Uncertain impact of new Ukraine President
Russian official reactions to the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy as President of Ukraine were subdued. Russia’s MFA alleged various irregularities, including disenfranchisement of large numbers of southeast Ukrainian (Donbas) citizens, but acknowledged that the result was genuinely decisive.
The President-elect’s campaign pronouncements did not hold out much hope of a resolution to the Russia-Ukraine impasse. He rejected the idea of a “special status” for Donbas and of an amnesty for the militants who had participated in the uprising against the Ukrainian government in March 2014. Both these are elements of the “Minsk agreements”, brokered by France and Germany in 2015. Another aspect of Russian concern is his close links with Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch, who had raised militias to fight Donbas militants in 2014 and 2015. Kolomoisky-owned media outlets in Ukraine had strongly supported Candidate Zelenskyy’s campaign.
On April 24, President Putin signed an executive order establishing a fast-track procedure for Russian citizenship applications from Donbas residents (who are predominantly Russian-speaking). This provoked strong condemnation from the Ukrainian government, US Presidential Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and the US State Department, all of whom declared that this decision violated the Minsk agreements.
The Russian decision seemed to be a direct response to a Ukrainian law, in its final stages of enactment, making Ukrainian the sole language for many official functions – imposing restrictions on, or even prohibition of, use of Russian in various spheres of civic life. Russia criticized this action as violative of the Minsk agreements (which affirm the right to “linguistic self-determination”), besides infringing human rights of a significant minority population of Ukraine (about 30%, or 14 million). Russia has also been drawing attention to the denial of rights, freedoms and civic amenities to large parts of the Donbas region over the past five years (since the uprising started).
There has been some talk of fresh European initiatives to revive the four-nation Normandy talks (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) to find some way out of the Russia-Ukraine impasse. This process was effectively driven into the ground after the US appointed a Special Envoy for Ukraine in July 2017. Periodical attempts by France and Germany to revive it have not led anywhere. It therefore seems likely that Russia-Ukraine will remain a frozen conflict, with periodical eruptions (as in the Kerch strait in November 2018; see Review, 11/18), as long as the larger standoff between the US and Russia continues. The next challenge would be negotiations for a new agreement for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and for transit (through Ukraine) of gas from Russia to western Europe. The current agreement lapses in end-2019.
West Asian engagement
The liberation of Baghouz from ISIS did not catalyse a Syrian political settlement; it has, in fact, introduced new complications, as was illustrated by the Astana group meeting in Nursultan on April 25-26. The meeting was attended by, in addition to representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey, UN Special Envoy Pedersen and delegations from the Syrian government and opposition. The US, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon were added as observers of the Astana Process. Russia pushed to finalize the composition of the Constitution Committee. Iran and Syria wanted to first address the impasse in Idlib; and Turkey and the Syrian opposition focused on the Kurdish presence in northeast Syria. As a result of these mismatched priorities, the meeting had no substantive outcome, other than a united (and strong) criticism of the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Syrian Golan Heights. The compilation of the final list for the Constitutional Committee was shifted to a subsequent meeting in Geneva.
The problems with finalizing the Constitutional Committee stem from the changed ground realities over time. Over the past year, the US (and allies) had tacitly outsourced this complex task to the Astana trio. The three lists – of Syrian government, opposition and civil society – were compiled largely by Russia and Turkey, after intense consultations with the Syrian government and the opposition groups of various hues. A final comprehensive list was handed over to the then UN Special Envoy for Syria in December 2018, meeting the “deadline” of end-2018 set by the West (see Review, 12/18). However, the UN envoy was asked not to proceed with the list, since some western countries felt that some of the Syrian opposition members on the list were really al-Assad supporters. By the time the exercise was restarted, the balance of forces had changed. The Syrian government is now in a stronger position, having regained control of much of its territory, and therefore less inclined to make concessions on the list. It wants to press home its advantage and regain control over the last major hold-out, the Idlib governorate.
In a deal between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in September 2018, Turkey undertook the somewhat impractical task of isolating the extreme elements of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Its goal was to get the remaining “moderate” HTS elements to join the opposition groups under Turkish patronage and thereby retain its leverage in this region. Instead, HTS appears to have consolidated its hold over the region, uniting other militant groups under it and imposing a form of Islamic rule (according to a recent Amnesty report). In March, the Defence Ministries of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement, under which Russian troops would patrol one side of a “buffer” zone, with Turkish troops patrolling the other. A monitoring committee was to have been set up, but this has not happened. Meanwhile, the Syrian government (supported by Iran) has been advocating an all-out attack on Idlib to liberate it. Conscious of Western opposition and the importance of keeping Turkey onside, Russia is exercising restraint, though it has been providing air support for regular Syrian attacks on alleged targets in Idlib.
The visit of President Erdogan to Moscow showed the motivation for Russia’s kid glove treatment of Turkey. President Erdogan publicly confirmed that Turkey would stand by its order of the Russian air defence system S-400, despite increasingly strident US exhortations to withdraw from the deal. Vice President Pence said it would endanger Turkey’s position in NATO; the State Department threatened US sanctions. The two Presidents were also said to have discussed other projects of military-technical cooperation, including “joint development and production of high-tech weapons." Russia is building four 1200 MW nuclear power plants in Turkey, with the first to be commissioned in 2023. The construction of TurkStream, a 15.5 bcm gas pipeline under the Black Sea, will be completed by end-2019. A number of other economic cooperation projects make the relationship valuable to both Russia and Turkey, besides the strategic calculations (see Review, 2/19).
Meanwhile, Russia has been working assiduously for reconciliation between Kurdish groups and other Arab tribes in northern Syria and the al-Assad government, in preparation for an eventual reunification of the country. It is also consolidating its economic presence in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, from where President Trump had said the US would monitor Iranian presence in Syria after US troops withdrew from that country. Russian Deputy PM Borisov visited Syria to finalise a 49-year lease of an area around Tartus port for use by Russian business. Russia and Syria had already signed an agreement in 2017 for a Russian navy logistics support centre in Tartus. DyPM Borisov also co-chaired a Russia-Iraq Intergovernmental Economic Commission in Baghdad on April 24-25, which concluded agreements in telecommunications, energy, information technology, transport and banking. Russian investment in the oil and gas sector in Iraq is now about $8 billion, and is slated to grow to about $45 billion by 2035, as per bilateral commitments. At present, Russian-run oilfields in Iraq produce about 400,000 barrels a day. Speaking at an international security conference in Moscow, the Secretary General of the Iraqi Defence Ministry said that that Russia-Iraq partnership was at the highest level, with close cooperation between Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian intelligence services. He also confirmed that military-technical cooperation is growing, “without American influence”.
President Putin at Belt & Road Forum
As in the first Belt & Road Forum (BRF) in 2017, President Putin was a Guest of Honour at the second BRF in Beijing (April 25-27). He paid the customary tributes to the vision of President Xi Jinping and reaffirmed his line that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) rhymes with Russia’s concept of a Greater Eurasian Partnership. In reality, Russia has not seen a harmonization of the two concepts. In 2017, he had suggested linking of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). In part, the objective was to have SREB projects routed through EaEU, rather than decided bilaterally with no Russian input into them. In practice, BRI projects so far have all been bilateral. Also, most China-Europe connectivity projects have taken a southern route through Central Asia and the Caucasus, and not through Russia. President Putin said at BRF that Russia is modernizing the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal–Amur Mainline, connecting its Far East to western Russia, raising their capacity 1.5-fold. China has as yet shown no inclination to promote BRI projects using this route.
At his BRF interventions and in an interview to People’s Daily, President Putin said practical cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Commission and the Chinese government should be put on solid footing, through a Joint Commission to review initiatives to couple the EAEU with BRI. His Greater Eurasian project, he pointed out, has an even broader agenda: “to integrate integration frameworks” – promoting closer alignment of various bilateral and multilateral integration processes currently underway in Eurasia. In this context, he mentioned the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), establishing transportation links from South Asia through Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia to Europe, which would create considerable growth of cargo traffic. Though out of tune with the hitherto BRI approach, these ideas meshed with the total makeover of BRI, which President Xi Jinping announced at BRF – a consultative, inclusive, multilateral BRI, open to external collaborations. The INSTC has duly been included as one of the 283 “deliverables” from BRF, as put out by Chinese MFA.
There was naturally a bilateral meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping, at which the depth of strategic partnership was extolled. President Putin received an honorary doctorate from Tsinghua University, the alma mater of President Xi Jinping, who attended the ceremony. In a media interview, President Putin declared that Russia-China relations are “the best they have been in their entire history” and are important for international and regional security and stability. Military and military-technical cooperation attest to a high level of trust. Cooperation on security, counter-terrorism and organised crime is making rapid headway. Mutual trade reached a record $108 billion in 2018. 1.7 million Chinese tourists visited Russia in 2018.
External determination of intra-Afghan dialogue
The Russia-orchestrated “intra-Afghan” dialogue in Doha, April 19-21, did not take place, owing to disagreement over the size and composition of the delegation nominated by the Afghan government. The dialogue was a follow-up of that organized by Afghan community representatives in Moscow in February, which adopted a nine-point agenda for Afghan reconciliation (see Review, 2/19). This time, Afghan government representatives were invited “in their personal capacities”, as agreed with the Taliban. President Ghani announced a 250- member delegation of government and civil society representatives, including 50 women. The Taliban had also indicated inclusion of women in its participation. The Qatar government, at the instigation of the Taliban, suggested a smaller delegation, indicating accepted names. This was not acceptable to the Afghan government.
The Russian MFA expressed regret at this disruption of “the most promising communications channel between various political forces in Afghanistan, including the current Government and representatives of the armed opposition represented by the Taliban”. It put the blame squarely on the Afghan government for selecting an inappropriate delegation not acceptable to “the main opponents, the Taliban” and for thus trying to dictate the terms of the intra-Afghan dialogue. The US also expressed disappointment in a telephone call by Secretary Pompeo to President Ghani, urging him to “reach an understanding on participants, so that an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue can be convened in Doha as soon as possible”.
The US Special Representative Khalilzad then met with his Russian and Chinese counterparts in Moscow on April 25, where they agreed to “prioritize the interests of the Afghan people” in an “inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process”, which would be furthered in the second round of intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha. There was proforma expression of support for the Afghan government in its effort to combat international terrorism, but more significantly, they noted the Afghan Taliban’s commitment to fight ISIS and cut ties with Al-Qaeda, ETIM, and other international terrorist groups and to ensure that areas under their control will not be used to threaten any other country. They called for an “orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops” from Afghanistan as part of the overall peace process, urged regional countries to support this trilateral consensus and agreed on a phased expansion of their consultations before the next trilateral meeting in Beijing.
The stage is therefore being set for an external troika to determine the shape and course of an intra-Afghan dialogue, ignoring an elected government (which the US had installed, with Russian acquiescence) and calling on other regional countries to fall in line. As in the days of the Cold War, it shows the ability of great powers to cooperate in mutual interest, even while locked in an acrimonious standoff on the global scene.
Russia awards PM Modi Order of St Andrew
On April 12, President Putin issued a Presidential order, conferring the “Order of St. Andrew” to PM Modi for "outstanding services in the development of the special privileged partnership between the Russian Federation and the Republic of India and friendly relations between the people of Russia and India". The Order is Russia’s highest state award, established before the 1917 revolution and restored in 1998.
Thanking President Putin and the people of Russia, PM Modi said the foundations of India-Russia friendship are deep and the future of partnership bright. He paid tribute to the “visionary leadership” of President Putin, under which bilateral and multilateral cooperation has “scaled new heights”.