All posts tagged Russia

Sanctions against Russia: How far will they go?

Posted by / 24th March 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

Talk about sanctions on Russia has been tough this week. Both the United States and the European Union have been tightening screws on Russia in an attempt to reverse Russia´s annexation of Crimea. EU sanctions now include 33 highly placed individuals with close relations to Vladimir Putin and that were involved in the takeover of the Crimean peninsula after the ousting of the Ukrainian ex-president Yanukovych. The list now largely overlaps with the American list, which also includes three very close figures from Putin´s inner circle, something which the EU had not been willing to do so far. Both the EU and US have also opened doors to allow for economic sanctions against core parts of the Russian economy, such as the oil and gas industry. This would hurt Russian exports, but will surely also affect gas supplies to Europe, and potentially the global economy in general.

The efforts to bring Crimea back to the Ukraine are almost certainly in vain, but at least the sanctions send out a strong message of disapproval, and they hit Putin and the Russian political and economical elite where it hurts…or do they? What are the EU and US trying to achieve? Which sanctions have been imposed so far? And will they put their money where their mouth is?

Choose your objectives wisely

Sanctions have been imposed in the past for various reasons. They have been imposed to reverse the policies of targeted countries, be they acts of territorial aggression, coup d´état´s, or human rights abuses. But they can also be imposed simply to signal disapproval and outrage, or to deter other potential wrongdoers from breaking the law, and to deter the target at hand from going further down the road. Russia unlikely to be compelled to give up Crimea, but the US and EU sanctions can at least put the bear back in its cage.

When sanctions were instituted in the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that comprehensive economic sanctions would bring ´a type of pressure upon targets that no modern nation would be able to resist´. Territorial aggression would be reversed without the use of a single soldier. Of course reality turned out to be much different; sometimes they were poorly implemented and hopelessly ineffective. In cases such as Iraq and Haiti on the other hand, they were disproportionally harsh on innocent civilians, who starved to death as results of food shortages. Since the late 1990s the strategy thus shifted towards targeting individuals and banks, in order to disturb only the interests of those in power.

Reversing the policies of targeted countries through the sole means of individual sanctions is difficult, especially when the target is a superpower like Russia. Putin is unlikely to be sufficiently impressed by asset freezes and travel sanctions to suddenly give up Crimea, even if the sanctions target people in his inner circle like deputy prime minister Dimitry Rogozin and presidential advisors. The Ukraine has lost the peninsula and they will most likely not get it back. It seems like a shut and closed case. But can the sanctions at least serve other purposes?

In the past, sanctions have also been used simply to express disapproval or outrage about certain practices. Sanctions stand between statements and soldiers. The first two sanctions regimes imposed by the United Nations on white minority regimes in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa were hardly impressive economically, but at least they signalled a strong message of disapproval. White Africans certainly felt this pariah-status heavily on their shoulders. The European and American sanctions on Russia are likely to have a similar effect. They also stand between words and wars, to use a different alliteration. They might not change the status of Crimea, but at least Russia will feel that a large part of the (western) world disapproves of their actions.

A third and arguably the most important reason to impose sanctions is to warn other countries that certain actions don´t go unpunished. Punishing one target can deter others from behaving outside of international law or outside of international public opinion. For example, the sanctions on Iran and North Korea might not talk them out of continuing their nuclear programmes, but at least it can scare off other states. In a similar vein, generals plotting a coup d´état might think twice before taking action. In the Crimea crisis, the sanctions also signal that Russia should not try to further destabilize the Ukraine or to embark on other geopolitical adventures. NATO officials are concerned that Putin has also put his eye on Transnistria, a Russian speaking secessionist region of Moldova that borders the south-west of Ukraine.

Will the EU and US put their money where their mouth is?

So far, the European and American lists include highly placed government officials, army-sector figures, and the owners of Russia´s biggest industries. Sanctioned politicians include Russian deputy prime minister Rogozin, presidential advisors Glazyev and Surkov, Duma-chairman Slutsky, Crimean ´prime-minister´ Aksyonov, and Ukrainian ex-president Yanukovych. The asset freezes have also hit Bank Rossiya, assumed to be Putin´s bank, and Arkadi Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko, two of Russia´s most powerful businessmen.

The screws can be drawn even tighter on Russia if it doesn´t back down. So far the measures have included exclusion from the G8 talks that were supposed to be organized in Sochi this summer and a failed resolution at the UN Security Council. A next step would be to isolate Russia economically through the imposition of sanctions on oil and gas from Russia. However, Europe would certainly feel the measures of this double edged sword. Putin is already looking to the East for alternative trading partners, and China seems eager to sign a deal to buy more natural gas from Russia. The warming relationship between Russia and its eastern neighbours could also facilitate military contracts.

In the short run, a gas-embargo would definitely hurt the Russian economy though. Almost all of Russia´s natural gas go to Europe (89%), most notably Eastern Europe (24%) and Germany (24%). A sudden stop would most certainly disrupt the Russian economy, but it would also threaten global economic stability, primarily in Europe itself. Europe is equally dependent on Russia. Denmark, Norway, the UK, and the Netherlands produce some small amounts of natural gas, and they import LNG from countries such as Algeria, Quatar, and Nigeria, but the biggest supplier of gas remains Russia, especially in Eastern Europe and Germany. Would Europe be willing to go that far? It´s not likely. The Spanish have already complained that a Russian travel embargo would hurt the tourism sector. Other ´dove countries´ (Italy, Cyprus) even had trouble with the targeted sanctions on some individuals close to Putin, favouring a diplomatic solution. Hawk countries in the European such as the UK, Poland, and the Baltic states favour a tougher stand, but even they are likely to back down when it comes to economic sanctions.

For now, both the US and the EU can keep on tightening the screws on Russia by freezing the assets of more individuals and by prohibiting European and American citizens from doing business with Russian oligarchs. As long as such actions prove sufficient to keep Russia from further destabilizing the Ukraine, the western sanctions should be regarded a success. Russia chooses its battles carefully, and so should the EU and the US.

You may also be interested in reading the ReSeT Working Paper: Power and UN Sanctions by the same author.


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


Economics and the Environment: A Brief Review of Arctic Change

Posted by / 2nd November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , / -

This morning, two news stories filled me with a fleeting sense of hope. Firstly, a remote Arctic Island, known as ‘Rat Island’ due to a mass infestation of Norwegian rats, is finally rodent free. Conservationists have been working tirelessly to exterminate the invasive population for the benefit of the indigenous inhabitants of nesting birds including puffins. Secondly, after their sojourn from storming Arctic oil-rigs, Greenpeace activists and accompanying journalists have had piracy charges downgraded to hooliganism by Russian authorities. What are the wider prospects though for the Arctic heritage to remain unchanged?

In popular European imagination the Arctic looms large as a pristine inaccessible wilderness, a cold inhospitable land of polar bears, fit only for our most intrepid explorers and scientists. From this starting point European sensitivities rail against the huge potential of the Arctic as a source of primary commodities to fuel economic growth. Europe’s is a tendency toward Arctic conservationism and a fanciful hope, like that of China’s too, that the Arctic should be considered, in a non-legal sense, a global Common. This imagery will be increasingly that – a figment of the imagination. We are witnessing an astonishing pace of ecological, economic and political transformation of the Arctic driven by climate change. The Arctic we know and love is moving to the mythological annals of history.

Change is coming apace. Already the annual average temperature for the Arctic region is about 1 ºC warmer than the recorded average between 1961 to 1990 and as much as 5 ºC above the seasonal norm for October-November. As the arctic warms, the scientists’ Arctic sea-ice dial is being constantly ratcheted down from rock-hard towards almost-slushy. In three decades Arctic sea ice covers now only half of its previous expanse. Estimates of an ice-free summer ocean by 2030 are now looking a little conservative with the latest data suggesting a decade earlier is plausible, in part explained by polar amplification and spurred along by black carbon deposits.

Polar bears and walruses are particularly dependent on thick sea ice. The polar bear is now listed as an endangered species and walruses as candidate species for listing. Decline in the population of several sub-species of seal follow hot on their heels. Moreover, subarctic flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine, are migrating northward to compete with indigenous species that cannot rely on evolutionary responses to keep pace with the rate of change. Habitats are changing: coastlines are eroding and as the permafrost reduces, frozen tundra is reverting to swampland last seen some 50 million years ago. Arctic cyclones are growing in size and strength with local impact, but also being held responsible for catastrophic weather events across the hemisphere: flooding in China, heat waves and fires in Russia, severe winters in the US and Europe and summer monsoons and droughts in India.

Change does not end there. The changing climate opens the areas to economic exploitation on a grand scale – a new centre of trade and industry with a form not unlike that of the Mediterranean. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the opening up of the Arctic frontier will deliver the sorts of radical shifts in global trade and geo-political strategy that come only once in a life-time. Paralleling the Age of Discovery or the US’s taming of the west as an engine of its meteoric rise to global super power status. In economic and political terms there is a lot to play for, but as with great games there is also real risk, among them irreparable environmental damage, militarisation, and dislocation of indigenous people and their livelihoods.

Alaska and western Siberia already account for around 10% of global oil and gas production, the region’s production share is set to rocket. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 22% of the worlds undiscovered oil and gas, not to mention rich deposits of rare minerals and isotopes. Retreating ice; new exploration and extraction technologies; and transport access by sea make discovery and extraction real and increasing possibilities. It does not end here, the potential for hydro- and geothermal power, construction and fishing (as stocks head for warmer arctic waters) all add to a very long list of economic opportunities that spin out and will spur on the changing face of the Arctic. Just imagine the tourism opportunities: paired sailings of cruise ships witnessing the dramatic sight of vast walls of melting ice crashing into the ocean and strings of wilderness junkies trudging over pristine Icelandic glaciers in designer snow boots.

The question of sea access – the opening of the fifth ocean – of itself is of massive economic and naval significance. Reducing sea-ice coupled with supporting maritime technology and logistical support will lead to the opening up of new sea routes crossing the Arctic. The passage becoming accessible most rapidly is the Northern Sea Route (Russia’s preferred name for the North-East Passage) skirting the Russian coast. The North-West Passage, following the Canadian archipelago, lags behind, but remains a realistic possibility. In 2012, 46 vessels managed to cross the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and most recently, the Yong Seng, a Chinese commercial vessel followed the NSR, arriving in Rotterdam amid much media fanfare. The excitement was generated by the news that the voyage had trimmed 14 days off the usual time required for the route south via Suez. Estimates place financial savings per commercial vessel per voyage are in the region of $600,000.

In the long term, the reorientation of shipping from China via the NSR to supply the major markets of Europe bodes well for both economies in broad terms, with the prospects of cheaper products arriving more quickly. However there are winners and losers. Hong Kong marks the equidistance point between the southern and northern routes. As such the future of seaports North and South of this point look very different. Singapore, for example, may lose out to new ports developing along the Chinese coastline and in Japan. Likewise northern European ports such as Rotterdam and Felixstowe may benefit.

Politics and questions of infrastructure supporting shipping are also critical. Russian cooperation, ice-breakers to rescue beached ships, maritime policing, supply and repair stops are all part of the viability jigsaw. Also, there remain challenges to Canada and Russia’s sovereignty over the two sea routes. Much to their annoyance, the US and EU in particular continue to argue that the routes should be considered as international Strait. China too, in its references to global commons and the occasional broadside from an ex-sea admiral, may well hold this view, but prefers to supress it given a more fundamental respect for sovereign rights.

The assimilated view of seasoned political commentators seems to be shifting in regards to the Arctic. Whereas the trend a couple of years back was to stress the dystopian prospects of the Arctic thaw – a terrain poised to escalate geopolitical conflict – the pendulum, with some reasoned argument, swings now in favour of backing the prospect of a new Arctic consensus. This revised view is derived from a growing tendency for Arctic states to find agreement on some of their long-standing, sometimes pernicious, territorial disputes. Realising there is good sense in rising above the narrowest state-interests, there may be a move to avoiding escalating conflict and to work collectively to exploit the rich opportunities offered in the Arctic.

These difficulties and differences aside, surely this is good news for Europe, but the question is what is Europe’s response in making hay while the sun shines and how does this articulate with European environmental and conservation aims? The question of European policy, flavoured by our well-heeled and well-intentioned Arctic imaginary is important. It has coloured the EU policy approach without winning many friends. For those states or transnational bodies sitting outside of the Arctic inner circle lessons are being learnt, more rapidly in the case of China than Europe, about not rocking the boat if you want to get in on the action. To date Europe has been perceived as an angry child rather than a critical friend, with the dual impact of removing us from the economic and environmental spheres of influence. Europe needs more sophistication in defining its Arctic interests and related policy, if it wants to move from the imaginary to the pragmatic.

Returning to Rat Island puffins, the question arises as what is their long-term hardiness in the face of new waves of change arriving on their shores? As for Greenpeace, notwithstanding the vagaries of the Russian judicial process, jurisprudence suggests that piracy charges are subject to international law – the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas – and that there seemed little hope of a successful prosecution on these terms. Russia no doubt realised this, although appearing to have backed down, they have in truth managed to send a clear warning to transgressors as to the primacy of Russian economic interests in the Arctic region. Perhaps then we need to set sail on a new course for the European eco-warrior, hell bent on achieving the best and most pragmatic environmental outcomes for the Artic, by turning attention on EU reform. We need to look at our own institutions rather fighting Russian or Chinese ghosts. Batten down the hatches Greenpeace, were setting sail for Brussels!  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Posted by / 31st July 2013 / Categories: Reports / Tags: , , , , , / -

The withdrawal of most United States combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 not only is an important symbolic moment for Washington’s foreign policy which will effectively close the book on the post-9/11 “War on Terror”, it will also have major repercussions on Afghanistan and its neighbours in Central Asia. The void that Western forces leave behind is likely to be filled by more local-centred interests and other major international players such as China and Russia. Afghanistan has always been a geopolitical battleground, and the 21st Century will prove no different. The extraction and transport of natural resources, zones of influence, religious and ethnic strife, concerns about local terrorism and its proximity to other geostrategic hot-spots such as Iran and Pakistan- all combined with a lack of internal sovereignty-means that Afghanistan is unlikely to escape the clutches of external meddling.

ReSeT has written a series of articles by its experts on what the post-withdrawal future will bring for the most important national actors involved, and on how this will affect international relations during the coming decade.Through one article per country, we will analyse the impact that the new Afghan situation will have on:


Afghanistan (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The conflict in the Central Asian country is a prime example of the complexities involved in New Wars. The inability of the superpowers to understand and address them has historically led to defeat in the arid mountains of this country. Beyond the particular failed policies of the consecutive invaders, Afghanistan represents the inaptitude of the international system of states to deal with modern challenges.

Pakistan (Balder Hageraats): Afghanistan’s future is intimately linked with that of Pakistan because of cross border identities and interests. Both countries’ complicated and ambiguous relationships with the US will become even more strained after 2014, and Islamabad will shift its focus towards Beijing and other local players. The West is likely to be marginalised in this process, and may need to shift its focus back to India.

Iran (Ricard Boscar): Despite mainstream thought in policy and security circles in the West, Iran could play an important role in the stability of Afghanistan and the region. Teheran has enough resources, ranging from cultural to economic assets, to cast its influence eastwards. How Iran decides to use them is linked to the future arrangement of interests in the region and depends on the US stance towards the ayatollahs’ regime.

Russia (Alberto Pérez Vadillo): The American withdrawal will force Moscow to recalibrate its policy towards Afghanistan and across the region. Much of what Russia can achieve depends on its relations towards the various Central Asian states. Regarding this, Moscow’s room to manouver will be constrained by both the presence Washington chooses to preserve and Beijing’s ambitions.

China (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The growing weight of China in international geopolitics has gotten to a point of no return. But the new superpower is still reluctant to assume the responsibility and burden that its position implies. Beijing’s economic diplomacy is already strong, but to secure its interests, China will have to adjust its foreign policy, and Afghanistan after 2014 will be an important thest of this.

The United States (Balder Hageraats): The United States, after licking its wounds from two unwinnable wars and economic crisis, will need to scale back it global ambitions, and particularly those in Central Asia, where it will no longer be able to compete with other more local competitors. Washington policy will focus on specific goals, such as national resources security, rather than maintaining its more expansive agenda of the last decade.

Read the whole report here: ReSeT Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan



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