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Dr Kevork Oskanian

Research Fellow

Kevork Oskanian Lecturer in Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. He joined the University's Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) as a Research Fellow in 2014, and is currently convening the 'POLS218 – International Security' and 'REES201 – Cultural Politics of Russia and Eastern Europe' modules at POLSIS. He has previously taught at the University of Westminster and the London School of Economics, where he also received his PhD.

Array ( [0] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 664 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2014-02-27 16:55:20 [post_date_gmt] => 2014-02-27 16:55:20 [post_content] => And yet, Kremlin policymakers should have known better; everyone in Moscow would have been well aware of the manifold splits and contradictions within Ukrainian society. In much simplified language: much of the East looks East, much of the West looks West, and much of the Crimea – which only became part of the country in the 1950s as, quite literally, a Soviet-era ‘present’ from Russia> – sees its current position an unfortunate quirk of history. While realities on the ground are much more complicated than what such neat geographic line-drawing would suggest – the East-West division is actually more of a gradual transition - the basic point on a deeply conflicted society remains acutely valid: Ukraine could not move towards Eurasia without first tearing itself apart. Ever since it emerged from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been an incoherent state. And incoherent states have a peculiar problem: they are unable to generate the security practices or, in  Joel Migdal's terms, the collective “survival strategies” required for the state to function as a coherent institutional and social corpus. If the state is to enjoy a monopoly of legitimate force over a given territory and population, such a monopoly would require some measure of agreement on the values and identities it is meant to safeguard, as well as the means through which such safeguarding should occur. That minimal amount of consensus on state identity has been woefully absent since 1991. As a result, Ukrainians remain in fundamental disagreement over which values and identities their state should secure; and this, in turn, shapes their diverging threat perceptions to a considerable degree. If you define Ukraine as Western, and see Moscow as the West’s other, you will tend to see Russia – especially Putin’s Russia – as an autocratic neo-imperial threat; if, on the other hand, you place Ukraine in the Russian/Eurasian cultural sphere, you will see the liberally decadent West – as it has widely come to be portrayed in Putin’s Russia and beyond - as a fundamental menace to that identity. Needless to say, such selective and contradictory world-views present benign policymakers with complications, and, conversely, those of a more malicious bent with fertile opportunities for meddling and provocation. What has been remarkable over the past few weeks has been the way both sides in this conflict – including their Western and Russian supporters – have generated the sort of selective narratives that, in the context of an incoherent state, are pregnant with danger, regardless of the relative merits of closer European ties or membership in the Eurasian Union. The pro-Russian press has latched onto the (admittedly highly disturbing) presence of right-wing extremists among the Euromaidan demonstrators < to dehumanise the Euromaidan opponents of Yanukovych’s volte-face as ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’>. The Kremlin’s policymakers had clearly over-estimated their point man’s ability to repress the large part of the Ukrainian population that had adopted values and identities fundamentally at odds with Putin’s plans for his ‘Near Abroad’. Resistance to a perceived existential threat to those values – membership of the Eurasian Union - had to be conveniently explained away, delegitimised and marginalised, so as to allow for its repression without affecting the narrative of  shared economic interests and ‘shared Soviet/Russian values’ on which the Eurasian project is supposedly based. The danger now is of events swinging to the other extreme. Just as Yanukovych provoked his Western-leaning countrymen onto the streets by ignoring their sensitivities, Ukraine’s parliament – or Verkhovna Rada – risks inflaming similar ‘securitisations’ in the Russian-speaking parts of the country. Russian has already been demoted as a regional language, and deputies from the virulently right-wing Svoboda party have proposed an end to the retransmission of Russian Television channels. Presenting a government consisting entirely of pro-European elements as one of “national unity” when it is clearly not further complicates matters. Such selective perception should not remain unchallenged; it risks repeating those mistakes that were made earlier in places like Georgia and Moldova, where nationalist post-Soviet governments needlessly excluded and provoked their minorities in avoidable blunders that then led Ossetians, Abkhazians and Trasniestrians to break away in response to perceived existential threats to their divergent values and identities – with, as is now widely accepted, the help of elements in Moscow. Could these elements do it again – on a much larger scale – in Ukraine? Russia is emphatically not interested in a violent, uncontrolled breakup of its large neighbour; but the key words here are violent and uncontrolled. The stakes for Russia being what they are, some in Moscow’s corridors of power could see the Crimea in particular as a place where Georgian- or Moldovan-style meddling could be feasible. It is the most clearly pro-Russian corner of Ukraine. As a peninsula, it is geographically separated from the rest of the country, and, therefore, relatively more self-contained than the Eastern regions. With the Black Sea port of Sevastopol acting as the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since Tsarist times, it is seen as absolutely crucial to the Kremlin’s military capabilities (not to mention its prestige). The Kremlin is interested in keeping ‘Little Russia’ within its orbit. Ukraine is not just an essential part of Russia’s creation myth. More significantly, it is a westward transit corridor for Russian and Central Asian gas, still central to the hydrocarbon-powered strategy that Moscow has been pursuing under Putin, targeted at stemming (and partially reversing) the effects of the ‘geopolitical disaster’ that the fall of the Soviet Union is still seen as by large parts of the Siloviki elite. The Kremlin could simply not allow Ukraine to follow Poland, Hungary and Romania - in a continuation of 1989-1991 – without putting up a spirited fight. In terms of Russia’s territorial sensitivities, the Western frontier would otherwise move far too close to Moscow for comfort. This does not necessarily mean playing the separatist card: there are several other punitive levers of influence at Moscow’s disposal – Ukraine’s energy dependence, its weak financial position, its largely Russian export market. Moscow is not interested in a violent breakup of Ukraine, and the ethnic variant remains unlikely because of the enormous risks involved. However in the Crimea at least, some could come to think these risks manageable and proportionate in light of the enormous stakes involved. The new authorities in Kiev should therefore aim to maximise their inclusiveness in the weeks and months to come, and prudently avoid any moves that would present the ethnic card on a silver platter. Marginalising the extreme right and its provocative nationalist bravura would be a good place to start. February 2014 [post_title] => Balancing Ukraine [post_excerpt] => A mere three months ago, Vladimir Putin probably thought he had scored one of his presidency’s greatest coups, when he coerced or persuaded – depending on your perspective - Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych into abandoning the long-expected initialling of his country’s Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovich’s U-turn had, to some extent, been presaged by an earlier about-face – under very similar circumstances – of far smaller Armenia’s Sargsyan. And for a while, it appeared that Kiev would sooner or later follow several other former Soviet Republics into the Russian president’s latest geopolitical project of choice: the Eurasian Economic Union. The Kremlin probably did expect such a move to invite trouble for someone who, despite an occasionally fraught relationship, had long been seen as “Moscow’s man in Kiev”. But it probably did not anticipate the ferocity of the wave of indignation that followed, much less foresee Yanukovych’s fall, a few months later, as a result. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => balancing-ukraine [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-28 12:11:59 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-28 12:11:59 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 662 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-12-03 18:16:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-12-03 18:16:51 [post_content] => These events have largely confirmed previously stated suspicions on Russia’s intentions within the former Soviet Union: Moscow continues to view Europe’s Association Agreements within ‘its near abroad’ almost exclusively in hard-realist geo-strategic terms. Accordingly, while the Eurasian Union may not be an effort the reconstruct the Soviet Union per se, it does fit into a broader attempt by Putin and his Siloviki entourage to limit, and, where possible, reverse the effects of the ‘< geo-political catastrophe>’ that was the collapse of their former empire: Russia must rise again, and, in the zero-sum realist logic of its leaders, this means regaining control over its historical ‘sphere of exclusive interest’, albeit in novel form. Russia’s project is, of course, mostly presented through < the economistic language of neo-liberal rationality>, combined with references to a common history and shared culture. No twenty-first century state could openly use geo-political argumentations to foist top-down integration projects onto its neighbours. In the post-colonial, post-Cold War political vocabulary, the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘hierarchy’ remain anathema. Disciplinary measures are therefore cloaked in, and neutralised through the language of technocratic instrumentality or the rule of law. Implausible allegations of ‘genocide’ thus accompanied the Kremlin’s humanitarian justifications for its 2008 intervention in Georgia; < Moldovan wines similarly tend to lose their fitness for human consumption> as easily < as Georgian mandarins regain them>, depending on the political requirements of the day. This instrumentalisation of technocratic and legalistic language goes further than mere wine and confectionary. It underlies a broader attempt, by the Kremlin, to present the Eurasian Union as something it is not: < the European Union’s equivalent (or, in some cases, its superior)>, a functionalist integration project driven by the wishes of its members and potential members, rather than a top-down imposition by a fallen superpower whose elite clearly still frames Europe in terms of out-dated ‘spheres of influence’ and geostrategic gamesmanship. This is, ultimately, the reason for Brussels’ inability to counter Moscow’s sticks-and-carrots approach in its former dominions. Europe’s project is driven by a soft-power logic, led by a cumbersome civilian bureaucracy, and co-ordinated among 28 member states with at times diverging interests. Moscow’s, on the other hand, is very much based on hard-power rationality, driven by an elite many of whose members were formerly associated with those institutions of a single power best versed in the arts of coercion, of deterrence and compellence (coercive diplomacy). As a result, the interaction between Brussels and Moscow surrounding the Eastern Partnership has become something of a dialogue of the deaf and the blind; put differently, Europe speaks Kant, while Russia speaks Machiavelli, and both these languages seem mutually incomprehensible. Stuck in between this cacophony are the former Soviet states, attracted Westward but very much aware of the power and motivation of their Eastern/Northern neighbour, and the inability of ‘Europe’ to counter this particular type of power with an effective riposte. In a confrontation between Kant and Machiavelli, the former does not stand a chance, especially when the latter has the advantage in both capabilities and motivation, and is moreover ruled by a Siloviki elite that emerged from some of the most ruthless power structures of the modern era. In terms of capabilities, the various < former Soviet states’ vulnerabilities to Russian pressure were pointed out extensively in a previous post>. But capabilities and interests are always fundamentally intertwined, and in terms of their motivations, the EU and Russia present dramatically different pictures. For the European Union, the Eastern Partnership is clearly < more about creating a zone of stability in its immediate environs> rather than providing a direct stepping-stone to membership; while desirable, the process remains optional, and certainly not central to its purpose or identity. The European Union is currently confronting multiple internal crises; but save for some embarrassment, an end to the Easter Partnership would not be seen as presenting it with a direct existential threat. This is not the case for Russia, and ‘its’ Eurasian Union. ‘Offensive realist’ theorists of International Relations – like Mearsheimer – have already argued that the country has a greater sensitivity to territoriality because of its status as a ‘continental’ great power; except for a small, and now-marginalised ultra-liberal fringe, Russia’s post-Cold War elites have themselves always seen their state in a dominant leadership role within the former Soviet Union. To the Kremlin, the Ukraine is not just another Eastern European Association candidate with a remote, long-term chance of membership – as it is for Brussels; it is the place where the very idea of Russia was born, as the Kievan Rus, in the 10th century CE. The Caucasus and Central Asia are not merely geographic concepts; they are regions that have been part of a Russian-led state since the early 19th century. Perhaps more to the point, they are also sources and conduits of Russia’s most important contemporary source of hard power: hydrocarbons. Moscow holds the advantage in hard-power terms, while the European Union has very little leverage as it stands. It can’t really ‘boycott’ Russian exports – oil, natural gas - without hurting itself. Moscow’s motivation to bring the former Soviet Union under its control also exceeds that of the EU’s. As it stands, the odds are thus stacked massively against the EaP, partly because Brussels has yet to learn the language of power-politics spoken in the Kremlin, partly because of a lack of political will emerging from a relatively lower level of prioritisation against the centrality of Russia’s re-integration drive. Fortunately, it is reasonable to assume Russia’s interests do not go beyond the ‘Near abroad’. In any case, the current EU boundary coincides with NATO’s, presenting a solid red line which Moscow would not want to cross. But in combination with the imbalances in both power and motivation, this must make the remaining Association Agreement candidates anxious of their possible abandonment by the EU in the face of unrelenting Russian pressure, and not without reason. Europe stands before a choice: learn to counter realist geo-politics with realist geo-politics, or continue its fatalistic reliance on soft power alone. Considering its institutional character, and its continuing energy dependence on Russia, a shift towards the former would seem unlikely in the short term. The alternative is to rely on the European idea’s powers of attraction, which have, incidentally, driven hundreds of thousands to rally on the streets of cities throughout the Ukraine, and beyond, during the past week. There is, however, a reason why ‘soft power’ is called ‘soft’, and attraction alone may very well not suffice to save the Europe’s floundering Eastern strategy. [post_title] => Kant versus Machiavelli in Russia’s Near Abroad. [post_excerpt] => And so, the much-awaited has ended in a whimper. Of the four states that were initially scheduled to initial their Association Agreements with the European Union last week, only two – Moldova and Georgia - have actually taken their crucial step towards the West. Both Armenia, and, more significantly, Eastern economic heavyweight Ukraine had, over the past few months, fallen by the wayside in , each of which had followed a familiar pattern: both countries’ Heads of State headed to Moscow for unscheduled talks, during which they underwent sudden conversions to Putin’s rival project, the Eurasian Union. Despite of strenuous denials, most observers reasonably assume these abrupt changes in the long-standing foreign policy objectives of both states to be the result of pressures exerted by the Kremlin. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => kant-versus-machiavelli-in-russias-near-abroad [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-28 12:13:32 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-28 12:13:32 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 657 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-09-11 09:00:06 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-09-11 09:00:06 [post_content] => This reality may now be under acute threat. < has already managed to ‘turn’ the weakest link in Europe’s Eastern ‘chain’, Armenia>: considering its extreme strategic-military dependence on Russia, forcing, coaxing or, depending on who you believe, persuading its president into an unexpected about-turn during last week’s ‘working visit’ to Moscow was relatively uncomplicated. But indications are that this nasty surprise – for both observers in Brussels and analysts farther afield - was just the beginning of a broader Russian movement to reclaim exclusive authority over ‘its’ sphere of influence through its integration into a ‘Eurasian Union’, with implications for both the countries involved, and the European Union’s future relations with Russia. For Armenia, the consequences of his 179-degree turn – the government insists this isn’t the end of its hopes for European integration – could be dramatic, not least in terms of its fragile democratisation. With the mitigating influence of Europe removed, and constitutional reforms on the political agenda, repression and democratic rollback could very well become more brazen and complete. The fact that < two prominent civil-society activists were viciously assaulted> only days after Sargsyan’s about-face could be an indicator of worse to come in terms of < the harassment of more liberally-minded independent groups and individuals>. Unencumbered by EU conditionalities, Yerevan might also use < upcoming constitutional reform> – ostensibly aimed at transforming the country from a presidential into a parliamentary republic – to unilaterally push through legislative amendments weakening the protection of fundamental rights and checks and balances. Those concerned with Armenia’s democratic development would have to be alert to these possible scenarios: for Armenia as for other post-Soviet states, a move towards the Eurasian Union may very well entail a move towards the Russian, Belorussian and Kazakh political models, as the pressure to democratise disappears. From broader regional perspective, Armenia’s plight might be a premonition of worse to come in the Ukraine and Moldova, two countries that have already been targets for various pressures on the part of Russia. Till now, these pressures have been cloaked in the < de-politicised language of market mechanisms and public health>; but the remarks of one high-ranking Kremlin official – < as to how unfortunate it would be for Moldovans to 'freeze' in the winter> – leave little to one’s imagination. Both the Ukraine and Moldova remain highly dependent on Moscow for their energy supplies, and Moscow could decide to cut off their flow as a punitive measure for their European aspirations, quite literally, at the turn of a few valves. As a last resort, ‘unfortunate incidents’ could even lead to unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking East, and the Crimea, < as well as in Moldova’s separatist Trans-Dniestria region>. While such a course of events would still seem highly unlikely, much depends on the level of Moscow’s determination to prevent the continuation of its Western neighbours’ European adventures; considering recent developments, it would, however, be prudent to closely monitor these pressure-points, which Russia has used in the not-so-distant past. With Armenia now safely in Moscow’s orbit, the Kremlin may also turn its attention to its two rather more recalcitrant Caucasus neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan. While Georgia is certainly the most openly pro-Western of all post-Soviet states, and public opinion would most likely not countenance membership of a Russian-led entity, the country also offers Moscow a raft of potentially useful vulnerabilities. Especially after the upcoming presidential elections, any maintenance of the recent thaw in trade relations with Russia might come to depend on a more pliant attitude on the part of the Georgian administration; the stability of the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti would also have to be closely monitored for unexpected, ‘coincidental’ complications. Baku’s initial Schadenfreude at Sargsyan’s public humiliation may prove short-lived indeed, as Russia could come to use the Karabakh issue, and the Armenian-Azeri rivalry around it, to now focus pressures on Baku by throwing its weight behind Yerevan; a revival of ethnic Lezgin activism in the north, or of < possible anti-regime activities by wealthy members of Russia’s ethnic Azeri diaspora> would also be potential pressure points to look out for, in a continuation of Russia’s long-standing carrots-and-sticks/divide-and-rule approach. Much of the above depends on Moscow’s – and Putin’s – determination to bring the states of the former Soviet Union back into a ‘Eurasian’ fold; but Russia’s president has already demonstrated his considerable skills as a master of a new form of regional realpolitik, based on adroitly using dependencies and complications inherited from Soviet times to Moscow’s advantage, putting other players before consecutive faits accomplis. Armenia could be only the first in a longer list of targets; every fallen domino would, no doubt, increase momentum towards Putin’s Eurasian Union. The EU would therefore either have to learn to play this game, desist, or prepare for being put in front of rather uncomfortable faits accomplis in the not-so-distant future. In view of its presently dubious ability to provide relief from many of the potential pressures enumerated above, some hard-nosed strategic deliberation and hypothetical scenario building would appear to be called for. [post_title] => Putin’s Caucasus Surprise: A Portent of Worse to Come? [post_excerpt] => The European Union’s eastward expansion and its soft-power influence on the states of the former Soviet Union has been a major feature of the continent’s political environment since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The conditionalities of the Copenhagen criteria have arguably led to the accelerated democratisation of new members from the Baltics to Bulgaria; further to the East, the ’s regional incarnation, the , has also provided the more ‘problematic’ states of the former Soviet Union with incentives to modernize and democratise. The promise of Association Agreements including membership of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with by far the world’s largest economic bloc seemed to open the way towards diversification and greater prosperity, in what was - and still is - seen as a positive-sum game in both Brussels and the relevant former Soviet capitals. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => putins-caucasus-surprise-a-portent-of-worse-to-come [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-28 12:14:48 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-28 12:14:48 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 920 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2013-07-09 13:10:35 [post_date_gmt] => 2013-07-09 13:10:35 [post_content] => In this FPC Briefing Dr Kevork Oskanian examines President Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, looking both at Russia’s objectives and how the project is viewed in the countries across the former Soviet Union. It looks at how such a proposal competes with the EU’s Eastern Partnership and creates potential problems for WTO membership. [post_title] => FPC Briefing: Putin’s Eurasian Union- from pre-electoral sideshow to quest for empire? [post_excerpt] => In this FPC Briefing Dr Kevork Oskanian examines President Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, looking both at Russia’s objectives and how the project is viewed in the countries across the former Soviet Union. It looks at how such a proposal competes with the EU’s Eastern Partnership and creates potential problems for WTO membership. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => fpc-briefing-putins-eurasian-union-from-pre-electoral-sideshow-to-quest-for-empire [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-11-28 12:15:54 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-11-28 12:15:54 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) )

Balancing Ukraine

And yet, Kremlin policymakers should have known better; everyone in Moscow would have been well aware of the manifold splits and contradictions within Ukrainian society. In much simplified language: much…

Article by Dr Kevork Oskanian