An 8-Point Resolution on Georgia

As the leaders of the Russian and Georgian governments prepare to meet one another for the first time since 2008, a historic opportunity awaits them to pave the way for not only mutual reconciliation but also a peaceful settlement to Georgia’s protracted territorial conflicts. Below is my recommended 8-point resolution to the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian conflict, a resolution that I believe could potentially pave the way for a more united Caucasus and for a more united post-Soviet space:

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

1. A non-use-of-force agreement should be adopted by all sides, especially Georgia vis-a-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia vis-a-vis Georgia. An agreement like this will serve to build confidence on all sides leading to a peaceful resolution. This is especially true in the case of Russia. Even though Moscow claims that it is not a party to the dispute, a non-use-of-force agreement regarding Georgia would go a long way toward building trust with Tbilisi.

2. Official Tbilisi should agree to end its ambitions to join NATO and the EU, thus providing Russia with a sense of security and enhancing the conditions for mutual trust.

3. Borders between Russia and Georgia and between Georgia and Abkhazia and Georgia and South Ossetia should be reopened. The Abkhazian railway should also be reopened and should resume traffic immediately.

4. An arrangement whereby Abkhazia and South Ossetia become co-equal members with Georgia in a united Georgian federal republic should be agreed upon. This would make Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia proper like what Scotland and Wales are to England in the United Kingdom. The Georgians would ideally favor making the two regions autonomous within a unitary Georgia state, while the Abkhaz would favor outright independence, and the South Ossetians would favor unifying with the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania. However, none of these scenarios are realistic nor do they constitute a lasting peaceful resolution. Consequently, a federal solution would serve as a compromise and thus works best.

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008.  (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Georgian woman and child during the war of 2008. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

5. Refugees. In Abkhazia, over 40,000 Georgian refugees have already returned. Georgia must recognize this and both sides must agree on the return of an additional, though very limited, number of Georgian refugees, with the rest being settled in government-funded housing in Georgia proper. Again, it should be stressed that the number of returnees must be very limited and should not dramatically shift the demographic balance of Abkhazia which in turn would create conflict and instability. Sukhumi would never accept the return of all Georgian refugees, especially if it meant making the Abkhaz a minority in their own republic again. For their part, Tbilisi must see and understand the Abkhaz ethnic sensitivities if they are serious about achieving Georgian unity. As for South Ossetia, all Georgian refugees should return, especially those expelled after the hostilities in 2008.

6. The accession of the united Georgian federal state to the Eurasian Customs Union. This would ensure the economic viability of the new state. By contrast, membership in the economically tenuous EU would threaten and seriously undermine its stability. Another benefit of the Customs Union is that it would ensure Russian protection of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes and guarantee the South Ossetians free access to the brethren in North Ossetia, while simultaneously remaining a formal part of Georgia.

7. Switch all Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Georgian passports to passports of the new Georgian federal state. All Abkhaz, Ossetes, Georgians, and others holding Russian citizenship and passports should relinquish these to the new state as well. The Russian passports were largely issued (a) to enable residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to travel internationally and (b) for Russia to protect the Abkhaz and the Ossetes from a potential attack by Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia. A new passport for a federal Georgia would enable the citizens of these regions to travel internationally without any problems. Meanwhile, Russia would feel no need to protect the residents of these regions as long as it was secure in the knowledge that Tbilisi had no aggressive intentions against them. Guarantees for an equal say for the Abkhaz and Ossetes in a new federal Georgia combined with a non-use-of-force agreement by Tbilisi, Tbilisi renouncing its intention to join NATO, and potential membership in the Eurasian Customs Union would mitigate any need for the people of these regions to have Russian passports.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya.  Both were victims of Stalin and Beria's Terror in the 1930s.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya. Both were victims of Stalin and Beria’s Terror in the 1930s.  Lakoba was a popular leader in Abkhazia and his murder by Beria in 1936 is regarded as a national tragedy by the Abkhaz to this day.  A Georgian acknowledgement of this painful episode would go a long way toward rebuilding trust and friendship.

8. A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (like the kind in South Africa) should be formed to promote justice and reconciliation among all those affected by the ethnic conflicts in Georgia.

On a separate note, official Tbilisi must make an effort to address and condemn the situation in Abkhazia during the Stalin and Beria years, especially the assassination of the charismatic Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba and his family by Beria and the efforts by Beria to increase the number of Kartvelians in Abkhazia. The legacy of this horrible time casts a long shadow over the present-day conflict. Consequently, such condemnations would go far in rebuilding and forging trust and friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. After all, the Georgian and Abkhaz people share much in common in terms of both history and culture. Though they speak two different languages, both share a love for polyphonic singing and traditional Caucasian feasts. Further, the Abkhaz were part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis and it was King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz-Georgian descent) who unified the first Georgian state in medieval times. These two fraternal peoples should not let the heavy burden of the Stalin-Beria years weigh on them forever. Such concerns need to be addressed.

Further, any rhetoric or discourse attempting to cast the Abkhaz and Ossetes as “new arrivals” to Georgia must be vigorously discouraged. The “Georgia for Georgians” philosophy has done more to undermine the cause of Georgian unity than anything else (even arguably among the Georgians themselves!).


Why Ukraine is Not Czechoslovakia

Map of Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

Map of the former Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

With regard to Ukraine’s social and cultural divisions, commentators have rushed to speculate that the country may very well split into even East and West halves in the manner of Czechoslovakia in 1993. However, such commentaries fail to understand the genuine dynamics of Ukraine today or indeed, the dynamics of the historical entity of Czechoslovakia.

Primarily, throughout their history, the Czechs and the Slovaks viewed themselves as two distinct, though closely related, ethnic groups who speak two distinct, though mutually intelligible West Slavic languages. During the communist era and specifically beginning in 1969, Czechoslovakia existed as a federation comprised of two states: the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. With the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, this internal administrative boundary, defined by geography, history, and language, became an international boundary.

By contrast, while there are strong regional divisions within Ukraine, the vast majority of the people in the country self-identify as “Ukrainians.” The only exceptions to this would be the Carpatho-Ukrainians (also known as the Carpathian Ruthenians or Rusyns) of the far-west Zakarpattia Oblast who speak their own distinct East Slavic language, and ethnic minorities like Russians, Romanians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others.

Therefore, if the people in Lviv have anything in common with the people of Donetsk, it is that the majority of the population still self-identifies as being ethnic Ukrainian. Certainly, the concept of what it means to be Ukrainian would vary from Lviv to Donetsk. At the end of the day though, neither would identify as being part of a “Galician” or “Donbasian” ethnic group. They would regard themselves as “Ukrainians.”

Further complicating the overly-simplistic “East” vs. “West” narrative is the added presence of Central Ukraine. As I have reported in my earlier analysis, the people here are not strictly Ukrainian or Russian speakers. Rather, they speak Surzhyk, a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language, in the countryside and Russian in urban areas. Consequently, it is Central Ukraine that forms the point at which the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine gradually blends into the Russian-speaking East. Politically, the people here are more moderate and navigate between the two extremes of Lviv and Donetsk. In some respects, the region acts much like a “swing state” in the American Midwest.

Linguistic Map of Ukraine

Linguistic Map of Ukraine, utilizing 2009 information from the Kiev National Linguistic University and data from the 2001 Ukrainian Census. Note that Ukrainian is highlighted in yellow. The mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk is in orange. Russian is in red. Carpathian Ruthenian (spoken in Zakarpattia) is in the red-violet color. The Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Tatar, and Trasianka (Belarusian) minorities are also highlighted.

Further, there are also interesting cases in oblasts like Sumy and Kirovohrad. In both of these regions Russian is linguistically dominant, but politically, historically, and socially these regions are considered part of Central Ukraine. Western commentators who impose strict East-West divides onto Ukraine often include Sumy and Kirovohrad in the “West” simply because the Central Ukrainian oblasts have been voting for more pro-Western politicians since the 2004 Orange Revolution. In fact, in the case of regions like Kirovohrad, the pro-Western candidate just happened to get a slight electoral edge over their pro-Moscow competitor. Yet to define the people of Central Ukraine as being definitively part of Western Ukraine would be an oversimplification and would ignore the historical fact that the people of Central Ukraine have been largely part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for the bulk of their modern history.

Thus, unlike the case of the Czechs and Slovaks in the former Czechoslovakia, the divide between what is “Eastern Ukraine” and what is “Western Ukraine” is unclear. This makes any effort at partitioning Ukraine into precise “East” and “West” halves impossible, thus ruling out any sort of “Velvet Divorce” Czechoslovak-style breakup. It also makes the overall situation in Ukraine potentially more dangerous, especially since the government in Kiev has been seized by mostly West Ukrainian activists. Indeed, if one observes the composition of the current Yatsenyuk government, one will find a preponderance of individuals from all political strands (from the pro-EU liberals to the far-right fascists) who can trace their origins back to the oblasts of Western Ukraine.

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Its Provision on Security

Ukrainian military exercises in Mykolaiv (Nikolayev), southern Ukraine (Reuters / Valentyn Ogirenko)

Ukrainian military exercises near the city of Mykolaiv (Nikolayev), southern Ukraine (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Today Ukraine has signed its Association Agreement with the European Union. It was emphasized that only the political portions of the document were signed and not the ones dealing with economic a trade issues, i.e., Titles IV, V, and VI as well as the three annexes and the three protocols of the deal.

This leaves the remaining portion of the agreement, which includes the controversial provision on “security convergence” that some commentators have interpreted as “NATO expansion through the backdoor.”

The specific provision in question is Title II, Article 7, Part 1 (see here).

To quote the text in full:

The Parties shall intensify their dialogue and cooperation and promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and shall address in particular issues of conflict prevention and crisis management, regional stability, disarmament, non-proliferation, arms control and arms export control as well as enhanced mutually-beneficial dialogue in the field of space. Cooperation will be based on common values and mutual interests, and shall aim at increasing policy convergence and effectiveness, and promoting joint policy planning. To this end, the Parties shall make use of bilateral, international and regional fora.

As you can see, NATO is not mentioned here, but the CSDP is.

What is the CSDP?

It is the Common Security and Defence Policy of the European Union. It was founded in 1999; France and Germany were its biggest proponents. The idea at the time was to develop a pan-European security alliance, independent of NATO.

However the US, under the Clinton administration, objected very strongly to this. They did not want to see NATO decline in its relevance. The 2002 Berlin Plus agreement was able to iron out points of disagreement between the EU and NATO and it led to closer cooperation between the two.

To this day, the CSDP technically remains its own independent institution, subordinate to Brussels. It includes countries like Finland, which is an EU member, and does not include non-EU members of NATO like the United States, Canada, and Turkey. At the same time, the cooperation between the CSDP and NATO is very close, so close in fact that NATO structures are even utilized by the CSDP. This complex relationship has been described as “separable, but not separate.”

Regardless of whether or not this provision indicates a direct pathway for future Ukrainian membership in NATO, it is still likely to raise serious concerns in Moscow.  From the Russian perspective, the possibility of a potential Ukrainian membership in any Western military structure excluding Russia, whether it is the CSDP or NATO, will likely be viewed with great suspicion, apprehension, and unease.

How the Russian Hand Was Forced in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation. It was the West, as he specified it in his speech to the Duma, that compelled him to make this decision. Earlier, Putin indicated that he was not interested in bringing Crimea into the Russian fold. However, pro-NATO sentiments among the interim Kiev government in Ukraine proved too much for Moscow. The potential expansion of NATO into Crimea, and the threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, became a clear “red line” that Washington had crossed. In Putin’s own words:

… we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

In Russia, the decision was greeted with euphoria; the vast majority of Russians (over 90%) agreed with the Crimean referendum. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with it too, saying that the people of Crimea “corrected a Soviet mistake” and that the West should celebrate this as a victory of self-determination and should not place any sanctions on Russia. Indeed, for many Russians, Putin’s move in Crimea has cemented his place in history as a truly great Russian leader and patriot, alongside the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

On a less celebratory note, the events in Crimea will also have the long-term effect of further discrediting liberal voices in Russian politics who promote more partnership and cooperation with the United States. Washington’s efforts toward NATO expansion and democracy promotion have only served to discredit the US in Russia. As Putin pointed out in his speech, Washington has too often violated international law and worked without any consideration for Russian interests in the world:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

The question now is: what next? What will happen in the post-Crimea crisis era?

In an analysis that I wrote last week, I highlighted five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Russia. Of those five, the first three are arguably not major points and are effectively moot. Ukraine will not seek nuclear weapons, the markets did not react badly to Putin’s move, and the impact of sanctions has been (and will continue to be) marginal. On the latter point, the West knows it can only do so much. If they would implement full-scale sanctions, it would hurt them (especially Europe) as much or more than Russia. Moscow has very good relations with Beijing and has already been looking eastward anyway (today it has indicated as much). If full economic sanctions were put in place, it will be the EU, not Russia, that will suffer. Heavy sanctions would potentially have the effect of compounding the already-unstable situation in the Eurozone. Further, if the EU remains committed to the Kiev government in Ukraine, they will be obliged to give money to them too.

That said, my last two points still remain concerns. I mentioned the domestic response in Ukraine. My impression has been that, out of a sense of national feeling, many Ukrainians throughout the country would feel hurt by Crimea’s accession to Russia. This is still arguably a concern for Moscow, which ultimately still seeks to bring Ukraine into its Eurasian Customs Union at the end of the day. In his speech to the Duma, Putin sought to mitigate the potential fallout from his move by emphasizing that it was forced by geopolitical circumstances and that it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian people:

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Another serious concern that I discussed was the possible impact that Crimea’s accession to Russia would have on further NATO expansion, and that it may give credibility to those Cold War lobbyists and Russia-bashers in the West who want to bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk now seems to be emphasizing that Kiev does not seek NATO membership and that it supports a possible federalization of Ukraine (ideally on an oblast-by-oblast level), two things that Moscow wants to see.

Still, influential far-right forces in Kiev such as Svoboda and Right Sector may force Yatsenyuk to reconsider these positions. Right Sector especially seems intent on provoking an open conflict with Russia, something that the West, Ukraine, and Russia do not want or need. Already yesterday, Ukraine’s national security chief, Andrey Parubiy (the co-founder of Svoboda and the former leader of the paramilitary far-right Patriots of Ukraine) has issued a statement declaring Ukraine’s intention to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to have Russians apply for entry visas, and to declare Crimea a “demilitarized zone.”

Yet, efforts toward NATO expansion seem to continue unabated in the Caucasus. Here Washington has shown a clear interest in granting Georgia an MAP (Membership Action Plan) by September this year. The Russian daily Kommersant said as much last week, though for those closely watching developments in Georgia, this was nothing new, especially after Irakli Garibashvili’s trip to Washington last month. Significantly, yesterday NATO announced that it will be sending a delegation to Tbilisi next week. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, a friend of Washington, has also announced a future visit to Georgia in May.

Having Georgia as a NATO member would be a major strategic victory for Washington over Moscow and would pave the way for NATO military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Moscow will never accept this and, as I have previously written, Moscow will work to strike some sort of a deal with Tbilisi before autumn. Already this week Moscow made two strategic moves: they reopened the Georgian Military Road fully for the first time since 2006, and Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative for Russo-Georgian relations, held discussions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Georgia with UN representative Antti Turunen, OSCE Special Representative for the South Caucasus Angelo Gnaedinger and Permanent Representative of the European Union, to the OSCE Thierry Bechet.

Karasin is due to meet with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze next week, a very significant meeting that may pave the way for a direct meeting between Putin and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and/or Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The Karasin-Abashidze meeting has already been delayed twice, and it remains to be seen how this situation will finally develop.

Addendum (21 March 2014): Dr. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has informed me that “calls to bring Ukraine into NATO have not diminished among NATO reps and advocates in Europe.” I agree and I must emphasize that I do not think Ukraine has left the NATO agenda. However, I do think that Washington has advised Yatsenyuk to “cool it” hence why he is now saying that he does not want to Ukraine to join NATO. Yet, this is only for the time being and I still suspect that the ultimate objective is to bring Ukraine into the alliance anyway (though Moscow will never allow this).

This is why I wrote “Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO.” Instead, for the present time, Georgia appears to be the focus for more immediate NATO expansion.

Again, though, I must emphasize that I certainly do not think that Ukraine has totally vanished from the view of NATO expansionists. In fact, I am still concerned that, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, NATO expansion is now being viewed as a “wise move” among many circles. NATO expansionists, Russia-bashers, and Cold War hawks will be seen as correct in their predictions that “the Russian bear was always a threat” and that “we need NATO to counter Russia.” Their foolishness, irresponsibility and arrogance is now being viewed as “wisdom” and “foresight.” It seems to somehow reaffirm and vindicate the notion that “poking and antagonizing the bear” was a “well-informed move” and that it enhances the security of the United States and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Brief Note on Citizenship in Ukraine

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

In light of the recent Ukraine crisis, much has been made about the issue of Russian citizens in Ukraine, especially as Russia has stated that it may employ the “right to defend” its citizens.

This made me consider: are the people of Ukraine able to hold the citizenship of both Ukraine and Russia, including both passports?

The short answer is technically no.

According to the present Constitution of Ukraine (Title I, Article 4) and the Law on Citizenship of Ukraine, it is illegal to hold dual citizenship in Ukraine. However, there are still many in Ukraine who hold dual citizenship anyway. Understandably (and perhaps not surprisingly), a good number of Russians living in Crimea held dual-citizenship up until the recent referendum (it is unclear how a future status of Crimea outside of Ukraine will affect the citizenship status of these people).

However, there are also significant numbers of people in Ukraine proper who hold dual citizenship as well.  According to a 2008 New York Times report:

Gazeta.24 [a Ukrainian news service] reports that in one oblast [likely Chernivtsi], many Ukrainians have Romanian passports; in another Polish, and in many of the eastern oblasts, Russian passports.

According to the article, about 70% of the residents in Chernivtsi (North Bukovina) hold dual citizenship with Romania. It is also probable that many Hungarians living in the southern portion of Zakarpattia Oblast hold dual citizenship with Hungary. In fact, Budapest has recently opened up the door to granting citizenship to their co-ethnics abroad, including in Ukraine. The majority of applicants are ethnic Hungarians, though it is possible that some Carpatho-Ukrainians native to Zakarpattia have taken advantage of this as well.

More significantly, it is worth noting that the article states that dual citizenship with Russia also extends to the “many of the eastern oblasts.” This likely includes the southern oblasts too and probably even significant portions of some central oblasts (especially the Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kirovohrad Oblasts). Overall, it can be deduced that the vast majority of those in Ukraine with dual citizenship share it with Russia more so than any other country.

United Caucasus: An Incomplete Vision Without Russia

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

“No more closed borders!  No more conflicts!  A united Caucasus!” has been the mantra of many outside observers and civil society activists who have been involved with the Caucasus region since the collapse of the USSR.  This complex area, with its multitude of different ethnic groups and conflicts, badly needs unity.  However, can this be achieved without the presence of Russia?

Some activists from across the region would respond in the affirmative.  They would claim that Russia is a neo-imperial force with divisive intentions for the region.  This writer is more skeptical.  If Russia were to entirely withdraw from the Caucasus, then would the leaders of the various republics and territories come together?  If not, then who would become the outside force to help them to achieve such unity?

The United States is far too distant to become a serious player.   Turkey, with its historical legacy in the region, would not sit well with Armenia and Georgia, but may get the support of Azerbaijan.  Yet, regardless of this, Ankara already has enough domestic and foreign policy issues as it stands.  The same likewise applies to Iran.

The EU could help, but its understanding of the region’s complexities is very shallow.  Additionally, while it does offer the “European values” of human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc., it does not offer any sort of cultural cohesion, e.g., there is no single “European” language.  Further, the European economy is still just recovering from the 2008 Eurozone crisis.  By over-expanding itself, it runs the risk of placing serious stress on the bloc’s unity, thus threatening continental stability and peace.

Finally, independent regional integration among the three independent Caucasus states would not work as an option.  Such an effort would require overcoming mutual distrust, which these countries cannot easily accomplish without the presence of a third-party mediator.  Even if unity was achieved, Azerbaijan, as the largest of the three states in terms of demographics and area and also the richest, would likely dominate the union, thus placing Armenia and Georgia at a disadvantage geopolitically.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

It should also be noted that in this and the other aforementioned options, the nations and peoples of the North Caucasus would not be included simply because the autonomous states of this region are part of the Russian Federation and cannot willfully join another entity on their own.  The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, likely channeling the great medieval Georgian monarch King David the Builder, attempted to make common cause with the North Caucasus peoples in his calls for Caucasian unity.  However, the rhetoric and discourse of “Russian occupation,” “Russian aggression,” and “Russian invasion” and potential support for North Caucasus Islamic rebels failed to accomplish anything constructive with regard to regional unity.

If there is to be a sustainable and lasting Caucasus unity, it will require a common language and culture at its core.  In the current state of things, it would be impossible to select one language as being the dominant of the region without another nationality raising complaints.  Thus, a regional language or lingua franca cannot be Armenian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani.  It must be another independent language entirely.  There must also be a uniting regional culture.  Films, television programs, literature, and common cultural experiences can also bring different people close together.

A future unity must also ensure a sense of economic viability and strength.  If these countries were to join a bloc like the EU, where the economy is still in recovery mode, then they may have to implement harsh austerity measures which would threaten regional stability.  Regardless of any austerity, considering the current economic state of the EU, it is unlikely that these three countries, where poverty and unemployment remain major problems, will find “overnight” prosperity.  Instead, they need to join a supranational union wherein there are more immediate economic benefits.

Security is another important factor to unity.  The EU, the US, and any potential solo “United Caucasus” unit could not readily guarantee the region’s security, especially against the geopolitical ambitions of Turkey and Iran.  This is particularly true in the cases of Armenia and Georgia, where historical memories of Turkish and Persians invasions, attacks, and (in the Armenian case) genocide still run deep.  Only a larger outside force, with a deep sense of the region’s history, landscape, and potential benefits, can guarantee its security.

Likewise, a third party is also needed to act as a “mediator” to sort out the messy thicket of disputed regions, territories and borders.  While many blame Stalin and the Bolsheviks for being the root causes of such disputes, the truth of the matter is that the Bolsheviks had no intended “divide-and-rule” policy when drawing the region’s borders during Sovietization.  Instead, the most recent research has illustrated that their policy in the Caucasus during the 1917-22 Russian Civil War was to simply secure the region, making compromises, deals, and autonomies along the way, based more on the principle of who-controlled-what than on some sinister plot to undermine local political ambitions for independence.

In all of these cases, whether one wants to admit it or not, it is Russia that truly has all the levers to bring the Caucasus together.  In terms of culture, language, economics, and security, Moscow offers the Caucasus states optimal benefits.  To this day, it is the culture of Russia and the former Soviet Union that still looms large here. For example, during this past New Year’s, families in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Baku all ritually tuned in to watch the Russian-language Soviet cult classic Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! (The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Banya!), a much beloved film not just throughout the region but throughout the entire former Soviet space.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, a painting by George Dawe (1820)

Socially, the peoples of the Caucasus have been highly integrated into both Russian and Soviet life. In history and politics, Prince Pyotr Bagration, Prince Valerian Madatov, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Anastas Mikoyan, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Sergei Lavrov are among the most notable examples – and Joseph Stalin is perhaps the most notorious.

In culture, Russian and Soviet audiences had the pleasure of experiencing the creative work of great artists like Tengiz Abuladze, Ivan Aivazovsky, Sofiko Chiaureli, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Fazil Iskander, Kara Karayev, Aram Khachaturyan, Vakhtang Kikabidze, Frunzik Mkrtchyan, and Sergei Parajanov. And this is just the short list!  In chess, the Armenians have been especially prominent, particularly World Chess Champions Tigran Petrosyan and Garry Kasparov.

Further, it was an ethnic Georgian Soviet soldier, Meliton Kantaria, who, alongside an ethnic Russian soldier Mikhail Yegorov, famously raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag at the end of World War II. Indeed, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed such sentiments on the closeness of the Georgians specifically to Russians in a 2009 interview for the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter, Sophie:

I am tired of these Georgians. I love them just like Russians. And I am glad that through all these things Russians have not gotten disappointed in Georgians and Georgians have not been disappointed in Russians. Your grandfather and I celebrated the anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk. It is such a big thing. There is a lot of talk about Russia enslaving Georgia. We never occupied them. And there are so many Georgians who went down in Russian history. Every time I go to and from work, I drive past the monument to Bagration, the Georgian who was a hero of the 1812 war. There is so much to remember about the relations between Russia and Georgia. And even now – do you know how many Georgians live in Russia?

The great Bagration was also depicted (rather accurately) as a brave and selfless hero in Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping epic War and Peace. In the same novel, Pierre Bezukhov saves a local Armenian girl in Moscow from marauding French soldiers.

In short, to neglect Russia’s historic role as a cultural and political mediator in the Caucasus in favor of another, less tenable geopolitical player would only serve to undermine the unity of the entire region.  Consequently, it is principally Russia that can make such the vision of a “United Caucasus” into a viable and lasting reality for the foreseeable future.

5 Reasons Why Absorbing Crimea Would Be Detrimental to Russia

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

As I expressed in an earlier post, I do not think that the Kremlin is interested in absorbing Crimea.  However, that being said, I would like to point out five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Moscow:

1. It would undermine the terms of the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Agreement.  In this treaty, Russia recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  In return, it received substantial benefits, including Ukraine giving up its Soviet-era arsenal of nuclear weapons for destruction.  If Russia reneged on this treaty by absorbing Crimea, then it could leave the door open for Ukraine to seek nuclear arms.  Nobody wants nuclear proliferation and it certainly would not be in Russia’s interest.

2. Financially speaking, annexing Crimea comes with a huge price tag.  Putin has already seen the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis on Russia.  It brought thousands of middle class Russians out into in the streets of Moscow and seriously hurt Putin’s approval rating.  Annexing Crimea would bring about a substantial financial reaction that would do more harm to Russia than good.

3. Russia would be isolated from the West.  Annexing Crimea would seriously damage Western-Russian relations which are especially crucial to both sides.  One could argue emotionally that relations with the West are already tense, so why would Russia care?  Indeed, Russia would care because it has strong economic connections to the West, especially the EU.  Likewise, the West (and the EU in particular) has strong economic ties with Russia.  To severe these ties would create serious problems for both Russia and the West that neither side can really afford.

4. It would seriously damage Russia’s credibility in Ukraine.  Opinions about Russia vary in Ukraine.  In Western Ukraine, especially Galicia, there is a strongly anti-Russian sentiment.  However, the attitude becomes more positive in Central Ukraine and especially in the Russophone South and East Ukraine.  Arguably, it is also positive in the distinct westernmost oblast of Zakarpattia where pro-Russian sentiment can be found among many of the Carpatho-Ukrainians.  As I wrote earlier, Putin’s primary aim is not to annex Crimea or to annex Ukraine in part or in whole.  Rather, he wants to see Ukraine in its entirety join as an equal partner in his Eurasian economic Customs Union.  Such a move would be impossible without domestic support and if Crimea is absorbed by Russia it would alienate broad segments of the Ukrainian public, from Uzhgorod to Luhansk, who regard Crimea as “their turf” even if it is an ethnically Russian-dominated region.  Further, by annexing Crimea, Russia would also lose a significant point of geopolitical leverage over Kiev which, if not keeping the country within its orbit, would at least ensure that it does not join the NATO military alliance.

5. It would give license for further NATO expansion, right up to Russia’s frontiers.  By absorbing Crimea, Russia would be giving a clear justification for the expansion of the NATO military alliance deep into post-Soviet territory.  Cold War lobbyists and anti-Russian hawks in the West would feel vindicated and justified in their efforts, dating back to the 1990s, to bring NATO right on Moscow’s doorstep.  These NATO expansionists would play on popular Ukrainian disillusion with Russia in the aftermath of a potential Crimean absorption and would work to bring Kiev into the alliance.  Suddenly, Russia may find itself faced with NATO military bases in Sumy, a mere 98 miles away from Kursk and 404 miles from Moscow!  Further, NATO expansionists would also speed up a potential Georgian membership in NATO in the south (something that is already being discussed).  As it stands now, Moscow still has some cards to play with Tbilisi, as I have discussed in a previous analysis.  However, an absorption of Crimea would potentially threaten any advancements in Russo-Georgian relations and it could also plant Tbilisi firmly in the Western camp, making potential Georgian membership in NATO a real possibility.  This would mean that NATO bases could potentially be on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range with missiles aimed at Chechnya, Daghestan, and Sochi.  This would also give the West a perpetual outlet to Eurasia as Georgia now serves as a corridor to Western access to resource-rich post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian basin.  If Russia annexed Crimea and the West reacted by planting Georgia firmly in its camp, then Moscow’s influence in Central Asia would also be undermined.

Given these five reasons alone, I must state again that I think Moscow is not interested in annexing Crimea and instead seeks to use it as a bargaining chip with the West in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

The Eastern Partnership and the EU’s Baltic Bloc

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is a crisis that has drawn in the United States, the EU (represented by Germany and other West European powers), and Russia.  However, also significant are the minor parties to this dispute.  These are Poland, Sweden, and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  Collectively, they together form a “Baltic Bloc” of the EU that is especially apprehensive about and hawkish toward Russia.  The reasons for this vary among these countries, but most are rooted in security concerns and historical animosities.  In the cases of Poland and the Baltics especially, NATO membership combined with support from Washington has only encouraged them in their anti-Russia posturing.  The concern with Russia has been particularly pronounced in the former Soviet Baltic republics where memories of the forced Soviet annexation by Stalin remain widespread.  This past week, it was announced that the US had deployed fighter jets to Baltic states and Poland in light of the Ukraine crisis.

Map of the EU's Baltic Bloc and Ukraine

Map of the EU’s Baltic Bloc of Poland, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in light beige with Ukraine in blue.

Why is the Baltic Bloc significant to the ongoing Ukraine crisis?  Part of the reason goes back to the very institution that sponsored the potential integration of Ukraine in the EU.  This was the Eastern Partnership (EaP), proposed on May 22, 2008 as a joint initiative by the two largest Baltic Bloc states, Poland and Sweden.  The EaP’s founding was inauspicious and did not receive much attention until it was officially launched a year later on May 8, 2009.  Its primary aim was (and still is) the integration of the countries of the former Soviet west – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – into the European Union.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (right). (AP)

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (left) and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (right). (AP)

It’s time to look to the east to see what we can do to strengthen democracy,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on the founding of the EaP.  Adding to this, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski stated, “we all know the EU has enlargement fatigue. We have to use this time to prepare as much as possible so that when the fatigue passes, [EU] membership becomes something natural.”

The main initiator of the EaP was Poland.  Warsaw wants to strengthen its regional position and also to counterbalance both Germany’s power within the EU and Russia’s perceived geopolitical assertiveness.  In order to give the EaP initiative gravitas, Poland also sought support from Sweden.  Concerned about their security vis-a-vis Moscow, Stockholm welcomed co-sponsorship.  However, in order to fully understand the motives of these two states more deeply, a brief overview of their historical relationships with Russia must be in order.

Why Poland?

Poland specifically has a long and complicated history with Russia.  In sum, its acceptance of Roman Catholicism and its orientation toward Western Europe and the Latin world distinguished it against Orthodox Russia with its Byzantine identity and mixed European-Asian outlook.  In the West, we often look to the most recent history of the Russian-Polish conflict where Poland is the victim of Russian and Soviet imperialism.  Mentioned are events like Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland after World War II.

The Oath of False Dimitry I to Sigismund III [King of Poland-Lithuania] on the Introduction of Catholicism in Russia by Nikolai Nevrev.

The Oath of False Dimitry I to Sigismund III [King of Poland-Lithuania] on the Introduction of Catholicism in Russia (1874) by Nikolai Nevrev.

However, to a Russian with a sense of history, the attitude toward Poland is very different.  They think back to the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613), a period of civil war that encompasses the rise of the Polish-sponsored “False Dmitriy” to the throne in 1605.  The tsar pretender sought to bring Catholicism to Russia and to Polonize its culture.  He soon became widely unpopular and, after being exposed as a false claimant to the throne, was overthrown and killed in a Boyar-led uprising in 1606.  Subsequently, his body is said to have been burned and his ashes stuffed into a cannon that was aimed and fired in the direction of Poland.

More importantly, the Time of Troubles also includes the 1609 invasion of Muscovy by the Polish monarch Sigismund III, who hoped to forcibly annex Russia and proclaim himself ruler of a joint Polish-Russian state.  The occupation of Moscow by the Poles and their unsuccessful attempts to forcibly convert Russia to Roman Catholicism during this period are especially sensitive subjects for the Russians to this day.

Patriarch Hermogenes Refusing to Bless the Poles (1860) by Pavel Chistyakov

Patriarch Hermogen Refusing to Bless the Poles (1860) by Pavel Chistyakov

In firm opposition to the Polish invasion was the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Hermogen, who was imprisoned by the Poles for refusing to endorse a non-Orthodox tsar.  From his cell, he called upon the mass of the Russian narod to rise up and expel the invaders from the motherland.   Additionally arousing Russian national feeling was Sweden’s decision in the autumn of 1610 to join the Poles in their fight against Russia.

The Polish occupation of Muscovy was ultimately overturned in 1612 by a successful national rebellion, led by an unlikely duo comprised of a local butcher Kuzma Minin and a veteran military leader Prince Dmitriy Pozharsky.  Subsequently, these leaders called the national assembly that led to the election of Mikhail Romanov to the Russian throne, thus initiating the Romanov dynasty.   The national significance of Minin and Pozharsky’s leadership would later become immortalized in a monument dedicated to them that stands today on Red Square in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.  Notably, the monument was completed in 1818, immediately following the victory against the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 and approximately 200 years after the victory against the Poles.   In general, these historical memories, though seemingly distant to Westerners, still influence many Russians today and continue to inform their views on geopolitics with regard to Europe.  It is a history that every Russian school child knows.

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Minin and Pozharsky Statue in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow (Kotomka)

Former Polish President Lech Kaczyński

Former Polish President Lech Kaczyński

In much more recent times, following the collapse of communism, the Russo-Polish relationship entered an overtly antagonistic phase under the presidency of Lech Kaczyński (2005-2010).  A textbook Polish nationalist, Kaczyński held a genuine distrust for both Germany and Russia.  Within the EU, he generally earned a reputation for being hawkish on Russia and staunchly loyal to Washington.  He was an active supporter of the war in Iraq as well as efforts to support the “color revolution” governments in Ukraine and Georgia and to expand NATO eastward.   As one commentator from Der Speigel noted:

Since it expanded into Central Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union in 2004, Poland and the Baltic states have pushed the EU to take a stronger stance against Russia — to the dismay of many diplomats in what some call “Old Europe.”

During the 2008 Georgian war, Kaczyński reacted by flying to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with the pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko and the presidents of the three Baltic states.  Together, they “stood in solidarity” with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.   In a speech, he proclaimed, “you could say that the nation of Russia yet again showed its true face here today.  The aggression here is nothing new when it comes to history.”   Kaczyński shared close relations with Saakashvili. Significantly, after Kaczyński’s death in April 2010, Saakashvili called him a “hero of Georgia” and implied foul play in the tragedy (presumably by Russia, though there has been no evidence of this).   Later, the Georgian president unveiled a monument in Kaczyński’s honor in Tbilisi.

Lech Kaczyński stands with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and the presidents of the three Baltic states in Tbilisi during the 2008 war. (AFP)

Lech Kaczyński stands with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and the presidents of the three Baltic states in Tbilisi during the 2008 South Ossetia war. (AFP)

Kaczyński also enthusiastically welcomed the Washington-proposed missile defense shield in Poland which Moscow considered a threat.   Likewise, he envied and feared Germany’s wealth and power within the EU.  Following Kaczyński’s death, his twin brother Jarosław (who shared much of his brothers’ political views) warned Berlin against “imperial ambitions” and authored a book in Poland that suggested German territorial ambitions on Poland, and that the East German stasi helped Angela Merkel win power.   Between both Germany and Russia, the Kaczyńskis saw Poland again as being a “victim in the middle,” a fact seemingly emphasized by then-Defense Minister (today Foreign Minister) Radosław Sikorski’s comparison of the joint German-Russian Nord Stream pipeline to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.   Clearly the historical memory of Poland’s partitions and divisions still runs deep in the Polish consciousness.

Józef Piłsudski

Józef Piłsudski

It should likewise be noted that Kaczyński also deeply admired Józef Piłsudski, a Polish military leader and dictator from Poland’s interwar past, and his ideology of “prometheism” which likely influenced his perspective as well.   The “prometheist” policy of Piłsudski viewed large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania as crucial to forming a larger, multiethnic Poland as had existed immediately prior to its first partition in 1772.  Additionally, there are also many Poles who continue to view the “Kresy” (“Borderland”) territories of Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and Southern Lithuania as still being rightfully theirs.  Consequently, it is in Ukraine where Poland’s historical-national ambitions coincide with its security concerns.  Notably, Kaczyński’s ally, Mikheil Saakashvili, is also an admirer of Piłsudski.

Yet, for all this, the overtly antagonist atmosphere of Russian-Polish relations under Kaczyński did not last long.  In 2010 Kaczyński died in a tragic plane crash near Smolensk.  Early presidential elections were called.   Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław ran in his place and lost against the independent Bronisław Komorowski.   It must be noted that Komorowski hails from Poland’s “recovered territories,” the formerly German-inhabited regions of western Poland annexed after World War II, where the attitude toward relations with Russia is more pragmatic.  Likewise, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, elected to office in 2007, is also from the “recovered territories” and has supported better relations with Moscow.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (

Under Komorowski and Tusk, relations between Poland and Russia have improved.  However, it was also under the Tusk government with the encouragement of Defense Minister-turned-Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski that the EaP was founded, thus indicating a continued interest in enhancing Poland’s role in the ex-Soviet space.  In fact, Sikorski had proposed the idea for the EaP as early as March 2008.  It is conceivable too that while the Tusk government has sought to maintain a balanced relationship with Moscow, it also still seeks to counterbalance Germany’s influence within the EU and Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.  Overall, tension with Moscow still remains.  Historical animosities continue to be highly flammable, as demonstrated by the violent clashes between Russian and Polish football fans during the FIFA Euro 2012 Poland-Russia football match in Warsaw.   According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, 54% of Poles expressed an unfavorable opinion about Russia.

Why Sweden?

A 2009 Polish report on the EaP indicated that the concept “was born in Poland” and that Sweden later decided to co-sponsor the initiative.  Indeed, the report states, “thanks to Sweden’s involvement, the development of an independent EU Eastern policy ceased to be perceived as a sphere of interest of primarily the ‘new’ [i.e., ex-communist] EU member states.”  Though the same report identifies “the principal motivation behind Sweden’s involvement” as being its “support for bringing those countries closer to the EU,” it does not state any reasons for this.   The historic Swedish-Russian relationship offers some insight into this issue.  Stockholm’s relationship with Russia has been dominated since the 19th century primarily by security concerns which have their origins in earlier military conflicts.

Aleksandr Nevsky as depicted in the 1938 Eisenstein film of the same name.

Russian national hero Aleksandr Nevsky as depicted in the 1938 Eisenstein film of the same name.  Hear the film score by Prokofiev here.

Much like the Polish-Russian relationship, the historic relationship between Russia and Sweden also has deep roots.  Some historians even argue that the Rus’ people have at least partial Scandinavian origins.   This aside, Russian-Swedish relations have largely been characterized by mutual mistrust and hostility.  The two countries fought 15 wars against one another, beginning with the Swedish–Novgorodian wars of the 12th and 13th centuries, including the famed Battle of the Neva in 1240 in which the Prince Aleksandr of Novgorod earned the epithet “Nevsky.” However, it was the Great Northern War that marked a major turning point in the relationship between both countries.  It was during that war that Tsar Peter the Great captured a strategically important stretch of territory on the Gulf of Finland where he founded for Russia a new, European-oriented capital, St. Petersburg.   It was also during the war that the Battle of Poltava was fought.  On June 27, 1709, on the Poltava field of eastern Ukraine, Peter decisively defeated the Swedish forces of King Charles XII and his Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld.  The defeat marked the beginning of the end of Sweden as a Great Power in Europe.

Peter the Great Thinking About the Construction of St. Petersburg (1916) by Alexandre Benois

Peter the Great Thinking About the Construction of St. Petersburg (1916) by Alexandre Benois

The last war fought between Russia and Sweden was a century later in 1808-09 in which Russia annexed Finland.  Then, despite a lengthy history of tension, the two Baltic rivals set aside their mutual animosity to combat a much greater common foe, Napoleon in 1812.  After his defeat, however, the frosty relationship between St. Petersburg and Stockholm resumed.  Sweden bristled at Russia’s continued fortifications of the majority-Swedish Åland Islands, located only 135 miles from Stockholm.   Following its territorial losses to Russia in the Great Northern War and its additional loss of Finland in 1809, many Swedes continued to fear the possibility of a Russian attack from across the Baltic Sea.  For its part, Russia too feared a possible attack by its northern neighbor.

In the 20th century, though officially neutral in World War I and World War II, Stockholm nonetheless supported Finland in its quest for independence from Russia and later in its Winter War with the Soviet Union.  In both instances, popular opinion remained distrustful of Russia and support for the Finns ran high.  Sweden maintained a policy of neutrality during the Cold War, but it was a policy that Moscow did not fully trust.  It included incidents such as the 1952 Catalina affair in which Soviet fighter jets shot down a Swedish reconnaissance aircraft (DC-3) and a search-and-rescue plane.  Moscow officially denied any involvement until the Soviet collapse in 1991.   In another incident, the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-363 ran aground in Sweden’s Karlskrona archipelago from its Baltic Fleet base in Soviet Latvia in October 1981.

Espionage was another aspect of the Cold War relationship.  Sweden rendered support to Britain’s Mi6 to train intelligence and resistance agents of Polish and Baltic descent for “Operation Jungle.”  The operation was intended to help reinforce anti-communist resistance in the Moscow-backed People’s Republic of Poland and in the then-Soviet Baltic states in the 1940s and 1950s.  For its part, Stockholm arrested three Soviet spies: Fritiof Enbom in 1952, Stig Wennerström (a colonel in the Swedish Air Force) in 1963 and Stig Bergling in 1979.

Map of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Map of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden’s traditional security concerns with Moscow changed entirely.  Suddenly, the long Soviet-Swedish maritime border in the Baltic Sea ceased to exist and was now replaced by maritime borders with the Russian Federation and the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Sweden viewed the three new Baltic states as an important “buffer” against any future Russian threat and thus were viewed as crucial to Stockholm’s security (and to some extent, the security of Scandinavia in general).  The sentiment was reciprocated in the Baltics, whose memories of their forced incorporation into the USSR ran deep.  The Scandinavian orientation is especially pronounced in Estonia where there have even been proposals to revise their national flag to include the Nordic cross.   In 2011, Sweden formally apologized to the Baltic states “for turning a blind eye to post-war Soviet occupation.”

Overall, the relationship between Stockholm and Moscow in the 1990s was generally good.  The perception of Yeltsin’s Russia being a weak state at once significantly reduced traditional security concerns and created new ones (e.g., a mass migration of Russian workers or concerns regarding the security of nuclear weapons).  This all changed with the Putin presidency, in which the “new” concerns of the 1990s were supplemented again by traditional security concerns.  In contrast to the wild Yeltsin years of free-fall capitalism, Putin’s tenure stressed a greater sense of stability.  From the outset, the new Russian president sought to reverse the worst excesses of the Yeltsin era.  For Sweden, this meant that the stability concerns stemming from the Yeltsin 1990s would be addressed.  However, it also meant the re-emergence of a strong, viable state in Russia that could again potentially present a military threat to Stockholm.  Consequently, while a member of the Swedish government may state publicly that their opposition to Russia is based on “conflicts in values,” the reality is that it has more to do with perceived Russian state consolidation and its potential implications for Swedish security.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt

Beginning in the 2000s, a noticeable chill had descended on relations between the two states once again.  Alongside Lech Kaczyński’s Poland, Sweden soon became one of the most hawkish voices on Russia in the EU.  It was a very vocal in its condemnation of the Second Chechen war and provided a safe haven to former separatist leaders, irritating Moscow.   Notably, a Swedish web server still hosts a website known as the Kavkaz Center, the online voice for the militant Islamic Caucasus Emirate, designated as a terrorist organization by Russia and the United States.  Moscow has periodically urged Stockholm to ban the site, which as of March 2014, it has not yet done.   Stockholm has also given unequivocal support for the expansion of NATO and for the new “color revolution” governments.  In light of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt compared the actions of President Putin with those of Adolf Hitler.   Military ties were immediately severed.

In 2005, Stockholm opposed the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany.  Among its concerns were a fear of “increased energy dependence on Russia,” “increased Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea (since the pipeline must be guarded),” and “use of the gas installations by Russia to spy on Sweden.”   However, in 2009, Sweden reversed its position and decided to give the green light on Nord Stream.

Regardless, the situation remains tense.  By 2011, in response to Russia’s increase military buildup, Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklund proposed the installation of military units on the Baltic island of Gotland in case of war between Russia and Sweden.   Then, on Good Friday 2013, Russia conducted a military exercise in the Baltic Sea, simulating an attack on Stockholm.   Though Moscow insisted that it had informed Stockholm of such an exercise, Sweden was caught totally by surprise.  It is likely that the Russian exercise was done in response to earlier NATO exercises held in its vicinity, notably in Norway in March 2012, and to the planned NATO “Steadfast Jazz” exercise in Poland and the Baltic states that was later held in November 2013.   The incident fueled a growing debate in Sweden about finally abandoning the country’s historic neutrality and joining the NATO military alliance.   The inadequacies of the Swedish military were later satirized on a comedy program on Russian television to the tune of ABBA’s Mamma Mia.   The Swedes were not laughing.  A 2013 survey revealed that 76% have a negative opinion of Russia.

Ukraine: What Will Happen Next?

Pro-Russia Demonstrators in Crimea (ITAR-TASS/EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze)

Pro-Russia Demonstrators in Crimea (ITAR-TASS/EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze)

There has been much speculation over where the Ukraine crisis will go next.  Here are my thoughts on this issue.

Moscow will likely not accept the unification of Crimea with Russia.  As Russia scholar and former diplomat Jack Matlock has stressed, this is not in Russia’s interests. Instead, the Kremlin will relent and allow Crimea to remain part of Ukraine. However, Putin will only agree to this on three very significant conditions:

  1. Crimea must have true, maximum autonomy and perhaps some sort of “special relationship” with Russia that ensures this.
  2. The Black Sea Fleet will remain in Sevastopol indefinitely.
  3. Ukraine as a whole, must never join NATO.

All are very real concerns for Russia.  Many in the present interim government in Kiev have advocated for Ukraine’s NATO membership and for canceling the Black Sea Fleet agreement with Moscow.  One of the government’s coalition members, the far-right Svoboda party, has even advocated abolishing Crimea’s autonomy altogether.  At the same time, Russia is not interested in annexing Crimea, but rather in having Ukraine (in its entirety) as an equal partner in its Eurasian Customs Union and not as a member of the EU and certainly not as a member of NATO.

Given this, the Kiev government, already faced with an impending financial collapse and a potential Russian gas shutdown, will have no choice but to agree. The Europeans, led by Germany and the UK (since France under Hollande is increasingly losing its international standing) will back the agreement. Washington will not have much of a say.

After this, Ukraine will implement harsh austerity measures to help save the national economy with the help of the West and the IMF. The effects of this austerity combined with other factors, such as the presence of the far-right in the government, will lead to rising public discontent and the downfall of the present government.