Eastern Europe Geopolitical Watch – from January 22 to January 28, 2022

Eastern Europe (outside EU) Geopolitical Watch team : Olga Chekhurska, Khava Doudoucheva, Clelia Frouté

01/22/2022: German Navy chief resigns over Ukraine crisis. (Khava Doudoucheva)

On Saturday, January 22, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned following the scandal caused by his statements at a conference in New Delhi. He publicly stated that Vladimir Putin deserved “respect” from the West, arguing that “it is easy to give him the respect he really demands, and probably deserves as well“, and ended by adding “the Crimean peninsula is gone: It will never come back“. In this particularly tense context, he described as “nonsense” the intentions of Russia’s NATO allies to invade Ukraine.

He immediately apologised for his remarks, which were strongly criticised by the German and Ukrainian authorities. He ended up asking to be relieved of his duties with “immediate effect“. The German Defence Ministry immediately distanced itself from the controversial statements, with its spokesman saying that the Vice Admiral’s comments did not “in any way reflect the position” of the Ministry, both “in terms of content and choice of words“.

01/22/2022: The UK says it has information proving attempted Russian interference in Ukraine. (Khava Doudoucheva)

In a statement issued on Saturday, January 22, the British Foreign Office accused Russia of trying to install a “pro-Russian leader” in Kiev and suggested that “former Ukrainian MP Yevgeny Murayev is being considered as a potential candidate“. Liz Truss said they have information “that Russian intelligence services have links to many Ukrainian politicians“, naming four other Ukrainian figures: Mikola Azarov, Serhiy Arbuzov, Andriy Kluyev and Volodymyr Sivkovych. The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to respond, denouncing British “disinformation“, adding that this is further proof that “it is the NATO countries, especially the Anglo-Saxons, that are raising tensions” in Ukraine. He also asked the British to stop “their provocative activities and stop spreading nonsense“.

01/26/2022: Meeting in Normandy format on Ukraine in Paris on January 26, 2022 (Olga Chekhurska)

As tension rises between Russia and NATO over possible invasion of Ukraine, Russian, Ukrainian, German and French representatives met in Normandy format. The delegations were represented respectively by the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration Dmitry Kozak, the diplomatic adviser to the French president Emmanuel Bonne, the foreign policy adviser to the German chancellor Jens Plötner, and the head of the Cabinet of the Ukrainian President Andriy Yermak.

Political advisers to the leaders of the four countries discussed for more than eight hours. After the meeting ended late in the evening, the Élysée issued a joint communiqué. He confirms that the Minsk agreements are the basis of the work of the Normandy format and specifies that the negotiators intend to reduce the existing differences in order to move forward. The meeting announced in Berlin in two weeks confirms that things may not stop there.

Moreover, the advisers agreed that the ceasefire in the Donbass should be respected regardless of disagreements on other issues.

Ukrainian representative Andriy Yermak during his press conference confirmed that many political differences still remain, but the parties have set themselves the goal of eliminating them and finding common ground.

For years, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of violating the Minsk agreements. The Ukrainian authorities repeat that Ukraine is at war with Russia, which means that peace had to be negotiated directly with Moscow. Russia, for its part, considers that Ukraine must respect the Minsk agreements, where Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are designated as parties to the conflict who must resolve their relations through dialogue. Kyiv refuses to recognize them as parties to the conflict and to conduct direct negotiations with them.

01/27/2022: A call between US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took place on the evening of January 27 (Olga Chekhurska)

During the conversation, President Biden “reaffirmed the willingness of the United States, along with its allies and partners, to respond decisively if Russia continues to invade Ukraine.” The US president noted that last year the United States had provided more than half a billion dollars in development assistance and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and was exploring the possibility of additional macroeconomic support. Biden has made it clear that despite the departure of the diplomats’ family members, the US Embassy in Kyiv remains “open and fully operational.” The Minsk agreements and the last meeting in Normandy format were mentioned. The White House welcomed the parties’ decision to find common ground, despite disagreements on other points. President Biden pledged US support for efforts to resolve the conflict in the Normandy format, expressing his hope that the reaffirmation of the ceasefire by the parties will help reduce tensions. The emphasis on the Minsk agreements is important because it means that the United States supports compliance with these agreements by all signatories.

The Ukrainian president stressed the importance of maintaining the American diplomatic presence in the country and thanked the US for military support, especially with lethal defensive weapons.

A plane carrying about 80 tons of U.S. military equipment landed in Ukraine’s capital on Tuesday January 25, part of a $200 million lethal aid package for Ukraine approved by President Joe Biden’s administration.

01/28/2022: War and peace: the speech of President Alexander Lukashenko (Clelia Frouté)

On January 28, the President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, delivered a speech to the National Assembly on the “situation in the world”. There he recognized the “fear of the inevitability of war” that many are experiencing at the moment, but with moderation.

He said he was looking for a compromise, and admitted that two paths would be possible, with “either new agreements or a new escalation and a new world war.” When asked whether there will be a war or not, Aleksandr Lukashenko replied that «yes, there will be, but only in two cases: if a direct aggression is committed against Belarus, if an open war is launched against [their] Belarus.». Aleksander Lukashenko openly declares that he will only act in self-defense. He went on to say, “Second, [that] if there was a war and Belarus participated, it was if [their] ally, the Russian Federation, was directly attacked and the same aggression was committed against the territory of the Russian Federation. The basis for this are [their] allied agreements.” In affirming its alignment with Russia in the event of self-defence, it refers to the Union which links the two countries, in which the «defensive» exercises of the «Union Resolve – 2022», as they are qualified by the Russian and Belarusian representatives, are taking place as we speak.

The Belarusian president added, with the intention, he says, not to see his words «distorted» and so that he is not «considered as the initiator of any war whatsoever», that he «knows the price of a terribly heavy life», addressing those whose memory of the Second World War still leaves traces today. He says that the war is “unacceptable”, “frightening” for the Republic of Belarus, and that its impact on “living conditions” would be terrible. He clarified his remarks by specifying that some representatives, understood as Western countries, had «forgotten» these disastrous consequences and imagined themselves to be able to «win». To conclude, he recalls that there would be «no victory in this war», because «all would lose», and that the previous ones had sufficed to Belarus with their millions of losses.

This speech follows the meeting in Normandy format that took place on January 26 and the ongoing negotiations that have not finished leading to divergent reactions. The spokesman for the US State Department, Ned Price, commented on January 27 on the influx of thousands of Russian soldiers on Belarusian territory, which he said would undermine the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Belarus. He also highlighted the strategic area that Belarus represents for Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine. For Svetlana Tsikhanouvskaia, Russia uses the Belarusian president and his position of dependence for «his own political ends». Thus, it would see in the current joint Russian and Belarusian military operations a sign of allegiance of Alexander Lukashenko.

01/28/2022: Opponent Svetlana Tsikhanouvskaia nominated by Norway for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize (Clelia Frouté)

The Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tsikhanouvskaia, now in exile in Lithuania, was nominated by Norway for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, announced her advisor Franak Vyachorka on January 28. The latter claimed that this second appointment in two consecutive years was an honour for the Belarusians who continue their “fight for freedom” despite the difficulties it represents. He did not forget to thank the Norwegian parliamentarians Vervik Bulestad and Harek Elvesen who would be at the origin of this appointment. The opposition leader was also awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights in October 2020, an event in which she stressed that the prize was “not her personal reward, but a reward for the Belarusian people.”

01/25-29/2022: About the “Union Resolve 2022” (Clelia Frouté)

The president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko wanted to recall on January 25 the nature of joint military exercises to Russia «Union Resolve 2022» during a session with the National Academy of Sciences. It thus supported the legal nature of operations taking place on Belarusian territory as part of joint military exercises demonstrating air defence capabilities and deploying troops. To the President to clarify that these were agreed a year earlier with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and are primarily intended to identify weak defence zones along the border with Ukraine, which he describes as as as sensitive as that with Poland, what had already been thought out for a long time and would have coincided with the current crisis in the Ukrainian file. He ended up defining the “Union Resolve 2022” exercises as “a show of force”.

On January 27, the First Deputy Minister of Defence of Belarus, Viktor Goulevich, reiterated to the press service that the exercises of the «Union Resolve 2022» were only «defensive» and that they “did not pose a threat to the European community or to neighbouring countries”.

Following these statements, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced on January 29 that it had transferred anti-aircraft missile systems and Pantsir-S guns for exercises in Belarus. A railway echelon delivered a battalion of anti-aircraft missiles and Pantsir-S guns from the Eastern Military District to the unloading base. The Pantsir-S division consists of 12 combat vehicles, each capable of carrying 12 anti-aircraft missiles in transport and launch containers. After unloading, troops will have to go to the specified areas, where they will equip positions and take training and combat measures within the framework of the Unified Regional Air Defence System of Belarus and Russia established by Operation “Union Resolve 2022”.

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