April 11, 2022No Comments

Maxim Alyukov on Russian Media, Autocracy and Information Control

In this interview, Dr Maxim Alyukov explores how political engagement in authoritarian states affects the ways in which its citizens interpret the news, particularly focussing on the Russia-Ukraine War. How does the media in Russia document the conflict in Ukraine? What is the response from the Russian community? This discussion centres on research by Dr Alyukov on how citizens living in authoritarian regimes interpret political information in a heavily regulated media landscape.

Dr Maxim Alyukov is a postdoctoral fellow at King’s Russia Institute, King's College London. He is also a researcher with Public Sociology Laboratory (St Petersburg). His research has been published in a variety of disciplinary and area studies journals, such as PoliticsQualitative Psychology, and Europe-Asia Studies. He holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Helsinki and an MA in sociology from the European University at Saint-Petersburg. 

Interviewers: Leigh Dawson, Julia Hodgins, and Sofia Staderini.

April 5, 2022No Comments

Putin’s War and the Shaping of a New Global Energy Map

By: Riccardo Bosticco, Lorenzo Caruti, Sofia Dal Santo, Miguel Jiménez, Michele Mignogna.

Introduction

The Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, is already showing significant effects on a global scale. As most States and international organizations have officially condemned the war - from West to East between America, Europe, and Africa - openly criticizing Putin's behavior and deciding to sanction Moscow heavily, the biggest problem concerns the aspect inherent to energy supplies. "Europe depends on Russia for about 40% of its natural gas, with most of it transported by pipeline", explains Reuters. Luckily for them, most European countries have cut reliance on Russian gas in recent years. Yet dependency is still weighty, and the most recent sanctions on Moscow caused a further growth of gas prices. European states and companies have acknowledged the danger of relying too heavily on Russian energy, and also those countries that had a commercial, yet controversial, understanding of energy relations with Russia, like Germany, decided to act firmly.

The United States proposes solutions to Europe, while oil and gas producers in the MENA act controversially, and China remains cautiously in the background, carefully observing the evolution of the situation without intervening directly or taking a clear position. Where will the current energy decisions drive us?

The European Union 

The EU is a substantial energy importer, largely reliant on Russia's supply. Accordingly, due to sanctions imposed to punish Russia, the EU has set about to make a significant course correction. The European Commission has proposed an outline of a plan to make Europe independent from Russian gas before 2030: REPowerEU. The main goal of this ambitious plan is to diversify to the greatest extent possible the gas suppliers of the EU by increasing LNG Imports and constructing alternative pipelines. To do so, a strong political will by the Member States to follow the correct route and avoid uncoordinated actions is needed.

Currently, there are not sufficient LNG terminals in the Eastern EU, although growing investments have been undertaken in recent years by the Union; it is, therefore, crucial that such countries have access to regional gas hubs. In addition, even the construction of alternative pipelines prompts some issues. Unsurprisingly, European customers are unwilling to commit financially to long-term gas purchase contracts, which would be necessary to sustain pipeline development, due to EU green obligations. Furthermore, authoritarian governments like Azerbaijan's, Turkey's, and the Gulf monarchies' influence on the gas trade would remain, leaving the door open for political exploits of energy flows. Besides, the existing alternative sources of natural gas to the EU appear to be already at the highest production level. Therefore, the most likely option seems to import from the Caspian Sea. 

Overall, an emphasis is placed by the Commission on boosting energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewables. This is essential since it contributes to terminating the EU's overdependence on a single supplier, even though it does not provide a suitable solution in the short term. Last but not least, the Commission has even undertaken initiatives to mitigate high energy prices

The United States 

Since the energy sector is the primary source of Russia's revenues, this was a primary target for Western sanctions. Yet, while the EU depends heavily on Russian energy, the US is a net energy exporter. Biden recognized this fact. When asked about Italy's carefulness at sanctioning energy, he answered that "this is an alliance of nations that each have their priorities and their […] concerns". Yet, on March 8, the US sanctioned all of Russia's energy exports in the US. The United States is now trying to convince the European allies to do the same by offering additional LNG supplies. On March 25, while in Brussels, Joe Biden announced that the US would send another 15 billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas to Europe. The United States' primary objective is to disentangle European energy dependency on Russia. The challenges at stake are significant, and the following lines highlight them.

While the strategy to realize such an objective is to rely on scale capacity, what matters in a crisis like this is spare capacity, a factor that might complicate things for the US. Further, the opacity around the technical aspects surrounding the March 25 deal seems indeed mirror the difficulties of disentangling the EU from Russian gas. Moreover, LNG infrastructural capacities in Europe need funds. Turning to oil, the US has demanded an increase in oil output to avoid prices spiking. However, national frackers and OPEC+ countries show little interest in ramping up output. The dilemma is over the first-mover's disadvantage. There has been a phone call between Biden and King Salman of Saudi Arabia concerning additional output; yet, Riyadh answered that it does not want to politicize oil, preferring to observe the other producers' moves and the outcome of the Iranian sanctions lift issue. So, what is next for the US energy strategy?

MENA Region 

While the war is taking place in Europe, it will have long-term effects in the Middle East, too. The leaders found themselves at a crossroads: they condemned Russia but did not agree to impose such severe punitive sanctions. Russia is an essential economic and strategic ally, necessary to maintain control over the Iranian nuclear threat. Moreover, it is the main supplier of wheat, on which many countries in the North African area depend. However, the United States is a fundamental player, too, especially for the political stability achieved in recent years by some countries. In the war context, the oil-producing countries in the Gulf have seen increased revenues. However, beyond the economy, the outcome of this conflict could have significant geopolitical implications for the region, including reshuffling alliances and redefining pipeline routes.
The geopolitical consequences of the war also affected the oil market. Leading OPEC Plus member countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have stressed that cutting Russia out of the oil market would have severe consequences for both the European Union and the United States. Both Ryad and Abu Dhabi are moving closer and closer to Asia, also considering accepting the Yuan instead of the dollar as the oil currency, distancing themselves from Washington, which has been indifferent to the recent missile attacks they suffered. Another debate on energy matters is underway in the Mediterranean area. For example, Turkey is trying to maintain neutrality in the conflict in Europe: with the new energy alternatives that Europe could have at its disposal in order not to be dependent on Russian gas, Turkey could act as a bridge to bring gas to Europe via the Turkstream project, a possible option if Nordstream is not activated, and also for the East-med Pipeline, currently stalled due to the recent withdrawal of the US from the project.

China  

The eventual termination of European energy contracts would put Vladimir Putin under strain since these cash flows are helping the president sustain an already longer than expected invasion. That is where China comes into play. Even though the "red dragon's" stand on Russia's invasion has been somewhat ambiguous, the country has got many reasons for stepping up and taking over the gas imports that Europe will, in time, refrain from. Energy has fueled the extraordinary growth of the "workshop of the world". The country began to aggressively pursue energy sources beyond its borders after 1993, when it became a net energy importer. This deficit was accentuated by the surge of bilateral and multilateral deals after joining the WTO in 2001. The prospects which visualize the country undergoing a structural transformation and moving towards less energy-intensive sectors might alleviate these increased energy needs. However, guaranteeing energy security is a top priority for the one-party state until then. 

Surprisingly, oil meets a tiny fraction of China's domestic total energy demand, and much of it gets to China through the South Sea, a heavily disputed route among Asian countries. This supply uncertainty prevents China from reducing its coal consumption, representing 60% of energy consumption. Nevertheless, China's commitments to be carbon neutral by 2060 do inevitably accelerate the phasing out of coal. Besides having long-term plans for heavily investing in nuclear energy and hydrogen, natural gas supplied by Russia has become increasingly more relevant. The first steps towards this alliance materialized in 2019, with Siberia's pipeline pumping liquefied natural gas to northeastern China. This association was scaled up on February 4, when a 30-year contract was settled which secured the construction of a pipeline connecting with the northeast of the country. Yet, this alliance may even go beyond natural gas. Recent news of the departure of oil giants such as BP, Shell, and Exxon from their joint ventures with Russian companies have spurred speculations of China's state-owned companies stepping in.  

Conclusion 
As soon as the shock of the Ukrainian war arrived, the West discovered a hard truth: even in a globally interdependent world, it is not safe to be heavily dependent on a single country. As mentioned above, Europe is moving towards making plans to become energetically independent. Nevertheless, West leaders are conscious that the road to independence will be long and winding, indeed taking years to make it. However, the problem is not only a European matter: as previously said, even a solid Russian ally like China is facing the effect of the energetic crisis. On the other hand, Beijing will probably be seen as the only winner at the war's end, mainly for its ambiguous position. At the same time, the United States is dealing with a different situation: even though it does not depend on energy imported from Moscow, its role as a leader is put to the test. Washington needs to help its allies and, simultaneously, avoid the MENA Region ending up in the hands of China. Therefore, what is at stake is not only the energy question: the current world order could become very different at the end of the day.

March 31, 2022No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: What’s Next?” with Tracey German (KCL)

For its forth event of the 2021/22 Webinar Series, entitled "The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: What's Next?", ITSS Verona members Ludovica Brambilla, Davide Gobbicchi and Fabrizio Napoli (from the Russia and Post-Soviet Space Team) discuss with Dr Tracey German (KCL) - one of Europe's main experts on Russian affairs - the status of the conflict in Ukraine, narratives, strategies, winners and losers, and political, social, cultural, economic implications for all actors involved.

Do not miss on the other ITSS Verona webinars, which are available at the following link: https://www.itssverona.it/activities

March 21, 2022No Comments

Russia-Ukraine War Fact Sheet

By: Sofia Staderini

The Russian tactic is that of a pincer encirclement of entire Ukraine – from Russian territory and occupied Crimea, Donbas, and Belarus - and inside they follow the same tactic as Kyiv's focus, methodically destroying civilian infrastructure and nuclear power plants. The attempt is to demoralize and coerce Ukrainians. Yet morale is rising and these same civilians are becoming soldiers. Such support somewhat offsets the quantitative advantage of the Russian army in manpower and equipment. Now, Russian troops make advances into Ukrainian territory only at the cost of hundreds of soldiers every day, failing for now to take control of any regional center.

Their qualitative advantage is very reduced, as can be inferred from the high level of losses, which seems to be well above 5%, in men and materials. Russia could take control of the territory, but only with long times and high destruction. Reservist and conscript call-ups, as well as the ongoing shipment of Syrian and Chechen militants to Russia and Belarus, will not be able to affect the balance of troops around Kyiv in the coming week, slowing down the Russian tactic as it is momentarily unable to conduct simultaneous attacks.

Image Source: https://it.depositphotos.com/folder/La%20verità%20sulla%20guerra%20della%20Russia%20in%20Ucraina-299150880.html?offset=200&qview=551211048&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ntf_ruby_war&utm_term=100_images

Russia is now deploying maneuverable Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, reported by Russian state news agencies as a “next-generation weapon”. While it is very unlikely that the deployment of Kh-47M2 missiles will have a major impact on the current stall of the invasion, It could likely point out a shortage of other weapons and a propagandistic effort to distort Russia’s military failure.

However, after an end of decades of deterrence orthodoxy, the danger of a possible escalation involving nuclear weapons is real. Indeed, Putin has used nuclear threats to create a wide perimeter in which he may pursue a conventional war in Europe. NATO countries are doing everything to avoid escalations, complying with a policy of non-intervention for avoiding direct contact with the Russian military.

While not directing intervening in Ukraine, NATO countries are deploying significant military aid to the country while drastically raising defense spending, reclaiming the alliance's historical role as a protective haven against Moscow's military activities. Germany in particular is now increasing its defense spending to more than 2% of its economic output: a historic departure from its postwar commitment not to transfer armaments to combat zones. Moreover, the European Union's recent investments (€500 million) in arms and other aid to the Ukrainian military mark a “watershed moment” in its history.

Image Source: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/russia-now-global-economic-pariah-ruble-worth-less-than-one-penny-us-2811892

However, many countries are starting to be bitten by the economic effects of the war, especially those with currencies linked to the rubble. More sanctions implications are quite likely to emerge in the coming weeks, particularly in a case like the EU-Russia energy partnership, where dependency is significant. Indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is now serving as a geopolitical catalyst on key strategic, economic, and societal issues and will certainly bring to consider re-alignments, particularly in Post-Soviet countries and the Middle East. NATO's deterrent posture must be strengthened as well as cooperation and dialogue with the various regional actors in order to figure out the next evolutions in the geopolitical chessboards.

March 16, 2022No Comments

Russian Military Doctrine: An Overview

By: Danilo delle Fave and Marco Verrocchio.

The Russian Military Reform of 2014

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has now skyrocketed among the news and masses of people are expressing their disapproval for the war through marches and protests worldwide. However, intelligence services and scholars had warned that a regional conflict between the two countries was foreseeable. To better understand the reasons behind Putin’s decision, an analysis of Russia’s 2014 military doctrine is fundamental. A military doctrine is essentially a public document that summarizes in strategic and theoretical terms the military capabilities in defending, offending and retaliating against threats. While Soviet-era doctrines were unpublished, the Russian federation documents are public, and they describe the political direction of Russia in military affairs. The 2014 version is divided in: generic provisions, the military dangers and threats, the military policy and the military economic-defence support. In comparison to the Soviet era, Russian military doctrines emphasize the defensive approach, and they profit from lessons learned from military conflicts and analysis of different scenarios. In the ethos of Russian “Motherland”, Russia is perceived as an object to be protected and a subject capable of reacting.

Military offensive operations are justified under a defensive provision which aims to prevent threats towards Russia. United Nations and international treaties are invoked in supporting this theory. Russia’s allies and partners are clearly mentioned. Belarus is the closest ally, with fully integrated armed forces, infrastructures and coordination. CSTO, CIS and BRICS countries are mentioned “to strengthen the system of collective security”. In comparison to the 2010’s military doctrine, the EU is perceived no longer functional to pursue national security, but an equal partner to maintain a status-quo.

The 2014 version also abandons all possible cooperation with NATO as well. The Russian ambition to pursue a regional defense policy guarantees that border states do not adopt an approach that threatens the Russian Federation. A specific section that implicitly was dedicated to the case of Ukraine mentions that overthrowing of legitimate governments in bordering states is a serious menace for Russia. Another reference regards 2011-12 Russian protests, declaring that anti-nationalistic information led by external parties is a menace. In some issues, Russia has a dualist approach, perceiving an issue both as a threat and as a mean. For instance, the use of private military contractors (PMCs) is a military danger but it is an inevitable component of contemporary warfare. The same idea is applied to the militarization of the information, which undermines Russia from abroad but is also a novel area of improvement. The 2014 also reflects a much more reliance on Russia in using tools of hybrid warfare. While the 2010 version made a generic use of hybrid warfare, the 2014 version highlighted that Russia would rely on military means only after political, diplomatic, judicial, economic, information and other non-kinetic means have been used.

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/monument-to-minin-and-pozharsky-177843/

Gerasimov’s Doctrine and Hybrid Warfare

During an event in the Russian Academy of Military Sciences in 2019, the Russian Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov described Russian military strategy as “Active Defense”. What does he mean by “Active Defense”? It is a strategic concept integrating preemptive measures to prevent conflict and wartime concepts of operations that seek to deny to the enemy a decisive victory in the initial period of war, degrading and disorganizing its effort, while setting the conditions for a counteroffensive or attaining war termination. The strategy privileges a permanent standing force, arrayed as high readiness operational formations in each strategic direction, prepared to execute operations jointly.

At the beginning, the Russian military needs to manipulate an opponent through the demonstration of his readiness, deployments, exercises, weapon tests and demonstrative actions and, if it is necessary, they can include a demonstrative use of force and limited strikes. After the period called “Pre-War”, the aim of the “Active Defense” is to inflict disorganisation on the opponent via long-range strikes against critically important objects at operational depths and beyond, in order to reach the goal of disorganizing the enemy’s effort, degrading his ability to sustain operation and affecting his political and at the same time maximize the survivability of the Russian units and preserve the force.

The “Active Defense” is based on two main tenets: Maneuver Defense and Non contact Warfare. Unlike World War I and World War II, the idea of using their own main effort to create a potential defense and a massive manned front, is totally obsolete in the eyes of the Russian strategists. Maneuver Defense for the Russian Military means that fires and strikes systems will attrit the opponent’s forces as they advance, and his aim is to destroy an opponent’s initial operation plan and buy time for reserves or follow forces to arrive, exhaust the opponent’s forces, and subsequently seize the initiative. Turning to Noncontact Warfare, the term is somewhat muddled, as there is a commonly held Russian military belief that modern warfare will feature forward operating sensors, fires, and precision strike systems. War will be driven by information, command and control systems, and precise means of destruction. However, non contact speaks more to the employment of longer-range capabilities to attack critical objects at substantial operational and strategic ranges.

With the Georgian and Ukrainian crisis of 2008 and 2013, the Russian armed forces have developed the so called New Generation Warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, or Hybrid Warfare. Hybrid warfare does not aim to victory through the defeat of the enemy on the battlefield but regime change and the achievement of the Kremlin’s goals. Therefore, the military became one element of a much larger set of foreign policy instruments aimed to reach political gains. The Hybrid force is composed of conventional forces and special corps, like the Spetsnaz, that operate in coordination with a militarized local population, like Donbass separatist militias. The militias are usually formed not directly by Russian forces, but by contracted forces from outside the area of operations which serves along militias, usually binded by a contract. Moreover, in the Hybrid force is also fundamental the role of Private Military Contractors (PMC), like the Wagner group, that can aid the efforts of regular forces and militias. It is the formalization of war by proxy, which is cleared witnessed by the praxis of Russian armed forces in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia.

The Russian military doctrine emphasizes therefore the political aspect of warfare, and the link between military operations and its ideological and foreign policy aspects: in all the three major fronts (Syria, Ukraine, Georgia), the Russians have carefully prepared the public affairs and the narrations in all their conflicts. They always claimed that their intervention was the result of a request for help, Ossetians and Abcazians in Georgia, russophone separatists in Ukraine, the Assad government in Syria. They deployed their PMCs in Africa, which helped them to further their influence on the Continent, with the successful coups in Mali and Central African Republic. The difficulties in improving their capabilities have inevitably shaped Russian military doctrine from conventional warfare of the Soviet era to a new form of warfare that can be defined as “non-linear”.

March 8, 2022No Comments

Taras Kuzio on the Russia-Ukraine Crisis and the War in Donbass

Professor Taras Kuzio from Henry Jackson Society and Kyiv Mohyla Academy shares his insights on the Russo-Ukraine crisis, Russian invasion of Ukraine, the conflict in Donbass and Ukraine’s membership of NATO and EU. 

Interviewers: Igor Shchubetun, Fabrizio Napoli and Davide Gobbicchi.

March 2, 2022No Comments

Understanding Putin’s Russia

Authors: Davide Gobbicchi, Igor Shchubetun and Fabrizio Napoli.

After months of diplomatic efforts and mutual misunderstandings between Russia and the West, Vladimir Putin finally invaded Ukraine. Although the attack was predicted by experts throughout the world, its ferocity and scale did surprise the majority. Most analysts expected Moscow to enter the Donbass region, conquer it rapidly, and grant it independence from Kiev, in a repetition of what happened to Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Yet on the 24th of February, Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, unleashing the biggest military attack that Europe has witnessed since WWII. After 4 days of fighting a tougher-than-expected Ukrainian resistance and an increasingly involved West, on February 27th Russia’s president put nuclear forces on high alert, in what could be seen as a propagandistic attempt to “flex muscles” at a conflict whose duration and ending seem increasingly uncertain. 

To assess the strategic significance of Ukraine for Russia and motivation behind Putin’s actions, it is imperative to understand how Russia perceives itself. Historically, it has been afflicted with two existential dilemmas. First,  with regards to its position in the East-West dichotomy, where Russia’s geographic position between Europe and Asia creates a unique culture which is neither of both, and allows the country to shift between periods of affinity to the West and periods of closeness to the East; as Dostoevskij famously said, “In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia we too are Europeans”. Second, the debate of nation-state vs. multinational state, where Russia’s size creates a highly heterogeneous country in which the Russian majority needs to coexist more or less peacefully with the many different minorities having separated languages, religions, and cultures. 

Historically, the Imperial Era, beginning with Peter the Great and ending with the Russian Revolution of 1917, solved the first dilemma by promoting Europeanism. This was represented with the shift of the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The second dilemma was resolved by choosing between Russianism and multi-nationalism, i.e., Pan-Slavism.Imperial Russia therefore perceived itself as a European power deeply rooted in its orthodox tradition. 

The Soviet Era (1922-1991) provided different solutions to the two dilemmas. The East/West dichotomy was solved by assigning Russia (now USSR) the unique role of Eurasian superpower in between the two worlds, belonging to neither of the two and yet extending its influence on both. The second dilemma was addressed through the policy of коренизация (korenizatsiya), because of which USSR became, at least officially, a multi-nation state of equally important nations. The victory during the WWII further strengthened these two discourses of a Eurasian, multinational state. 

However, the early post-Soviet years of Yeltsin (1991-1999) once again changed Russia’s approach to the two dilemmas, orienting Russia towards the West and promoting Russian identity over that of the minorities (causing backlashes in the Caucasus and central Asia such as the Chechen War and the quasi-independence of Tatarstan). Modern Russia now had to become a Western, nation-state. 

When Putin took power in 2000, Russia in the midst of a strong identity crisis. Its rapid westernization did not grant it the role of equal partner to the USA, but instead relegated Russia to a vassal state which faced economic hardships. The loss of its status in the international arena and the absence of perceived economic gains deriving from it created a resentment throughout the population that a portion of the Russian elite started channeling towards the West; Putin was the leader of such a group. Being a former KGB spy whose childhood had been marked by the horrors of WWII-besieged Leningrad, Vladimir Putin used his private life and the growing popular sentiments to rebuild Russia’s identity from scratch, mainly on two pillars.

First, the worship of WWII (The Great Patriotic War – in Russian); the ultimate expression of Russia’s greatness.  The war was previously used by the Soviets to keep the USSR together (for everyone, from Bishkek to Vilnius, fought in the war). Putin, influenced by his own childhood, continued “exploiting” the war to promote conservative and patriotic values able to legitimize his political orientation and to keep the country together. This is why Putin tried to legitimize the Ukrainian invasion by claiming to “denazify” the country. 

Second, the soviet Nostalgia. Putin’s bittersweet feeling towards the USSR reflects that of a wide portion of the country’s older generations (of which the president himself is part) and derives from the too-rapid transition of Russia from “protagonist in a bipolar world” to “supporting actor in a multipolar one”. This sentiment is used by Putin to promote the reappropriation of Russia’s great power status and justify the actions that “need” to be taken to achieve this goal. Several of Putin’s speeches regarding Ukraine reflect this, where he focuses on Ukraine’s role as “little Russia” and “founding member of the USSR”. 

The two historical dilemmas that afflicted Russia throughout the centuries were reframed by Putin to his own advantage. The East/West dichotomy was deconstructed into two parallel positions, Russia’s relations with the West and the East.

With the West, it changed from an inferiority complex to a principle equality in which Russia no longer had to imitate the West, but could follow its own path of values (those produced by the worship of WWII and Soviet Nostalgia). Hence granting Putin more freedom of action. This was proven in a speech given by Russia’s president in 2013, where he stated that “it is evident that it is impossible to move forward without spiritual, cultural and national self-determination...We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.” With the East, it shifted from perceiving Asia as a place to teach European values, to perceiving it as a place from which to learn alternative ones. This change helped Putin justify Russia’s approach to China and its simultaneous shying away from the West. 

The multinational state/nation-state dilemma was solved by orienting the country towards becoming a nation-state, promoting discourses aimed at homogenizing the country (such as “Russia for Russians”) and reviving pre-Soviet Russian cultural traits (an example is the gradual social prestige that Putin has granted to the Patriarch of Moscow in the past 15 years). The importance given to Russian ethnicity allows Putin to intervene in foreign countries with Russian minorities without the risk of appearing illegitimate in the eyes of Russian society (the 2014 invasion of the Donbass serves as the best example). 

Having illustrated the pillars of Putin’s conception of Russia, it’s easy to understand the importance of Ukraine to him: Ukraine is currently the transfiguration of WWII Europe that needs to be saved from an enemy whose ideals and values are rotten - that is, the West. Keeping Ukraine away from the West would then be morally tantamount to winning WWII, and it would not only provide Putin’s discourses new strength, but also validate Russia’s identity of a great power by preventing (even if momentarily) the post-Soviet space from disintegrating. 

Vladimir Putin has spent the last 20 years slowly shaping his country into what he believed “Mother Russia” to be, and it is highly unlikely that any agreement will stop him from pursuing his ideals. This however, does not mean that this is what Russia needs to be, and it is for the Russian people to prove.

February 28, 20221 Comment

The Civilian Impacts of the Conflicts in Eastern Ukraine

Authors: Esther Brito Ruiz, Ludovica Brambilla, Reka Szabo

Note: due to the rapidly developing situation in Ukraine, we clarify that the information included in this article is actualized up until the date of the 23rd of February, and primarily covers the human security scenario prior to the evolving Russian invasion.

Image Source: https://www.vox.com/22917719/russia-ukraine-invasion-border-crisis-nato-explained

The escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, triggered in the spring of 2021 with the beginning of a progressive massing of thousands of Russian military and equipment near the border with Ukraine, marked the early months of 2022. As of the last few days, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has triggered a geopolitical crisis dividing major international players and raising concerns for the security balance of Eastern Europe. 

These developments raise questions on the impact of the conflict's dynamics on civilians, who have been suffering the consequences of instability for years. This article will set aside political and military analysis to disclose how the crisis has been playing out at the local level in Eastern Ukraine, particularly, its effect on the civilian populations of the non-government-controlled areas (NGCA) of Donetsk and Luhansk prior to the invasion. A comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this piece, but we present some core human security dynamics sometimes excluded from mainstream coverage,  many of which were further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Civilian casualties and threats to fundamental rights

Since 2014, civilians in the Donbas have been directly affected by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and have often been victims of war crimesby both Russian-backed separatist armed groups and Ukrainian forces. The region is characterized by one of the highest concentrations of armed actors in the world - as such, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) are as much a cause of civilian casualties as active hostilities. Between 2014 and 2019 for example, “over 1,000 individuals were known to be killed by land mines or other explosives”. Estimates of the conflict in July 2021 already registered at least 3,393 deaths within civilian populations and more than 7,000 injured.

Moreover, arms fire and shelling have also caused serious damage to civilian housing and infrastructure, endangering the population by limiting access to water, food, schools, and health services. The Covid-19 pandemic further deteriorated the situation and intensified the need for humanitarian in the region. In fact, even before the escalation of the conflict in 2022, it was calculated that at least 3,4 million people needed humanitarian aid in Eastern Ukraine as the result of the six years of conflict, coupled with the effects of the health crisis. These individuals and families suffer from physical and mental issues related to violence and from the indirect effects of the conflict and pandemic on the economy and their living standards.

The situation regarding political rights and civil liberties is well depicted by the 2020 and 2021 Freedom House reports. The 2021 report on government-controlled Ukraine explores how attempts to maintain democracy are hindered by resistance to crucial reforms, endemic corruption and limited freedom of expression due to an increasing number of attacks against activists and journalists.

The situation drastically worsens in the Eastern Donbas, where authority is in the hands of the People’s Republic of Donestk and Luhansk. These administrations rose to power in 2018 through what are considered to have been deeply fraudulent elections. Associational rights are severely compromised, even organizations politically allied to the ruling leadership are banned. The control over the population’s right to freedom of thought is implemented through a complex system of influence by Russia and adomination of public local institutions and media by people close to the separatist leadership.  Furthermore, it has been noted that pro-Ukrainian advocates face non-transparent trials and long prison sentences. In this line, detainees often appear to face torture and psychological abuse.  Members of minorities are effectively victims of unpunished persecutions and the justice system seems to lack any mechanism to prevent and punish the crimes reported during the conflicts.

Displacement, travel restrictions & forced migration

Covid-19 has complicated a situation already dramatic for internally displaced persons (IDP).  Since 2014, a “contact line” separates areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and those under Russian influence, dividing families and communities that have been dangerously crossing the border. These people often reside in poor settlements close by, where Ukraine’s social services struggle to provide assistance. As of 2020, the conflict had caused around 734,000 IDPs

In the last two years, arbitrary pandemic-related travel restrictions have been severely limiting access to healthcare, basic services, and income -  further separating families. The closing of crossing points in March 2020 affected thousands of civilians that would usually cross the line to receive their pensions and humanitarian assistance.

The ongoing invasion is likely to cause unprecedented, forced displacement, and since only two entry points are currently open along the contact line, it is likely that IDPs will seek refuge in neighboring countries. In their forecast on this matter at the beginning of February, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) picks up the Ukrainian Minister of Defense’s prognosis of 3 to five million possible refugees in case of a Russian invasion and notes that: “though it’s unclear where these figures were derived from, his prediction that a major war in Ukraine would plunge the whole of Europe into crisis seems entirely plausible”.

Image Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60220422

Threats to education and students

The toll of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on children has been extremely high in the last years. Hundreds of schools were damaged during the fights, which made proper education impossible. In Russian-controlled territories, not only physical threats are present. The identities of Ukrainian children are endangered as well. In the Donbas region, children do not have Ukrainian classes anymore and the language can be learnt solely as a subject for an hour per week. Textbooks in Russian were transported to the schools by the Russian ‘humanitarian’ convoys, and teachers have to use the Russian grading system

History also has to be taught in a way favoring the Russian side and depicting the occupation of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as a legitimate move by Russia. Because of the linguistic differences, Ukrainian students have difficulties when it comes to admissions in any higher education systems, either in Russia or in Ukraine. In the latter case, the different way of learning history also makes it more challenging for Ukrainians from the occupied territories to perform well in state tests. Furthermore, border crossing, in order to be able to participate in such tests or enroll at universities in the Ukrainian territory, can be restricted and dangerous

The progression of gendered violence and discrimination against the LGBT+ community (H2) 

Since the beginning of 2021, Ukrainian civil society groups have denounced a noted increase in attacks against LGBT+ and women’s rights activists. Attacks and threats have mainly been carried out by far-right groups, but opposition from religious organizations has also been on the rise. This is part of a broader regression of LGBT+ and women’s rights across Eastern Europe but has been tied in Ukraine to nationalization discourse in line with Russian political ideas. 

On one hand, domestic violence in Ukraine has remained “widespread, under-reported, and ineffectively addressed”, and has been worsening as the conflict in eastern Ukraine advances. Systemic flaws in protection mechanisms have been exacerbated by political and social tensions, and Amnesty International event referred to it as an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence against women. There is a potential for increased gender-based violence to derive from the mobilization of military personnel in the area and few protections in place to mitigate the rising abuse. 

On the other hand, the LGBT+ community in Ukraine - especially nearing the Russian and Bielorussian borders - has been in high alert. Attacks against young transgender individuals have been reported with noted violence. These crimes tend to recieve little support from police, and perpetrators face few or no charges. At a broader level, draft laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity elements more firmly in hate crime law have been pushed back against. 

Activists fear that continued Russian aggressions and the progression of the invasion will lead the situation to further deteriorate, with LGBT+ and women’s rights regressing further. 

Conclusions

As the situation in Ukraine continues to escalate, we can expect worsening conditions for human security across the country. Continued mass displacements, evolving conditions of gender and homophobic violence, and the interruption of basic freedoms and education will undoubtedly have severe impacts on the lives and future of the Ukrainian people. 

February 10, 2022No Comments

Fuel Price Spike in Kazakhstan: Straw that broke the camel’s back?

By: Elena Bascone, Michele Mignogna, Miguel Jiménez and Sofia Dal Santo.

Holiday seasons often trigger unexpected crises, as the last two years proved: after the 2020 pandemic, a new global threat is on the rise - a global energy crisis. This new emergency is so severe that even Kazakhstan, the biggest central Asian country and one of the major producers of fossil fuels, was unable to escape it. At the beginning of January, the price per liter for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) more than doubled, increasing from 50 to 120 Tenges (about $0.27), and violent protests exploded in the country. LPG is mainly used for vehicles, but even for cooking and warming up during the severe Kazakh winter, making it a primary necessity. Energetic scarcity then fostered the explosion of violent protests all over Kazakhstan. Resulting in the death of 225 people, these demonstrations are unprecedented. The outbreak took place in Zhanaozen, in the southwest of the country, known as the capital of oil and gas, and spread all over the country in a few days. Peaceful demonstrations soon escalated into violent aggressions such as dangerous attacks on government buildings and clashes against police officers. However, rising energy prices are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Roots of the Protests

The country can attract millions of dollars of foreign investment due to its apparent political stability. Nevertheless, this political stability has been characterized by an authoritarian government led for three decades by Nazarbayev, eventually substituted by the current Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, by most regarded as his hand-picked successor. The relationship between them is confirmed by the fact that the latter appointed the former president as Head of the Security Council, and declared him Yelbasy, i.e., “the Father of the Nation.” This lack of democracy, combined with the over-rising income inequality due to a drop of GNI and further worsened by the pandemic, explains the protests’ origins. As of now, a quarter of the central Asian republic’s population is considered chronically poor.

This is ironic since, as a significant oil and gas producer, Kazakhstan produces much more LPG than its less than 19 million inhabitants can consume. However, existing domestic energy companies prefer to export it rather than sell it to the domestic market. Accordingly, the country’s authorities have tried to increase the supply of LPG through purchases from Russian companies, which sell it at prices 3-8 times higher than the domestic ones. Moreover, these gas supply contracts with the Russian companies are undisclosed and untransparent, thus encouraging corruption and the enrichment of the Kazakh and Russian elites.

The Government Response

All in all, given the growing anti-Nazarbayev sentiment, it is understandable why the song “Old man, go away!” soon spread among the protestors. Even the bold concessions given by Mr. Tokayev, such as the removal of his predecessor from his place as Head of the Security Council and the acceptance of the government’s resignation, substituting it with an ad-interim administration, has not proved to be sufficient to calm down the protestors. Moreover, the absence of pluralism and the intolerance of opposition in the political life of Kazakhstan prevents protestors from finding representation on an institutional level. This lack of opposition allows Mr. Tokayev to blame, although without evidence, “foreign-trained terrorist gangs” for the protests to justify a punitive response; notwithstanding, while the use of force may crush protests, it can only amplify the underlying anger.

Punitive responses immediately occurred: from the shutdown of the internet to the president’s public declaration addressing the special forces to “fire without warning”, as reported by BBC news. This declaration triggered the critics of the international community, from the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Polish lawyer Zbigniew Rau. Overwhelmed by demonstrators, President Tokayev, following the soviet style of dealing with civil unrest, made a formal request for assistance to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance headquartered in Moscow. 

The peacekeeping mission was speedily approved. Alongside Russia, even Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan sent contingents to Kazakhstan for a total of almost 3000 soldiers. The mission has been defined by Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Kremlin-linked think tank, as “less an armed intervention than a police operation.” As it is common knowledge, it is always risky to welcome home foreign troops, especially considering the assertive policy perpetrated by Russia on the European side. Nevertheless, the paratroopers made their way back as soon as the order was re-established. Still, it is essential to highlight the significance of this intervention for the future of international relations in Asia, considering the growing influence of China and its resulting possible conflict of interest with Russia.

Conclusion

The intervention of the CSTO led to a stabilization of the protests, at least for the moment. Moreover, according to The Guardian, Mr. Tokayev said that the ad interim government would re-introduce a price cap of 50 tenges per liter on LPG in Mangistau province, considering that it is a socially necessary consumer good. In addition, it is essential to bear in mind that it is likely that this crisis will have consequences in the context of future relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. The intervention of Russia might undermine the hard-won independence of the central Asian republic. However, we will have to wait to see the long-term effects of these events on the power dynamics of Central Asia. One thing remains certain: this region is crucial now more than ever. Indeed, as Alexander Cooley indicated, this region, which used to be disputed between Russia and the UK, is now at the center of a new great game - a power contest that sees the US, Russia, and China involved.

February 2, 2022No Comments

Sergey Markedonov on Georgia’s Political and Social Polarisation

Sergey Markedonov is an Associate Professor at Russian State University for the Humanities based in Moscow (Russia). From May 2010 to October 2013, he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC, USA). In April-May 2015 he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies, Institute of International Studies (IIS), Fudan University (Shanghai, China). 

He shares his insights on Georgia's political and social polarisation; its use as a field for NATO-Russian confrontation and its key role in the Caucasus region. 

Interviewing Team: Igor Shchebetun, Fabrizio Napoli and Davide Gobbicchi.