Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Reading List Special – The Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict 2nd October 2020

Three links today which all explore issues surrounding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is Peace Possible Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The first comes from Carnegie Europe and brings together a wide range of expert views on the conflict and when/whether it will be peacefully resolved. There are some views which appear more pessimistic and some which are pure pie in the sky – you can judge for yourself which might be which.

Turkey backs Azerbaijan in war with Armenia as Russia stands by

AL-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman takes the general view that Russia is letting this conflict play out for a while so that both sides are exhausted and to show that the Minsk Format is ineffective. By then stepping in and determining a ceasefire (if not peace), Russia will reassert its regional dominance.

No peacemakers for the new/old Caucasian war

On the other hand Pavel Baev for Brookings suggests that Russia was largely caught out by the conflict flaring up at this time as its attention was focussed on Belarus.

A few hot (bad) takes from me:

  • The US is distracted and showing once again that it does not have the will or capacity to be the world leader as it once did. This can change, of course, but shows no signs of doing so at the moment.
  • Turkey’s overt intervention on the side of Azerbaijan is new and one further example of Erdogan’s desire to be a regional power (or more). Whilst Russia might be prepared to tolerate Turkish actions in Syria and Libya, will they be happy that this is also happening in their own backyard, the ‘near abroad’?
  • Armenia is Russia’s most dependable ally. So why has the Kremlin not immediately come down on the side of Yerevan? Partly, I suspect, because they want to chastise Pashinyan for using the ‘my big brother is going to beat you up’ threat.
  • The Minsk process is at risk of failing completely. The three co-chairs are Russia, France and the US. Of these, only France seems to be fulfilling its remit at the moment – without great success. Minsk is a subsidiary of OSCE which has been bogged down with internal arguments largely started by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
  • Diplomatic calls for both sides to stand down and negotiate are the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

French municipal elections to conclude on 28th June

France is going ahead with the remainder of its municipal elections on 28th June. This excellent paper by International IDEA and others explains the background.

In short, there are about 35,000 municipal bodies (local councils) in France, the vast majority of which are very small – with fewer than 1,000 voters. They elect councillors in a two round system. The first of these rounds was held on March 15th and the second was scheduled for a week later.

The first round was held the day after President Macron instituted a lockdown. The problem was that the law in France did not allow for the elections to be postponed. When turnout fell dramatically, the political parties agreed by consensus to postpone the second round and this was subsequently confirmed by a new law.

More than 30,000 councils didn’t need a second round as the winners had secured more than 50% of the vote in the first. But there remained almost 5,000 municipalities (including the biggest cities) which did.

The emergency law decreed that the second round needed to be held by the end of June. If not, it implied that the elections should be scrapped altogether and started from scratch as soon as possible. But it was unclear whether this would apply to those municipalities where the elections were ‘finished’ as well as those which needed a second round.

In the event, President Macron and French political leaders have decided that the second round can go ahead on June 28th – before the deadline. This comes as lockdown is being eased cross the country. What will happen to turnout – particularly among older sections of the population – remains to be seen as France does not make provision for early, home or postal voting.