The new Cold War: Is there a way back? Report of a visit to Moscow
The new Cold War: Is there a way back? Report of a visit to Moscow
From Wednesday 29th May to Saturday 1st June, we visited Moscow, Russia’s capital. We spoke with, amongst others, politicians from governing as well as opposition parties, with researchers, journalists and human rights defenders. The most important reason why we were there is that we are extremely worried about rising tension between East and West, about the new Cold War which has begun in the last few years. Following the annexation of the Crimea and the broader military intervention in eastern Ukraine, relations between the West and Russia have cooled. The shooting down over Ukraine of flight MH17 in July 2014, by means of a Buk surface-to-air missile in the possession of the Russian army, put these relations under further pressure, specifically those between Russia and the Netherlands, from where the flight departed, with many Dutch nationals on board.
Defence budgets have been greatly increased in recent years, while the border region between Russia and NATO, which in the last few decades advanced eastwards, has been militarised. These processes are linked to hundreds of billions of investment in new, easier-to-deploy nuclear weapons and robust, aggressive rhetoric which recalls past times. In addition, sanctions, sometimes far-reaching, have been repeatedly inflicted. The main question which we put to those with whom we spoke in Moscow, was whether there is a way back from this, whether a manner can be found to bring about de-escalation, or ways can be found to relax mutual relations.
In Dutch politics Russia is discussed a great deal. We believe it is important to speak with Russians as well, and to listen to them, not in order to be brainwashed by Russian propaganda, but rather to gain a fairer picture of reality, contaminated as it is, in the West too, by propaganda. In doing so, in initiating a dialogue, lies potentially the seed which may grow into relations which are no longer based on mistrust and enmity. This could contribute to a safer world, one in which less money is wasted on costly weaponry. On the basis of a number of themes - dialogue, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, NATO, Ukraine, internal developments, human rights and MH17 – our findings are presented in this report and a number of conclusions included at the end.
Sadet Karabulut, Member of Parliament, spokeswoman on Foreign Affairs and Defence
Tiny Kox, Senator and president of the United Left group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Jip van Dort, advisor on Foreign Affairs to the SP parliamentary group
Anna Kolotova, secretary of the United European Left group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
A recurring theme in many of our discussions was that contact between East and West was limited. Many of those with whom we spoke, especially the politicians, complained of this. Where until a few years go regular talks were held between the US and Russia, the EU and Russia and within NATO, since the crisis in Ukraine all of that has been scaled down. That has not only affected contact at the highest level, between heads of government, but has also reduced cooperation between students and in the area of culture, while dialogue between parliamentarians has ground to halt, in particular because some Russian MPs are on the sanctioned list and forbidden to visit the West. It has been observed that the intensification of contact, of talking to each other, can contribute to the breaking down of the stereotypes which exist on both sides. A concrete example of how dialogue with the West can be intensified concerns the Council of Europe, and especially its Parliamentary Assembly. And it was above all the Russian parliamentarians, members of the Duma, who named this as a possible contributor to de-escalation. Following the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) lost their voting rights along with various other rights. It would be good if these rights were restored, the Members of the Duma argued. Discussions on the matter were under way when we visited Moscow.
Since then it has been decided, by an almost two-thirds majority in PACE, and following pressure from member states, including France and Germany, but against the strongly expressed will of Ukraine, that Russia should have its voting rights restored. Alongside that the Russian delegation will again become a full member of the Parliamentary Council, which represents forty-seven countries. (See appended at the end of this report an opinion piece by Tiny Kox.) Our Russian interlocutors' desire to intensify mutual contacts appears to reflect a change in opinion among a
Russian population increasingly tired of confrontation with the West, according to sociologist Lev Gudkov, who heads the independent research and polling bureau the Levada Center. This must be seen in the context of growing discontent in Russia, where people have fallen back in economic terms over the last few years. Particularly painful in relation to this is the fact that relatively large amounts of money are going on military expenditures rather than on health care or other social provision. (For a number of the Levada Center's polls, see for example these on the popularity of various politicians, or these on the Crimea.
The INF Treaty, NATO and Ukraine
A major obstacle to better understanding between East and West can be found in events surrounding the agreement on middle-range nuclear missiles, the INF Treaty, which was concluded in the 1980s between the United States and the Soviet Union, a treaty which contributed to a considerable extent to security in Europe. (See this opinion piece for more background information on the INF Treaty and this on the new Cold War.) Early
in February, the US abrogated this treaty, in reaction to which President Putin, a day later, followed suit. The period required for such an abrogation is six months, so that - if intelligent people don't act – the treaty will be definitively terminated.
When we visited the Duma, where there is broad consensus over foreign policy, this decision by Putin had just been debated and where, a few weeks later, it was confirmed. It is currently before the Federation Council – the Senate – where a decision is yet to be taken. We asked the Russian Parliamentarians about the INF Treaty, and noted that in the US the consensus was that Russia's development of certain missiles had broken the terms of the treaty and that America was therefore within its rights to terminate it. Their replies mirrored the American reasoning. It wasn't Russia that had breached the treaty, they argued, but the US, principally, but not exclusively, with the anti-missile shield which has already been brought into partial play in eastern Europe. Formally this isn't aimed at Russia, the US claims, but nobody in the Duma believe this, or takes seriously the idea that the missile shield is purely defensive. The MPs explained in some detail how with a few adjustments offensive missiles could be stationed, for example in Romania, which would drive a coach and horses through the INF Treaty. The Members of the Duma also pointed to the dangers presented to Europe by this decision by the Americans, as they repeatedly emphasised, to abrogate the treaty. If it comes to a new arms race with middle-range missiles – which has not been the case to date – Europe will be a potential theatre of war.
Can the treaty still be saved? According to Pavel Palazjtsjenko, who during the negotiations over the treaty's inception acted as interpreter to then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, there's still time. In his view European countries must state unequivocally that they will not allow any INF missiles to be stationed on their soil. In addition, just as in the 1980s hundreds of thousands of people in the Netherlands demonstrated against these weapons, Europe's peoples must make their voices heard. Palazjtsjenko also stressed that terminating the treaty is not the same as arming everyone and anyone with INF missiles, which would demand a separate decision which has not – or not as yet – been taken. There is a certain inheritance when it comes to disarmament which could act as a break on any real move towards reversing the process.
Gorbachev's interpreter was there too during discussions of the fall of the Wall and the unification of Germany. That was in 1990. A somewhat delicate point was whether the unified Germany would become a member of NATO, and in order to quell Soviet concerns repeated promises were made that the organisation would spread no further eastwards. ‘Not an inch’ the US Secretary of State, (the country's foreign minister) stated during the discussions. History tells a different story. After the fall of the Wall NATO was enlarged in rapid tempo, taking in not only former East Bloc states such as Poland and Hungary, but former Soviet Republics, such as the Baltic states. In 2008, a promise was made at a NATO summit that Georgia and Ukraine would become members. This entire process has, according to Palazjtsjenko, who describes NATO enlargement as 'irreversible', contributed greatly to increasing tensions. As for the Russian intervention in Ukraine, which began in 2014 and which was what provoked Western sanctions, for the moment there seems little prospect of progress.
During our discussions in the Duma but also elsewhere, it became clear that almost no-one thinks that the Crimea should be handed back to Ukraine. On the contrary, there is consensus that Khrushchev should never have given the peninsula to Ukraine in the first place. In relation to finding a solution to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, the general view in the Duma is that Kiev is failing to comply with important agreements - the Minsk Accords – which concerned, for example, more autonomy for provinces in the region. If we say that Russia too should be contributing to a solution, reference is made to the country's putative compliance with agreements concluded. Only when Ukraine has fulfilled its obligations will it be Russia's turn.
Developments in Russia, Human Rights, & MH17
While there is broad consensus in the Duma concerning foreign policy, in relation to other policy areas this is far less the case. In particular, Russia's biggest opposition force, the Communist Party, is extremely critical of a number of domestic developments, whose leaders state in plain terms that the government in Russia must resign in the face of increasing poverty while the number of billionaires continues to grow. One reason for this is the low percentage of taxes paid, if indeed any taxes are paid at all, which given the corruption in high places is by no means certain. The Levada Center's Lev Gudkov told us that half of the country's wealth is in the hands of just 1% of its people, illustrating that in Russia, inequality is a gigantic problem. Recent protests following Putin's announcement that pensionable ages would be raised did not go down well with many people, according to the Communist Party. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the measure, a relatively high number, and it was a contributory factor in Putin's falling popularity, though his support remains relatively strong, certainly if you compare it to that of some Western leaders.
Political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, who is also a member of the presidential council for human rights, went into the historical background to this, noting that following the parliamentary elections of 2011, which provoked major protests, repression in Russia had been greatly stepped up. The authorities interpreted these protests as an attempted coup and moved to enact legislation restricting the activities of NGOs, particularly their financing from foreign sources. Schulmann's view is that it is from this perspective that foreign policy too must be understood. This would clearly represent an escape from domestic problems, something mentioned often during our visit. It's a fact that Putin's popularity soared after the annexation of the Crimea. Current levels of discontent have returned to those experienced at the beginning of the decade, the political scientist told us. That which ensued upon the raising of the pension age is merely a symbol of this. In the background a number of other issues are playing a role, often local, such as protests against the dumping of the big city's rubbish in surrounding villages, or the closure of hospitals and schools in smaller towns.
During an extensive discussion with human rights defenders active in Russia, amongst whom were people from Memorial and the local branch of Human Rights Watch, a number of other matters were raised, such as torture in prisons, the large-scale misuse of anti-terrorism legislation and the forced disappearances of thousands of people, for example in Chechenie. In addition the number of political prisoners in Russia, where one can be locked up for religious as well political reasons, is growing. Freedom to demonstrate can be restricted relatively easily, and anyone defying a ban, risks a large fine. (See the section on Russia in the current Human Rights Watch annual report).
The human rights defenders asked that special attention be paid to the appalling tragedy of Flight MH17, which was shot down on 17 July 2014, resulting in 298 deaths, including those of 196 Dutch citizens. This was raised primarily in relation to the major problem of impunity in Russia. Russian involvement in bringing down MH17 has been proven and the first four suspects have been identified by the Dutch Public Prosecutor and will have to account for themselves in a court of law. At the same time, the Netherlands has begun liability proceedings against Russia, though Russians continue to deny involvement. The position of many Russian MPs remains that people fail to understand that Ukraine, the country under whose jurisdiction MH17 was shot down, formed part of the investigating team, while Russia was excluded.
Flight MH17 was also a pressing subject during our meeting with the Dutch ambassador in Moscow, Renée Jones-Bos. The emphatic hope was expressed that the perpetrators would be prosecuted and condemned and that the liability proceedings would lead to concrete results.
The heightening tensions between East and West, the new Cold War, are leading to more insecurity across the globe, particularly in Europe, with a new arms race, possibly even a new nuclear arms race, as its result. No effort should be spared to save the INF Treaty. That both the US and Russia accuse each other of breaking the treaty's terms should give rise to mutual inspections and negotiations over how to maintain the treaty.
Crucial to calming the growing tensions in the new Cold War is the establishment of a serious dialogue, an honest discussion between the two sides, with measures to build confidence, such as occurred when the Russian delegation returned to PACE. Although the annexation of the Crimea in 2004 was illegal, there is absolutely no basis in Russian politics for returning the the peninsula to Ukraine. The implementation of the Minsk agreements on the conflict in eastern Ukraine has stalled, but it's important that despite this the search for ways to breathe new life into the process should continue.
Principally because of economic hard times and social policy measures such as the raising of the pensionable age, discontent is growing in Russia. This expresses itself in street protests, but also in President Putin's falling popularity, a slump which has now been going on for some time.
The human rights situation in Russia has deteriorated during recent years. Repression is growing and the space for social and political opposition is narrowing, but we are not dealing with a totalitarian system such as existed in the former Soviet Union's darkest days. It is of great importance to maintain contact across the board with human rights defenders in Russia and to support them whenever possible.
The shooting down of Flight MH17 is a national tragedy. It's of the utmost importance that the perpetrators be hunted down and tried and that Russia cooperates in this. Furthermore, it's to be hoped that holding Russia responsible leads to results.
The following opinion piece was published in leading national daily NRC Handelsblad on July 3rd.
Excluding Russia from the Council of Europe was Counterproductive
After five years' absence Russia is once again fulfilling its duty to send a delegation from the Russian Parliament to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). This brings to an end Russia's stance that the country itself can decide in which of the statutory organs of Europe's biggest and oldest peace organisation it participates.
Following the illegal annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the Russian delegation was deprived of voting rights in the Assembly. Russia withdrew from PACE and used the punishment as an argument for no longer allowing any Rapporteur from the Assembly into its territory. Investigations into possible breaches of human rights, the situation in the Crimea, and the functioning of Russia's democratic institutions could not continue. Russia also ceased to pay its dues.
With its removal of voting rights, PACE shot itself in the foot, offering Russia an excuse to stay away from Strasbourg and block all forms of cooperation. For fully five years the Assembly could only talk about the Russians, and not with them, which often paralysed the work. At the same time Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was able to reclaim his place in the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers. Throughout these years I repeatedly drew attention to this imbalance and to the Council of Europe’s ineffectiveness. This often meant swimming against the tide, because a considerable section of the Assembly was won over by Cold War rhetoric. Gradually, however, it became clear that the organisation was in this way marginalising itself and also that Russia was threatening to leave the Council of Europe, depriving its people of the rights of access to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.
In order to find an answer to the crisis, at the end of 2017 a commission was established and put to work. Every member state parliament cooperated in this, including that of Russia. The Assembly chose me to be Rapporteur, which meant coming up with proposals regarding the role and mission of the Council of Europe and its Assembly. My report was adopted in April with the support of three-quarters of the members who voted.
Most attention was paid to two of my proposals. Firstly, that it should no longer be possible for a country to participate in just one of the two statutory organs - PACE and the Committee of Ministers; you take part in both, or in neither. And those who do participate enjoy equal rights in both bodies. Secondly, a new reaction mechanism should be established in the case of a member state not fulfilling its obligations under the statutes of the European Convention on Human Rights. Doing nothing would then no longer be an option, so I also stated that PACE too should be given the right to instigate a suspension or expulsion procedure in cooperation with the Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. That is considerably stronger than the existing unilateral sanctions which the Assembly imposes, which have turned out to be ineffective.
Both proposals were adopted a month later at the conference of forty-seven Foreign Ministers in Helsinki. Berlin and Paris, but also Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, supported my plans. The next issue is to ensure that these plans can also be implemented, for which we need some effort from Chancellor Merkel, and Presidents Macron and Putin.
The Russian delegation was enabled to present its credentials, with the broad support of the Assembly, and these have since been accepted, with the result that the Russian members now have the same rights and obligations as all other members.
The return of Russia to the Assembly could also represent a step towards reducing the politics of confrontation which has seized Europe in its grip, as well as restoring the dialogue on every terrain in which human rights, in Russia and beyond, are involved. This includes a thorough enquiry by the Council of Europe into how Russia can improve its cooperation with the criminal investigation into the shooting down of MH17 and the deaths of so many innocent victims. That enquiry has now begun, partly as a result of my proposal, and Rapporteurs from the Council of Europe can therefore now also go to Russia, just as can our other Rapporteurs, who have already had to wait far too long. The Human Rights Commissioner has in the meantime received permission to visit the Crimea and to do whatever she finds appropriate.
Russia's delayed payment of some hundred million euros can also now be expected, while this week will see the first discussions of the development of the new reaction mechanism, a system which might make member states more careful, which is no bad thing.
The Council of Europe has existed for seventy years, a fact to be celebrated, but only if we also try to drastically improve the effectiveness of Europe's biggest human rights organisation.
Tiny Kox is leader of the SP in the Senate and president of the European United Left in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.