• US & Russia move gingerly towards a summit
• The US yields on NordStream2
• Ukraine feels let down by the US & NATO
• Lukashenka challenges Europe by "hijacking" an aircraft
US & Russia move gingerly towards a summit
With the US Intelligence Community confirming Russia’s interference in the Presidential elections of 2020 and its involvement in the “Solar Winds” cyber hacking, and the inevitable US sanctions that followed, US-Russia relations looked like continuing on the turbulent course set during the Trump Administration. A telephone call to President Putin from President Biden, suggesting a bilateral meeting, followed by remarkably conciliatory public remarks on Russia and Russians by the US President (see Review 4/21), suddenly transformed the tone of bilateral interactions between the two countries. After subsequent conversations between their Foreign Ministers and National Security Advisors, it was announced that the two Presidents will meet in Geneva on June 16.
The responses to these developments have spanned the spectrum from surprise to dismay, frustration and anger in the various affected constituencies in Russia, Europe and the US.
The two Foreign ministers met on May 19, on the margins of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting. They made statements at a joint media availability and held separate press briefings. In addition, the US State Department had a special background briefing for the US media, at which scepticism about the wisdom of a Biden-Putin meeting was clearly evident in the tone and content of the questions.
Secretary Blinken’s briefings reflected the tone and content of President Biden’s remarks in April. He said his conversation of nearly two hours with FM Lavrov was constructive, business-like and mutually respectful; he had conveyed that the US would like stable, predictable relations with Russia and that there are many areas, where cooperation would be in mutual interest. Among those enumerated by Blinken and in other briefings were strategic stability, arms control, climate change, Afghanistan, Iran & JCPOA, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Caucasus, Syria and Korea. They discussed the resumption of a business dialogue (which has been periodically talked about, since the first Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki in 2018); American businesses, are said to be reluctant because of some high-profile failures of American business ventures in Russia. Also touched upon was the functioning of their diplomatic and consular missions, which has been disrupted by periodical, large-scale expulsions of staff and confiscation of properties over the past four years. Among the areas of friction raised were Russia’s military deployments in and near Ukraine, its actions against Voice Of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (to which Russia responded with its grievances on the treatment of Russian media outlets in the US), the health of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and the “repression of opposition organizations”. Also raised was the release of two American prisoners in Russia (alleged spies), which (though not mentioned at the briefings) is awaiting a bilateral agreement, at a propitious time, on a swap with two alleged Russian spies, whom the US is holding.
In his public remarks to the Russian media, FM Lavrov projected a note of cautious optimism, even while noting that there is great divergence in the assessment of the two countries on international issues and on how to resolve them. At the same time, Russia and the US, the world’s two largest nuclear powers, bear special responsibility for strategic stability and international security. He said the manner in which the US side presented its position was respectful and permits the hope of a serious and concrete dialogue on practical problems and common threats, enabling the removal of some irritants. Echoing the remarks of US officials, he acknowledged that it would be neither quick, nor easy.
The reaction to this US-Russia reengagement, especially the idea of a summit meeting, has been quite negative in US political circles and much of its mainstream media, though it has not been expressed in the harsh tone that President Trump’s overtures to Russia provoked. The CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria reflected a fairly widespread sentiment, when he asked Secretary Blinken why the US was talking to a country that has engaged in the “largest cyber hack of America ever”, massed troops on Ukraine’s border, still continues to oppose U.S. interests and acts as “a spoiler on the world stage”. Blinken repeated the justifications that President Biden had advanced in his remarks and reiterated that stable, predictable relations with Russia were in mutual interest and could advance the resolution of various global problems. In the ultimate analysis, he said, the proposition needs to be tested that Russia also wants such a predictable, stable relationship. If it continues on its course of “reckless” actions, the US will defend its interests.
Criticism in the media continues. The Russian connection is highlighted in every ransomware or cyber hacking incident reported by companies. White House spokespersons (and the President himself) are repeatedly asked if the summit meeting will still go ahead, despite these incidents. When Belarus “hijacked” a Ryanair flight to Minsk, the question was again raised whether the Biden-Putin summit would go ahead, if Russian involvement in this action were established. So far, President Biden and his spokespersons have steadfastly maintained that the summit would go ahead, making a distinction between state actions and those of malevolent non-state actors (about whom the President will talk to his Russian counterpart), adding further that it is precisely because there are differences between the two sides that a meeting is essential. On the Belarus hijack, the White House spokesperson said, in a deliberately roundabout manner, that the US had not said that Russia was involved in the hijack.
One journalist noted the qualitative difference in the tone of the recent US meetings with its two “chief adversaries”. Whereas the meeting of Secretary Blinken and NSA Sullivan with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska in March was “almost explosive”, Blinken and Lavrov smiled, elbow-bumped and addressed each other by their first names. A State Department official responded that the “fireworks” in Alaska were started by the Chinese.
In the context of the Blinken-Lavrov discussion on Afghanistan, a correspondent asked sarcastically if Lavrov had passed on any tips on “how to take the flag down and run out with your tail between your legs”. The bland response was that, with the US disengaging militarily, countries like Russia, which have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, need to step up – and this is an area of common US-Russia interests.
Russia and the US have engaged on arms control and strategic stability issues, even during the Trump Administration. The renewal of the new START, very early in the Biden Presidency, set the tone for further discussions. In the context of the forthcoming summit, Russia has suggested that the strategic stability dialogue should include a comprehensive review of factors affecting strategic stability, embracing all strategic weapons – nuclear and conventional, offensive and defensive. Secretary Blinken has confirmed US willingness for such a comprehensive dialogue.
The US yields on NordStream2
On the day Secretary Blinken and FM Lavrov were meeting in Iceland, the State Department notified the Congress that vessels, entities, and individuals involved in construction of NordStream2 (NS2), including the project-implementing company, its CEO and senior executives, are subject to sanctions under the US Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) for their roles in building the under-sea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Accordingly, four Russian vessels and nine additional vessels owned by the Russian government’s Marine Rescue Service were put under sanctions. However, the Secretary of State decided to waive sanctions on the operating company, its CEO and other executives, on consideration of the national interest. Transactions and activities of the Marine Rescue Service vessels, not connected with NS2 implementation, were also freed from application of sanctions.
This was a major U-turn. Implacable opposition to NS2 was a position that the Biden Administration willingly inherited from its predecessor, with every government representative, from the President down, repeating at every opportunity that NS2 was a Russian geopolitical project, undermining Europe’s energy security. Secretary Blinken had warned, as recently as in March, that working on NS2 was “sanctionable behaviour” and should be stopped immediately. This position is popular with Ukraine (which fears reduction of its economic and political leverage, if there is an alternate to the Ukraine transit route for Russian gas supply to Europe) and with a number of central and eastern European countries, for a mix of strategic and commercial reasons.
The State Department explained that invoking PEESA to sanction NS2 would “negatively impact US relations with Germany, the EU and other European allies and partners”. The White House spokesperson was more practical in her response: “how does one stop a pipeline that is 95% complete?”. The President also remarked that he was not willing to rupture relations with Germany over NS2, though he said they know his opposition. This may be a hint that some kind of compromise could be worked out. A number of possibilities may still exist: voluntary German restraint on the amount of gas imported through NS2, a formal commitment that NS2 gas will only be over and above the full capacity of Ukrainian transit, or some other. The attitude to NS2 of the new German government, after national elections in September, is another unknown.
At this stage, however, this announcement was well-timed to lighten the atmosphere of the Blinken-Lavrov meeting and the future summit.
Ukraine feels let down by the US & NATO
The Review 4/21 had described the efforts of the US, France and Germany, as well as the G7 collectively, to put a lid on the tensions in and around Ukraine, so as not to upset the apple cart of the planned US-Russia summit in June. Secretary Blinken’s visit to Ukraine in early May was probably meant to reassure the Ukrainian leadership of US support, before the Biden-Putin meeting. He met with the entire top leadership. He reiterated support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and for its objective of retrieving control over its entire territory, including eastern Ukraine and Crimea. He conveyed (in general terms) the US commitment to defence assistance, without expanding on the nature of weaponry under consideration. But a number of things he said, and others that he did not, should have caused Ukraine some concern. He equated the two twin challenges for Ukraine – Russian aggression and internal corruption, said they were linked and urged Ukraine to tackle the latter (implying they were not doing a very good job at it). Talking of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions (desire to be put on the path to NATO membership), he clearly indicated that Ukraine had first to go some distance in its reform agenda and strengthening its democratic processes. President Zelenskyy talked of “full understanding” with the US on NS2, which he said was a “very sensitive issue” for Ukraine. Secretary Blinken did not respond (the reason for that is clear now). He was also somewhat vague about the possibility of a greater US role in the Minsk process (which President Zelenskyy has been very vocal about), saying the US would continue to explore opportunities to help advance the diplomacy. Clearly, the intention was not to say anything that would queer the pitch for the summit in June, at which Ukraine would figure pretty prominently.
That objective may also have influenced the decision not to hold the NATO-Ukraine (and NATO-Georgia) commission meetings at the NATO Summit on June 14, just before the summit. Added to a feeling of rejection over this, was the shock of the US waiver of sanctions on NS2. President Zelenskyy was vocal in his bitterness about it. He was quoted as saying it was a “defeat of the United States” and a “personal defeat for President Biden”.
One of the principal concerns of the Ukrainian government has been that, as the Franco-German diplomacy on the Minsk process advances, Ukraine’s interests may eventually become a victim of “trade-offs” between Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Washington, as they seek compromises in the resolution of major global issues. This apprehension is not entirely misplaced, but among the various issues on the table for US-Russia and US-Russia-Europe, Ukraine is certainly not a low-hanging fruit. There are other issues, where there are fewer conflicting interests. The pressure that the Ukraine impasse puts on Russia is a leverage that the West will not release in a hurry. The snakes-and-ladder course of the Ukraine negotiations might well resume after the US-Russia summit.
Lukashenka challenges Europe by "hijacking" an aircraft
The large-scale street protests that followed the Presidential elections in Belarus (August 2020), and the iron-fisted crackdown on them (captured by TV channels the world over), appeared to signal the beginning of the end of the 26-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenka in Belarus. However, the protests were eventually brought under control. President Lukashenka bought himself political space with some conciliatory gestures, including promise of constitutional reforms and fresh elections thereafter, when he would not stand again. Russia stood by him and was, at the same time, careful to signal it would not intervene militarily in Belarus, unless there was serious provocation. Though beholden to Russia for its crucial support, President Lukashenka continued to demonstrate some autonomy, by not rushing into a closer alliance or allowing a Russian military base in his country – postures that had kept the West interested in him over the past decade.
As the situation in Belarus was limping back to normal, a new drama unfolded, with the revelation that Belarus and Russian intelligence services had unearthed a plot to assassinate Lukashenka. Though it was dismissed at first as a ham-handed intelligence ploy to drum up popular support for the President, sufficient mud was thrown up by various revelations for some of it to stick. There seemed to be some public receptivity to the theory of an externally supported plot – without clarity about which groups in which European country were involved. Opposition leaders in jail or in exile continued to get the attention of foreign, especially European, parties and leaders, and President Lukashenka continued to be shunned, but a modicum of normalcy had been restored in the country.
President Lukashenka again attracted global ire in late May, by ordering a Ryanair commercial flight, overflying Belarus on its way from Greece to Lithuania, to land in Minsk. Belarus air traffic control reported a bomb threat and a Belarus Air Force aircraft escorted the plane down to the airport. Belarus agencies offloaded a Belarus opposition activist, who had used a Telegram channel to help coordinate the protests of August and September, through real-time message flows between various groups of protestors and opposition activists. After this extraction, the plane was allowed to continue its journey.
This blatant “hijacking” of a commercial flight, in the heart of Europe, predictably aroused indignant international reactions. Strong statements were issued by President Biden, the State Department, EU, G7 and a number of individual European countries – condemning the affront to international norms and calling for the release of the journalist and other political prisoners. The EU announced it would impose a range of sanctions, including “targeted economic sanctions”. The easiest were visa bans and assets freeze on a large number of senior Belarus officials – together with earlier sanctions, the list now extends to about 100, from President Lukashenka down. The EU also banned Belarus-flagged carriers from EU airspace and airports, and instructed EU airlines not to fly over Belarus. Further economic sanctions, which are still in the making, are more complicated in this interlinked region: they need to look at the collateral damage to economies like those of Ukraine and some Baltic countries which get fuel and transit services from Belarus. The EU would also need to consider its longer-term interest of not driving Belarus more inextricably into dependence on Russia.
The opposition activist, Roman Protasevich, was wanted by the Belarus intelligence to find out how he managed to run such a hugely effective service of coordinating the protests, what were the external sources of his support and financing, and which groups and individuals in Belarus were plotting against Lukashenka. The President may have calculated that his balancing act between Russia and the West provides him with sufficient room to get away even with this brazen act. The jury is out on this.
The Russian connection to this act was immediately the subject of speculation, including at a EU Summit, since the Belarus opposition had alleged that some Russians were on the aircraft, but had quietly disembarked in Minsk. UK Foreign Secretary Raab said such an action could not have been taken, without at least the acquiescence of Moscow. Those opposed to the US-Russia summit may also have supported this narrative. In the event, the EU summit decided not to pursue that speculation, after the Greek PM’s categorical assertion that there were no Russians on the flight and that no passenger had any role in the plane’s diversion. The White House spokesperson’s confirmation of this has already been quoted above.
Russia had no choice but to support Belarus in its actions. The MFA spokesperson said a proper judgement should await full details, the Belarus authorities had promised a transparent investigation of all aspects, and had said they would be willing to have international observers. She pointed out that this indignation showed double standards, since many such incidents had taken place in the past. The most celebrated one, of course, was the 2013 forced landing in Austria, at US instance, of the Bolivian Presidential plane, flying from Moscow, because they (mistakenly) suspected that Edward Snowden was in it. Another one, mirroring the present case, was of Ukraine forcing down a Belarus aircraft, to pull out a Ukrainian anti-government activist.
President Putin also reaffirmed solidarity with President Lukashenka, by going ahead with a pre-scheduled meeting in Sochi, which was followed by a leisurely, informal weekend together on the Presidential yacht, demonstrating a camaraderie that the two have never shared in real life.
Geography has given President Lukashenko an important strategic card in the post-Cold War European order, which he has played with great skill over the decades. Though land-locked and resource-hungry, Belarus borders Poland and Lithuania, and the 100 km Poland-Lithuania border lies between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – its only access to the Baltic Sea. The highways through this space (the “Suwalki gap”) are of military significance, as an important supply line between the two NATO countries, which has to be protected against interdiction. Russia’s alliance with Belarus sustains a threat perception. From Russia’s perspective, dilution of relations with Belarus will undermine this leverage and weaken its access to Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea.
As Russia-West relations started deteriorating in the first decade of this century, the US’s European allies cautiously engaged with President Lukashenka, giving him the incentive to try loosening the Russian stranglehold over Belarus. History, economics, ethnicity and language connect Belarus closely to Russia, but the Ukraine example demonstrated how even such close bonds can be sundered (though Belarus is very different from Ukraine in a number of ways). President Lukashenka has made the most of this utility to both sides. He has maintained an iron grip on Belarus politics, carefully controlling the nature of political parties that can operate in the country. He has ensured that no pro-Russia political forces gain influence, so that Russia cannot bypass him and manipulate the politics of his country. Equally, as the aftermath of the protests in August-September 2020 showed, there are no real leaders, behind whom the opposition could rally, to unseat him. Those now in jail or in exile in neighbouring countries, have not captured public imagination. Overthrowing President Lukashenka does not, therefore, guarantee a predictable succession. External supporters of the opposition would not like to precipitate a situation, where Moscow feels compelled to intervene militarily to protect its interests. Equally, there is no immediate prospect of a stable pro-Moscow succession. Ironically, therefore, it is today in the interest of both Russia and the West to let Lukashenka continue and maintain his balancing act between Russia and the West. The danger is that if Lukashenko oversteps the limits of acceptable behaviour, either to the West or to Moscow, or if overenthusiastic opposition supporters trigger a revolution they cannot sustain, this delicate equilibrium could be upset, with unpredictable consequences.
(The views expressed are personal)
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