• Russians approve a raft of constitutional amendments
• Reported wrinkles in Russia-China relations
• The snakes and ladders of the Minsk accords
• Snippets: Trump calls Putin, Ukraine & Poland to sabotage NordStream2
Successful referendum on constitutional amendments
Between 25 June and 1 July, Russia held a referendum, involving e-voting, postal ballot and physical voting (on July 1), in which they approved the constitutional amendments that flowed from President Putin’s “State of the Union” address in January 2020. While the focus of the external world was on the amendments that would enable President Putin to seek election for two more terms (in 2024 and 2030), there were actually over 200 amendments to the present (1993) Constitution, covering socioeconomic, welfare, legislative and governance reform (see Review, 1/20). The “turnout” (including the three balloting modes) was about 68% and nearly 78% of them voted for the amendments.
The Constitutional amendments were drafted by an expert committee, appointed by President Putin after his January address, which presented its recommendations to the parliament in March. On the specific question of Presidential elections, the committee presented various options and President Putin chose one, which did not change the constitutional limit of two terms, but simply tweaked it to set the clock back to zero, thereby counting the two-term limit from the next elections.
The referendum was originally scheduled for April 22, but postponed because of the Covid situation. Meanwhile, domestic opinion polls showed varying levels of public support for the different proposed amendments. Over 90% of those polled supported amendments to enhance accessibility and quality of medical care, guarantee childcare benefits, index social benefits and pensions, uphold workers’ rights, protect Russia’s biodiversity, support Russian science, technology and innovation, and strengthen the defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Over 80% supported restrictions on government officials holding foreign citizenships or properties abroad. However, only just over 60% supported the provision permitting the President to stand again for elections, and an even smaller proportion – 47% – supported giving more powers to the Russian parliament, illustrating the general lack of confidence in elected officials. If, therefore, there had been an intention to put each amendment to a separate vote, as had been expected in some quarters, the results of these opinion polls would have put paid to that thought. In the event, the amendments were presented as a whole and the government was able to claim that the referendum demonstrated popular support for President Putin’s policies and performance, glossing over the fact that his popularity has recently been dented by public discontent over stagnating real incomes and government corruption, compounded by unhappiness at the handling of Covid. The key to his recapturing his earlier extraordinary connect with the Russian public would be reasonable delivery on the ambitious socioeconomic programme announced in January, in the face of headwinds created by Covid, depressed energy prices, a sluggish bureaucracy and sustained external pressures.
Wrinkles show up in the Russia-China partnership
In June, the Russian media reported the arrest of a distinguished Russian scientist, who was charged with treason for allegedly providing Chinese intelligence with classified information on hydro acoustics and submarine detection methods (see Review, 6/20). This story developed further legs, when it was linked to the suspension of implementation of Russia’s contract for supply of the S-400 air defence system to China. The S-400 contract had been concluded in 2018 and deliveries commenced in December 2019. News of the suspension of the implementation first surfaced in Chinese news portals, which quoted sources as saying they did not know when it would be resumed and that it may be influenced by the India Russia China triangle. Russian media picked up speculation from the Indian and Polish media that this suspension (which apparently dated back from February) was because of Russian displeasure at the Chinese spying activity and not just due to Covid, which had severely restricted movement of people between Russia and China. Some Chinese social media comments (reported in Russian web portals) accused Russia of playing a double game, using the Covid excuse to speed up the delivery of the system to India. [It had been reported in June that, during Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Moscow, speeding up deliveries of the S-400 had been discussed.] The western press also quoted a “tirade of posts” in the Chinese social media, about Russia’s “perfidious profiteering” from China’s tensions with India and expressing the view that, in the event of China being at war, Russia was more likely to deliver a stab in the Chinese back than extend assistance.
While there was apparently no official Russian comment on this, China’s Defence Ministry was quoted as confirming that the delay in the S-400 project was entirely due to Covid. The Chinese Ambassador to Russia echoed this line, adding in a media interaction at month-end that relations between the two countries remain vibrant, their strengthening military cooperation promotes “security, regional peace and stability”, is not a military alliance and is based on “non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-orientation against a third country”.
Two other China-related episodes figured in the Russian media. One was repeated publication in the official Chinese media of a historian’s view that the entire Pamir region in the Himalayas was rightfully Chinese, surrendered to the Russian empire in a period of Chinese weakness during the Qing dynasty, and hence should be returned by Tajikistan to China. China’s deep economic, political and security inroads into Tajikistan over the past decade have already consolidated Chinese presence in this space. Formal Chinese ownership would of course have profound strategic implications for the region (including India). Official Tajik remonstrations, asking the Chinese government to dissociate itself from these views apparently got no response.
The second episode was a litany of Chinese protest to a video posted on the Chinese blogsite Weibo by the Russian embassy in Beijing about the 160th Anniversary celebrations of Vladivostok (in early July). Irate Chinese netizens, including diplomats and journalists, recalled that it was Chinese territory, lost by an unequal treaty; some declared that this historical wrong would be corrected one day.
Both these incidents should have once again reminded Russians (even as they bask in the glow of the Russia-China strategic partnership) that Chinese revanchism is an equal opportunities manifestation, not restricted to unsettled boundaries and never far below the surface. Vladivostok is only the extreme tip of the over 900,000 square kilometres of the Russian Fareast that was wrested from a China weakened by the Opium wars in the nineteenth century.
Officially, Russia and China continued to reiterate their close strategic partnership. This was again done when President Xi telephoned President Putin to congratulate him on the successful referendum on constitutional amendments. However, one could split hairs and note that that PM Modi telephoned on July 2 (the day after the referendum), while President Xi waited until July 8 to call up his dear and closest friend (as he has been describing President Putin). Another little titbit in this vein: when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a high-level virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative in June, Foreign Minister Lavrov did not attend – he sent a written statement and an official deputised for him at the meeting. Before this, Russia has always been the star guest at high-level BRI meetings.
Minsk accords remain elusive
Efforts to resolve the impasse over eastern Ukraine continue to resemble a snakes-and-ladders game. In December 2019, a summit meeting of the “Normandy Four” resurrected the Minsk accords of 2014-15 as the basis for further discussion. They agreed to support implementation of a comprehensive ceasefire, disengagement of forces, a swap of prisoners, formalizing the special status of Donbas and creating conditions for holding elections in the region. They agreed to reconvene in four months to take the process further, after the preparatory steps were completed. A new President in Ukraine, mutual concessions by Russia and Ukraine, strong efforts by the French and German leaders, and domestic preoccupations of the Trump Administration enabled this progress (see Review, 1/20).
The December summit reversed the course pursued by the previous Ukrainian government, and hence encountered strong pushback from the Ukrainian nationalist opposition, with support from the US and some European countries. The result has been a stop-go-reverse process of implementation. Some progress was made on prisoner swaps. The Ukrainian parliament passed legislation providing for a special status for the Donbas region. But an agreement, catalysed by the Presidential advisors of Russia and Ukraine in March, to commence direct talks between the representatives of Ukraine and Donbas, fell through. A Normandy Foreign Ministers’ virtual meeting convened by Germany in end-April failed to kickstart progress. The constant engagement of the two Presidential advisors in the negotiations could not shift the “red lines” drawn by the previous Ukrainian government – no direct talks with representatives of Donetsk-Luhansk and no elections in Donbas until Ukrainian troops are allowed to take control of the border with Russia. Senior Ukrainian officials periodically called for renegotiation of the Minsk accords, which is a Russian “red line”. After a couple of fruitless meetings of senior officials in early July, the Kremlin recorded President Putin’s “disappointment” over Ukraine’s non-compliance with the Minsk and Normandy agreements. The Russian Presidential advisor declared that Russia would suspend the Normandy negotiations, until Ukraine “clarified” its position on the validity of the Minsk accords. Efforts to reverse this Russian decision included a telephone call by German Chancellor Merkel, at which the two leaders agreed to implement the Minsk agreement (as per Ms Merkel’s spokesman). In a telephone conversation with the Ukrainian President on July 26, President Putin is reported to have told the latter that his agreement that there can be no alternatives to the Minsk agreements “must find affirmation in practical actions” of the Ukrainian government.
On July 22, Russian, Ukrainian and OSCE negotiators announced an agreement for a “full and comprehensive” cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. However (and illustrating President Putin’s point), this positive development was more than balanced by a Ukrainian Presidential statement the same day that the forthcoming national elections would be applicable in Donbas only after restoring the Ukrainian constitutional order there and Ukrainian army control over the border with Russia.
Conflicting interests have ensured this zig-zag course and will continue to influence further developments. One is the Ukrainian President’s keenness to implement his campaign promise of ending confrontation with Russia and putting his country back on the rails of economic growth and development. His presumed patron, the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, said in an interview to the New York Times in November 2019 that the Ukrainian people want peace, an end to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and restoration of Ukraine-Russia relations, adding that the US is forcing Ukraine to fight Russia “to the last Ukrainian”. He said that Russia may be willing to fund the revival of the Ukrainian economy, whereas the US is unlikely to do so. A second pull is the desire of some EU countries to put the Ukraine issue behind them and to “normalize” relations with Russia. The Franco-German Normandy process has been striving for this over a few years. This year, both France and Germany have been stressing the urgency of resuming a strategic dialogue with Russia. A third element is the aspiration of a significant proportion of the population in western Ukraine to pursue a European (as distinct from Russian) political and economic course. This aspiration is obviously supported in the European Union, but there is a division among its countries on the manner and speed of pursuit of this aspiration. Countries like Poland, the Baltic Republics and Sweden advocate an uncompromising approach on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine. Other sub-plots, like a tussle for economic, energy and political influence in Europe are also tied up in this east-west divide in the EU. A fourth, critical, element is the US perception of its interests. The desire to keep the Ukrainian pot boiling to maintain pressure on Russia (as Kolomoisky told the NYT) is a common strand of the Obama and Trump Administrations, but the latter has added new elements (Nordstream2 vs Three Seas Initiative, arguments on NATO budget and force posture) that have further divided Europe on the approach to Russia. Finally, it is likely that those opposed to the Minsk accords would want to sit out the next few months to see the outcome of the US Presidential elections: they would have hopes from a Biden Administration. It is a well-documented fact that Vice-President Biden was the Obama Administration’s point man for Ukraine policy and the advocate of a muscular response to the annexation of Crimea. He was intimately involved with the policies and actions of the Poroshenko government: he famously declared (during a visit to Kyiv in December 2015) that he had logged over 1000 hours of telephone conversations with President Poroshenko and had been in direct conversation with him for longer periods than with his own wife.
As these multiple interests and perspectives collide, it is an unfortunate reality – as Dutch scholar Chris Kaspar de Ploeg concludes in his meticulously researched book “Ukraine in the crossfire” (2017) – that the future of the Ukrainian people will probably eventually be decided “in the back rooms of Moscow, Washington and Berlin, rather than on the streets of Kyiv and Donetsk”. Geopolitics takes no prisoners.
Trump calls Putin: President Trump called the Russian President on July 23 apparently to discuss the ongoing Russia-US arms control discussions, including on the future of the new START treaty, which lapses in early 2021. The White House said President Trump “reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia and the United States”. The White House also said they discussed “critical bilateral and global issues”. President Putin pushed his now familiar line that the permanent members of the UN Security Council should hold a summit to discuss major international security problems. The two leaders expressed interest in developing bilateral trade and economic cooperation. This has been a consistent theme, ever since their summit in Helsinki in mid-2018. There have been no concrete official initiatives for this, nor has it been explained how escalating primary and secondary American economic sanctions against Russia are consistent with this objective.
Poland, Ukraine pledge to sabotage NS2: The Foreign Ministers of Poland and Ukraine discussed bilateral cooperation in energy, which included ensuring Europe’s energy security by promoting trilateral Poland-Ukraine-US energy cooperation and preventing the implementation of the Russia-Germany Nordstream2 project. The trilateral cooperation being explored is a 20-year contract for LNG from the US. This requires investment in regasification capacity and interconnection infrastructure, as well as a pricing formula that can compete with piped gas from Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia. The publicly expressed resolve to sabotage Nordstream2, which is of great interest to (among others) EU’s strongest economic power, Germany, demonstrates the challenge that European unity faces today in its approach to Russia.
(The views expressed are personal)
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