The EU puts the Eastern Partnership on hold; is time running out for Assad in Syria?; Moscow ponders Iraq's request for arms supplies

RBTH presents its weekly analytical program TROIKA REPORT, featuring a look at three of the most high-profile recent developments in international affairs.


1. Engaging the West

EU puts Eastern Partnership on hold to placate Russia


Heads of state and European Union officials pose for a picture before the Eastern Partnership Summit session in Riga, Latvia, May 22, 2015. Source: Reuters

Leaders of ex-Soviet republics impatient to board the train of EU integration experienced something of a let-down last week as the EU Eastern Partnership summit in the Latvian capital of Riga offered little consolation for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The three states that signed EU association agreements last year with an obvious aspiration to be formally invited to join the European Union have found themselves at another crossroads. Apart from an expression of strongly worded support for Ukraine, the EU’s major powers avoided any mention of a membership card.

Rubbing salt into the wounds, the 28 EU leaders demanded comprehensive reforms in Georgia and Ukraine as a precondition for granting their citizens visa-free travel to Europe.

The atmosphere and wording of the official statements were in stark contrast with the last Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in 2013. At that time, the Eastern Partnership program was viewed as a key incentive for post-Soviet states to rupture close ties with Moscow (until now, Russia remains the single largest investor in the Ukrainian economy), and once and for all, irrevocably change their political, commercial, and cultural orientation towards the European Union.

Ahead of the summit, President of the European Council Donald Tusk dampened the expectations of the six post-Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) saying that they need “to exercise strategic patience” and that “our partnership will go forward step by step.”

However, the six countries in the Eastern Partnership seem to be somewhat out of step. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ignored the summit. Belarus and Armenia remain part of the program but are viewed as renegades of a kind due to their status as member states in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union which, at least for the moment, can hardly be married with full-fledged integration with the EU.

Donald Tusk claimed that the Eastern Partnership “is not a beauty contest between Russia and the European Union.” What is the initiative really about, and are Moscow’s fears that it is based on building rivalry between the EU and Russia justified?

Soren Liborius, spokesperson and head of press and information of the Delegation of the European Union to Russia, explained Brussels’ approach to Troika Report:

“What President Tusk said was that the Eastern Partnership is a long-term engagement of the European Union and its eastern neighbors. It is not about a ‘beauty contest,’ it is about working together. It is not against Russia. It is about work with officials, with NGOs, it is about building better societies.”

“Frankly I think Russia stands only to gain, because [having] more stable, more prosperous, more developed neighboring countries should be in Russian interests. I don’t think it would be in Russian interests to have underdeveloped, poor, non-reformed countries where instability reigns [as neighbors]. Better neighbors is what Europe has been seeking.”

— The Riga summit brought disappointment to some eastern nations. Will this jeopardize their integration with the EU?

“I think we all understand that the challenges these societies are facing require work for a very long time. The Eastern Partnership is an offer for these countries: They should decide what they want. Disappointment is related to the issue of “strategic patience.” We must accept that it took many years for the EU to be built. We must be patient, and instead of asking for the impossible to happen today we should keep on with our work, do some serious homework, and try to develop better societies together.”

The Riga summit, in fact, showed a slight revision of attitudes towards Russia. A senior EU official, quoted in British newspaper The Guardian, revealed a certain change of mood in Brussels, saying that although the EU “will never allow a third country to dictate the policy it has towards other countries,” perhaps it had not done enough groundwork in reassuring Russia about its intentions: “We will act more carefully with regard to Russia in the future. Perhaps there was not enough carefulness, not enough outreach, not enough dialogue before.” 

At the summit, French President Francois Hollande stressed a need for global cooperation with Moscow. He pointed out that “we must not turn this Eastern Partnership into yet another conflict with Russia… I'm sure the European Union and Russia ... can have a discussion directed toward the future.”

Could it be that the Eastern Partnership in some way might embrace Russia too? Just for the sake of Europe having “better neighbors”…


2. Globally speaking 

Time running out for Assad: head-scratching time for Moscow?


In this archive photo Syrian President Bashar al-Assad watches a presentation during his visit to the campus of Infosys Technologies Ltd., an Indian software services company, in Bangalore, India, June 20, 2008. Source: AP

The fall of the ancient city of Palmyra, captured last week by Islamic State militants, could become a game-changer in the four-year war in Syria, raising a new uneasy question for Moscow: How would it affect Russia’s standing in the region if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime crumbles?

President Assad’s problems are mounting: The war has taken its tragic toll, with one out of every three males of conscription age being killed in some villages, while disruption of revenue flows have left the state coffers almost empty. Assad has also seen his power base shrink: The Alawites number only two million, or 10-12 percent of Syria’s total population.

The prediction by analysts that Assad’s regime will collapse in a matter of several months no longer looks incredible. Will it become a new headache for Russia? Or, on the contrary, will Assad’s departure come as a relief and a chance to mend spoiled relations with other international actors in the region?

Grigory Kosach, professor of Oriental Studies at the Russian State University for Humanities, and a staunch critic of Kremlin foreign policy, had this to say to Troika Report:

“It will be a new headache but it should be viewed in the context of Russia’s policy, which de facto contributed to the emergence of extremists in the region, in particular, Islamic State. At the same time, Moscow accuses a number of Arab countries, mostly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of creating Islamic State. The departure of Assad might not necessarily persuade Moscow to correct its own mistakes and work on restoring relations. Even if Moscow concedes the need to do this, it will take a very long time.”

However, this viewpoint is disputed by Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Middle East Studies, who made the following comment for Troika Report:

“The collapse of the state could happen but then the question is whether Syria would break up into four of five pieces with some of them controlled by radical Islamists. It also means that there would be another leader, not Assad but some general or politician, to administer the part of Syria which is still under the control of Assad. Then there will be the rest of Syria, where Alawites, Druze, and Christians would live without fear of genocide.

— If a new leader comes to power in Damascus, could it eventually unblock the frozen relations, for instance, with the Persian Gulf states?

“We are not part of the region. We are outsiders and we will remain outsiders. Russia will sell arms and ammunition to those who want it. Russia will enter into dialogue with anyone who wants such a dialogue in the region. Due to the lobbying of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fighting Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Brother Muslims or any others forces is on the agenda of the United States and European Union, but not on Russia’s agenda. We do not need our own 9/11. If the Americans want to do it, let them do it.”

If we are to take Yevgeny Satanovsky’s earlier remark that Russia will always be an “outsider” in the region by definition at face value, then Moscow has limited room for maneuver and is a second-tier actor at best in the region. 

Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that Moscow has preserved some leverage and instruments to influence developments in the wider Middle East. It can still capitalize on the legacy of past cooperation and the lure of lucrative trade, the export of hydrocarbons and sophisticated military hardware, and the transfer of technology, like nuclear power generation. As for war-torn Syria, it will hardly be the preferred destination of Russia’s commodities and investments. 

All in all, it would be wise for Moscow to wait and watch for a “new” more or less stable Middle East to emerge from the current whirlwind of conflicts.


3. Going Eastward

Iraq: seeking help from any quarter


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 21, 2015. Source: EPA

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s visit to Moscow was largely bypassed by world media amid a flood of reports on the fresh Islamic State offensive and its capture of Ramadi, capital of the crucial province of Anbar. Increasingly frustrated by what is believed to be U.S. President Barack Obama’s lack of resolve, Baghdad is turning to Moscow in search of vital support.

By dispersing the elite forces of the Golden Division and besieging the 8th Brigade base outside Ramadi, the ISIS militants proved that their firepower and morale are not waning but, on the contrary, are superior to that of their opponents, and are matched only by their determination in realizing their goal of creating an Islamic caliphate.

The humiliation of the U.S.-trained Iraqi armed forces coincided with a statement by Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban that Baghdad was now pinning its hopes on Moscow’s readiness to supply ammunition and weapons. “We cannot depend on only one type of weapon from one particular country,” Ghabban said in an interview with Russian television. He also admitted that Iraq welcomed the training of both its police and military by Russia in the fight against ISIS.

Prime Minister Al-Abadi urged Russia to ramp up its involvement in the fight against ISIS. It was a carbon copy of the message that Al-Abadi delivered last month on a trip to Washington, where he asked the U.S. to intensify its air campaign against the jihadists. Al-Abadi revealed having come under pressure to make him abandon plans to resort to Moscow for help, but he would not give in.

How justified would be a more assertive and pro-active Russian policy in Iraq? How expedient would it be to increase deliveries of arms and armaments to Baghdad? This is a highly politically charged issue which divides the Russian expert community.

Grigory Kosach, professor of Oriental Studies at the Russian State University for Humanities, and a staunch critic of Kremlin foreign policy, opposes Moscow’s eagerness to supply weapons to the embattled Iraqi regime. He made the following comment to Troika Report:

“The United States and other Western powers always point out the deficiencies of the regime in Baghdad whenever it comes to human rights violations, the underrepresentation of the Sunnis in the government institutions, the misuse of Shia militias, and so on. Russia does nothing of the sort. It is simply ready to sell weapons to anyone in the region who is ready to pay a good price.”

However, this viewpoint is not shared by Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Middle East Studies, who described to Troika Report the value of military-technical cooperation with Russia for Baghdad:

“The only country which officially supports Baghdad with supplies of military equipment when it is facing the threat of Islamic State is Russia. Only Russian aircraft, artillery, tanks now serve the purpose of preventing ISIS from launching attacks on certain areas in Iraq. No matter who uses Russian weapons, either Iraq, Iran or [Bashar al-]Assad of Syria, it is Russia’s contribution to the fight against radical Islamists.”

“Russia is the only country which promises support and actually renders support.”

The visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi to Moscow must have gone well since it resulted in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledging full support in the fight against ISIS militants. “'We will try to satisfy all possible demands to the maximum so that their defense capability and ability to oust ISIS and other terrorists from their territory is guaranteed,” said Lavrov. He also implied that Russia would supply armaments to Iraq without any preconditions.

Last year, Russia shipped weapons and ammunition to Iraq worth an estimated $1.7 billion, providing the Iraqi armed forces with Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft artillery units, Mil Mi-35M attack helicopters, and Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters, among others.

Remarkably enough, following Al-Abadi’s plea to Moscow for the supply of weapons, the U.S. State Department Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf echoed this development with an announcement: Iraq has a right to purchase military equipment from Russia for its security needs.

This goodwill gesture from the U.S. could be interpreted as a sign of some kind of rapprochement between Washington and Moscow on the unequivocal issue of the threat to regional – and potentially to global – stability posed by ISIS.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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