The Ukraine Crisis – The End of the System?

By Jack Harris, on 8 April 2014

By Anna Kruglova

The crisis in Ukraine has thoroughly put an end to Barack Obama’s famous “reset” of relations with Russia. It has revealed a cyclical tendency in Russia’s relations with the US and the West more broadly – much as in the 1990s, a relative thaw in relations has once again given way to tensions. Yet the Ukraine crisis has broader implications for international politics. It has revealed fundamental weaknesses in the international system that emerged from the conferences held in Yalta and Potsdam after the Second World War. State actors have created an environment that has left the system unable to engage with emerging issues and produce constructive responses, and allows problems to deepen and develop into full-blown crises.

The first problem – a lack of meaningful UN reform – has already been widely debated but bears repeating here. During the Ukraine crisis, the UN, the closest thing we have to a universal international institution, was once again been paralysed by divisions to the point where it was unable to muster any response beyond anodyne verbal condemnations and calls for negotiation. The structure of the Security Council must take most of the blame for this paralysis. The rotating memberships of the Security Council led to the bizarre situation in which countries with no direct stake in the crisis, such as Rwanda and Chad, were involved in the debates over the Ukraine crisis, while Germany, a key leader in the EU and an important partner of Russia, was excluded. As such, what discussions were held were largely useless, and the resolutions they produced were immediately vetoed by Russia. These issues have long been widely acknowledged, even by the Secretary General, but no efforts towards comprehensive reform has been made since 2005. Without reform, the UN will continue to be unable to respond effectively to international crises.

The second problem is that too many violations of sovereignty and international law have now gone unpunished for verbal condemnations to carry any weight. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were not sanctioned by the UN, while in Libya NATO blatantly disregarded the limits of the mandate granted by resolution 1973, which gave it the authority only to enforce no-fly zones, not to directly interfere in the conflict by bombing ground forces. All of these acts were admitted to be violations of international law and yet went wholly unpunished. With such precedents now firmly established, states will face ever greater temptations to break the rules.

Thirdly, in place of the common standards provided by international law, double standards are now firmly settled in the system of international relations. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while denying such recognition to Kosovo, which is recognised by the EU and the US. Debates over which of these new states truly deserved independence and recognition will likely never be conclusively resolved. What is clear, however, is that principles of sovereignty and self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter have become little more than tools deployed in support of concrete foreign policy goals of individual states.

Finally, one striking feature of the political rhetoric or “propaganda tools” on both sides in this crisis has been the frequent reliance on the trope of an “external enemy”, whether the threatening, mercantile West, aggressive, authoritarian Russia, Middle Eastern autocrats or rising China. Despite the economic interdependence of almost all nations in the modern world and the demise of a bipolar system of international relations, hostile discourses centred on scary “others” still appear to carry great political appeal. In a world in which national economies are tied ever more strongly to one another, such hostile discourses and models of political behaviour create risks that cannot be afforded.

This combination of factors has left the international system ill and flawed. The crisis in Crimea has provided only further proof of the relevance of these flaws to international relations. Naïve as it may seem to call for sweeping reforms of the international system, a commonly accepted framework for international law has to be found if such incidents are to be avoided in the future. If actors continue to disregard the rules that they themselves have established, we will see more crises like that in Ukraine in the years to come.

Image credit: Mstyslav Chernov

Sochi 2014: Skiing over mass graves

By Claire McNear, on 13 February 2014

By Anouk van den Akker

Russia has met a great deal of criticism in the run-up to the Winter Olympics: over the government’s anti-gay legislation and the nation’s broader human rights issues, the enormous budget of the Sochi Games, corruption, and the terrorist threats in Sochi. There is another morbid item to add to the list, though so far it has received little attention from the international media.

Exactly 150 years ago, the nation of Circassia, a small country along the Black Sea, was conquered by the Russians at the end of the Caucasian War. The invasion of the Russians occurred in Sochi, then known as Ubykhia, where roughly 90% of ethnic Circassians were annihilated. It is unclear how many Circassians died at the hands of the Russian army: reports range from tens and hundreds of thousands to more than a million victims. Those who did survive the bloody war were either forced to become Russian nationals or were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Of the 3 million ethnic Circassians alive today, the largest Circassian diaspora is located in Turkey, with other communities spread across other nations in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. What happened in Sochi 150 years ago was a violent episode that the modern Circassian community wants recognized as genocide but which the Russian government refuses to discuss.

In fact, when addressing the International Olympic Committee in July 2007 “to win the games for Sochi,” President Vladimir Putin emphasized Sochi’s rich cultural history, mentioning the ancient Greeks who occupied the city many centuries ago. He failed, however, to bring up Circassia, which dominated the region for hundreds of years prior to the Russian conquest. It has been argued that the Winter Olympics are being used as an “information war” where the Russian government aims to eliminate all traces of the Caucasian War and the genocide of the Circassian people, while Circassian descendants fight to preserve their people’s history.

Sochi’s new $8 billion ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, which was completely overhauled for the Olympics, is built exactly on the site where most of the Circassians were “cleansed.” According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a visiting scholar at George Washington University, “this was perceived as an insult and really fomented Circassian activism around the world.” Some Circassian descendants have compared the competition at Krasnaya Polyana to having the Winter Olympics held at Auschwitz. The locale has struck many as particularly galling given the timing, with the Sochi Games coinciding with the 150th anniversary of some of the darkest days of Circassian history.

The lack of domestic and international attention to the mass graves that Olympic athletes are now skiing over can be seen as a reflection of the general sentiment toward the Circassian people. Namely, that their ancestry does not matter enough, and that in the eyes of Russia, and perhaps of the international community, they simply do not exist. Although other ethnic minorities from the Caucasus, such as those belonging to the Caucasus Emirate, have used the visibility of the Sochi Games as a platform for demands of independence from Russia, often coupled with threats of violence, it is not expected that the Circassian community will resort to similar measures. Instead, they have mainly attempted to raise awareness via the Circassian-led “No Sochi 2014” campaign which aims to raise international recognition of the genocide and “the right of Circassians to return to their homeland.”

The Russia–Netherlands Year of Friendship: 400 years of friendship down the drain?

By Claire McNear, on 4 February 2014

By Anouk Van Den Akker

2014 marks the conclusion of the official Russia–Netherlands year of friendship, a year in which the 400-year-long relationship between the nations was to be celebrated. Although the nations differ considerably in many facets of society, both parties started the yearlong event with optimism. As it has now come to an end, however, it is questionable how much of the friendship remains intact. Instead of being a year in which the relationship between the two states was strengthened, many challenges emerged that cooled the friendship considerably. In the words of The Guardian, the 2013 Russia¬–Netherlands friendship year is “a strong contender for the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history.”

The first strain on the Dutch–Russian relationship arrived scarcely two weeks into the ceremonial year. On 17 January 2013, the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov, who was being held in a Dutch detention center after being denied asylum that he had sought in the wake of participation in protests in Moscow, committed suicide. Controversy erupted as protests were held in front of the Dutch embassies in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev, and the Dutch authorities were heavily criticized. It soon became clear that the Dutch authorities had made gross mistakes surrounding Dolmatov’s imprisonment.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it illegal to promote “non-traditional sexual relationships.” The Dutch minister of foreign affairs openly expressed his concern about the passing of the law, widely viewed as an anti-gay measure. In response, the Russian minister of foreign affairs warned him that states ought not to tell other states how to govern their own country.

Further challenges arose in April, when Putin made an official visit to Amsterdam. Thousands of angry protesters were awaiting him to express their concern about the human rights situation in Russia, particularly with regard to homosexual individuals. The mayor of Amsterdam subtly joined in the protest by sending a deputy mayor to meet the Russian president instead and by raising a rainbow LBGT flag outside City Hall. Deeply offended, Putin retaliated by airing “a non-stop campaign on Russian TV showing Holland to be a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, run by paedophiles and hashish dealers.”

In July, Russia announced a boycott of the import of Dutch potatoes, on the basis that they contained harmful materials. This followed Russia’s January ban of the import of Dutch veal under similar arguments, which was shortly followed by another ban on Dutch dairy products.

Following the boycott, four Dutch documentary-makers working in Saint Petersburg and the northwestern port city Murmansk were arrested under the February law and charged with promoting homosexual propaganda, although all were eventually released due to procedural mistakes made by Russian officials.

The arrest of the captain and crew of Greenpeace’s Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise by the Russian coast guard in September caused a wave of international criticism. As the crew members, hailing predominantly from Europe with two Dutch citizens among them, were charged with piracy, which in Russia carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs urged Russian authorities to let them go and later asked the international maritime tribunal to order their release. Irritated by the pressure from the Netherlands, the Russian minister of foreign affairs subsequently blamed the Netherlands for the activists’ predicament.

In October, Russian diplomat Dmitri Borodin was arrested in The Hague for alleged abuse of his children. With his arrest, his diplomatic immunity was ignored, causing widespread outrage among Russian citizens. A protest broke out outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow and Putin immediately demanded an official apology from the Netherlands which, in turn, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs gave him.

Just days after Borodin was arrested, Dutch diplomat Onno Elderenbosch was assaulted by two men in his home in Moscow. The foreign minister of Russia called it a serious crime, yet no evidence has yet emerged about the perpetrators.

Overall, the many incidents of the Russia–Netherlands friendship year have left many in doubt that the two nations can convincingly be called friends. As diplomatic tension between the Netherlands and Russia has reached an all-time high, it seems that the year of friendship was more successful in breaking ties than in celebrating or strengthening them.

The 2014 State of the Union: A new era of American restraint abroad?

By Claire McNear, on 29 January 2014

By Claire McNear

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama appeared to signal the advent of a less aggressive American grand strategy, saying that the nation “must move off a permanent war footing.”

Arguing that American security “cannot depend on…military alone,” Obama said that he “will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow [them] to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

By all accounts, it’s been a tough year for Obama – he has faced intense scrutiny for everything from the NSA and PRISM revelations to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The annual State of the Union address is a rare opportunity for the commander in chief to dictate conversation, and, to some extent, subsequent policy debate. For Obama, this might have been his last real chance to do so – by next January, national attention will have shifted to the contest for Obama’s successor (indeed, some are out of the gate early, however strangely). The 2015 speech will come nearly three months after the midterm elections, which is often when you start hearing the words “lame duck” murmured in dark Capitol corners.

State of the Union addresses typically focus largely on domestic affairs – and this one did, highlighting education issues and the financial recovery, with some of the night’s biggest applause coming after announcing a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage – though they can serve as a springboard for foreign policy. See, for instance, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, which (in)famously laid out the so-called “Axis of Evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – which Bush credited, along with “their terrorist allies,” with “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” That speech served as a cornerstone of the philosophical justification of the War on Terror, and, a year later, of the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq.

Obama used last night’s speech to reinforce the idea of a new, quieter era of American foreign policy. In discussing Iran, which recently reached a short-term agreement with the international community to cease uranium enrichment in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, Obama applauded the virtues of diplomatic negotiation over force. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said, adding that the success of the Iranian agreement would mean the resolution of “one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” Though much has happened (and not happened) since then, this is the same leader who said in 2007 that as president he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran, and sit down with Iranian leaders (among others) without preconditions.

Still, Obama made a point last night of saying that there are limits to any diplomatic overtures – he will readily use force where American national security is threatened, and this may be the fatal flaw of any quieter strategy. “As commander in chief,” he said, “I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.”

Protection of the American people remains a fuzzy objective; shortly after hinting at a new international reticence, Obama laid out a wide-ranging list of international items that will “help promote [America’s] long-term security,” among them democracy-building in Tunisia and Burma and support of American allies in the Asia-Pacific.

The latter goal has been a tricky one for the United States over the last year, as tensions flared between China, Japan, and South Korea. In 2011, the Obama Administration and State Department signaled a policy shift in the Asia-Pacific region: the United States would redouble its diplomatic efforts there (i.e. away from the Middle East), more or less as a response to Chinese economic and military growth. This strategy was originally referred to as a “pivot” to Asia, though government and military officials now use the softer “rebalance” instead, which some have worried signals a similar softening of commitment to Asian allies. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Sheila A. Smith was quick to note that last night’s State of the Union failed to address either a pivot or a rebalance – instead, she wrote, just plans to “continue to pursue American interests.”

Does Obama’s speech mean we will see a more restrained America? According to a recent Pew survey, an incredible 52% of Americans said they believe “that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (this number usually falls between 20 and 40%). Outright isolationism is rather unlikely, to put it mildly, but Obama seemed to understand that his audience last night was war-weary: he noted that all US troops have left Iraq, with another 60,000 back from Afghanistan.

American restraint is, perhaps, relative. Some 37,500 American troops remain in Afghanistan today along with a smaller cohort of NATO and other international partners; an agreement sent before Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (which officials say he may well reject) would leave 10,000 American troops in the country after the end of this year, when the NATO mission officially concludes. And while the last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, the US Embassy in Baghdad retains a staff of nearly 6,000, and thousands more American contractors remain in the country.

Still, we can take President Obama’s speech as an indication that the United States of 2014 is serious about a commitment to diplomacy over force wherever possible. The recent diplomatic détente with Iran may come to be one of the greater foreign policy victories of the Obama White House. In his speech, Obama directly threatened Congressional Republicans, who have been making noise about disrupting the Iran negotiations by introducing a new sanctions bill. Obama’s eagerness to use diplomacy, coupled with an American public dreaming of an era of isolationism, could signal a new era of American restraint.

Also of note:

– Also mentioned was Guantanamo Bay, the United States’ 12-year-old exercise in illegal detention and public condemnation, with Obama calling for this to be the year that the prison is finally closed. The President promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in January 2009; 155 detainees remain imprisoned as of this month.

– Obama stopped just short of criticizing Russia for its recent anti-gay statements and policies. “[W]e believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” he said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” This received raucous applause, but seemed not to get quite where it meant to – Team USA’s official White House delegation, of which the President and First Lady will not be a part, features two openly gay athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. As the delegation was personally selected by President Obama, their inclusion has been widely viewed as a rebuke of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has urged gay visitors to “leave kids alone,” whilst the mayor of Sochi has declared that there are no homosexuals in the city. So we can see the latter bit of Obama’s comments as meant to be less about the glory of manly sports, and more about reminding his Russian counterpart that Team USA will be bringing along red, white, and blue as part of a wider spectrum.

Ukraine Orange Again: Witnessing a Euro Cold War

By Claire McNear, on 19 December 2013

By Hesham Shafick

“I ask Yanukovych – resign!” said Vitali Klitschko, the boxing world’s heavyweight champion and one of the leading figures of the pro-Euro opposition protests in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted from his position as prime minister 10 years earlier through the Orange Revolution. Since then, the Ukrainian dream to join the European Union and become a part of the so-called Western bloc had been progressing.

Six years later after the revolution, however, the Russian-backed “deep state” managed to bring Yanukovych back, this time as president. Yanukovych propaganda portrayed the Orange Revolution as a Western-sponsored coup.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and Turkish protests, Ukrainian protesters have vowed to remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, where protests first began on 21 November, until Yanukovych steps down, an action the West has largely received as a return of the Orange Revolution.

In the East, it was also perceived as a new Orange Revolution, though with a markedly different definition provided by the current regime. This definition is embodied in former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s statement, “Push away the plotters, who seek power and attempt to repeat the scenario of 2004.” Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the ongoing demonstrations as a “pogrom,” and advised Ukraine to enhance trade agreements with Russia and spurn the West.

The East–West division in Ukraine is starkly reminiscent of Berlin Wall-era Germany. In addition to the proxy East–West dispute over Ukraine, the Ukrainian population itself has long been divided. In the eastern part of the country, much of the population speaks Russian and sees Moscow as a patron. But many in the western part of Ukraine see Russia as an imperialist force, and often invoke the slogan “Ukraine is Russia” as a way of calling out Ukraine’s leaders for maintaining what they believe is too close a relationship with their eastern neighbour. After the Orange Revolution, when the West dominated public office, the East dominated the public sphere. Today, the opposite is true.

It is not only the ideological and cultural differences within the nation that make Kiev the new Berlin: fiscal pressure obligates Ukraine to take a side. In simple words, Ukraine needs to borrow money, whether from the West or the East, in order for its economy to survive. Standard and Poor’s, which already cut Ukraine’s credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further political deterioration could bring another downgrade. Yet both Europe and Russia, Ukraine’s most likely lenders, stipulate not borrowing from the other. Brussels says a trade deal with Europe would bring Ukraine valuable investment, yet a prerequisite of opening the markets to foreign direct investment is required. Putin on the other hand is using the supply of cheap Russian gas – or the threat of cutting it off – as a hammer to bring Ukraine to heel.

Giving up on Brussels and looking instead to China sparked the latest upheaval, which began with a failed vote of no confidence against the government. The protesters in Independence Square are seeking to accomplish what they failed to do in Parliament. Opinion surveys conducted before the protests showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the subsequent police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favour of integration with the EU.

Yanukovych’s trip to China could reveal a possible source of financing that might save the regime’s head. Beijing has already provided Ukraine with $10 billion in loans and promised further economic and trade agreements. China could be a loophole to steer between the two sides battling back home. Being an Eastern substitute to Russia, it both sidesteps the negative connotation of “Ukraine is Russia” and keeps Yanukovych’s Eastern constituency pleased, while tackling the nation’s fiscal anguish.