Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Ukraine’

Ukraine – the crisis that hasn’t gone away

In case you had forgotten about it, the Ukraine conflict and the rift between Russia and the West are set to return to the headlines in the coming weeks.

A recent upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces with their associated nationalist militia along with the looming deadline for renewal of EU sanctions on Russia guarantee the conflict will be taking column inches from the on-going battles in different parts of the Middle East and the tensions in the South China Sea.

Overall, the conflict has been in stalemate for the past few months.

But February’s Minsk 2 agreement between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris which called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, prisoner releases and constitutional reform in Ukraine is now under increasing strain after rebels tried to push into territory west of their Donetsk stronghold.

The insurgents continue to receive support from Russia – both supplies and manpower. The status of the fighters may be disputed, with Moscow calling them volunteers and Kiev claiming Russian regulars are also involved, but there is no doubt Russia shows no sign of withdrawing its backing.

For its part, Kiev continues to get western backing – with American and British forces training Ukrainian troops and the EU and US maintaining their sanctions on Russia.

The sanctions have increased the pressure on the Russian economy, which has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices, but they have not had any appreciable impact on Moscow’s approach to the conflict.

Russia has returned the favour with bans on food imports from the EU and increased air and naval probing along some NATO states’ borders.

At this week’s G7 summit in Germany, there was agreement to maintain sanctions on Russia until Moscow ends its backing for the rebels, which makes it almost inevitable the EU will renew its sanctions before they expire at the end of next month despite some members showing interest in getting back to business as usual with Russia.

In Washington, there is growing pressure for the US to tighten its sanctions and start supplying weapons to Kiev – something the Europeans have opposed in the past as they believe the only difference it would make would be a worsening of the fighting.

In the event that the US does take this course, expect to hear more accusations from American officials that Moscow has returned to its old expansionist ways and breached the post 1945 consensus that European borders should not be changed by force.

But, as I wrote in March last year, the fact that NATO military action Serbia in 1999 led nine years later to major western powers engineering and recognising the secession of Kosovo had already effectively breached the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

As for Moscow, its loud condemnation of the western support for Kosovo secession looks less principled following its stance on Ukraine and support for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So once you strip away the hypocritical political and moralistic rhetoric, you are left with an old-fashioned power play where the West – without really knowing President Putin’s true objective – seeks to deny Russia a strategic victory in Ukraine and – in the absence of the rebels being able to carve out an economically or strategically viable territory – Moscow seems happy to keep its neighbour destabilised to prevent it restoring its economy to a semblance of health or eventually joining the EU and NATO.

All in all it is a nasty deadlock that is set to continue for the foreseeable future with the people of south-eastern Ukraine continuing to pay the price.

 

 

Advertisements

On global leadership – or the lack thereof

The world’s major powers are failing when it comes to providing global leadership.

That was the refrain running through this week’s annual Chatham House London Conference where the US, China, Russia and the UK came in for varying degrees of criticism from panellists and participants.

To the apparent surprise and irritation of some Americans present, there were constant references to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and how damaging it had been, not just to the Iraqi victims, but also to the global order and the legitimacy of the US as a global leader.

I was not sure why this should have come as a surprise at a conference dedicated to discussing the crisis in global order and challenges to a rules-based international system, but there you are.

Many Americans may want to draw a line under it and move on, but despite the twelve years that have passed since the invasion, the consequences are still unfolding. Other countries committing acts of aggression use it to justify their own actions and in the region itself the political and military challenge of ISIS amply demonstrates how it remains at the root of contemporary events.

There was also criticism of the Obama Administration for overcompensating for Iraq and failing to provide leadership when it is needed– leading some to complain Washington can’t win and to cite the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” syndrome.

Russia also came in for castigation with Moscow characterised as having gone rogue in the international system. American and European participants made constant passing references to “Russian aggression” and there was no doubt whose side they are on in the Ukraine conflict.

The criticism of Britain was of a gentler sort with many wondering whether London is disengaging from the world as it debates its future in – or out of – the European Union and cuts its defence budget to such an extent the US government, in the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has started openly lobbying London to boost its military spending.

Then there is China. The Chinese panellists were pushed on several occasions by Japanese and other participants to justify Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea where tensions have risen in recent weeks following the US decision to challenge China’s territorial claims by sailing and flying close to the artificial islands China has been constructing in disputed waters.

What stood out was the way the Chinese responded.

Ambassador Wu Jianmin robustly defended his country’s conduct in the South China Sea by pointing out freedom of navigation is essential for China as well as other countries given how much if its trade passes through it. He said the installations being created would also serve a humanitarian purpose for disaster relief operations and pointed out that other countries had started building artificial islands before China without attracting any criticism, so, he asked, why is Beijing being singled out.

But Ambassador Wu was also on a mission to explain what his government calls its “win-win” approach to international relations. He pointed to the newly established and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, which the US unsuccessfully tried to persuade its allies not to join, as an example of this approach. He emphasised how Chinese investment abroad benefits both China and countries where it is investing. And indeed a World Bank official, Dr Vera Songwe, endorsed this argument by pointing to Africa where Chinese infrastructure investment has helped the continent grow and become more integrated into the global economy.

Responding to complaints that China’s extraordinary economic growth and its re-emergence as a great power had taken advantage of the rules-based international system put in place by the US in the wake of the Second World War – the term “free-rider” was used – Professor Wu Xinbo argued that China is now providing international public goods, such as the AIIB.

He was sitting next to Professor Joe Nye who was arguing the US will remain the predominant power in the world for the foreseeable future and will not be overtaken by China, and at one point it seemed the two were almost competing to show which country does the most for the international community.

A far cry from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy maxim of “keep a low profile and try to accomplish something”.

We have also come a long way from a decade ago when the then US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, called on China – in somewhat patronising language – to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

The consensus among conference participants seemed to be that despite current turbulence in the South China Sea, Beijing does not want to undermine the established global order, but it does want to be accorded its due weight in that order.

This means the US and the Europeans will have to accede to such things as greater Chinese clout in international bodies such as the IMF. If they don’t, the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd pointed out, China’s creation of the AIIB shows Beijing will go round the system if it thinks it is being blocked.

So paradoxically, if the rules-based system with the UN and the growing canon of international conventions and law at its heart is to be maintained and strengthened, the leadership required of the US at this point is to truly accept it is no longer the paramount leader.

The key to a stable world is for the West to make good on its rhetoric and make room at the top table for China – and other emerging powers such as India and Brazil – or we could well be in for a bleak beggar-thy-neighbour future.

Dying for the mistakes of others?

More than 400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent days.

That sentence gives pause for thought and it should.

With the arrival of spring and better weather, 10,000 people have attempted to get into the EU by making the relatively short – but still perilous – crossing from Libya to Italy in recent days.

But they are often sent across in rickety, unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people smugglers who abandon them knowing the Italian navy and coastguard, following established humanitarian practice, will try to save them – if they are spotted in time.

Many come from countries torn by conflict like Syria, Libya and Yemen, or ruled by repressive regimes, like Eritrea.

That is the push factor.

But they are not all asylum seekers and there is the pull factor too.

Most can earn more money in Europe than at home and then they can help support their families back home in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments are not short of advice on the need to use aid and trade to help develop the economies of their near neighbours to take away the incentive to migrate.

There have been a series of agreements and initiatives since the Barcelona Process was launched in 1996, but so far they have failed to staunch the flow of people.

The continuing differences in income between EU and African and Middle Eastern countries would be enough to ensure people still wanted to make the journey.

But the instability and conflict that followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 has added to the incentive by making life in several countries much worse.

And EU governments have compounded both the push and the pull with actions that ended up both encouraging and enabling more migrants to make the attempt to get in.

Despite having drawn the conclusion in the 1990s that supporting economic development in the MENA region was a long-term solution to cutting the number of migrants, in the 2000s the EU diverted scarce resources and political attention to its eastward expansion and then the Eastern Partnership initiative with, among others, Ukraine, that has ended in the struggle for influence with Russia.

Also, before 2011, the EU supported regimes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose repression helped trigger the uprisings of the Arab Spring which spread and ended in the civil war in Syria which has led 3 million people to flee the country as refugees – not to mention the 6 million internally displaced.

In Libya, several EU countries led by Britain and France, intervened militarily in the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and helped overthrow him, but then they failed to provide the necessary political and economic support which might have preventing the country collapsing into the anarchy the people smugglers are now exploiting to use the country to funnel migrants across the Mediterranean.

So as things stand, EU countries are in a bind partly of their own making.

The migrants keep coming and popular resentment of immigrants in an economically stagnant Europe keeps growing and is fanned by populist parties like the FN in France and UKIP in Britain which attract support away from established parties by calling for a tougher line on immigration and cuts in foreign aid.

Assuming governments still have the will, this means the political room to enable a long-term answer to the problem – supporting economic development in neighbouring countries – is shrinking.

And the attempt by EU governments to discourage migrants last year by scaling down the effort to rescue boats in trouble has proved no deterrent to would-be migrants.

In the short term, it is likely that media coverage and UN criticism of the rising death toll will force those governments to return to helping the Italians rescue more migrants – which is the humane thing to do, but does nothing to help reach a lasting solution.

Tag Cloud