UkraineAlert

Of the key battles fought in post-Maidan Ukraine, the one over land reform attracts little attention. That’s a shame, too. Parliament’s unwillingness to allow the sale of private farmland “is the biggest source of immediately available economic growth that the government has failed to utilize,” Swedish economist Anders Åslund has noted.

The latest clash over land reform took place on October 6; the old-timers in Ukraine’s parliament, still trapped by Soviet economic dogmas, won the day.

Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, is blessed with fertile black soil. Today it is capable of feeding half of Africa, or 600 million people. But instead of tapping into this fantastic resource, Ukrainian legislators stubbornly refuse to allow the sale of private farmland, which would unleash farmers’ productivity and massively benefit the economy. The October vote was the eighth failed attempt to lift the moratorium on selling agricultural land since it was first introduced in 2000. Since then, Ukraine has had two revolutions and four very different presidents, but politicians of all persuasions remain adamant: the 6.7 million landowners who own a total of twenty-seven million hectares shall have no right to be full masters of their property.

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Russian aggression is not likely to go away soon. As a result, Ukraine needs to revise the current framework guiding its economic disengagement from the occupied regions of the Donbas and Crimea. Economic disengagement limits the risks of financing terrorism with money coming from mainland Ukraine, and makes sure that the occupied areas of Donbas don’t turn into an economic grey zone and center of smuggling. It is also important to counter the Kremlin’s policy, which seeks to preserve control over the occupied areas of the Donbas without taking any economic responsibility for the region.

Disengaging from the occupied areas of the Donbas will be complicated; prior to Russia’s aggression, the region generated 16 percent of the country’s GDP. Despite the overall ban on Ukrainian business relations with the region, there are a number of important exemptions.

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With respect to Ukraine and Russia’s aggression in the eastern part of the country, Europe needs to step up its game.

That was the consensus at “The War in Ukraine’s East: The Military Conflict, Diplomacy, and the Humanitarian Crisis,” a discussion co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and Members of the European Parliament Anna Maria Corazza Bildt and Anna Fotyga. The event, which occurred at the European Parliament in Brussels on November 29, also featured MEP Rebecca Harms, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and John E. Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

“Europe has a lot of challenges in front of us, but we have to...deal with the crises at the same time,” said Bildt, who is with the European People's Party. “At the moment, we are not.”

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It seemed like the international affairs version of clickbait: the president of the world’s leading nuclear state awarding citizenship to a foreign actor most famous for playing an ex-commando who must rescue an exotic dancer while foiling a plot to start World War III on the high seas. For most onlookers, Vladimir Putin’s gift of a Russian passport to 1990s American action star Steven Seagal was just another in a long line of head-scratching public relations stunts involving semi-retired Western celebrities that have lent a circus-like quality to Russian power. But Putin is not in the habit of making fun of himself, nor is he a person to consciously do anything to invite ridicule. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his belief that his personal rapport with the star of films like Under Siege and Hard to Kill might be a “harbinger of...normalization of relations between our states.” For all the ongoing conflict in the international arena, the heartfelt nature of the overtures to Seagal and others reflects the little-appreciated reality that Russia remains deeply dependent on the West not only for economic sustenance, but also for emotional and psychological validation.

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A mission from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) visited Ukraine November 3-17. The Ukrainian government had hoped that it would decide to give Ukraine another tranche of its four-year $17.5 billion loan package of March 2015, of which Ukraine has received $7.7 billion, but the answer was a resounding no.

The IMF is normally very diplomatic in its statements, but its language this time is uncommonly clear: “While good progress has been made, the authorities need some more time to implement policies to ensure medium-term fiscal sustainability—including adoption of the 2017 budget consistent with program targets—safeguard financial stability, and tackle corruption. Discussions on these policies will continue in the period ahead.”

In plain language this means that plenty remains to be done and that it will take quite some time. The IMF will not provide Ukraine with any more funding this year and it does not even give any hint when it may.

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Russia has been busy spreading its influence in Europe and Eurasia. Alexander J. Motyl worries that the Baltic states are “the most vulnerable to a complete [Russian] takeover,” and security expert Paul D. Miller predicts that World War III could break out in Latvia. Last month Lithuania issued a manual on what to do if Russia invades. These scenarios might sound far-fetched from well-appointed conference rooms in Washington, but in Eastern Europe, they do not.

The security services of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all sounded the alarm. According to Lithuania’s 2015 National Security Threat Assessment, Russia views the post-Soviet space as an “arena of geopolitical competition,” refuses to acknowledge their sovereignty, and has responded to greater tensions with the West by renewed efforts to influence its neighbors.

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In October 2016 the Russian government made a significant announcement about its Syria policy that Western sources overlooked. Moscow announced that it supported the restoration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power throughout the country, something it had not stressed previously. This statement and its consequences merit serious scrutiny by the West because its implications are so negative.

First, it not only commits Russia and its troops to an open-ended war on behalf of Assad throughout all of Syria, it identifies Moscow’s objectives with those of Assad and Iran, his patron. In other words, it cements a Russo-Iranian alliance in the Middle East; no matter how limited Moscow may say it is, this carries profound negative consequences for the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. It encourages more mischief-making by Tehran in the future, secure in the knowledge of Putin’s support. Indeed, we see this already in the many arms sales and economic deals now being explored by Moscow and Tehran.

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The election of Donald Trump marks a turning point in the world of international relations. Speculation abounds as to what he’s going to do, but his policies remain unknown, possibly unformed.

Still, this doesn’t discourage us from speculating as well as poring over the resumes of his appointments to date. But the only certainty is that Trump will tack in many directions throughout his term without regard to norms, history or past tradeoffs.

We know Trump will replace diplomacy with the Art of the Deal or no-nonsense negotiating strategies. This involves deploying any and all techniques to achieve a desired “deal” or goal, from seduction to threats, trash talk, anger, baiting, insults, shame, guilt, bullying, bribes, and fear.

This is how he drove sixteen other Republican primary candidates off the stage, took over what remained of the Republican Party, and insulted Hillary Clinton to win at the ballot box.

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President Barack Obama’s advice to the world that it shouldn’t “assume the worst” about Donald Trump may apply to countries whose existential interests cannot be threatened by the president-elect’s policies, but those that face a possible Russian invasion must assume and prepare for the worst.

They cannot, as Obama recommended, “wait until the administration is in place” and then “make your judgments as to whether or not it’s consistent with the international community’s interest in living in peace and prosperity together.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tanks could be on the outskirts of Estonian capital Tallinn by then.

No one knows what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be. That said, his extreme disregard for the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, the WTO, and international law and his continual trumpeting of American interests suggest that, at best, he may be indifferent to Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe or, at worst, he may even facilitate it by encouraging Russia to establish a sphere of influence.

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Friends of Ukraine, brace yourself. There's no way to sugar-coat this for the democracy crowd either.

Donald Trump has suggested that Ukraine is not our business (it "affects Europe a lot more than it affects us"). Our president-elect admires Russia's authoritarian leader (he's "brilliant," a "strong leader"), and wants Vladimir Putin as an ally ("Russia is killing ISIS"). Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers—was paid to attend the tenth anniversary of RT last year and was seated at the event's gala dinner next to Russia's president. Candidate Trump himself appeared on the Kremlin's propaganda channel in September.

What kind of deals will the Trump administration make in the "national interest"? What if his ideas about making America great again sync with Putin's vision of making Russia great again?

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