Vladimir Putin will look back on 2016 as an annus mirabilis. Isolated and straining under the impact of western sanctions 12 months ago, the president has managed to transform Russia’s international fortunes thanks to an extraordinary run of good luck. Brexit, the migration crisis and the current surge of right-wing populism have enfeebled Europe and weakened its resolve to maintain a tough collective stance towards Russia. Putin’s military intervention in support of Bashar al-Assad has put his ally within sight of victory in the Syrian civil war. Best of all, Donald Trump is about to enter the White House on a promise to repair US-Russia relations on the Kremlin’s terms. On every front, the tide of events appears to be flowing strongly in Putin’s direction.
The new mood was apparent last month when he met Rodrigo Duterte, his counterpart in the Philippines, at the Asia-Pacific summit. Duterte used the occasion to complain about western “bullying” and declared his desire to be part of a “new order” led by Russia and China. When you consider that the remarks come from the leader of a country that has been a mainstay of the US alliance system in Asia since the early years of the Cold War, it is clear that something significant is afoot. Putin is managing to extend Russia’s diplomatic reach beyond its traditional constituency among the world’s radical and anti-American regimes. Read more
One of the most striking features of the new cold war has been the aggressiveness with which the Russian state has turned the institutions of openness into weapons against the west while simultaneously denying its opponents the use of equivalent institutions at home.
Every facet of democratic life, from free speech to the independence of civil society, has been manipulated as part of the Kremlin’s strategy of information warfare. The same goes for western systems of justice. The rule of law doesn’t apply in Russia, especially when the interests of the governing elite are at stake. Courts function as an extension of Vladimir Putin’s power, convicting and sentencing his enemies on command. Yet the Russian state is able to avail itself of the west’s independent legal systems on the same basis as everyone else, and frequently does so to pursue its victims on foreign soil. Read more
The election of Antonio Guterres as the next secretary-general of the United Nations looks, on the surface of it, like business as usual. A group of ageing men has chosen another ageing man to lead the world for the next four years. In fact, there are grounds for thinking that something significant and positive may have changed in the way the UN works.
Guterres is the first former head of government to have been given the job. Previous holders have all been mid-ranking ministers or career diplomats rather than senior political leaders. The big powers have been happy to keep it that way because they are jealous of their prerogatives and don’t want the person running the UN to have too many ideas of their own. In the words of one popular quip, they want a secretary, not a general. Read more
After months of speculation, the race to become the next UN Secretary-General has reached the point at which support for the official contenders is being tested where it really counts. Two rounds of straw balloting, in which countries are invited to “encourage” or “discourage” the candidacy of each nominee, have already been held by the Security Council. Another is scheduled for next week. Perhaps surprisingly, at a time when the UN is under pressure to appoint its first woman head and recognise the principle of regional rotation by giving priority to candidates from eastern Europe, the apparent frontrunner is neither a woman nor from eastern Europe. He is Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal who completed his second term as UN High Commissioner for Refugees last year. Read more
One difference between the Cold War and today’s confrontation between Russia and the west can be found in the weapons being used to prosecute it. While the balance of military power in central Europe still matters, it is only one dimension of a wider struggle being waged by mostly non-military means.
Different instruments – technological, economic and administrative – are being adapted and combined to find new ways of exerting pressure on the opposing side. What they often share in common is an attempt to turn the features of a more open and globalised world into sources of vulnerability that can be exploited for strategic advantage. Read more
The furore over allegations that Lech Walesa collaborated with Poland’s communist secret police in the 1970s shows that the past is ever present in the countries that once made up the Soviet bloc. Intelligence files, real or fabricated, have often been used to destroy political opponents or settle scores, while laws on lustration and ‘de-communisation’ have played an important role in the efforts of central and eastern European states to define their post-communist identities. Vladimir Putin has also been an active participant in these ‘history wars’, rehabilitating the symbols and personalities of the Soviet period to encourage patriotic sentiment at home and labelling countries that try to erase their Soviet legacies as inherently Russophobic.
Divergent attitudes to the past are likely to remain a potential flashpoint in relations with Russia, yet it is no longer clear that the efforts many of these countries devote to repudiating the communist era serve any useful purpose in promoting or consolidating political change. Most of them completed their democratic transitions years ago and the danger of a communist revival is now wholly non-existent. If there is an internal threat to the open, pluralistic, market-oriented societies that successfully emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet experiment, it comes from a different direction altogether. In particular, it comes from a populist, authoritarian right that wants to build an illiberal Europe of closed borders and closed minds. Read more
The US is not the only country holding primaries for a position of world leadership. In Bulgaria, a fierce battle is under way over who will be the country’s candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary General at the end of this year.
The outside world is taking notice because the post is slated to go to Eastern Europe under the UN’s informal policy of rotation and Bulgaria is one of the few countries in the region capable of proposing someone trusted by all of the UN Security Council’s veto-wielding permanent members (the P5). The problem is that, unlike the US election, there is no process, no open debate and no way of knowing how or when a decision will be taken. Read more
Ukraine faces a moment of truth, as the first domestic energy bills to include the large increase in tariffs announced earlier this year reached hard-pressed consumers this month. We are entering the period in which the will of the country to carry out badly needed reforms will be tested against its ability to absorb the inevitable shocks and pain involved.
Raising energy tariffs to market rates is the single most important reform Ukraine has carried out so far, enabling it to root out corruption, cut waste and strengthen public finances. But the measure is deeply unpopular and unscrupulous politicians have been more than ready to exploit that fact. Read more
One of the hottest topics for discussion at the United Nations General Assembly this week isn’t even on the official agenda. By the time of next year’s annual gathering the UN is expected to have chosen a new Secretary-General to replace Ban Ki-moon, who completes his second and final term shortly afterwards. The names of potential candidates, the qualities expected of them and even the rules of selection are now part of an intense debate that will take months of horse-trading to resolve.
Among those with a major stake in the outcome are the countries of Eastern Europe, the only one of the UN’s five regional groupings never to have held the job. Sidelined during the long decades of the Cold War and the post-communist transition, these countries feel that they deserve recognition for their success in transforming themselves into strong and independent nation states. What better way to throw off the past and confirm their new status than for one of their number to claim the World’s top diplomatic post? Read more
The annual Yalta European Strategy conference, now relocated to Kiev until further notice, is a good place to take the political temperature of Ukraine. Last weekend’s gathering saw the country’s ruling elite, from President Petro Poroshenko down, out in force and keen to talk. What regular attendees noted most was the change of mood since last year: less appetite for apportioning blame and more focus on what Ukraine can do to rebuild itself. There was even room for guarded optimism. A snap poll showed that most participants expect to see Ukraine to be stable, growing and with its conflict in the East frozen, if not solved, within three years.
There are certainly reasons to argue that Ukraine is beginning to turn the corner. Its currency has stabilised, the renegotiation of its sovereign debt has strengthened its fiscal outlook and a return to growth is widely anticipated. The government’s economic programme recently earned praise from Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director. The problem is that while it is possible to detect an improvement in Ukraine’s macroeconomic position, it will take longer for this to feed through into anything resembling a feel good factor in the country as a whole. Read more
It was perhaps fortuitous that this month’s 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed so soon after the announcement that Iran had reached a deal with the US and others to step back from the nuclear brink. Whatever the critics say, the world’s most serious proliferation threat has been averted for now. By agreeing to reduce stockpiles of enriched uranium and accept stronger verification, Iran has extended the breakout period needed to build a nuclear weapon from two or three months to around a year, reducing the temptation for other countries in the region to take pre-emptive military action or acquire nuclear capabilities of their own.
This news is particularly welcome because elsewhere the nuclear arms control agenda has stalled and important agreements that defined the end of the Cold War have started to fray at the edges. Without a concerted diplomatic effort there is a danger that the world will slide unwittingly into a new era of nuclear competition. There is a pressing need for new multilateral initiatives and agreements that strengthen norms of restraint, co-operation and trust in the field of nuclear weapons policy. Read more
The west is in danger of losing Ukraine unless there is a significant change in the scale and nature of its engagement with the country over the coming weeks and months. That is the somber reality European and US policy makers need to grasp as Ukraine is hit by a wave of protests, terrorist attacks and continued violations of the ceasefire by separatists in the east. Against a background of deepening hardship and rising political frustration, there is a very real risk that the reformist drive of the last few months will give way to a new populism that takes Ukraine backwards and opens the door to renewed Russian influence. Complacent western leaders must act before it’s too late. Read more
With a decision due next year, the process of choosing the next United Nations Secretary General is already under way against a background of tectonic international change. The incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, was appointed in 2006 when the world was still very much in the midst of a “unipolar moment”. The US may have been bogged down in Iraq, but the desire and capacity of the Bush administration to project power on a global scale was beyond doubt. The context in which Ban’s successor takes office will be very different. It will be one still grappling to come to terms with the aftermath of a global economic crisis and a reordering of world power that has accelerated the rise of China and other developing nations, weakened the eurozone, forced the US to retrench and encouraged Russian to challenge the post-Cold War settlement with force. Read more
After a lull of several weeks, an upsurge of fighting near Donetsk is once again threatening Ukraine’s fragile ceasefire. A resumption of the Russian-backed offensive had been widely expected to follow last weekend’s Orthodox Easter celebrations, although Vladimir Putin’s precise intentions remain unclear. Is this the next phase of a slow-motion land grab, with Mariupol possibly the next target, or is it just a means of ratcheting up the pressure in an effort to force new concessions? Either way, Ukraine is going to need a lot more international support to weather the crisis. Read more