The third front line

  • December 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

The third front line

The EU’s role in eastern Ukraine and the Sea of Azov

Source: Andrew Bossi – Wikimedia Commons


“We don’t want to risk war, but Putin is already waging one. That makes us look weak.” This was one senior European official’s assessment of the EU’s response to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in Politico two weeks ago. And indeed, the EU must step up to de-escalate the situation in the Sea of Azov and eastern Ukraine.


On 25 November, Russian military vessels captured two Ukrainian gunships and a tugboat, the Berdyansk, Nikipol and Yani Kapu, respectively, in the Kerch strait between the Taman peninsula of Russia and the Russian illegally occupied Crimea. To summarise the day’s events, the already bubbling tensions on the Sea of Azov turned into a confrontation between the two sides, including the larger Russian ships ramming into the Ukrainian vessels, as the Russian authorities tried to obstruct the passage of the Ukrainians through the strait. In the evening, the Russians opened fire, injuring three crewmen, and boarded the boats on international waters. A combined crew of 23 Ukrainian sailors were captured and remain detained in Lefortovo Prison in eastern Moscow, waiting for a trial in a court-ordered pretrial custody. According to Aider Azamatov, the lawyer for one of the crewmen, the sailors were charged with illegal border crossing and could face up to six years in prison.


The Russian justification for the incident has revolved around the claim that the Ukrainian vessels violated the integrity of Russian territorial waters in their attempt to pass through the strait. This, however, is only the case if one recognises Crimea as legitimate Russian territory, which majority of the UN members have refused to do. Yet, according to Ukrainian officials, the sailors were captured as they were returning to Odesa following the failed attempt to reach the Sea of Azov, access to which has been strictly controlled by Russia ever since its takeover of the Crimean peninsula and the city of Sevastopol in 2014. Ukraine, on the other hand, has referred to the 2003 bilateral agreement, which declares the Sea of Azov as shared waters of the two countries, to justify its freedom of navigation in the area.


Russia’s narrative eagerly points to Ukraine’s upcoming March presidential elections as the underlying political motivation for the clash and the Kremlin has tried to explain rising tensions on the Sea of Azov with president Petro Poroshenko’s ambitions to be re-elected on a national security platform. But in Kyiv, acts of aggression such as this are often seen as Russian attempts to influence Ukrainian domestic politics. For example, it has been suggested that Moscow could “negotiate” the freeing of the sailors with a pro-Russian presidential candidate in order to enhance their visibility and credentials ahead of the election. Russian president Vladimir Putin even announced that with Ukraine’s current political leadership it would be complicated to negotiate peace in eastern Ukraine. But as the Ukrainian political landscape and public opinion remain overwhelmingly sceptical of Russia’s influence, there is a high risk that such a publicity stunt might backfire.


Moscow’s intentions may, however, have more to do with increasing economic pressure on Ukraine than petty politics. As Ukraine has become essentially immune to Russian domestic measures due to the severity of existing Russian sanctions on trade with Ukraine, the Kremlin has had to look elsewhere. For instance, the economic pressure logic has been seen in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would allow Russia to circumvent Ukrainian transit fees on gas sold to Europe. In the case of the Azov sea, the Kerch strait is its only point of access and a lifeline for trade to and from the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk in eastern Ukraine. Blocking this access would have highly detrimental long-term consequences to the economy of the whole region in part due to the insufficient infrastructure and transport links between western Ukrainian ports and the eastern regions, which could not currently replace this access.


For the EU, the situation is a security headache everyone hoped would not materialise. In fact, six days before the incident on 25 November, European foreign ministers actually met in the Council and discussed, among other things, the rising tensions on the Sea of Azov (resulting in not much). A day after the incident, on the other hand, European foreign ministries started to churn out statements featuring various levels of “concern” over the situation, with the UK’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt taking this a step further and “utterly condemning” Russia’s actions. But the fact remains that many European leaders – with only a few exceptions –have shown remarkable weakness in their response to Russian efforts to claim the Sea of Azov as inviolate Russian territory.


Although both Ukraine and Russia seem unwilling to escalate the situation further, the opening of the “third front line” on sea would in all likelihood worsen the situation on land, where the situation has remained largely immobile since 2015 (despite around 400,000 ceasefire violations in 2017 alone). To de-escalate the situation, the EU should call for an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission on the Sea of Azov, as international presence on the sea would likely lower the risk of further escalation. The OSCE already has an ongoing land border monitoring mission on the “first front line” in the Donbas region. And if Russia is confident in its version of the story, then it should accept the independent international monitoring mission. Furthermore, the EU must continue to show Russia that its actions have consequences in the form of economic sanctions, which have so far been effective in restricting the access of state-backed Russian companies to Western markets and capital. To this end, the member states should consider closing EU ports to ships from Russian ports on the Azov sea. In addition, the EU needs to better utilise its anti-fraud and anti-money laundering measures to deal with Russian capital in Europe gained through corruption. A welcomed step towards further sanctions is the Dutch-initiated EU Global Magnitsky Act, which is currently being finalised (after being originally proposed by the European Parliament in 2014) and aims primarily to protect human rights by imposing targeted sanctions on individuals violating those rights and engaging in corruption.


Moreover, the EU has a crucial role to play in providing economic support to eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, the EU has, together with the United States, committed €4 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine. On top of this, the EU has provided significant sums of humanitarian aid to displaced persons and those in the conflict areas, as well as technical assistance to tackle corruption in the country. To do more, the EU should look into reducing trade barriers further between itself and Ukraine – mainly quotas on competitive Ukrainian exports – and investing more in the aforementioned infrastructure and transport links between eastern and western Ukraine to the benefit of the country’s economy.


Europe needs a coordinated and consistent response that sets consequences to Russia for acts of aggression and assists the economy of Ukraine in order to alleviate the situation in the eastern regions of the country and the Sea of Azov. And in the context of European foreign policy, of course, this plea is most strongly intended to Paris and Berlin.

EU vs. fake news

  • December 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

EU vs. fake news

The Commission’s action plan to combat disinformation is not enough


Source: Nick Youngson | The Blue Diamond Gallery

Did you know that Poland is leaving the EU? Or that there are 20,000 armed migrants getting ready to attack the EU? According to one source, the EU is planning to turn Ukraine into a new Afghanistan for Russia.


This year alone, the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) EU vs Disinformation campaign has recorded (at the time of writing) 971 individual cases of pro-Kremlin disinformation. In total, the campaign has recorded 459 pages of disinformation cases on its website since January 2015. As defined by the European Commission, the term describes ‘verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public’. It is distinguished from propaganda in that it does not attempt to convince us into believing something but to deceive us into believing something by obscuring the truth through relentless promotion of falsehoods. Its function is to muddle our perception of truth and lie, fact and fiction. Disinformation lies at the heart of post-truth discourse.


In the 1980s, according to the (“failing” – yet another disinformation trope) New York Times’s brilliant Operation Infektion video series, the United States attempted to control and respond to Soviet disinformation with the Active Measures Working Group consisting of part-time employees. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its KGB-centred security apparatus employed around 15,000 people with a multimillion-dollar budget working on “active measures” (covert operations) – most significant of which was creating and spreading false information. Every KGB agent was reportedly required to spend 25% of their time inventing fake news. Through the years the Soviet-conceived conspiracies included such gems as the CIA killing John F. Kennedy, the US Government creating AIDS, and rich Americans buying poor children from Latin American to harvest their organs, all of which were spread to global news sources. And when the US “truth squad” was established in 1981, it lacked the budget and time to sufficiently challenge the impressive amount of dangerous nonsense churned in the cellars of Lubyanka.


And yet we have learned surprisingly little over the years. The Internet Research Agency (IRA), also known as the “troll factory”, is thought to employ around 800 people and conduct its operations from the Lakhta-2 business centre in North East St. Petersburg, where it is said to have moved much of its operations earlier this year from 55 Savushkina Street. The IRA runs its operations 24 hours a day, rotating workers in two 12-hour shifts. According to interviews with former employees, they are expected to post at least 50 comments on news articles a day, maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least 3 times a day alongside discussing news in groups, and operate 10 Twitter accounts with a total of 50 tweets a day. In addition, websites such as the IRA-affiliated USA Really publish on average around 10 English-language articles a day. Then, on top of this, we have the more traditional pro-Kremlin news sources such as the RT TV network and Sputnik news agency, which are clearly separate from the IRA but nonetheless crucial elements of the fake news machine.


At a time when distributing (false) information has become easier than ever before, Western democracies continue to lag significantly behind in modern information operations and responses to disinformation. And we have all seen the division and mistrust online foreign influence operations can achieve in free elections. Recently, for example, disinformation operations have run rampant on the “gilets jaunes” demonstration in Paris and the Kerch strait confrontation between Ukraine and Russia.


Making its move, the European Commission presented its new 12-page disinformation action plan on Wednesday (5 December). Unveiled by Commissioners Andrus Ansip, Vera Jourová, Julian King, and Mariya Gabriel, the plan relies on four pillars: improved capabilities, enhanced reporting, private sector commitments, and societal resilience (e.g. media literacy). To strengthen these foundations, the Commissioners proposed a €3.1 million increase to the EEAS’s current €1.9 million allocation to tackle disinformation. Although even with the hefty bonus, the EU would be challenging false stories in 2019 with an allowance representing only around 0.5% of Russia’s estimated €1.1 billion pro-Kremlin media budget. Unsurprisingly, Mr Ansip admitted just a day later that the plan is not enough.


Alongside increased funding and calls for unified member state response, the plan relies strongly on the cooperation of social media companies. But the self-regulatory Code of Practice to tackle fake accounts, monitor disinformation, and make political advertising more transparent is simply not enough. The companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, have so far been slow at introducing new measures to tackle intentional distribution of disinformation and improve ad transparency. They have also been unwilling to share their data with independent fact-checkers and media experts to monitor and scrutinise fake news campaigns. In addition, the difficulty of distinguishing between misinformed free speech and corrupt disinformation operations with the intention to deceive has also made combatting online falsehoods harder. After all, the EU’s response to fake news cannot impinge on civil liberties and liberal values.


The time is running out for the 10-step action plan to be operational ahead of the 2019 European Elections, which the proposal indicates as its first test. European leaders will discuss the plan during next week’s European Council summit, and although the current plan is hopelessly inadequate for its Herculean task, it is the only one we have at the moment. It is time we recognise our own vulnerabilities.

No Planet B

  • November 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

No Planet B

The Commission launches its climate vision ahead of COP24


Source: Garry Knight | Flickr


There is nothing we can do to avoid the costs of climate change, but there is a lot we can do alleviate its impact. Setting a vision for the next 32 years, this Wednesday (28 November) saw the European Commission publish its A Clean Planet for all strategic long-term vision for a ‘climate neutral economy by 2050’.


Required by the 2016 Paris Agreement, the Commission’s mid-century plan lays down eight potential pathways for the EU to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% or even 100% (net-zero) compared to 2010 levels using the already agreed 2030 energy and climate policies as the baseline. While claiming that its purpose is ‘not to set targets, but to create a vision and sense of direction’, it places decarbonisation of power generation at the core of each scenario and calls for 80% of all electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2050. A majority of the remaining 20% would be covered by nuclear energy according to the plan. Alongside cleaner energy production, building insulation and energy efficiency are also of particular importance, as buildings currently represent the largest share (40%) of the EU’s total energy consumption.


The Commission estimates that a successful transition to a net-zero emissions system by 2050 would provide the EU with economic benefits up to 2% of the GDP (€400 billion under current estimates), while also reducing environment-related public health costs by €200 billion. On top of this, limiting the warming of global average temperatures would reduce climate damage such as droughts and flooding, which according to the European Environmental Agency (EEA) cost over €400 billion between 1980 and 2016 without taking the costs associated with the loss of human life, cultural heritage and ecosystem services into account. From a security perspective, the reduced dependency on fossil fuels would also make the EU less vulnerable to energy crises. As an added bonus, tackling climate change would also leave the future generations with an inhabitable planet to live in.


The ambitious plan was released just days before the opening of COP24 – the 24th annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) – taking place in the Polish coal mining city of Katowice this December. The conference is particularly significant because of its aim to adopt a programme on implementation of commitments between the 184 parties of the Paris Agreement. It may also result in new UN recommendations on fighting climate change, although binding states to their commitments and enforcing sanctions on states failing to meet their targets will in all likelihood remain a challenge for the future.


During the conference, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will present its landmark report to the world leaders in attendance. The 700-page report, which was released in early October, covers data from over 6,000 publications as well as 133 expert contributions and was reviewed by more than 1,000 scientists. It was commissioned by the UN in part to map out the differences in consequences between the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 2C and its less-binding ambition of limiting warming to 1.5C. As it turns out, this 0.5C extra would, for example, put around 10 million more people at risk due to rising sea-levels, bring an estimated €13 trillion euros of additional economic costs, increase water scarcity in the world’s poorest regions by 50%, and double the decline of marine fisheries. The report also states that we have just 12 years to sort ourselves out before the momentum of our current inaction sets us on a course of no return.


Yet, as Jim Skea, an IPCC working group co-chair, said about the report: “One thing the report did not aspire to do is answer the question of feasibility.” In other words, the laws of physics and chemistry may still be on our side for a narrow period of time, but the laws of politics are often less forgiving. Although the solutions proposed in the report are largely based on already existing technologies, what remains to be accomplished is convincing decision-makers to spend billions on a long-term plan in a global system run on short-term gains and limited trust. This has also been recognised by the UN, which has previously singled out the importance of agreeing on worldwide financing of climate action commitments during COP24. To this end, as is often the case with rules-based multilateral action, the EU has the potential to set an example for others to follow, which it must now boldly embrace.


Indeed, as sustainability will not last without affordability, significant public investments on climate action are required over the next 12 years. According to the Commission, the EU is already spending over €206 billion (about 20% of the overall budget) on climate change-related action from its 2014-2020 multiannual financial framework (MFF), while the Commission’s proposal for the 2021-2027 MFF would raise the share of these activities to 25% of the budget. Crucially, the EU needs to focus on emissions from sources which are currently not covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS, the world’s largest carbon market covering 45% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions). Although the EU has already managed reduce its emissions by one-fifths since 1990, a ceiling for further reductions is fast approaching if it does not place a significant emphasis on practicing the integrated approaches envisioned in the long-term strategic plan to achieve deep emission cuts on buildings and transport in particular.


Nonetheless, the Commission’s long-term vision is not in the clear yet. It will face its first test the week following COP24, when the member states’ energy and environment ministers convene separately in the Council on 19 and 20 December. The discussions will most likely emphasise the costs involved in the plan and the division of labour between member states. Furthermore, given the all-encompassing scope of climate action, we can also expect the agriculture, economy, and transport ministers to scrutinise the plan in the near future. Further along the line, the European Council’s upcoming “Future of Europe” summit in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May will also indicate climate action’s ranking in the EU leaders’ political pecking order just weeks before the 2019 European Elections. And without the support of national leaders, of course, the next Commission cannot set the agenda for an actual long-term EU policy on climate change.


But acting coherently and according to a common strategic vision, the EU and its member states can provide much needed leadership in global action to tackle climate change before it is too late.

Battle Royaume

  • November 2018
  • Otto Ilveskero

Battle Royaume

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is here – or is it?

Source: Duncan Hull | Flickr

During his 2015 UK general election campaign, the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly stated that the voters were facing a choice between his party or chaos. But looking back now, it surely looks like the nation of shopkeepers got themselves a two-for-one deal.


This whole Brexit thing formally began as David Cameron’s miscalculated attempt to unite the Conservative Party and enters its final showdown as the current UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s weak attempt to unite the Conservative Party. The now over five-year-long team-building exercise (Cameron announced the referendum in January 2013) has rather obviously failed, as the barking dogs of British populist right have not settled for any of the bones on offer. Instead, the entitled egotists hurried stubbornly to the undeliverable “sunlit uplands” where a free trade deal offered by German car manufacturers and French wine moguls – “one of the easiest in human history” – would wait for them. Titanic success, they said, Titanic.


Nine cabinet ministers voiced their opposition to the Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as agreed at negotiators’ level on 14 November 2018 during a 5-hour marathon meeting on Wednesday (14 November) afternoon. Yet, I’m not sure they knew what they were opposing: it would have required them to read around 50 pages an hour without sleeping to make it through the 585-page document between its announcement and the cabinet meeting scheduled at 2 pm. But then again, Brexit isn’t fought on knowledge, understanding, or diligent research.


Case in point: Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said last week that he “hadn’t quite understood” how important the Dover–Calais crossing is for Britain. One would think that the UK’s chief negotiator for the country’s single most important political event in generations would have had an idea. But apparently one would be wrong. According to the London-based Institute for Government, the Port of Dover actually handles around 17% of the UK’s entire annual trade in goods in value. That’s about £36.6 billion worth of goods going in and out of Dover each year. But the people have had enough of experts anyway, am I right Michael Gove?


Mr Raab resigned on Thursday morning. He published his resignation letter online explaining that he “cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU” – never mind that he was referring to the proposed terms of a deal he himself had negotiated and agreed as the representative of the UK’s negotiation positions in these talks. But the obvious point for Mr Raab here is to distance himself from the withdrawal deal as quickly as possible before it is torn apart in the Parliament and let Theresa May, who has no options but to stand behind the deal no matter what, bear the brunt of the damage. Resigning allows him to attempt to lead the free market Brexiteer opposition further political points. After all, blame-shifting has been somewhat of a staple of the Brexiteers even before the referendum.


Like rats from a sinking ship, Brexiteers have been abandoning HMS Titanic Success left and right since Theresa May’s statement that the cabinet had “collectively”, but not unanimously, approved the proposed withdrawal deal. Seven members of the government, including the Brexit Secretary, resigned to the backbenches on Thursday alone. On top of this, of course, the original Brexit Secretary David Davis and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned from the cabinet already in July following the unveiling of Theresa May’s “Chequers” Brexit plan. The last thing they want is to be held accountable for something for which they are responsible. Many of them continue to insist that the cake is firmly on the table and that those who cannot see it are just not believing hard enough.


So where do we go from here? It’s impossible to predict, really. What we do know is that passing the deal is highly uncertain in the UK House of Commons, while EU member states will address their concerns to the Commission during a summit on 25 November. Out of the two, the tougher test for the deal will by far be the political volatility in London.


For instance, not wanting to feel left out from the carnival of public outrage, the Right Honourable Member for the 18th Century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has already sent a letter demanding a vote of no-confidence on Theresa May. The hard Brexiteers would need 48 of these letters, after which it is not even clear whether they would have the required 159 Tory votes to oust Theresa May from Number 10. But were this to happen, challenger candidates for the leadership include the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and even Dominic Raab. They have been very quick to boast how they would have done a better job on the withdrawal deal (on the Northern Ireland backstop in particular), but these assertions to renegotiate the deal and pass it before 29 March 2019 lack serious credibility. As always, Brexit has shown itself to be nothing more than internal British bickering. The utter pointlessness of it all.


Ultimately, even if the draft agreement is passed by the UK Parliament and accepted by the member states, it settles nothing in the long run. Then we are in for a transition period and lengthy future relationship negotiations for the years to come. We have only just reached the season 2 finale.

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