Russia and Ukraine: a new crisis?
Russia has been back in the spotlight recently, after President Putin replaced his long-standing chief of staff Sergei Ivanov. Meanwhile, tensions have mounted in eastern Ukraine, prompting fears of a new Russian offensive. Russia is still heavily involved in Syria. Is a new crisis building? Gideon Rachman speaks with Kathrin Hille, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, and Neil Buckley, Eastern Europe editor.
Ukraine in turmoil
How bleak is the outlook for Ukraine? The Prime Minister has resigned, the President is implicated in the Panama papers and the Dutch have rejected an EU-Ukraine trade deal. Gideon Rachman puts the question to the FT Ukraine correspondent Roman Olearchyk and the FT’s Eastern Europe Editor, Neil Buckley.
Keep an eye on Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. On Monday, Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s best-known foreign policy analysts and a man with good Kremlin antennae, tweeted: “Growing concern in Moscow that Ukraine and Moldova will seek to squeeze Transnistria hard, provoking conflict with Russia.” On Tuesday, a columnist in the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper warned that Russia “seriously faces the prospect of a repeat of the  situation” – when it went to war with Georgia – “this time around Transnistria”.
What sparked the tensions was a May 21 vote in Ukraine’s parliament to suspend military co-operation with Russia. That included a 1995 agreement giving Russia military transit rights across Ukraine to reach Transnistria, which borders Ukraine’s Odessa region. Read more
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko (L) with Mikheil Saakashvili (C) in Odessa
Unlike Russia’s leaders, who loathe him, and unlike some of his western friends, who once treated him as if he were Georgia’s greatest hero since King Davit the Builder (1089-1125), I don’t hold strong views for or against Mikheil Saakashvili.
If pressed, I would say that, during his 2004-13 spell as president of Georgia, he displayed an impressive, but slightly frantic reformist energy in pursuing what he believed to be his country’s pro-western destiny. His modernising fervour combined indomitable self-confidence and business school English with an unpredictability and a capacity for misjudgment that at times bordered on recklessness.
I interviewed Saakashvili in Brussels in October 2008, two months after a short war in which Russia in effect partitioned Georgia by invading it and recognising the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He was more subdued than usual, possibly because it had dawned on him that in the build-up to that conflict he had fallen into a well-laid Russian trap.
Now, in the strangest of career twists, Saakashvili has been appointed governor of Ukraine’s southern region of Odessa by President Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainian president has speeded up this move by granting Saakashvili instant Ukrainian citizenship. Read more
Just like the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the violence in eastern Ukraine is attracting foreign fighters – some with the pro-Russian separatists, and some with the Ukrainian government forces.
Many of these fighters are from European countries. This makes it curious that we don’t hear much about this phenomenon from European governments – which are, of course, clamping down on citizens who go to fight in the Middle East. Read more
Predictions that the war in Ukraine might be past its worst point can only be advanced with caution and caveats. Over the past 18 months, the western world has been consistently surprised by unexpected escalations and brutal events – from the annexation of Crimea to the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Even now, fighting continues. Last week, saw an escalation of conflict around Donetsk, with six killed in one day.
And yet, for all that, a cautious optimism is growing in the west that the fighting may be past its worst. There are still armed militias on the ground and intermittent fighting continues. But, against expectations, the Minsk peace accords negotiated last February, seem to have succeeded in damping down the conflict. One well-placed EU diplomat calls the new situation, a “hybrid peace” – a play on the well-known idea that Russia is fighting a hybrid war. Read more
If the Minsk II agreement reached between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany can secure a ceasefire and save a few lives, then it is probably a good thing. But you would have to be fairly naive to believe that is the end of the matter.
Over the past year, President Putin has shown that he is a master of turning military pressure on and off to keep the Ukrainians and the west on the hop. And there are a couple of other reasons for suspecting that the fighting may soon restart.
First, the Russians have not yet achieved even the relatively limited goal of establishing a land corridor between Russia and Crimea. Until they do this, the economic situation in Crimea is likely to be very precarious. Second, while Russia’s denials that it is behind the fighting in eastern Ukraine are not credible (if so, why are they even negotiating a ceasefire?), it may well be true that Moscow is not in complete control of events. The Ukrainian side may also be unable to control some of the nationalist militias that are fighting in the east of the country. Read more
Most people have something they do to mark the end of the year: make a resolution, go to a party, tidy the attic. My annual ritual is to make a list of the five most significant events of the past year in global politics. This year is an odd one, in that it seems to me that there are only two events that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. The first is the breakdown in relations between Russia and the west, caused by the Ukraine crisis. The second is America’s return to war in the Middle East. So let’s deal with those two first and then move on to the other contenders.
• Syria’s young girls are facing assault, early marriage and being forced into prostitution as the refugee crisis spirals. The IRC, selected by the FT for its 2014 seasonal appeal, is seeking to protect and empower them
• A motley crew of ex businessmen, academics and pro-Russia activists has seized control in Ukraine’s rebel republics Read more
After a frenetic period of travel involving 10 separate trips overseas in the past three months, I am trying to catch my breath, shake off the jet lag and make sense of what I have seen. Leaving aside the big geopolitical themes, one tentative conclusion I have reached is that world leaders and hotel lobbies do not mix.
This first struck at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid as I waited to greet Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, who was the guest-of-honour at the FT’s Spain Summit. On one side of the lobby was a bank of photographers and TV crews. I was standing on the other side with a couple of FT colleagues and the hotel management. Rajoy’s limo drew up and we could see him and his entourage heading towards the entrance. Just at that moment, a party of elderly Americans came out of the lift, clad in their trademark tracksuit bottoms and fluorescent visors, and began to totter across the lobby, demanding loudly, “Where’s the coach?” The hotel manager froze — torn between the desire to shove the Americans out of the way and his duty to be courteous. He just about pulled it off but it was a close-run thing. Read more
Which of the eurozone’s 18 member states will be the weakest performing economy in 2015?
Italy, which has recorded no economic growth since 1999? Cyprus, which is still reeling from its financial sector collapse in 2012-13? Or some other hard-pressed southern European nation? No. In all probability, the sick man of the eurozone will be Finland.
The Finnish economy is in its third consecutive year of contraction. Any growth in 2015 will be not much bigger than a snowflake. The country will hold a general election in April. The question is whether the dark outlook will benefit The Finns, a populist-nationalist party which was known as the True Finns when it shocked Europe by coming third in the 2011 election with 19 per cent of the vote. Read more
• Marina Silva, a political outsider who is threatening to end the 12-year reign of Brazil’s powerful centre-left Workers’ party, is quenching Brazilians’ thirst for change.
• Qatar’s foreign minister has rejected claims Qataris are funding Isis in Syria and tells the west to back moderate Sunni fighting the Assad regime.
• Islamist extremists such as Isis are exploiting the conventions of X-rated movies in their own hardcore film productions, writes The Atlantic.
• Russian academic Sergey Karaganov argues that the delusions of a west that has become a directionless gaggle are responsible for triggering the conflict over Ukraine.
• An independent Scotland would face running a gauntlet to gain admission to the EU. Read more
Rising tensions over war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine, the rising tensions between Russia and the West, Vladimir Putin’s objectives, and how ordinary Russians and Russia’s other neighbouring states see the conflict. Neil Buckley, the FT’s eastern Europe editor and Jack Farchy, Moscow correspondent, join Gideon Rachman.
By Christian Oliver and Richard Milne
Europe’s leaders are preparing for a trade war with Russia by mapping out the battlefields on which they see the highest risk of casualties.
In data released on Friday, the European Commission identified the agricultural exporters most vulnerable to Moscow’s trade embargo on EU produce. Spanish peaches, Dutch cheeses and Polish apples find themselves squarely on the front line.
Polish fruit exports to Russia were valued at €340m last year and win the dubious honour of being the most exposed crops. The Poles have launched an impassioned public campaign to try to switch to more domestic consumption with their “Eat an apple to spite Putin” slogan.
The Netherlands (with dairy exports to Russia of €257m in 2013) and Finland (€253m) are at most risk on the milk and cheese front. Spain and Greece are vulnerable in relation to citrus, with stoned fruit such as peaches and nectarines also being described by farmers as being at crisis point in terms of storage overload and no market to go to. Read more
• Squeezed between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, civilian casualties in east Ukraine continue to mount, diminishing the chances of postwar reconciliation.
• Meanwhile in Russia, President Vladimir Putin is feeling the chill from the struggle for Ukraine as he attempts to appease both business tycoons and nationalists.
• The Guardian’s Shaun Walker tracked down the feared rebel leader Igor Bezler- thought to be behind the MH17 crash and regarded as something of a loose cannon, even by other rebels. The encounter ended with Mr Bezler threatening to execute the interviewer.
• Europe is bankrolling Al Qaeda by paying ransoms. An investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125m in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66m was paid just last year. Read more
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, has just cemented his reputation as the problem child of the European Union with a speech in which he argued that “liberal democratic societies cannot remain globally competitive”. All EU countries are meant to subscribe to a set of values that could broadly be described as liberal and democratic. But Mr Orban suggested that the Hungarian government is now looking elsewhere for inspiration – citing China, Russia, Turkey and Singapore as potential role models. Read more