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Russian Roulette

The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing actions of the pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine has sowed serious concern in the capitals of the former Soviet republics. However, only three of them have said “no” out loud as a response to Kremlin actions: Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. In fact, they believe that the current situation in Ukraine is the result of overt violations of international law by the Russian side.

June 4, 2014 - Grzegorz Kaliszuk - Articles and Commentary

The president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, has claimed that “the events in Ukraine are not only a threat to stability in the region, but also for the entire world order.” Georgia knows better than any other country in the region how Russia’s actions can destabilise the authorities in Kyiv. After a five-day war in August 2008, Russia recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The authorities of these countries, along with Belarus and Armenia, are the only ones enthusiastically accepting the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

Moldova is right behind Georgia in Moscow’s dangerous game, especially as it relates to Transnistria, the break territory bordering with Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent remarks regarding Transnistria in the Russian parliament, where he stated “for the defence of territorial integrity, they can only rely on those states which ensure equal rights for all nations”, most likely sent a chill down the spine of the authorities in Chișinău. According to Nicolae Timofti, president of Moldova, Russia is already taking concrete actions to destabilise the situation in Transnistria.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, the largest country of the former Soviet republics, remains silent so far. He does not comment in any way on Russia’s actions. Kazakhstan is rich in mineral resources and in fact heavily dependent economically on Moscow. The Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia’s space launch facility, is also in Kazakhstan. Authorities in Astana fear, however, that Russia will use the argument of the alleged defence of Russian interests (26 per cent of inhabitants of Kazakhstan are Russians) to intervene territorially in the country.

Belarus plays on two fronts. On the one hand it takes an idolatrous attitude in relation to Moscow. On the other, it sends very neutral messages such as “Minsk will make all efforts so that relations between Ukraine and Russia remain brotherly based on the principles of good neighbours.” Alyaksandr Lukashenka has also said that “Belarus does not direct its internal and external policies against NATO or against anyone else. But if an issue arises, Belarus will be with the Russian Federation.” Lukashenka, however, openly criticises the idea of​​ the federalisation of Ukraine, fearing the integrity of Belarus. Federalisation, according to Lukashenka, “destabilises the situation indefinitely; a federation would create the risk of further war, internal conflict and escalate external struggles.” Authorities in Minsk put great importance on maintaining Kazakhstan and Armenia in the circle of Moscow supporters. In 2015, Belarus along with Russia, Kazakhstan and Armenia will become a member state of the Eurasian Economic Union (the organisation being built from the transformation of the Customs Union formed in 2010).

Armenia openly praised Moscow for its actions. President Serzh Sargsyan has said that “the referendum in Crimea is a new example of the fulfilment of the rights of people to self-determination.” Azerbaijan, on the other hand, does not accept “Putin’s actions”, but due to the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh comments on the Kremlin in a very diplomatic manner. The authorities in Baku fear Russian intervention upon the request of Armenia. At the same time, Azerbaijan consistently tightens cooperation with NATO and Turkey on the issue of international security.

Other republics in Central Asia, i.e. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan remain silent – they fear Moscow’s reaction. Only Kyrgyzstan indulged in a negative assessment of the rule of Vikor Yanukovych.

The Baltic countries, also former Soviet republics, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia openly condemn the actions of the Russian separatists in Ukraine. These states, however, compared to those previously discussed, are in a completely different situation. They are in fact members of both the European Union and NATO. Of these three countries, Moscow finds the most support in Latvia, where the pro-Russian party is likely to win in the upcoming elections. Keep in mind that 27 per cent of Latvia’s population are of Russian ethnicity and in Riga this proportion is nearly 50 per cent. The question is – will Moscow dare to try to pull a member of the European Union into its roulette?

Russia seems to ignore the sanctions imposed on it by the West. The permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, has said that Russia does not fear restrictions and “wants Ukraine to overcome the political crisis, perhaps by federalisation”. Vladimir Putin spoke openly at the beginning of his third term that his goal is to build a Eurasian Union, composed of the former Soviet republics. Some commentators also argue that the host of the Kremlin wants to finish what the tsars had failed to complete. The Russian president is fighting for a strong zone of Russian influence in Asia and Europe using all available means.

In the German press, the prevalence of Putin in Ukraine is often criticised. In describing Putin, Pforzheimer Zeitung writes that “an autocrat like that should never be a model for anybody to follow. That’s what everybody enjoying the freedom of speech in Germany should think about.” Die Tagespost adds that “the president of Russia undermines all of which in the past decades constitutes for peace for Europe: international law, inviolability of borders, recognised also by Russia and signed under international treaties, the sovereignty of neighbouring countries and the role of mediation by international institutions.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted on its pages that “the West faced the greatest geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War. Putin boasts of authority and power and sees around him only weaklings and losers. He wants to finish what the tsars and Stalin had failed.” Bild-Zeitung writes that “Putin may seem at the moment as the most powerful politician in the world, but in fact, he is just an evil spirit of Russia, who is exposing the future of his country to great risk.”

Moscow’s actions also need to be perceived from the international legal perspective. The annexation of Crimea and inciting separatism in the east and south of Ukraine is a violation of all treaties and international agreements. Starting with the Charter of the United Nations, through bilateral agreements with Ukraine and finishing with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. On the last pages of the Budapest document, Russia has committed that it will respect the territory of Ukraine and Ukraine in return gives up its nuclear arsenal.

Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, broke its commitment to international agreements. From this precedent, countries such as North Korea or Iran can arrive at a simple conclusion: these contracts have no value. Using this logic, one can conclude that assurances by the international community to Tehran or Pyongyang are also worthless. The Kremlin has committed a very dangerous precedent, whose effects will be felt for a long time. According to some observers of international relations, the current situation in Ukraine will redefine the security of the Euro-Atlantic area for the next decade.

Ukraine’s independence is particularly important for Poland. It has also a symbolic dimension. We must remember that the government of Jan Krzysztof Bielecki in 1991 was the first to recognise the independence of the government in Kyiv after the fall of the Soviet Union. What the EU and NATO can do now is to undoubtedly show Moscow that the members of these organisations feel certain about their own security.

Undoubtedly, the Kremlin’s actions are unprecedented in the modern history of Europe. It is time for the international community to take concrete steps to show the Russian authorities that the European Union and NATO are efficient and effective organisations and not just slogans or buzzwords.

Grzegorz Kaliszuk is an economic analyst with a PhD from the Warsaw School of Economics. He is an author of over 80 articles devoted to Russia, the CIS countries and energy issues and currently works for the Allianz Group.

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