Russian Challenge to European Security, Neighboring Countries, and International Order

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its efforts to destabilize Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, the very real danger of a Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine and indirect Russian threats against other neighboring countries with ethnic Russian populations have dramatically changed international relations and shaken the international order.

Simferopol, Crimea, 16 March 2014 (c) Civic Solidarity Platform


Let us use the OSCE framework of regional security as the frame for observations, as forty years ago the Helsinki Accord laid a foundation for the contemporary security and cooperation system from Vancouver to Vladivostok based on the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all OSCE participating States, the concept of comprehensive security including all its three dimensions, and the principle stating that the human rights situation in any participating State is a matter of legitimate concern of other participating States.

Since March 2014 the OSCE region has been living in a new reality. The Helsinki Accord was bluntly broken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the threats of further incursion into Ukraine. A monster has hatched out of the egg and now is ready to stomp upon the remnants of the international treaty system.

These developments pose a number of challenges to the international community and different actors both outside and inside Russia.

The main challenge for Ukraine is to preserve its sovereignty and at the same time to engage on the European path. The latter means not only economic reforms but also fighting deeply embedded corruption, building effective democratic institutions, amending legislation and reforming law enforcement agencies so as to ensure compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations. Ukraine will need a lot of international financial and technical assistance to do all this, on top of intensive diplomatic efforts to help maintain the country’s political independence and territorial integrity. Civil society will play an essential role in Ukraine’s transition to democracy, ensuring accountability of the government and pushing it for real change. Otherwise, the sacrifice of Maidan will all be in vain.

The main challenge for the international community is to preserve and rebuild international law and the security framework broken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to provide energetic and massive assistance to Ukraine. This assistance should be directed not only to the government but, equally importantly, to civil society. Having demonstrated its maturity and commitment to democracy during the revolutionary times, Ukrainian civil society has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the new government stays on the reform path. Otherwise, no massive assistance from the West will help.

The main challenge for the EU is to assist Ukraine and to preserve stability on the eastern and southern borders of the Union.

A challenge for Belarus and those working for its democratic transition is to learn from the Ukrainian experience. The goal is to preserve even a nominal degree of sovereignty which is now in question and at the same time remain firm in demanding observation of fundamental rights and freedoms from the Belarusian authorities. Even more support to civil society of Belarus should be provided while the work with the minds of the general public should be intensified.

In Russia, key questions are whether the remnants of civil society will survive a new crackdown and whether the country will slide into a full-fledged dictatorship brutal towards its critics at home and permanently aggressive at the international level. Clearly, this is a threat not only to those Russians who oppose the government’s course but to the whole world. We should keep in mind Russia’s possession of nuclear arms and its membership in the UN Security Council.

Many still believe that the annexation of Crimea was Putin’s spontaneous response to the development of the situation in Ukraine which he saw as a threat to his control of the region and to his power in Russia. We will argue that this was an operation long prepared, and the opportunity was seized when it was offered by the weakness of the interim government and the post-revolutionary turmoil in Ukraine. The omens and signs were there for a long time, both in Russia’s internal affairs and in its international policies.

The ground was first tested as early as in 2003 in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict around Tuzla Island in the Azov Sea near Crimea. Later on, in 2007, Putin stated publicly that Ukraine was a failed state. Having regularly visited Crimea for a decade, I have seen clear signs of purposeful incitement by agent provocateurs of hatred towards Ukrainian government and towards Crimean Tatars. The Tatars were depicted as a Muslim invasion threat, and Kiev – as using Tatars to get rid of the Russian population of Crimea. The story of the “irresponsible” transfer of Crimea by Khrushchev was kept alive and presented by the Russian propaganda as an injustice, while important details and the earlier history of the region were deliberately omitted. Recently released documents reveal that calculation of budgetary investments needed for the development of Crimea as a Russian province were prepared by the Russian government as early as in 2013.

Aksenov’s appointment as head of the self-proclaimed government of Crimea also followed the Russian secret services’ established tradition of bringing former criminals into the game: Yanukovich was also promoted and supported by Moscow since the early 2000s. The same applies to Russian-controlled separatist leaders in Transnistria and South Ossetia.

Starting in the mid-2000s, Russia has been systemically undermining the international legal system, including the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe. In the UN Security Council and the OSCE it has the ability to veto any decisions. In the UN Human Rights Council, Russia has systematically worked to gather and lead a “like-minded group” of the most notorious undemocratic and human rights-violating regimes and to intimidate other countries to abstain during voting on the most important resolutions on human rights and the establishment of thematic or country mandates. Recent information related to Russian attempts to influence voting in UNGA on Ukraine comes as no surprise to those of us who witnessed similar actions in Geneva at the UNHRC last week on Ukraine and earlier on Belarus. Ironically, the Yanukovich government supported Russia's attempts to undermine the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus. Now Russia uses similar tactics against the new government of Ukraine.

What is important to understand is that Putin is not just fighting for new territories. As one can see from his address to the Russian parliament on the occasion of the Crimea “accession” to Russia, he sees himself as a new Messiah, a leader in the global fight against the Western civilization. It is his crusade against the West, his revenge for the demise of the Soviet Union. He is fighting for the restoration of this paradise lost, rebuilding it in a new form of Great Russia. Therefore, this is not a classic territorial war but an ideological one. He cannot stop half way and will fight till the end. Agreements and compromises can be only tactical and temporary in such a war.

We know that Putin blames the Helsinki process for the demise of the USSR. He spoke of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century. For him personally the fall of the empire and the necessity to observe international agreements were a loss and humiliation, as was the Yugoslavian crisis where the West took advantage of a weak Russia. He saw the Rose and Orange Revolutions as a Western plot. The same goes for the mass protests in Russia two years ago. Now he has his revenge.

It is no coincidence that Russian aggressive actions in the last decade and its attempts to undermine the territorial integrity and destabilize the internal situation have been aimed against its neighboring countries when they were starting to look West – Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and now Ukraine. Moldova has always had special relations with Romania and is now a leading country within the Eastern Partnership. Georgia under Saakashvili was also actively moving in the Western direction. The Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” was largely undermined by Russia playing the card of the Russian speaking East and South and by establishing Yanukovich first as the Prime Minister and then President. The second, EuroMaidan revolution wiping him out was met by means practiced by Russia elsewhere: an attack against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and an attempt to dictate a new constitution and a kind of federalization that would allow the continued disintegration of the country and Russia’s control.

The massing of Russian troops on the eastern and southern borders of Ukraine is a very real security threat and an attempt to put pressure on the Ukrainian government. It is still impossible to rule out further incursion into mainland Ukraine, especially if provocations are successfully carried out by Russia-sponsored separatists (or Russian citizens coming to Ukraine) in Kharkov, Donetsk and Lugansk on a large scale.

However, judging by the events of March 28, with Putin’s call to President Obama accompanied by energetic US-Russia diplomatic engagement to discuss de-escalation of the conflict and Yanukovich’s statement calling for referenda in different Ukrainian regions, it looks as though Russia will most likely focus on destabilization of the situation in the East and South in the period before May 25. This will serve to buttress Russian claims that the presidential elections to be held on May 25 were not legitimate since the South and East did not participate. Any winner in the elections who does not satisfy the Kremlin will be labelled illegitimate, just as the interim Ukrainian government is not recognized as legitimate by Russia. After May 25 different scenarios are possible – from incursion into the East and South with the re-instatement of Yanukovich on the “liberated territory” to a coup in Kiev.

Even if the Kremlin does not succeed in that, it has already created another country close to the EU with a frozen conflict on a disputed territory that creates instability in Europe and undermines European security.

Unfortunately, Crimea has already become a protracted conflict, a “grey zone” in terms of rule of law and human rights, including the rights of minorities. We already see flows of displaced persons from the peninsula and the first victims of violence by local “self-defense” forces. This is one of Putin’s goals; his program-minimum. Creating frozen conflicts in neighboring countries, in the Kremlin's calculations, will prevent them from integrating into the Western world and joining NATO.

As a crusade against the West and the restoration of Russian great power includes destabilization of the EU, it is also worth looking at the Balkans on the southern border of the EU, particularly given that the outcome of the Yugoslavian crisis is seen by the Kremlin as a defeat and a humiliation, and Kosovo is often referred to by Putin when justifying Russia’s actions in Crimea.

It should come as no surprise that Putin is now taking revenge in Serbia, and that nationalists there have him on their banner. Putin’s popularity and that of his policies is rising in Serbia. One of the right wing parties dreaming of the returning of Kosovo has “Russia and Kosovo” as their slogan. Special attention should be paid to the fact that not only Serbian nationalists came to observe the Crimean referendum, but also that a large group of Serbian Chetniks, involved in ethnic cleansings in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, came to assist their “Russian brothers” in the annexation of Crimea (and in getting rid of the Crimean Tatars). The victorious return of these radical groups to Serbia in a fighting mood may contribute to destabilization around Kosovo.

This situation has significant implications for Belarus as well. If a year ago we argued that Russia preferred an economic takeover to a political coup, now such a turn of events cannot be ruled out, taking into account the growing Russian military presence in Belarus. It seems that Lukashenko did not foresee such a scenario and allowed full Russian control over Belarusian airspace and a steady increase in the Russian military presence. Judging by his recent controversial public statements, it is obvious that Lukashenko feels very unsafe.

There are very important lessons to be learned from this situation for those who work for a democratic transition in Belarus and those who support them. First: Lukashenko no longer guarantees even nominal Belarusian sovereignty. To put it simply, he no longer takes any strategic decisions that would contradict the Kremlin’s policy. Second: if an attempt at a democratic transition is made in Belarus one day, the country should be secured from Russian incursion. Third: prospects for Belarus to remain at least nominally independent depend on the international reaction to the situation in Ukraine. Fourth: Lukashenko will most likely try to use the Ukrainian crisis to improve relations with the West without improving the human rights situation in Belarus.

The nature of the current regime in Russia and the intentions of its leaders have been made obvious by their actions inside the country. The first two terms of Putin and Medvedev’s term were devoted to alienating the Russian public from participation in policy discussions and politics in exchange for increasing living standards, creating a sort of a social contract of mutual non-interference. However, after the first color revolutions in Russia’s neighborhood the Kremlin started to squeeze independent donors out of the country and intimidate NGOs. Putin's third term marked a sharp turn in the direction of creating a nationalist-populist state, mobilizing support from the most conservative, uneducated, nationalistic and aggressive parts of society. Everything has been done to alienate the Russian public from the West and to divide society more than ever. The notorious “foreign agents” law has been used both to put pressure on NGOs and to unleash a witch hunt in society. The law banning “homosexual propaganda” has been used essentially for the same purpose: it provoked a sort of a collective coming out by domestic human rights defenders in support of the LGBT community and massive solidarity from the West, allowing Putin to portray human rights defenders and the West as sick, perverted and undermining the spirit of the Russian nation.

Adoption of a whole package of repressive laws and the Bolotnaya case were aimed at preventing any possibility of further unauthorized public protest. All this was accompanied by a massive smear campaign in state-controlled media against critics of the government. Even a year ago all this started to resemble Germany in the 1930s, and we were trying to figure out which country could become the next target for a “small victorious war”. Unfortunately, a number of world leaders saw our warnings as too far-fetching and were too soft-spoken about the developments within Russia. Now the propaganda has reached truly Goebbels’ scale and nature, and most of the independent media has been neutralized. Ukraine is being portrayed as a failed state seized by neo-Nazis. It must also be noted that a large number of Russians still do not see Ukraine or Belarus as “real” states. Up to 80% of Russians are happy with the Anschluss of Crimea, and all those who disagree are labelled by Putin and his propagandists as the “fifth column” and “national traitors.” We should remember that the term “national traitors” was first used by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf.

The FSB has already announced that the West has increased its “harmful activities within Russia in connection with the situation in Ukraine.” A number of measures to counter the “national traitors” are already being prepared: new amendments to the “foreign agents law,” “leaving no loopholes to those who work in the interests of foreign states” (a quote from Putin), new draconian restrictions on freedom of assembly, and mandatory registration of holders of dual citizenship. Importantly, a new law introducing criminal liability for calls for separatism has already been adopted and comes into force on May 9 (ironically, Victory Day in WW2 in Russia) that foresees up to 5 years in prison as a punishment. A recent comment by Duma members makes it clear that the law will be applied to those opposing the annexation of Crimea. This makes protests similar to the recent March for Peace in Moscow impossible.

All of this is indicative of the nature of the ruling regime, the degree of current popular support for the government’s actions and a quickly shrinking space for free expression and protests inside the country. But patriotic euphoria may likely be replaced soon by a more pragmatic behavior of the population when the cost of the Anschluss starts to be felt on salaries in Russia and the prices in Russian shops. However, it is also clear that Crimea will return to Ukraine only in the case of a democratic transition in Russia, whenever that happens. This does not mean, of course, that annexation should be seen as a done deal and approved de-jure.

What can really be done in a situation when international law is blatantly broken by a lunatic crusader? Are there ways to sober him up?

First, we believe that the West has taken a number of correct steps that helped prevent the Maidan from being violently dispersed by the Yanukovich government. Physical presence of high level Western politicians on the ground from December onwards to a large extent prevented massive violence against the protesters and allowed the revolutionary situation to ripen. This is a good model to follow in the present situation when Ukraine’s security is threatened in the East and South.

Based on this assumption, we believe that international efforts, notably by the OSCE and its participating states, which have ensured a high-level presence of their representatives on the ground not only in Kiev, together with the dispatch of the first mission of OSCE military observers, have already played a most positive role in preventing Russia’s military incursion into mainland Ukraine. This has kept the situation relatively safe until a complex OSCE mission of 100 observers could be negotiated and deployed last week. We also believe that the number of OSCE observers should be increased to the maximum number allowed by the mandate, 500 people. It should be done now, without delay.

This has also allowed the Ukrainian army to regroup and to move to the borders with Russia, making a bloodless blitzkrieg impossible. The Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior has also managed to make the borders less porous and to neutralize a number of provocateurs sent in from Russia. However, the threat has not been eliminated completely, and there is a lot of work to be done. Ukrainian law enforcement bodies are too often passive and do not take necessary actions to stop separatist provocations. Financial aid, so timely offered by the West, should be well managed and should have maximum impact on all regions, notably on those under Russian threat.

The new Ukrainian government needs maximum legitimacy. This should be achieved not only through numerous high-level negotiations with Western institutions, but also through energetic restoration of rule of law and the active implementation of the international legal framework. Given the fact that regional stability and security have been broken so brutally, the chances of restoring them depends on the interim government’s ability to take active steps. Here Ukraine could lead by example, making use of various OSCE tools and mechanisms not only for protecting its sovereignty but for investigating gross human rights violations, including abductions and torture, for better implementation of the country’s human dimension commitments and for legal reform. It should also make use of the UN system, including ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC and the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.

Of course, these recommendations will remain wishful thinking if not supported strongly by Western actions designed to influence Russia. While President Obama has clearly stated in his Brussels speech that there will be no military involvement unless a NATO member is attacked, there is a whole array of means to increase the cost to Russia’s policymakers for their actions to an almost unbearable level.

We see the actions taken by the US towards Russian officials, state-controlled businesses and banks as just a start, though one going in the right direction. We believe that much more could be done even without introducing broad economic sanctions, for example by launching investigations of money-laundering and corruption by Russia-related businesses, including those held by close relatives and associates of high-level decision makers.

It is regrettable that the EU lacks the political will to follow the US sanctions, is driven mainly by its own economic interests, and has even decided to shield from possible sanctions one of the closest Putin's friends, oligarch Gennady Timchenko. This is definitely seen by the Kremlin as weakness, and the EU becomes a less significant part of negotiations, leaving Russia and the US at the negotiations table, thus re-creating a Cold War-like situation. Creating and deepening divisions between the US and the EU policies towards Russia is one of the Kremlin's goals.

Even in the best case, Russia has successfully created another protracted conflict in Europe. Crimea will now become subject to all the vices that affect Russia – corruption, criminal redistribution of property, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, absence of independent media, and harassment of government critics. This will be accompanied by a strongly nationalistic factor. Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians will be the first victims, and their property will be taken away. The self-appointed Crimean government has already announced that the Tatars will have to vacate some land needed for “social development.” Those in Crimea that will refuse to take Russian citizenship are already threatened with facing serious restrictions of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Given the background of the current Crimean authorities and having in mind Russian government’s steps to eliminate critics in and around Sochi in the run-up to the Olympics, one may easily predict further developments. Crimean “self-defense” troops, equipped with Russian ammunition, will be used to effectively suppress all public discontent. A number of people have been abducted and tortured since Russia took over control over Crimea; some are still missing. There is no need to repeat all the information that is widely available. It is necessary to press Russia into opening Crimea for international observation. As a party that occupied Crimea, Russia bears full responsibility for all incidents of violence, torture and disappearances there. We believe that persons responsible for these cases, including high-level officials, should be identified and prosecuted under international law, including the use of universal jurisdiction. For this purpose we reiterate our call to Ukrainian government to ratify the Rome Statute and the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. Crimea is still a part of Ukraine, and additional legal action can be taken under these instruments.

Last but not least: Russia is now seen (and rightly so) by many in the world as a dangerous beast that should be contained. It is also true that a large number of Russian people have been “zombified” by outrageous propaganda in the Russian media. However, there is still a minority remaining there that should be supported. This minority still carries in itself the potential for democratic change when the time comes.


This article was written specially for the Civic Solidarity Platform by an expert from a Russian member organisation in the end of March 2014

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