Russia and EU negotiators push toward crisis resolution in Ukraine; U.S. and Russia compete for Cuba; Uzbekistan pays flirting game with global powers

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

Russia and EU peace negotiators push toward crisis resolution in Ukraine


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses deputies before voting for a draft law in parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, July 16, 2015. Source: Reuters

With the fruitful cooperation between Russia and the West on settling the Iranian nuclear issue still fresh in the memory, four-party negotiations on how bring peace to Ukraine were restarted last week.

The leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine held the first telephone conversation since late April and urged the warring parties to implement in full the agreement so painfully and painstakingly reached in Minsk in February.

It also comes in the wake of the modest success by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in pushing through parliament the draft constitutional amendments on decentralization of power which would give the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” (DNR and LNR) in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine a certain degree of autonomy.

The approval of the amendments by the parliament was made possible through pressure from the West, which seems to be irritated by the lack of progress on implementing the terms of the Minsk agreement. Opponents of Poroshenko assumed that he must have come under fire for stalling the peace process by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.

Nothing is ascertained since the “special status” for the Donbass, as agreed upon in the latest Minsk agreement, will not be enshrined in the constitution of Ukraine itself but in a more easily amended or even annulled law on “local self-rule.”

Still, some kind of forward motion in the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreement has evidently in progress, is it not? Professor Alexander Gushchin of the Russian State University for the Humanities shared his views with Troika Report on this complex and controversial issue:

“Recently, there have been indications that the parties have taken a number of steps towards each other. The adoption of amendments to the Ukrainian constitution and the withdrawal of troops (from the frontline zone) by the unrecognized republics in the Donbass show that the hostilities are now more frozen than before. It also shows that Russia supports the autonomy of the two republics within Ukraine.

“However, the West will demand that political steps be taken by Russia, and that is the liquidation of the statehood of the republics by the end of this year, as stipulated by the Minsk agreement. Russia would support broad autonomy (for the Donbass republics), but now it would be difficult. I think at the moment, despite political turmoil (the violence in Mukachevo in Western Ukraine), the tactical advantage belongs now to the Ukrainian side.”

“The weakening of the confrontation in Ukraine is connected with the Iranian issue. However, much will depend on the potential Russian concessions. Yet there are only two options: The first is autonomy (for the Donbass republics) with limited rights, and the second a frozen conflict, with Russia continuing to support the republics. I believe the first option is more realistic and acceptable for Moscow.”

Optimists in the expert community in Russia share hopes that this movement in the right direction might bring about a face-saving compromise for all sides. 

However, the pessimists are not convinced. Andrei Suzdaltsev, deputy dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, suspects that the West will now put too much pressure on the Donbass republics (apparently through Russia) to achieve unilateral benefits, and as a result the Minsk accord could crumble. On whose side in this debate does Professor Alexander Gushchin stand?

“It’s difficult to be either an optimist or a pessimist. There are nuances. But I do not see a possibility for the outbreak of a big war. A frozen conflict and the granting of autonomy, both are possible.”

Whatever the final settlement may look like, the positive mood among the interested parties seem to be gaining momentum. The developments of the last seven days can be interpreted as a welcoming sign that the four negotiating parties and the United States are beginning to interact in good faith and actively engage Kiev and the Donbass insurgents in the search for a lasting formula of national reconciliation. 


2. Globally speaking

Cuba: Can the U.S. out-friend Russia in the Caribbean?


A U.S. and a Cuban national flag hang from a balcony to mark the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, Old Havana, Monday, July 20, 2015. Source: AP

Following the historic decision by the U.S. and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties, announced on December 17, 2014, two embassies have been just opened in Havana and Washington, respectively.

Russian pundits placed the event into the wider context of what they see as the undeclared drive by the United States to win over friends of Russia and expand its sphere of influence into areas it had previously established, for reasons of political ideology, as no-go zones. It could also signal a turnaround in Washington’s policy of keeping “pariah states” on the outskirts of the global political mainstream.

For the Obama administration, it is the culmination of two years of bumpy negotiations with what was traditionally termed in American political and media oldspeak as the Caribbean’s “Communist regime.” These high-stakes talks required parting with ideological bias in favor of dogma-free pragmatism.

For Raul Castro and his team of still unbending revolutionaries, who used to chant “Cuba Si, Yankee No,” it was no less easy to accept the sudden change in attitude of their sworn enemies, who had previously masterminded so many attempts to overthrow the Havana government and plots to kill the founding father of the nation, Fidel Castro.

Both sides agree that this is simply the first step in the right direction. Huge challenges still lie ahead. In particular, there is the controversial issue of restitution, or the return of property of Cuban exiles, who are divided on the benefits of the dramatic overhaul of U.S. policy towards a “Cuba libre.”

No less unpredictable is the outcome of the deliberations in the U.S. Congress, where elected officials representing Cuban-Americans claim that Obama has not made the most out of the bargain.

Troika Report reached veteran foreign policy analyst Anatoly Gromyko, assistant member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Gromyko shares the name of his father, the renowned Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. The 83-year old Anatoly Gromyko was an acquaintance of the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Here is his comment on the restoration of formal diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba:

“I view this development as extremely positive. Basically, it amounts to the United States finally abandoning its Cold War stance. It’s no secret that the U.S. goal was to suffocate Cuba with economic sanctions and military pressure. Now Obama is relinquishing this policy. It’s a positive move. Cuba bears witness to the fact that even a small country that stands firmly on its feet can face up to any subversion. Sanctions at their core are an act of subversion. Giving up the policy of sanctions and [pursuing] a return to normal diplomatic relations is a good sign, though much will depend on the policy pursued further on by Washington. If there is a suspicion that the U.S. is using the normalization as a shield for staging an “orange revolution,” meaning a regime change, it would meet a negative reaction among the Cubans.”

The minefield that lies ahead for Cuba and the U.S. should not be underestimated. The fast-track burial of a sanctions regime that lasted for more than half a century is unlikely to overcome the entrenched animosity on both sides. It needs time.

Moreover, Cuban-Americans represent a lobby group with powerful financial leverage and influential supporters, many of whom are found among ultra-conservatives, including those who reside on Capitol Hill.

Strangely enough, according to Troika Report experts who are familiar with the slow evolution of the Cuban political class, today the islanders seem to be more ready and apt to accommodate a more pragmatic relationship with the United States.

Nevertheless, Alexander Domrin, a professor at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, sounds no less upbeat about this U-turn in U.S. foreign policy:

“All wars come to an end. All embargoes come to an end. What we have now is really a historical moment.”

“From my point of view it might have even a broader global context. There are different Cubans living in America right now. Some of them lost property as a result of the revolution in Cuba. Some, belonging to the new generation, want to re-establish relations with their motherland. This is quite remarkable that President Obama now is not planning to send new troops to the Bay of Pigs or trying to kill Fidel Castro. Obama is more sensitive than his predecessors to the voices of Cuban Americans who want new relations with their motherland.” 

In any case, no harm is envisaged for the slowly improving interaction between Russia and Cuba, which suffered a major setback after Yeltsin’s administration distanced itself from its once close ally in America’s backyard. At present, Moscow and Havana are promoting meaningful and tailor-made cooperation in lucrative areas free of ideological tenets, which provides both sides with a certain flexibility. 


3. Going Eastward

Uzbekistan plays capricious bride to global powers


The meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov in Tashkent, July 15, 2015. Source: MFA Russia.

Uzbekistan, the second-biggest nation in Central Asia, long regarded as an isolated dictatorship run by an ex-Soviet apparatchik, is rapidly dropping its image of outsider and geopolitical bystander. Less than a year before assuming the chairmanship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Tashkent is being courted by global powers who are trying to win the ear of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, who is performing a delicate balancing act by flirting with all the interested parties.

Take Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Uzbekistan last week, hard on the heels of the talks in Tashkent held with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which inaugurated his tour of the five countries in the region.

Modi heralded “a new era in relations with the Central Asian republics,” triggering off fresh speculation on whether or not the region, and Uzbekistan in particular, is becoming the new center stage for charm offensives by major global powers.

In Tashkent, Modi was attempting to get off the ground a 2013 contract to receive 2,000 metric tons of uranium ore concentrate over five years to help power 10 nuclear reactors. Both sides agreed to expand cooperation in civil aviation, transportation in general, and, above all, in defense.

Similarly, Tashkent welcomes military assistance from the United States and is looking at other potential patrons to ensure equilibrium in the wider region.

India, Russia and the United States seem to be courting Tashkent. What are the stakes in these rebalancing efforts? Vadim Kozyulin, an expert with the Center for Policy Studies, a Moscow-based independent think tank, attempted to clarify matters for Troika Report:

“First of all, it is important to note that the results of the recent high-level meetings are shrouded in secrecy and conspiracy. Information is limited. This is one of the traits of Tashkent’s policy: secrecy and unpredictability. But world leaders, when dealing with Uzbekistan, are looking for predictability, mostly in three fields: security, power transition in the country, and economic opportunities.

“Security is the key issue since Islamic State has already set its foot in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Obviously, it is important to know who will be the major provider of security in the region. The stakes are high for two key players: Russia and the United States, and to a certain extent to India given the turbulence in neighboring Afghanistan and developments in Pakistan.

“All players are ready to pay a price for maintaining stability in the region. Moscow has written off Uzbekistan’s debt to Russia, totaling almost one billion dollars, while the U.S. has provided military hardware, equipment and ammunition to Tashkent free of charge. It is projected on the crucial issue: Who will be the main provider of security for Uzbekistan? This is the intrigue which is now being resolved.”

Talking of intrigues, is Uzbekistan playing the role of a capricious bride, flirting with all the global powers but unwilling to commit to any one of them? Arkady Dubnov, political analyst and expert in Central Asia affairs, provided an insight into the contours of the emerging new security infrastructure in the region. Here is his comment for Troika Report:

“To follow your metaphor, Uzbekistan is an aged bride who has been marrying and divorcing, and marrying again. There is a good reason for that: Uzbekistan is a much-sought after bride with whom many would like to have a very close relationship. Just hours after the exhausting negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program were finalized in Vienna, Sergei Lavrov paid a lightning visit to Tashkent, where he immediately started planning a state visit by Islam Karimov to Russia. It proves beyond any shadow of doubt that Moscow has come to realize the value of such symbolic gestures.

“Islam Karimov can also appreciate this courteous gesture. As soon as the proposal to make the highest level visit to Moscow was made during the Ufa summit, Karimov, who earlier objected rather vehemently to India and Pakistan joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, has changed his tone and rhetoric. Mind you, Uzbekistan will assume the post of chairperson of the SCO next year. There are no geopolitical overtones in this, only the expediency of the opportune moment, and Moscow did not miss its chance.

“It can now be predicted that next year Uzbekistan will show loyalty to Russia’s interests in the region. As testimony came the official statement this week that Tashkent will develop its relations with the United States, but not at the expense of relations with Russia. This stance will be highly appreciated in Moscow.” 

In sum, we are witnessing a sort of a re-discovery by the world’s powers of Uzbekistan as an important player in Central Asia, despite the fact that at one point it was regarded as an obsolete autocratic regime. Today, Uzbekistan is calling the shots and is in an envious position to reap the benefits of multiple engagements to rich suitors.


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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