation may take place any day. But I think that today there is intimidation from some sites and media that there will be a war tomorrow.”

Zelenskky has perfectly understood the meaning and extent of the Russian threat. He is the person who could trigger that threat by ordering military action to retake the rebel regions. That would be running against everything that he has said since he became president. To this day, he keeps emphasising that he wants to negotiate, but from a position of strength: “we will not be able to stop the war and return the territories without our troops and without direct talks with Russia.”

As for NATO countries, they have no choice but to denounce the Russian threat and in turn threaten of serious consequences, even though not extending to direct military actions. This will not put Russia on the defensive but will justify increasing military assistance to Ukraine. The US is using the same strong rhetoric but without going too far. Ahead of his own meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary of State Blinken was edging his bets on the likelihood of an imminent invasion, so as not to prevent the organisation of another Biden-Putin conversation later this year.

Secretary of State Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov
Stockholm, December 2nd

As for Russia, it has no expectation from Ukraine, but may not have given up on NATO countries. A credible threat may have been enough to trigger the launch of discussions on long-term security guarantees between Russia and NATO, as seems to be suggested by Russia’s publicly expressed hopes on the agenda for the upcoming Biden-Putin virtual meeting. This is not the same as excluding Ukraine from NATO membership for ever. It goes back to the fundamental long-term issue of staging and deployment of military assets. It does not imply less support for Ukraine from the NATO side. It would imply, however, the acknowledgement that the Ukraine conflict itself will not be resolved any time soon as well as that Ukraine has so “separated” itself from Russia that it is no longer as crucial as it was seen during Colin Powell’s time as Secretary of State. Frustration and anger emanating from Kyiv could be expected and did not fail to materialize. It should be understood though that this is a long-term discussion that will not alter the current US rhetoric, may run into political obstacles and would unfold slowly in any event. 

--o--

NEGOTIATIONS, WHAT NEGOTIATIONS?

Behind the discussion about the possible Russian invasion of Russia, there have been political and military developments that have set the stage for the current level of public confrontation.

Politically, there has been pressure on Russia to convene another meeting of the Normandy Four (Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia). The story went on that President Putin had agreed to this under pressure from President Macron and Chancellor Merkel but that, according to French and German sources, Foreign Minister Lavrov was balking. This led Lavrov to take the highly unusual step of publishing the full text of his correspondence with his French and German counterparts. This was intended to clarify the Russian position that Putin had agreed to ask Lavrov to try to organise a meeting, but that the Russian conclusion is that there is no point in another meeting of the Normandy Four as this time. The main reason is that there has been no progress on the implementation of the decisions of the previous meeting, specifically Ukraine making no progress toward the implementation of the Minsk Agreements (that establish the principles for a settlement of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine). After many years of Ukraine supporters parroting the line that Russia needs to abide by the Minsk Agreements, there is now subdued recognition among diplomatic observers that it is Ukraine that has a fundamental problem with these arrangements.

President Zelenskyy addressing the Rada
December 1st, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


Things are also different on the military front. Ukraine has begun to use its Turkish-made drones in Eastern Ukraine, it also apparently used US-provided Javelin missiles and, using the cover of both, it has according to Russian sources brought its troops closer to the confrontation line. The UK sent a military ship to the Black Sea to test the limits of what might be legally and operationally possible. The US has also sent strategic bombers in the vicinity of Crimea. NATO countries also have assessed the limits of Russian preparedness in the Black Sea, in the vicinity of Ukraine. Poking the bear is the comparison that comes to mind.

There have been indications to Ukraine that it would not be allowed to join NATO anytime soon. There has however been increasing US and other support for the Ukrainian military that, for its part, has been constantly improving its capacity and performance.

President Zelenskyy recognizing a Ukrainian veteran
December 1st, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


Things have also changed in Ukraine proper. The Zelenskyy administration has allowed the passage of legislation that does not include ethnic Russians as native people of Ukraine. It is also preparing legislation that, in Moscow’s view, is equivalent to withdrawing from the Minsk Agreements.

More important though is the message that Russia has essentially given up on Zelenskky as a political leader who could resolve the Eastern Ukraine problem. Ukrainian public opinion will not support the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Zelenskyy has neither really tried to change nor offered the beginning of a workable alternative solution.

The offer of President Erdogan of Turkey to mediate the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was not taken seriously and was most likely seen as the product of a mind that has an over-inflated idea of its importance. As France and Germany have failed, others should perhaps be inspired by the offer and come forward. As it is, there is no sign of any possibility of progress in the foreseeable future. As noted above, Zelenskyy’s call for direct talks with Russia will elicit no response.

--o--

LUKASHENKO, AS A PASSEUR

Alexander Lukashenko has acted in a way that puts him in the same category as the passeurs who take advantage of refugees and charge them large amounts of money to take them across the English Channel. Lukashenko did not do it for money of course, but for some eventual political advantage in the form of some sort of de facto recognition from the EU. The most likely inspiration, though, for his actions is that he probably wanted to seek vindication against the Polish authorities. Lukashenko seems to have enjoyed exposing what he sees as the double standards of the Polish government that rushed to offer political asylum to Belarus opposition figures but would turn back asylum-seekers from the Middle East. He would also have enjoyed the irony of the proposal to fly the asylum-seekers directly to Germany, an idea that would throw further light on the discrepancy between the Polish and German approaches to refugee issues. The fact that the asylum-seekers are leaving their home countries as a result of failed US/NATO policies would just have been an extra source of satisfaction.

Lukashenko’s utter disregard for the life and well-being of the refugees obviously meant he could not avoid well-founded criticism. Sacrificing a few people did not matter to him.

Chancellor Merkel, in her end of reign caretaker capacity agreed to speak directly to Lukashenko to achieve a resolution of the problem. Rather than receiving due gratitude, Merkel is now being criticized by the Polish Prime Minister for offering recognition to an illegitimate dictator. The German side is strongly denying this is the case.

Lukashenko’s dumping of refugees on the border with Poland was such a blatant provocation that the Polish side did not suffer too much reputational damage for its hard-line refugee policy. The whole incident, however, gives comfort to other EU countries such as Hungary that harbour policies like that of Poland. It illustrates policy differences among European countries at a time when France and the UK are confronted with serious challenges in this area.

Lukashenko may not have won much in all of this other than to reinforce his image at home and in the neighbourhood as a strong Soviet-era leader, the so-called cunning peasant, and one who does not care much about a few lost lives. 

--o--

ZELENSKYY’S PRESS CONFERENCE 

President Zelenskyy, November 26th Press Conference, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


From Zelenskyy’s end of November marathon press-conference the item that got the most attention was his allegation that a coup d’état against him was under preparation for early December by unspecified individuals from Ukraine and Russia. He mentioned oligarch Rinat Akhmetov as one who may have been played by the alleged conspirators. The expected denial of any such conspiracy from all possible sources quickly followed.

Ukrainian oligarchs would certainly have no love for Zelenskyy and his attempts to de-oligarchise the Ukrainian economy. Conversations they may have had about Zelenskyy would most likely have included some rather unpleasant remarks directed at the President. Oligarchs do however still have a lot of tools at their disposal, including the media, to undermine Zelenskky other than a coup d’état.

Wittingly or not, Zelenskyy’s remark about a coup briefly shifted public attention from a Russian threat to Ukraine to a rather vaguely defined threat against himself. One of his problems has always been the perception that he is not strong enough to face Vladimir Putin or to reign in the oligarchs. Presenting himself as one who can overcome attempts is always useful.

--o--

ZELENSKYY’S RECORD

As could be expected in the case of a President who has been in power for more than two years, a lengthy unscripted press conference will lead to the airing of alleged mistakes, scandals, or disputes. Zelenskky now has plenty of accusations to contend with in this respect, some of which are not warranted at all. The most significant attack against his policies came from an unlikely source, an article in the Atlantic Council. The title says it all: “Ukraine’s anti-oligarch law could make President Zelenskyy too powerful.”  The article essentially criticizes the President for his continuing links with oligarchs as well as the new legislation concentrating too much power in the presidential office. The substance of the article may not matter so much as the fact that an entity that is expected to be pro-Ukraine should publish an article that is critical of the President, thus confirming a misalignment between Zelenskky and some pro-Ukraine voices.

By contrast, looking at presidential activity since Zelenskyy’s accession to power, it might be equally noteworthy that the government procurement methodology that is currently in place has been supporting the rather successful implementation of the President’s "big construction" program. By doing away with the level of corruption that so prevailed especially during the Yanukovych presidency, the Ukrainian governments seems to have been able to devote resources to infrastructure projects that will support the modernisation of the country. The long-term impact will be significant.

The other project that deserves mentioning is the revival of the Ukrainian aircraft industry on the basis of the Antonov aircraft plant as well as the modernisation of the air transport infrastructure. In the context of a continuing pandemic, and despite the priority seemingly given to cargo aircraft, the timing of the announcement may surprise. The long-term view is nevertheless laudable. There was yet no indication of a Canadian connection to this project.

--o--

THE TALIBAN AND CENTRAL ASIA

As the US and the Taliban prepare for their first consultations since the US dropped out of Afghanistan, a few observations are in order.

Many explanations have been given for the quick takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The Taliban have received credit for their proximity to the people. The outgoing authorities have been blamed for their corruption and in some regions for their authoritarian conduct. Ethnic and tribal factors have been mentioned. There has however not been a fundamental acknowledgement that the US and NATO policies were flawed. There however has been some outside acknowledgement of the immoral aspect of the US and NATO abandoning their supporters and their civil society allies.

In the discussions with the Taliban, the US will be expected to insist on the necessary inclusiveness of new Afghanistan government if it wants to receive international recognition and gain access to the country’s financial reserves kept by international institutions. The question arises as to how far the US is ready to go to withhold funds that are now needed for humanitarian purposes.



John Bolton, briefly Trump’s national security advisor and one of the supporters of the flawed US policy in Afghanistan, recently claimed that with the US departure Afghanistan would soon become the source of terrorist attacks against US interests. In this case, reiterating past assumptions implies not being even close to acknowledging mistakes.

There has also been the idea that the Taliban could be supported to squeeze out ISIS-K, considered as a distinct radical terrorist entity. That may be a way for both sides to save face, if the Taliban can be convinced to go after their Muslim brothers.

In dealing with Afghanistan, the US seems to have tried to exercise some influence over Pakistan, with little success. Other than that, the US seems to have held the view that they could deal with Afghanistan on their own. There may have been little appetite to deal with Russia, Iran or China. Relatively little attention would have been paid to Central Asian countries.

It is worth noting that it is mostly Uzbekistan that supplies electric power to the city of Kabul, to this day, on humanitarian grounds, even if the Afghan side is not able to pay. The Uzbek Foreign Minister was the first foreign official to visit Kabul. Uzbekistan and the Taliban have now already agreed on Uzbekistan re-building the Mazar-i-Sharif airport.

For its part, Russia has already started sending humanitarian shipments to Afghanistan and flying back to Russia Afghan students that are registered in Russian universities.

There is no sign yet that US could acknowledge that it might achieve its own objectives in Afghanistan by cooperating with the other governments of the region.  

--o--

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

It would look as though Vladimir Putin not only managed to sit the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia in the same room on November 26th, but also managed to achieve results on three main topics of discussion.

Presidents Aliev and Putin, PM Pashinyan
Sochi, November 26th
© President of Russia Website


On the delimitation of the boundary between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it looked as though Azerbaijan was hoping to extract further concessions from Armenia prior to agreeing to the formal process of delimitation. Delimitation would be crucial to avoid further armed skirmishes on the confrontation lines. The results are not immediately visible, but the process should be launched before the end of the year.

Humanitarian issues: this is mostly about returning home the prisoners held by both sides. It would seem that there are more Armenians to be returned than Azerbaijanis. There is no specific deadline but a general expectation of early movement.

Re-opening of economic corridors: this goes beyond just stopping the fighting. Re-establishing the functioning of land transport is a vital long-term economic requirement that can bring changes to the region.

The general sense is that Armenia got more on boundary delimitation and humanitarian issues than Azerbaijan had hitherto been willing to concede. What leverage Putin was able to use on Aliev is not entirely clear but may become evident in coming weeks as the implementation of decision unfolds. There may have been a discrete but decisive role for Turkey in this process.

Economic corridors matter to all, including Russia, but Armenia would probably stand to gain more in the short term.

--o--

GAS PRICES IN EUROPE, UPDATE

In the seemingly endless debate around the completion and now the legal certification of Nord Stream 2, a short mid-November news item seems to have gone largely unnoticed. As the German authorities announced there would be delay in legal certification, gas prices in Europe jumped by 10% in one day. That should speed up the process of using a pipeline that is now fully completed. Yet Ukraine and the UK, obviously not having to foot the bill, are still fighting against Nord Stream 2, as a matter of principle. Fact that they are also driving up the price for one of Russia’s main commodity exports also seems not to matter.

--o--


 

THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, has become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.

 

 

 

 

Monday, November 1, 2021

ISSUE 57

 

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


NATO-RUSSIA: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

In early October, NATO expelled eight Russian military officials working at Russia’s Representation to NATO. In response Russia closed its representation to NATO and NATO’s Information Office in Moscow. Even in a quiet month for relations between Euro-Atlantic countries and Russia, this is almost a non-event as NATO-Russia relations have been reduced to virtually nothing over the last seven years since the Ukrainian crisis. NATO’s actions were founded on "an increase in Russian malign activity, and hence the need for greater vigilance. A NATO official said the individuals were "undeclared Russian intelligence officers". There is some unrecognized irony in this. If you are a Russian official at NATO and you can only have limited official contacts with your counterparts, there is not much left to do other than to try to collect intelligence. In any event you would report directly to the Intelligence group at your Ministry of Defence as all military attachés around the world do on a regular basis. In a limited interaction context, if you cannot collect intelligence, one might even ask what is the point of a representation?

NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, President Putin, 
NATO-Russia Summit, Rome, May 2002
©NATO Website

The end of the official relationship between NATO and Russia can also be linked to the fact that the NATO-Russia Council has been a failure. The NATO-Russia Council came about in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack and was based on the idea that NATO and Russia could cooperate against common adversaries. This was overly optimistic, to say the least. The expectations were too great on either side. In quite simple terms, NATO, as a collective entity, expected it could bring Russia to acquiesce to its positions but was allergic to the idea that Russia could ever have any influence on the outcome of NATO deliberations. As for Russia, facing a collective entity, it probably expected that the ensuing dialogue and possible practical cooperation would in the long-term lead to some institutional rapprochement.

In an ideal world, the situation in Afghanistan when the US decided to enter the country in 2001 could have been an occasion for NATO-Russia cooperation. This is not to say that the outcome would have been different. That which can be observed though is that in and around 2001 the US and NATO had the option, in support of their Afghan operations, to operate bases in Central Asia with the acquiescence of Russia. Nowadays Russia openly calls on Afghanistan's neighbours to refuse to host U.S. or NATO military forces following their withdrawal from Afghanistan. This may not be so significant in strategic terms, but in terms of NATO/Russia cooperation that step backward is far more significant than closing the NATO Information Office in Moscow. It also confirms that nothing much can be expected on the NATO-Russia front for the near future.

--o--

THE LESS KNOWN COLIN POWELL

NATO

The brief return of NATO to the headlines around the time of the passing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell is the occasion to take another look at NATO, starting with some private but not so secret observations that Colin Powell himself made about his NATO experience. Powell was known to have observed that one of the NATO ministerial meetings in which he had to participate was probably the worst meeting he ever attended. These observations were relatively private and do not amount to calling the organisation brain-dead as President Macron did 20 years later, but they reflect a frustration with the lifeless political conversation within NATO.



It should be understood that the criticism directed at NATO really focuses on the Alliance’s stultified political function. It should also be acknowledged that, to many members, having a politically brain-dead institution is desirable, as they see no need for creativity or change. This also explains the inherent lack of interest for a NATO-Russia Council that could have changed the terms of the relationship with Russia.

The commitment to NATO on the part of founding members as well on the part of Eastern European countries who wanted so badly to join after the end of the Cold War is really based on the mutual defence commitment embodied in article 5 of the Washington Treaty. The collective defence arrangements that follow from this commitment are really what matters. Among newer NATO members, there is little or no appetite for change. There is also little enthusiasm for a purely European defence arrangement.

UKRAINE

One of the other private comments made by Colin Powell during his tenure as Secretary of State in the early 2000s was that the next battlefront with Russia would be Ukraine. This was before any Orange Revolution. This was Powell’s straightforward and prescient acknowledgement that Russia’s attempts either to re-build the Soviet Union with Ukraine inside or even to keep Ukraine in its zone of influence would be met with resistance on the part of the US and most likely as well, some of the new members of NATO, especially Poland and the Baltic states. The comment had the merit of clarity to the effect that the primary concern was to counter Russia.

On a separate but related front Dimitry Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Office in Moscow, recently reported that Russia would have wanted to expand the Normandy Four (Ukraine, France, Germany, Russia) discussions to include the US, acknowledging that the US has the most influence on Ukraine. This was also a Ukrainian suggestion. France and Germany objected as it would lessen their role and not necessarily lead to any resolution of the conflict with the US having little incentive to normalise the Ukraine-Russia relationship.

--o--

THE EUROPEAN GAS CRISIS

There have been contradictory analyses and statements about the role of Russia in the current European gas crisis during which prices have increased three times in some cases. Prices went down 20 % after Russia announced in late October its intention to increase exports. Some have credibly explained that Russia is not responsible, with many other factors including the weather causing the current problems. Since it is clear that, with German approval, the Nord Stream 2 will soon become operational, the idea that Russia was withholding gas to secure some other form of approval for the pipeline did not seem to be widely believed. Others have argued that Russia’s reputation as a dependable supplier suffered. Giving itself the good role, Ukraine  offered to arrange for the transit at a reduced rate of more Russian gas to Western Europe. Others have even argued that Russia’s insistence on long-term contracts contradicts the objective of moving away from fossil fuels. Chancellor Merkel corrected the copy by clarifying that the initial necessary transition is from coal to natural gas.

The above-noted turmoil in the European gas market would seem to suggest that Chancellor Merkel was quite right in supporting the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Germany through a pipeline on the floor of the Baltic Sea. It will avoid land crossings and the attending transit fees; it will diversify the pipeline grid and it will use a more modern and more reliable technology than Soviet-era pipelines.

Nord Stream 2 at Russian landfall


Ultimately, for the foreseeable future, there is mutual dependence and convergence of interests between Russia, the largest provider and Germany, the largest customer: long-term, stable, and secure sales and supplies. The EU, the US and transit states have different concerns, but they do not alter this fundamental element.

In an early November last-minute attempt to prevent the approval of Nord Stream 2, the head of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian State Gaz company, added to the usual geopolitical arguments the observation that the end of the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine makes the prospect of open war between the two countries more likely. Theoretically, he may be right. The rather excessive nature of the remark limits its usefulness but illustrates the state of mind in some parts of Ukraine.

--o--

 

UKRAINE UPDATE

The late October use of a Turkish-made drone by Ukrainian Armed Forces against Eastern Ukraine insurgent forces has caught considerable attention and even elicited critical comments from France and Germany. No such criticism came from the US. There is a sense that, as the situation in Eastern Ukraine generally stagnates, President Zelenskyy may be inclined to turn to an increase of military activity, especially if that activity is conducted on a remote basis that avoids new casualties on the Ukrainian side. In political terms Zelenskyy has little choice but to show a stronger positionvis-à-vis Russia. This may sustain his popularity,but may not achieve anything else.

--o--

VACCINES IN RUSSIA

Questions have been repeatedly raised about why Russians do not get vaccinated and whether this is a rejection of Vladimir Putin and his policies.

The first question has received a fairly credible answer from public opinion experts. When it comes to vaccines, the Russian experience was shaped by the mandatory vaccine policy implemented by the Soviet bureaucracy. The end of the USSR and individuals regaining their personal space have meant that people are protective of their freedom of choice when it comes to things that were in the past imposed from above. The fact that vaccines served to eradicate some diseases does not seem enough to counter that tendency.

When it comes to vaccine and leadership, a possible explanation may be that the situation is most likely complicated by the way Russians receive official information and how this is to a considerable extent separate from approval of leaders. Anything that falls into the category of messages that are intended to influence opinion (what used to be called propaganda) tends to be automatically discounted and read at a different level. In other words, the fact that you are popular does not mean that I believe everything you say especially if you are trying to tell me what to do.

Incidentally, with vaccines perhaps not so readily available in neighbouring Ukraine, by the end of October the vaccination rate there would seem only be at 24% compared to Russia’s 38 %. Some of the same vaccination reluctance may extend beyond Russia’s border for reasons that are not dissimilar.

--o--

VALDAI CLUB NEWS

President Putin’s speech at this year’s mid-October meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club argued that Russia’s development should be founded on a “conservatism for optimists.” The speech may offer a picture of a Putin that is less extreme than is generally perceived.  What is more striking though is that the speech is at a philosophical level that virtually no one would ever expect from a North American leader. This is the kind of speech that Merkel or Macron might do on special occasions. It may not and should not change your opinion of Putin as an authoritarian leader, but it is revealing of the Russian political culture that the President sees the need to engage in such a discussion.

President Putin and discussion moderator Fedor Lukyanov, Sochi, October 21
©President of Russia Website


Another less widely publicised element of this year’s Valdai Club meeting was the attendance of the most recent co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. To Western observers this may have looked rather unusual. A person who is presented as an anti-establishment journalist and a defender of freedom of speech not only gets invited but engages in a public conversation with the President about the vexed question of foreign agents. You may not have a choice if the President invites you, but if he invites you, he signals to the rest of the establishment that you are under his roof. This is also revealing of a slightly more complex political environment than is generally described in Western media.

--o--

RUSSIA AND CHINA: PACTA SUNT SERVANDA?

As many political analysts are trying to devise what might be a new China policy for the US and for Canada, there is a temptation to find points of comparison between the way the West dealt with the USSR/Russia and the way it should deal with China.

This also has some bearing on the ongoing academic debate about whether Russia is on a convergence or divergence path with Europe.




Without going into a long academic discussion, we would single out a major difference: throughout the difficulties of relations between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia it was clear that Russia wanted to be a member of the club or, as some put it more crudely, join the civilised world. Ukraine became a turning point in that there was a major collision between the interests of Russia and the interests of the Euro-Atlantic community. There is fundamental disagreement as to whether rules were followed. Russia essentially rejected the Western interpretation of how the rules of international law should be applied. In engaging in the Minsk Peace Process, Russia nevertheless confirmed its intention to have at least part of the problem resolved through diplomatic negotiations.

In the case of China, issues such as the ill-treatment of the Uighur minority or the prolonged unfounded detention of two Canadians are important, but none is more indicative of China’s state of mind than its current Hong Kong policy. China has no intention whatsoever of abiding by the terms of the agreement with the United Kingdom that led to the return of the territory to China. Neither the United Kingdom nor any of its allies has any leverage to change that. Unlike Russia, China is a club in itself. You would not hear a Chinese leader at any level suggest that China wants to join the civilised world. When it comes to matters of civilisation, China does not see the need to join what it probably sees as a lesser form of life.

The other main difference is that there never was between the West and Russia the kind of economic relationship that currently exists between China and other major economic entities.

Another difference is that Russia may seek to use its diaspora for improving relations whereas China seeks to control its diaspora to advance its interests. The nuance is important.

The policy of engagement with Russia hit the wall in Ukraine. With China, the priority was always economic interaction. There are no major lessons to draw from our relations with Russia we could apply to China other than that it should be quite different as we are confronted with a global power that will interpret the rules as it sees fit and a major client over which we have virtually no influence or leverage.

--o--

THE MOLDOVAN EXCEPTION

In late October, the European Union accused Russia of using gas to bully Moldova, the small, former Soviet republic and, as the BBC called it to make it a bit more dramatic, the poorest country in Europe. Within days, on October 29th, Russia's Gazprom and the Moldovan government signed a new five-year contract for Russian gas supplies on “mutually beneficial terms”. This is not surprising. By force of habit, the EU had opted to blame Russia when the gas contract negotiations were difficult. Granted, the discussions were complicated with the European gas market being in turmoil and the two parties having to deal with the gas supply to Moldova’s Russian-supported breakaway region of Transdniestria. The EU reading of the situation did not, however, consider that Maia Sandu, the pro-European President of Moldova seems to have astutely created a very good working relationship with Dimitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration and a very long-time associate of Vladimir Putin. To her credit, Ms. Sandu’s pro-Europe preferences did not prevent her from creating the circumstances for advancing Moldova’s interest in relation with Russia in a constructive manner. Politically she is in a win-win position. Moldova is not Ukraine, but this may warrant re-considering the usual assumptions about the incompatibility of good relations with both the EU and Russia.

August 11 meeting between Dmitry Kozak and President Sandu, Chisinau


--o--

THE END OF THE ROAD FOR MISHA?

Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia and former senior official in Ukraine, returned to his home country in early October and called on his supporters to march on the capital. He stands in opposition to the Georgian Dream party that currently holds power in Georgia. He was imprisoned almost immediately on the basis criminal charges against him going back to 2014. He has now undertaken a hunger strike. Saakashvili can claim substantial reform achievements from his time as President of Georgia (2004-2013), but also displayed authoritarian tendencies that are behind the criminal accusations against him. Russia holds him responsible for starting the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Worse though is that many Georgians hold him responsible for losing the war. His impulsive style and egocentric tendencies have not always served him well and have not made him many friends. In response to calls for the hunger-striking Saakashvili to be moved from prison to hospital Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili simply said that Saakashvili “has the right to commit suicide.”

 --o--

UZBEKISTAN ELECTION

On October 24th Uzbekistan incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoyev won a second term with a majority 80% of the vote. Credible international observers from the OSCE suitably acknowledged the reforms conducted so far by the President, but also singled out a number of deficiencies. This is a classic case of observers having to balance support for reforms with the continuing existence of legal shortcomings. Perhaps more remarkable however was the fact that, after the election, President Mirziyoyev received the head of the OSCE Observation Mission. This is not a customary practice. Acknowledging the work of the Observation Mission is not only a goodwill message to the Mission itself but it is also a message to the political establishment about the validity of the critical conclusions of the Mission.

--o--

UNWANTED AMBASSADORS

President Erdogan’s decision to declare a number of foreign Ambassadors (Including the Canadian one) persona non grata over their criticism of his treatment of businessperson and philanthropist Osman Kavala, jailed in 2017 despite not having been convicted of a crime, was excessive even for an impulsive leader like him. His reversal of the decision was a confirmation of the erratic nature of his behaviour. Erdogan’s subsequent meeting with President Biden on the margins of the G20 meeting in Rome “was held in a positive atmosphere”. What this might mean is that Erdogan does not begrudge the Biden administration for what he saw as the US support to the July 2016 failed military coup against him. With the acquisition of an advanced Russian missile system still on track and with the supply of American F-16 fighter aircraft still not resolved, it does not however signal a significant turnaround in US-Turkey relations.

--o--

 

THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, has become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.

 

 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Isse 56

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER

PRISONERS OR HOSTAGES?

The release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from unwarranted detention is cause for unmitigated celebration. After the initial euphoria, some questions nevertheless arise as to what really happened and what lessons can be drawn. There has been no shortage of well-informed commentary. There are however a few unanswered questions as well a few observations that deserve mention in that they may be relevant for guiding future action, especially with respect to Chinese motivations.



Even though Washington officially refuses to see the linkage (or, even worse, admit in the slightest way that the Biden administration is getting soft on China), the release of the two Canadians was the direct result of the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) negotiated between the US Department of Justice and Meng Wanzhou’s lawyers. Avoidance of collateral damage is deemed an acceptable reason for concluding a DPA. In the case of Meng Wanzhou’s DPA, no collateral damage is specifically mentioned. There is however a reference to the fact that the extradition hearings in Canada might last for months if not years.  It would be a generous interpretation to construe this as an indirect reference to the lengthy detention of the two Canadians.

Although there may have been a difference of opinion on timelines, the Chinese side came around to the idea that an admission of guilt in the context of a DPA was the quickest and perhaps the only way to secure the release of their VIP. The Biden administration continues to hold the line that the US Department of Justice is an independent agency that makes its own decisions without political interference, thus implying that diplomacy did not play a role, and contradicting the assertions of some former Canadian diplomats to the effect that diplomacy solved the problem. Stricto sensu the US statements are right: the Department of Justice made its own decision about the appropriateness of a DPA. A DPA would satisfy their main requirement, an admission of guilt. That along with time in detention, even in a gilded cage, would form the basis of a reasonable legal decision. The Department of Justice’s concern for collateral damage may however have also evolved over the last year. A Department of Justice headed by Merrick Garland, a distinguished jurist, rather than William Barr, a Trump stooge, would certainly be more enlightened in the interpretation of the concept. The problem is that by releasing the two Canadians immediately after the DPA was signed off in New York the Chinese authorities made clear that in their view there unmistakably was a direct linkage. By beginning a few weeks earlier to discuss arrangements for letting the two Michaels go, they were not offering an early release as much as one that would be simultaneous with the departure of Meng Wanzhou.  The later suggestion that the two Michaels were freed for health reasons would only be a convenient excuse. One had to be found. There was no need for it be credible.

Incidentally, the discrepancy between what the Chinese do and what they say is not a sign of stupidity or of a misunderstanding of public opinion. Like Donald Trump, but for much longer, the Chinese authorities have known the value of a good lie.  Their inspiration would however be found in the Marxist-Leninist aphorism that “it is right to lie to your class enemy”. This also does not mean that you cannot engage in propaganda activities to advance your own narrative.

The Chinese authorities would not have failed to observe that over time the US Department of Justice has prosecuted foreign nationals and even sought extra-territorial application of US laws, despite the vehement protests of some of the governments whose nationals were affected by this. This has been the case with Russia on a few occasions. The difference is that the Chinese would not be satisfied with protests. In the case of Meng Wanzhou, but not for the first time, they showed they would respond in a ruthless manner to secure the release of their national, even if it means the arbitrary, unfounded, cruel, and fundamentally unethical detention of foreign nationals.

The release of the two Michaels barely hours after Meng Wanzhou was freed was meant to confirm that there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that should another Chinese national be arrested the way she was, the response would be the same.

Any foreign national living on Chinese territory (including Hong Kong and Macau) should however be aware of the fact that he is a potential prisoner if the government of his country of origin is likely to engage in what the Chinese see as aggressive prosecution or even possibly other forms of perceived aggression. No large exodus of foreigners has yet been observed, since the odds are not that great that you will be the one eventually targeted. There will nevertheless be a greater incentive for foreigners from certain countries to follow as religiously as possible all local rules so that their name does not make its way to the short list of candidates for arrest.

The Meng Wanzhou case ultimately confirms what we already know or should have known: in dealing with China, any aggressive action, no matter whether perceived or real, will be met with a direct and possibly brutal response. Reducing your vulnerability to a country with which you are eager to do business is the first challenge. The more long-term challenge is to make China conform to our version of what is acceptable behaviour. There may not a full answer to that yet, but, clearly, weakness is not an option.

--o--

 

BUYING A BETTER SUBMARINE AND A BETTER SHIELD

The security agreement between Australia, the UK and the US that foresees among other things the construction in Australia of eight nuclear-powered submarines using the latest US and UK technologies was rightfully called a stab in the back by the French Foreign Minister. The new deal led to the immediate cancellation of the 2016 France-Australia agreement for the eventual construction of twelve conventional-powered submarines.



From what we have seen so far, it would seem it is the Australian side (probably spearheaded by their military establishment) that took the initiative of the new agreement.  The US and the UK would have had economic reasons to entertain the proposal. The impact on France would have been readily dismissed.  The US and the UK would have known that this would increase the French incentive to create a distinctly European military capability in order to move away from “brain-dead” NATO.  In that sense, Biden and Johnson may have done more to undermine NATO than Trump and Putin together, but the stakes were high, and the risk could be managed. Besides, Emmanuel Macron is not Charles de Gaulle and will not walk away from NATO.

From a geo-political point of view, AUKUS is clearly intended to allow Australia to position itself militarily against China. The nuclear-powered submarines can apparently do this better along with the new technologies that have been offered as a bonus by the US. As noted above, in dealing with China, weakness is not an option. The new equipment procured by Australia will essentially serve to effect surveillance and to dissuade. The real match for the Chinese military will, of course, remain with the US for the foreseeable future, but some burden-sharing is always welcome.



The problem with the AUKUS deal is that it has created a rift between the three countries in question on one side and one of the two remaining EU powers on the other side (while Germany is still looking for a new leader) at a time when a unified collective approach in dealing with China might be more useful.  Dividing that front is not helpful.

Military capacity is relevant to dissuade China from pursuing its military ambitions in connection with Taiwan. It can maybe serve to prevent China from building more artificial islands in the South China Sea where it has territorial ambitions. Military capacity addresses the more classical Chinese threats, but it does not deal with Chinese behaviour that does not conform to our understanding of international rules. We are talking here about the broad range of issues that the English-speaking world and Europe currently have with China, from the Hong Kong democracy challenges, the plight of the Uighurs, up to unfair trade practices, among others.

The fundamental question is whether to use the stick or the carrot, to punish or to engage. There are calls from some quarters for strong punitive sanctions against the Chinese regime. From what we have seen in the case of Russia, economic sanctions have limited impact and can even in some cases be turned to long-term advantage by fostering the development of some areas of the targeted economy. It could hardly be different in China. Political sanctions make the proponent feel good and indispose the target of the sanctions, but also have limited impact. Given the level of interdependence that now exists between China and the Western world across the whole range of economic activity, sanctions would likely end up punishing the proponent more than the target.

As far as engagement is concerned, it would seem that we have for some time reached the point where further engagement is not going to elicit any significant change in Chinese behaviour. The opening to the world that was necessary for China to modernize has happened. There is nothing more that can be offered that would change Chinese behaviour in a significant way.

Dealing with China is not a problem that will be resolved by short-term solutions. A long-term approach needs to be developed. A robust and sustained political dialogue is probably one of the pre-requisites, along with a policy approach that excludes the idea that China can be expected to do the right thing by our standards and, as noted above, reduces our vulnerability to Chinese actions. In that context, entering into a major information technology project with a Chinese entity such as Huawei would have to come with iron-clad assurances and the means to enforce compliance.

--o--

AFGHANISTAN MOSAIC

In addressing the US/NATO debacle in Afghanistan, observers have ascribed a certain influence to countries other than Pakistan, namely Iran and China. Iran, despite its previous confrontation with the Taliban, would somehow have welcomed and supported the Taliban’s return to power if only to undermine the US position. Iran would also have to take into consideration its ethnic links to the Tajik population of Afghanistan and of neighbouring Tajikistan. Tajiks are considered as Persian and speak a relatively archaic version of the Persian spoken today in Iran. China would have provided weaponry to the Taliban in support of Pakistan, its traditional ally in their permanent confrontation with India. China which is accused of perpetrating a genocide of its Muslim population, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, would have wanted to extend its influence in a neighbouring country and side with the Taliban in order to control them and to prevent any risk of terrorist contamination. 

The open confirmation of the ongoing consultation process between Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan took the form of a meeting of the four relevant foreign ministers on September 17th in Dushanbe on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Organisation for Collective Security meetings. Although they would have been available the representatives of Central Asian countries and of India were not in the room, thus confirming that the meeting was restricted to the players with real influence. The Dushanbe meeting of the four foreign ministers focused on the concern for stability in Afghanistan. This would also include keeping the Taliban within Afghanistan, finding a way to have the Taliban engage with the international community at the same time as the new Taliban regime somehow addresses widespread concerns about human rights especially women’s rights. It would also include how the regime deals with, among others, the Tajik minority especially in the Panjshir Valley which the Taliban now claims to control completely.

With international humanitarian aid (Including from Canada) already flowing into Afghanistan through the UN and the Red Cross, the challenge is to arrive at an arrangement that would allow international financial institutions to resume their work and, more immediately, for the Taliban government to gain access to the country’s frozen financial reserves. That of course would mean bringing the international community, especially the US, to acknowledge in some way the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

--o--

RUSSIAN ELECTIONS 2021: NEW PEOPLE?

In Russia’s managed democracy system, a highly predictable electoral outcome does not mean that the process is not taken seriously by a large proportion of the population. Parliamentary legislations such as the ones that concluded on September 19th are an occasion for people to express their views. They also offer legitimacy to the governing élites. The fact that non-systemic opposition elements were excluded from participation does not seem to receive the same attention inside Russia as it does outside, even with very active social networks disseminating every possible information.



As noted above, the results were as expected. At the national level, United Russia settled for less than 50% of the popular vote but did very well at the local level in single-mandate races and captured 324 of the 450 seats, thus keeping its capacity to modify the Constitution, if necessary. The Communist Party improved it performance. A new party, New People, crossed the threshold and will enter the Duma with 13 seats. Zhirinovksy Liberal Democratic Party (21 seats) lost ground and Mironov’s Just Russia Party (27 seats) essentially stagnated.

This illustrates that the Communist Party has been and continues to be the only party that could pretend to offer the beginning of an alternative to United Russia. Preventing a return of the Communists to power was one of the reasons for Yeltsin’s popularity at home and abroad. Initially, it was also a preoccupation of Vladimir Putin. Many of his social policy actions are in fact intended to cater to an electorate that could be attracted back to communist-style ideas. The problem nowadays is not only that no one wants the return to power of the Communists, but that the Communists themselves do not seem to want it either. Managing the results of their relative success even seems to be a challenge.

The electoral process itself was marred by a collapse of the electronic voting system in Moscow. This does not seem to have had an impact on the result, but certainly created a negative impression. Overall, the administration of the electoral law at the national level, under Ella Pamfilova’s vigorous leadership, seems to continue moving in the right direction. A more serious problem seems to be the use of dirty tricks at the local level in certain regions.  There may not be short-term response to that other than exposing the behaviour of some local stakeholders.

Looking at the long-term, the arrival of a new party led by a successful businessman offers a glimmer of hope that there will be more changes in the future. Interest groups other than the security services or the Communists may envisage the idea of having their own party. A real democratic transition is, however, not yet in sight.

--o--

 

UKRAINE UPDATE

Following, from the Ukrainian point of view, a string of rather unproductive meetings over the last few months, President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington did not produce any new major achievement, but it at least confirmed the US government’s continuing political, economic, and military support for Ukraine. As before, President Biden while expressing support for Ukraine’s NATO membership seemed to have stopped short of an unqualified commitment. Zelenskyy’s proposal for President Biden to become personally involved in the Donbass peace negotiations still has to be picked up.

Since his visit to Washington, Zelenskyy seems to have focused less on the conflict in Russia, but more on the issues where he can contribute to the modernisation of the country and to political reforms. There may of course be a lot left to be done in terms of eradicating corruption but cleaning up government procurement practices seems to have significantly improved the use of government resources in areas such as infrastructure Zelenskky’s “big construction” program may be one more significant long-term achievements along with the improved business climate that seems to afford local enterprises a more user-friendly environment.   

A major news item was the Ukraine’s special forces spectacular rescue of some of the individuals who were trying to flee Kabul after the return of the Taliban. This included a former local employee of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. The effectiveness and courage of the Ukrainian soldiers indeed deserved high praise and were a moral booster for the country. The fact is that they seemed to have done better in difficult circumstances than larger and more richly endowed similar services.

Far less good news was the assassination attempt against Serhiy Shefir a top aide to Zelenskyy and one of his long-time associates. The attempt would seem to emanate from those who oppose the de-oligarchizing of Ukraine. Whoever sponsored the attach should however have known that this would only reinforce the determination of Zelenskky and his team to pursue reforms.



The conclusion of a major gas supply contract between Hungary and Russia’s Gazprom also fell in the category of bad news, in that the 15-year deal excludes transit through Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister called it a major attack to which there would be an appropriate response. The gas is not expected to flow to Hungary through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline the Ukrainians so despise but through TurkStream that currently delivers Russian gas to Turkey and Bulgaria.  The Ukrainian side has already expressed its deep displeasure to the Hungarians. It would be surprising for that to change the Hungarian decision. In the turmoil that currently affects the gas markets in Europe, the Hungarian decision to secure long-term supplies and to do so via a brand-new pipeline looks like a sound economic idea and one in line with long-term Hungarian interests. Ukraine’s suggestion that the Hungary-Russia contract be reviewed by the EU has already been termed by Hungary as an attack on its sovereignty.

Ukraine's geo-political arguments about Russian agressive intentions and in favour of the continuation of transit through its territory no more convince Hungary than they did Germany. Ukrainian indignation does not change the fundamentals of the relationship between Russia and its clients in the gas business. 

On a separate but related issue, there are also noises in Kyiv about Hungary opposing Ukraine's accession to NATO because it does not like the treatment of the Hungarian minority in Western Ukraine, bringing the very sensitive issue of the general treatment of minorities in Ukraine into the mix. 

--o--

THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, has become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.