By Kyriacos Iacovides
CYPRUS’ political party and media establishment have always championed the Russian Federation as the island’s “most reliable ally” claiming that it has always taken a “principled position” on the Cyprus problem. Cypriots seem to subscribe to the view that Russia’s foreign policy is shaped by international law and high principles, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
In Ukraine people would laugh at such a preposterous claim.
A little over two years ago, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, in violation of a host of treaties and agreements it was signatory to. The Russian Federation has also been backing with money, arms and troops Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine who have taken control of the Donbas region and set up two self-declared People’s Republics – Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) – which according to Cyprus discourse would be called pseudo-states.
Both DPR and LPR owe their existence and strength to the financial and military backing of Russia, which apart from deploying thousands of troops close to Ukraine’s eastern border also reportedly has some 7,000 regular troops in the Donbas. According to Ukraine government sources it has been sending reconnaissance groups in the Donbas and using drones, while it has doubled its military presence in Crimea in the last year.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled Donetsk and Luhansk, while attempts to bring peace and some stability to the region have completely failed. The Minsk Protocol, signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, DPR and LPR, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in September 2014, failed to stop the war. This failure led to Minsk II in February 2015, the package of measures agreed by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.
Although the fighting subsided, in March 2016, a US defence department official reported that Russia maintained “command-and-control links” over DPR and LPR and that it was “pouring heavy weapons” into the Donbas region. The deputy head of the OSCE mission in Ukraine said the organisation had seen “armed people with Russian insignia” fighting in the Donbas from the beginning of the conflict and had talked to prisoners who said they were Russian soldiers. The official response of the Russian foreign ministry, through its spokeswoman was that Russia “was not party to the Minsk agreements”, which were “devoted to two conflicting sides”.
This is the attitude the Ukrainian government has been encountering from Moscow which appears to have no interest in engaging constructively in resolving the dispute, insisting that it had nothing to do with it.
Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olena Zerkal, spoke of her government’s frustration in dealing with Moscow.
“We have information regarding the deployment of their armed forces in the eastern region of the Ukraine and we continuously share this information with our colleagues in the Normandy format (diplomatic group of representatives of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany working to resolve situation in eastern Ukraine),” she told the Sunday Mail. “They are aware of the presence of Russian military people and that their number is not decreasing; personnel is rotated.”
Efforts to put pressure on Moscow are not restricted to the Normandy format. Zerkal said the issue was raised in many forums including the EU, the Council of Europe and most recently at the UN Security Council. “But of course Russia denies its presence in eastern Ukraine despite the facts and evidence to the contrary,” she said. “The separatists depend completely on Russia financially, they cannot survive without the financial assistance they receive from Russia, with which the self-proclaimed Republics have an open border.”
Last October the Atlantic Council think tank released a report which said that satellite images confirmed the movement of Russian troops and camp build-ups along the Ukrainian border.
“Russian training camps stationed along the Ukrainian border are the launching points of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the report said.
There is currently a ‘contact line’ separating Ukraine from the Donbas region and the two self-proclaimed republics, which border Russia to the east and are under the complete control of the Russian separatists. Attempts by the Ukraine to have an international organisation like OSCE monitor the border were turned down by Moscow.
“From the Russian point of view of international relations, they kept control of this border. However, the Russians cannot stand the idea of any border control by us or the OSCE, because they wouldn’t be able to supply the separatists through the border,” Zerkal explained.
What is Russia’s objective?
“I do not think they have any particular plans to make the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk part of Russia. They want to create an area of instability. The situation there could destabilise the overall situation in Ukraine. This is a weapon that can be activated at any moment,” she said.
Russia has applied a new form of conflict with the Ukraine, known as ‘hybrid war’ which does not rely exclusively on military confrontation. It blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare and supports operations which avoid attribution or retribution. Hence Moscow’s claims that it has nothing to do with the separatists in the Donbas region, who, nevertheless can cause instability throughout Ukraine at any time.
The use of the internet for propaganda purposes is part of the ‘hybrid war’.
A Ukraine government official said that when Russia annexed Crimea “it almost succeeded in convincing the international community that those actions were supported by Crimea’s population.” It used a similar ploy to start the war in eastern Ukraine, putting all responsibility on Russian separatists and claiming it had nothing to do with the conflict. The geo-political goal of the ‘hybrid war’, according to Zerkal, “is to prove we are a failed state and actually the choice made by our population (choosing closer ties with the West) was a mistake.”
Russia is punishing the Ukraine for the overthrow of its pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 in what came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity. Yanukovych had caused popular protests that developed into violent clashes by refusing to sign an association agreement with the EU which would have provided the Ukraine with funds in exchange for major reforms. During the protests Yanukovych signed a treaty with Russia. As the violent protests climaxed, he fled to Russia. At the time, Russian propaganda claimed that the democratically elected Yanukovych had been overthrown by neo-Nazis, denigrating the popular uprising against the president who wanted to keep the country under Moscow’s control. “The extreme right-wingers in Ukraine are not representative of the population,” said Zerkal.
Within a few days, by March 2, Russian troops had Crimea under their control. There are currently an estimated 24,000 troops in Crimea.
“We have still not solved the issue of our citizens who are imprisoned there – we can’t take them back,” said Zerkal. Apart from countless humanitarian problems in Crimea, “there is also an issue of deployment of weapons of mass destruction, while the level of military presence in Crimea is not a threat only to Ukraine but to the whole region.”
Ukraine is suffering the consequences of having a powerful and aggressive neighbour. “Of course we are not in a favourable position,” said Zerkal. “We cannot threaten, we are not as powerful as we want to be and we are limited in our choices of solutions.
“Sometimes it seems to me it is not always an issue of Mr Putin, it is more about the mentality of Russia. They do not share values – this is a main obstacle – for a compromise and common language.”
Zerkal is not optimistic, because Russia is a very powerful country that cannot be trusted. “They do not respect rules and that is what the West cannot understand. You cannot believe their words. It is just words. For the western world it is difficult to understand the difference in approaches. Even a Russian signature on an international treaty would not protect you from an invasion.”
Such a claim would certainly not go down well among the Cyprus political establishment which sees Russia as a force of good in international relations. Some party leaders had even urged President Anastasiades to vote against the renewal of sanctions against Russia at the EU. Zerkal is aware that for Cyprus, which next year will mark 25 years of diplomatic relations with Ukraine, financial interests were at stake and takes a diplomatic line on the issue.
“We can understand, sometimes, the position of Cyprus depends on investors, however we rely on unity and solidarity in the EU.” President Anastasiades visited Ukraine at the end of last year and she noted “that we seem to have good relations despite your approach to double taxation and the protection of investments.”
The amendment protocol for the double taxation treaty currently awaits the approval of the Ukraine parliament.
This is a minor issue compared to the big economic problems facing the government which is pursuing a tough reform programme, hiking taxes and cutting spending in order to meet the criteria set by the IMF in April 2014 for $17 billion loan.
The war has put added strain on public finances – dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees, increased spending on defence, losses from trade with Russia, loss of income from Crimea and the Donbas region – making things more difficult in a country plagued by widespread corruption. “Our objective is to change the mentality of the country,” said Zerkal, while admitting “it is not a very easy task, but this is our main challenge”.
There has been one positive outcome from the war for the economy. Ukraine ended its dependence on Russia for its natural gas. It still uses Russian gas but buys it from Slovakia which buys it from Gazprom, the gas passing through pipeline across Ukraine before being sent back. The gas contract is another dispute between the two states and it is currently before the Stockholm Arbitration Court. It was a one-sided contract imposed by the stronger country, which set the price and fixed the quantity that had to be purchased, regardless of the buyer’s needs. Now, the Ukraine pays a lower price for its gas and is allowed to decide the quantity.
This was a small victory, but Ukraine’s costly dispute with its aggressive and intransigent neighbour, does not appear like it will be settled any time soon.