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Notes on the Ukrainian Battlefield

Posted by / 10th March 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , , / -

The Russian military is in control of Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea. Three months ago, at the Vilnius summit, now ousted president Viktor Yanukovich decided not to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union and postponed further negotiations. We know that these two events are linked, but often fail to understand the way the situation developed into a full-fledged crisis. There are a number of lessons to be learnt as to how and why the situation unfolded the way it did. The European approach to Ukraine has been flawed from the start, and Brussels did not sufficiently realise how it would impact Ukraine in socio-political terms. As the country spiralled into chaos, European elites assumed a mediating role they could not properly handle. Ultimately, the West has entered into a great, uncertain and dangerous geopolitical confrontation with Russia that nobody wanted and that endangers future cooperation. It all stems from a fundamental lack of awareness about the main features of today’s international system. The West is living in the past and, unfortunately, this is being understood the hard way.

The spark

By itself, the AA had the potential to upset regional relations, but not to the stark geopolitical heights we are witnessing at the moment. The problem became apparent when the Ukrainian political system processed all the elements surrounding the AA, including the practical step of accepting or rejecting it, in a way that amplified existing latent tensions.
Before the AA made it to the headlines, the issue was framed by Moscow in economic terms. With global multilateral channels experiencing exhaustion, the world is veering towards both the regionalization of trade and attempts to establish biregional trade blocks. The former comes in the shape of the Customs Union binding together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, itself part of a bigger integration project called the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), while the latter is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and the EU.

The TTIP, if negotiations prosper, would be a game changer in terms of trade, and European economy’s improvement in no small part depends on it. In this scheme of things, Ukraine’s role in EU’s future is secondary. Thus, the recent importance of Ukraine is only due to the European Eastern Partnership (EEP), Brussels attempt to revitalize its approach to the East. Launched in 2009, the aim of this policy is to support political change along the lines of democracy, the rule of law and market economy. However, the EEP is flawed at its core, because it is not adjusted to current realities. Its implementation relies upon a set of economic incentives, much like the EU did in the nineties, when its economic might was on the rise and its integration model run more or less smoothly. Nowadays, this is simply not the case, and the pitfalls of this policy have had an impact on what was offered to Kiev under the AA.

On the other hand, Ukraine is truly important to Moscow. Economic considerations weigh heavily in how Russia relates to its neighbour, with whom it is often said to maintain a ‘fraternal rivalry’.

Global Trade Alert, a think tank monitoring global trade, ranked the Russian economy as the most protectionist of 2013. This protectionism is partly in tune with the failure of multilateral attempts of boosting trade worldwide, but also is instrumental to the privileges of sectors of Russian oligarchy. However, now that players are shifting towards further integration along regional and biregional lines, Russia risks being marginalized. Focusing on the customs union within EurAsEc is Russia’s answer to these changes.

Naturally, Moscow is not only pursuing an economic agenda by creating and leading an Eurasian trade block. There are wider geopolitical issues at play, not the least of which is the Kremlin’s quest to maintain its political influence in its periphery and its own country under tight control. Economic regionalism competes with global dynamics, and thus prevents the usual subtle influences that might generate internal pressure towards regime change.

However, this regional development strategy is also a way for Russia to improve its industrial capabilities and prevent overdependence on exports of primary resources, mostly oil and gas. Without Ukraine, the EurAsEc would be much more Asian than European, and that would run against Russia’s desire to remain close to Europe, with whom it wishes to relate, but from a more robust economic position. The Russian economy would struggle if Ukrainian trade flows- now equally distributed between East and West- start leaning more heavily towards the EU. Ukraine is simply too important for Russia, and the correct functioning of a customs union, by definition, would demand that Ukraine did not enter a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Because of its potential effect on Russia’s development, the AA was bound to generate disputes between Brussels and Moscow. However, these by themselves would have been limited. The current crisis is a failure of the Ukrainian political system and the result of highly questionable behaviour by foreign actors, mainly European political elites and the Kremlin.

Ukraine is a politically, economically and culturally divided country. What seems best for its western regions (or, perhaps, what is positively perceived by its population), is often rejected by the more industrialized and Russia-dependent Ukrainian east, and vice versa. This was precisely one of the problems of the AA. Its free-trade agreement did not account for the complexity of economic conditions within the country because it had not been tailored to Ukrainian needs. Certainly, in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion, the free-trade provisions under the AA with Ukraine were very similar to those also planned for Moldova and Georgia. In other words, the EEP approach to the region is excessively general. A critical question is how the free flow of European goods can pose a threat to local production, but, especially, much more consideration should have been given to Ukraine’s own territorial economic imbalances and their relation with historical differences and sources of political animosity. Also, Ukraine is facing bankruptcy and in need of urgent financial aid, something the EU at the time of the Vilnius summit was not offering and that Putin was keen on giving.

Last but not least, Yanukovich is obviously a factor to be considered. Seen by many as a corrupt politician and the ultimate responsible for the government’s mismanagement of the country, Yanukovich had his own concerns about the AA. While it should not be disregarded that the agreement might have meant a dubious benefit for the Ukrainian economy and that this might have been a factor in Yanukovich’s decision, it is certain that he did not fancy its political conditionality: allowing imprisoned political rival Yulia Timoshenko to receive medical treatment abroad and undertaking political and judicial reforms. Thus, facing an agreement that was not so shiny on economic grounds and that threatened his political position, Yanukovich chose the less costly partner, Putin’s Russia. Looking beyond Ukraine, this seems to be the sign of times for the EU: Europe has lost much of its attractiveness and economic might, so it should come as no surprise that it loses ground to competitors that, like Russia, are less ‘virtuous’ but happier to use their wealth for geopolitical objectives.

The rest of the story is well known and takes us to the beginning of the crisis: the anti-government protests at Kiev’s Maidan square, the so-called ‘Euromaidan’.

The crisis: Phase I

What started as a dispute over policy quickly turned into demands for Yanukovich’s resignation, which created a dangerous political conflict that dragged in regional players with interests at stake. While Russia was working more in the shadows, European political elites were visible, rather outspoken and certainly supportive of the street protests, with EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and other European officials visiting Euromaidan. Brussels ruled out the possibility of three-party talks to try to reformulate the AA to account for Yanukovich’s and Putin’s concerns; the Kremlin, on its part, had repeatedly stated that the customs union was not compatible with a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which is true. Because of this, the situation has been increasingly portrayed as a ‘civilizational choice’ for Ukraine and a zero-sum game for the rest.

Up until the tragic face-off on 18th and 20th February, there were timid and failed attempts to bridge gaps and stabilize the situation. For example, on 28th January prime minister Nikolay Azarov resigned, and later government posts were offered to opposition leaders, who rejected them. It is also worth noting that on 17th February, a day before the bloody events of that week, an amnesty for all those imprisoned during protests was granted and it was being discussed some meaningful political changes, like a return to 2004 constitution, which would have meant a reduction of presidential powers. At the beginning, this seemed to defuse tensions – several public buildings were abandoned. However, on 18th February clashes erupted in front of the Ukrainian parliament after opposition leaders accused rivals of not being committed to reforms, and eventually the police moved in for a total crackdown on Maidan.

The political climate in Ukraine grew so bitter over time that the spiral of tension and violence stemmed fundamentally from internal political polarization. Nevertheless, external players did not promote stability. Any efforts of international mediation cannot prosper if the mediator is also a stakeholder. This is particularly true if the mediator- the EU in this case- has been very vocal in expressing its alignments.

An analogy from the Cold War might illustrate that conflict resolution is at odds with the intervention of external stakeholders. In the civil conflict that devastated Central America during the eighties, there was no room for dialogue until the US retired its support for Nicaragua’s ‘contras’, which ultimately led to the disentanglement of the conflict from East-West competitive dynamics. It was precisely then when an external actor unrelated to the conflict could mediate to ease the peace. That mediator was the European Community. Bearing this in mind, the question is who can mediate in a European crisis where the EU is part of the problem. The answer is simply that there is not an actor with a profile high enough to take on this task.

In the absence of such a heavy-weight state, the only solution would be a multilateral organization, which brings to mind the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Unfortunately the problem is that this organization, almost since its inception, has been rendered irrelevant.

OSCE, established in 1995 as the institutionalization of the spirit of 1975 Helsinki’s Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, was former French president François Mitterrand and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev bet to create a genuinely European, neutral and multilateral space for security cooperation in the “greater Europe” area, which includes Russia. However, although OSCE might have suitably filled the gap of security governance in Europe and, judging from current events, it hinted at a considerable sense of forward thinking, the times were that OSCE could not gain enough traction. In a true ‘end-of-history’ fashion, in much of Western Europe and in the US there was the feeling that the international power struggles of the past had gone for good, so Western organizations were all Europe needed to be a peaceful region. Accordingly, NATO added to its military nature a political profile in 1994 with its ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme (PfP). PfP’s objective was to manage the profound transformations in the East and the potential risk of regional stability through a network of NATO-centered political and military contacts with the ex socialist states. Thus, NATO displaced other embryonic regional mechanisms for security cooperation, dealing a blow to OSCE’s aspirations, which since then has had its considerable structure mainly devoted to electoral monitoring, overlapping with the Council of Europe.

Europe does not have a genuinely multilateral institution for security cooperation, and this lack of governance mechanisms has implications. A hypothetically robust OSCE might have had a positive impact on the Ukrainian crisis, provided, of course, it would have been allowed to intervene by local parts. While ex prime minister Azarov said his government would not reject OSCE’s assistance in normalizing the situation, opposition’s Arseniy Yatseniuk, now prime minister, stated the following on 1st February at the Munich Security Conference:

“We believe that at this point we should try to solve the problem in Ukraine via our direct contacts – contacts between Ukraine and our western partners. There are, of course, options such as the OSCE mission and the UN, but those are options that should be used if the situation is completely hopeless. [There should be] bilateral [attempts to settle the crisis], namely with the involvement of our European and American partners.”

Last call

On 21st February a deal between the government and opposition was signed after days of bloodshed. The deal was brokered by the foreign affairs ministers of Germany, France and Poland –the EU, as such, lost protagonism as the violence escalated. The text called for the withdrawal by protesters from public spaces, the formation of an unity government by all the signatories, the restoration of 2004 constitution, political reforms to reduce presidential powers, an investigation into acts of violence and, importantly, presidential elections to be conducted not later than December 2014 (they were scheduled for February 2015).

The agreement, whose terms were favorable to the opposition, signaled the moment for compromise. There was hope for progressive normalization through institutionalized politics and, ultimately, elections. However, the agreement did not last a day. For reasons still unknown, on 22nd February Yanukovich disappeared from Kiev, leaving the governmental district completely unguarded. Days later, at a press conference in Russia, he would say that he did it because he feared for his safety under the threats of “hooligans”. After protesters took control of the presidential administration buildings without resistance, the parliament set presidential elections even earlier, on 25th of May, and voted to oust Yanukovich. With the votes of the opposition and of a number of members or parliament from Yanukovich’s party (probably seeking their political survival) the president was removed from power. With this, the opposition leaders satisfied the demands of protesters, still camped at Euromaidan, who had booed them the day before after they announced an agreement with the president had been reached.

Yanukovich’s removal was a breaking point. Regardless of the quality of democracy in Ukraine, Yanukovich was a democratically elected president with whom an agreement for early elections had been reached. After he vanished from Kiev, the opposition could have acted with more restraint simply giving more time to the situation to become clear, but they chose not to. Western governments, on their part, quickly declared their support for the interim government formed by opposition figures, sanctioning their uncompromising behaviour.

Without time for proper normalization through elections, the inevitable result of this was political disintegration. If democratic politics are devoid of a minimum level of compromise, the situations boils down to a pure political struggle, which, in Ukraine, is built along geographical and ethnic lines. Because democracy was not given time to create a source of legitimacy for any political outcome, the warring parties have come to a point where they simply do not recognize each other. Parts of the Ukrainian population with closer ties with Russia felt threatened. This anxiety was reinforced by the interim government’s decision to ban Russian as an official language, a manoeuver that is as symbolic as harmful and that spurred concerns by the same European officials that, now taken aback by the hectic pace of developments, had brokered the agreement.

This turn of events, of course, infuriated Putin.

The crisis: Phase II

Crimean secessionism is steadily advancing its objectives and, thanks to Russia’s military occupation preventing Kiev from reining in, they might just achieve it. There are many reasons why the Kremlin is so determined to bring about this outcome, and include securing the strategic post of Sevastopol by creating a protectorate over Crimea, gaining additional leverage over Kiev’s new government, sending a message to the West and playing the nationalist card at home. Russian intervention will no doubt affect Kiev’s new government, adding a new factor of political instability to an already troubled situation. Ukraine is facing bankruptcy. Although Western support came along promises of financial assistance, emerging figures are not even close to the amount of money Kiev says it needs. It should also be pointed out that the EU’s decision to financially support Ukraine is a reversal of the position held at the Vilnius summit and before, so its likely motivation is the consolidation of European political gains stemming from Euromaidan.

Kiev does not recognize Crimea’s self-declared referendum to reincorporate to the Russian Federation, scheduled for 16th March, deeming it “illegal” according to Ukrainian constitution. The West, of course, also parallels this criticism. However, before legality it comes, inevitably, the issue of legitimacy or, more precisely, whether the conflicting parties regard each other as legitimate. As we have seen, Kiev’s and Crimean’s authorities simply do not recognize each other. Similarly, the Russian intervention in Crimea is clearly against international law, but this is not a legal problem, but one of politics or, in other words, of a fight of wills. It is in that realm where analysis is urgently needed.

The discussion about law might be more fruitful from a political perspective. As it can be easily seen, in a situation like this international law is nothing more than a discursive weapon of little practical use. Law does not work as a deterrent against big players because its enforcement is highly problematic. For obvious reasons we cannot expect the Security Council to do anything, and those who might take measures against Russia are having second thoughts about it –humiliating themselves given their previous stance. It seems the use of force is out of discussion, economic measures to punish Russia are extremely inconvenient for the likes of Germany, France or the United Kingdom, and the freeze of personal financial assets and travel bans are, at best, cosmetic and face-saving actions; the boycott to Russian membership of the G8 is also a symbolic measure. The EU, that went to Ukraine in a quite bombastic fashion is now showing fractures; in the US, both the White House and much of Congress are reinforcing the recently assumed view that the European periphery is an European business – Obama calling for OSCE involvement speaks volumes about this.

When great powers are not willing, international law is a limited catalyst of cooperation and conflict resolution. However, law is not the only tool to facilitate that. As it has been explained here, there is a need for better governance mechanisms. And again, the OSCE pops into the picture, but if it could not do anything before when the situation was less complex, what can be expected from it now?

Whether the West likes it or not, the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ has returned not only to political discourse, but also to analysis. It was about time. Post-Cold War triumphalism blinded the West to the fact that the nineties and the beginning of the past decade were a historic abnormality: never before there was a sole global superpower running unchallenged, and today we are witnessing a return to the normalcy of the past. Accordingly, Europeans and others have to develop institutions adjusted to this reality. The need for it is acute: NATO’s decision to suspend military-political cooperation with Russia, which was part of the PfP’s philisophy, shows that the cooperation avenues of the immediate post-Cold War tend to break under pressure, turning into fields to stage retaliatory measures –which, in this case, complicates NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, that now would not be conducted through Russia, but hostile Pakistani soil.

By asking Kiev to show restraint and by signaling that it has no appetite for intervention, perhaps the West is starting to show some evolved awareness about its own role. One can only hope the interim government grasps the message and refrain from acting militarily against Crimea, since without NATO support that would be suicidal. Ukrainian new leadership should remember what happened to Saakashvili’s Georgia in 2008. Too bad this sensible behaviour on the part of the West comes now, and not much earlier, when it was time to invest in meaningful and sustainable mechanisms for regional cooperation to accommodate a resurgent Russia.


You might also want to read:

BBC’s Ukrainian Crisis Timeline
Carl Bildt, “Ukraine Has Postponed and Opportunity to Prosper”, Financial Times
Oleg Popadiuk, “Ukraine In Between the Unions: the Customs Union and the EU”, Russian International Affairs Council
Alexey Fenenko, “Russia’s Near Abroad, still Too Far Away”, Russia Direct
Pavel Koshkin, “Ukraine: Battlefield between Russia and the West?”, Russia Direct


Mali: When Collective Security is Too Slow

Posted by / 4th February 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

As if collective security was a student, the conflict in Mali has been a test to assess if it is up to the task of properly preventing and managing crises. In this respect, France’s recent intervention suggests that the student did not perform well. It makes it all the more important to examine how collective security operates, and analyse the specifics of the intervention planned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Reflection on this issue will help us understand the prospect of global and regional collective security as a mechanism of security governance.

Collective security strives to prevent and end armed conflict. It is based on the idea that no aggression against a member state of the collective security regime will be tolerated. When an aggression does occur, the states will, theoretically, gather around the victim and assemble a force of overwhelming power, capable of dealing a swift and definite blow to the aggressor, thus provoking the end of its operations and deterring future evil intentions. Having said that, it should be remarked and understood that the response against the troublemaking actor has to be quick –please note the use of “actor” rather than “state”. Without a rapid reaction, there is no guarantee that the attacked state’s core security concerns –like sovereignty, territorial integrity or military capability- are damaged up to a point of no return. If this were to happen, a collective security regime would not only have failed, but also be seen as unreliable by its members. They might simply decide to leave and go back to schemes of self-help.

When thinking about the Malian case, collective security has a global and a regional perspective based on two different international institutions: the United Nations’ Security Council and ECOWAS. There is little doubt that both of those institutions, as well as international law, are ill-suited to frame and address aggressions originating from internal threats posed by irregular armies, like the one opposing Bamako. This complicates the issue. Among other things, it affects the range of policies available and, most importantly for this analysis, diminishes the sense of urgency the states attribute to the crisis.

After the March 2012 military coup, there has been much political infighting in Mali. The army and officials of the interim civil government, in particular, have held opposing views about the need for external intervention, with the latter supporting it. Finally, during the autumn of 2012, key Malian political figures, including the interim president Dioncounda Traore, asked for the ECOWAS intervention. This was a sensible choice, since the strength of the rebels might be too much for a weakened Malian army, which, in turn, is regarded with suspicion over its commitment to reinstate democratic normalcy.

Since rebels captured the north of Mali in April 2012, ECOWAS pushed for the intervention. The Security Council, with its resolution 2085 (December 20, 2012), gave the green light,  but only after delaying its final decision to make ECOWAS present a clear intervention plan. The majority of Malian neighbours are deeply concern about the threat posed by the rebels, and this is a shared worry for Western powers like the UK, France and the US. Bearing in mind all of this, it is a striking fact that the intervention would not have taken place before September 2013. Such a delay is precisely what has caused the partial failure of collective security in the crisis in Mali and what makes the whole edifice of collective security tremble.

As a matter of fact, it is always possible that a policy gets lost in its implementation, and this applies to the case we are studying. Well before the UN resolution authorizing the intervention, there was a widespread agreement about the necessity of intervening. It was one of those strange moments in international politics when almost every relevant actor falls in line, at least around which policy should be chosen.  However, back then there were already signs that certain actors might choose to pass the buck at the moment of truth. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked about only conditional backing to ECOWAS and gave no offer of financial support he was being the mouthpiece of many states that might well choose to pass the buck. Therefore, Security Council’s authorization amounts to little more than a seal of approval. For all of its importance, this normative requirement is just an element of collective security, not its essence.

With the UN resolution, the burden of assisting the Malian army to strengthen its position in the south and, eventually, retaking the north, was primarily carried by ECOWAS. Supposedly, other states, like France, would only have a supporting role. So far and in theory, commissioning action to an international organization like ECOWAS is not strange; it has already been done with NATO in other cases. The problem is when the commissioner has to assemble a well-organized and effective force to accomplish its objectives. That is when implementation is a serious issue that can delay the materialization of the policy. ECOWAS is formed by sixteen West African countries, from which Nigeria is by far the most important in military terms. According to reports, the Nigerian army, however, is not properly prepared to face a high-profile operation like the one in northern Mali. Besides, states like Mauritania and Algeria, although not members of ECOWAS, are also relevant to implement the policy. This leads to a long process to decide who adds what –for example, number of troops- to the common endeavor.  The result is a dangerous delay in the implementation of the policy.

Even if we assume September had been the beginning of the intervention, since its authorization nine months would have passed. This is time enough for the enemy to plan, organize and try to achieve its objectives or at least maximize its military position to make the intervention more difficult and costly. With each day without action collective security loses its ability to deter present and future threats; each day without action is an advantage for the aggressor.  From this rationale we can understand the rebels’ recent push southwards. They could have got to Bamako if their move had not triggered France’s reaction, which was a response to the Malian president plea for help. However, Paris’ intervention fundamentally changes the situation and frames it outside proper collective security. While it is true that ECOWAS will deploy its troops soon to help France and the Malians, this was only because the involvement of a powerful non-regional actor. Similarly, the Security Council and states like the UK and the US have backed Hollande’s France’s decision, but this cannot conceal the fact that this looks more like the not-so-old ways of managing security, instead of collective security.

In the long term, and despite the difficulty of the task, everyone fearful of Mali’s breakaway north becoming a haven for terrorism will benefit from the French intervention and its joint efforts with ECOWAS. However, in the end common gains are the result of Paris’ pursuit of its self-interest. Had France not have had postcolonial interests in Mali, inaction would have led to grim consequences. French geostrategic and economic concerns were the main drive for the country to intervene, not collective security in a broad sense. This does not mean that collective security as a governance mechanism is doomed to fail. It can work, like past ECOWAS low-profile interventions during the nineties have proved. But to face challenges like the one in Mali, regional collective security arrangements must be develop in two different, albeit complementary, ways. Obviously, there is a need to invest in proper structures and tools. Creating an ECOWAS rapid reaction force will be a must if the organization is to guarantee security in the region. However, this will not be easy if it is not coupled with a deeper sense of security community across the region. Without a certain degree of loyalty to security structures based on common values, bargaining games over immediate material costs will likely compromise the policy. 


You might also want to read:

The West and Radical Islamists in Mali”, by Marc Pierini, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mali: War by Default”, by David Zounmenou, All Africa

French Success in Mali May Herald War of the Shadows”, by Jonathan Marcus, BBC News


Syria: Geopolitics vs. Civilian Casualties

Posted by / 6th June 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , / -

On June 16th, UN observers in Syria suspended their monitoring activities and were withdrawn to their headquarters. According to the head of the UN Stabilisation Mission, the Norwegian General Robert Mood, the reason to ground the monitors was that their safety could not longer be guaranteed amidst the current escalation of violence. While this does not mean that the UN observers are already bound to leave the country, it is a worrying sign since it mirrors the behaviour of the Arab League monitors who entered Syria at the beginning of the year only to flee the country shortly after, and without having accomplished any of their objectives. However, the most important issue is that the recent development of the crisis is confirming what many feared: UN peace envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is nearly dead. Although nobody was really optimistic about this plan’s possibilities when it was presented in March and accepted by all parties in conflict, now we have jumped to the full realization that something has gone truly wrong. It is necessary now to look back and try to find the flaws in the handling of the crisis to set the right course.

The main question to be asked is about the clarity of objectives when it comes to the Syrian crisis. In an ideal world in which the primordial end was the security of those civilians suffering the conflict, the main goal would be to stop the violence and the killing of civilians. Yet for most parties involved, either externally or internally, this is secondary at best. The problem is commitment: every party has its own objectives which overshadow the attainment of peace, that is, the immediate end of the slaughter. There is indeed a conflicting agenda over Syria, and this is central to analyse the questionable behaviour of the United States and its allies. This has had a deep and negative impact on the implementation of Annan’s diplomatic efforts. At the core there is an issue that is as old as mediation itself: impartiality. The West has disregarded this principle and further jeopardized peace.

At the beginning of April, days before the six-point plan supposedly came into force, the international platform Friends of Syria agreed to fund the rebels by supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC), the sector of the opposition which favours the use of violence against the regime of Bashar al Assad.Others, like the National Coordination Body, prefer a non-violent solution. Later, the media reported that the US was helping several Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia to coordinate arm supplies to Syrian rebels, with Russia doing its part to support Damascus. Clearly, these states are playing a dual and dangerous game: on the one hand, they say they support a peaceful solution to the crisis; on the other, they pour weapons into Syria days before the deadline to implant an UN-sponsored ceasefire. Consequently, as time passed it was clear that neither Damascus nor the opposition were willing to stop their operations. Most importantly, it started to be difficult to conceal the fact that the opposition, empowered by those arm shipments, had more interests in maximizing its military goals than in sticking to the peace plan. This further escalated the violence. But even then, it was relatively rare to hear Western policy makers asking the armed opposition to stop their military manoeuvres and halt the abuses they were committing.

It is not the first time supporting militarily rebels backfires this way: an interesting parallel happened when the West publicly sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). At that time, when it was clear that the KLA was ignoring the truce that preceded NATO’s air campaign even more than the Serbian army, yet the West also turned a blind eye. Up to date, in Syria we have got the exact opposite to an unbiased mediation. Just take, for example, the words of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon when he says that Assad “has lost all legitimacy”, undermining the diplomatic position of Kofi Annan, who in fact has recently called for a unity government to end the crisis.

The reason that explains this contradictory policy is that Syria is the scenario of proxy wars. Unfortunately for the people living there, Syria rests on the fault lines of the Middle East; it is a tremendously important geopolitical actor. Annan puts it very graphically: “Syria is not Libya; it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders”. He is correct. Assad is a fundamental piece in geopolitical chess. Certainly, great and regional powers have high stakes in the outcome of the crisis.

At a regional level, it is easy to understand the stakes for countries like Turkey and Israel. Netanyahu’s government has remained silent and will continue like that since Assad, despite its brutality internally, is still preferable to an unpredictable power vacuum in Syria. Ankara, for its part, is now being more vocal against Assad and is suspected to aid the rebels, but this is not something Erdogan had wished. The economic and political ties between the two countries are profound –they both share the problem with the Kurds’ pro-independence aspirations-, and for Turkey its relation with Syria is crucial to present itself as an important Middle East peace maker. In fact, before the Arab spring broke out, Erdogan acknowledged that the Assads “became part of [his] family circle”.

From a global perspective, Russia’s power struggle in the area has been thoroughly discussed already. Russia is driven not only by strategic and arms trade concerns, but also by the somewhat paranoid fear that backing any form of intervention in the country would threaten the Kremlin’s power elite. However, the main factor that has affected Annan’s peace plan is the rivalry between Iran, on one side, and the United States and its allies, on the other. For the West, it all boils down to the question of either pursuing peace or, instead, trying to weaken Assad –and, by extension, Tehran- by using the SNC and its fighters, the Free Syrian Army. The dilemma is choosing between saving lives or forcing regime change, and the outcome might be completely different if the latter gets priority over the former. Now that Syria is on the very verge of complete civil war, we have seen how siding with the rebels and focusing on bringing down Assad has only meant a higher death toll. It has encouraged both an emboldened opposition and Assad himself to fully embrace violence and rule out any other kind of engagement. If this is to be avoided, then a fundamental transformation in the way the issue is being tackled is needed. As a first step, this implies abandoning hypocrisy.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Syria shows the Need for Security Council Reform

Posted by / 15th February 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , / -

The Russian veto of the UN resolution calling for an end to violence in Syria highlights, once again, the urgent need for Security Council reform.

The Russian and Chinese veto of a United Nations’ Security Council resolution on Syria (fourth of February) has drawn widespread condemnation. Although both China and Russia are co-responsible for the failure of the UN, Moscow has been the main focus of international criticism. In this article, we examine Russia’s arguments against the resolution, its unstated motives and the urgent necessity of carrying out the long postponed reform of the Security Council to remove the right to veto.

The resolution called for the end of 11-month violence in Syria and a subsequent Syrian-led transition to democracy. By doing so, the resolution endorsed the League of Arab States’ plan of November 2011, which, put simply, leads to regime change and probably the end of Assad’s rule. If the resolution had been approved, it would have been the first time since the uprising began that the Security Council took a binding decision to condemn Damascus, paving the way to further actions should Bashar Al-Assad not comply.

Russia expressed a variety of reasons to justify its reluctance against the resolution and, ultimately, its veto. The overarching theme is that with a resolution like the one that has been blocked, the UN would have been meddling in the internal affairs of a state, damaging its sovereignty. From this perspective, it is possible to understand reasonable demands on behalf of Russia to include in the resolution a call for all parties in the conflict to stop the killing. This was granted, and the final resolution specified that armed opposition groups had to halt their attacks against state institutions. Also, stronger measures which were being taken into consideration and that have already been applied by the Arab League member states, such as a voluntary arms embargo, were dropped to satisfy Russia. Besides, there was not mention to any form of military intervention. However, this was not enough. In the end, the main source of disagreement and, by extension, what supposedly brought about the veto, was that Russia opposed any form of “precooked” solution to the Syrian crisis. This includes those provisions in the text of the resolution asking for a political transition. According to Russian officials, asking for regime change, together with the demand to Syrian military to be removed from the streets, would have supposed taking sides in an internal conflict. This, or so they argued, would have limited a genuinely Syrian solution to the crisis.

Unquestionably, the respect for state sovereignty and not intervening in the internal affairs of a country are two basic principles of international law, as stated in United Nations’ resolution 2625 in 1970. However, since these general norms were announced, international law has been developed to legislate for exceptional situations in which the international community might and should intervene somehow. The idea behind this was to establish the legal means to prevent mass atrocities and widespread violations of basic human rights. In the minds of everyone exist notable traumatic experiences like the conflicts in Rwanda and the Balkans in the nineties. Thus, among these instruments is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the doctrine which vindicated the UN’s resolution 1973 on Libya last year– not vetoed either by Russia or China. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, the R2P basically states that every state has the obligation of protecting its population against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

In the case a state cannot do this or it is in fact the perpetrator of those violations of human rights, the international community is entitled to take any necessary action, including here the use of force in full compliance with the rest of international norms. Of course, it can be argued that instruments like R2P, like many other areas of international law, are too generic or even open to (biased) interpretation to say exactly what is the right thing to do in a situation like the one ongoing in Syria.But this problem, like many others in international relations, is mainly a political problem, rather than legal. However, in this case a political agreement did not happen. Moscow’s stance responds to realpolitik considerations which seemingly renders consensus unattainable.

For many reasons, Syria is not Libya, and this is particularly applicable to Russia. Firstly, Damascus is Moscow’s only big ally in the region, where the United States and other powers are certainly better positioned geostrategically. Secondly, Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, which serves to maintain its presence in the Mediterranean. Last but no least, Syria is the main importer of Russian weapons –being Russia the first conventional arms exporter in the world. Apart from this, Russian veto can also be interpreted both as a show of autocratic coherence and a way to boost Vladimir Putin’s popularity among certain sectors of the electorate ahead of March presidential elections. From this perspective, what happened in Libya before affects the debate over Syria now. Although resolution 1973 only called for a non-fly zone over Libya and the implementation of previous measures, in the end it was used by NATO to conduct a campaign which provoked regime change and, in fact, helped killed Gaddafi. That is not what the Russians thought they agreed on when they did not veto the resolution, so now they feel naïve, betrayed and not keen on following the same steps again. This holds true even if the blocked resolution on Syria and its context are miles away from resolution 1973. Thus, while this is not the sole explanation to the veto, it is an important factor to take into account. Moreover, in the future it might occur again if Moscow decides to keep its confrontational approach to the West.

There is a fundamental lesson to be learned from the above. Analysing collective response to security matters: when the stakes are low or those who decide the policy share the same interests, or do not have clear interests at all, it is easy to reach a consensus and translate it into actions –this was the case for Libya. However, when there are divergent interests around an issue, it becomes dramatically harderto find action that is politically acceptable for all the parties involved. This is particularly a problem if in the process of decision making the conflicting parties over the policy hold any type of veto, and this takes us back to Syria. Because of the rules of the Security Council and the reality of veto, crisis like the one we are witnessing in Syria are likely to remain unresolved. With Russian and Chinese vetoes, Bashar al-Assad has effectively got a carte blanche to keep abusing its people. Therefore, the debate about reforming the UN Charter in relation to the way the Security Council works has to be reignited. Without this and the subsequent removal of veto power, international law preserving security and protecting our most fundamental rights will always be a captive to spurious motives.


Elections in Russia: Putin vs. the Opposition

Posted by / 8th February 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

“I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia” – with these words and a tear running down his face, Vladimir Putin celebrated his victory on the 4th of March presidential election before a crowd of his supporters on Manezh Square, Moscow. Backed by over 63% of the votes, he has returned to the Kremlin, despite electoral rigging allegations. However, regaining the presidency may have been an ugly affair. Certainly, if this election has been one of the most anticipated in last decade Russian politics it is because Putin’s aspirations have been increasingly seen as illegitimate. He is challenged by an important sector of Russian society who wants political reform and an end to corruption, something they consider is not achievable under Putin’s rule. Indeed, Putin has won, but this does not mean his right to govern goes undisputed. It is therefore time not only to explain the results of this election, but to consider up to what degree the democratic movement has suffered a real setback. Is it the end of the hopes for political change, or a new beginning for the struggle against Putin’s so-called “power vertical”?

This election has been a mixture of old and new elements. With what we are used to see in Russian politics, we can be sure Putin did not want to risk a run-off. In pursuit of this objective, cheating seemed acceptable, even despite the mass protests that, since December, demanded a fair election among other things. After all, Putin did not make his ally Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Election Commission –an institution which supposedly should be a neutral referee-, step down despite calls for his resignation; he was certainly an important asset to secure Putin’s reelection. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, there was fraud, but not as widespread as in last year’s parliamentary election. The decrease in voting irregularities was partly because of those expensive cameras installed at the polling stations around the country- Churov’s laughable ideal of transparency- but also the vast surge of volunteer local monitors. This was particularly true in Moscow. However, what really concerns external monitors and Russian opposition is what it is considered the endemic problem of Russian politics: the lack of competition. This is caused not only by the Kremlin’s political engineering or partisan misuse of state resources (like TV), but also by the “official” opposition parties’ and candidates’ ineffectiveness. They even display open servility to Putin at times. Just one example: when Sergey Mironov, leader of the social democratic party a Just Russia, ran against Putin in 2004, he publicly endorsed him.

Now, we could be tempted to launch a debate about whether Putin’s victory is only due to electoral rigging or not. Doing this, however, would be a futile effort, and almost politically irrelevant in the current situation. Of course, it is possible to find alternative figures to electoral results like those offered by the Russian association Golos, which considers Putin just got a 50% of the vote. But it as easy to find other analysis that diminishes the reliability of such estimations. It is better to rely on polls ahead of the election, which unanimously showed a clear advantage favouring Putin. With this we can be almost certainly sure that Putin still has a lot of support and that those protesters we have seen during these three months are just a sector of the electorate. Perhaps a relevant and large one, but one which amounts to no more than a minority after all.

As Brian Whitmore states, there are at least “two Russias”. One still votes for Putin because of motives ranging from nationalism to fear of change and return to the economic chaos of the nineties. The other, which is better represented by the urban middle class and the university youth, is sick of political and administrative corruption and lack of good prospects, something they link to Putin. The fact that in Moscow Putin got less than a half of this vote proves this point.

Putin’s campaign, which has been more intense than his past ones, was a reflection of this social divide. It was designed both to cater the nationalists with anti-American rhetoric, and to reassure those who want stability by promising a new wave of social spending, less taxes and higher pensions and salaries for the military. Certainly, the campaign’s framework was built on the spectre of Yeltsin’s times. It is uncertain if Putin will be able to capitalize on this forever. In 2000, when Putin first took office, he could portray himself as a saviour because it was difficult for the situation to get any worse. Nowadays, on the other hand, more and more people accept him not because of his promises or projects, but because the absence of a serious alternative. Putin is certainly much weaker than before.

If Putin fails to provide what he has promised during his campaign the perception of him being disposable will increase. Moreover, it is likely that by now there are some fractures within the ruling elite. They might be starting to be afraid of a possible uncontrolled collapse of the system. An example of this is 11-years finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired in September 2011 over his disagreement on Putin-Medvedev job swap. He had been calling for reform, both economic and politic, for a long time. There are other “liberal technocrats” like him around Putin. For this inner circle, the current situation looks like a crossroads leading either to survival or to political disgrace. Putin knows this. In this respect, who he chooses and maintains as Prime Minister, be it Medvedev or not, will be an important decision. Therefore, the protest movement should strive to seize the moment, take advantage of the division, and keep pressure on the system for its liberalization.

The vast number of volunteer monitors registered for this election is a good sign of how actively involved the opposition is becoming. This is not enough, however. Despite Putin’s victory, it is necessary for them not to lose the momentum gained since December. In fact, the real meaning of this victory depends on the future manoeuvres of the democratic movement; if they cease in their bid for change, the game is over, but if they continue they might reach their goals.

Judging by how Moscow’s security has been strengthened, it is arguable that Putin will try to silence the opposition or, at least, threaten to do so. This could lead to radicalization by some activists, many of whom were considering actions along the lines of Occupy movements. Resorting to aggressive methods or even violence is not desirable. Rather, the advance of reform aspirations need an institutional structure. Put simply, together with protesting on the streets, the opposition needs to create parties, real grassroots parties. Just asking for fair elections is not enough in a country where opposition parties are useless, almost comatose. Now the strength of the movement has been put to the test. The main question is whether they can overcome its wariness against organized politics and create alternatives to the tandem Putin-United Russia.

From a stable political platform, the opposition could mobilize better the base of society. Also, it would help send a signal to the official opposition parties and to those within the elite who, like Kudrin, see a collective benefit in opening the political system or even launching their own political adventure. However, if the Kremlin respects its promises of simplifying the rules to create parties and register candidates, will we see someone like Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who has become the visible head of the movement, daring to create a party? So far, this is impossible to know. Only time will tell if the democratic movement is able to rise to the occasion.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Belligerence against Iran: Reckless and Counterproductive

Posted by / 19th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In the wake of last November’s IAEA report, it is time once again to examine the adopted policy on the issue: sanctions. This in the context of the latest moves by the United States and the European Union to cripple Iran’s oil industry, and subsequent threats by Tehran to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Specifically, it is necessary to think about the nature of those sanctions and whether they are in any way useful to prevent the ayatollahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Moreover, we could go further and ask ourselves if that goal is worthwhile at all, regardless of the cost.

The rationale behind sanctions is the following: If enough material pain is inflicted against the Iranian people, the alleged nuclear weapons program would become so politically and economically costly that the regime would have no other options than to drop it. This way of thinking would be flawless if we could objectively agree on what level of suffering is inacceptable for both the Iranians and their leadership. Obviously, the problem is that we cannot do that. In fact, more sanctions could be not only ineffective, but even counterproductive.

Weapons, particularly of the big and terrifying kind, give a country prestige and security. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its political elite have felt insecure and suspicious of the intentions of its neighbours and its main enemy, the U.S. That still holds true. With Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan all having nuclear arsenals, and with Turkey being part of NATO, atomic bombs would give Iran a ‘calming’ deterrence capability. Consequently, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the reasons behind the nuclear program are too strong for Tehran to abandon its plans, even though if this implies losing oil revenue that is vital to an already besieged economy.

If this is indeed the case, popular protests triggered by the latest sanction would not oblige the regime to change its nuclear policy; in fact, the situation could result in repression and push Iran to speed up its pace towards nuclearization. It seems clear that in the mind of the Iranian leaders the experience of Libya and the defeat of Gaddafi are starkly present. Certainly, for them the words of Aisha Gaddafi, the Colonel’s daughter, probably ring true: “To every country that has weapons of mass destruction: keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya” (March, 2011).

But in our analysis we may well be more adventurous and question if it is possible that the bulk of Iranian society could itself be willing on enduring more economic sanctions to attain nuclear capabilities. This might be the case. We should not ignore that the clerics’ shows of strength are partly intended at gathering popular support. Playing the card of national unity against the enemy might work up to a certain degree. Of course, this does not cancel the possibility of street protests like those in 2009. This latter prospect is surely one of the regime’s main fears, but we should bear the ambiguity of Iranian society in mind nonetheless.

Iran has abandoned its previous stance towards the West and shifted to a more combative attitude. This was the idea behind Tehran’s war games in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for exporting 40% of the world’s oil. According to prominent officials in the Iranian army, they are capable of blocking it as a response to sanctions considered by the regime to be an “act of war”. It is unlikely they would actually make good on such threats, for the Strait is as important to the overall world oil exports as to Iran’s own. Yet it is a scenario that should not be discarded out of hand. If indeed the oil embargo the West has agreed on is fully implemented, which already is a complex task, Tehran might well decide it is worth trying to close the Strait. It would certainly harm those Iranian oil exports still flowing despite the embargo, but it would also provoke spikes in oil prices, not a pleasant prospect for Western nations in the actual economic situation.

This is precisely what makes the implementation of sanctions difficult and what lies behind the reluctance of several actors (including here the Obama Administration itself). However, if the Strait is blocked, the U.S. Fifth Fleet would quickly retaliate. Assuming the Iranian navy gets defeated, that would expose the military vulnerability of the clerics, and reinforce the call of hardliners for greater weaponization. Yet another reason why sanctions may backfire.

So, if sanctions seem to be too risky, unpredictable or unsuited for this task, what is left then? Probably not diplomacy, at least in the foreseeable future, since both sides have burnt that bridge. There are already covert operations in place. These include facility sabotage, the assassination of scientists relevant to the program and cyberwarfare (2010 Stuxnet attack). However, this has only slowed down Iran’s nuclear plans, nothing more.

Thus, now is when we get to the critical point of possibly opting for a preventive attack, and here let us not delude ourselves: a strike against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is highly dangerous to international security and stability. On the one hand, a preventive strike like this would only work if it is unexpected, so there would not be any Security Council debate before an attack. This would make it illegal under international law and upset not only the Iranians, but also the Russians and the Chinese. On the other hand, a quick strike, probably carried out by Israel, might not be that effective. It can be argued that to render the nuclear program useless a more sustained campaign is needed, and that would need the involvement of the U.S. and maybe others. Apart from all of this, Iran’s- as well as its and its allies’- possible retaliation should not be ignored. All of this makes it unclear whether playing this gambit is reasonable. A Middle East with a nuclearized Iran would might be a region with increased instability. That, however, is not enough of a reason to start a war over it. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail