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20th Aug 2018

Magazine

Russia-EU relations in 2015: From Ukraine to Syria

  • Russian president Putin (c) with EU Commission president Juncker (l) and German chancellor Merkel (r). (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

"Allah only knows why they did it. And probably, Allah has decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by taking their mind and reason."

So said Russian leader Vladimir Putin in his state of the nation speech on TV in December, after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border. "If anyone thinks Russia's reaction will be limited to trade sanctions, they're deeply mistaken," he added. His 7,584-word speech didn't mention "Ukraine" once.

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  • (Photo: kremlin.ru)

In September, when Putin first launched Syria air strikes, his propaganda machine switched focus from Ukraine to Islamic State (IS). In late November, it switched to anti-Turkey hysteria, including blanket coverage of allegations that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is buying oil from IS.

The same day Putin spoke on TV, international monitors in east Ukraine reported "some explosions in Donetsk region" and "small-arms fire in Luhansk region." The new propaganda also included anti-Western elements, such as allegations the US ordered Turkey to shoot down the plane.

Minsk

But the situation is a far cry from the start of the year. In the first days of January, Russian hybrid forces captured the strategic Donetsk airport in Ukraine. Then they unleashed a salvo of grad rockets on Mariupol, killing dozens of civilians and prompting fears of a larger invasion.

Putin met with French, German, and Ukrainian leaders in Minsk in February to agree ceasefire terms. But a few days later, his forces launched a new assault, capturing Debaltseve, a railway hub.

The situation inside Russia also became darker. In February, unknown gunmen shot dead Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, on the doorstep of the Kremlin. As a former deputy PM, Nemtsov had been considered untouchable. His murder showed that no one can feel safe.

At the same time, Oleg Navalny, the brother of Alexei Navalny, the other big name in the Russian opposition, was jailed on spurious fraud charges. Navalny's associates describe it as "a new policy of hostage-taking" against the opposition.

The anti-Ukraine and anti-Western propaganda became so shrill that EU leaders launched a new counter-propaganda cell in the EU foreign service.

Russian planes continuously buzzed Nato airspace. Russian soldiers, in massive wargames, simulated an invasion of the Baltic states, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

WWII parade

On 9 May, Putin stood in Red Square watching the biggest show of Russian military might in modern history at a WWII parade.

In a sign of how low EU relations had sunk, even the German chancellor, for all of Germany's WWII-era guilt, boycotted the event.

Robert Pszczel, Nato's spokesman to Moscow, did go. He later said he was disturbed when Russian families roared in support, "the kind you hear at a football match," when phallanxes of Iskander rockets rolled by. Iskanders are nuclear-capable rockets positioned to hit Berlin and Warsaw. "It looks like a country preparing for war," Pszczel said.

Fighting in Ukraine flared up again in August. But with Ukraine unable to make territorial gains, and with Russia eschewing a full invasion, the conflict degenerated into skirmishes.

It was still bloody. The UN reported in September that 105 non-combatants were killed and 308 were injured in the past three months.

It was also dirty. The same UN report contained testimonies of abduction and torture by both sides.

Colour revolutions

But on 30 September, the first Russian bombs fell in Syria, and three days later, France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine agreed a new "truce," which continues to hold.

It doesn't mean Putin won't resume Ukraine hostilities in future. EU leaders are preparing to extend economic sanctions for six months in January 2016 because Russian forces are still in Ukraine and Russia still controls the border.

It doesn't mean Putin will stop soft power intrigue against Kiev. In November, Ukraine halted Russia gas imports due to complaints of price gouging. In January, Putin plans to impose trade sanctions.

It doesn't mean he'll stop other forms of intrigue against EU interests, either. He's now using the same methods, in Moldova and Montenegro, that the US used, 10 years ago, to foment "colour revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine.

He's also funding anti-establishment parties in EU states. When asked why Russia is spending money on Ataka, a far-right party in Bulgaria, when it has a handful of MPs and no prospect of power, a Russian diplomat said: "Because they can put 10,000 people on the streets of Sofia in half an hour."

But the Turkey spat shows that getting into a war in the Middle East is much easier than getting out of one. It's a region whose leaders, like Erdogan, are also reckless gamblers, like Putin.

The EU has extended a hand of cooperation on the economic front, by offering to hold talks with Russia's Eurasian Union. The US has invited Russia to join its anti-IS coalition. Nato has offered an olive branch by resuming Nato-Russia Council meetings.

Perhaps now is a good time for Putin to accept.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2015 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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