Geopolitics

Russia And Ukraine, The Meaning Of A Bad Status Quo

Despite being parties of one conflict and neighbors and comrades of the same historical events, it is now obvious that Russia and Ukraine — or at least their very different leaders, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky — are living in opposing realities.

Photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Paris in December 2019

Ukraine's Zelensky and Russia's Putin in Paris in Dec. 2019

Anna Akage

-Analysis-

The best we can say about the recent visits of U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland to Moscow with top European officials Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel to Kyiv was that these high-level meetings ensured the status quo in the longstanding Russia-Ukraine conflict.

But that is a status quo measured in dead negotiations in the Normandy Format over the simmering war on the border and the status of Crimea. It is status quo of the shared disapproval of the situation, and the clarity of the opposing directions chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.


Why continue to talk about the same problem, if the parties are seeking opposite solutions.

As seen by Putin

Moscow has achieved what it wanted: Direct negotiations with the Americans regarding Ukraine have now been resumed. Notably, the request for Nuland's meeting with his Russian counterparts came directly from Washington. It was their initiative and, as Nuland put it, the aim was to construct "stable and predictable relations."

To make it possible, the Russians lifted sanctions on Nuland, just as the Americans spared a number of Russian diplomats from punitive measures.

And it is the U.S., not the EU, that Putin wants to negotiate with; it was a direct link that was written between the lines in Dmitriy Medvedev's recent article. Any direct dialogue between Putin and Zelensky will not happen until there is no sign of a more pro-Russian attitude in Kyiv.

The troubles in our bilateral relations are currently too big.

The key task with which Nuland is traveling is the resumption of regular dialogue between Moscow and Washington on the so-called Ukrainian issue. But other meetings are also taking place, including those with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and with Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov. During these talks, various issues are likely to be raised: the situation in Central Asia, the deployment of U.S. military personnel at Russian bases, China and the situation in Southeast Asia, as well as other regions of the world.

Moscow cast this high-ranking visit in a cool manner: "We shouldn't complain that we can't reach any breakthrough agreements right away. It's hardly possible. The troubles in our bilateral relations are currently too big. They cannot be sorted out at once," said the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov. At the same time, the State Department called Ms. Nuland's talks in Moscow "constructive."

Photo of President of the European Council \u200bCharles Michel, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in Kiev on Oct. 12

Charles Michel, Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen in Kiev on Oct. 12

Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA

As seen by Zelensky 

Hopes and demands are what's guiding the Ukrainian president. Still Zelensky must contend with the fact that from Moscow he's seen as not a fully autonomous figure and from the European Union as a little boy who can wait.

Zelensky is eager to negotiate with his Russian counterpart; he talks almost every week about the need to meet with Putin either one-on-one or in the Normandy format.

But the negotiations are on hold — just as they were during the presidency of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron only have to listen to the Ukrainian and Russian leaders accusing each other of violating the Minsk agreements and the Paris communiqué. It has already gotten to the point where the Germans and the French are begging Putin to resume normal negotiations between the foreign ministers.

Brussels remains Kyiv's closest ally. Such were assurances from the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel respectively in the latest meetings in the Ukrainian capital.

One positive breakthrough was the signing of the Open Skies agreement, which Ukraine has been waiting eight years for. But European guests gave no guarantees regarding the most important issues: prospects of membership in the European Union and energy security. "Where is that finish line, and is there a finish line?" Zelensky said, describing the essence of his complaints to European officials.

Nord Stream 2 guarantees

On the other side, relations with Washington seem almost perfect: Victoria Nuland is spoken to all the time, communicating both at the level of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and at the level of Bankova. U.S. officials inform their Ukrainian counterparts of the details of negotiations with their Russian counterparts. The problem lies in something else: the quality of communication.

U.S. can and will use the Ukrainian issue to get some concessions from the Russians.

The Ukrainian side is sure that the Americans share all their information, that Kyiv knows everything about what is going on in the Russian-American track. But one may recall here the recent situation when the Americans and Germans signed a framework agreement on guarantees for Nord Stream 2 behind the backs of their Ukrainian counterparts. All this was done to appease Russian-friendly business and get closer to Moscow.

The broader reality is that the U.S. can and will use the Ukrainian issue to get some concessions from the Russians in areas that are important to them. Nobody knows what that means for Kyiv in the long run. In the short run, no doubt, it means more bad stability.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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