Tag: Foreign Policy

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Easy Victor: the Kremlin and the Rule of Law in the West


Source: kremlin.ru

“[Russian] money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment.”


On the 19th of June, the Martens Centre and the Free Russia Foundation held a report launch on the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West. It is a timely publication, with the recent readmission of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s decision to begin judicial proceedings against named individuals over MH17.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to read Misrule of Law without feeling compelled to act. The report is structured in two sections: the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West, and Russian manipulation of Western policy. Reading the first section, it is psychologically easy to forget that this is non-fiction. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything will be fine right up until the point that it is not. Even then we convince ourselves things will return to normal. It is this phenomenon – normalcy bias – that contributes to plane crash survivors sitting in their seats while fire burns around them.

The human mind wants to believe that these detailed discussions of Kremlin interference are tales of intrigue featuring money-laundering and the mafia. They are, however, all too real. The Russian state has systematically manipulated Western institutions and systems in order to protect its interests. A dedicated Spanish prosecutor spent years investigating the Russian mafia. He produced nearly 500 pages of information on suspected criminal activity by Russian officials. He also faced serious personal risk, only for the Kremlin to protect crime lords from extradition and the National Criminal Court to acquit those who were tried for suspected mafia ties. The Court’s reasoning was that there was ‘insufficient proof’ of their investments in Spain being linked to organised crime. Money laundering and mafia activity went on in Angela Merkel’s constituency for years, in the hope that Russian-owned dockyards would bring local employment. In reality, the dockyards fell into avoidable bankruptcy due to money laundering – but not before local and federal German governments had obtained loans worth €240million to support the project.

The argument for Russia’s reinstatement to PACE is that the Council of Europe can constrain Russian behaviour. This is particularly hard to square with the Yukos case. Russia cooperated with an independent international arbitral tribunal and disavowed the whole process when it did not go their way. There is no reason to believe the Kremlin would treat civil society related judgments any differently. The former shareholders of Yukos (who were awarded billions of dollars in compensation for the company’s expropriation) attempted to attach Russian non-diplomatic assets abroad, which led to Russian threats against France and Belgium. Both countries reformed their national laws to, essentially, give Putin a veto over whether creditors could seize Russian property on their territories.

What makes the report so compelling is that these are not even its most concerning cases. Russian front organisation ‘think tanks’ participate in promoting the Kremlin’s narrative abroad. It is well-known that Russia Today and Sputnik are two of the chief producers of disinformation. Misrule of Law’s contribution is to warn its audience that Russian links to populist governments in Europe have reached incredibly worrying levels. Hungary, in particular, has seen its backsliding on democracy and the rule of law accompanied by extensive rapprochement with Russia. It appears to keep the EU/NATO line, but maintains strong bilateral relations with Russia. They jointly identified which GRU officer the Hungarians could expel to be seen to act after the Skripal attack. Italy and Austria retain stronger checks and balances that have prevented them from going that far down the same path, but the seriousness of compromised security and home affairs agencies in EU and/or NATO member states cannot be overstated.

To select a final, particularly worrying trend in relation to the Skripal case: “Whitehall observed a 4,000 percent uptick in pro-Russian propaganda since the abortive assassination, most of it coming from unmanned algorithms or ‘bots’, although other prominent peddlers of disinformation were all-too-real people who’d previously rushed to [the] Kremlin’s defense on Syrian chemical weapons use or MH17 or the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers.” [Misrule of Law, p100]. In other words, the extent of Russian manipulation of the Western debate is such that ordinary people are willing to spread the Kremlin’s narrative: even when it involves accusing the United Kingdom of carrying out the attack to stoke anti-Russian sentiment. Indeed, this echoes the Kremlin’s strategy in the Baltic states to attempt to generate a sense of grievance among ethnic Russians.

That is the key takeaway message from the report. The rights, freedoms and institutions the West holds dear are being used against it by the Kremlin. Not only that, but Western states repeatedly allow it to happen. To revisit the plane crash metaphor, the report’s authors are the flight crew shouting at frozen passengers to get up and act to save themselves. The PACE vote is an example of exactly what not to do. It is not impossible to counteract the Kremlin’s actions, but recognition of the issue is only the first step. It requires continual and repeated commitment to enforcing sanctions and the rule of law. Most importantly, it requires recognition that we can only protect and promote European values if we are willing to stand up for them even when it is politically and financially inconvenient.

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With friends like these

  • February 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

With friends like these


US State Secretary Pompeo’s tour a mixed bag for Europe


Source: Wikimedia Commons


On Monday (11 February), the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived on his divisive unifying tour of Central Europe to encourage the region to look towards the West. Despite the US Department of State characterising the trip as a visit to mark the 30th anniversary of Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland tearing down ‘the Iron Curtain to reclaim their freedom and sovereignty, choosing the path of Western democracy denied to them for decades’, the main function of Mr Pompeo’s visit has been to oppose the growing influence of Russia and China in the region. For the EU, Pompeo’s visit comes with mixed feelings.


First of all, whether he wants it or not, the visits come as free gifts to the illiberal governments of Hungary and Poland. In a joint press briefing with Pompeo on Monday, for instance, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó did not miss the opportunity to boost Viktor Orbán’s policies by drawing parallels with the Trump administration. He called both countries “patriotic in terms of their policies” and said that the importance of safeguarding “the Christian heritage” worldwide united Budapest and Washington. The EU currently has disciplinary measures in place against both Hungary and Poland for undermining the rule of law and the Union’s fundamental values, and an official US state visit risks legitimising these government’s and their actions at the heart of Europe.


But then again, Pompeo is not an EU fan: in a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels in December, he celebrated states reasserting their sovereignty and called for reforming the liberal international order to “respect national sovereignty”. So perhaps the European rogue states are not so much a concern for him, as long as they assert their sovereignty under US influence rather than under the influence of Russia or China.


In addition, the US Secretary of State attended a two-day Middle East summit in Warsaw alongside Vice President Mike Pence. Both men pushed the trump administration’s aggressive anti-Iran message, calling for the EU to back Washington’s sanctions on the Middle Eastern state. The Commission, France, and Germany have been particularly annoyed by the controversial conference and have refused to send diplomats to the meeting, while simultaneously attempting to dilute the summit’s Iran focus from the outside. In the worst-case scenario, potentially emerging fractures in the EU’s common position on Iran could seriously hinder the bloc’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, as foreign policy decision-making still requires unanimity voting in the Council. It also bears the risk of the US further alienating some of its Western European allies.


On a more positive note, however, the strategy of the US to curb the influence of China and Russia in Central Europe overlaps with the EU’s own efforts in the region. Both Washington and Brussels have come to identify challenging weak governance, bolstering the rule of law, and tackling corruption as the central means for achieving their individual objectives in the region, namely reducing the influence of hostile powers and to uphold European values, respectively. In Hungary, for example, Secretary Pompeo met with members of the civil society critical of Mr Orbán’s politics, while also announcing that the US will increase funding for independent media and strengthen law enforcement cooperation in the whole region. It is, however, doubtful whether the shared goals will lead to common coordinated action in the near future given the low levels of mutual trust between the partners on both sides of the Atlantic.


After turning away from the region during the Obama years, the US is seeking to return to Central Europe with a stronger presence. “When we’re not here, others will follow and they’ll show up,” said Pompeo during his press briefing in Hungary. Good old great power competition is driving America back to Europe, but likely in a way that is drastically different from before.


Foreign policy exerted by the Land of the Free under its current administration is a frantic and inconsistent one, looking more often towards national sovereignty, strongmen, and spheres of influence than the liberal, rules-based multilateral post-WWII order. And what is Central and Eastern Europe for the realists of international relations if not an influenceable sphere?


Well, to be fair, it is also a good business opportunity – the Central European NATO members have been growing their defence budgets at the fastest pace in Europe since the Russian aggression against Ukraine began. Slovakia alone is modernising its military with mostly American-made equipment to the sound of €6.5 billion by 2030. No wonder Pompeo stopped in Bratislava.

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Europe’s Hour

  • February 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Europe’s Hour


EU must lose the unyielding unanimity rule to gain credibility as a global actor

Source: Wikimedia Commons


The first week of February showed once again why the EU needs to reconsider the voting rules on certain areas of its foreign policy decision-making. Failure to counter the slowness and inconsistency of EU diplomacy continues to erode Europe’s status as a defender of human rights and rules-based multilateralism on the international stage. Qualified majority voting (QMV) cannot be introduced soon enough.


“There is a common European Union position on Venezuela and we have expressed it very clearly and together – all the 28.” Speaking at a press conference following the 5th EU – League of Arab States (LAS) ministerial meeting on Monday (04 February), The EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini sounded all but convincing when asked about the EU’s common stance on the acute crisis in the South American country. Ms Mogherini called the position “very clear”, saying that the EU recognises the legitimacy of both the Venezuelan National Assembly and its President Juan Guaidó. She also pointed to the targeted sanctions the member states placed on Venezuela in November 2017 and extended for another year in November 2018.


That same day, however, Italy blocked the EU’s joint statement on Venezuela. The rejected proposal called for individual EU members to acknowledge Mr Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela – a proposition that strongly divides the national capitals. Although calling for free and fair democratic elections in Venezuela to give its citizens the opportunity to choose their president unites the EU, many member states have been sceptical about recognising Mr Guaidó’s claim.


Only ten of the EU28, including France, Germany, Spain, and the UK, have recognised the leader of the National Assembly as President ad interim, while members such as Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden have only issued messages of support without official recognition. Even where the member states share a common view, they struggle to agree on the means, as the EU failed to unite behind the deadline set for President Nicolás Maduro to call early elections. The same problem was also apparent during the Council negotiations to issue restrictive measures on Venezuela in the first place, as the sanctions were delayed for months due to internal disagreements.


Maduro’s key allies – China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran – certainly do not mind. The diplomatic inconsistency has been an easy opportunity for Russia in particular to undermine the EU’s international credibility and motives in setting up the International Contact Group to deal with the crisis. “We would like to understand as soon as possible who is talking and about what,” said the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as he questioned the EU’s ability to lead a group intended to mediate the situation in Venezuela. Inconsistent messaging from the EU’s part continues to harm its efforts in international crisis management.


One size fits none: consistently inconsistent external action


Venezuela is hardly a standalone case. On this Monday alone, Cyprus blocked a joint EU statement on the breakdown of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia because of the statement’s wording on Russia, while Hungary and Poland rejected the proposed joint conclusions of the upcoming EU–LAS summit due to a dispute over migration. In the past, achieving unanimity to publicly even condemn China’s human rights violations has been notoriously difficult for the EU, which has understandably weakened the EU’s credentials as a global human rights defender and leading liberal power. In June 2017, for example, Greece’s opposition meant the EU could not issue a common position criticising the use of capital punishment and crackdown of free speech in China at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. This marked the first time the EU failed to make a joint statement at the UN’s human rights body.


And where joint action has not been completely blocked, European diplomatic efforts have often been delayed by individual members with specific grievances or interests. For instance, as the EU’s E3 team – France, Germany, and the UK – involved in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations alongside the European External Actions Service (EEAS) was expanded to include Italy as E4 after the US pulled out of the agreement, Spain’s disappointment on being left out resulted in the member state delaying the high-priority Council conclusions on Iran this January. Furthermore, ahead of the EU’s deadline to extend its arms embargo on Belarus by the end of February, Hungary is yet again threatening to topple the long-standing measures if the EU does not speed up the adoption of the so-called Belarus Partnership Priorities. The final signing of the partnership document is, however, currently being delayed by Lithuania’s insistence on added safeguards regarding a Russian-financed nuclear power plant in Belarus.


Thus, as things currently stand, the EU does not need revisionist powers pointing fingers at the inconsistencies and slowness of its external action – Europe is perfectly capable of undermining its own credibility. The examples are numerous.


Push for qualified majority voting on foreign policy


In his 2018 State of the European Union speech, the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested that the EU member states adopt QMV in the Council on human rights issues, sanctions, and EU civilian missions. According to the rules set out in the EU treaties, QMV requires a proposal to be supported by 55% of the member states representing 65% of the Union’s population in order to pass. The Commission’s proposal smartly omits military missions and defence cooperation, where EU joint action has often taken place through ad hoc, informal coalitions of the willing, and leaves them within the realm of unanimity voting. As a concession to member state concerns, the Juncker plan also included an “emergency brake” that individual states could use to block proposals they see has harmful to their national interests.


Yet, Council voting rules can only be amended by a unanimous decision – and there are many smaller member states which are less enthusiastic about the introduction of QMV in EU foreign policy. For smaller member states in particular, unanimity in EU decision-making represents a powerful tool for asserting their interests and increasing their negotiation position. Under the Commission’s proposal, however, these national interests should be adequately protected under the quasi-veto provided by the aforementioned emergency brake system.


For states preferring more intergovernmental approach to EU decision-making, on the other hand, consensus voting is a means to ensure that EU security and defence cooperation does not undermine their vision of national sovereignty, for example. Some member states have also rushed to point out that if the aim of the voting rule change is to achieve Europe that speaks together as “one voice” on the global stage, then why is the current system requiring complete unity not enough. After all, the Council continues to take a majority of its decision by consensus even in policy areas that do not require unanimity. Others fear a slippery slope towards QMV being used in common defence policy and military operations in the future. But these objections fail to see the urgency of improving the EU’s response capabilities.


With improved effectiveness comes improved credibility


In the global geopolitical landscape that is increasingly dominated by unpredictability and multipolar power politics, where the EU faces an unpredictable administration in the West, a refugee crisis in the South, and a competition over influence by Russia and China in the East, the EU has no choice but to become more decisive. The unyielding unanimity rule, rigid institutional structures, and unclear leadership have more often than not resulted in inconsistent positions and slow responses to crises, eroding the EU’s status as a voice for rules-based multilateralism, human rights, and liberal values in the process.


If the EU means to gain respect from global powers and increase its credibility as an equal actor, then it must address the looming capability–expectations gap head-on. To this end, it needs to become more adaptive to changing political circumstances and more effective in responding to external crises. This can most easily be achieved through simplified decision-making on foreign policy sectors the EU is already prioritising, such as human rights and sanctions. These areas are also less contentious and do not require member states to contribute as many resources as EU military cooperation, which should make it easier to gain the losers’ consent.


The member states will have a crucial decision to make at the informal Sibiu Summit on the future of Europe in Romania on 9 May. Held six weeks after Brexit and three weeks before the European Parliament Elections, the Commission is hoping to receive a decision from the heads of national governments on streamlining the EU’s external action this Europe Day. If the member states are serious about challenging the EU’s international image as an inconsistent and slow actor, then they must prioritise effective decision-making over diplomacy plagued by petty internal disputes.

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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.

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