The Irony of Politics

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

I spent an hour this past Thursday morning involved in an argument over beer. While this isn’t unusual (even in the morning), instead of having it in the pub with my friend Daniel over what our next pint should be, this argument was held over twitter, with a prominent commentator in the field of Russian studies. It all started with a retweet of a picture by Ariana Gic Perry, editor at the Intersection Project, of a new brand of stout at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Bolshevik Bastard

Perry was outraged that a Canadian public corporation would sell Bolshevik Bastard Imperialist Stout, claiming that the label ignored (or maybe even endorsed) mass murder and oppression that took place under the Bolshevik regime, and urged a boycott of LCBO. She repeatedly asked me if I would drink a beer with a swastika on it, expressing equal disdain for other products I pointed out that bear the images of such distinguished figures as Mao, Che, Churchill and Napoleon. I even went so far as to point her in the direction of Hispter Hitler, a satirical cartoon poking fun at the Nazi dictator (you can buy hilarious shirts there!), but it ended up being wasted breath. Perry clearly feels that using a symbol like the hammer and sickle or the swastika somehow means acceptance of dictatorship and/or racism not matter how it is used.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of irony and satire in political awareness, especially in light of the fact I have enjoyed classic examples in the past. Was I part of the problem, promoting acceptance of unsavory government or practices? Watching the British comedy classic ‘Allo ‘Allo is one of my fondest childhood memories. The escapades of the stereotypically horny French resistance fighters against the oafishly stern and methodical Nazi occupiers of France saw me splitting my sides as Herr Flick of the Gestapo saw his staff car run over by a steam roller, or watching Private Helga Geerhart of the Wehrmacht prance about in her outrageous (swastika covered) lingerie.ScSGrLsF_400x400 Closer to home I used to cheer on the obstructionist and self-serving Sir Humphrey Appleby as he stymied the Right Honourable Jim Hacker’s in Yes Minister’s caricature exposing the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy. These iconic shows became some of the most popular in British comedy history.

Watching these shows, or enjoying watching Roger Moore’s James Bond cooperate with Soviet (GASP!) Agent Triple X to defeat an international criminal mastermind, didn’t dull my perception of the crimes of the Nazi or Soviet regimes, or leave me with an impression that a life in government is only about self-advancement and privilege. If anything they are partly responsible for how I grew up interested in politics and international relations. What I enjoyed as satire in my spare time as a young man, fueled my studies as serious academic and eventually my career in politics and global economics.

Moreover, satire and the ability to poke fun as serious political subjects is one of the characteristics of a mature and confident polity. Thankfully Canada and the UK are not places where I can be arrested for denigrating the honour of the state or for making fun of historical figures. For someone as apparently concerned with the ramifications of political satire as Perry, I would hope she is aware of the critical role it played in shaping public perceptions about the regime through spontaneous street theatre by Otpor in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, to take only one example.

As I tried but failed to explain to her, the fact someone is using a hammer and sickle on a beer in the LCBO, doesn’t diminish the scale of Bolshevik crimes or mean that they are not taken as a serious subject. Discussion and debate concerning them goes on in the classroom, the seminar, or at the conference; not necessarily in the liquor store. If anything satire of this kind is an essential weapon in the fight against injustice and oppression. The countervailing view, that we should ban or boycott anything that denigrates the seriousness of the subject, ironically, does more harm than good.

So to all my many friends who I know are passionate about politics and to all my former classmates and colleagues from European and Russian studies who are working to better understand Russia’s history and current struggle for democracy, I urge you to get to your nearest LCBO and down a Bolshevik Bastard at once!



The longer the conflict in Ukraine continues and the more column inches and opinion pieces I read about Vladimir Putin, the more I’m struck by the continued use of two devices. The first is the use of the term “thug” to describe Putin’s character and behaviour, but that’s one for another day. The second is Putin’s description, in an April 2005 speech, of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. I suppose I was always aware of it, but more recently I’m disturbed by its use to hint at a sinister plot behind Russian foreign policy. When pundits like former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton or Guardian columnist John Kampfner (to name but a few) cite the quote what they mean to suggest is that Putin’s bitterness over the Soviet collapse and his desire to reconstitute the Soviet empire are behind Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia and Ukraine. After all, as a former KGB officer raised in the Soviet milieu, threats and force are the only things he understands apparently.

But what did Mr Putin actually say in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly in 2005? Translations appear to differ. Take the official Russian transcript and feed it into Google Translate and it comes across as “[…]the greatest geopolitical catastrophe […]”. The official English translation from the Kremlin website, however, records it as “[…[a major geopolitical disaster […]”. As a (intermediate level) Russian speaker myself, I can tell you there is ambiguity here, given the Russian language lacks a definite article. But regardless of whether it was “the” or “a” (and believe me it makes a difference given the inference it often lends itself to), what’s more important is the context Putin used it in.

The relevant section of the speech does not relate to Russia’s diminished prestige or national pride, nor the collapse of its military strength or global influence. Instead Mr Putin was highlighting the difficulties faced by ethnic Russians who suddenly found themselves living outside the new Russian Federation and the privations of the general population. If anything he appears to be lamenting the social and human costs of the Soviet collapse, highlighting the depreciation of savings, the rise of oligarchic groups and the spread of mass poverty. There is also a reference to the rise of terrorism and the Khasavyurt Accord, which ended the First Chechen War, but this is framed in terms of Russia’s potential Balkanization, rather than anguish over its diminished power. The rest of the section is dedicated to celebrating the perseverance of the Russian people during this difficult period in consolidating Russian inspired democracy, freedom and human rights. Issues over the compatibility of Western and Russian standards of human rights notwithstanding, this speech is hardly the eye opening revelation of Putin’s revanchist character that commentators regularly make it out to be.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves. Russia seeks to maximize its influence and power in the former Soviet Union. This is inevitable, given the geographical, cultural, linguistic and economic position it finds itself in. By their very nature great powers must seek the security of friendly regimes as buffers, and reject the encroachment of outside powers and alliances into their periphery. In their direct borderland, that necessity sometimes dictates the use of force. For policy makers and media figures to explain this to the public would mean challenging powerful societal narratives about the nature of the international system and the benign intent of our institutions. So instead we currently rely on a different narrative about Russian revanchism as embodied by Mr Putin, and in terms of reinforcing this narrative, his 2005 speech is a powerful lever. I’ve seen it more times recently than I can count. But it’s ultimately counterproductive to the goal of re-establishing regional and global stability. If we are ever to reach some kind of understanding with Russia, one in which we both escape the seemingly endless cycle of engagement and confrontation that has seemingly defined our relationship since the 17th century, we will eventually need to abandon this approach.        

The cease-fire in Ukraine appears to be holding, for now. This despite reports of shelling from both sides and talk from the EU that new sanctions on Russia will be announced on Monday. Many people seem convinced that the truce is bound to fail, and why not? Ukraine has said that it will not recognise the “terrorist” statlets or the annexation of Crimea, and the rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk have said the beginning of a peace dialogue will not deter them from seeking eventual independence. The truth is, however, that for the moment peace suits everyone.

Despite their stunning victories in recent days, most of it achieved by the now almost universally accepted presence of Russian regular troops, until two weeks ago the rebels were on the rack. They had been forced back into two small and separated enclaves by the Ukrainian army, had lost control of both Luhansk and Donetsk airports and with mounting casualties they faced imminent defeat. Only deliveries of Russian heavy weaponry and “volunteers” were keeping them going. Russian intervention has saved them for now, but there is no guarantee beyond Vladimir Putin’s personal calculations of a western response that it will be maintained.

Mr Putin meanwhile, appears set to come out of this most recent crisis as the major victor. He took the extreme risk of committing Russian troops to what amounted to a covert, but nonetheless outright, invasion of eastern Ukraine and looks likely to get away with it. His calculus, that western powers would offer strong moral and verbal support, but draw the line at committing troops to fight was entirely correct. Russia may face a new round of sanctions on key Kremlin individuals and industries (although this is by no means certain) but he is reasoning that Russia, and his regime in particular, can survive the short term impact of sanctions, and once they are repealed the situation on the ground will remain the same. Ukraine will not be ready to join NATO for a long, long while, and once the west has lost interest in the Ukrainian crisis, Russia will still be right next door. After all, geography is forever.

The NATO summit in Wales this last week was a strong display of unanimity by the alliance , and the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suggests that the western powers are prepared to support for embattled government. But this support is likely to have limits. NATO has committed itself to creating a new rapid reaction force “spearhead” for eastern Europe and has spoken strongly about Russian aggression, but it is clear no troops will be sent to fight. Quite sensibly, no one wants to provoke outright war with Russia over Ukraine and the alliance appears unwilling to breaks its treaty commitments from the 1997 agreement with Russia not permanently base troops in eastern Europe. I suspect that if the fighting does indeed cease, many members of the EU will hope for a quick reversal of sanctions in order to reduce the strains on their economies. It took France until Russia sent troops into Ukraine to “suspend” delivery of the Mistral warships it is building for the Russian navy, and they for one will be eager to avoid the EUR 1.4bn hole cancellation will create in the French budget.

Which brings us to the real loser under this cease-fire, Mr Poroshenko and Ukraine. To go in the space of weeks from near victory to a humiliating agreement which leaves the separatists empowered and Russia emboldened is a serious blow. But I can’t see that he had much choice. The Russian invasion was devastating, and while casualty figures have not been announced, eyewitness accounts speak of a shattering defeat for the out-gunned Ukrainian military which lost a sizeable number of armored vehicles and artillery. Barring outside help Ukraine faced total defeat. Ultimately, like in Georgia in 2008, no-one came to save them in this crucial hour. Moreover, despite IMF and EU support for the Ukrainian economy, the task of reforming it is colossal and the immediate survival of Mr Poroshenko’s government depends on extensive economic links with Russia, especially gas deliveries. These remain under negotiation despite the recent surge in fighting. Without an agreement, Ukraine could be forced to pay an extremely high and destabilising price or, worse, face a cut off altogether. To borrow an expression, winter is coming.

So the cease-fire remains in everyone’s best interest for now. That is not to say it will hold. Too often such agreements are brought down by the situation on the front lines and a quick escalation from an exchange of shelling to a total resumption. But this agreement reflects pragmatism on the part of the Ukrainian government, which realises its current geographical, economic and political status depends on coming to some sort of agreement with Russia. I cannot see them breaking it. No assurances about the rebels, their calculation is entirely different, although if Mr Putin keeps a tight hold on them, it is in his interest to maintain the truce as well. Russia’s position depends on its intervention being short. The last thing it needs is an open ended conflict in Ukraine and further sanctions on its already anaemic economy.

The next week will be crucial for both sides.


Vladimir Putin, Sergei ShoiguPundits and politicians this last week have been quick to pronounce verdict on the Crimean crisis. Vladimir Putin and the Russians have miscalculated badly and ultimately lost, by turning to force to achieve what their soft power could not, damaging their relationship with the west and uniting Ukrainians in opposition to Russia. Or alternatively, Russia has presented the west with a fait accompli and has won. Their troops cannot be dislodged from Crimea, the Crimean referendum on independence and integration into Russia will almost certainly produce a ‘yes’ vote and Putin appears to have delayed Ukraine’s western integration until its territorial issues are resolved. I have serious doubts that the issue is so clear cut. As I am fond of saying, the Russians play the long game and I think the Crimean situation has a long way to go yet, and it not apparent who will come out of it strengthened or weakened.

What is apparent, as one of the most respected Russian area analysts points out, is that the crisis represents a decisive Russian geopolitical break with the Euro-Atlantic area. Of course for years Russian watchers have been highlighting its growing cooperation with China, especially in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and its obstructive opposition to US and European foreign policy goals such as missile defence and NATO expansion. Overall, however, compared to the Cold War’s level of confrontation, the 1990s and 2000s were marked by vastly increased cooperation. The establishment of the NATO-Russia council in 1991, and participation from 1994 in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, brought Russia and its former adversaries together in a consultative and collaborative framework.  Economic ties also strengthened as Russia was welcomed into the G8 grouping of major industrial nations in 1998 and 2012 finally saw the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, restricting US trade with Russia as a non-market economy. Russia even supported the initial campaign in the war on terror, using its influence in Central Asia to provide NATO forces with basing installations.

The Russian intervention in Ukraine however, represents an end to this period of cooperation, exposing the deep divisions that have grown between the two. Russia’s open use of troops, despite official denials, in a European neighbour, demonstrates how convinced its leadership has become of the futility of attempting to achieve a broader political accommodation with the west. It is Moscow’s considered view that the west (and the US especially) was never serious about integrating Russia into a global security condominium, that it is unmoved by Russian concerns over NATO’s post-Cold War role, and that policies such as missile defence, or support for the opposition in Syria, are designed to weaken Russia’s geopolitical advantages.

Judging by the US rhetorical and punitive response to the Crimean intervention, relations are set for a deep freeze.  With visa bans already in place, economic sanctions reportedly being prepared and broad security cooperation unthinkable in the present atmosphere, it is likely Russian-US relations will become more adversarial in nature, especially over US policy in the former Soviet borderlands and on issues such as arms control and humanitarian intervention. Coordination may still be possible on issues of joint interest, such as international terrorism and drug interdiction, but these will be transactional agreements.

Relations with Europe will doubtless suffer as well, especially with the EU’s eastern members who have long histories of confrontation with Russia and who are still nervous concerning their economic reliance on Russian energy. Overall economic relations with Europe are likely to remain largely unaffected however. A trade relationship worth an annual USD 500bn, and the vital nature of gas deliveries, will encourage major European states like Germany to adopt a hesitant approach to sanctions. Especially as talk of the US shale gas boom’s ability to counterbalance a disruption of Russian gas supplies is still some years away. Other European states such as Britain and France are also demonstrating their hesitancy to disrupt their economic relationship with Russia.

Despite this, however, Russia can be expected to return to its roots as a more Eurasian power than an aspiring Euro-Atlantic actor. Any reduction in gas purchases by Europe will be counter-balanced by increased sales to China. We were already given a preview of the growing energy cooperation between these two powers with the signing of a 38bn m3 gas delivery agreement in September 2013. Both countries are also likely to increase military cooperation and geopolitical coordination over the next several years, facilitated by China’s reliance on Russian military technology and, to an extent, doctrine.  This will necessitate a Russian abandonment of its traditional fear of becoming China’s junior security partner,  in order to balance greater hostility with the US. It is possible this could finally provide the impetus needed to transform the potentially influential, but currently disjointed, SCO into a major security coordinator.

Finally, look for Russia to strengthen security and strategic integration with its former Soviet allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Military cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), already a priority for the Kremlin, will be reinvigorated.  While currently serving as little more than a potential Central Asian anti-terrorism body and a vehicle for deliveries of discounted Russian military equipment to its poorer neighbours, Russia will seek to strengthen the organisation.  This will result in increased aid to the Central Asian, Armenian and Belarusian militaries, and an expansion of the conventional strength of the CSTO by augmenting its standing formations.

It would be futile to speculate on the long-term effects of this reorientation for internal Russian social and political development, but from a global perspective it appears the post-Cold War era, marked by reduced confrontation, nominal cooperation and growing integration as a result of globalisation, is over. In years to come historians may look on it as a missed opportunity.

Crisis in Crimea

Posted: March 2, 2014 in Eurasia 650

Ukraine-Russian-troopIn times like these is it dangerous to resort to exaggeration for dramatic effect, but Europe faces the most dangerous threat to its security since the end of the Cold War. Even the crises of the Yugoslav wars did not threaten a major hot conflict between the great European powers. But since Russian troops arrived in numbers in the Crimea on Friday the situation has become increasingly tense. Crimea is now cut off from the rest of Ukraine by Russian forces who are digging in.  Pro Russian demonstrations have broken out in Donetsk and Kharkiv, resulting in violent clashes with pro-western activists. In this heightened atmosphere, yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured Federation Council support for the use of Russian troops in Ukraine (not just Crimea).

The response from the interim Ukrainian and western governments seems disjointed. Despite assertions from Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that the armed forces of Ukraine are on full alert and prepared to respond to Russian aggression, and western warnings of unspecified ‘consequences’, it appears they do not really know how to respond. NATO met Sunday to discuss the growing crisis, but it is unclear whether there is any support for direct confrontation. Calls from leaders such as US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the principal of non-intervention are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Western leaders, especially the US and UK who have come late to the Ukrainian crisis fail to appreciate the Russian perspective on what has occurred. Russia has witnessed a popular uprising against a democratically elected leader, one favourable to better ties with Russia, his deposition from power, and his replacement by a non-elected government comprised of members of the supposedly anti-Russian Fatherland and Freedom Parties. They are bemused that countries which constantly deploy rhetoric concerning the primacy of democratic rights, and respect for constitutional order, offered high profile support to the Maidan movement by not only visiting the protest camp in Kyiv, but by consistently laying the blame for violence at the feet of Mr Yanukovych’s government. All while ignoring violence perpetrated by the nationalist, often right wing, hardcore of activists, such as those from the Right Sector movement, which fought deadly battles with the police.

For Russia, this affair has exposed western hypocrisy and machination, the only reason for which can be to gain strategic advantage over Russia by moving Ukraine out of its orbit.  The decision of western government’s to recognise the new unelected, and in Russian eyes illegitimate, Ukrainian government has only reinforced this perception. To Russian strategists the game is now openly being played and the stakes are extremely high. Without Ukraine, Mr Putin’s plans for Eurasian integration will be very difficult, while it is likely Ukraine will once again pursue integration into Euro-Atlantic security structures, which Russia views as hostile.

Western politicians and media outlets have quickly denounced the Russian troop deployment as an ‘invasion’ and claimed that this is contrary to Russia’s position that military action can only be authorised by the United Nations Security Council. From Russia’s perspective, however, Ukraine is operating without an official and legitimate government, and the instability there is a direct threat to Russian security.  Furthermore the inclusion of what Moscow sees as borderline fascist elements in Mr Yatsenyuk ‘s government represents a threat to Ukraine’s Russian minority, as evidenced by the immediate proposal to repeal legislation placing the Russian language on par with Ukrainian in certain regions.

It is doubtful Russia is planning an outright invasion of Ukraine. Despite the disparity in the size and quality of their respective militaries, such a venture would undoubtedly carry a high price in terms of casualties and resources, which Russian can ill afford. A de-facto occupation and the threat of forced separation of the Crimea would secure Russia’s influence over Ukraine’s future political evolution, while keeping it too weak to pursue western integration.

As Crimea is now de facto under Russian control the best course of action is to open a dialogue with the Russian leadership, led by Germany (Russia’s most respected European partner) or Switzerland (A non-EU, non-NATO actor) to establish a scale for de-escalation. The situation remains extremely tense and fluid, however. If either Russian or Ukrainian troops panic and in the heat of the moment shots are exchanged, the situation could spiral out of control very quickly. And it would be very hard for the EU or the US to remain uninvolved for very long.

Ukraine EU

This blog is not a news service. I don’t have the time or the resources for something like that. Nor do I like making very precise predictions about the future as it’s too difficult to anticipate all the variables, especially given the shifting situation in a case as fluid as that which Ukraine now finds itself in.  For instance, a Ukrainian friend of mine has recently told me the protests are being misinterpreted in the west and are no longer about the failure of European integration, but about regime brutality against protestors.  I still think it’s about Europe, but what do I as a desk bound analyst know?  It’s hard to tell what the actual situation on the ground is.

Given the momentous events of the past few weeks, however, it is possible to list a few things I have learned following the government’s decision to delay signing the EU Association Agreement and the subsequent protests.

Yanukovych is thinking purely in the short term

Ukraine’s president is thinking no further than the 2015 presidential elections. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; most politicians are primarily concerned with their own positions of power. And pundits the world over have their hands full debating why he cannot bear to give up his position, even if it means cementing the favourable legacy of putting Ukraine on the path to Europe. You only have to google his name to read about the attacks on the media, the clan politics, the fact companies run by his son, Oleksandr, have received the majority of government procurement contracts in the last 3 years, or the public impression of Mr Yanukovych and his wife as thieves (Lyudmyla Yanukovych is often referred to as “Fortochka” – the word for a tiny window prevalent in Soviet era housing, but also a slang word for a thief).

Cops attackThe point is, regardless of “why” he needs to remain in office, Mr Yanukovych clearly reasoned he could survive the public anger over refusing to sign whereas he would certainly not survive public anger over the economic ramifications of falling out with Russia.  That is also probably behind the regime’s decision to use force against the protesters.  At first I thought Mr Yanukovych may have learned from the Russian experience of 2011 and 2012 that the best way to defuse street demonstrations was to allow them to take place, hold managed demonstrations by regime supporters to confuse international media, promise substantially increased state spending for key constituencies, and wait for opposition supporters to become demoralised.

I’ve come to realize that the Ukrainian situation is different, however.  Ukraine’s fiscal imbalance means the government does not have the financial resources to increase spending or wages.  Also, unlike the Russian system, Yanukovych does not enjoy support in large parts of the country outside Kiyv and the Donbas making it difficult for him to portray the protestors as a small, urban intellectual elite, as Putin was able to do in Moscow.  Moreover, he does not enjoy unified support from the oligarchical class, and although he has influential backers, he cannot ensure powerful businessmen will not support the opposition.  So he may have decided that if he could clear the protests out quickly, as he tried in the police attack of 30 November, he’d stand a better chance. That was obviously a mistake and he now appears to have opted for something closer to the Russian model, but his presidency is now in grave danger as police brutality has only served to bolster the protestors.

Yanukovych may have actually saved Ukraine’s European orientation though this reversal

This is a controversial observation but hear me out.

As usual at times like these, when citizens get caught up in the emotion of a historic event, many participants and observers lose perspective. Of course it’s easy for me to say this, not being Ukrainian, but I think much of the analysis that is coming forth, both from protesters and supportive pundits is taking too black and white a view. They are framing these events as a struggle of good v evil, Putin/Yanukovych and autocracy v the West and a democratic future.  This is too simplistic, which is perhaps why the contrasts are used, to garner support from the interested and media attentive, but ultimately ill-informed, international public.

Ukraine GasWhile one of the major issues at hand is whether Ukraine has a future where governance is conducted under the rule of law, something Mr Yanukovych has not always been committed to, this good v evil paradigm ignores several important facts. When Mr Yanukovych says he caved to Russian pressure it is largely dismissed by the western press as a convenient excuse, but I think he is being honest.  Almost absent from current discourse is the fact Ukraine’s economic and fiscal imbalances are becoming unbearable.  Its heavy industries, especially steel, are hugely energy inefficient and without Russian gas subsidies would have to endure a painful restructuring that would involve significant layoffs.

On an individual level, Ukrainian consumers enjoy generous gas utility subsidies, helping shield them from the drop in living standards that followed the 2008 crisis, but which are very expensive.  It is estimated the cost of industrial and personal gas subsidies in 2013-14 alone is USD 2.9bn and for a country already facing a high deficit, Ukraine simply can’t afford this.  Ukraine’s already faces USD 60bn in debt repayments in mid-2014, equal to one third of its GDP, and cannot access international markets due to its poor sovereign debt rating.  This has resulted in a severe shortage of foreign currency, putting pressure on the hryvnia which faces a potential devaluation next year.

Ukraine Financial MinistryAnd here is where I think people are missing the point. Russia’s position was blackmail yes.  Sign the Association Agreement with EU, Putin said, and there would be no more subsidised gas deliveries and an economic embargo that would have seen trade and revenues drop precipitously.  Russia has in its power the billions of dollars needed to support Ukraine’s existing imbalances. What did the EU offer by contrast? It offered only USD 1.6 billion in funding over the next year and a further unspecified support, not exceeding USD 15bn, from the IMF if Ukraine cut subsidies and restructured its economy.

Had Mr Yanukovych gone down that path, I don’t think many appreciated how difficult life would have become.  As industries were forced to become more efficient unemployment would have risen rapidly, shrinking gas subsidies would have seen the cost of living go up, especially for those on a fixed income such as pensioners, and a likely devaluation of the hryvnia would have damaged savings and created upside inflationary pressures.  While the long term benefit of joining the EU would be enormous, in terms of cheaper procurement and a larger market for Ukrainian goods, the short term results would have been painful.

Would the Ukrainian people have endured this economic turmoil stoically, reasoning that it was worth it to be a step closer to EU membership? I doubt it. The EU membership process can take years.  The people would have cursed the EU for failing to support them in transition.  We saw it after the Orange Revolution, when faced with the painful loss of Russia friendship and unwillingness in Europe to support the costs of the transition, the people eventually turned to Yanukovych to restore Ukraine’s economic relationship with Russia.  Ukraine must use what little time remains in its beneficial relationship with Russia to start resolving its economic imbalances, because Europe is very hesitant to bear the cost.

Which leads to observation 3:

Europe is probably pleased that Ukraine backed out of the deal

BarossoThe EU has been very quiet and non-committal about Ukraine’s about-face and the prospect for its future association.  Leave aside European Commission officials, whose job it is to promote EU policy and institutions, and are shocked and disappointed by Ukraine decision to delay the Association Agreement’s signing.  I haven’t heard much out of France, Germany or the UK.  I think on a national level many of the EU’s member states are secretly pleased at this turn of events.  They will make all the right noises about their commitment to bringing Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community, and denounce violence in Kiyv, but we must remember that at its core the EU is not a united entity.  It’s a confederation of tribes where national interest often trumps collective decision making.

The two countries behind the Eastern Partnership, designed to bring former Soviet States closer to the EU and keep Russia at arm’s length, have been Sweden and Poland.  Now, I won’t go as far as the Russians in claiming the Association Agreement is motivated by a Polish-Lithuanian desire for revenge from the 1700s, but Poland at least has been a leading voice of suspicion and hostility toward Russia in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.  The Poles have made no secret of their view that Russia seeks to dominate not just the former Soviet Union but Eastern Europe as well, and trade disputes and recrimination is just regular business between these two neighbours.  At the time of the 2008 Russian war with Georgia a significant number of Poles surveyed said they expected an imminent Russian invasion. This was one of the main reasons they supported missile defence in Eastern Europe during the 2000s and why they launched the Eastern Partnership.  The building of economic, cultural and political links between states in Eastern Europe will help form a buffer against Russian encroachment.

By contrast, France and Germany have never been that hot on the Eastern Partnership, especially the prospect it held out for eventual Ukrainian membership in the EU.  Why would they, the two most powerful states in the EU, want to embrace a rival of comparable population and geographic size in Eastern Europe? Although not immediate this would create an alternative power centre away from Western Europe along with all the regional rivalries and disputes that go with it.  Additionally, and more immediate, France and Germany balked at supporting Ukraine’s transition from its post-Soviet incarnation to a modern European democracy.  Yes, the EU has previously supported states struggling with economic imbalances, poor governance and ingrained corruption, but Ukraine is no Slovakia or Romania.  Its needs are larger, its oligarchs more powerful and its politics more divisive than the EU has ever attempted to reform.  For countries struggling with their own economic recoveries and where populations are becoming more dubious on the benefits of the union (support for the EU in France fell to 41% in 2013), the prospect of having to provide large scale financial support for years to Ukraine is extremely unpalatable.  Mr Yanukovych’s decision to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement will give these members of the EU years to continue expressing scepticism over its suitability for membership.

Finally, this will not derail Ukraine’s inexorable move towards Europe

These protests not a struggle to keep Ukraine from joining some neo-Soviet Union, although that sounds great on TV!  The outpouring of public anger is proof that huge parts of the country want eventual EU membership, or at least closer alignment. Polls have shown that over 50% of the country wants closer association with the EU.  I have seen very little evidence many want to be part of Russia’s Customs Union.   Ukraine is a European nation, not just some upstart region of the former Russian and Soviet empires. Don’t be deceived by those who say this is a civilizational choice or that Ukraine is the birthplace of Russia.  That is a disservice to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, for starters and neither orthodox Christianity nor a sense of Russian nationalism can definitively have been said to start in Kiyv.

ProtestsUkraine has a long, distinguished and distinct history from Russia.  Its cultural heartland in Western Ukraine speaks a different language (think French to Spanish) and has long established links to the Catholic Church, not Orthodox Christianity.  Younger Ukrainians, from both east and west, may feel a sense of affinity with other parts of the former Soviet Union, but it does not dictate their political orientation. Yes, the Russian language helps them to communicate with citizens in other former Soviet republics, yes they remember the TV shows, the songs, and the schools of their Soviet youth, but they feel European.  We’re on the cusp of a new generation who won’t even remember the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Putin aside, few in Russia are willing to shoulder the cost of absorbing the Ukraine into a Russian-sponsored federation.  It has already been announced this last week that Yanukovych, on his way back from China where he has been trying to drum up financial support for Ukraine’s weakened economy, stopped off in Sochi and discussed renewed gas subsidies with Vladimir Putin. No surprise there, given the stated Russian position, but the cost of this subsidy will also be a burden for Russia’s economy, which is by no means booming.  Although oil and gas prices remain above the oil benchmark rate of USD 100 a barrel the Russian state’s financial commitments are ever expanding and the non-oil deficit is due to average 9.6% of GDP by 2015. There is very little margin for error if oil prices fall and this subsidy will further harm the balance if locked in by contract.  Gazprom, which will bear the primary cost of this subsidy, is already experiencing difficulties, as it saw profitability drop in early 2013 on the back of falling exports to Europe.  Although exports have subsequently recovered, long term trends suggest exports to Europe will continue to decline.

Finally, and similar to the position of France and Germany, why would Russia want to absorb a Ukraine that has a highly developed sense of nationalism and independence? As one of the most respect scholars of post-Soviet studies, Dmitri Trenin, has repeatedly pointed out, the threat posed to any Russian plans for post-Soviet reintegration by a Slavic country of over 40 million, with its own political and economic elites and agenda would be tremendous.  Especially as Ukraine would constantly be challenging Russia’s leadership of such a union.  What a headache!

Take heart Ukrainian friends. The march towards Europe can’t really be stopped, only delayed. A more important question for another day is: Do you really want to be in Europe?

Ukraine Goes West…Or Does It?

Posted: November 19, 2013 in Eurasia 650

ukraine-euOn November 14th The Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, closed its session without taking a vote on a bill that would have allowed jailed opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko to go abroad for medical treatment.  Although the government of Viktor Yanukovych has demonstrated flexibility by abandoning its previous refusal to even consider such leniency it will not consider any measure that would lead to her rehabilitation in time to stand in the 2015 elections.  The urgency in reaching an agreement is because of Ukraine’s desire to sign a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU at its Vilnius summit on November 28th-29th which would reduce trade barriers and open the bloc to Ukrainian public procurement, laying the foundation for eventual EU membership.  The EU has made the agreement was conditional on reforms to Ukraine’s legal and judicial system to eliminate so-called “selective justice”, of which Ms Tymoshenko is the most prominent victim.

The inability to reach an agreement has surprised both Ukraine watchers and EU diplomats, who have said they still expect to sign the DCFTA in Lithuania.  The surprise is acute because Ukraine’s often riotous parliamentary procedure and normally irreconcilable political parties have given way in recent months to a sense of national unity over the president’s decision to improve relations with the EU.  This is in no small part due to Russian attempts to prevent Ukraine signing the DCFTA and convince it to join its own Customs Union together with Belarus and Kazakhstan.  At times the Russian strategy has been pure blackmail involving enforced delays and checks at the border across which 30% of Ukraine’s exports move, and banning key Ukrainian exports in hopes of pressuring Ukraine’s oligarchs to force Yanukovych’s hand.  This pressure has had the reverse effect, uniting the president, the opposition and the oligarchs who want access to EU investment and technology.

But is Ukraine committed to integration with the EU?  Despite the assurances of EU officials that all is on track and statements by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov that Ukraine would do whatever it takes to appease the EU, I doubt many observers recognise what kind of pressure Viktor Yanukovych is under.  It is not just Ukraine’s geopolitical future that is at stake but his own political survival.  With USD 60bn in international obligations coming due in mid-2014, large quasi-fiscal liabilities at state corporations and a commitment to a strong hryvnya to control inflation, Ukraine is standing on the edge of a fiscal precipice.

While there are undoubtedly economic advantages to western integration and the EU has pledged financial support, the effects will likely not be felt for some years.  The economic levers at Russia’s disposal can inflict a much more precipitous kind of pain, especially natural gas.  Absent the subsidies it used to enjoy Ukraine now pays USD 421 per m3 for Russian gas, the source of 95% of its imports, more than the EU at USD 400 per m3.  The government has also steadfastly refused to increase gas prices for either inefficient industries or for consumers, still feeling the affect effect of the 2008-09 recession.  With presidential elections due in 2015, and the 2012 contest demonstrating failing confidence in his leadership, Mr Yanukovych urgently needs to find the funds to avoid devaluation, maintain subsidies and probably hike wages.

The most likely scenario remains that the parliamentary session due to open on November 21st will pass a quick law allowing Ms Tymoshenko to go abroad and the DCFTA will be signed in Lithuania, but the threat of Russia’s response could yet be enough to forestall the agreement.  Mr Yanukovych was secretly in Moscow on November 9th, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was there to express to Russian President Vladimir Putin his continual friendship and his lukewarm commitment to eventual and permanent Ukrainian-EU integration.  He is acutely aware his political future rests largely on Russia’s next move and although polls show a majority of Ukrainians currently support EU integration, that could easily change if economic conditions deteriorate.

President Karimov 2

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Uzbekistan has gained a reputation as one of Central Asia’s most authoritarian and oppressive environments; just possibly eclipsed by the quasi-totalitarian regime in neighbouring Turkmenistan.  Led by former President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic Islam Karimov, the democratic process is almost non-existent.  Elections in 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2007 were criticised by the west as fraudulent, opposition parties are banned, media is heavily controlled and draconian security measures ensure a compliant population.  Western government and human rights organisations regularly highlight instances of arbitrary detainment and torture in the Uzbek criminal justice system, especially targeting opposition and civil rights activists.  The most prominent opposition groups, such as the Birdamlik Movement or the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, are forced to operate outside the country and have little popular support.

The impotence of genuine opposition groups means political change is extremely unlikey to originate from outside the ruling elite (Leaving aside for the moment the question of Islamic militancy).  Instead analysts and pundits, both inside and outside Uzbekistan, are beginning to openly speculate about who will eventually succeed Mr Karimov, who has has been in power over 20 years.  Mr Karimov goes to lengths to present himself as healthy and vigorous, which is common behaviour in systems where stability depends upon the concentration of power in one person’s hands.  In March 2013, however, rumours began to emerge on the internet that Mr Karimov had suffered a serious heart attack and was bid-ridden under the supervision of doctors, which coincided with a long absence from the state media.  Mr Karimov is prone to lengthy disappearances from TV and is often said to float rumours of his own ill health in order to gauge the response of his colleagues. But at the age of 75 he cannot count on his own existence endlessly. He must at some point begin planning for a transition.

Karimova UzbekistanConstitutional amendments, passed in March 2011, state that in the case of death or incapacity of the chief executive, the Chairman of the Senate will become interim president.  This would appear to put current Chairman, Ilgizar Matyakubovich Sobirov, in pole position to follow Mr Karimov.  Mr Sobirov is not considered to have the resources or the power base to sustain a challenge for the presidency, however, and so external analysts regularly focus their attention on a more colourful and controversial candidate, Mr Karimov’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova.

Aged just 41 Ms Karimova has attracted significant media attention in western countries over the last decade for her work as a singer (under the stage name Googoosha – apparently a pet name of her father’s), fashion designer, and diplomat as Uzbekistan’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva.  Ms Karimova cuts a swath of colour through the grey corridors of power in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and is doubtless viewed by some as a potentially more cosmopolitan and responsive leader than her father.  Apart from her outgoing demeanour and outrageously stylish fashion, she is also more globally connected as evidenced through her twitter account, to which she spends as much time engaging in arguments with human rights campaigners over the conduct of her father’s regime as she does posting pictures of herself doing yoga. I follower her on twitter myself, although I stress this is purely for research purposes… Karimova shoulder stand

Ms Karimov is regularly photographed at film festivals, fashion shows and charity events in the company of celebrities such as Sharon Stone, Elton John and even former US President Bill Clinton.  Last year she even recorded a duet with former French actor Gerard Depardieu on his swing through Central Asia.

Ms Karimova has certainly done nothing to cool speculation that she aspires to the presidency, refusing to deny it in an interview given to Pete Allman of Celebrity Scene News in March 2013.  I perceive an undercurrent of hope in some quarters that she might actually take over from her father. I cannot tell if this is purely because few western commentators know of any other figures that can rival her for international notoriety and certainly none that have her media friendly veneer, or whether there is true hope she will emerge into a democratic force due to her more consistent exposure to the western world.  Either way, it seems impossible to read an article about the political situation in Uzbekistan without the tag-line: “Gulnara Karimova, tipped by some as the favourite to assume the presidency after her father…” But is she really favourite? I found myself wondering what chance Ms Karimova really has to attain Uzbekistan’s highest office.

The easiest way to dismiss her chances would be to disqualify her on gender grounds.  I have seen one analysis suggest that the conservative, Islamic heritage of Uzbekistan would make it difficult for both the elite and the broader public to accept a woman in the country’s top leadership position.  I don’t believe, however, that this could truly prevent her from securing the presidency is she wanted it.  In the first instance, Rosa Otunbayeva proved a surprisingly stable and successful president in neighbouring and similarly Islamic Kyrgyzstan, and second, power in Central Asia comes from the availability of wealth and power to distribute to your followers. And Ms Karimova certainly has plenty of that…

She is reputed to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful businesspersons in the country.  Apart from her own fashion emporium, Dom Stila, she has known interests in crude oil producer Zeromax, shares in a coca cola bottling franchise in Tashkent and extensive telecommunications interests.  Her fortune is estimated at anywhere between USD 500mn and USD 3.5bn, much of it obtained due to her position as so-called “first daughter of the nation”.  It is regularly alleged that she has used state judicial resources to open tax investigations against target companies, and is not above ordering police raids or arrest to intimidate potential rivals.  Investigators in Sweden and Switzerland are also investigating whether Ms Karimova is linked to payments worth USD 230mn made by the Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera since 2007 for access to the Uzbek market.   The power of her father and the state apparatus has given her access to every sector of the economy and formed a powerful base from which to make a play for the presidency.  But her business interests also give her opponents an opening to act against her.

Karimova UNAllegations of her dubious behaviour have long been known to the international business community and foreign officials.  US diplomatic cables from 2005, leaked by the Wikileaks organisation, have described Ms Karimova as “a bully” and that she is seen by Uzbeks as a “greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.” It appears, however, that in recent months she has bitten off more than she can chew by picking a fight with MTS, a Russian telecommunications giant with extensive assets in Uzbekistan.  In July 2013 the Uzbek authorities forced MTS to shut its Uzbek operations, which provide coverage to a third of the population, on the ground of a massive unpaid tax bill of close to USD 600mn, following the disappearance of its regional CEO Bekhzod Akhmedov.  Soon afterwards Lombard Odier, a private Swiss bank, expressed concern that Mr Akhmedov, one of its customers, was allowing his accounts to be used by known associates of Ms Karimova, several of whom are already under investigation for involvement in the TeliaSonera bribery affair.  Suspicions have since emerged that Mr Akhmedov, an old associate of Ms Karimova’s maybe have been working willingly to undermine MTS’s Uzbek subsidiary, Uzdubrobita, on behalf of the so-called first daughter.

If these allegations are true and Ms Karimova is behind the attack on MTS she has chosen a formidable enemy.  Although she herself has a reputation for combative resilience the quarrel could see her make an enemy out of MTS’ owner, Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov.  In what has been a dangerous and competitive post-Soviet era for Russia’s mega rich (look no further than Mikhail Khodorkovsky) Mr Yevtushenkov has survived and prospered.  His Sistema Corporation is the largest publicly listed Russian company with no state holding and he is used to defending it.  As an unnamed source told the Financial Times in early 2013 “[…} this Russian oligarch is different. He eats other Russian oligarchs for breakfast.”  If the spat grows, and given the competitive nature of both Ms Karimova and Mr Yevtushenkov  there is every possibility it will, it could damage the valuable economic relationship between Russian and Uzbekistan.  A former employee summed up the situation nicely when he commented “When she [Ms Karimova] picks fights, she constantly makes mistakes and corners herself, and this makes it harder for her subordinates and Uzbek authorities to defend her.”  The faceless oligarchs and powerful security officials who comprise Uzbekistan’s elite are unlikely to look favourably on her antics and the potential fallout.

Rustam AzimovIt is possible the TeliaSonera and MTS affairs have already prompted Ms Karimova’s rivals for the presidency to move against her.  The consensus amongst analysts are that the three top candidates are Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, Deputy PM and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov (seen right) and head of the National Security Service Rustam Inoyatov.  The indications that she sees at least one of these figures as a rival were evident in April when she used her twitter account to air and re-tweet allegations that the Mr Azimov has made a fortune through corruption and mismanagement, apparently safe in the knowledge that her father’s patronage would defend her from similar criticism.  But it appears these attacks have stirred her opponents into action.  It is thought that this triumvirate was responsible for her dismissal as Uzbekistan’s representative to the UN in July 2013.  As she is currently under investigation on corruption charges related to TeliaSonera in Switzerland, the loss of her diplomatic immunity could see criminal charges laid and will complicate her access to foreign deposits.  The ease with which this success was achieved seems to have encouraged her opponents to escalate her downfall last week when her Markaz TV, SOFTS and NTT television stations all abruptly stopped transmitting right in the lead up to her fashion festival.  Apart from being a personal humiliation to the first daughter, reports that an order came from above to “clean up the act”, on stations that broadcast extensive footage and advertisements for Ms Karimova’s charities and philanthropic pursuits, is a clear sign of outside interference.

gulnara-karimova_FashionSo, while Ms Karimova undoubtedly harbours some aspirations to occupy the president’s chair, the odds appear to be stacking up against her.  For her to successfully make a bid for the top job in the face of competition several stars would have to align for her.  She would either have to attract considerable popular support and have resources enough take over the patronage networks that have maintained her father, or she would have to have the backing of key sectors of the regime, especially the security services.  Unfortunately for her both US diplomatic cables and anecdotal evidence suggest she is widely disliked in the country because of her extravagant wealth and heavy handed business practices.  There is also no evidence to suggest she has any support amongst the bureaucracy, the finance ministry or security forces (though this author doesn’t doubt conscripts up and down the land don’t admire her willowy figure and talented voice), which are controlled by her rival, Mr Inoyatov.  It is also hard to imagine the elderly and stern Uzbek Generals taking orders from a colourful and flamboyant fashion designer.

Karimova Queen of AsiaThe only factor that keeps her in with a chance for the presidency in the face of what seems to be attacks by her rivals is her proximity to her father.  For years his patronage has shielded her from outside criticism and allowed her to build up a massive business empire.  But it appears that even he can’t defend her from recent schemes designed to diminish her prestige and reduce her influence.  Which adds emphasis to the even more intriguing question of just how healthy and effective Mr Karimov is, that he is unable or unwilling to prevent his daughter losing her UN post or her major media outlets.  In the end Ms Karimova is unlikely to make it to the pinnacle of Uzbek power, but I wouldn’t say she is destined for obscurity.  Her enormous wealth and business influence will give her a powerful platform to fight her enemies as well as a prominent voice in selecting his successor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov votes in favor of a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal during a Security Council meeting amid the 68th U.N. General Assembly in New York

A significant number of American pundits and politicians have been sounding off in the last few weeks about the deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concerning Syria, on 14 September. That agreement, and the process leading up to it, provoked adulation from global media but condemnation from western sources, for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, whose seizure of an off-hand proposal of Mr Kerry’s appears to have averted western intervention in the two year old conflict.  America’s media in particular, across the whole spectrum excoriated Mr Putin for his defence of Bashar Al Assad, denounced his background and character as a “KGB thug”, and bitterly lamented the fact he had outwitted Barack Obama to gain a “victory” over Syria.  In its view Mr Putin has subjected America to a public humiliation on the international stage.  Although there is something uniquely and annoyingly American about the fact the US looks at a successful plan to mitigate this crisis as a defeat, largely because it wasn’t American in origin.

What kind of victory have the Russians won though, really? Those of you who read my last entry several weeks ago will be aware of the origins of the Kremlin’s opposition to military action against Syria.  Mr Putin appears to believe he has reinforced the principal of non-intervention and derailed assistance to the perceived Islamic extremists in the Syrian opposition. All of this rests on the UN resolution passed in late September.  The delicate balance provided by resolution 2118, however, has the ability to come crashing down with remarkable speed. If the Syrian regime stalls, or fails to comply with the resolution, Russia will be in a very difficult position. Having supported action it will be forced to either reluctantly approve punitive measures against its ally, or risk a much more significant discrediting of the UN, which it is usually at pains to defend as a body deserving respect.

Alternatively, Russia may present evidence that the regime of Bashar Al Assad is not responsible for any delay or inability to disarm. Evidence is often subjective in international relations and no one could really disprove the claim if Russia makes it.  The odds would then rise significantly that western powers would return to the option of a military strike to preserve their, now tarnished, prestige.  It’s not as if the US has pledged to refrain from intervention altogether and although resolution 2118 does not invoke article VII of the UN charter (authorising military force), the US has shown it has few qualms about operating outside the global body. In this case there is little Mr Putin could do to forestall it, having already played the card of disarmament.  Despite warnings from some commentators, Russian warships will not fire on US or European aircraft, the same way US forces were not prepared to intervene to save Mikhail Saakashvili from Russian tanks in 2008.  In short Putin is bluffing and if his bluff is called, Russia’s reputation stands to take a real beating.

Which bring us to the topic of Russia’s real victory.  The real victory here seems to be a PR victory.  This is appropriate for a country in which a favourite political expression is всё ето пиар (Everything is PR).  Mr Putin’s and Russia’s reputation in general has emerged enhanced, although this likely only applies in authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, where the fear of western interference or intervention is strong.  It is doubtful Russia has improved its reputation in western capitals, where they will accuse it of defending a brutal regime, even as they back away from their threats of intervention.  Mr Putin has also re-introduced Russia as an international mediator, although I would argue only in situations where Russia has a direct interest.  Russia is hardly a regular international mediator of consequence, even in situations where it has direct interests on its own borders, such as the odyssey of North Korean nuclear disarmament. Fears by conservative US commentators that this has diminished America in the Middle East and given Russia a diplomatic foothold are wide of the mark.  It’s not as if Russia has enhanced its reputation or leverage with the states vital states of the Arab League that were quietly encouraging western intervention, or with Iran which has experienced its fickle friendship before.

Russia has won a victory, good PR equals enhanced prestige and prestige is said to be everything in international relations.  Good PR, however, depends on how long the impression lasts and can be fleeting especially if you end up in a protracted conflict from which there appears no escape (read Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq). Russia’s prestige victory then is the stay of action until (I’m feeling cynical) the Syrian regime reneges on or, interminably delays, its commitment to destroy its chemical and biological arsenal.  I wonder, however, if this insertion of themselves by the Russians into the process will prove to be a net gain.  Russia has now accepted the outcome of the Syrian situation as their joint responsibility with America and the Syrian regime.

This victory has placed Russian prestige in the hands of Bashar Al Assad and his willingness to destroy his chemical and biological weapons.  He might comply. Indeed, a case could be made that having invested so much in the Syrian regime, Russia has an incentive to ensure it does comply.  But the Syrian regime is locked in a life or death struggle with anti-Assad rebels and its chemical weapons give it a decisive advantage I don’t think it will be eager to give up; at least not until the military advantage has swung distinctly in its favour.  Mr Putin may have won a temporary PR victory, but the consequences from its potential to backfire could do heavier damage to Russia’s prestige in the long run.


This headlines during this week’s G-20 summit would have been hijacked by the situation in Syria regardless of where it was held.  The fact that it was held in Saint Petersburg’s Constantine Palace, focused the media’s attention, not only on the question of how western nations should respond to the reported chemical weapon attack of 21 August, but also on Russia’s staunch opposition to any military operation against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Much has been made of late by the Kremlin’s repeated rejection of western intelligence placing the blame for the attack that killed approximately 1,429 Syrian civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on the government. Although Moscow initially confirmed that it’s intelligence services had also reported the attack and refused to say who it thought had been responsible, its position quickly hardened, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calling first for patience, and then speaking about the dire consequences of any military action.  Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin went a step further, likening the west’s policy toward the Islamic world as akin to a “monkey with a grenade.”  (never underestimate the Russian fondness for a metaphor!).


This week’s summit provided a platform for President Putin to elucidate his position on the crisis to the world. And he chose unflinching support for the regime.  After describing the video released of the attack as a “provocation” by militants to attract outside help, he gave a vague reference to support for Al Assad, saying Russia would offer unspecified “help” in the event of US led strikes.

Much of the popular media analysis of Russia’s opposition to western intervention has come to the conclusion it is primarily financially or strategically motivated.  Syria is undoubtedly of major commercial interest to the Russians, especially in terms of arms sales.  Although Russian energy companies such as Gazprom, Tatneft and Soyuzneftgaz are involved in projects within the country, the most lucrative business is the provision of weaponry, outstanding orders of which are estimated to total USD 4bn.  Following the collapse of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Syria is probably the largest remaining buyer of Russian arms in the Middle East and North Africa.  Analysts have also pointed to Russia’s last remaining military base outside of the former Soviet Union, the naval installation of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  Never mind the fact that the Tartus base is manned by only fifty Russian sailors and consists of two floating piers and a repair bay, and cannot even when at full preparedness cater to any of the Russians navy’s major warships.

As important as both the scale of arms sales and the prospect of losing a strategic base are, I cannot find adequate justification for these as the main reasons behind Russian’s unusually bellicose language in defence of the regime.  After all, Russia stood aside and lost a valuable customer and ally during the Libya campaign of 2011, while the Tartus base really serves more as a resupply station for ships passing through the Suez Canal than a military base for the projection of Russian power.  Rather I believe, the origin of Russian opposition can be found in direct relation to questions of Russian national security, ironic as it seems given Syria’s geographic distance from the Russian border. These security concerns are explored below.

1) The UN and the precedent of unauthorised foreign intervention 

More experienced Russia watchers will be familiar with the Russian insistence that military force can only come from a resolution backed by the UN security council (leaving aside resolution 1973 in Libya, the last time this occurred was the Gulf war of 1991).  The Syrian crisis has been no exception, with Mr Putin repeatedly stating that the council must wait for the report from UN weapons inspectors before deciding on a course of action.  Russia adores referring crises to the UN.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia really only has two levers that allow it to maintain the fiction of its superpower status; its nuclear arsenal and its UN security council veto.

Of course calling for patience until evidence is presented to the UN hasn’t stopped Mr Putin from offering his own conclusion that the gas attack was a rebel false-flag operation. Regardless of whether there is conclusive proof of regime culpability, it is extremely unlikely Russia will authorise force at the UN, because of its strongly held view of the international order and the principle of non-intervention.  Mr Putin and the Siloviki who surround him have a natural fear of western liberal interventionism.  The argument that military force can be used in order to uphold or install democratic processes is a concern for the architects of Russia’s “managed democracy”, where nominally democratic institutions are undermined by a cosmetic opposition and the delivery of dubiously large electoral victories for the Kremlin’s candidates.

Likewise, the long running operation in Chechnya has seen many well documented human rights abuses, from the large scale bombing of Grozny to the zachistka (cleansing) operations involving torture, extra-judicial executions and the disappearance of detainees.  The idea that a US led bombing campaign can be authorised, outside of international law, in order to defend human rights creates a shiver of unease within the Kremlin, mindful of its own human rights abuses. Russia therefore remains firmly committed to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention.

2) Fears concerning Islamic extremism

The Russian experience in Chechnya also helps explain the second factor influencing opposition to a military operation.  Russia has a long, long history of confrontation with the Islamic world. From its battles with the Khanate of Kazan in the 1500’s, to the wars with the Ottoman Empire throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th and 20th centuries.  Afghanistan in the 1980’s and Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s are simply the latest instalment in a conflict that comes from being at the geographic cross-road between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Russia is also aware of the destabilizing threats bubbling below the surface in the old Soviet republics of Central Asia such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut Tahrir organisation, which seek to create Islamic caliphates in the Ferghana Valley.IMU

While characterized by some commentators as a dubious threat, or dismissed by the casual observer as ancient history, Russia is acutely sensitive to radical Islam. This is not only because of its experiences in the North Caucasus but also because of the millions of Muslims in the Russian regions of Tatarstan and the Volga basin. The political establishment therefore sees the conflict with radical Islam, not through the US narrative as a struggle between freedom and oppression, but as an existential threat to the state.  It is for this reason that Russia was the first country to offer support to the US war on terror following 11 September 2001 and for this reason that Russia has taken the lead in creating new security structures in Central Asia as NATO prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

The Russians are subsequently aghast at the idea that the west may intervene to assist a collection of Islamic and increasingly radicalised rebel groups, reports of which suggest are loyal to the militant ideology of Al Qaeda, such as the Al Nusrah Front.  While Syria is hundreds of kilometres from Russia, the idea of it becoming a failed state in the centre of the Middle East, capable of fostering and exporting trained militants, who will doubtless recall Russia’s staunch support for their erstwhile enemy, makes any support for the rebel groups unacceptable.  Perhaps this explains why Mr Putin was quick to denounce the idea of any support for those “liver eaters” as he so delicately put it.

3) The Russian narrative of the Arab spring

It is doubtful if Russia needs any help tarnishing the credentials of the Arab spring following the collapse of state authority in Yemen, the near balkanization of Libya into gangs of armed militants, and the 2013 coup in Egypt, but it will certainly look to use this crisis to its advantage.  The fear of large scale popular uprisings against an unresponsive and authoritarian system have lurked in the recesses of the minds of Russia’s political elite since Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. During these upheavals Russian friendly governments were replaced by largely pro-western administrations.  If any in the Kremlin had grown complacent about their position the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012 in Russia brought home to them the danger of the precedent on display in the Middle East.  Although the demonstrations in Russia failed to disrupt the regime or force a re- run of the elections, they underscored the need to undermine the idea of popular uprising.

Ironically, what began as a source of inspiration to global political activists has now descended into a demonstration of how the collapse of governing structures can lead to anarchy, mob rule and sectarian violence.  For a Russian elite desperate for an example to showcase the dangers of a loss of stability Syria is a godsend.  But this new chemical weapons crisis has given them a further card to play, something more serious than the violence in Yemen or Egypt.  The conflict in Syria, which has already led to outright civil war and the deaths of over 100,000, has now witnessed an atrocity on a scale not seen since the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s.  If Russia can tie the rebels to the use of chemical weapons it will do enormous damage to the narrative of positive political uprising as well as shore up support for Mr Putin’s administration amongst younger Russians, those who did not experience the lawlessness and disorganisation of the 1990s.  A chance to weaken the enthusiasm of this key and typically energetic constituency cannot be missed.  Therefore, look for continued assertions by the Russian government that the operation in Syria was a rebel atrocity and false-flag operation.


International relations is a complicated game, no one knows this better than the Russians. Despite the popular narrative of the elite’s constant desire to stand in opposition to western powers to demonstrate their grandeur on the world stage the Russian foreign policy and security establishment is remarkably patient and analytical, and rarely moves to confront the west in the style it has chosen on this occasion.  The delivery of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, the despatch of advanced cruisers to the Mediterranean and the warning of “consequences” in the face of foreign intervention is, for them, very strong action.  The times when Russia chooses confrontation are considered very carefully and are not dictated by short term financial gain. Yes the USD 4bn in unfulfilled arms contracts for Syria represents a major source of income when one considers that Russian arms exports last year totalled a record high of USD 15bn. That pales in comparison, however, to say the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports, which supply two thirds of government revenue.  Russia, however, was hardly prepared to risk confrontation with China when the Turkmenistan-China pipeline was opened in 2009, freeing Central Asian Gas from Russia’s near monopoly.  Like any country with foreign interests, Russia advocates for its commercial clients, but will not risk confrontation to defend them.

Nor are these times of confrontation dictated by the potential loss of an ally, even a major regional one like Syria.  Some commentators have pointed in recent weeks to the fact that Syria is Russia’s last ally in the Middle East.  Were it to lose Assad’s regime, all Russian influence in the theatre would disappear. But Russia’s influence in the region evaporated after 1973 and it has never truly rebuilt it. It has little influence in Iran and none in Turkey, Israel or Saudi Arabia. These are the states that will shape the future of the Middle East, and Russia will be firmly shut out. And why should it care about Middle Eastern influence? It has no energy concerns requiring good relations with the Gulf Arabs. It is largely unconcerned by the Palestinian Israeli conflict, lacking a influential domestic Jewish constituency. Its real geopolitical projects are inside the former Soviet Union not in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, as already established, its naval base at Tartus is of negligible value to power projection.  Therefore, as painful as the loss of an ally in the region will be to Russia’s sense as a great power, even this would not be sufficient to provoke it into the danger of confrontation with western powers. As in Libya, and Iraq before it, Russia was prepared to let an ally collapse because the consequences were small to Russia itself.

This time round, however, the threat to the Russian state can be considered to be existential, rather than financial or geopolitical. For North American readers this can be harder to understand and easier to dismiss. Apart from a time centuries ago, nothing has threatened the geographic boundaries of our countries or the stability of our governmental structures.  But for the Russians a generation still exists that remembers the Nazi invasion of 1941. The parents of Russian children still remember the disintegration of their country in 1991 and the collapse of the Communist system under outside pressure.  Young Russian adults today have grown up amid an extremely bitter conflict with nationalists and Islamic extremists in the Caucasus that threatens the unity of their country. These Russians find it easy to understand existential threats.  To the Russian political elite the potential threat of US humanitarian intervention to defend Chechen civilians is real. The threat of extremism flowing north from Syria up into the Caucasus to renew the battles of the 1990s is real. The possibility of US sponsored and Arab inspired popular revolt is real.  It is for these reasons that the Russians are serious about Syria. Don’t expect Russian ships to fire on US aircraft next week, but do believe Russia will not stand by this time like in 2003 and 2011.