The European Union and Russia - Divide, rule or waffle

The European Union cannot agree over how to deal with Russia.
That suits the Kremlin just fine

May, 2008

SEEN from outside, one might imagine that the European Union (population 495m, GDP of $16.8 trillion) was a rather intimidating neighbour for Russia (population 142m, GDP of $1.3 trillion). Yet the reality is the other way round. In recent years Russia has played a canny game of divide and rule against the EU, building cosy bilateral relations with Germany and Italy especially, but also with Austria, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Greece. That makes other countries, and many Eurocrats, uneasy. They would like the EU to bargain more effectively with Russia, particularly over energy. But how? For now, the relationship is based on an outdated partnership and co-operation agreement (PCA), signed in 1997. Talks on renewing it are long overdue. But they show no sign of starting. Last year the obstacle was a Polish veto, prompted by a Russian embargo on Polish meat exports. But that was resolved after a charm offensive by Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, who was once a notable hawk on Russia.

Now talks on a new PCA are stymied again, this time because of a veto by Lithuania. The Lithuanians argue that the previously agreed negotiating position is too soft and too limited, given what they see as Russia's slide towards autocracy at home and aggression abroad. An EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on April 29th ended in deadlock (though it did sign a deal that may clear the way for Serbia, a country wobbling into Russia's orbit, to become a candidate for membership). Other EU countries are cross with the Lithuanians, accusing them of belated and clumsy diplomacy, and of posturing with an eye to a general election this autumn, in which the ruling coalition is lagging behind pro-Russian parties. The Poles, who agreed to drop their veto of a new PCA in return for a lifting of the meat ban, say they must honour their side of the deal they struck with Russia. Many west European countries also hope that the arrival of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president could be a chance to put their relationship on a friendlier footing. In any case, the previous negotiating mandate has already been adapted to reflect, at least partly, Lithuania's desire for stronger language on energy (Russia has blocked an oil pipeline to Lithuania's refinery since 1996, claiming that it needs “repairs”).

Yet the Lithuanians want more. They demand explicit mention of Russia's relations with such neighbours as Georgia, citing the Kremlin's increasingly strong support for the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This week the Russians claimed Georgia was planning to invade Abkhazia and said they would boost their peacekeeping forces, promising to respond forcefully to any Georgian attack. The Georgians have retaliated by threatening to block Russia's application to join the World Trade Organisation. The Lithuanians see all this as an ominous threat to their own security. “We are in the front line. If Georgia goes, we are next,” argues a Lithuanian official. The Lithuanians also want the EU to be tougher over justice. In particular, they complain that the Kremlin is not helping track down those responsible for a Soviet-backed attempted putsch in Lithuania in early 1991 that killed 14 people and for the execution of eight border guards shortly afterwards. “We have had 22 Litvinenkos and no co-operation from Russia,” says the official. His irritation may be understandable (Britain is also furious with the Kremlin for refusing to co-operate over the murder of a Russian exile with British citizenship, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006). But an unwillingness from Russia to investigate such crimes is nothing new, and is therefore harder to portray as a sinister new twist.

Diplomats still hope to launch negotiations on a new PCA before the next EU-Russia summit in Siberia in June. Reopening discussion on the negotiating mandate may not help Lithuania: some countries want it to be softer, not tougher, says one foreign minister. And none of this seems to bother the Russians much. Their ambassador in Brussels, Vladimir Chizov, says his country would be delighted to deal with the EU if only it would decide what it actually wants. The impasse also makes it easier for national governments to justify doing bilateral deals with Russia. Italy made a barely veiled threat along these lines this week. Greece chose the same day formally to sign up to South Stream, a Kremlin-backed Black Sea pipeline that many see as a direct rival to the EU's own plans in the region. The outgoing Italian prime minister and former European Commission president, Romano Prodi, also said he had turned down (for now, at least) a Russian offer to head the South Stream consortium.

In practice a new PCA is unlikely to make much difference. Despite the obsolescence of the old one, trade between Russia and the EU has more than tripled since 2000. In negotiating a new one, Russia would, on past form, use its bilateral ties with big countries to get its way in what ought to be multilateral negotiations. And it is not clear that any new agreement will stick. Russia has explicitly said that it will not ratify the energy charter it signed in 1994, which would have required it to give third parties access to its gas pipelines. As Katinka Barysch, of the London-based Centre for European Reform, notes drily, “the Russians have a somewhat different approach to law, so whether you can aim to solve all problems with a legal document is open to doubt.”


In other news:

Tbilisi asking the West to avert war

Moscow and Tbilisi do not rule out the possibility of war

Yesterday Russia made a clear allusion that it would not hesitate to use military force against Georgia. Russia’s Defense Ministry warned that it would not allow Georgian aircraft to fly over Abkhazia, and the Russian Airborne Troops Staff informed that the Russian paratroopers, who beefed up the peace-keeping contingent in the unrecognized republic, had the mission to “respond rigorously to aggression of Georgian security forces.” The Georgian government also brought up the issue of the increased possibility of war. Yesterday, on his visit to Brussels, Georgian State Minister of Reintegration Timur Yakobashvili claimed for the first time that his country was “close to war” with Russia and called on the European Union to help prevent it. Yesterday officials in Moscow and Tbilisi made statements virtually meaning that the Russia-Georgia political dispute over Abkhazia might develop into a military conflict. In the Russian camp, it was high-ranking military officers, rather than diplomats or politicians, that were the main newsmakers.

They had preferred not to comment on the situation regarding the unrecognized republic, but yesterday Senior Defense Ministry official Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov struck the keynote. Giving his commentary on the recent incident concerning the shooting down of two Georgian unmanned spy jets over Abkhazia, he stated that Russian military would not allow Georgian military aircraft to fly over the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict zone. “The Georgian party would assert that they had nothing to do with those unmanned planes, whereas now they fuel tensions claiming that Georgian aircraft will keep on flying over the conflict zone,” the general said indignantly. “Such steps are a blatant violation of the Moscow Agreement on Ceasefire and Separation of Forces, and we won’t turn a blind eye to it.“ Mr Shamanov added that the Defence Ministry kept abreast of the developments in the conflict zone, and “all necessary measures have been taken.”

One could learn what measures were implied when reading a statement of the Russian Airborne Troops Staff issued yesterday. The Staff informed that the Russian peace-keeping contingent in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict zone was reinforced with another 400 Russian commandos deployed in Abkhazia. They are equipped with some 30 BMD-2 airborne infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, and anti-aircraft defense systems, including ZSU-23-2 self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons. ITAR-TASS reports that according to an anonymous military official with the Russian Airborne Troops Staff, the Russian commandos have a concrete mission. “Our soldiers were deployed there not to sunbathe or swim in the sea. They have a concrete mission: instantly react to any acts of aggression of Georgian security forces, give an appropriate and rigorous response to any attempts to use force against Russian peace-keepers and Russian citizens on the territory of Abkhazia.”

Stating this, Russia’s military officials made a clear allusion that henceforth Abkhazia would be Russia’s military protectorate. More to the point, if needed, the Russian Defense Ministry, along with the CIS peace-keepers, will protect Sukhumi. Curiously, the militaristic statements of the security officials were made after Russia’s Foreign Ministry refused to accept the offer of the Abkhazian government asking Moscow to take military control over the unrecognized republic in exchange for security guarantees. “We received no offers of that kind. I don’t think it’s the case,” replied Russian Foreign Office Chief Sergey Lavrov to the initiative of his Abkhazian opposite number Sergey Shamba. At that, Russian troops actually defend Abkhazia now. Officials with the Foreign Ministry said that the unrecognized republic would be under the supervision of Russia’s military till May 21 at least – the day when the Parliament election campaign finishes in Georgia. “We expect the disturbing period to last up to the middle of May. That is why the peace-keeping contingent has been reinforced to 2500 men. If necessary, their number will be increased to 3000. We must avert Georgia’s possible assault on Abkhazia,” the official with Russia’s Foreign Ministry told Kommersant.

At the same time Tbilisi also negatively estimates the current state of affairs over Abkhazia. Yesterday the Georgian government acknowledged officially for the first time that Russia and Georgia were on the brink of war. “Of course, we’re trying to avoid war. But we are very close to it. We know Russians very well, we can distinguish the messages they send. We see that Russian troops are invading territories basing on false data, which worries us very much,” stated Georgian State Minister of Reintegration Timur Yakobashvili during his yesterday’s visit to Brussels. He also urged the European Union to come to the defense of Tbilisi in order to avert war.

Mr Yakobashvili is not the only Georgian official to win over as many allies as possible. These days the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Nino Burjanadze is on her visit to the USA. She makes no secret of the fact that she came there to seek support. “This is a matter of political support, not military aid. We are not going to wage war in Abkhazia, but we need solid support of the USA and the EU in our bid to realize the peace roadmap offered to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Ms Burjanadze said. The U.S. Deputy State Secretary Daniel Fried has already met with the Georgian Speaker. According to officials with the Georgian delegation, he promised to back Georgia in its desire to secure territorial integrity. One of the manifestations of such care will be Washington’s second attempt to convince its NATO allies of the necessity to give Georgia the Membership action plan during the summit of NATO Foreign Office Chiefs, December.

Tbilisi frankly claims that it reckons with the help of the West in the current confrontation. “We do not want to wage war, and we won’t do it. We want to settle it all diplomatically. And Russia has given us a perfect chance to show the real face of its peace-keepers. Moscow assures us that the extra troops have been deployed there for security reasons, but in reality it has been done to avoid a direct military operation, providing military aid to Abkhazia at the same time. It resembles the Soviet troops’ invasion of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. We can see the same philosophy now,” Konstantin Gabashvili, Head of the Georgian Parliament’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, told Kommersant.


Russia-Georgia 'close to war', Tbilisi to blame - Russian NATO envoy

Abkhazia agrees to cooperate with Moscow:

Georgia is close to an outbreak of hostilities with Russia, but Tbilisi has only itself to blame for the current state of affairs, the Russian envoy to NATO said on Tuesday. Dmitry Rogozin was commenting on a statement made at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier on Tuesday by Georgian Reintegration Minister Timur Yakobashvili that Georgia was "very close" to a war with Russia. Rogozin said: "Georgia is really extremely close to a war, but Georgia is itself to blame for this." He also added that Tbilisi was implementing a plan approved by foreign "sponsors" designed at pinning the blame for the current tensions in Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Russia. He went on to say that he believed that Georgia was planning to seize Abkhazia with special forces trained by NATO instructors, adding that this could result in "serious bloodshed." Russia was trying to prevent this 'bloodshed,' he said. Abkhazia, along with South Ossetia, broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and some 3,000 in Georgian-South Ossetian hostilities. Georgia is looking to regain control over the two de facto independent republics. On April 16, Russia's outgoing President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to draw up measures to support both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The move infuriated Georgia, which accused Russia of trying to annex the breakaway regions. Later, Tbilisi accused Russia of downing a reconnaissance drone - a claim Russia has flatly denied. Russia, which has administered a peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the 1990s, dispatched additional troops to Abkhazia recently to deter what it calls a planned Georgian military offensive. Tbilisi accuses Russian troops of siding with separatists.


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

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