Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

A Time for Diplomacy to Triumph

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th November, 2015

Turkey Russia SyriaThe downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey earlier today is potentially a dangerous escalation of the febrile situation in the Middle East, though it need not be, if handled correctly. I agreed with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, when he tweeted that normally one might fire a warning shot at a plane allegedly violating one’s airspace, not shoot it down. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the Russian pilot and co-pilot have, according to some reports, been either killed or captured by anti-government rebels in Syria, who are vehemently opposed to Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Anyway, one cannot undo the shooting down, now that it has happened, and NATO will be having an emergency meeting in Brussels tonight — at the request of Turkey — to discuss the situation.

Russian jetThe Turkish government meanwhile is being rather macho about it all, saying that it reserves the right to take any measures necessary to preserve its national sovereignty, but this rather obscures the fact that the last thing the Middle East needs is a head-on conflict between NATO and Russia, which could conceivably happen if Turkey were to press ahead with its invocation of Articles 4 & 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, according to which all NATO members are obliged to come to the assistance of a member state that has come under attack. Instead, what is needed is some rapid but determined international diplomacy, to take some of the tension out of the situation. It was Churchill who famously said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that is certainly the case in this instance. It is to be hoped that Britain and other senior members of NATO will work with the Turks to find some face-saving measures that could take off some of the heat. Otherwise what some observers are already seeing as a proxy war in Syria by outside powers could all too easily disintegrate into the real thing.

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Timmermans’ Convincing Case

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 6th March, 2015

Frans TimmermansIt is frustrating that so much of the discussion about Britain’s relationship with the European Union is about the question “should we be in, or should we be out?” The Prime Minister, David Cameron, must shoulder some of the blame for this, for constantly trying to dance to UKIP’s tune, instead of standing up firmly on the side of most of British business (a natural constituency for him, one would have thought) to stress how important EU membership is for the UK’s economy and how risky leaving to “go it alone” would be. I wish Mr Cameron, and indeed other Tory government Ministers, could have been present yesterday at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf to listen to the First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, give a masterly exposition of how the EU can steer itself through the next four or five years, by doing less better. The event was organised by the social democratic think tank Policy Network, focussing especially on EU reform as well as UK membership, but Mr Timmermans also highlighted the need for a more concerted European response to challenges such as Russia’s adventurism, Mediterranean migration and ISIS and related matters. I asked him if that meant that a recalaibration of the EU’s priorities might therefore be towards a stronger Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), at the expense of internal market regulation, but he responded by quoting Harold Macmillan’s classic remark about “events, dear boy” — in other words, the EU must be able to respond pro-actively as necessary. Meanwhile, Britain marginalises itself from EU action to the detriment of both London and Brussels; I have already blogged about my dismay that Mr Cameron stood aloof from the Merkel-Hollande mission re Ukraine. On that specific issue, Mr Timmermans said that even if the Minsk Agreement has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion, Minsk must be the basis for taking things forward.

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The New Cold War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th February, 2015

Vladimir PutinBoris NemtsovThe murder in Moscow yesterday of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was a cruel reminder of just how far the values of Vladimir Putin’s Russia differ from the European mainstream. Many other critics of the Kremlin — not least journalists — have been killed, beaten up or imprisoned since Vlad the Bad came to power. I suppose it was natural for the West to imagine when Communism collapsed a quarter of a century ago that Russia would modernise politically as well as economically, in short to become more like us, but this assumption failed to take into account the fact that Russia is unlike Europe in many ways — including the high regard many Russians have for strong leaders and their rejection of contemporary European liberal views on everything from the right to peaceful protest to same sex marriage. Moreover, even if Putin is out-of-step with European and North American values, he has many admirers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So as a new Cold War seems to be shaping up in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine Moscow is unlikely to find itself alone out in the cold. In the meantime, it is natural for us to feel compassion for the small band of brave liberal voices inside Russia itself who dare to speak out. They deserve our support, as well as sanctuary in Europe if they feel their only means of survival is to get out.

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UK Misses the EU Boat — Again!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th February, 2015

Angela MerkelFrancois HollandeAngela Merkel and Francois Hollande are in Kiev today and tomorrow will move on to Moscow — all in aid of trying to mediate a peace deal between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels on Eastern Ukraine. They are to be congratulated for confronting head-on the most serious threat to security in the European Union’s neighbourhood since the Cold War. They are right to believe that the European Union should be pro-active in its commitment to peace and stability, not only within and between EU member states but in the neighbourhood as well. But where is Britain in all this, or more precisely David Cameron? The UK is a major player in NATO operations, but under Mr Cameron it has increasingly side-lined itself from EU activity. The Ukraine peace initiative would have been stronger with the involvement of the three most powerful member states: Britain, France and Germany. But once again, as so often over the past half century and more, the British government has left it up to a Franco-German alliance. David Cameron might claim to be too busy to drop everything to go to Ukraine and Russia, though Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande cleared their diaries for the trip. Besides, Mr Cameron had no problem dropping everything recently to go cap in hand to Riyadh, to pay his respects to the Saudi Royal family. No, what I fear is all to obvious is that the Prime Minister didn’t want to be seen as doing anything too ‘European’ out of fear of UKIP and his own Tory backbench MPs. So once again The UK has missed the boat at a crucial moment in the EU’s evolution. And Mr Cameron should hang his head in shame.

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AEJ Congress Neusiedl

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th October, 2014

NeusiedlBurgenland is the least populated of all Austria’s states, a jagged sliver of land bordering Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. As such, it was the ideal location for this year’s Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), when our minds were turned to the fall of Communism in Central Europe 25 years ago. It was fascinating to hear the story of the Pan-European picnic organised on the Austrian-Hungarian border in the summer of 1969, which was one of the triggers for the reunification if the continent after four decades of Cold War. These days, there is plenty of cross-border regional cooperation between neighbouring districts. But that does not mean that everyone lives exactly the same way all across the European Union or indeed sees things the same way. It was particularly striking that some of the Hungarian participants did not share the deep concerns in Western Europe about the way that the ruling Fidesz party has drifted from liberal democracy to a degree of authoritarianism. Any complacency about Europe’s future was further shattered by an impassioned presentation from a representative from Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who spoke of the realities of War and of our need to stand up to the Russians.

The Latvian European Commissioner-designate, Valdis Dombrovskis, reminded us of the stiff economic challenges still facing the eurozone, in particular, and a Spanish delegate pointed out that there are now about 15,000 unemployed journalists in Spain. Life is certainly not getting easier for the profession, not least given the pressures of censorship and self-censorship, intimidation in countries such as Russia and the misuse of anti-terrorism laws to curb media freedom in the UK, Turkey and elsewhere.

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Pride in Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th June, 2014

gay prideThis week, for the first time ever, the LGBTi Pride Rainbow Flag is flying from the facade of Europe House in London’s Smith Square, headquarters of the European Parliament office and European Commission representation. Yesterday afternoon, there was a seminar there on extending LGBT rights in the EU, learning from the UK experience. For once it was good to celebrate an area in which Britain is actually a leader in the European Union. Things are not nearly so advanced in some formerly Communist states of Europe, but the point was interestingly made at the seminar that labour mobility within the EU had helped to alter attitudes in some central and eastern European states radically. Poland is a good case in point; until recently overwhelmingly conserative an often homophobic it has recently liberalised, partly thanks to migrant workers who came to Britain, for example, and for the first time engaged with LGBTi people and later returned home with a different opinion. Alas, in some eastern European states that are not part of the EU the situation is still dire. It was good (but a little depressing) to hear of work being done to help activists in Belarus who have been prevented from setting up a solidarity group. In Russia, the situation is actually regresing, as Putin has led a red-blooded heterosexual counter-offensive as what he decries as gay EU expansionism. Anyway, when Conchita Wurst will lead the London Pride celebrations in Trafalgar Square this Saturday, so those of us living in London will have much to be joyful about,  which should fortify us to help defend the rights of those living in jurisdictions that are not so inclusive.

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We Mustn’t Take Peace for Granted

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Battle of the SommeIn this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.

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What Next in Ukraine?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th April, 2014

Russian speakers in UkraineThe Global Strategy Forum can hardly have realised just how topical today’s lunchtime event at the National Liberal Club would be by focusing on “Crisis in Ukraine, Crisis in Russian-Western Relations: What Next?”. There was an interesting line-up of speakers, including my old BBC World Service colleague, Oleksiy Solohubenko, a SkyNews reporter and presenter, Andrew Wilson, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, and Labour’s last Europe Minister, Chris Bryant MP. Diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian embassies also chipped in from the floor, not surprisingly seeing what has been happening recently in Crimea and eastern Ukraine very differently. The West is still protesting about the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia, though unofficially accepting this as a fait accompli.  But the real concern is how much further Russian encroachment could go, in response to the declaration of “independence” by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, unrest in other parts of Ukraine and indeed in other regions in Russia’s orbit, including Moldova (Transdniester), Belarus and maybe even Kazakhstan. Most speakers on the panel painted Vladimir Putin as the villain, though Chris Bryant told the rather chilling anecdote that a Russian diplomat had told him that Putin is “not yet mad”, the implication being that he could well become so if he sticks around much longer. In the meantime it does seem likely that Putin is now one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest, though he manages to hide his assets from public view. Sir Andrew Wood made the point that Russia is weakened by the fact that it relies so heavly on hydrocarbons and indeed could at some stage run out of money. So even if Putin and his at the moment largely adoring compatriots may be on a roll at the moment, things may deteriorate for Moscow quite quickly. The panel side-stepped the question put by the Ukrainian diplomat as to whether the EU and US should now impose the third and far more serious range of sanctions it has threatened against Russia. Certainly, the limited sanctions against a small group of named targets have proved little more than a gentle slap on the wrist. But the ball is currently in the court of the Russians and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and what they do will now determine what happens next.

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Ukraine and the EU’s CFSP

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd March, 2014

EU three pillarsOver the past few weeks I have been commenting regularly on developments in Ukraine/Crimea for an Arab TV channel, Al Etejah*. And while much of the attention rightly has been on Russia and what exactly Vladimir Putin has in mind from day to day, one of the broader aspects I’ve been mulling over is the implication the whole affair has for the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which between 1995 and 2009 was one of the “three pillars” of the EU (see diagram). CFSP is one area of European integration that has not progressed very far, and although the EU 28 usually vote as a harmonious bloc at the United Nations quite strong policy differences often emerge between member states, some of the larger of which (including Britain) still see their foreign policy as a matter of fundamentally national concern and competence. The EU has been united in condemning Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea and in extending the hand of accelerated friendship to Ukraine, but there have been divergent views about what sort of sanctions to impose against Russia, how strongly one should fall in line with what Washington is doing (London’s default position) and to what extent European economies should try to reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies. There has been agreement that the EU should move faster to embrace more warmly Georgia and Moldova — both of which could eventually aspire to EU membership and are vulnerable to Russian expansionism. But on other international issues — such as how friendly Europe should now be to Iran, and how disapproving of Israel’s activities in the occupied West Bank — there often appear to be irreconcilable divides. Of course, the EU is not a single state and maybe never will be, but if it is to be taken more seriously on the global stage it really needs to present a more coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy. And although the High Representative Cathy Ashton has performed better than I dared hope when her appointment was announced, her successor in charge of the EU’s external action needs to be a figure with more political clout.


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Russia’s UN Veto over Crimea

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th March, 2014

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At the UN Security Council in New York Russia has vetoed a resolution denouncing tomorrow’s planned referendum in Crimea. China abstained. But the clear majority view within the international community is that the referendum is illegitimate and that moreover Russia’s increasingly belligerent stand-off with Ukraine is the most serious threat to European security since the end of the Cold War. The European Union and the US have rightly warned Moscow that economic sanctions and other punitive measures could be imposed against key Russian figures unless President Putin backs off, but he seems to be on a roll, basking in the support of Russian nationalists and a significant proportion of the population of Crimea itself. Crimea was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev during the old Soviet days, but as there were no internal borders between the different republics of the Soviet Union that did not make much difference. These days Russia and Ukraine are two separate countries, however, and the demonstrators who occupied Kiev’s Independence Square from last November onwards made clear their preference for an EU-oriented future rather than one ties to Russia’s apron-strings. In advance of tomorrow’s vote, an attempted incursion by Russian helicopters was made into the Ukrainian district of Kherson, which is not part of Crimea and which represents a serious escalation. Frantic diplomatic efforts are still going on to try get the Russians to calm the situation, but the UNSC vote does feel like a return to the old days of East-West standoff. However, there two important differences worth noting. These days Moscow does not have a group of satellite states to support it; indeed, Poland and the Baltic States (the latter once part of the Soviet Union) have been strong in their criticism of Putin’s moves. And secondly, although there were, predictably, some demonstrations in Russia lauding Putin’s machismo, several tens of thousands went into the street of Moscow today to protest against what is happening.

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