domingo, 31 de julho de 2016

Sanctions, NATO, Olympics and murder: ingredients of worsening relations between Russia and the West

(West and Russia: little friends.)

The last few weeks have been marked by increased tension between Russia and the West. From NATO to the Olympics, political, economic and military differences have placed Russians and the Weste on opposite sides and worsened the Moscow´s international situation.

I don´t intend to deepen the following facts, but give an overview of how recent events can affect the Russia´s relationship with the West and contribute to the understanding of the political climate sorrouding this relation.

(European Union renowed for another six months the economic sanctions against Russia. Red signal to the Kremlin.) 

On June 15th the European Union renewed for another six months the economic sanctions against Russia for it´s role in the conflict in Ukraine. The measure affect politics and economy personalities and Russian investiments in the continent and are valid until January 31st 2017. Nothing new in this regard since renovation was already expected. On response, Russia announced apply the principle of reciprocity and will impose sanctions to food imports from Europe. There is a lack of perspective for sanctions suspension.

(Lawmakers in the Cyprus´ Senate in the capital, Nicosia: country of Orthodox traditions with historical relations with Russia.)

On the other hand there are moves in some coutries to question the sanctions effectiveness and pressure the European Union to suspend them. Such questions start from Euroceptics and/or pro-Russia groups. One in Cyprus. On July 7th it´s Parliament called for the end of the sanctions saying they undermined trade between the two countries, were counterproductive, "unacceptable" and that the targets were friendly people of the country. Italy also has positioned against the sanctions renewal. The resolution was adopted on June 27th by the Senate at the request of Northern League, party with close links with the Kremlin (the League also urged to Senate officially recognize Crimeia as Russian territory, but this resolution was denied). Two other pro-Russia parties, Five Stars and Fuerza Itália, also supported the resolution. And a few weeks ago Italian regional governments has called for sanctions suspension. Another country that take the same measure was Greece, whose Alexis Tsipras government, the Syriza leftist coalition, has systematically opposed to the sanctions against Russia. During a visit by Putin to the country in late May, Tsipras declared once again be firmly against such sanctions. Syriza rules Greece along with the far-right party Independent Greeks, also pro-Russia. Member of both parties have close links with the Kremlin, as already mentioned in this blog.

(NATO meeting logo in Warsaw with the members countries´ flags.)

On July 8 and 9th was held in Warsaw, Poland, the meeting of the NATO countries. The members released a joint statement where say that "the Euro-Atlantic community is facing unprecedented challenges emanating from the South and East", establish agreements between the organization and the European Union to speed up the preparations of the continent´s defense and improve the exchange of informations and know how for a hybrid war. The references to the "South" and "East" are, respectively, North of Africa/Middle East and Russia, and the mention of "hybrid war" is a response to the Kremlin´s strategy of penetration into Europe through desinformation campaign, internet activism, secret service role and, in the case os Islamic extremism, terrorism. Another point of great importance was the formal approval of sending more alliance troops to Eastern Europe. A total of four thousand soldiers (one thousand in each battalion) will be allocated in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Poland, Russia´s neighbouring countries. Despite these troops are not enough to contain a Russian invasion they are a clear message to the Moscow´s behavior, who since the annexation of Crimeia in 2014 and the infiltration of soldiers who started a war in Ukraine, has become too much more provocative.

(Vladimir Putin with the Finnish Prime Minister, Salui Niinisto: the Russian president was clear of what he thinks about a possible Finland integration to NATO.) 

A week before the NATO meeting, Vladimir Putin was in Finland where he met with country´s Prime Minister, Salui Niinisto. Given the recent tensions involving the invasion of the aerialspace in the Baltic Sea region countries by Russian aircrafts and the NATO military exercices in Poland, Finland has taken into account it´s entry into the organization. Putin said enjoy the Finnish military neutrality, but that it´s entry into the NATO would cause a response from Russia suggesting that would relocate it´s military forces on the border of two countries. The declaration was a clear message of irritation that recent aliance military moves cause in the Kremlin, and was seen by some Western media as a threat. Although Finland is militarily neutral, with the Warsaw meeting the country passed to have (as well as Sweden, another neutral country) a permanent seat for talks within the organization. If in the future the Finns move into the group, Russia will have another border (this time extensive, with 1340 km) with adversary troops. The NATO troops movement next to Russia is a nuisance factor and a challenge for Moscow, which see the need to respond to the height of the Western military presence.

(Two-time Olympic champion in Athens and Beijing, three-time world champion and four-times indoor world champion in pole vault: for Yelena Isimbayeva the bannishement of Russian athletes from track and field is the sport "funeral" and "a blatant political order".)

In sports Russia also had losses. On June 17th, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned the Russian track and field athletes from Olympics 2016 in Rio de Janeiro on charge that many of them used banned substances to improve sports performance. Such uses were sistematic and were part of an doping policy state-sponsored. According to the report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) there were many frauds in the collection for analysis: many of them were cancelled or rejected, others were lost and urine samples were exchanged. In the later case the work would have been done by the Russian secret servisse. The ban follows the punishment suffered by the same athletes in November 2015. At the time they were suspended from all international competition due the same scandal. Investigations showed that frauds in anti-doping tests had been widespread.

The Russian Olympic Commettee (ROC) and other 68 athletes attempted to overturn the ban for the Rio Games, but so far without success. The International Olympic Commettee (COI) said that the Russian athletes could compete if they proved were clean of prohibited substances, and that their presence in the games should be under neutral flag. On July 25th, another seven Russian athletes, this time from synchronized swimming, were also banned by the International Swimming Federation (FINA, in French).

(The Moscow Olympics, in 1980, had the American boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: sports and politics were never fully separeted. The Soviets responder boycotting the Los Angeles Games four years later.) 

All-Russia Athletic Federation (ARAF) and some Russian authorities oscilated between defensive and prosecution. Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov asked the sports issue was not politicized. But Lavrov complained to John Kerry the US interference on punishment of their athletes and accused American ask, through a letter to the COI by their anti-doping agency (USADA), the banishment of all the Russian delegation. The Minister called this act "provocative anti-Russian demands". Putin suspended his Sports Deputy Minister, Igor Upland, and all the names mentioned in the WADA report, but defended the Minister Vitaly Mutko, longtime political ally, and questioned what would be the reason for the US anti-doping agency and other countries ask soo hastily, based on the WADA report, the suspension of all the Russian delegation. For this part, Mutko asked that the accusation against him was "absolutely unreal and impossible".

The Lavrov and Putin´s defensives suggest, on the one hand, the widespread doping scandal is real; for the other hand criticism of anti-doping organizations in other countries suggest a political motive for the Russian athletes ban. Real or not, this attitude transfers in some extent the meaning of the ban from sports sphere to international politics. It´s an ingredient in bad relations between Russians and the West. Although the IOC is global, the international organizations are seen by the Kremlin as political tools of the West, specifically the US, and the banishment of Russian athletics of Olympics would be a political provocation. The Americans boycott to the Moscow Games in 1980 in response to the Afghanistan Soviet invasion (1978-1988) and the Soviet boycott response to the Los Angeles Games in 1984 show that sport works, too, as a international pressure instrument. If confirmed the ban on Russians for the Rio Olympics it will be the first time that a large number of athletes (more than a hundred) stay out of the competition since 1984 por doping or political reasons, and will be the third time that this kind of crisis involves the Russians.

(Pavel Shemeret and the car he was after the explosion in Kiev, on July 20th: political instability in Ukraine.)

On July 20th was murdered in Ukraine the journalist Pavel Sheremet. Although died at 44, his career was intense: born in Belarus, he was harsh critic of Alexander Lukashenko government. He was arrested in 1997 while crossing the border from Lithuania during recording for a Russian TV being accused of "receiving money from foreign agencies" and for "illegal journalistic activities". He was released early 1998. In 1999 he moved to Russia, where acquired citizenship the following year. There he was also a journalist opponent of Putin, but his situation got more difficult when Crimeia was annexed in 2014, of which became a strong critic. He openly accused Russia of illegaly annex the peninsula and support separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the same year Sheremet left the TV where he worked, Channel One, in protest to the Russian government action in the media, and moved to Kiev. There he was murdered.

The car he was exploded in city´s downtown shortly before 8 am as he went to the work. The vehicle´s owner was his wife, Olena Prytula, journalist and newspaper´s former editor where both worked, Ukrayinska Pravda. The newspaper, founded in 1990, has a history of opposition to the Ukranian government. One of it´s founders, Georgiy Gongadze, who at the time was close to Prytula, was kidnapped and beheaded in 2000 during the Leonid Kuchma government. The case had considerable repercution and helped to precipitate the "Orange Revolution" in 2004 which brought to power the Kuchma´s opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. Sheremet was Boris Nemtsov´s friend, one of the main Putin´s opponents in Russia, and became one of almost twenty journalists murdered in the country since it´s independence in 1991. A Ministry of Internal Affairs´ spokesman said it couldn´t be rouled out the possible involvement of the Russian secret service in the murder. Another suspicion was that the target was Prytula, since the bomb was put in her car. The Sheremet´s recent work addressed, too, the corruption in Poroshenko government and the pro-Ukraine Azov Battalion´s role and lead by the extermist Right Sector. Poroshenko described the muder as "tragedy" and said that he knew personally the journalist.

(The murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov beside Sheremet to the microphone.) 

It´s not possible to say who ordered the Sheremet´s death. From availabe informations it can make hypotheses. And many. Since the pro-Ukraine battalion to Russia´s secret service, a member of the Ukranian government to Belarus government, any of these groups or members may have connection with the murder. Journalists and opponents of the Russian and Belarussian governments mourned the Sheremet´s death and recalled his proximity with Nemtsov highlighting the role that both played by revealing the corruption schemes of the establishments of these countries; others compared the journalist´s death with the Alexander Litvinenko´s murder by the FSB in London in 2006. Both comparasion suggest that Sheremet was one more victim of the governments of the former USSR countries. Despite the suspicions of Russian involvement, two things need to be said: first that everything is still speculation, and that the Russia´s involvement is just theory. Second that, as announced some Ukranian authorities, the Sheremet´s murder worsen the political climate in Ukraine and, consequently, favors Moscow which considers illegitimate the Kiev government. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced these analyses as "russophobics".

(Relashionship increasingly difficult.)

The economic sanctions renewal by the European Union against Moscow, the internal pressure of the parties and politicians allies of Russians for the suspension of these sanctions, the new NATO´s strategy towards Russia with troops allocation in the east, the fight in the informations war and a closer relashionship of the organization with Scandinavia point to a higher tension between Russians and the West. In the case of allied parties, the pressure within the European bloc strengthens the need of a reaction to the "hybrid war" promoted by the Kremlin that involves, besides of the propaganda dissemination through the media, network contacts with right-wing and left-wing extremists.

On the other hand the possibility (albeit strongly especulative) that Russia has something to do with the Sheremet´s murder only contributes to increased political tension in the region and a greater destabilization of Ukraine. But the disconfort caused by the Russian athletes banishment at the Rio Olympics demoralizes the country´s authorities to expose them to the world as deeply corrupt and unrialible. In the last two cases the historical precedent of journalists murders in the former USSR countries and the episodes of political retaliation at sporting events contributes to the increase of widespread distrust of Russia.

The request of Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov to the American Secretary of State John Kerry to the doping scandal doesn´t become in another political dispute between the two sides is one more signal that the realpolitik logic invaded all the contact channels between Russia and Western countries. Each event is solved within the problems and discordances framework between both. All care is little.**

* published in Portuguese on July 26 2016.

** "Todo o cuidado é pouco" is an expression in Portuguese that means someone need to take great care in each word, gesture and attitude.

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