With Thanksgiving right around the corner, Russia Direct asked foreign policy experts about the events and trends that the international community should be thankful for in 2015.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. Photo: AP
The Thanksgiving Day holiday is almost upon us, but the global political climate gives little reason to celebrate. The latest example is the downing of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 military aircraft on Nov. 24 by Turkish forces.Yet, even amidst recent geopolitical instability, there have been some developments for which the world should be thankful. The crisis in Ukraine, for example, appears to be coming to an end. And hope still exists for a settlement in Syria.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Russia Direct asked a number of notable foreign policy experts which events or trends of the past year the international community should be thankful for in 2015.
Andrei Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)
This fall, the return to multilateral dialogue on Syria gives me a reason to be optimistic. I am thankful that the world community started a new round of Minsk talks and thus manifested its understanding of the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine. Possibly, parties to the conflict will harmonize their points of view or even reach an agreement.
For the global community, another significant achievement has been the drawing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iran nuclear program. In 2016, we will see a positive shift in international relations if key players in the Middle East manage to set aside their differences and ambitions and focus on their common interests.
Such a scenario will not only resolve the conflict in Syria, but also lay the foundation of a new security system for the entire Middle East. A significant change and the deflection of dangerous tendencies in the region will have a positive effect on the situation in Ukraine, East Asia, and North Africa.
In 2016, Americans will focus on the presidential campaign and domestic affairs, so there is no reason to expect any major breakthroughs there, and even the return to the regular format of Russian-American dialogue would be a big plus. Restoring contacts and repairing the lines of communication will be a good starting point for working with the next U.S. president.
Evgeny Buzhinsky, Chairman of PIR Center, Lieutenant-General (retired)
The only positive tendency, with certain reservations, is the cessation of military operations in Eastern Ukraine and the indication that the Europeans are starting to understand that the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis does not solely depend on Moscow. Finally, the EU started putting pressure on the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, to comply with political obligations spelled out in the Minsk Protocol.
Another positive development is the change in the Western and, first and foremost, American stance on Syria, but there is no reason to anticipate a dramatic shift in the Western opinion regarding the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In 2016, international relations will be developing in the right direction with the defeat of ISIS and the start of political resolution processes in Syria. A positive trend in Ukraine would be the implementation of all clauses of the Minsk Protocol and the beginning of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ reintegration into Ukraine.
Nikolai Zlobin, President of the Center on Global Interests (CGI)
In 2015, relations between the superpowers, though tense and strained, are nowhere near where they used to be 25 years ago. The Cold War was aimed at mutual annihilation, and, fortunately, things have changed since then. For that, we should thank our chaotic world, not the Cold War.
The U.S. is not trying to strengthen its cooperation with Russia because it does not believe that it would have a positive impact on a global scale. For Washington, no positive dynamic can be achieved by changing its position on Russia. The state of U.S.-Russia relations in 2016 will depend on the situation in Ukraine and the fulfillment of the Minsk Protocol. Americans are interested in increasing their cooperation with the Kremlin in Syria, but that is not priority for them. Russia is generally seen as an unpredictable country that cannot be trusted.
On the other hand, building better relations with the U.S. is important to Russia. Moscow is openly initiating cooperation on a number of issues and suggesting new approaches to conflict resolution, but I do not think that in the coming year we will have a reason to be thankful for a breakthrough in U.S.-Russia relations.
Tatyana Kaukenova, Astana-based political scientist and China expert
In 2015, Central Asia started implementing the seminal Eurasian Silk Road Economic Belt project. It is potentially very lucrative for Russia as well.
China is interested in the Silk Road due to increased tensions in the Asia-Pacific region in general and the South China Sea in particular. For its trade, China predominantly uses waterways, and the land-based Silk Road is a way to secure and diversify its trade routes.
Due to the current recession and the lack of funding for accelerated economic growth, the Silk Road countries should be particularly appreciative of the Chinese initiative, especially since it is supported by sizable investments. As part of the Silk Road Economic Belt project, Kazakhstan is supposed to provide a complex of infrastructure objects. Some of these objects will be built and paid for by China. Thus, Central Asian land-locked countries indirectly owe their gratitude to the escalation of tensions in the Pacific.
Next year, the world will be thanking Beijing for its major economic influence in the Middle East if the Chinese authorities support the fight against terrorism by utilizing all their tools, especially their diplomatic leverage. Given that extremist organizations in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are closely linked with ISIS, the Central Asian region will thank China if the XUAR authorities can keep the situation under control and prevent the spread of violence.
Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan analyst at IHS Global Insight, author, and award-winning freelance journalist
Despite the general instability, there were still some positive developments that took place over the course of 2015 in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region. For example, Tunisia managed to move on the path of democracy and stability despite the different terror attacks it suffered during the whole year. Russia moved to take part in the war on ISIS in Syria. This has been a long time overdue since Russia did not wish the Libyan scenario to be repeated in Syria.
We also saw the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, which brought about some relief in a region that has seen too many wars. Libya got a government of national accord as negotiated by the United Nations. And Egypt, despite its security and economic difficulties, managed to have its legislative elections conducted in an overall acceptable manner.
The security situation in the MENA region will only change for the better in 2016 if some preconditions are met.
First, Syria does not disintegrate and remains one state, even within a more federal state system that guarantees its territorial integrity.
Second, ISIS is defeated, which is highly unlikely with air power only.
Third, Libya is stabilized and foreign intervention in its affairs ceases, allowing Libyans some room to manage their affairs in a more independent fashion.
Finally, Israel is forced to accept the two-state solution and leave the occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Ambitious as it might seem, this remains one of the basic issues to regional and international security.
Halil Karaveli, Senior Associate with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, Johns Hopkins University
The result of the general election in Turkey in June, which denied the ruling, authoritarian Islamists their majority, was a truly positive event that inspired hope – albeit only for a very brief moment. Unfortunately, this result was tragically undone when the tactics of violence of the Turkish regime scared the voters into give the ruling party its majority back in November. However, looking at the Middle East widely, we have every reason to be extremely grateful for the international nuclear accord that was reached with Iran.
Unfortunately, in 2016 there is absolutely no reason to hope for any amelioration of the situation in the Middle East, notably in Syria, which has imploded and will continue to generate terror and instability across its borders. What we can hope for is a great power accord that brings the Syrian implosion under control, with the United States, its European allies, Russia and Iran joining together to contain the risks. That would indeed be unprecedented, and is unfortunately probably extremely unlikely, but it is nonetheless really something to wish for.
Pal Dunay, Director of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek
2015 was a difficult year for Europe, which had to experience three crises: the conflict in Ukraine, the economic crisis of the Eurozone and the massive migratory pressure on Europe. In every case, it is good news that the situation did not get as bad as it could.
As far as the Ukraine crisis, it was good news that, since the signing of the Minsk-2 agreement in February, the intensity of the conflict has been reduced. However, there is no solution for the crisis due to the broader conflict between Russia and Ukraine, so the crisis will remain with us at lower intensity. Here, it is good news for EU states that both NATO and the EU could retain the unity of its decision-making. It means that reason and readiness to compromise prevailed.
The Eurozone crisis has become dormant since Greece has been ready to accept a few painful decisions. However, the socio-economic crisis in some EU member states, first and foremost in Greece, will continue as the country lost more than 25 per cent of its GDP and unemployment is extremely high as well.
The migration issue will remain a challenging and urgent matter for the European Union. The problem was caused by the fact that the 1951 Refugee Convention (and its addition protocol of 1967) have been based on the assumption that those who have rightful fear of persecution for different reasons will arrive to Europe and seek asylum in small quantities, whereas large population movements are due to economic reasons and, hence, those persons are not eligible for refugee status.
However, our imagination turned out to be too weak. We could not understand that millions of persons might hit the road for rightful fear of persecution in countries where chaos and civil war prevails from Syria to Libya to Eritrea and Afghanistan. The legal mechanisms available basically have collapsed under the weight of reality. Gradually, they will be brought under control but at the price of partially and hope temporarily giving up on some of the most important symbolic achievements of free movement of persons in Europe.
Though the year of 2015 was not a happy year for Europe, the mechanisms available proved largely successfully coping with the massive challenges. The glass is more half full than half empty.