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The trap of “countering Russia”

Across eastern Europe, US engagement against Russia is having an adverse effect on grassroots protesters – and no easy solution is forthcoming.

December 2013: people protest in front of barricades at Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. CC BY-2.0 Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr. Some rights reserved.One of the consequences of the outbreak of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution in late 2013-2014 has been the return of geopolitics to Europe —particularly in the EU’s periphery. More than one commentator and analyst has claimed that a “new Cold War” is upon us. In a supposed return to the pre-1991 era, Russia is once again the west’s primary adversary.

For its part, Moscow perceives the west as having broken its alleged promise of not enlarging NATO and pursuing a policy of encircling Russia. The Kremlin has repeated claims of humiliation caused by the west’s unilateralism in the former Yugoslavia. The Kremlin sees the US, in particular, as having sponsored various “colour revolutions” in the former Soviet space. This perception ultimately informed the Kremlin’s reaction to Euromaidan, and Russia’s ensuing occupation and annexation of Crimea, as well as its overt and covert backing of the Donbas insurgency, has discredited it as a “partner” for the west.

This new “east-west rivalry” in eastern Europe, however, does not bode well for grassroots activists and emerging social movements that are battling corrupt and authoritarian politicians in the region.

Invoking a Russian threat, these politicians and oligarchs pay lip service to European values while fending off domestic challenges from protest movements. In order to counter supposed Russian influence, the US has become increasingly active in supporting the incumbent self-declared pro-western and pro-European governments. This support hampers the efforts of protest movements.

The “hybrid war” conundrum

As the west scrambled to formulate a response to the occupation of Crimea and the escalating violence in Donbas in 2014, Russia’s purported role in undermining the EU became the talk of the day. Russian domestic and international media outlets went into overdrive; pro-Russian politicians (not least a former German chancellor) and business circles in Europe did not waste efforts to dissuade sanctions from being imposed.

Since the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, hawkish conspiracy theories, effectively mirroring those spawned by the Kremlin, have gained traction. According to these visions, the Kremlin is sponsoring Europe’s nationalist fringe movements and mainstream far-right or far-left parties in their eurosceptic tendencies. Moscow has also supposedly manipulated public opinion in the Dutch referendum on Ukraine, or set up underground cells of former Spetsnaz soldiers in Germany ready to strike at Moscow’s bidding.

August 2014: President Vladimir Putin addresses Crimea's parliament at a sanatorium outside of Yalta. (c) Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The obscurantist Aleksandr Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University and author of the “New Eurasianism” political theory is presented as “Putin’s brain” and supposedly wields influence even beyond Europe, as evidenced by his “endorsement” of presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Moscow has also been portrayed as conjuring up a deliberate campaign of destabilising European states, echoed by NATO commander General Breedlove’s accusation that Russia was “weaponising” the refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, since 2013, various anti-government protests have erupted throughout the region — not only in Ukraine, but also in Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and elsewhere. These protests had, of course, domestic causes and underwent different trajectories, but there is a certain common denominator. The protests were triggered by corruption and abuse of power — two problems that (nominally) resonate high among the EU and US’s agendas in the region.

The fallout of the “hybrid war” and the west’s reaction are bad news for grassroots activists involved in protest movements in the EU’s periphery

The fallout of the “hybrid war” and the west’s reaction are bad news for grassroots activists involved in protest movements in the EU’s periphery. Ever since the Ukraine crisis spiraled into violent conflict in 2014, the fate of domestic protesters and their ability to press their demands has been hampered by the overarching geopolitical rivalry between the west and Russia. The US hardly has the influence to “engineer” protest movements and revolutions as the Russian paranoid view states, but it has been playing a role.

On the one hand, the US looks to enhance stability, but on the other it is playing a controversial role from the perspective of democratisation and the fight against corruption. In particular, there is American support for governments and leaders who are (or are becoming) problematic domestically, but profess a pro-EU, pro-European, or pro-western stance publicly.

US engagement in Ukraine

During the Euromaidan revolution, a leaked recording of a conversation between Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador in Kyiv Geoffrey Pyatt hinted at possible meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs combined with a condescending approach to the EU.

Though initially cautious to engage, the US has become increasingly involved in propping up the new Ukrainian authorities. Following Russia’s military actions in the wake of Euromaidan, the US has acted as the key guarantor for Ukraine’s badly-needed IMF loans to keep its economy afloat. It has become a steadfast supporter of the post-Maidan Ukrainian governments and the country’s new president Petro Poroshenko — one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs with whom US vice president Joe Biden claims to spend more time on the phone than his own wife.

Though initially cautious to engage, the US has become increasingly involved in propping up the new Ukrainian authorities

In addition, Nuland has visited the country regularly to meet with key Ukrainian officials; Pyatt has been an active observer commenting on Ukraine’s supposed progress in enacting necessary reforms.

Over the past two years, the will to bolster post-Maidan Ukraine against Russia has put the US in the position of going soft on the post-Maidan authorities. The war in Donbas has served as a convenient distraction from enormous problems such as corruption for powerful circles in the country. And the US seems to have taken the bait.

December 2013: US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland offers food to pro-European Union activists during Ukraine's EuroMaidan protest. (c) Andrew Kravchenko / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In order to tackle the endemic corruption that rose to new heights under Yanukovych, the post-Maidan authorities appointed several outsiders and young reformers to the prosecutor’s office, among them – Vitaliy Kasko, who had been active as a lawyer and human rights activist during Euromaidan. Nevertheless, the fight against corruption has been slow and hampered by the political elite despite six anti-corruption laws adopted in October 2014 and continuing efforts by civil society to push for reforms. Many observers blamed the general prosecutor of the time, Viktor Shokin, as an old-regime spanner in the works who still enjoyed the protection of Poroshenko.

The situation exploded in February when Kasko resigned from his post as deputy prosecutor general — citing lawlessness and corruption in the prosecutor’s office. While the resignation was not hailed as a positive step by the US, Ambassador Pyatt issued a statement of continuing support for Ukraine's authorities commitment to reform. Nevertheless, a governmental crisis ensued, during which, adding to the troubles, Shokin’s office opened an investigation into Kasko, causing an outcry among civil society activists.

Most recently, following a change of prime minister, Poroshenko finally decided to enact much called-for changes to the prosecutor’s office. The process was hardly encouraging as he pushed through the appointment of his unqualified ally Yuri Lutsenko to the position of general prosecutor with Ukraine’s parliament passing special laws to circumvent due process and engineer the legality of the appointment. To the dismay of many observers, this move was publicly approved by both Pyatt and Biden in separate communiques.

The Moldovan predicament

Similarly to Ukraine, Moldova has entered into an Association Agreement with the EU and as a result been experiencing pressure from the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, Moldova’s problems are hardly caused by any Russian intervention. The country is ruled by a corrupt elite against which a massive grassroots protest movement first arose in April 2015 after one billion dollars mysteriously disappeared from the country’s banks. More so, Moldova’s pro-EU governments are thought to be run behind the scenes by Vladimir Plahotniuc, the country’s most powerful oligarch.

Plahotniuc is suspected to have been behind the arrest of a former prime minister, Vlad Filat, for the “robbery of the century” (as the one billion dollar bank fraud has come to be known) in what amounted to a reckoning between oligarchs in a deeply corrupt political system. With protests escalating in the autumn of 2015, Plahotniuc fled the country only to return with a bid to become prime minister himself.

21 January 2015: protesters assemble in front of Moldova’s parliament building. (c) Roveliu Buga / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Under pressure from protesters the president, Nicolae Timofti, rejected his candidacy and ultimately appointed a Plahotniuc ally, Pavel Filip. The anti-government protests have continued. While at least part of the grassroots movement is seen to be pro-Russian, the protesters are united in their opposition to the oligarchic system.

Both the EU and the US have recently expressed their support for Plahotniuc, though he holds no formal executive office

In spite of the west’s declarations of the need to tackle corruption and abide by the rule of law, both the EU and the US have recently expressed their support for Plahotniuc though he holds no formal executive office. To the dismay of the country’s grassroots activists, Plahotniuc travelled to the US as part of an official Moldovan delegation where he met with Nuland. Not only did this meeting project a legitimisation of Plahotniuc’s dealings, it has been seen as an open endorsement by the US for his supposed bid in the upcoming presidential elections in October.

The Balkan entanglement

Professing pro-western attitudes as a means to solicit US support (in light of a perceived Russian threat) has become a way to hamper pro-democracy and anti-corruption protest movements elsewhere in the region as well, most notably in the Balkans.

When protests erupted against Montenegro’s long-time strongman (and erstwhile Milošević ally) Milo Đukanović, it was enough for Đukanović to declare them to be steered by Russia to assure himself of the west’s support. In neighbouring Serbia, another former-Milošević-ally-now-turned-pro-western politician, prime minister Aleksandar Vucić, has so far managed to fend off controversy at home and possible tension with the EU by ensuring himself of American support as the ghost of a pro-Russian Serbia still haunts the region.

May 2016: protesters fire paint bombs at the Macedonian parliament, Skopje.

In Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE government came to face the country’s largest anti-government protests since independence (now dubbed the “colourful revolution”) in response to corruption and abuse of power.

In January 2016, Gruevski flew to Washington to meet vice president Biden, who declared unwavering support for Macedonia’s path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

The looming Polish problem

Yet the pattern does not apply to the EU’s eastern European periphery only. In Poland, where the populist, conservative and eurosceptic Law and Justice government came to power in autumn 2015, a wide protest movement has emerged against the new government’s perceived abuses of power and violations of the country’s constitution.

Poland sees Russia as a primordial existential threat. This message has resonated within US policy-making circles

The protest movement’s concerns and demands have even been echoed by the EU. However, the new Polish government is also notoriously anti-Russian. Poland’s Minister of defence Antoni Macierewicz openly suggests that the Kremlin assassinated the country’s former president by orchestrating the tragic crash of the presidential plane in Smolensk in April 2010. Poland sees Russia as a primordial existential threat. This message has resonated within US policy-making circles.

Though the US has been cautiously critical of the new Polish government, it still regards it as an important ally supporting the move of NATO troops to the country’s eastern border to counter the potential threat.

The risks of instrumentalising the Russian threat

Despite the purported panic in some policy circles and think tanks, a wider armed conflict (let alone a Third World War) is hardly around the corner. Russia’s economy, battered by sanctions and counter-sanctions, as well as reeling from the negative impact of low oil prices, has sunk to a shadow of its former self before the Ukraine crisis. Never mind that even at the pre-Euromaidan level, it did not compare favourably to the economy of the crisis-ridden EU and the US.

More so, the west has the capabilities to counter a conventional military challenge or any “hybrid war” offensive. The Russian threat is therefore grossly over-exaggerated.

Given its actions in Ukraine, Russia simply cannot be treated as a partner fully to be trusted. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the west still needs the Kremlin to collaborate in other areas, such as a possible resolution of the Syrian conflict where the Kremlin has made itself incontournable. This requires a prudent approach to dealing with Moscow.

The ultimate trap, however, would be to persist in engaging a supposed Russian threat in the EU’s eastern European periphery by continuing to support corrupt and authoritarian governments (and their oligarch backers), thereby stifling legitimate grassroots demands and democracy.

There is the danger that by supporting discredited local politicians based on their self-declared pro-western leanings, the US will alienate the populations of those countries

With the EU appearing indecisive or ineffective and being embroiled in dealing with its own internal crisis, the US has stepped in to stabilise the European periphery. But there is the danger that by supporting discredited local politicians based on their self-declared pro-western leanings, the US will alienate the populations of those countries.

The consequences of this US policy in the region could be self-defeating. Politicians who feel emboldened by US support could misuse anti-corruption rhetoric to effectively build their own power base. This could bring about personal changes among the big players in an oligarchic system such as Ukraine, but would hardly change the oligarchic system as such.

On top of that, if the populations of countries listed above become disillusioned enough in future, nationalist and far right movements could be propelled to power. These movements might then turn to Russia.

It would thus be advisable to not exaggerate the Russian threat more than necessary. Instead of “countering Russia”, the west should be more concerned with promoting the values it supposedly stands for both domestically and in the eastern European periphery.

About the author

Tom Junes is a historian and post-doctoral researcher focusing on protest movements in eastern Europe. He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia and currently a visiting fellow at European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.


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