вторник, 19 май 2015 г.

After Kerry's visit - business as usual with Russia? Unlikely - part one

The drivers of confrontation

9-th of May almost split Europe and rekindled the debate on the vectors of EU relations with Russia, as well as the role and place of East Europe in the process.

Prior to hammering out a New World Order at the negotiation table, as pursued by the Kremlin, we are likely to witness a new round of hostilities and a deeper dip of West-Russia relations, as well as a new round of excess use of soft and hard power. Seems odd against the results of the Kerry visits and reassurances on Russia's side that relations are improving? It is too early to affirm that the West will tacitly agree with the annexation of Crimea and will accept to fix the statusquo in Eastern Ukraine.  
The Kremlin will do whatever it takes to revoke the sanctions in the coming months and if needed, it will reach all out to both friends and former foes and try to split the EU apart. Putin's chances of success should not be underestimated, but are still slim, in spite of his mastership in the art of brinkmanship. He is excelling at playing Vladimir the Unpredictable, blowing hot and cold, engaging in carrot and stick actions. The haste that garnishes the lack of long term vision stems from the deepening awareness of the time and resource limits at his call. The buzzwords these days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow are an encore of the old adage – is Lavrov capable of mending fences with the West at Moscow's terms?
The grapevine brought some unsubstantiated rumors of his potential replacement, which is nothing new for the Byzantine world of the Kremlin. However Lavrov once again pulled the rabbit out of the hat demonstrating his skills to arrange blitz visits and stage foreign policy shows. Finally he saw Kerry off with some homemade food for his residing in the US daughter.

But the real world spins around its own axis, what matters are not the diplomatic photo ops but the hard facts or deeds - expanding the list of “foreign agents” among the international NGO based in Russia, another critic of the regime found dead in his apartment and GRU agents caught in Ukraine. 

In spite of all the hype on reconciliation the West and Russia will seek to press their cases further both in direct open talks and concurrent subversive actions.

Russian media continued Russia’s elite pretense of past hurt pride and inalienable rights to inherit the Soviet Unions global power status and talk equal with the US. But Putin is not ready to make any concessions and while his tone is softening his acts ever more resolute. The saying in close to Kremlin quarters is - if western leaders do not show up on our invitation in Moscow, we will visit them uninvited, including kicking off a new spiral in the information and propaganda warfare.

There is little doubt - the sanctions of the West are effective - both in their conspicuous and less visible segments. For Vladimir Putin lifting of the sanctions is a "life or death" issue - he will not be able to endure another year with sanctions not so much because the oil and gas revenues will cease flowing. His main problem is that the economy has entered a self-accelerating downward spiral, while crises spill over in key sectors - regional budgets, demogpraphics, oil and gas, banking. There is no hint of reforms or remedial action. In fact even though sanctions have considerably aggravated the situation in the industry and at consumer level, there is a much deeper undercurrent eroding Putin power base - the collapse of the economy under the burden of its obsolete governance structure and policies. The three successive failures of the Proton rocket launches - which until recently had an almost impeccable track record in Russia's space program - exemplifies the depth of the problem. Chechnya's leader open defiance for central rule is a stark reminder of the many sleeping bombs that can be activated at any time.

While analysts might argue whether the current economic downturn in Russia is just a spin off from the Ukrainian  crisis or an inevitable consequence of looming downturn due to the lack of genuine reforms and excessive dependence on energy and resources – all agree that it is a part and parcel of the natural legacy of Putin's grip on power.

The key reason Russians today do not take to the streets and are ready for sacrifices for their leader in Ukraine is the patriotic élan following the besieged fortress matrix sold to them by Kremlin. It is uncertainty that they fear most.

Red Square military parades apart from being a megamarketing tool for the defense industry, are meant to impress and scare both foreigners and locals. They also serve to touch a raw nerve and soft pride chorde in the Russian soul. Pride for their country and the glorious past are the key distractors of Russian.

Putins anesthesia works, at least for now, but his problems are piling up.

The key difference between the old and the new Vladimir Putin is that his moves are becoming more predictable, when he tries simultaneously to bully and charm members of EU and NATO. The Russian president has achieved the unthinkable - in the eyes of ordinary Russians the two organizations are considered equal enemies - respectively at 72% (the EU) and 80% (NATO).  

Putin’s led shift away from European identity towards Russian civilaization, neo-Stalinism and self-centered exclusivity epitomize this radical shift in the Russian society over the last year and a half. The grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov today talks of the "Great Russian Aryan Race" as a new doctrine to be taught in schools. Some call this theatrics meant to sell the West the better option of cooperating with Russia instead of pushing Putin to the limits. But this is exactly what Chamberlain's appeasment has been all about.

It would, however, be a gross exaggeration to assert that every sympathy for Putin among European leaders is the byproduct of his "long arm" and Russian backstage string pulling.

Both at present and in the past there have been genuine admirers of Russia as an integral part of Europe’s culture and history. Among EU’s political, business and mostly intellectual elite this feeling has often  transcended into affection for Russia's rulers. Few if any would admit to have vested personal interests in the public defense of Putin's policies, but all will insist to be acting in their national interests.

Deja Vu - the geopolitical geschaft

Deals “subservience for favors” with Russian and Soviet leaders are hardly a novelty for the countries in Russia's neighbourhood - Bulgaria included. Past patterns are often used to romanticize the legacy of former Communist leader Todor Zhivkov who exchanged 'brotherhood allegiance' for liquid cash - crude oil and refined products. Both then and now such 'exploits' are deemed by some as exemplary for diplomatic trade off - loyalty and kisses with Soviet leader Brezhnev in return for specific economic favors. This school of diplomacy has its modern disciples as seen in the South Stream project, the NPP "Belene" and the high gas prices from Gazprom. From day one there has always been a cohort of high placed individuals – politicians, businessmen, public figures with direct material interest in seeing those projects through and brokering Russia's interests in their countries. It is almost perfect business for anyone using politics are his main source of well being..

The repackaging of different opinions under the pro and con Russia tenants is a stark oversimplification, pregnant with potentially false deductions. But the indications for symbiotic relationship between the European leftist intellectuals and the political science elite close to Kremlin are apparent. That does not imply a premised negative connotation but is a red flag.

Trenches in the information war

One way or another political analysts and wise men are tasked to bridge the gap between Russia and the West. The problem lies in the underlying bond and the genetic code of the symbiotic mutualism between Kremlin and its friends in the West, which derive from the classic theory of the balance of forces and the cannons of the Real Politik doctrine. It recognizes the primacy of interests and faits accomplis over order, morality and values. Aggression as the means to save Russia’s integrity and Putin’s power is therefore perfectly legitimate foreign policy tool.

Russia continues to encourage simplistic notions - 'good vs bad', "nazi vs nashi" in the media coverage of events in Ukraine. Against this ideological dihotomy the majority of Russians are hardly in a position to form a balanced view being constantly bombed informationaly by mythologems and superficial comparisons like Crimea vs. Kosovo. For most of ordinary citizens in Russia there is nothing to negotiate about - the West should simply accept the accomplished fact of the annexation of Crimea and the inalienable right of the new Russian Empire to its own sphere of interests in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

The narrative of the story is meant to guide the West to the natural conclusion of the inevitability of a unilateral compromise, whereby sanctions are lifted, financial flows are restored and the power reservoir of the Kremlin is replenished alongside the deal that ended the Georgian war. The ceasefire negotiated in 2009 under the auspices of the French president is reintroduced as the middle ground - Kerry talks to Poroshenko not to seek to return control over East Ukraine, Lavrov talks to the separatists not to open fire and .... we have a perfect new frozen conflict. In the interim Crimea is out of the exchange equation and Moscow retains the right to "annex" East Ukraine at any given moment in the future.

Kremlin has been looking for the new Sarkozy amongst Western Leaders. This in Putin’s mindset amounts to a Real Politik deal with everyone winning, but Georgians/Ukrainians themselves. Such policies allowed Russia to receive total control and de facto annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also granted it direct control over who is at the helm in Tbilisi, getting rid of Saakashvili. President Sarkozi was given the role of the peacemaker - and he returned with the illusion of peace for Europe which he sold to the Western media and public. The Real part in the Georgian politik simply accounted for the obvious fact that no one was ready to fight for Saakashvili, not least of all because the Georgian president rather naively and unwittingly got trapped in the Russian chain of provocation giving them the much needed excuse for intervention. Moscow chose the time and the place to confront the West in the Georgian conflict, upped the ante, alluding to his resolve to reach the end in a head on confrontation and the Europeans blinked first.

This is the gist of Kremlin's policies in Crimea and East Ukraine. Putin's hubris is blended with uncertainty which forces him to engage in a strategic perpetuum mobile of the hybrid warfare. While engaging in information assaults and propaganda coups, with the likes of Lavrov Kremlin creates a parallel reality of peaceful intentions and cooperativeness. Behind this facade Putin and his closest allies are weapon mongering, military might parading and pursue continuous upgrades in national security doctrine to accommodate the hybrid warfare theory to the facts on the ground. All is finally justified with the triggered reactions of the West - a self-propelling algorithm of the hybrid foreign policy.

In the meantime Russia tried to secure its Eastern Front with a cyber non-aggression pact with China, freeing its hand to focus on the Western vector of cyber warfare.

Moscow made the decision to enter Ukraine, following options assessment and coming to a conclusion, that sooner or later the West will succumb to the reality. In Kremlin's synopsis of the situation, both the EU and NATO grew lethargic over the years to security threats and the peace mode would not allow it to return to war footing any time soon. The West would therefore not be ready, able or willing to intervene risking Russia's ire

The back up plan involved the use of European friends and partners, old and new, including the media channels under control in the West in an effort to block anti-Russian moves in the West at public level. The ultimate goal was the West to come to terms with the interests of Russia and its exclusive zone of influence.

Such reasoning lies at the heart of the Russian Real politik - everything is up for bargain, there are no idelogical constraints or prejudices, no red lines - all is a matter of interests and trade offs.

This has been a core line in Kremlin's tactic to blow hot and cold at the same time - while its proxies are effectively killing Ukranian regular army soldiers, often in ambushes – high ranking officials are on the air with concern on the state of affairs and making peaceful appeals for ceasefire - classics in modern hybrid warfare.

Part Two 
Part Three

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