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PARIS, FRANCE - February 8, 2023: French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Elysée Palace

The Impact of the War in Ukraine on the European Union

by Tomasz G. Grosse

한국어로 읽기Leer en españolIn Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربيةLire en françaisЧитать на русском French and German credibility has reached new lows on the Ukraine issue, risking European security as each seeks to sure up political and geopolitical influence. Solidarity is weak, and arms corporations have proven influential in national decisions for EU integration on security matters. In the numerous crises that hit the European Union (EU) in the 21st century – the role of the so-called “integration engine,” as the French-German duopoly is called – was crucial. However, after Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022, both integration leaders from Western Europe receded into the background. The leaders of aid for fighting Ukraine were mainly the countries of NATO’s eastern flank, led by Poland and the Baltic states. Germany and France defended themselves against too radical sanctions imposed on Moscow, did not support Kiev, and did not want, among other things, either Ukraine’s accession to the EU nor to NATO. Why did Paris and Berlin distance themselves from Russian aggression in 2022, which violated European values and human rights and also threatened the EU itself? In short, the war hit various economic interests that France and Germany conducted with Vladimir Putin’s regime. An example of this was the expansion of Nord Stream, a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea, after Putin’s first military aggression against eastern Ukraine in 2014. It is worth recalling that the entire climate transformation in the EU in its initial phase was based on cheap Russian gas. Economic ties were not the only reason for the strange behavior of Berlin and Paris in the face of Moscow’s aggression. Geopolitical considerations were even more important. The elites of Western Europe have traditionally, with minor interruptions, cooperated with Russia and considered it an important economic and political partner. The geopolitical goal of both Western European countries was to seek strategic autonomy from Washington and rapprochement with Moscow and Beijing. Historically, Central Eastern Europe has been treated as an area of influence of Berlin and Moscow, which they share or (less frequently) compete for. Before 2022, for Berlin, this sphere of influence included the Central European countries and the Baltic states; for Moscow, this included Belarus and Ukraine. This is why, among other things, Western Europe distanced itself from Moscow’s aggression in 2022. It did not want to spoil relations with Moscow. It also did not want to provoke even greater Russian aggression, fearing a full-scale war with NATO. Western Europe wanted to reach an agreement with Putin as quickly as possible and return to the previous economic and geopolitical arrangement. However, in 2024, there was a clear change in Western Europe’s position towards the war in Ukraine. First, Germany increased its financial and military assistance, although it continued to block the delivery to Kiev of the most modern weapons requested by President Volodymyr Zelensky. France and Germany increased the scope of sanctions imposed on Moscow, although they were still full of loopholes that allowed the Kremlin to avoid them. Meanwhile, Berlin and Paris unblocked their veto on Ukraine’s accession to the EU, nevertheless they continued to maintain their opposition to Kiev’s membership in NATO. Under the influence of both Western European countries, the EU’s financial and military assistance to Kiev increased. It was still too small in relation to Ukraine’s needs, and Brussels faced great problems and delays in fulfilling aid declarations. The most radicalized person was President Emmanuel Macron who announced in 2024 that he would send troops to Ukraine. In the same year, German politicians proposed that NATO troops should protect the sky over western Ukraine from the territory of Romania and Poland. What caused this radical turn in Berlin and Paris? First of all, it turned out that both countries were losing credibility in NATO and the EU, and thus political influence in Central Europe and Ukraine. What was no less dangerous – especially for German politicians – was the growing dissatisfaction with their attitude in the US. The Germans feared that Washington would lose trust in Berlin and focus on NATO’s eastern flank, mainly Warsaw. Furthermore, Germany and France believed less and less in renewing good relations with Moscow. They also had little hope that their “neutral attitude” could protect Europe from further aggression by Putin, including his attack on NATO and EU countries. At this point, both Western European countries launched a diplomatic offensive to introduce changes in the European Union. It was primarily about revising EU treaties to strengthen the political influence of the two largest countries in Western Europe. Therefore, it was proposed, among others, the abolition of voting based on unanimity in foreign and defense policy, which gave a decision-making advantage to the countries with the greatest voting power (Germany and France). In addition, efforts were made to strengthen the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). The main goal was to increase the production of ammunition and weapons from EU funds. Typically, such actions were aimed at strengthening the potential of arms corporations in Western Europe, as well as limiting arms exports from outside the EU, including from the US and South Korea. It goes without saying that in the event of a real threat from the East, the EU should not limit the transportation of weapons from non-European allies, because Europe itself produces too little ammunition and weapons. Nevertheless, subsequent actions of the European Commission after 2022 clearly rewarded aid for German and French corporations, as well as restricting access to arms imports from outside the EU. These attempts to strengthen the strategic autonomy of the EU against Washington are short-sighted in the face of a real threat on the EU and NATO. Moreover, instead of primarily supporting coordination within NATO, France and Germany have sought to duplicate the structures of the North Atlantic Alliance, focusing on the expansion of EU’s rapid reaction forces (rather than NATO’s rapid reaction forces), which were much more modest in terms of numbers and equipment. In other words, their goals were political, not real defense. The idea was to strengthen Franco-German leadership in Europe, and this was to be achieved by supporting the development of EU structures in the area of security. All these aspirations to expand the CSDP could encounter serious obstacles in implementation. First, Germany and France often disagree on EU security considerations, particularly when it comes to their own national interests. For example, the French were disappointed with Germany’s decision to purchase the American F-35 multi-role fighter capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This affected plans to build a sixth-generation aircraft in cooperation between German, French, and Spanish corporations. Moreover, Berlin was developing its own anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense project in the EU (European Sky Shield Initiative), to which it did not invite the French, and even competed with their own European defense program (La défense aérienne du continent). Therefore, Macron criticized the German shield initiative, which he considered hasty and incomplete. Instead, he promoted a truly “European initiative,” where the French arms industry is the dominant force. Secondly, the actions of France and Germany in the field of defense have been delayed and ineffective. More than two years after the announcement of the famous Zeitenwende, the modernisation of the Bundeswehr, the federal government in Berlin managed to order only eighteen Leopard 2 tanks and twelve Panzerhaubitz 2000. Thirdly, it became increasingly clear early on that Germany and France were not ready to defend NATO’s eastern flank in solidarity, wanting rather to show initiative and leadership in order to maintain geopolitical influence in Europe. In terms of real security, their subsequent ideas were controversial. They were certainly beneficial to their arms corporations. For all these reasons, the credibility of Germany and France has been trending downwards on eastern EU security considerations. For the time being, it is difficult to predict whether the plans of Paris and Berlin will ultimately be implemented and whether cooperation within the CSDP will be strengthened. However, if this does not happen, it will paradoxically be a good solution for the security of the eastern flank. Efforts to defend it will be focused within NATO and, above all, located in the countries most at risk from Moscow’s aggression. This analysis is based on a recent article published by the Journal of International Affairs.

Chess from flags of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Relations between Russia and China and military cooperation

China, Russia, Iran, North Korea: the new autocrat pact?

by Radu Vranceanu , Marc Guyot

한국어로 읽기 Leer en español In Deutsch lesen Gap اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Читать на русском It has to be said that the "liberal democratic" model, combining political democracy and a market economy, has struggled to gain traction on a global scale. Instead, in some countries, a hybrid type of regime, which could be defined as "autocratic liberal", has imposed itself over time. This model is based on leadership with little or no democracy, which nonetheless relies on a mix of dirigisme and a market economy to ensure economic growth. The "CRINK" or the alliance of authoritarian powers In contrast to liberal democracies, authoritarian regimes prioritize economic growth as an end in itself. For instance, in China, growth targets are often set by the authorities, with society expected to adapt regardless of the sacrifices involved. The leaders' priority is supremacy in civil and military technologies and control of resources. In such a framework, improving people's standard of living is merely a collateral benefit, subordinate to the primary objective and dispensable as deemed necessary. While respect for human rights is a fundamental pillar of liberal democracies, it is neither a priority nor a constraint for the leaders of these authoritarian nations. In general, their leaders are openly opposed to "Western hegemony". Many leaders of emerging countries show their sympathy for these authoritarian countries; at the very least, they trade with them without any problem. On the military and defence front, the liberal democracies of Europe and North America are grouped around NATO. The United States, as the leader of this organization, has consistently allocated more than 3.4% of its GDP to military spending for many years and boasts substantial armed forces, exemplified by its operation of eleven aircraft carriers as of 2023. Until a few months ago, in Western countries, the invasion of Ukraine was seen more as an isolated Russian action, blamed on Vladimir Putin's hubris. The possibility of coordination between autocrats was not envisaged. However, this perspective is rapidly evolving. In a report to the Senate in April 2024, General Chris Cavoli, Commander of the US Armed Forces in Europe, highlighted the emergence of an "axis of adversaries", which includes China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. On 6 April, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC in an interview that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea were increasingly cooperating against Western democracies and were now forming an "alliance of authoritarian powers". We propose to use the acronym CRINK to denote this informal coalition sharing common economic and strategic interests. Beneath the surface of various incidents, there appears to be tangible coordination among the CRINK countries. Beyond coincidences Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has deployed a significant portion of its armed forces to advance into Ukrainian territory, marking the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War and resulting in numerous military and civilian casualties. Ukraine has recently reported the loss of 31,000 servicemen since the conflict's onset, a figure that may be underestimated, while Russian losses are believed to be even higher. Despite these casualties, Russia continues to maintain the intensity of its war effort. To date, the Russian army in Ukraine estimated to consist of around 470,000 personnel, representing a 15% increase since the invasion began. Meanwhile, China has escalated the frequency of its military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and increased surveillance activities in the region. The simultaneous occurrence of Russian expansionism toward the West and China's heightened communication efforts regarding Taiwan does not appear to be coincidental. This hypothesis gains credence from the numerous summit meetings between the leaders of both nations in 2023, as well as their resounding declarations of unwavering friendship, particularly evident when they announced their "comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era" on November 11. On April 12th, the United States publicly disclosed classified documents revealing that Beijing was supplying Russia with engines for drones and cruise missiles, in addition to military electronic components and satellite surveillance technology. Iran has been escalating its production of enriched uranium and, according to the US military, is providing support to Hamas and attacks on commercial vessels by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. In response to targeted Israeli strikes, Tehran launched a swarm of drones and missiles against military targets in Israel on the night of April 13th - marking its first direct attack. The destabilization of the Red Sea region and the ongoing conflicts in the Gaza Strip, as well as increasingly in southern Lebanon, appear to signify Iran's efforts to weaken the United States' military effectiveness. This strategy forces the US to maintain a presence on multiple fronts, which in turn reduces the availability of American arms and munitions for Ukraine. Meanwhile, North Korea is intensifying its provocations by conducting launches of very long-range ballistic missiles and issuing threats of nuclear attacks against South Korea. Mutual sanctions In economic terms, the "war" between the two blocs has already begun. The United States and its allies have been implementing though economic sanctions on Iran for several years, and on North Korea and Russia since 2022. Primarily, these sanctions aim to restrict the ability of these nations to modernize their defense industrial base. In the case of Iran, to slow down its military nuclear program. While there is no overt conflict between China and the West, both the United States and European countries have been pursuing economic decoupling from China for some time. In 2017, convinced that China was not adhering to its commitments regarding free two-way trade, Donald Trump initiated an economic offensive against China by imposing heavy tariffs. Beijing responded by imposing equivalent tariffs on US products. Trump's strategic objectives were twofold: first, to reduce American economic reliance on China, and second, to slow down Chinese technological advancements in the military field by embargoing the export of militarily sensitive American technologies. Joe Biden has not only continued but also reinforced the policy of economic decoupling, intensifying the tariff war and advocating for a "made-in-USA" strategy. Additionally, he has tightened controls on military components bound for China, extending beyond the strict embargo on exports to Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Since December 2023, companies benefiting from subsidies under the microprocessor development program (CHIPS Act of 2022) have been barred from engaging with countries deemed “concerns”. The official list of these countries includes all CRINK members. Europeans have also adopted a strategy aimed at diminishing their reliance on China and revitalizing their industrial sector. It is noteworthy, for instance, that 50% of the world's nitrocellulose fiber exports originate from China, despite these fibers being crucial components for shells, which are currently in short supply on the Ukrainian front. In 2022, the EU implemented a directive safeguarding the single market against subsidized imports from third countries, primarily targeting China. Subsequently, in September 2023, the EU established an anti-coercion mechanism designed to counter countries attempting to dictate policy changes within EU Member States by imposing trade restrictions. Lithuania, for example, faced restrictive trade measures imposed by China after signing a trade agreement with Taiwan in 2021. On the other hand, Russia relied on the threat of cutting off gas supplies to weaken European economic and military support for Ukraine—a strategy that ultimately failed as Europe swiftly diversified its gas sources by turning to alternative countries. Nevertheless, CRINK members, alongside nations like India and Brazil, facilitated Russia's resilience to economic sanctions by not only replacing its former customers and suppliers but also by redirecting trade flows towards Asia. In the first quarter of 2024, Russia's trade surplus reached $22 billion, compared to $15.4 billion during the same period in 2023. According to The Economist, China's imports of Russian oil have surged from 100,000 barrels per day before the war to 500,000 barrels per day at present. In exchange, Chinese exports to Russia are projected to exceed $100 billion in 2023. Since autumn 2023, China has also implemented restrictions on graphite exports, a crucial conductor for electronic components. Satellite imagery indicates that North Korea and Russia have established an arms-for-oil swap program, while Iran is supplying substantial quantities of drones and military technology to Russia as part of an extensive commercial partnership, which includes the construction of a railway line between the two nations. American ambiguities and hesitations During the peak of the Cold War, the United States prepared to engage in two major conflicts simultaneously. The National Defense Strategic Review of 2022 outlines the goal of securing victory in a potential confrontation first in the Indo-Pacific region, given the threat from China, followed by Europe, in response to the Russian challenge. This somewhat ambiguous prioritization and the realities of the global arms race may indicate potential challenges for the U.S. if faced with fighting two major wars concurrently on separate fronts. As the conflict in Ukraine persists, Western public support for the nation appears to wane. Divisions within the US Congress regarding public spending, influenced by Donald Trump's Republican allies, led to a six-month delay in the approval of the latest aid package for Ukraine. On April 20, the US Congress finally approved $60 billion in aid. The shift in stance from US Congressman Mike Johnson, a close ally of Donald Trump who had long opposed aid for Ukraine, and the subdued response from Trump himself, hint at a potential shift in awareness, possibly influenced by new military intelligence. In the interim, European leaders have partially stepped into the fray, despite constraints stemming from the fragility of their defense industry. Figures like Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron, Georgia Meloni, and Olaf Scholz, alongside other EU leaders, have exhibited robust support for Ukraine, underscored by the signing of decade-long bilateral agreements in February 2024. The Czech Republic has succeeded in setting up a European program for the purchase of artillery ammunition and is due to deliver the first stocks in June. Propelled by European impetus, NATO is contemplating a five-year initiative to fund the acquisition of weapon systems and munitions, with an agreement reached in April to deploy new air defense systems. By 2023, Europe's military spending will have reached $588 billion, 62% more than in 2014. Although European arms and munitions production still trails behind Russia, it is gradually gaining traction. In this context, an increasing number of voices are emphasizing the mistake of viewing the war in Ukraine in isolation, without considering the broader geopolitical landscape and coordination among the CRINK countries. This argument has likely resonated with more hesitant members of the US Congress. Should Russia succeed in asserting its dominance in Ukraine, it's highly probable that this would serve as the initial move in a troubling domino effect. Empowered by this triumph and riding on a favorable momentum, other autocratic regimes could follow suit, embarking on similar actions in territories they lay claim to. The cost of stemming this process would be far greater than that of preventing the first piece from falling.

Belarus, Minsk, House of Government and Vladimir Lenin Monument

Ostracizing Minsk May Not Be in the West’s Interests

by Grigory Ioffe

한국어로 읽기 Читать на русском Leer en español Gap In Deutsch lesen اقرأ بالعربية Lire en français Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 43 Executive Summary: • The political rigidity associated with Western reactions to Minsk has limited any positive impact and is now sacrificing the “strategic foundation of Belarus’s statehood” on the altar of “present-day concerns.” • Official Minsk has limited economic options due to Western sanctions, leading to a stronger reliance on Russian businesses and trade routes. • Whether Belarus will retain its statehood or become a Russian colony depends on how long Minsk and Moscow remain on the same side of the Iron Curtain. By all indications, Western policy toward Belarus is in need of fresh ideas. The crackdown on the post-election protests in 2020, as well as Belarus’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine, has elicited stern reactions in the West to Minsk and a wholehearted embrace of the opposition. Still, the political rigidity associated with these Western reactions has limited their positive impact and is now sacrificing the “strategic foundation of Belarus’s statehood” on the altar of “present-day concerns” (see EDM, March 14). Acting on some of these concerns may be counterproductive. For example, on March 1, Lithuania closed two more Belarusian border crossings and has been questioning Belarusian migrants based on the frequency of their trips to Belarus and their stance on the Alyaksandr Lukashenka regime (LRT, February 28). Such concerns limit Belarusians’ contact with the West and are used as fodder for hostile interpreters of outside actions toward Minsk. Russian historian Alexander Dyukov, in an interview with RuBaltic, notes that, until 2020, “Vilnius used to be a ‘weekend capital’ for some Belarusians. But people in expensive clothes and good cars who moved to Lithuania for permanent residence thereafter are a completely different matter.” Moreover, those newcomers appear to embrace the ideology that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, headed by Vilnius, was a proto-Belarusian state whose name modern-day Lithuania usurped (RuBaltic, March 10). Whether such an ideology is dominant among Belarusians in Lithuania remains an open question, but it is unlikely to constitute any threat to the country. Perhaps even more critical than Dyukhov’s hostile interpretation of Litvinism are the strategic implications of the semi-blockade from Belarus’s Western neighbors (, August 30, 2023; see EDM, March 14). Some opposition-minded Belarusian commentators appear to take these implications seriously and use them to educate members of the Belarusian émigré community. In his recent weekly question-and-answer session with Zerkalo, Artyom Shraibman responded to the question: “There is an opinion that, in the event of the disappearance of the Putin regime, Russia will be too busy to care about Belarus, so the Belarusian regime will fall. However, as Russian businesses are taking over all the valuable assets in Belarus, the country is unlikely to be willing to let go of these businesses. And if so, does Belarus have a chance to not become a Russian colony in the foreseeable future?” Shraibman dispelled the notion that Russian business assets in Belarus are conducive to Belarus becoming a Russian colony. Shraibman referenced hostile takeovers of Russian holdings by Minsk, such as Belagazprombank in 2020 and the Belarusian authorities’ arrest of Russian potash company Uralkalii CEO Vladislav Baumgaertner in 2013 (see EDM, September 4, 2013). In both cases, Moscow did not retaliate. Shraibman believes it is important that Russia has become the primary buyer of Belarusian goods and that all remaining Belarusian exports are now in need of exclusively Russian transit, as Lithuanian, Latvian, and Polish transit routes are blocked. It is this sort of dependency that makes Belarusian entrepreneurs overly accustomed to Russian business practices and norms (YouTube, March 7). Whether Belarus will retain its statehood depends on how long Minsk and Moscow remain on the same side of the Iron Curtain. Developments on the other side of this new divide in Belarus are not as straightforward as they may seem. In mid-February, Elvira Mirsalimova, a Vitebsk-based ardent supporter of Russia’s war against Ukraine and of the view that Belarusians are Russians, was arrested for propagating Nazi symbols on her Telegram account. She republished a post about the “trophies of the Ukrainian army” supposedly found by Russian pro-war journalist Vladlen Tatarsky, who was killed in St Petersburg last year. These “trophies” included a flag with a swastika allegedly found in dugouts abandoned by the Ukrainian army, which Tatarsky was pictured standing on (Facebook/Mirsalimova, March 8). The irony of the situation is that both the late Tatarsky and Mirsalimova are champions of Russia’s expansionism, contrary to their “anti-Nazi” rhetoric (Zerkalo, March 5; Belsat, March 8). Valer Karbalevich of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty attributes the Mirsalimova episode to the fact that demonstrating support for Belarus-Russia integration, though officially enshrined, has limits in Minsk. Crossing these limits is fraught with punishment. Karbalevich recalls the 2016 imprisonment of three Belarusian citizens who insulted the Belarusian nation in three articles in the Russian media (Svaboda, March 11). He also notes that Lukashenka has monopolized the pro-Russian flank of the Belarusian political scene. Unfortunately, neither Karbalevich nor Shraibman acknowledges that, in Belarus itself, there are essentially two communities in one that adhere to different historical narratives, and both communities claim to represent “Belarusianness.” On the one hand, many Belarusians subscribe to the Russo-centric interpretation of Belarusian statehood; on the other hand, most of those Belarusians in the opposition abide by the “Westernizing” narrative (The Jamestown Foundation, December 20, 2019). Lukashenka claims leadership of the Russo-centric segment of society. West-friendly pollsters, however, have shown the latter segment to be numerically stronger than its counterpart (Belorusskaya Natsionalnaya Identichnost, December 2022). If this is the case, the answer to who is better equipped to protect Belarus from being absorbed by Russia is unclear. After all, while protesting the rigged 2020 election, the opposition did not favor any geopolitical orientation whatsoever. They became manifestly pro-Western when they found themselves forced out of Belarus. The opposition has little to no influence on developments within the country. Lukashenka’s track record, however, includes declarations and actions opposing Russia’s expansionism. For example, the Russian ambassador to Minsk, Mikhail Babich, was ousted in April 2019 because he appeared to confuse an independent country with a subdivision of the Russian Federation (see EDM, May 1, 2019). Ruling out the possibility of engaging official Minsk no longer makes sense for the West. Not only would such an engagement prop up Belarusian statehood, but nothing short of it can facilitate the release of Belarus’s political prisoners and limit the country’s integration with Russia.

Berlin, March 15, 2024: Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron

The French - German tension

by Juan Antonio Sacaluga

That there is a miscommunication between Paris and Berlin is something that is already being unreservedly acknowledged even among the power leaders in the two capitals. The rift caused by the war in Ukraine is the arena in which tensions are being played out. But there are underlying factors that have contributed to making this gap a major concern for the European stability. We point out the following: The strategic factor Geography determines strategic choices. Germany has always looked to the East as a pole of concern, but also as a pole of opportunity. The former has almost always outweighed the latter. Wars have historically conditioned coexistence with Rusia, regardless of the political regime that has existed in each historical stage. There is one incontrovertible fact: Germany has never won a war against Russia. On the other hand, when talking about peace, German interests have prevailed. Hence in Berlin (or in Bonn, during the first Cold War) there has always been a tendency towards appeasement towards Moscow. Earlier, Hitler wanted to postpone the inevitable confrontation with Stalin’s Russia with a tactical, not a strategic pact (in 1939), a move to gain time and consolidate his domination of Western Europe. With the victory of the Soviet Union, Germany endured the division of the country for almost half a century, a punishment even more humiliating than the previous ones. The western part prospered, and the eastern part stagnated. However, this underhand triumph did nothing to facilitate the reconciliation. Willy Brandt understood this very well when he launched his ‘Ostpolitik’ (Eastern policy) in the early 1970s. The initiative caused concern in Washington, not so much because it was opposed to a thaw it shared, but because of the risk of losing control of the process. There was also some reluctance in Paris. De Gaulle and his heirs had always maintained an open channel of cooperation with Moscow but were distrustful of German overtures. With the crisis of the Soviet system, Franco-German tensions surfaced again. A united and strong Germany awakened the ghost of three devastating wars for France. The Chancellor at that time, Kohl was Gorbachev’s main supporter and acted as a fundraiser for a Soviet Union that was falling apart at the seams. Germany’s repeated commitment to peace and European integration did not seem to be a sufficient antidote to the vision of an Eastern Europe, ‘germanized’ by the economic weight of the new political and territorial power. Germany’s actions in the Yugoslav wars, initially perceived in Paris as ‘dynamiting’, contributed to increase those fears. After the failure of the democratization trial in the ‘new’ Russia, largely caused by a predatory capitalism encouraged from the West, Germany continued to cultivate very close relations with Moscow to prevent an undesirable drift in the Kremlin. Until the successive crises in Ukraine have brought this strategic project to a halt. In France, there has always been an interest in an autonomous relationship model with Moscow, whether in collaboration with Germany or the United States, but in no way subordinate. Gaullist nationalism has survived, both on the right and on the left. Somehow, the French elites have tried to avoid Paris from playing a secondary role in relations with the Kremlin, whether in cooperation or confrontation. Hence Macron (‘more papist than the Pope: more Gaullist than the General’), will attempt a risky mediation game with Putin after the phantom intervention in Crimea and the more obvious one in the Donbas, in 2014; and eight years later, when the invasion of Ukraine was consumed. There has been much speculation about the true intentions of the French president’s trip to Moscow. Macron is anything but naive. Perhaps it was indeed the inevitable need of the Elysée Palace to leave its mark. Now that any conciliation with Moscow seems distant, Macron takes the lead among the ‘hawks’ and pretends to forget that he once wanted to look like a ‘dove’, by suggesting that, although there is no allied consensus, sending soldiers to Ukraine cannot be ruled out to prevent a Russian military triumph. Of all Macron’s gambits, this has been the most or one of the riskiest. And the one that has provoked the most irritation on the other side of the Rhine [1]. Since February 2022, Germany has buried the various branches of the ‘Ostpolitik’, a task falling to a Social Democratic chancellor, perhaps the most unremarkable and least suited for high-level leadership. Olaf Scholz announced the ‘zeitenwende’ (translatable as “change of era, or time”). Half a century of rapprochement with Russia was called into question. The economic equation (energy raw materials in exchange for machinery and capital goods) in bilateral relations was dissolving under the weight of Western sanctions against Moscow. Moreover, the pacifist post-Hitler Germany committed to a military effort of $100 billion (to start with), aimed rejuvenating, strengthening, and expanding the Germany military apparatus. But in everything there is a limit, or a red line. Germany has not been shy with Putin, despite being the European country most harmed by embargoes, limitations and constraints in the Russian oil and gas consumption. Economic war was accepted as inevitable in Berlin. However, caution has been exercised, particularly in the supply of arms to Ukraine. Nonetheless, Germany is, after the United States, the largest net contributor to Kiev’s arsenals [2]. Let’s not forget that. France has also taken its precautions in pressuring the Kremlin, as has the US, despite the rhetoric and the cold war propaganda prevailing for the past two years. That is why Macron’s latest ‘provocation’ has annoyed Berlin so much. Moreover, as usual in his boasts, the French president added insult to injury by suggesting that Ukraine’s delicate fragility demanded more “courage” and less timidity from the allies [3]. Scholz replied with diplomatic and bureaucratic discretion, without any outbursts, recalling that NATO’s decisions ruled out ‘boots on the ground’ (sending troops to Ukraine). But his Defense Minister, Pistorious, could not resist returning the favor and admonishing him for his new moral lesson. The foreign ministers of both countries attempted to ‘diplomatically’ solve the crisis days later, but did not risk holding a joint press conference in order not to show that the political wound between Berlin and Paris was still open. The leak of a meeting of senior German military commanders, spied on by Russian agents, further clouded the atmosphere [4]. Another element unchanged since the Cold War: Berlin may support the European autonomous defense project, but it has never ceased to consider it as subordinate to NATO. The American nuclear umbrella is untouchable, then and now. And not even an eventual (and only speculative, for now) strategic availability of the French nuclear arsenal is capable of changing that axiom [5]. Political factors Apart from strategic considerations, domestic political factors have also played a role in this latest crisis. Macron faces the European elections with the apprehension of a seemingly inevitable victory of the far-right ‘Rassemblement National’. It was once considered a pro-Russian party and even generously funded by the Kremlin. In recent years, the party’s chairwoman has tried to distance herself from the Kremlin but has not entirely succeeded. And Macron wants to exploit this supposed vulnerability of a woman he has defeated twice in the presidential elections, but who seems destined to occupy the Elysée Palace in 2027 if she achieves successful results in this year’s European elections. In this week’s parliamentary debate on the bilateral security agreement with Kiev, Marine Le Pen ordered an abstention. She made it clear that she supports the Ukraine resistance, so that there would be no doubt about her change of attitude towards Russia. But he saw in the initiative of the President’s party a clear intention for electoral gain. Divisions were evident on the left: rebels and communists voted against, while socialists and ecologists voted in favor, but the latter rejected the suggestion of troops deployment. Scholz also faces a challenge from the far right, with elections this autumn that could consolidate the dominance of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in the eastern states (Eastern Länder). This party has won over citizens who do not have such negative memories of the GDR, but in its rise, it has also bitten into the social democratic base. The chancellor does not want to appear too hostile to an electorate that does not participate in the anti-Russian discourse. Institutional factors In this Paris – Bonn clash, as in previous ones, the structure of the respective political systems also exerts a disturbing influence. The French political system is presidential; the German one is parliamentary. In France, the President has exclusive and personal authority over foreign policy. He does not even need his own majority (in this case, the minority that supports him) to formulate his international proposals. In Germany, by contrast, the Chancellor has to negotiate foreign policy with the coalition partners, and even on rare occasions when there has been a single-party majority government, the Bundestag has exerted considerable influence. Personal factors Finally, personal style is also not to be dismissed. It is not unusual for the Elysée Palace and the Chancellery to be inhabited by like-minded characters. The French President is conditioned by the aura of a political system that relies on an exalted figure and demands real, but also impactful, leadership. Both being and appearing so. The Chancellor, on the other hand, is a sort of ‘primus inter pares’, no matter how prominent. Therefore, since 1945, the personal stature of German leaders has always been framed in firm structures that prevent hyper-leadership. It is the Chief’s (Fuhrer) chastisement. This limitation (historical and political) is sometimes reinforced by a purely personal style. At present, the gap is perhaps the widest in the last eighty years. A French President who likes to talk and a Chancellor who is perhaps the most discreet since the post-war period. De Gaulle and Adenauer cultivated little personal relationship, but neither intended to. Pompidou and Brandt never got along particularly well, although the German took great care that his growing popularity did not irritate in Paris… until the Guillaume scandal ended his career. Giscard and Schmidt gave their cooperation a technical character, forced by the oil crisis following the wars in the Middle East. Mitterrand and Kohl raised the tone of the bilateral relationship but did not always adjust their personal dynamics. The German was the longest-serving post-war chancellor and so, the most mediatic, but the Frenchman never renounced, on the contrary, the solemnity with which the office was exercised. Merkel played down Sarkozy (and later Hollande), but not to highlight her personal qualities, but to put them at the service of Germany’s undisputed economic leadership in post-Cold War Europe. Macron wanted to put an end to this French ‘inferiority’, with difficulty. It is not clear that he succeeded against a retreating Merkel, but he thinks he has it easier with the unremarkable Scholz. Notes [1] “France-Allemagne, un tándem secoué par l’épreuve de la guerre en Ukraine”. PHILIPPE RICHARD & THOMAS WIEDER. LE MONDE, 9 de marzo. [2] “German Chancellor pledges to boost [ammunition] production for Ukraine”. DER SPIEGEL, 5 de febrero (versión en inglés). [3] “Le débat sur l’envoi de soldats en Ukraine révèle les profondes differences de vision de la guerre parmi les allies”. LE MONDE, 6 de marzo. [4] “Now It’s Germany’s turn to frustrate Allies over Ukraine”. THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 de marzo. [5] “Dans cette nouvelle ère où l’affrontement a remplacé la cooperation, la question de la dissuasion nucleaire reprend tout son sens”. SYLVIE KAUFFMANN. LE MONDE, 7 de febrero.

Vladimir Putin

What can we expect from six more years of Vladimir Putin? An increasingly weak and dysfunctional Russia

by William Partlett

There is very little drama in Russia’s upcoming presidential election this weekend. We all know Vladimir Putin will win. The only real question is whether he will receive more than 75% of the vote. It could be tempting to see these results as a sign of the strength of the Russian system. Recent gains by the Russian army in Ukraine seem to further support this. But my own research – soon to be published in a forthcoming book – shows the election results and Russia’s military gains in Ukraine hide a much more problematic reality for the country. Russia’s system of government is not only undemocratic, rights abusing and unpredictable. It is also increasingly dysfunctional, trapped in a cycle of poor quality and weak governance that cannot be solved by one man, no matter how much power he has. The constitutional dark arts The weakness stems from the hyper-centralisation of power in Russia around the president. This centralisation is the product of an increasingly common logic that I call the “constitutional dark arts”. This logic generally holds that democracy and rights protection are best guaranteed in a constitutional system that centralises authority in one elected leader. This line of thinking is present in many populist, authoritarian countries, such as Hungary and Turkey. The foundation of this kind of system in Russia is the 1993 Constitution. It was drafted by then-President Boris Yeltsin and his supporters (many in the West) as an expedient for dismantling communism and implementing radical economic reforms. As such, it contains a number of rights provisions and democratic guarantees, alongside provisions that centralise vast power in an elected Russian president. Yeltsin (and his Western supporters) described this system as democratic because it made the president answerable to the people. They also argued that rights provisions would allow courts to limit any abuses by the centralised state. These reformers hoped Yeltsin could use this concentrated power to build democracy in Russia. Thirty years later, however, we can see how this use of the “constitutional dark arts” backfired spectacularly. Since 2000, Putin has ruthlessly deployed this centralised authority to eliminate any checks on power. He has also transformed elections, the media and the courts from sources of accountability into mechanisms to project the image of strong presidential power. The upcoming presidential election is just the most recent example. Poor quality governance in Russia Although this centralised system has allowed Putin to dominate politics, it fosters weak and poor governance, particularly outside Moscow. At least two factors are at play. First, centralised decision-making in Russia is often made using incomplete or false information. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is an example. It was based on intelligence that the operation would be over quickly and Ukrainians would likely welcome Russian forces. Second, centralised directives are delegated to under-resourced, incompetent and weak institutions. Russia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrous, in large part due to the poorly resourced regional authorities who were overwhelmed by a crisis of this scale. This dysfunction has been a central message of the political movement led by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Before his death last month, Navalny and his team harshly criticised the corruption and weakness of the Russian regime and its inability to fix roads, provide health care and adequately pay teachers or doctors. This message was potent, making Navalny the first opposition politician to build a broad coalition that spanned Russia’s 11 time zones. This broad coalition frightened the Kremlin to such an extent that it led to Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020. Although it remains to be seen how his political movement responds to his death, this central criticism of the government remains one of its most potent messages. Although it’s impossible to get independent polling on domestic issues during the Ukraine war, it does appear Putin and his administration are concerned about this weakness. In his February 29 address to parliament, Putin tacitly acknowledged these problems, promising new national projects to improve infrastructure, support families and enhance the quality of life. These kind of promises, however, are unlikely to be implemented. Putin has traditionally promised these kinds of changes around presidential elections. But, when it comes to implementing them, Russia’s regional sub-units are often given no resources to do so. With so much money now going to the war, it is unlikely the latest set of promises will be any different. An increasingly dysfunctional Russia With Putin soon to start his fifth presidential term, this centralisation and personalisation of power is only going to increase. Externally, this centralisation is likely to produce an increasingly unpredictable Russia, led by a man making decisions on the basis of an increasingly paranoid world view and incorrect or manipulated information. As former German Chancellor Angela Merkel once described Putin, he is really “living in another world”. This is likely to lead to more foreign policy adventurism and aggression. It will likely foster harsher repression of any dissenting voices inside Russia, as well. We are also likely to see an increasingly dysfunctional Russia, one in which roads, housing, schools, health care and other infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, particularly outside of Moscow. This extends to the military, which remains weak despite its recent battlefield gains. For instance, Russia’s overly centralised command structure has decimated the officer class and led to stunning losses of equipment. Although Russia has managed to muddle through by relying on its vast human and industrial resources, these systemic problems are taking a serious toll on its fighting capacity. Despite escalating repression, these problems pose an opportunity for a democratic challenger, particularly when Putin is inevitably replaced by another leader. Russia’s dysfunctional government is also an important reminder for Western media, policymakers and commentators. While it should not serve as a reason for complacency, highlighting Russia’s poor governance is an important tool in combating the Kremlin’s carefully curated image of power and control.

Statue of Karimov

Hyper-Presidentialism and Human Rights: Uzbekistan’s domestic and international political profile

by Joel Moffat

As its constituent states emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has often struggled to balance both its inter-state hostilities and surrounding international geopolitical competition. While all five states have adopted remarkably different means to navigate this challenging context, largely the region has proven victim to the excesses of authoritarian and despotic regimes. The inheritance of a distorted Soviet-era centralisation and the prevalence of lucrative natural resource deposits has facilitated this unfortunate state of affairs across the region. Uzbekistan is no exception in this regard, with an increasingly hardline hyper-presidential system. Covering much of the land between the Caspian sea and the Pamir Mountains, the region’s most populous country is emerging into a critical regional player. Under both leaders since independence, the country has attempted to balance its geopolitical profile to ensure state and regime security. It has attempted to ensure this whilst perpetuating an economic system and domestic political establishment that ensures the perpetual poverty of the population. Faced with both an increasingly challenging regional environment and greater interest from external parties, the future Tashkent carves out for itself has critical implications for that of the region. Politics and Poverty in Uzbekistan – Uzbekistan’s domestic politics are defined fundamentally by hyper-centralisation. The geographical unitary power structure, with minimal rates of devolution are indicative of this approach. The tendencies for hyper-centralisation are clearly inherited from the Soviet era. State power is highly concentrated in the executive branch. Ostensibly Uzbekistan is a democratic country, constitutionally allowing for a proliferation of distinct political parties. However, requirements of state-registration severely curtail the development of regional parties, with every new party requiring a minimum number of signatures throughout the whole country. This highly bureaucratic system for party registration ensures there is no effective opposition within the Olij Majlis (Uzbek Parliament). The shadows of Soviet history also appear within the economic construction of the state. Nearly all major strategic industries remain under the control of state-owned companies. This has ensured skewed economic development, producing a significant bias for the more urbanised and industrialised eastern regions of the country, whilst leaving peripheral regions perpetually poverty-stricken. Police barriers along inter-urban roads and mandatory population registration restrict internal economic migration. The environmental destruction of the Aral Sea has left Karakalpakstan the most deprived and destitute of all these peripheral regions. As the singular grantee of an autonomous status from Tashkent, the area holds a unique position within the domestic Uzbek political establishment. This is in spite of the consistent efforts by the government to complete the centralisation of the state. In 2022, attempts to revoke the region of its autonomous status resulted in protests that saw 18 people killed, and hundreds more wounded or detained. Despite Mirziyoyev decision to pull back on this, the violent reaction towards the protests indicates the great degrees of subjugation and desperation the region remains under. Despite the better attempts by propaganda to ensure the image of the State as the singular guarantor of peace and security, frustration is felt everyday through the lack of substantial opportunities and persistent security sweeps . Foreign Policy of Karimov – Islam Karimov quickly rose to power from the collapse of Soviet rule. Prior to independence, Uzbekistan was characterised by very few nationalist popular movements, with independence really occurring as a sudden moment. Indeed, the initial reluctance was shown to break from the Soviet Union. From Moscow, Karimov inherited a highly centralised political establishment. This provided the blueprint for the hyper-presidential system he doggedly maintained throughout his presidency. The most important foreign policy directive for Karimov was to ensure a strategic balance of larger powers. Despite ostensibly securing the maintenance of the country’s sovereignty, the most important motive for Karimov was the preservation of his personal regime. This focus on strategic balancing primarily emerged from a structural paranoia. Perceived regime threats became especially pertinent with the rise of the ‘Colour Revolutions’. Tashkent’s relation with the US declined dramatically following American support for these movements in analogous states (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan). The direct US criticism of the state’s role in the Andijan massacre, ensured Karimov saw deepening relations with DC as a threat to regime survival. The Andijan massacre saw 700 civilians killed by security forces over fears of rising Islamist movements. Re-engagement with Russia escalated during its aftermath as Moscow promised to reject all calls for independent investigation. Foreign Policy of Mirziyoyev – Following the death of Karimov in 2016, Mirziyoyev quickly positioned himself as the state’s successor. The initial months of Mirziyoyev’s presidency were treated with a great deal of excitement from those wishing for reform. He publicly vowed to address the states dismal human rights record, beginning with reforms for the rule of law and transparency in courts. Most importantly he abolished the practice of forced labour for large swathes of the population in the country’s vast cotton fields, a practice representing one of the greatest instances of slave labour in the modern world. This potential era of reform was quickly brought to an unfortunate end. Following an 87.1% majority in a snap election last year, Mirziyoyev initiated a series of reforms that extended the presidential term limit from five to seven years and removed term limits. Since coming to office, Mirziyoyev has pursued a distinctly expansive and open approach to foreign relations, especially compared to his predecessor. Whereas both can be defined by pragmatic use of strategic balancing, the methods both presidents have used to achieve this have been remarkably differently. Indeed, Mirziyoyev considered his predecessor’s foreign policy as a major economic and security constraint for the state. Whilst Karimov focusses on utilising a singular larger power at one time, Mirziyoyev sees greater utility in a simultaneous multilateral approach. This has had a notable regional effect, as Uzbekistan has engaged with neighbours previously ignored in the state’s foreign policy. For example, a visa program has been initiated for short term stays for Kyrgyz people living in the cross-border communities in the Fergana Valley. As with other Central Asian states, many ethnic Uzbek communities remain separated from Tashkent due to the complications of drawing post-Soviet border demarcations. Where this has caused significant regional hostilities, most notably with the consistent violence across porous Kyrgyz-Tajik border, Uzbekistan has chosen to not claim any of these communities. The new president has also initiated new strategic engagement with Tajikistan, with which relations remained frozen for two decades due to water security issues. Uzbekistan has further expanded its close allies, with a Turkish-Iranian-Pakistani summit held in Tashkent last year. In this regard, the new foreign policy initiated under the presidency of Mirziyoyev represents an expansion of multilateral relations without focussing too much on the pursuit of one singular relationship. The Future of Uzbek Strategic Balancing – The future of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is dependent on how it manages its strategic partnerships moving forward. Mirziyoyev has made important moves to increase regional outreach. However, the most important relations still pertain to the larger powers. A Sino-Russian rivalry over Uzbekistan has long been predicted by analysts. In the immediate picture, China appears to be the more lucrative option for the President. Offering financial aid and infrastructure investment bereft of the implied threats to regime survival that initially undermined Tashkent’s relation with Washington. Russia continues to suffer financial restrictions from the ongoing Ukrainian invasion. Remittances from migrant workers, an agreement that previously held significant mutual benefit, have declined rapidly. Indeed, the most important human factor in relations now appears to be the mass emigration of Russians leaving to avoid the Moscow draft. Last year, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also completed a large diplomatic effort to draw Central Asian leaders closer to the US and to ensure these states aren’t used by Russia to evade Western sanctions. It is unlikely that Uzbekistan will take a hardline stance against Russian aggression, but the declining utility of Moscow as a strategic partner does indicate a shift of relations. In this regard, Uzbekistan will continue to retain its relations with Russia, but will enlarge and diversify its portfolio of engaged actors. Following the Mirziyoyev foreign policy pursued so far, beneficial relations with regional neighbours will remain an important development but the manner in which Tashkent manages its larger partnerships will be critical to the country’s future.  More about this: Bibliography – • Anceschi, Luca. "Integrating Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Making: The Cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010): 143-158 • Dadabaev, Timur. "Uzbekistan as Central Asian Game Changer? Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy Construction in the Post-Karimov Era." Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 4, no. 2 (2019): 162-175 • Gulyamova, Lola. The Geography of Uzbekistan: At the Crossroads of the Silk Road. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2022 • Laruelle, Marlene. Constructing the Uzbek State: Narratives of Post-Soviet Years. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2017 • Spechler, Dina Rome and Martin C. Spechler. "The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, Objectives and Outcomes: 1991-2009." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010): 159-170 • Yilamu, Wumaier and SpringerLink (Online service). Neoliberalism and Post-Soviet Transition: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018 References- 1 Yilamu, Wumaier and SpringerLink (Online service). Neoliberalism and Post-Soviet Transition: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 59 2 Yilamu, Wumaier and SpringerLink (Online service). Neoliberalism and Post-Soviet Transition: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 59 3 Gulyamova, Lola. The Geography of Uzbekistan: At the Crossroads of the Silk Road. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2022, 152 4 Spechler, Dina Rome and Martin C. Spechler. "The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, Objectives and Outcomes: 1991-2009." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 165 5 6 Laruelle, Marlene. Constructing the Uzbek State: Narratives of Post-Soviet Years. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2017, 72 7 Yilamu, Wumaier and SpringerLink (Online service). Neoliberalism and Post-Soviet Transition: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 48 8 Spechler, Dina Rome and Martin C. Spechler. "The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, Objectives and Outcomes: 1991-2009." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 164 9 Anceschi, Luca. "Integrating Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Making: The Cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 145 10 11 Anceschi, Luca. "Integrating Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Making: The Cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 152 12 13 14 Dadabaev, Timur. "Uzbekistan as Central Asian Game Changer? Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy Construction in the Post-Karimov Era." Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 4, no. 2 (2019): 165 15 Spechler, Dina Rome and Martin C. Spechler. "The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, Objectives and Outcomes: 1991-2009." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 160 16 Spechler, Dina Rome and Martin C. Spechler. "The Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, Objectives and Outcomes: 1991-2009." Central Asian Survey 29, no. 2 (2010), 160 17 Dadabaev, Timur. "Uzbekistan as Central Asian Game Changer? Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy Construction in the Post-Karimov Era." Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 4, no. 2 (2019): 167 18 19 Dadabaev, Timur. "Uzbekistan as Central Asian Game Changer? Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy Construction in the Post-Karimov Era." Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 4, no. 2 (2019): 170 20 News Sources – On the Reform Path: Uzbekistan opens up after years of isolation (2018). Pakistan/Turkey/Iran Leaders visit Central Asia in Diplomatic Push (2023) Uzbek President re-elected for Seven Year Term in Snap Election (July 2023) Uzbekistan’s President Seeking to Extend Grip on Power: Analysts Uzbekistan 10 Years After the Andijan Massacre In Central Asia, Blinken Will Urge Distance from Russia, and Ukraine War (2023) Uzbekistan Imposes Regional State of Emergency after Deadly Unrest –  

Armenian Prime Minister and Iranian Foreign Minister

South Caucasus Turns Away From Russia Toward Middle East

by Emil Avdaliani

Rapid geopolitical change is curtailing Russian power in the South Caucasus, boosting the influence of Middle Eastern countries and bookending the region’s “post-Soviet” history. The South Caucasus is undergoing a geopolitical transformation. The war in Ukraine and the effective resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan mean that the region is entering a new age. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have gradually become more confident on the world stage, with each trying to limit its dependence on Russia by diversifying its foreign policy. Georgia has boosted relations with the European Union, China, and—to some extent—the United States, while Azerbaijan has sought closer ties with Turkey, Israel, Central Asia, and a number of European countries. Having gone through the traumatic loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has pushed for closer engagement with the EU, rapprochement with Turkey, and even military links with India and some European states. Instead of an arena for competition between Russia and the West, the South Caucasus has turned into a highly congested geopolitical space, with up to six major powers vying for influence. We are not, however, just witnessing the end of the post-Soviet period. We are witnessing the end of exclusive Russian influence in the South Caucasus, which has been the status quo for almost two hundred years. The decline of Russian power has led to the reemergence of close links between the South Caucasus and the broader Middle East. Indeed, geography favors such a connection. Russia lies across the formidable Caucasus mountains, and Middle Eastern states have long regarded the South Caucasus as a natural continuation of their own territories. The deepening ties are visible in growing trade, investment, energy infrastructure, and railways that link the South Caucasus to two large neighboring powers: Turkey and Iran. Turkey is a key ally of Azerbaijan, and also enjoys close links with Georgia, while Armenia has Iran’s backing. In particular, Turkey has been pushing for the development of east-west connectivity that cuts through the traditional Russia-sponsored north-south infrastructure. The successful completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is one example; another is the push by Baku and Ankara to open a new route via Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik. Iran, too, has scored significant victories. In October, it inked a deal with Baku on a new transit corridor linking Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan via Iranian territory. Tehran has also advanced work on the International North-South Transport Corridor, which runs from southern Iran to Russia via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Other initiatives involve the development of roads through Armenia, which could provide solid links between Iran and Georgia’s Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. Energy infrastructure in the South Caucasus, too, is increasingly tied to the Middle East. Azerbaijan has become one of Turkey’s major gas suppliers, covering about 16 percent of the country’s needs in 2022, while Iran and Armenia have agreed to extend their gas trade agreement through 2030. The civil war in Syria showed how political and military developments in the Middle East impact the South Caucasus. For instance, residents of the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia volunteered to fight with radical Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, sparking fears of terrorism spreading. Syria is also one of few countries that has recognized the independence of Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 allegedly saw Syrian soldiers fighting for Azerbaijan. Even beyond security, Armenia and Georgia have built robust relations with other prominent Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia recently agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia, which has also expanded its ties with other Gulf states. Similar trends are visible in Georgia’s relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan. Other actors like Israel are also playing an increasingly active role. Israel’s relations with Azerbaijan are especially noteworthy, with the two states enjoying close military ties. Azerbaijan used high-tech Israeli weaponry to devastating effect in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, and, more recently, in September 2023, when it reclaimed full control over the disputed region. Azerbaijan is also a major supplier of oil to Israel, meeting as much as 40 percent of the country’s demand. Azerbaijan’s links with the Middle East mean that flare-ups between Israel and Iran could have local consequences. Iran has expressed concern about Israel allegedly using Azerbaijan for espionage activities, and Azerbaijan was one of just a few Muslim countries not to condemn Israel’s military operation in Gaza, sparking anger in Tehran. With an end to Russian dominance in the South Caucasus, it’s clear that the region is growing closer to the Middle East. Historically speaking, this is actually a return to normal practice, with Middle Eastern powers traditionally the most influential in the region. For Iran and Turkey, Russian hegemony was always an aberration. The process could yield benefits for the West. After all, shifting tectonic plates create opportunities for multiple actors to project power. But the EU and United States are limited by geographical distance, and the absence of significant economic levers. Turkey and Iran are both nearby, and eager to accrue more influence in the South Caucasus.

Remembering of Alexei Navalny in Berlin at the Russian Embassy

Alexei Navalny had a vision of a democratic Russia. That terrified Vladimir Putin to the core

by Robert Horvath

Alexei Navalny was a giant figure in Russian politics. No other individual rivalled the threat he posed to the Putin regime. His death in an Arctic labour camp is a blow to all those who dreamed he might emerge as the leader of a future democratic Russia. What made Navalny so important was his decision to become an anti-corruption crusader in 2008. Using shareholder activism and his popular blog, he shone a spotlight on the corruption schemes that enabled officials to steal billions from state-run corporations. His breakthrough came in 2011, when he proposed the strategy of voting for any party but President Vladimir Putin’s “party of crooks and thieves” in the Duma (parliament) elections. Faced with a collapse of support, the regime resorted to widespread election fraud. The result was months of pro-democracy protests. Putin regained control through a mix of concessions and repression, but the crisis signalled Navalny’s emergence as the dominant figure in Russia’s democratic movement. Despite being convicted on trumped-up embezzlement charges, he was allowed to run in Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013. In a clearly unfair contest, which included police harassment and hostile media coverage, he won 27% of the vote. Perseverance in the face of worsening attacks The authorities learned from this mistake. Never again would Navalny be allowed to compete in elections. What the Kremlin failed to stop was his creation of a national movement around the Foundation for the Struggle Against Corruption (FBK), which he had founded in 2011 with a team of brilliant young activists. During the ensuing decade, FBK transformed our understanding of the nature of Putin’s kleptocracy. Its open-source investigations shattered the reputations of numerous regime officials, security functionaries and regime propagandists. One of the most important was a 2017 exposé of the network of charities that funded the palaces and yachts of then-premier Dmitry Medvedev. Viewed 46 million times on YouTube, it triggered protests across Russia. No less significant was Navalny’s contribution to the methods of pro-democracy activism. To exploit the regime’s dependence on heavily manipulated elections, he developed a strategy called “intelligent voting”. The basic idea was to encourage people to vote for the candidates who had the best chance of defeating Putin’s United Russia party. The result was a series of setbacks for United Russia in 2019 regional elections. One measure of Navalny’s impact was the intensifying repression directed against him. As prosecutors tried to paralyse him with a series of implausible criminal cases, they also pursued his family. His younger brother Oleg served three and a half years in a labour camp on bogus charges. This judicial persecution was compounded by the violence of the regime’s proxies. Two months after exposing Medvedev’s corruption, Navalny was nearly blinded by a Kremlin-backed gang of vigilantes, who sprayed his face with a noxious blend of chemicals. More serious was the deployment of a death squad from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which had kept Navalny under surveillance since 2017. The use of the nerve agent Novichok to poison Navalny during a trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk in August 2020 was clearly intended to end his challenge to Putin’s rule. Instead it precipitated the “Navalny crisis”, a succession of events that shook the regime’s foundations. The story of Navalny’s survival – and confirmation that he had been poisoned with Novichok – focused international attention on the Putin regime’s criminality. Any lingering doubts about state involvement in his poisoning were dispelled by Navalny’s collaboration with Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organisation, to identify the suspects and deceive one of them into revealing how they poisoned him. The damage was magnified by Navalny’s decision to confront Putin’s personal corruption. In a powerful two-hour documentary film, A Palace for Putin, Navalny chronicled the obsessive greed that had transformed an obscure KGB officer into one of the world’s most notorious kleptocrats. With over 129 million views on YouTube alone, the film shattered the dictator’s carefully constructed image as the incarnation of traditional virtues. ‘We will fill up the jails and police vans’ It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the “Navalny crisis” on Putin, a dictator terrified of the prospect of popular revolution. No longer was he courted by Western leaders. US President Joe Biden began his term in office in 2021 by endorsing an interviewer’s description of Putin as a “killer”. To contain the domestic fallout, Putin unleashed a crackdown that began with Navalny’s 2021 arrest on his return to Moscow from Germany, where had been recovering from the Novichok poisoning. On the international stage, Putin secured a summit with Biden by staging a massive deployment of military force on the Ukrainian border, a rehearsal for the following year’s invasion. The Kremlin’s trolling factories also tried to destroy Navalny’s reputation with a smear campaign. Within weeks of Navalny’s imprisonment, Amnesty International rescinded his status as a “prisoner of conscience” on the basis of allegations about hate speech. The evidence was some ugly statements made by Navalny as an inexperienced politician in the mid-2000s, when he was trying to build an anti-Putin alliance of democrats and nationalists. What his detractors ignored was Navalny’s own evolution into a critic of ethnonationalist prejudices. In a speech to a nationalist rally in 2011, he had challenged his listeners to empathise with people in the Muslim-majority republics of Russia’s northern Caucasus region. This divergence from the nationalist mainstream was accentuated by Putin’s conflict with Ukraine. After the invasion of Crimea in March 2014, Navalny denounced the “imperialist annexation” as a cynical effort to distract the masses from corruption. Eight years later, while languishing in prison, he condemned Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, exhorting his compatriots to take to the streets, saying: If, to prevent war, we need to fill up the jails and police vans, we will fill up the jails and police vans. Later that year, he argued a post-Putin Russia needed an end to the concentration of power in the Kremlin and the creation of a parliamentary republic as “the only way to stop the endless cycle of imperial authoritarianism”. Navalny’s tragedy is that he never had a chance to convert the moral authority he amassed during years as a dissident into political power. Like Charles de Gaulle in France and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he might have become a redemptive leader, leading his people from war and tyranny to the promised land of a freer society. Instead, he has left his compatriots the example of a brave, principled and thoughtful man, who sacrificed his life for the cause of democracy and peace. That is his enduring legacy.

Meloni and Selenskiy shaking hands

Ukraine policy in Rome

by Michael Feth , Nino Galetti

Italy top, Vatican flop? The first war of aggression in Europe since 1945 is keeping two global players busy in Rome: the Italian government and Vatican diplomacy. While under the leadership of President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni there is no doubt about Italy's unbroken solidarity with Ukraine, criticism of the Holy See's course to date is growing, and not just in Catholic circles. Is Pope Francis' longed-for reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church more important than the future fate of Ukraine? When the right-wing alliance of Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi took power in Rome in October 2022, there was concern in some European government headquarters that the Tiber might be about to change its stance on the war in Ukraine. This mistrust was less directed at the newly elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, known as an Atlanticist, who had clearly positioned herself and her party "Fratelli d'Italia" against Moscow's war of aggression and Putin's expansionist ambitions during the election campaign, and more towards her two allies Lega and Forza Italia. Both parties were perceived internationally as Russia-friendly, albeit for different reasons: While in the case of Lega leader Matteo Salvini - similar to his ally Marine Le Pen in France - it was the ideological proximity of the anti-European right-wing populists to the authoritarian regime in Moscow, in the case of the bourgeois-conservative Forza Italia it was Silvio Berlusconi's long-standing personal friendship with Vladimir Putin that triggered fears of Italy's rapprochement with Moscow. These were further fueled by several erratic statements by Berlusconi during the coalition negotiations in autumn 2022, in which he openly adopted the Kremlin's view of the Ukraine conflict and thus caused severe irritation among the allies. His adlatus at the time, Antonio Tajani, felt compelled to fly to Brussels at short notice to hold talks with the heads of the EU Commission, NATO and the European People's Party to reassure them that the new right-wing government in Rome would by no means abandon the EU's common line, but would remain faithful to its commitments. Berlusconi's capers and Salvini's ricochet The situation was different in the case of the right-wing populist Lega, which had achieved a historically poor result of just eight percent in the early elections in September 2022. Giorgia Meloni therefore had her rival Matteo Salvini in her hands and was able to demand loyalty from the potential troublemaker. At the time, the designated head of government openly threatened her two partners with a collapse of the coalition negotiations: there would be "no joint government at any price". She played her cards close to her chest and in the end even brought Silvio Berlusconi into line, who had to make a pilgrimage to the Fratelli d'Italia party headquarters to recant his pro-Moscow remarks. A humiliation for which the Forza Italia patriarch has never forgiven her. Since Berlusconi's death, the capers have ceased: under the leadership of Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Forza Italia is clearly on the side of its Western allies and in line with the EPP. With the approval of the President (who can veto appointments to the government), Meloni chose Guido Crosetto, who originally came from the ranks of the Christian Democrats and is known as an anti-Russian hardliner, as Defense Minister. The fears of the Western partners that one of the most important NATO states could leave the joint phalanx against Putin were put to rest. Meloni counters Putin's friends Meloni set further signals: The memorable joint trip of the three European leaders Mario Draghi, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz to Kiev on June 16, 2022 was still fresh in the minds of Ukrainians suffering from a daily hail of bombs, as Meloni made one of her first trips abroad to Kiev in February 2023 to personally assure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Italy's unwavering solidarity. The two had previously met at various international summits and the chemistry between them was instant. Since then, they have openly celebrated their cordial friendship in front of the cameras at every meeting. Under Meloni's aegis, there has been no hesitation or dithering in Rome on the Ukraine issue to date: Italy is supplying Ukraine with weapons and, together with its German allies, is monitoring the airspace on Europe's south-eastern flank and in the Black Sea from Romania. Rome is also firm in its sanctions policy against Russia: Dozens of accounts, real estate, ships and works of art belonging to Russian oligarchs on the EU sanctions list have been confiscated by the "Guardia di Finanza", the state financial police. And in the area of energy policy, Meloni has maintained the course of her predecessor Mario Draghi, who concluded supply contracts with a whole series of African, Arab and Central Asian states in order to quickly free Italy from its energy dependence on Moscow. During a working visit to Berlin last November, when Meloni and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were connected via video to the first OSCE meeting of heads of state and government since the start of the war, which was also attended by Vladimir Putin, she showed herself to be quick-witted. When the Kremlin ruler demanded a quick end to the war, Meloni immediately countered: "You can have that immediately. All you have to do is withdraw your troops." British Prime Minister Richi Sunak expressly thanked his counterpart for her "global leadership". And US President Joe Biden also never misses an opportunity to praise Meloni for her clear stance in the conflict. However, their closest ally in the Ukraine issue is President Sergio Mattarella. With all the authority of his office and his unbroken popularity, he explains the moral and ethical dimension of the major conflict to his fellow countrymen in detailed formulations at every available opportunity. In doing so, he takes the wind out of the sails of populists on the left and right who - as in Germany - criticize high military spending and complain about rising inflation as a result of "Western interference" in the war in Ukraine. In matters of foreign and security policy, head of state Mattarella, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces in accordance with the constitution, has so far had no reason to get in the prime minister's way. Is the Pope a friend of Russia? On the other side of the Tiber, in the Vatican, however, there are increasing question marks. Of course, the head of the Catholic Church has always and at every available opportunity lamented the suffering of the people in "martyred Ukraine" and called for an immediate end to the fighting. It goes without saying that the Holy See stands by the victims and is doing everything in its power to organize humanitarian aid and bring it into the country. Naturally, the Roman Curia has tried everything behind the scenes to mediate and explore possible negotiated solutions. Accusing the Pope of "moral equidistance" from the attackers and victims is therefore misguided. However, Francis does indeed have to put up with the accusation of "political equidistance". The Holy See is traditionally committed to a policy of neutrality, which aims to use the Pope's unbroken spiritual and moral authority as a non-partisan mediator to resolve a conflict. For this reason, the Holy See always acts discreetly on the international stage and has the long-term perspective in mind. Its actors are not subject to any democratic pressure to succeed and are generally not interested in winning points in the media. However, two years after the start of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, it is clear that the world's oldest diplomatic service has fallen far short of expectations. For many observers, the problem lies in particular in Pope Francis' unclear position. It took seven months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the pontiff to name the attack as such for the first time and to publicly name Russia as the aggressor for the only time to date. Like so many other heads of state, the pontiff was probably unable to imagine until that February 24, 2022, that Putin would allow Russia's tanks to roll towards Kiev, triggering the biggest war in Europe since 1945. The Kremlin ruler had met Francis in person at the Vatican an astonishing three times in the preceding years. Is Francis a "Russia-understander" who is lenient with the aggressors? Many Vatican observers are now asking themselves this question. It is no secret that the Pope "from the other side of the world" (as Francis put it on the day of his election) has a different approach to European history and European sensitivities than his immediate predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian who was influenced by social-authoritarian Peronism as a child, does not have an unreservedly positive attitude towards the Western model of order. The first pope to come from Latin America can be said to have a critical view of the USA. It can be assumed that his experiences with the Trump presidency have not diminished his prejudices towards Washington's claim to international leadership. On the other hand, he has a certain soft spot for Russian classics from literature and music as well as for Russian history, as he himself revealed in a video link to a meeting of Catholic youths in Saint Petersburg. Tensions between Pope and Parolin In terms of church policy, there are also two ambitious goals that the 87-year-old has set himself since his election in 2013: Understanding with Beijing and rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church. He has been lenient to the point of self-denial with the political leaders of both powers; he has remained silent about some human rights violations and repression - including against Catholic clergy. A strategy that has repeatedly caused heated discussions in the highest circles of the world church - and not only among notorious critics of Francis. Years ago, the Pope tasked his Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a career Vatican diplomat and conflict expert whom Bergoglio had already come to know and appreciate as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with the diplomatic implementation. With his help, a bishop of Rome met with a patriarch of Moscow for the first time in February 2016. Today, the two former confidants Francis and Parolin are considered to be at odds - and this is precisely where Putin's war comes into play. Soon after the invasion, Francis caused head-shaking in many places when, from a pacifist position, he refused to supply any weapons to Kiev and thus indirectly denied Ukraine's internationally enshrined right to self-defense. Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin and the Vatican "Foreign Minister" Paul Richard Gallagher, a Briton, corrected these statements in several interviews and corrected their own boss. Of course, they both argued, Ukraine, as a sovereign state, had the right to defend its territorial integrity, and the supply of military equipment and weapons was ethically justifiable. The "Kyrill card" After Putin was unavailable for his calls, Francis played another card: his personal relationship with Moscow Patriarch Cyril. Here, too, the experts warned the Pope that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church would be in the service of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the pontiff played the "Cyril card". Francis was probably hoping that he could "turn" the patriarch politically with Jesuit cunning. To this day, his literal response to Parolin and Gallagher's warnings is still reported: "But Cyril is still a shepherd!" As expected, the "Cyril card" failed. Francis' bitter realization that the patriarch was an "altar boy of the Kremlin" came too late. The view that the Pope was a "Russophile" had long since become firmly established in Kiev. The suspicion of Russia-friendliness is fueled less by concrete actions than by the pontiff's omissions: to date, he has never addressed Putin directly in all his countless appeals for peace. He could have borrowed from a great predecessor: Immediately before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, Pope John-Paul II addressed US President George W. Bush at the Sunday Angelus prayer in front of running cameras and fervently implored him to refrain from the planned attack. When the city of Sarajevo was besieged for months during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, triggering a humanitarian catastrophe, the Pope from Poland appointed the archbishop of the bombed-out Bosnian capital, the then 48-year-old Vinco Puljic, as its first cardinal in history in 1994. Three consistories with the appointment of new cardinals have taken place in Rome since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: But the Ukrainians have so far waited in vain for a similar sign, although a suitable candidate is available in the figure of the Greek-Catholic Grand Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev. Diplomatic self-restraint of the Pope Francis appointed a high-ranking special mediator far too late: However, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi's shuttle mission between Moscow, Kiev, Washington and Beijing is now considered a failure. It seems that Kiev has lost hope that Vatican diplomacy will have a positive effect. At the same time, Moscow seems to be relying more on the mediation of the United Arab Emirates as the representative of the "global South" than on the Holy See as the supposed representative of the Western world when it comes to humanitarian actions such as the exchange of prisoners. Most serious, however, is the fact that Francis has so far refused any invitation to Kiev. He always repeats the same mantra that he will only travel to the Ukrainian capital if he is allowed to visit Moscow first. Either there is a secret plan behind this curious self-restraint on the part of the pontiff, which even close confidants among the cardinals are unable to see through, or it is a diplomatic staircase joke: Putin is unlikely to have the slightest interest in such a double trip by the Roman pontiff. And even if he did, a visit to Moscow by the Pope would probably give Vladimir Putin the biggest propaganda coup in his long time in office. Months ago, President Zelensky's security advisor announced that Kiev was no longer interested in a Vatican mediation mission. A resounding slap in the face for the Holy See's diplomacy in the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Expanding the relationships between Russia and North Korea

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening remarks during talks with Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Choe Son-hui, Moscow, January 16, 2024

by Sergey Lavrov

Comrade Choe Son-hui, I am very glad to welcome you and all your delegation members to Moscow in the first days of 2024. I would like to once again congratulate you and our Korean friends on the holidays we have celebrated recently and wish you all the best and every success in the new year. The timing of this meeting provides us with a perfect opportunity to conduct a preliminary review of our efforts to carry out the agreements resulting from the summit between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Chairman of State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny Space Launch Centre in September 2023. We are proactively working on these matters. I have warm memories of my visit to Pyongyang in October 2023 and the hospitality you extended to our delegation. The 10th meeting of the Russian-Korean Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation in November 2023 was another important event. There were also other bilateral exchanges at the agency, ministry, and regional levels. We appreciate the fact that DPRK’s Minister of Physical Culture and Sport, Kim Il-guk, took part in the Russia – A Sports Nation international forum in Perm in October 2023, while DPRK’s Minister of Culture Sung Jong-gyu proactively contributed to the 9th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum in November 2023. The visit by a delegation from the Primorye Territory to Pyongyang, led by Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, in December 2023 was also very useful. These contacts mark the beginning of an intensive and demanding, but also fruitful and rewarding, work to expand our relations across the board. We are preparing several other important events, including on cultural and humanitarian matters. I can mention the upcoming performance by Mariinsky Theatre’s Primorye branch in Pyongyang, as well as the participation of Russian performing groups in the annual April Spring festival. Today, we will have a detailed discussion on topical bilateral matters, including ways to further enhance our practical cooperation. As for the international agenda, we are looking forward to continuing our trust-based dialogue on the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia in general. Russia reaffirms its principled position on the need to find comprehensive and fair solutions to the existing problems. We have always advocated for talks without preconditions as a path to achieving lasting peace and stability across Northeast Asia. Russia has independently submitted proposals to this effect, as well as together with the PRC, to the UN Security Council. These proposals are currently on the negotiating table. We must recognise that the policy pursued by the United States and its regional satellites to create security threats for the DPRK does nothing to promote any positive advancements. We will continue to call for the rejection of any steps that lead to escalation and heightening tensions. We are working together within a broader geography on security matters in the Asia-Pacific region, where we must uphold universal mechanisms rooted in ASEAN proposals and which have been effectively operating for many decades. However, attempts by the United States and its allies to create closed, bloc-based formats and to expand NATO infrastructure to this region undermine these mechanisms and erode their effectiveness. We have been working closely and very successfully with Pyongyang within the United Nations and at other multilateral organisations. Russia has always supported the DPRK within the UN and appreciates the fact that you have treated Russia in the same manner, including on matters related to the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine. We have a packed agenda, and I am certain that today’s talks will enable us to advance towards delivering on the agreements between our leaders resulting from the September 2023 summit.