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Crimea

Tag Archives | Crimea

Has Putin Overplayed his Hand in Ukraine?

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Maxim Dondyuk
Maxim Dondyuk

Maxim Dondyuk

Until recently, Vladimir Putin has had to contend with little more than targeted sanctions and threats from the Obama administration that Russia will feel the pain for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Threats have failed to persuade Russia to pull back; Western antagonism and land reclamation have only boosted Putin’s domestic popularity. In the end, the Kremlin has likely overplayed its self-perceived position of strength in Ukraine. As Western leaders plot ways to punish Putin, there is little they can conceivably do to stop him.

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Obama Arrives in Asia Empty-Handed

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President Barack Obama pictured with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in March. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Last fall, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called “Asia pivot,” suffered a big setback when the budget mess in Washington forced him to cancel a long-scheduled trip to Asia.

President Barack Obama pictured with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in March. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Barack Obama pictured with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in March. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The trip was supposed to reassure U.S. allies and partners about the administration’s commitment to the region. I argued back then that while Mr. Obama would always be able to reschedule, the key question is whether he will have anything substantive in hand once he shows up. As the president begins a week-long tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, we now know the answer: No. The strategic shift to Asia, which Washington launched with much hoopla two years ago, is premised on two key efforts: 1.) the buildup of U.S. military forces that is plainly directed against China, and 2.) the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia. Both initiatives are currently in deep trouble.

Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security advisor, contends that the pivot remains “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy” and calls the president’s trip “an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region.” But many question whether the administration has the budgetary resources to back up its rhetoric. As one commentator observes, “The whole exercise risks looking like an inversion of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous advice to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’ The pivot has generated plenty of loud talk – but the stick looks rather small.”

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Clausewitzian Perspectives on Russia’s Actions in Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin. Norgler/Wikimedia

Are the musings of Carl von Clausewitz, a 19th century general, relevant to a 21th century crisis? Great works are defined by their characteristic of capturing unchanging human experiences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Norgler/Wikimedia

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Norgler/Wikimedia

Clausewitz’s work has a timeless quality as it deals with the theory of war analyzing its characteristics and internal structures and not generation specific events. His concern with the root causes of war instead of the manifestations of it makes his framework of analysis relevant to the present day. The present crisis in Ukraine is rooted in the forced departure of the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The departure of the pro-Moscow president was viewed by Russia as part of the long running NATO expansion eastwards contrary to their previous agreement. Coupled with Russia’s historical strategic imperative to expand outwards one better understands Russia’s actions.

Russia under Putin has been striving to secure its ‘privileged sphere of interests’ in post-Soviet states, which it perceives as its Near Abroad. This initiative is part of the conception of foreign policy in Russia as a tool for stabilizing the regime by generating consensus for strong and assertive Russian behaviour abroad. This legitimizes the highly centralized form of government in Moscow which is struggling to do the same in a nation experiencing terrible economic conditions and a worrying demographic crisis. In light of the humiliation endured by Russia over the Libyan vote at the United Nations, the loss of Ukraine to a pro-Western government would have greatly threatened the stability of the Russian state.

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Legal Questions of Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine

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Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferre

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has seen the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, has generated two important legal questions.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferre

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferre

The first one relates to whether Russia has violated international law with respect to the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine. The second question relates to the legality of the referendum in Crimea whereby it has chosen to become a part of Russia. With regard to the first question, the UN Charter imposes via Article 2(3) the obligation upon nations to settle international disputes by peaceful means. Article 2(4) prohibits members from using force or the threat of force against another state’s territorial integrity and political independence. The use of force is however permitted in a situation where the UN Security Council has authorized such action to maintain or restore international peace and security or where a state exercises its inherent right of self defence as recognized in Article 51.

In addition to violation of the provisions of the UN Charter, it has been argued that Russia is in violation of the 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accords) which reaffirmed the obligation of its signatories to respect each other’s territorial integrity and borders as inviolable in addition to refraining from the use of threat of use of force. These are commitments that were echoed in the 1994 Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the NPT (the Budapest Memorandum) and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation & Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Further, Ukraine says Russia is violating the Black Sea Fleet Agreements and the 1999 agreement between the Cabinet of Ministers on the Use of Airspace of Ukraine and of Airspace Over the Black Sea, which places caps on Russian troop levels in Crimea and mandates prior approval of Ukrainian authorities before making any troop movements.

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Kiev to Launch Probe into Deadly Sloviansk Shooting

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A woman stands in front of a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 20, 2014. Marko Djurica/Reuters

Ukraine says it will launch an investigation into a fatal shooting in the east of the country which has raised tension with Russia further. At least three people died in the raid on a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian separatists near the town of Sloviansk. Russia expressed “outrage” at the shooting and said Ukraine’s Right Sector nationalists were to blame. The incident came as pro-Russian groups continued to occupy government buildings defying a deal to leave. The deputy secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, Viktoriya Siumar, told the BBC that it was too early to tell who was responsible for the attack. Criminal groups could have been behind the incident, she said, adding that “the level of criminality in eastern Ukraine has increased substantially recently.”

Ms. Siumar said that Kiev was “concerned” about the fact that Russia had already reached its own conclusions. Russian television showed an interview with a man, allegedly captured after the attack, who said he was a Right Sector member. However, a spokesman for the group denied that the man was a member. “Right Sector was not there, and whatever happened there was an obvious provocation from the Russian secret services,” Artyom Skoropadskiy said. The Right Sector mocked the discovery of a business card found in a burned out car at the site and said to belong to its leader Dmytro Yarosh. Mr. Skoropadskiy said this was “propaganda worse than that of Nazi Germany,” adding: “As if the militants of Pravy Sektor carry Yarosh’s business cards with them!”

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Russia, Ukraine, and Europe are Tied by Gas Dependency

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Gazprom
Gazprom

Gazprom

The German energy giant RWE has begun to “reverse flow” supplies of gas from Europe back to Ukraine via Poland, a process first arranged in 2012, with an agreement to deliver up to 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year. The question for the Ukrainian interim government and state-owned energy firm Naftogaz is how this gas will be delivered, how soon, and whether it will be enough. Hungary has the capacity to deliver 5.5 billion cubic metres (bcm), Poland could deliver 1.5 bcm, and Romania could potentially provide 1.8 bcm capacity, but not before 2016-17 at the earliest.

Talks between Ukraine and Slovakia have renewed in an effort to tap into its capacity to deliver 9 bcm of gas, but the Slovak government and pipeline operator, Eustream, are anxious to ensure that feeding gas back to Ukraine does not breach its contracts with Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Given that Ukraine imports around half of its annual 55 bcm of gas consumption, even with these new suppliers it will remain dependent on Russian gas.

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Kiev Begins “Anti-Terrorist” Operations in the East

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Ukraine's military

Ukrainian units

The “anti-terrorist” campaign, ordered by interim President Oleksander Turchynov is finally underway. He told the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday that operations began in the eastern Donestk region. According to Turchynov, the Russian Federation wants Ukraine to be on fire. Voice of America quoted Turchynov, who spoke to the parliament early on Tuesday. “Plans of the Russian Federation were and remain brutal. They want not only Donbas [the Donetsk region] to be on fire. They want the whole south and east of Ukraine to be on fire – from Kharkiv region to Odessa region,” Turchynov said at the parliament session in Kyiv.

The operations would be executed in phases. “But it will be carried out stage by stage, responsibly and cautiously. The aim of these actions – I underline it one more time – is to protect the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, and to stop criminality, stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces,” he added. President Turchynov confirmed the offense was finally underway. The plan was announced and launched on Sunday but no Ukrainian soldiers nor SBU officers were seen conducting operations.

A Reuters correspondent in Sloviasnk reported that there was no shot fired or explosions so far on Tuesday. Around twelve Cossacks were seen proudly standing guard at the mayor’s office and approximately the same amount of civilians were seen establishing more defensive positions using tires and wooden crates outside the occupied local police headquarters. Western leaders have arraigned Moscow of being the instigator of the recent pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine, which was quickly dismissed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow has also denied the allegation of Russian Special Service agents’ were engaged in the protests stating it was “speculations based on unreliable information.”

Video of Russian Lt. Colonel in Ukraine not Quite the Smoking Gun

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Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

Feelings are running high about Russia’s campaign of pressure and destabilization in Ukraine.

Will this turn out to be the smoking gun?

And perhaps not surprisingly foreign journalists and pundits sympathetic to Kyiv are eager to pounce on anything which appears to offer proof about the much-discussed but surprisingly elusive direct Russian role. As a result, sometimes pictorial or video evidence is being taken at face value when it needed a little more cautious scrutiny: witness the video purportedly of Russian soldiers in Ukraine being blocked by plucky Ukrainians, which turned out to be Ukrainian troops being harangued by ethnic Russian militants. (The uniforms were a give-away then.)

The latest “smoking gun” is a video in which a man in Russian camouflage introduces himself to the defecting Horlivka police as a lt. colonel in the Russian army and introduces them to their new chief. So far, so straightforwardly damning. However, while this may appear to the holy grail of proof, I’m afraid that I think it ought to be taken with some caution.

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Russian Fighter Jet Buzzes the USS Donald Cook

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USS Donald Cook

USS Donald Cook

US military official confirmed a Russian SU-24 has made multiple, close-range passes near the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. “This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements of a professional interaction between our militaries,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said.

In fact, the Russian fighter jets flew within 900 meters of the destroyer at about 500 feet above AMSL. The captain of the Donald Cook issued several radios warning to the fighter jet. A total of 12 passes over the course of 90 minutes were made. A second SU-24 was in the area but did not do any close-range provocative passes. Fortunately, the Russian jets appeared to be unarmed and the passes concluded without any major incidents. The USS Donald Cook is presently operating in international waters east of the Romanian coast. The destroyer arrived in the area on April 10th to reassure NATO allies after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The SU-24 is a long-range strike/attack aircraft and not specifically a fighter jet as most of other media called it. It can carry various type of armaments.

Ukraine Calls for UN Peacekeepers

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Protests in eastern Ukraine.  Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Interim President Oleksander Turchynov has called for UN peacekeepers to help regain areas taken by pro-Russian insurgents militants.

Protests in eastern Ukraine. Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Many believe these activists to be Russian Special Operation Forces (SOF) soldiers. Turchynov’s office told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon they could conduct joint-operations in eastern Ukraine. “We are not against and welcome if, with your assistance, we conduct a joint anti-terrorist operation in the east,” he said. President Turchynov stated that he had no objection to a referendum in eastern Ukraine to run alongside the planned presidential elections due in May. He strongly believes the majority of Ukrainians would endorse an “independent, democratic and unitary Ukraine.”

According to on-site witnesses, at least 100 armed pro-Russian insurgents attacked a police station in Horlivka earlier today, forcing the Ukrainian riot officers to withdraw from the area. Ukrainian TV footage was able to broadcast an ambulance treating several people who were ostensibly wounded during the assault on the police station in Horlivka. Separatist leaders in Horlivka have submitted a request for help from Moscow on behalf of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Reuters reported. Armed men supporting the separatists, who Western leaders claims to be Russian SOF, have established roadblock checkpoints and barricades in the area’s towns.

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UN Security Council to Convene over Escalating Ukraine Crisis

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Ambassador Samantha Power talks with Russian Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin, prior to the Security Council’s vote on the situation in the Crimea. Eskinder Debebe/UN

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency closed session on Ukraine. Upon Russia’s request, the Council will discuss the escalating crisis.

Ambassador Samantha Power talks with Russian Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin, prior to the Security Council’s vote on the situation in the Crimea. Eskinder Debebe/UN

The Sloviansk shootout that killed 1 Ukrainian servicemen, later identified as an SBU officer, created more tension between the Ukrainian authorities and the Pro-Russian insurgents, who are believed by many to be Russian special operation forces (SOF) operators from Spetsnaz and GRU teams. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, intentions are to expose Kyiv’s plans to mobilize the Ukrainian army to put an end to the rebellion of the pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. Lavrov tweeted earlier today that Ukrainian authorities must “stop war against their people.”

In a television interview earlier today, Interim President Oleksander Turchinov stated that he ordered a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” engaging the army against the pro-Russian militants. “The blood of Ukrainian heroes has been shed in a war which the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine,” he said. “We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern regions of the country,” he added.

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Shootout in Sloviansk: First Confirmed Death and Several Wounded

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Russian troop carrier. Source: Kiev Post

A military standoff between Russian SOF soldiers, commonly called “pro-Russian insurgents” and Ukraine’s military led to the first death in Sloviansk, Ukraine.

Russian troop carrier. Source: Kiev Post

One man was killed and several others were wounded in a shootout near a roadside checkpoint, under Ukrainian military control. The Russians approached the checkpoint in a civilian car and started shooting at Ukrainian soldiers. According to a local witness, who hid his identity, a man wearing a black uniform, who was killed, was later identified as an SBU officer. “One killed and two wounded,” he explained. Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s police chief, confirmed the SBU officer’s death and added five people were injured. As reported by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, there are dead and wounded on both sides while Reuters reported that one man on the Russian side has been killed in action.

The death of the SBU officer could justify the movement of Ukrainian soldiers towards Sloviansk. In fact, Interim President Oleksander Tuchinov said Ukraine is on the verge of launching a full-scale anti-terrorist operation against pro-Russian insurgents, increasing the risk of a military confrontation with Moscow. Free Ukraine, @Ukrainolution, who monitors the situation closely, agreed to the fact that the military movement could be due to the SBU officer’s death.

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Are Russian Troops Operating in Eastern Ukraine?

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Ethnic Russian paramilitaries. But are they under Moscow's orders?

Some, probably, but I don’t think that’s really the point.

Ethnic Russian paramilitaries. But are they under Moscow’s orders?

As western Ukrainian security forces reportedly seek to dislodge ethnic Russian paramilitaries from government buildings in Slaviansk (although that’s now being questioned) and anti-Kyiv forces muster in other eastern Ukrainian cities, allegations are flying thick and fast about the presence of Russian troops in these disturbances. (I should mention that The Interpreter‘s liveblog is an invaluable service in keeping track of all the claims, counterclaims and reports on the ground.)

The facts on the ground are confused, the claims are often overblown, but there does seem to be some basis for believing that limited numbers of Russian agents and special forces are present. However important that undoubtedly may seem, I think focusing on actual bodies on the ground misses the main point: Russia’s real role in this new Great Game is not so much direct but to incite, support and protect the local elites and paramilitaries who are driving the campaign against Kiev.

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How to Read Vladimir Putin

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Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

It was the sinking of the Russian submarine, the Kursk, in 2000 that first prompted Vladimir Putin to reveal critical elements of his personality to the world.

Putin is a statist who wants to safeguard a strong and great Russia. Photo: AFP

Since then, the Western media have generally characterised him as a heartless bully bent on challenging the West. While various Western experts claim to have insight into Putin’s thinking, in reality, few do. A big part of the reason is that so few view Putin through the prism of his upbringing, and Russian history, which is critical to getting Putin right.

By Western standards, he came from nothing. Excelling at judo presented Putin with his first opportunity to become something more than an average kid living in communal housing. During his martial arts training, he became more reactionary and disciplined. He calculated manoeuvres on the mat, waiting patiently to take an opponent down, which made his mind more focused and goal-oriented. Like so many Russians raised during the Soviet era, Putin was driven by opportunity, which is not the same as greed, but rather, a survival instinct.

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Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

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President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

This old cliché is still apropos in President Barrack Obama’s saber-rattling standoff with President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

In Europe last week Mr. Obama said that Russia was a declining “regional power.” In seizing Crimea, Mr. Putin was expanding Russia’s influence over Ukraine–part of the lost former Soviet Empire–was the inference. I am sure Mr. Putin is still fuming over those remarks. For the U.S. the annexation of Crimea is not a national security threat as was the Cold War era. Containing Russia’s further incursion into Ukraine is important however the most pressing foreign security issues are the control of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical stockpile. Mr. Putin is the key to both issues.

Mr. Obama needs to spend time with Mr. Putin, to better understand his goals–at least his thinking. The Crimea takeover could have been averted. Reversing its integration into the Russian Empire probably will not happen. Western allies wringing their hands and seeking punishing sanctions will not change the takeover. What we don’t want to do is push Mr. Putin into annexing Ukraine. This would begin a more regional conflict and draw in neighboring countries.

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