Letter From the Editors

As 2021 draws to a close, unresolved issues keep showing up like that unwanted fruitcake from Aunt Gladys. Take the Union State integration project between Russia and Belarus, which has been stalking the two countries like the Ghost of Christmas Past for over 20 years (the original Union State Treaty was signed in December 1999). This week, Putin and Lukashenko signed several agreements on instituting “28 integration programs, and adopting a military doctrine and a migration policy concept,” Rossiiskaya gazeta reports. However, most experts once again say the document is purely pro forma: “Minsk and Moscow assiduously pretended to play at big-time politics,” quips Irina Khalip.

She recalled the tantrums batka threw the last time the integration “road maps” were supposed to be signed (that term has been swapped for the euphemistically sounding “union maps”). Indeed, she says this highlights Lukashenko’s true talent: “No one can play for time as expertly as he can. In fact, it’s his only job.” So while both sides extolled the agreements as a step forward, political analyst Aleksandr Klaskovsky had more choice words for the document: “a selection of rubbery words like ‘rapprochement,’ ‘harmonization,’ ‘integration’ and, less frequently, ‘unification.’ ” He said they do not provide for any actual political integration. Goodbye 2021, hello 1999?

Another stalled issue in the post-Soviet space is the smoldering Donetsk Basin conflict. This week, Ukrainian experts raised the alarm about Russia once again moving troops and heavy equipment to the line of contact. In fact, according to military expert Aleksandr Golts, Moscow never withdrew that equipment following its “snap inspections” that ratcheted up tensions this spring. But he still believes a flare-up is unlikely at this point: “We have to wait for the season of impassable muddy roads to end.*** Those on both sides of the border should probably have enough time for New Year’s Day and Orthodox [Christian] Christmas celebrations.”

Enter Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 attack drone: The Ukrainian General Staff openly admitted that it had used its latest purchase against the separatists’ artillery, and even aired the video of the attack. Allegedly, the drone was deployed in response to a shelling attack that killed one Ukrainian soldier and wounded either one or two others. While Moscow, Berlin and Paris expressed alarm over Kiev’s decision to use the drone (which is a violation of the Minsk agreements), President Zelensky said it was used for defense purposes.

Golts called the move “the Ukrainian leadership’s fairly clumsy attempt to solve an unsolvable task.” Meaning that with Ukrainians growing weary of the never-ending conflict in the southeast, the drone was supposed to play the role of a “miracle weapon” to boost morale. However, in a bigger sense, the drone is also Ankara’s latest attempt to assert itself as a leading global player (suffice it to recall Turkey’s Erdogan chafing at the fact that the world’s fate is still being decided by a handful of countries that won World War II). Erdogan, whom Golts dubs Putin’s “political twin,” once again threw “a monkey wrench into Russia’s geopolitical works” – repeating the Syrian scenario, when Turkish drones prevented the Russia-backed government forces from retaking Idlib.

Finally, as the pandemic is about to enter its third year, the debate about vaccine mandates continues to rage in Russia (and beyond). This week, Dmitry Medvedev and Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin debated whether the pandemic can justify curtailing human rights. In his article, Zorkin argued: “The danger of legislators arbitrarily encroaching on constitutionally guaranteed human rights increases sharply in cases of increased terrorist activity, socioeconomic or environmental crises, and pandemics.” Medvedev responded with an article of his own: “In certain situations, public safety and the entire population’s social welfare become more important than respecting an individual’s civil rights and freedoms.” So, as we look forward to another year of opportunities and risks, the only thing for certain is that unsolved problems will keep coming back to haunt us. Fruitcake, anyone?