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Will the Kremlin go beyond election interference? 

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Once the Kremlin is persuaded that Joe Biden will become the US’s next president, it may go for the jugular. Already today, not election manipulation, but triggering civil conflicts in the United States could be the main aim of Moscow’s mingling in American domestic affairs, write Pavlo Klimkin and Andreas Umland.

Over the past 15 years, the Kremlin has played with politicians and diplomats of, above all, Russia’s neighbors, but also with those of the West, a hare and hedgehog game, as known from a German fairy tale. In the Low Saxon fable’s well-known race, the hedgehog only runs a few steps, but at the end of the furrow he has placed his wife who looks very much like him. When the hare, certain of victory, storms in, the hedgehog's wife rises and calls out to him “I'm already here!” The hare cannot understand the defeat, conducts 73 further runs, and, in the 74th race, dies of exhaustion.

Ever since Russia’s anti-Western turn of 2005, governmental and non-governmental analysts across the globe have been busy discussing and predicting Moscow’s next offensive action. Yet, in most cases, when the world’s smart “hares” – politicians, experts, researchers, journalists et al. – arrived with more or less adequate reactions, the Russian “hedgehogs” had already long achieved their aims. Such was the case with Russia’s invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, “little green men” on Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, hackers inside Germany’s Bundestag in 2015, bombers over Syria since 2015, cyber-warriors in the US elections of 2016, or “chemical” assassins at England’s Salisbury in 2018.

Across the world, one can find hundreds of sensitive observers able to provide sharp comments on this or that vicious Russian action. For all the experience accumulated, such insights have, however, usually been provided only thereafter. So far, the Kremlin’s wheeler-dealers continue to surprise Western and non-Western policy makers and their think-tanks with novel forays, asymmetric attacks, unorthodox methods and shocking brutality. More often than not, Russian imaginativeness and ruthlessness become sufficiently appreciated only after a new “active measure,” hybrid operation or non-conformist intervention has been successfully completed.

Currently, many US observers – whether in national politics, public administration or social science – may be again preparing to fight the last war. Russian election interference and other influence operations are on everybody’s mind, across America. Yet, as Ukraine has bitterly learnt in 2014, the Kremlin only plays soft ball as long as it believes it has some chance to win. It remains relatively moderate as long as a possible loss will – from Moscow’s point of view – only be moderately unpleasant. Such was the case, during Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential elections in the US.

The Ukrainian experience during the last six years suggests a far grimmer scenario. At some point during the Euromaidan Revolution, in either January or February 2014, Putin understood that he may be losing his grip on Ukraine. Moscow’s man in Kyiv, then still President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych (though very much assisted by Paul Manafort), may be kicked out by the Ukrainian people. As a result, Russia’s President drastically changed track already before the event.

The Kremlin’s medal awarded to the anonymous Russian soldiers who took part in the annexation of Crimea lists the date of 20 February 2014, as the start of the operation to occupy a part of Ukraine. On that day, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych was still in power, and present in Kyiv. His flight from Ukraine’s capital one day later, and ousting, by the Ukrainian parliament, on 22 February 2014, had not yet been clearly predictable, on 20 February 2014. But the Kremlin had already switched from merely political warfare against Ukraine to preparing a real war – something then largely unimaginable for most observers. Something similar may be the case, in Moscow’s approach to the US today too.

To be sure, Russian troops will hardly land on American shores. Yet, that may not be necessary. The possibility of violent civil conflict in the United States is today, in any way, being discussed by serious analysts, against the background of enormous political polarization and emotional spikes within American society. As in Putin’s favorite sports of Judo – in which he holds a Black Belt! – a brief moment of disbalance of the enemy can be used productively, and may be sufficient to cause his fall. The United States may not, by itself, become ripe for civil conflict. Yet, an opportunity to push it a bit further is unlikely to be simply missed by industrious hybrid warfare specialists in Moscow. And the game that the Russian “hedgehogs” will be playing may be a different one than in the past, and not yet be fully comprehensible to the US’s “hares.”

Hillary Clinton was in 2016 a presidential candidate very much undesired, by Moscow, as America’s new president. Yet today, a democratic president is, after Russia’s 2016 hacking of the Democratic Party’s servers and vicious campaign against Clinton, a truly threatening prospect for the Kremlin. Moreover, Joe Biden was, under President Obama, responsible for the US’s policy towards Ukraine, knows as well as likes the country well, and is thus especially undesirable for Moscow.

Last but not least, Moscow may have had more contacts with Trump and his entourage than the American public is currently aware of. The Kremlin would, in such a case, even more dislike a Biden presidency, and a possible disclosure of its additional earlier interventions, in the US. The stakes are thus higher, for the Kremlin, in 2020 than in 2016. If Trump has no plausible chance to be elected for a second term, mere election interference may not be the issue any more. Moscow may already now implement more sinister plans than trying to help Trump. If Putin thinks that he cannot prevent Biden, the Kremlin will not miss a chance to get altogether rid of the US, as a relevant international actor.

Pavlo Klimkin was, among others, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany in 2012-2014 as well as minister of foreign affairs of Ukraine in 2014-2019. Andreas Umland is a researcher at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv and Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.

All opinions expressed in the above article are those of the authors alone, and do not reflect any opinions on the part of EU Reporter.

Consumer protection

How the EU aims to boost consumer protection

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Find out how the EU aims to boost consumer protection and adapt it to new challenges such as the green transition and the digital transformation. Society 

As the economy becomes more global and digital, the EU is looking at new ways to protect consumers. During the May plenary, MEPs will debate the digital future of Europe. The report focuses on removing barriers to the functioning of the digital single market and improving the use of articial intelligence for consumers.

Infographic illustration on consumer protection in the European Union
Reinforcing consumer protection  

New consumer agenda

Parliament is also working on the new consumer agenda strategy for 2020-2025, focusing on five areas: green transition, digital transformation, effective enforcement of consumer rights, specific needs of certain consumer groups and international cooperation.

Making it easier to consume sustainably

The 2050 climate neutrality goal is a priority for the EU and consumer issues have a role to play - through sustainable consumption and the circular economy.

Infographic illustration on Europeans support tackling climate change
Sustainable consumption  

In November 2020, MEPs adopted a report on a sustainable single market calling on the European Commission to establish a so-called right to repair to make repairs systematic, cost efficient and attractive. Members also called for labelling the lifespan of products as well as measures to promote a culture of reuse, including guarantees on pre-owned goods.

They also want measures against purposefully designing products in a way that makes them obsolete after a certain time and reiterated demands for a common charger.

The Commission is working on right to repair rules for electronics and legislation on the environmental footprint of products to enable consumers to compare.

The review of the Sale of Goods Directive, planned for 2022, will look into whether the current two-year legal guarantee could be extended for new and pre-owned goods.

In September 2020, the Commission launched the sustainable products initiative, under the new Circular Economy Action Plan. It aims to make products fit for a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and circular economy while reducing waste. It will also address the presence of harmful chemicals in products such as electronics and ICT equipment, textiles and furniture.

Making the digital transformation safe for consumers

The digital transformation is dramatically changing our lives, including how we shop. To help EU consumer rules catch up, in December 2020 the Commission proposed a new Digital Services Act, a set of rules to improve consumer safety across online platforms in the EU, including online marketplaces.

MEPs want consumers to be equally safe when shopping online or offline and want platforms such as eBay and Amazon to step up efforts to tackle traders selling fake or unsafe products and to stop fraudulent companies using their services.

MEPs also proposed rules to protect users from harmful and illegal content online while safeguarding freedom of speech and called for new rules on online advertising giving users more control.

Given the impact of artificial Intelligence, the EU is preparing rules to manage its opportunities and threats. Parliament has set up a special committee and emphasises the need for human centric legislation. The Parliament has proposed a civil liability regime for artificial intelligence that establishes who is responsible when AI systems cause harm or damage.

Strengthening the enforcement of consumer rights

EU countries are responsible for enforcing consumer rights, but the EU has a coordinating and supporting role. Among the rules it has put in place are the directive on a better enforcement and modernisation of consumer law and rules on collective redress.

Addressing specific consumer needs

Vulnerable consumers such as children, elderly people or people living with disabilities, as well as people in financial difficulties or consumers with limited access to the internet need specific safeguards. In the new consumer agenda, the Commission plans to focus on problems with internet accessibility, financially vulnerable consumers and products for children.

The Commission’s plans include more offline advice for consumers with no internet access as well as funding to improve the availability and quality of debt advice services for people in financial difficulties.

Because children are particularly vulnerable to harmful advertising, Parliament has approved stricter rules for audiovisual media services for audiovisual media services.

Guaranteeing the safety of products sold in the EU

Consumers often purchase goods manufactured outside the EU. According to the Commission, purchases from sellers outside the EU increased from 17% in 2014 to 27% in 2019 and the new consumer agenda highlights the need for international cooperation to ensure consumer protection. China was the largest supplier of goods to the EU in 2020, so the Commission will work on an action plan with them in 2021 to increase the safety of products sold online.

In November 2020, Parliament passed a resolution calling for greater efforts to ensure that all products sold in the EU are safe, whether manufactured within or outside the EU or are sold online or offline.

Next steps

Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee is working on the Commission proposal for the new consumer agenda. MEPs are expected to vote on it in September.

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coronavirus

Coronavirus: Health Security Committee updates the common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Health Security Committee (HSC) has agreed to update the common list of COVID-19 rapid antigen tests (RATs), including those whose results are mutually recognised by EU member states for public health measures. Following the update, 83 RATs are now included in the common list, of which the results of 35 tests are being mutually recognised. Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said: “Rapid antigen tests play a crucial role to slow down the spread of COVID-19. Diagnostics are a central element for member states in their overall response to the pandemic. Having a wider list of recognised rapid antigen tests will also make it easier for citizens to benefit from Digital Green Certificates and to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU in the coming months.”

In addition, the Commission and the Joint Research Centre have agreed on a new procedure for updating the list of common and mutually recognised RATs in the future. From today onwards, RATs manufacturers will be able to submit data and information for certain tests that meet the criteria agreed by the Council on 21 January 2021. This includes only those rapid tests that are being carried out by a trained health professional or other trained operator and excludes rapid antigen self-tests.  Moreover, as part of the new procedure, the HSC is setting up a technical working group of national experts to review the data submitted by countries and manufacturers and to propose updates to the HSC.

They will also work with the JRC and the ECDC on a common procedure for carrying out independent validation studies to assess the clinical performance of RATs. The updated common list of COVID-19 RATs is available here. Manufacturers can submit data on rapid antigen tests available on the market here. The Council Recommendation on a common framework for the use and validation of RATs and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results in the EU can be found here.

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Mohsen Rezaee emerges as the West's man on the ground

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As nuclear talks in Vienna stall, negotiators are keeping a close eye on Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, the outcome of which could be key to breaking the current deadlock, writes Yanis Radulović.

With a fourth round of talks set to resume in Vienna this week, pressure is mounting on high-ranking European negotiators to reach an accord that bridges the geopolitical chasm between Washington and Tehran and brings Iran back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

A historic non-proliferation agreement and widely regarded as one of the Obama administration’s premier foreign policy achievements, the JCPOA set out a framework to curtail Iran’s nuclear breakout time and established formal steps for capping the enrichment of fissile material, scheduling transparent atomic facility inspections, and dismantling excess centrifuge installations. In return for sustained compliance with this framework, the U.S. and other major world powers agreed to a gradual lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.

When the US withdrew from this landmark agreement in 2018, the European co-signatories of Germany, France, and the UK stepped up to keep the deal alive. However, European relations in the region quickly became strained by the revival of Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran, a campaign which aimed to strangle the Iranian economy via unilateral sanctions and escalatory retaliatory actions.

Unsurprisingly, Washington’s pivot to maximum pressure has placed major European powers in a foreign policy double bind. While the recent uptick in U.S.-Iran tensions has trended downwards since the election of President Joe Biden, his predecessor’s approach in the region has had a lasting effect upon Iranian goodwill towards multilateral agreements like the JCPOA.

For the European co-signatories, the nuclear talks in Vienna are embedded within a broader strategy of strategic détente and diplomatic reintegration between Europe and Iran. Beyond the obvious advantages of nuclear non-proliferation, Europe is also eyeing a future where Iran can step up as a fully-fledged, sanction-free actor on the international stage. Despite having an estimated 9 percent share of the world’s oil reserves, the sanction-sapped Iranian economy is woefully underdeveloped. Throw in the simulative potential of Iran’s frozen assets — estimated to be worth between $100 and $120 billion — and it’s easy to see why Europe views Iran as such a promising partner for foreign direct investment.

On a condition of anonymity, a senior official from the US State Department spoke with Reuters and shed some light on the likelihood of a deal being inked during the fourth round of talks, saying: "Is it possible that we'll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual compliance? It's possible yes.”

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s top negotiator, is slightly more pessimistic at the chances of a deal in the immediate future. Speaking on state TV, Araqchi emphasized that Iran would not rush into a new deal without a stable framework of safeguards.

"When it will happen is unpredictable and a timeframe cannot be set. Iran is trying (for) it to happen as soon as possible, but we will not do anything in a rush," Araqchi said.

As formal talks stall, European negotiators are looking at Mohsen Rezaee, one of three front-runners in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, to cut through the diplomatic red tape and promote mutually beneficial collaboration with the US and EU.

Unlike his fellow presidential candidates, Rezaee is not a lifelong politician. Nevertheless, with a career spanning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Expediency Discernment Council, Rezaee is a seasoned diplomat and pragmatic negotiator. Perhaps Rezaee’s most impressive achievement is the fact that in all his years of civil, military, and political service, he has never once been subject to a corruption scandal or criminal probe.

While established politicians like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may be a more conventionally attractive partner with the West, there is growing conviction in Europe that Rezaee, a well-rounded, well-respected, and reliable candidate, is the man best suited to represent Iran and its position on international nuclear negotiations.

A proven leader who is unafraid to express his opinions, Rezaee has repeatedly shown that he is capable of adjusting his opinions and uniting coalitions. Despite his role as a representative of the “Revolution Generation”, Rezaee has made it clear that he is no radical. After years of civil service, Rezaee has broken ranks with many of the hardline views that are commonplace in the IRGC. In fact, in an interview with the Tehran Times, he went as far as to dismiss a nuclear arms race as unwise, remarking: “Political wisdom requires not to chase weapons that can destroy the entire humanity.”

With impediments to progress rearing at every turn in Vienna, it has become abundantly clear that the West needs a man on the ground in Iran. Mohsen Rezaee, and the emerging movement he represents, may be the key to breaking the deadlock in negotiations and bringing Iran back as a major player in the global economy.

The opinions expressed in the above article are thoseof the author alone, and do not reflect any opinion on the part of EU Reporter.

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