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Karsten Riise

Master of Science (Econ) from Copenhagen Business School, University degree in Spanish Culture and Languages from University of Copenhagen

Column: European Policy

The global strategic situation is now very favorable for stable, peaceful and prosperous solutions to issues in Europe and in the Middle East. Such solutions could benefit all parties involved, and in extension even create opportunities for Asia, including China and India. Russia has consolidated its strategic positions in Europe and the Middle East. The ‘West’ is about to recognize that all Western efforts to topple Russia will never succeed, creating yet more problems for the West itself. The EU’s leading countries, especially Germany, France and Italy, are open for constructive solutions with Russia. The UK skepticism against Russia is sidelined with ‘Brexit’. The EU is more than ever able to do this, finding itself in much more independent international position, also in relations with the US. Today, the US president is rather ready to work constructively with Russia.

To move forward, Russia could use a wider international approach.

Favorable International Situation

The global strategic situation is now very favorable for stable, peaceful and prosperous solutions to issues in Europe and in the Middle East. Such solutions could benefit all parties involved, and in extension even create opportunities for Asia, including China and India. Russia has consolidated its strategic positions in Europe and the Middle East. The ‘West’ is about to recognize that all Western efforts to topple Russia will never succeed, creating yet more problems for the West itself. The EU’s leading countries, especially Germany, France and Italy, are open for constructive solutions with Russia. The UK skepticism against Russia is sidelined with ‘Brexit’. The EU is more than ever able to do this, finding itself in much more independent international position, also in relations with the US. Today, the US president is rather ready to work constructively with Russia.

To move forward, Russia could use a wider international approach.

Russia Needs a Two-Fold International Concept

Russia’s security concept has proven very effective, and it will continue to serve as a foundation of strength. Russia has always sought cooperation with the West, but Russia has not always been met on “equal” terms needed for its independent policy.

Now, Russia is in a position to develop a new constructive range of a civilian socio-economic-political approaches. A Russian two-fold approach of military on the one hand, and constructive engagement on the other hand, looks similar to what the West say they want to do with Russia. But unfortunately, the West has never really known how to do this to achieve constructive results. Russia can now show the way.

Russia’s security concept on the one hand has clearly demonstrated its efficiency. I will therefore concentrate on developing ideas for civilian socio-economic-political approaches, which Russia can choose to develop, to create favorable opportunities for all the international community in geographic areas, where Russia is highly engaged.

The Baltics

Contrary to promises from President Reagan, the three Baltic countries, former members of the Soviet Union, became members of NATO, an alliance directed against Russia. And contrary to their official status as “neutral” countries, Sweden and Finland, have after the Cold War also become more or less NATO members de-facto. Should the three Baltic states and even Finland one day become highly militarized by NATO, they will pose a permanent and acute threat of strategic surprise-attack against the Saint Petersburg and Pskov region, one of Russia’s centers. Also, after the Cold War, the Russian district of Kaliningrad became a strategically vulnerable enclave inside NATO’s area. These security issues must be acknowledged by all, because they led to a serious deterioration of Russia’s strategic safety since the end of the Cold War. Therefore, Russia has a legitimate and vital interest and obligation to protect itself against any further decrease in its strategic security in the Baltic Sea. On the other hand, it must also be acknowledged, that the three Baltic states also are a geographically vulnerable and represent an isolated NATO-enclave, close to their big and powerful neighbor Russia. This strategic configuration constitutes a dilemma for both NATO and Russia.

Nevertheless, Finland has proven that a long-term peaceful cooperation with Russia is possible, and can even be highly profitable for a ‘western’ society. This should inspire and give hope for all the Baltic countries. Without Russia on their “mental map”, the Baltic countries, just like Finland, are small populations placed in one of the most isolated, remote corners of the world. Add Russia to their “mental map”, and their opportunities will more than double, making the region a crossroads and center of a promising politico-economic East-West trade in all of the Baltic Sea, with big-city Saint Petersburg as a high-skilled dynamic international center. And historically, economic crossroads always tend to prosper.

A political solution to this problem, which can serve both NATO and Russia, can as follows.

The three Baltic states can continue as low-militarized members of NATO, Sweden and Finland continue working with NATO, without gaining an official NATO-membership, or allowing NATO to station forces on their territory. Russia must demand a treaty limiting the stationing of foreign troops/offensive land and air units etc. in these five countries, to not exceed the current levels. Perhaps Russia could also demand a limit of heavy NATO troops (tanks, artillery) in Eastern Poland, within a number of kilometers from the Polish-Lithuanian border. Foreign NATO naval activities should be decreased and limited in a designated zone in the Eastern Baltic Sea. Russia, on the other side, will by treaty abstain from limitless offensive military build-up in Kaliningrad, and from military moves in the airspace and waters of the three Baltic countries and the two East-Scandinavian countries (Sweden and Finland), and limit heavy Russian military presence in a narrow belt (5-10 km, perhaps) close to the borders of the Baltic states.

Andrey Kortunov, Olga Oliker:
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A guarantee against West-imposed “regime-change” in Belorussia must be included. But in a way (to be designed by Russia) as not to “freeze” Belorussia in an obsolete political structure, and not to preclude any natural (that is, free of Western political interference) and national internal future political development in Belorussia in harmony with Russian security needs. All the measures I suggest here, serve to get both sides, East and West, out of the mutual dilemma of strategic security-instability. As always, problems of monitoring will arise in any treaty. Also, treaty clauses must be agreed beforehand, describing which steps will be allowed from each side, in case the other side “breaks” one, two or more points in the treaty: For instance “If one side breaks the agreement about naval activities, the other part can step-up naval activities in this-or-that way” – “If one side breaks the agreement about heavy weapons, the other side is allowed to this-or-that”.

The Baltic states should commit to replacing their ethnic nationalist ideologies with an inclusive ideology for all citizens, regardless of their language-culture backgrounds – also for Russian speakers. Specific measures to improve the societal inclusiveness of their Russia-speaking population as equal citizens are needed. Russia should commit to abstaining from engineering activities among Russian-speakers which could destabilize the Baltic countries. For both sides, a treaty on trade, services and the movement of people should be concluded – the goal being to create a globally economic successful Region including Helsinki – Saint Petersburg – Pskov – Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania – Kaliningrad – Stockholm. The participation of Danes, Poles, and Germans is welcome, but not required.

Ukraine

Minsk agreements are fine, but one of the reasons they have not worked in practice is, that there has been no solution in sight, how the situation could be permanently settled. Today, Russia has consolidated its position, and therefore Russia will be able to offer a long-term solution. I will suggest a set of very basic and logical ideas for such a permanent solution.

The EU will officially acknowledge Crimea’s new status as part of Russia. Even before Crimea voted to rejoin Russia, Crimea was a special and autonomous unit attached to Ukraine. The ‘transfer’ of Crimea from Russia as a ‘birthday-present’ to Ukraine during the Soviet times, was absurd. The situation of Crimea was and is so special, that acknowledging Crimea as Russian will not necessarily set a precedent for future international legal decisions. A new referendum on Crimea might probably be discussed as a “precondition” from the West, but when it comes to doing so, probably none of the sides would like to go through another national referendum on Crimea. The West would like to avoid the humiliation of suffering a popular defeat in a new referendum in Crimea which they will have to accept beforehand, and Russia, having once already conducted a referendum, would not like another referendum on Crimea either.

The two Ukrainian districts (oblasts) Luhansk and Donetsk should by treaty be given a separate Ukrainian-Russian national status inside the state of Ukraine. The model for Luhansk and Donetsk inside Ukraine should in a treaty with Russia (backed by the EU and the UN) be similar to the status of Northern Ireland within the UK according to the “Good Friday” agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, as legal entity inside of the UK, is fully acknowledged for its historic-cultural affiliation with the neighboring country, the Republic of Ireland. The UK government in London has by treaty with the Irish Republic, given Northern Ireland an officially acknowledged right to secede from the UK, and become part of the neighboring Republic of Ireland, any day, for the indefinite future, if the people of Northern island should vote for such a border-change in a referendum. Luhansk and Donetsk should be given exactly the same right, using the “Good Friday Agreement” between the UK and the Irish Republic on Northern Ireland as a model. Northern Ireland even has its own Parliament with legally defined rights to administer its region in self-determination. When a similar treaty is signed between Ukraine and Russia, giving Luhansk and Donetsk a legal and internationally acknowledged right, that any day for the indefinite future they can vote to leave Ukraine and instead become part of Russia, then Kiev will need to treat these two districts well, because otherwise they should use their right to leave Ukraine. A supervised demilitarization from by Kiev of Luhansk and Donetsk will be needed to secure their rights on the ground.

Russia should have a written document presupposing that Ukraine never becomes a part of NATO, and that NATO (or the EU, or individual NATO-countries) will not build up Ukraine with heavy military (tanks, artillery, combat air craft). In other words, Ukraine could continue as a kind of “military vacuum”. An alternative way of doing this would be Ukraine entering into a formal defense agreement with Russia. If Ukraine signs a defense agreement with Russia, the document created should still keep Ukrainian-Russian military activity in Ukraine at a minimum, to make East-European EU countries (including Poland) feel secure, because a long-term solution needs to look at the security needs of both East and West.

The EU has enough troubles. Even the idea of an enlargement of the EU with the relatively small West Balkan states poses a serious problem for the Union. The EU has neither the resources, nor the political interest, nor even the cultural knowledge, to assist Ukraine, which is so much bigger than the West Balkan states in terms of population and size of its problems, in a socio-political build-up. Some extremist groups in Ukraine can even pose a security problem for the EU. Only Russia has all it takes to make Ukraine a success. It is in Russia’s best socio-economic and security interests not to have a failed Ukraine, rather than build-up a peaceful Ukraine, and this is in full harmony with basic EU interests too. Simultaneously with security treaties, a range of commercial and cultural deals need to be concluded, to turn Ukraine into a cultural-economic crossroads between Russia and the EU. And as mentioned above, crossroads historically tend to prosper. I have visited Ukraine, I love the warmth of the people I have met there. We all want the best for Ukraine. The situation of some extremist movements inside the state of Ukraine is an issue of concern to both the EU and Russia. Corruption is a big issue to deal with in Ukraine, but also in Russia. However, corruption on (somehow) comparative levels, has not prevented enormous economic development in other countries like China and India, or even Brazil and Mexico.

Georgia

The situation in Georgia cannot be solved by force. Years ago, the US engineered the downfall of Shevardnadze’s Russia-friendly Georgia. The next Georgian leader (who now has an international arrest order from Georgia for corruption) tried to stage violent surprise actions against regional minorities in Georgia together with US military advisers. Russia responded with countermeasures to protect Russia’s vital security interests on Russia’s southern flank in the Caucasus against US military infringement. A solution in Georgia will take quite some time. The US in Georgia is probably just a game-spoiler, perhaps to be sidelined. But a good thing about the EU in Georgian context is that the EU has neither military means nor any vital strategic interests at stake in Georgia at all. The EU just wants peace and stability in Georgia. Once EU–Russia solutions have been found in the Baltics and in Ukraine, Georgian puzzle can and will be solved.

Other issues in Europe

Various issues include allegations of possible Russian connections into European politics, or perhaps also the other way around (we never hear about that). And the Skripal case. All these are secondary and solvable, issues, once the above hard-points are solved.

Syria

If it is at all possible to speak of any “winner” in such an ugly civil-war, with perhaps 400,000 dead people and 5 million refugees out of 22 million previous inhabitants, it must be Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Iran could not alone have achieved the current stabilization without the Russian air force. And the Russian air force also not alone could have achieved the facts on the ground, without Iranian ground-activities. Turkish cooperation was and is needed. Russia must take the lead, but in discussions, Russia must intake the needs of Iran and Turkey.

These three countries, Russia, Iran and Turkey, not the EU, nor the UN - are the core of solution.

Iran could perhaps live with a destroyed Syria, as long Syria does not become a staging-area for new Sunni terrorists and extremists, and as long as Iran can move (some) supplies to its friends in Lebanon. But it is in Iran’s best long-term interest to assist Syria with stability, tolerance and predictability to build-up Syria again in cooperation with investments and donations from wealthy states. Iran is definitely able to play a constructive role in Syria’s reconstruction, but Russia must design and diplomatically promote internationally the detailed plans for how.

Russia must lead the way to think-out socio-economic concepts for the reconstruction of Syria, discuss these with Iran and Turkey, gain their accept – and bring (“sell”) these plans to the international community.

Forget the US (and the UK) for the time being in Syria.

The US can stay isolated and the Kurdish region of Syria east of the Euphrates. Let alone, the Kurds may miss-out the reconstruction benefits of the rest of Syria, if a Russian led civilian-administration can offer perspectives of peace and development in Syria. If alone, the Kurds may even be “sandwiched” by Turkey, landlocked with no access to sea-transport. The Kurds are not a historic majority in northern Syria, the Kurds even in this ‘homeland’ are still a (big) minority among Arab peoples. I have seen the figure of 40% Kurds, less than half the population in “Kurdish” Syria, but the exact percentages are not important. Arab culture is very important, also in the north of Syria, and should preferably be preserved alongside Kurdish culture in a district common for all peoples there. Arabs north-east of the Euphrates should not be driven out or suppressed by a surge in Kurdish nationalism.

Russia can design, and together with Iran guarantee, a safe solution for (perhaps self-governing) Kurdish regions, if they continue inside a Syrian state. The Kurds will not trust Damascus, but if the Kurds see, that Russia and Iran can create peace, the Kurds may trust Russia and Iran in a reunification of Syria. Change the official state-name, it should no longer be called “Syrian Arab Republic” but simply “Syria”.

The EU has so many vital strategic interests at stake in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Turkey (and not the US) are the only forces in the world, who can now “deliver” what the EU so strongly needs in Syria.

The EU already has enormous internal troubles because of the refugees. It does not need more refugees from the Middle-East. On the contrary, the EU wants to return millions of Syrian refugees back to Syria for the reconstruction of the country. Turkey is also interested in reconstructing Syria, returning Syrian refugees back to Syria, and having a peaceful neighbor to the south. Germany alone took 1 million Syrian refugees, and this has created big political revolts in Germany. Germany will be willing to donate and invest billions of euros in Syria, if this under a Russian leadership can assist Syrian refugees return to a safe and prosperous future in Syria.

The EU (France, Germany and others) has experienced extremist terror on their homelands (Paris, Berlin etc.) coming from Sunni terror-groups in Syria. For 4 years, the US air force had closed their eyes and accepted that long truck-convoys of international terrorist Sunni extremists every day exported oil for weapons in Syria – it only took Russia’s air force a few weeks to wipe that out. Prevention of terrorist attacks and refugee flow are EU’s vital strategic interests in Syria. The EU-problems in Syria are so big, that the EU at just about “all costs” needs to avoid that these problems continue in Syria. The EU will be willing to both pay and close eyes to what kind of political system Syria has, as long as President Assad does not officially continue in power. But the EU must first see that Russia along with Iran and Turkey prove capable of solving these problems in Syria.

The EU wants to trade and cooperate with Iran. That is the reason why the EU defends the JCPOA agreement with Iran. The EU will therefore also accept Iranian presence in Syria, especially if this is together with Russia, and things on the ground work out right. The EU will also be able to accept a certain level of Iranian military presence in Syria, because only Iran can supply enough forces for security on the ground of Syria. But the EU will first wait. The EU must see as realities on the ground, that all this with Russian design can guarantee Syria’s stability, wipe out terrorism, create a basic level of security for Syrians and returning refugees, and a basic functioning of Syrian society to invest in and reconstruct.

Even some of the disagreements between Iran and Israel will not concern the EU too much, as long as such disagreements are kept at a moderate level.

The EU will not even care too much about democracy in Syria, and Mr. Assad may even be able continue in a non-executive non-presidential (more symbolic) place, as long as the EU can see, that basic human rights are not too evidently trampled upon: No mass murder, no chemical weapons use, no ethnic cleansing of neither Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Alawites, Shias, Druze or Christians, no big-time systematic torture etc.

However, though the EU is a potential partner, it will hold back at the moment, and the UN is also not relevant yet.

For the moment, the UN will just get used to veto Russia in Syria, so don’t bother too much with the UN or not even with a new constitution for Syria until later. Seeing is believing. EU must see that Russia with Iran and Turkey can “pull-it-off” – that Russian leadership can successfully create acceptable and attractive foundations for a new start in Syria. Also, some politicians in the EU will like to see Russia fail in Syria. And also, the EU will have problems working fully with Russia, until the security-situation in the Baltics and Ukraine is solved (ref above). All the EU’s hesitations about Russia in Syria can be overcome, but this will take more time, and Russian results in Syria must be demonstrated first.

Russia and Iran in Syria are now confronted with a hen-and-egg situation: “if you have no hens, you will get no eggs – if you have no eggs, you will get no hens”.

This is where China comes in. Because China has the “hen” (=economy) which can lay golden “eggs” (=money).

China is a friend of both Russia and Iran, and of the EU too. China has already demonstrated that it can create a great economic development success investing big-time in a very poor country like Ethiopia. China can do the same in Syria.

In its “Belt and Road” Initiative, China has Greece (the Piraeus harbor of Athens) as an entry-point into the EU. And Syria (with Latakia harbor) close to Greece, has a fantastic strategic location for Chinese business investment and trade with harbors and big cities in Europe.

Syria has a better educated population for business than Ethiopia (yet) has. Syrian refugees returning from Europe can become great builders of future Syrian business into Europe. China can therefore use the people resources of Syria, once larger parts of Syria stabilize. Starting up with China, Russia and Iran can demonstrate that they can lay the basic foundations for the rebuilding of Syria. Then the EU will join, and UN solutions can be discussed with the EU. When the EU joins Russia and Iran in Syria, the US may be forced to accept Russia and even Iran there.

I did not go into depth about the GCC states as a group in Syria. A lot of trouble is going on in that other region at the moment, and it will be wise to be careful about possible destabilizing activities. Qatar is a possible partner in Syria, it has the money too. Also the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are possible partners. Oman has fewer oil-deposits, and Oman therefore has less money for Syria, because it needs to invest her fortunes in diverting Oman’s economy into a non-oil future.

India is a great friend of Russia, Iran and the EU. India has also become a powerful and very high-skilled economy. India can be a very valuable partner in Syria, and India wants to expand its international role too. Just as Syria with a well-educated population and Latakia harbor is strategically well positioned for China, it is well positioned for Indian business with Europe.

Before the civil war, Syria was on road to very successful growth. Maybe that was one of the reasons for the war – Syria’s society was developing into something going better, but expectations in the people were rising faster than any government could deliver. Now, there is yet again a good chance for creating a prosperous Syria. Russia with all its ideas, resources and know-how, together with Iran and Turkey, must work together to establish a civil-political-economic administration in Syria, which can realize these promising potentials for the peoples in Syria.


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