Tag: Russia

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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Europe’s High North

  • March 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Europe’s High North


The EU must update its strategy as global interest in the Arctic region grows


Source: Wikimedia Commons


As Western Europe basks in the sun with the temperatures reaching unprecedented levels in February, it is good to remember that this just is not normal. Last four years have been the warmest ever recorded in global average temperatures. In fact, the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred over the past 22 years according to the UN-affiliated World Meteorological Organization. Global warming has had a particularly devastating effect on the Arctic, which has lost 95% of its oldest ice cover, and destabilised the northern polar jet stream. In turn, a weaker, wavier jet stream allows warmer air to move unusually north in some regions and colder air to travel further south in others, which has been linked with both the recent heatwave in Western Europe and polar vortex in Canada and Midwestern United States.


At this rate, summers in the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040. The polar region is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the globe and this will have significant implications for the environment, global ecosystems, and lives of the around 4 million people who live in the area. Receding ice will also open up sea routes for commercial opportunities and military use. As a result, the geopolitical status and strategic importance of the Arctic will only grow in the near future, demanding answers to critical questions about security and diplomacy. With three Arctic states as its members (Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) and seven other member states having been granted observer status in the Arctic Council, the EU has a significant interest in the stability of the region.


The EU’s Arctic policy lacks a security angle


The EU’s policy in the High North has so far mainly focused on matters such as environmental concerns, scientific research, and the regulation of fisheries. A premium is also put on regional and local cooperation with the Arctic states and indigenous peoples. For an aspiring global leader in climate action and a strong defender of multilateral regulatory frameworks, this emphasis is of course hardly surprising. A fit for purpose European Arctic strategy, however, needs to be more comprehensive in scope and take into account the growing global interest in the region, which is not purely scientific or environmental.


Security matters were actually omitted altogether from the EU’s latest Arctic policy update, released in 2016. This was the case despite an earlier 2008 document taking into account territorial disputes in the region regarding Russia, for example. To be fair, the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy does include the Arctic as one of the strategic regions, but even then that specific section is only one paragraph in length. ‘The EU has a strategic interest in the Arctic remaining a low-tension area’, it says, before repeating the key tenets of the aforementioned 2016 policy emphasising the need to tackle climate change and support innovation in the region. The Council, however, highlighted on its June 2016 Conclusions that ‘reinforcing the EU’s engagement in the Arctic’ is an important factor of its foreign and security policy and called for an ‘ambitious cross-spectrum and well-coordinated’ strategy to engage with regional and global actors in the area.


To achieve the EU’s objective of maintaining low tensions, all efforts to avoid a “scramble for the Arctic” are absolutely integral. The melting region is expected to compose the largest unexplored area of oil and natural gas remaining in the world, which is certainly of interest to many global players. Estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 47,2 trillion cubic metres of natural gas resources remain buried under the seabed, according to the U.S. Geographical Survey. In addition to the resource question, control over shipping lanes will be another hot topic. For instance, the Northern Sea Route would cut the time it takes to ship goods from St Petersburg to Vladivostok by 14 days. Similarly, it would shorten the journey cargo ships carrying goods between China and Europe currently take through the Suez Canal by up to 40%. As such, overlapping territorial claims, military assertiveness, and infrastructure investment (with ulterior motives) from Arctic and non-Arctic states alike have increased accordingly and will continue to do so in the future.


Russian & China: The growing influence of assertive powers


The fears of escalating competition for the Arctic were greatly fuelled already back in August 2007, when Russian explorers (with the help of a nuclear-powered icebreaker and two submarines) placed a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The stunt gained even more attention when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov connected it with his country’s ambition to claim nearly half of the Arctic Ocean. The only non-NATO state with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean had previously submitted this claim in 2001 under the procedures set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – only for the demands to be rejected due to lack of geological evidence. More recently, emboldened Russia has asserted itself in the region with constant military drills, reopened bases, and strengthened air defence as per the Kremlin’s 2008 arctic strategy and 2017 naval doctrine. Anticipating competition from China, Japan, and the Arctic NATO states, Russia seems set to militarising the Arctic. Russia’s dwindling economy is, however, going to have an impact on its grand ambitions.


The Arctic is also at the centre of China’s poetically named Polar Silk Road, which forms a part of the multi-billion-dollar Belt and Way Initiative. Lacking military capacity to effectively project power in the Arctic, China relies on carefully planned ‘science diplomacy’ and investments on strategic infrastructure to gain a foothold in the north. This has already resulted in China gaining observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and rapidly growing its mining rights in Greenland, for example. The former exemplifies China’s increasing willingness to assert its presence in global governance through a vast variety of multilateral fora, while the latter has tightened China’s grip of the global rare earth materials market, allowing the country to exert price control. Moreover, investment in ports on the Arctic Ocean provides China with the possibility to monitor naval activity, while Chinese-owned airports in the Arctic could allow the owners to observe air traffic. Thus, the EU must keep in mind the real possibility of China using its infrastructure, mining, and space observation investments for non-civilian purposes.


The EU must reassess its role in the northern neighbourhood


The West as a whole has been poorly prepared for the growing geopolitical importance of the Arctic. NATO, for instance, has consistently failed to include the region in its Strategic Concept and North Atlantic discussions in a meaningful way (even though both Denmark and Norway’s national Arctic policies do mention NATO’s presence as a security factor). The defence alliance did, however, conduct its largest Arctic drill in decades last October, so perhaps the focus is slowly shifting at last. Meanwhile, the EU’s climate action focus has also lost an ally in the West. Reversing President Obama’s 2016 Arctic offshore drilling ban, the Trump administration has foolishly hopped on board the environmentally catastrophic Arctic energy extraction rush by selling 19 Alaskan offshore sites between this year and 2024. This shift places even larger importance on the EU’s efforts on raising climate awareness and supporting Arctic communities.


The EU needs to reassess its own role in the Arctic. The EU does not have a coastline in the Arctic and will not be a leading force in the region, but it can still have an impact in the way security concerns are addressed and diplomacy is conducted regarding the area. Thus, the bloc must attempt to participate more actively in the meetings of the Barents Regional Council and the Arctic Council, as well as encourage dialogue through the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Northern Chiefs of Defence forum, in order to establish stronger ties with the main actors in the region. Europe must also better recognise the risks posed by overlapping territorial claims and support the UNCLOS procedures to impartially evaluate each competing demand. In addition, given the advantage of Chinese government-subsidised companies in acquiring strategic assets within the EU and the EEA, the Commission’s investment plans should be more visible and provide better support to infrastructure and research projects in Lapland, Iceland, and Greenland to ensure sustainable development.


So far, the EU’s efforts have been crucial in promoting sustainability and supporting science in the Arctic, but in order to raise Europe’s profile in the High North, the EU must take the growing global interest and strategic importance of the region more visibly into account in its strategy.

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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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