Ploughshares into Swords – Five Comments on the Geopolitics of the Russo-Ukrainian War
by Antonio Carapella
Europe’s great illusion vanished the morning of February 24, 2022. The continental peace it had witnessed since the fall of Berlin, maintained by carefully balanced alliances, fostered by unconquerable market forces, and reassured by the lullabies of intellectuals accustomed to the horrors of war abroad — in some vast Oriental wilderness — was precisely that. Now, the message swept westward by the “Z” of the Kremlin’s vast army is this: great power politics is back.
Understandably, the public remains transfixed by the images of violence and desolation emerging from Kharkiv and Kyiv. Yet, the logic of interests which governs the conflict remains, if not unexamined, certainly less understood. Thus, the motive for these five comments, five aspects of the war’s contradictions and implications, mirages and possibilities, all integral to its comprehension.
With the possibility of a no-fly zone, NATO regained the relevance it had at the height of the Cold War, but what it will make of it is an open question. Far more certain is the grim future of Ukraine’s bid for EU membership; how will Volodymyr Zelenskiy navigate the continent’s most coveted and labyrinthine prize?
In Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić comes from Moscow, yet looks to Brussels. His game is the inverse of Naftali Bennett’s gamble to balance Atlantic roots with Russian ambitions. In Iran, enthusiasm for rapprochement with Washington is tempered by the Kremlin’s concerns, all while Middle Eastern peace and Western gas prices hang in the balance.
All of these theaters determine the course of the conflict and cannot be forgotten. As illusions fade and tensions escalate, knowledge of them is indispensable.
Will NATO Stand Still as Putin Escalates?
By Tommaso Leone
Vladimir Putin’s move to put Russia’s nuclear might on high alert on February 27 is feeding fear and uncertainty into NATO to try and destabilize the alliance. Up until now, the West and NATO have managed to swiftly and effectively support Ukraine, as well as to deter the ambitions of Russia’s strongman with an unprecedented set of sanctions. Nonetheless, several months must pass for the full impact of sanctions to be felt, experts say. In the meantime, NATO member states must stand together, an all but obvious task.
A war between NATO and Russia is not a far-fetched fantasy, on the contrary. As military and humanitarian aid keeps flowing towards the battlefield, the risk of a direct confrontation, even accidentally, grows larger. It is safe to say that Putin has no real incentive to start a conflict against other nuclear nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Nonetheless, a catastrophic escalation might happen anyway if Putin miscalculates the credibility and resolve of NATO in triggering Article 5.
What divides the world from a possible sequel of the last global conflict is the credibility of NATO members’ commitment to come to each other’s aid in case of an attack on even the weakest member. If the Kremlin underestimates its perception of the credibility of Article 5, a real possibility, it is reasonable to expect further recklessness to press NATO where it hurts most. But, as the war moves into its third week, Putin’s hope to uncover the internal weaknesses and contradictions of the West has, to the surprise of many, backfired. If an opportunity were to come up, he would certainly take it.
It would not be inconceivable to imagine a scenario in which Russian hackers ramp up cyber-warfare to test how far they can stretch the threshold above which Article 5 gets invoked. To respond to possible provocations, NATO members will have to stand together and quickly agree upon a common, coordinated response. Thus, it is imperative to deny Putin a pretext to ‘divide and conquer’, by no means an easy task given the presence among NATO members of countries such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
So far, NATO has done a good job in standing face to face against the Kremlin, especially in publicly committing military support to Kyiv. As the war unfolds, the longer the West manages to keep its feet on the ground, the harder it will become for Putin to present Russians with a victory.
A Mirage for Zelenskiy: Ukraine and European Integration
by Francesco Mauri
The ongoing conflict has made clear that apparently, NATO is not the only international organization Ukraine is interested in: on Monday, February 28, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an official request for his country to join the European Union, asking for a special procedure to speed up the process as much as possible, due to its exceptional situation. This began a wave of applications in two more post-Soviet states: Moldova and Georgia.
On the one hand, many voices stood for Ukraine’s accession: not only did Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen hint at that possibility by referring to Ukraine as “one of us,” but even the European Parliament demanded progress to grant the country the status of candidate the day after Zelenskiy’s request. On the other hand, however, the process might not be as simple as many anticipate.
Indeed, EU enlargement is by definition a complex process that might require years of economic reforms, adjustment of legal provisions, and political negotiations. Since it is the current member states that have the last word on accession by voting in the Council (where unanimity is required just to grant Ukraine the status of candidate country), this process is made all the more difficult. Such a consensus is extremely difficult to reach – among other dissenting opinions, for instance, Dutch Premier Mark Rutte stated that the EU was not going to help Ukraine “in that way” – and even if it was, the following steps for Ukraine would not be easier.
Indeed, a candidate country must demonstrate meeting the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, meant to ensure that European integration is not negatively affected by a potential “bad apple.” This is not news for other neighboring countries, such as Albania and Serbia, that have been negotiating their membership for more than ten years.
Arguably, Ukraine, as it is now, would not meet any of the criteria: first, its immediate accession would drag down the EU’s economy (Ukraine’s GDP per capita is the second-lowest in Europe after Moldova).
Second, following the recent controversies with Poland and Hungary, the Union is sadly aware of the risks that letting a “young democracy” (as legal scholars define post-Soviet states) join the EU imply. Ukraine is not an exception, having in recent years shown examples of political instability and human rights violations. By way of example, the current government has put in place several discriminatory measures against Russian minorities, and Amnesty International reported issues with press freedom in the country following legislation put forward by Zelenskiy himself.
Lastly, but not less importantly, Ukraine’s accession through a fast lane would carry many political implications, with both the other “senior” candidates mentioned above and Russia itself, which would probably consider it as further justification to raise tensions even more.
Ukraine’s Europeanism seemed dormant after former president Viktor Yanukovych pulled the plug on negotiations with the Union in 2013. All things considered, Ukraine’s renewed European spirit is doomed to clash with a laborious and complex process, as well as with member states’ different views on how to effectively help the country. Although the citizens’ will (as represented by European MPs) seems to be clear, skepticism in the Council will be tough to overcome, and even in that case, Ukrainians will have to wait a considerably long time before really hoping to become European citizens. Arguably, such a process would not be the immediate response Ukraine deserves from the West.
Serbia and Russia: From Special Relationship to Tumultuous Future
By Ivo Petrov
March 7, 2022 marked the latest of a long string of rapidly unfolding developments in world politics: the government of the Russian Federation announced that it had approved a list of countries that were labeled as ‘unfriendly’ to the regime following its invasion of Ukraine, which was met with condemnation by leaders from all over the world.
Unsurprisingly, the list mostly included countries that voiced their discontent with Putin’s decision to attack either by imposing considerable economic sanctions, sending military aid to Ukrainian forces, or both. Only a few days prior to this, 141 countries voted in favor of a non-binding UN resolution that denounced Russian aggression and called for an immediate stop to the fighting.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary – the West and Russia, along with their respective allies, are exchanging minor niceties wherever they can. Upon closer inspection, however, there is one detail that stands out: Serbia also voted in favor of the resolution. Historically, the Balkan country has had close relations with the Kremlin, especially since Aleksandar Vučić took power in 2014; the then-prime minister and current president did not put sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014-2015, while Putin has been very firm in his backing of Serbia’s position on Kosovo.
More recently, Vučić announced that no sanctions will be placed on Russia following the renewed conflict, despite mounting pressure from the West, but, somewhat surprisingly, the Serbian president unambiguously condemned the aggression. It is important to note that Belgrade is heavily reliant on Russian fossils for its energy needs and sees itself as more vulnerable to further price hikes, considering the fact that it is not a member of the European Union.
This creates a very delicate situation for President Vučić and only time will tell how things will play out for the Balkan nation – the epitome of being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Between Two Blocs: Israel, Ukraine, and the Oligarchs
By Matteo Bertasio
Vladimir Putin recently responded to Western sanctions by drawing up a “black list” of Moscow’s enemies who will suffer political and fiscal retaliation from the Duma. The list picks up a precedent from April 2021 and includes many NATO countries and historical allies of the Western Bloc (such as Taiwan, New Zealand and South Korea).
In neither case does the name of Israel appear, despite its vote in favor of the UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1 that condemned Russia for its actions against Ukraine.
On March 5, while Russia bombarded the Babyn Yar memorial in Kyiv, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a surprise visit to the Kremlin for three hours of talks in Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since the beginning of the invasion. The risk of losing the Vienna Accords on Iranian nuclear power has concerned Bennett, who is playing a mediating role, being proposed as the “man of peace.”
Thus, the prime minister has always denied any affiliation to Western sanctions. The reason can easily be found in the economic and political benefits that the new Israeli government can gain from this position.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that at least 18 of Putin’s biggest financiers have Israeli backgrounds. Of these, the most famous is certainly the well-known entrepreneur Roman Abramovich, who called for a reduction in Western sanctions before abandoning ownership of Chelsea FC. In recent years, he has reportedly donated more than $100 million to the Ir David Foundation, also known as Elad, an Israeli group working to bolster Jewish settlement in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Other collaborators of the Duma already affected by Western sanctions include the Russian-Israeli banker Michail Fridman, the owner of Alfa-Bank, a major Russian financial institution that the United States and European Union placed under sanctions last week, limiting its ability to operate internationally.
These oligarchs’ funding of Israeli non-profit organizations affiliated with the nationalist and anti-Palestinian far-right, also hides a political incentive for the Israeli government to preserve a functioning system that links the old Israeli political class, Russian banks and Tzahal.
It is also necessary to remember that although the interests of Israel and Russia in other theaters such as Syria have always been at odds, the new role of Bennett in the Ukrainian conflict could turn the table, bringing the two actors closer.
Shortly before the start of the conflict, on February 17, Israel Today reported the words of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Israeli military operations in Damascus: “Once again we are insistently calling upon the Israeli side to refrain from such use of force.” If Bennett’s tightrope walk succeeds, it is safe to say that such differences of opinion would be minor in the face of considerable cooperation.
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Bennett saw in the conflict the opportunity to carve out a space in the international scenario, gaining the political prestige of a mediator and safeguarding the consolidated, Russian-heavy financing of national NGOs. Thus, the unusual image of one of Washington’s closest allies maintaining close relations with the Kremlin emerges far more clearly than previously anticipated.
Western Interests, Iranian Needs: The JCPOA After the Russian Invasion
By Sergio Campanini
While the lens of the international media have been pointed at the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, talks in Vienna for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international nuclear deal signed in 2015 only to be disbanded by the United States in 2018, proceeded to reach its concluding steps before a final draft could be chosen.
Given its potential magnitude, it is worth analyzing implications of the conflict on the final stages of the negotiations as well as what a new deal could potentially mean for the parties involved. As highlighted by many in the last few weeks, the main implication of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, other than the disturbingly high number of casualties and displacements, is a crisis in the energy sector, one vastly dominated in Europe by Russian exports. Russia, in fact, is home to the largest natural gas reserves in the world as well as the eight largest oil reserves.
The isolation of Russia from the global market triggered by the numerous sanctions recently imposed by Western countries indubitably hastened proceedings in Vienna. The Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the main parties in the deal (and currently affected by harsh sanctions that would be lifted in case of an agreement), could replace Russia, at least partly, as a trading partner within the international energy sector. After all, although the infrastructure necessary would not be built overnight, Iran possesses the second largest natural gas and the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, an unmissable opportunity for a West desperate to minimize the cost of its sanctions.
Another reason why negotiations have been speeding up lately was the concern of Western parties that heightened tensions with Russia could push the latter to withdraw from the negotiations or to make unrealistic demands, rendering a new deal, something of significant importance for Biden’s foreign policy agenda, an impossibility.
If we analyze this last aspect, Western concerns seem to have been at least partially correct. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on March 5 that for Russia, in order to reach a deal, it was paramount to be reassured that sanctions wouldn’t affect Russia’s trade with Iran.
The request of Iran’s closest ally at the negotiation table was rather unexpected for the Iranian team as well, who asked for clarifications through Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh: ”We’ve seen Mr Lavrov’s remarks in the media and we’re waiting to hear the details through diplomatic channels…We don’t get surprised by the positions of the countries and we didn’t in the past. Amid talks, one must look at both statements and actions of the countries.” He added that Russia’s concerns are “understandable” and that “it’s clear that Iran’s peaceful nuclear cooperation with other countries should not be restricted or affected by any sanctions”. The statements of both parties were later reaffirmed during a phone call between Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on March 7.
A revival of the JCPOA would be crucial for Iran’s economy as even the Supreme Leader and newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi both relatively downplayed the importance of a potential nuclear deal domestically, the sector has been barely surviving, with significant inflation and little economic progress to back it up. Iran would be ready to get back to its maximum export capacity quite quickly: “We can reach our maximum oil production capacity in less than one or two months”, Iranian Petroleum Minister Javad Owji told official news agency SHANA.
A new deal in favorable conditions would put Iran in a very advantageous spot. The country could increase its exports to struggling European countries in search of relief from the impact of the Russian invasion; could boost its relationship with Russia by enabling the latter to bypass trade limits imposed by newly established sanctions; could be in a much more solid position in its regional proxy and direct confrontations with Saudi Arabia and especially Israel; and, thanks to rapid economic development, could also foster domestic support for the conservatives should new living conditions for ordinary Iranians become better than those former President Rouhani, a reformist, could achieve during his second term in office.
While everything seems to be going in the right direction for Iran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry itself pulled the brakes: “Vienna talks still continue. Premature good news does not substitute good agreement. Nobody can say the deal is done, until all the outstanding remaining issues are resolved. Extra efforts needed. Everybody is now focused on the final critical steps.” Khatibzadeh said after the last rounds of talks which had even seen some European diplomats releasing statements of enthusiasm and satisfaction, almost confirming that a deal was close to being completed.
Will Russia obtain the guarantees it wants, deemed as unconstructive by Western parties, or will a new JCPOA remain just a mirage? Whatever the case, there is a lot on the line, and it seems the question won’t remain unanswered for much longer.