John Lough

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The Russian president pictured in 2022. Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images.

The pillars of the system that supported Putin’s rule for over two decades simply buckled on 24–25 June, put to the test by around 10,000 armed Wagner mercenaries.

US authorities knew about preparations for the mutiny in advance, but Putin did not. Clearly, parts of the Russian intelligence services colluded with Prigozhin, as did sections of the military and the internal security forces.

Putin has been shown to have lost his previous ability to be the arbiter between powerful rival groups. This has undermined his public image in Russia as the all-powerful Tsar and called into question his value as a protector of elites’ status and wealth.…  Seguir leyendo »

German chancellor Olaf Scholz walks past a Leopard 2 battle tank while visiting the Bundeswehr army training center in Ostenholz near Hodenhagen, Germany. Photo by David Hecker/Getty Images.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz is the victim of his own logic. To justify his reluctance to deepen Berlin’s involvement in the war by sending tanks, he has consistently argued that Germany cannot act on its own (keine Alleingänge).

Yet as its allies step up their efforts to support Ukraine, Germany finds itself alone on the issue. Finland and Poland are both awaiting a green light from Berlin to send Leopards to Ukraine while other NATO countries with stocks of the German tank are ready to follow if the German government lifts its veto and grants export licences.

In addition, the US has made it clear to Berlin that it should make Leopards available to Ukraine even if it will not send its own Abrams tanks at the same time, as Scholz insisted.…  Seguir leyendo »

A woman looks out her window during a power outage in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, on October 20. Airstrikes cut power and water supplies to thousands of Ukrainians earlier in the week.

With evenings drawing in fast as winter approaches, the lights are going out across Ukraine.

This week, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk went as far as to warn citizens who fled the country when Russia invaded, not to return home this winter amid rolling blackouts caused by strikes on the power grid.

“We need to survive this winter”, she said, adding that “[If people come back] the electrical grid might fail”.

Electricity rationing has become the new grim reality of war, as Russia tries to destroy Ukraine’s economic capacity and force its leaders to the negotiating table.

Russia has targeted Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with a barrage of missile and drone attacks in recent weeks – 30% of the country’s power plants have been destroyed, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky.…  Seguir leyendo »

German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Photo by MICHELE TANTUSSI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Olaf Scholz is a famously quiet and cautious communicator and, as concerns mounted in Washington and London about the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the new German chancellor remained silent.

This time his silence reflected the fact that his government was unprepared for its first major foreign policy test, with marked divisions between the SPD and the Greens on how to manage a rapidly deteriorating relationship with Russia.

When he did speak, Scholz caused dismay in several NATO capitals by defending the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He called it ‘a purely private economic project’ even though the company building the pipeline is a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.…  Seguir leyendo »

A worker at the construction site of a section of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline near Kingisepp, Leningrad Region. Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel offered to provide medical care for Navalny in Germany after he fell ill from suspected poisoning in Russia, she could have hardly expected her humanitarian gesture would trigger a crisis in her country’s relations with Russia.

Merkel has used uncharacteristically blunt words to condemn the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life, saying the use of novichok raises serious questions that only the Russian government could answer. She described Navalny as being the ‘victim of a crime’ which was a violation of the ‘basic values and basic rights’ that Germany and its allies were committed to. Her tone and body language certainly showed how strongly she felt about the issue.…  Seguir leyendo »

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka at a Collective Security Treaty Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in November 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Two December meetings between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka failed to deliver Moscow’s hopes of securing Minsk’s acceptance of closer alignment between Russia and Belarus.

Over the past year, relations between Belarus and Russia have been under unprecedented strain as Moscow has tried to encourage Minsk to sign up to a different format of relations designed to keep Belarus firmly in a Russian orbit. Details of the negotiations have remained secret, yet issues on the table appear to include unification of tax and customs systems, a common energy regulator and joint governing bodies.

The Kremlin believes that Belarus needs to deliver more in return for Russia’s continued economic support, worth around $10 billion per year.…  Seguir leyendo »

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka in Sochi in February. Photo: Getty Images.

Earlier this year, there was intense speculation in Moscow that the Kremlin was looking at putting flesh on the bones of the Union State as a platform for President Putin to stay in office after 2024 as leader of a Russian-Belarusian confederation. The joint state has only existed on paper since its formal establishment in 1999.

The ‘integration plan’ negotiated by the ministers of the economy of Russia and Belarus falls far short of establishing a single monetary, banking and customs system as foreseen in the original Union State Treaty. The draft agreement focuses on a more modest range of economic integration measures including a single tax code, a single regulator for the energy markets and deepening of common customs policies.…  Seguir leyendo »

Ukrainian special forces soldiers stand guard in front of the Central Electoral Commission in Kyiv on 1 April. Photo: Getty Images.

The president of Ukraine has primary responsibility for managing national security and foreign relations. But ahead of the first round of the presidential election on 31 March, candidates mainly exchanged views on issues that are the responsibility of the government not the president: anti-corruption measures, gas prices and social benefits.

The focus on domestic issues reflects the fact that there is broad consensus in society on Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation. To this extent, President Petro Poroshenko is a victim of his success. After 2014, he was instrumental in building international support for Ukraine.

This led to the IMF’s stabilization package and the rapid implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU.…  Seguir leyendo »

The Kerch Strait bridge under construction in 2016. Photo:

As the last four years have demonstrated, the US and NATO are not going to become directly involved in military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow understands this well. It correctly calculated that intimidating Ukraine in the Azov Sea would lead to loud condemnations of Russian behaviour with no serious consequences.

The problem facing Western countries is two-fold: Moscow prioritizes its objectives in Ukraine over relations with the West, and it retains vast capacity to inflict damage on Ukraine by stoking conflict and strangling its economy.

The Kremlin has become used to Western sanctions and other instruments of pressure, concluding that it can live with them despite their inconvenience.…  Seguir leyendo »

Ukrainian MPs vote on anti-corruption legislation in the parliament in Kyiv. Photo via Getty Images.

President Petro Poroshenko finally signed the law establishing the High Anti-Corruption Court on 26 June. This is one of the key conditions for the release of the next tranche of the IMF’s $17.5 billion support programme to Ukraine and should ensure that officials indicted by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) face trial.

Up to now, the unreformed lower courts have found ways to obstruct or delay cases brought by the NABU. Out of 220 indictments, there have been only 21 convictions. No senior official has gone to jail.

Created by reformist forces with strong backing from international partners, the NABU is a powerful example of a new institution unconnected with the past, with high professional standards relative to other law enforcement agencies.…  Seguir leyendo »

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the G20 summit in 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

Despite expectations that the weakened position of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance (CDU/CSU) in parliament could force Chancellor Angela Merkel to adopt a softer line towards Russia, the German government has chosen to show solidarity with the UK.

It has backed the recall of the EU ambassador to Moscow, and announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats. The newly appointed SPD foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has had tough words for Moscow, saying that it must finally face up to its responsibility and answer the questions related to the use of a chemical weapon against double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.…  Seguir leyendo »

A police officer stands near the scene of the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. Photo: Getty Images.

There can be little doubt that the Russian government is behind the attempted assassination of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. While there were the typical official denials, the Russian state has ways of communicating its innocence to foreign governments. In this case, it has not done so.

The use of a nerve agent fits a pattern established by the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium in 2006. This was not a McMafia-style operation commissioned by ‘rogue elements’. If they were to blame, Moscow would be even more alarmed than London. Since the chaos of the 1990s, Putin has restored the state’s traditional prerogatives in foreign covert operations, as well as the president’s prerogatives within it.…  Seguir leyendo »

Roman Nasirov at the hearings on corruption charges. Photo via Getty Images

Ukraine’s new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) may have netted its first big fish. The arrest of State Fiscal Service Head, Roman Nasirov on 2 March on suspicion of helping to embezzle 2 billion hryvnias ($75 million) suggests that Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are breaking new ground.

The Nasirov case is part of a wider battle for control of the anti-corruption agenda pitting an alliance of civil society organizations, reformist forces in parliament and Western governments against a group of entrenched interests in government, parliament and business.

Ukraine’s leaders are the products of a system of institutionalized corruption based on state capture by a narrow group of wealthy individuals.…  Seguir leyendo »

Russia's Baltic Fleet on a training exercise. Photo via Getty Images.

In recent weeks, a grand ‘reset’ between the US and Russia has become politically impossible amid increasing speculation that Donald Trump and his campaign team may have come under Moscow’s influence. But such a deal was in any case destined to fail because of the irreconcilable underlying interests of the two countries.

This is a relief for the Ukranian government, which feared that, led by Washington, the West might abandon Ukraine to a Russian zone of influence. It is also a reminder that there are no short-term fixes to the complex set of issues dividing Western countries and Russia.

Against this background, it is time for Western leaders to recognize that the scale of the Russian challenge is directly proportionate to the level of effort they invest to address it.…  Seguir leyendo »

Putin’s efforts to seek relaxation of EU sanctions and his aim to achieve irreversible facts on the ground in Syria ahead of the US election are in conflict. Photo by Getty Images.

Moscow’s timing is remarkable. Ahead of a European Council discussion on Thursday that was widely expected to show further indications of a fraying EU consensus on sanctions, Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo has seen it labelled as a pariah state amid accusations that it has committed war crimes.

In this context, EU member states will be unable to contemplate lifting sectoral sanctions against Russia over Ukraine that are in place until the end of January next year.

Russia’s recent behaviour in Syria has already led some EU governments to consider personal sanctions against members of the Russian government responsible for the bombings.…  Seguir leyendo »

US soldiers arrive at Czech army barracks for NATO exercises on 27 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

The Kremlin today will be struggling to reconcile conflicting messages from the West.

Deepening divisions in the European Union that came to a dramatic head with the Brexit vote have not found their way into NATO. Instead, the Alliance appears to have re-discovered the culture of deterrence.

Strategic rethinks

The communiqué that comes out of last weekend’s NATO Summit in Warsaw devotes considerable space to the challenges Russia poses to European security and lists them in unusually clear language. These include the ‘ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea … the violation of sovereign borders by force; the deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine; large-scale snap exercises contrary to the spirit of the Vienna Document, and provocative military activities near NATO borders’.…  Seguir leyendo »