Thursday, 15 September 2022

2022 political rentrée: the complexities ahead

A very complex rentrée: now what?

Victor Ângelo


We are back after the August break. It is the so-called political rentrée, at the international level always marked by the opening of a new annual cycle of the United Nations General Assembly. The Assembly will start next week, with world leaders putting the finishing touches to the speeches they will deliver. The Secretary-General would like them to talk mainly about peace, the food crisis afflicting various regions of the globe, climate change, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the poorest countries and youth education. But this is a very special rentrée, with a war taking place in the "first world" - something unthinkable a few months ago, when conflict was associated with lack of development, that is, when we were all deluded with theories that wars were the province of poor people living in distant horizons.

This has been a summer without a truce of any kind. Crises and uncertainties have increased and at the same time have shown us that the leaders who weigh on the international scene are unable to present reasonable and convincing proposals. The confusion caused by Vladimir Putin's adventurous and illegal policy is a case in point. We will go to the General Assembly after almost seven months of armed aggression against a sovereign state, our neighbour in Europe, and it will be almost certain that we will not hear any proposal that can respond to this immense challenge. The main European leaders, starting with Emmanuel Macron, are wandering in a political labyrinth. They know that the Kremlin cannot be allowed to win this war. That would be like giving a prize to autocrats and outlaw rulers, and an invitation to further violations of the international order. They also know that assistance to Ukraine may not be enough, however much they repeat the contrary in their public interventions, and that without such support there will be no Ukraine. But they do not draw the necessary conclusion: it is crucial to move to a higher stage, to an even more complete response, leading to an end to the aggression and a change in Russia's foreign policy.

In this context, which is not seen as worrying only by those who are playing political make-believe or preparing the next holiday, the group of former UN officials who wrote an open letter to António Guterres in April has now prepared a second public appeal. On the eve of the General Assembly, the group, of which I am one, is once again insisting on the need to propose political initiatives that will freeze hostilities and make it possible to start a process leading to peace. The agreements on the export of cereals and the inspection of the Zaporijia nuclear power station must be explored politically. The proposal now submitted by Guterres to the Security Council concerning the demilitarisation of the Zaporijia plant is a good starting point and should be strongly supported.

I recognise that such an appeal is very much inspired by an idealistic vision of international relations. It would, however, be a mistake to set idealism and principles aside. But the new position is also based on a very realistic observation: in a war, in these times of global interdependence and high technology, everyone loses, and a lot. Even more so when the threat comes from a superpower and therefore generates large-scale responses from rival powers. The authors of the Charter of the United Nations already thought so in 1945. And our planet is far more fragile today than it was 77 years ago.

It is time to be frank and direct. The ongoing aggression presents us with three options and requires a firm and clear decision. A solution inspired by the bain-marie technique will not work. In fact, over time, it ends up encouraging the offender and others with similar intentions. Here, either we light the fire to the maximum - in the conviction that in the end we will be on the side of the winners and the survivors - or we look for an alternative recipe, a political path. That is the decisive choice that our leaders must make.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 9 September 2022)




Sunday, 17 July 2022

Joe Biden and his Middle East mistake

Joe Biden, the Middle East and consistency in politics

Victor Angelo


After two days spent in Israel and Palestine, the American President is today in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  Even having read what Joe Biden wrote in the Washington Post on July 9, to try to justify his voyage, I am one of those who do not agree with the political opportunity of this trip. I see it as a move of mere opportunism.

In the present context of confrontation with Russia, the trip weakens those who use the arguments of respect for international law, democracy and human rights. The Middle East is a maze of problems with no solution in sight. A geopolitical labyrinth where, among others, the United States is also lost. In the region, in addition to the suffering in the countries visited and in occupied Palestine, we still have the inhuman violence of the Syrian regime, with a fratricidal war that has dragged on since 2011, the barbarity of the conflict in Yemen, the chaos in Lebanon, the Iranian threat, the oppression of the Kurdish populations, fundamentalist extremism and the deadly rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites. It is a question of dealing with a powder keg that explodes according to the interests of the different local or international players.

A visit that does not bring any kind of response to the Palestinian question, to the obscurantism and cruelty of the Saudi regime, or to the containment of the Iranian threat, can only be noted in the negative. Biden was in Israel with the November mid-term elections in his country in mind and to please a part of his domestic voter base. And he is in Saudi Arabia to seek to increase oil production in order to contain the price of a barrel. This is also an electoral concern: the cost of petrol, when it comes time to fill up the tank, is a strong political argument in the USA. But it will not be easy to convince the Saudis, who are already adding 400,000 barrels a day more compared to what they were doing in February. Note, moreover, that Saudi daily production is now equivalent to Russian, both occupying (almost ex aequo) second place in the world.

Israel is not comparable to Saudi Arabia. But the systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians is one of the strongest arguments used by those who accuse the US of using a double-edged sword in international relations. The Palestinian cause has for decades been one of the most important thorns in the throat of those who speak of the need to respect the international order and the rights of oppressed peoples. You can't fight for that in the case of Ukraine and turn a blind eye when it comes to the same in Palestine.

Saudi Arabia is a country of contradictions. Modern in technology, medieval in the rights of women, of poor immigrant workers or in the treatment of political opposition. The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personifies well these contradictions and the brutality of the regime. He will go down in history for having had opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered and hacked to pieces in 2018. Joe Biden had said during his election campaign that this crime had turned Saudi Arabia into a pariah state. Today, he will shake hands with the ringleader of the killers and discuss cooperation and oil. The prince will look good in the photo, even more arrogant than usual. The American president, on the other hand, will be more vulnerable.

It is time to repeat that in international politics not everything counts. And to underline once again that believing in principles has a cost. The narrative has to become clearer. Political leadership will only be credible if it is coherent. Spending time thinking about the next elections, political manoeuvring and expedients that vary according to the interests at stake may lead to the re-election of presidents, prime ministers and secretaries-general, but it does not contribute to solving the major problems. The current crises, in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Myanmar, in parts of Africa or Central America, as well as in the field of climate change, nature conservation or food insecurity and the fight against poverty, should teach us to be truthful, responsible and courageous. In these times of great problems, this way of doing politics is the greatest challenge.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 15 July 2022)









G20: is it a better forum?

The G20 as a model for tomorrow's Security Council

Victor Ângelo


Today I am not writing about Ukraine, although I recognise that it is fundamental to keep the subject at the top of the public communication agenda. That is, by the way, one of the great risks of this crisis: the Putinists, their neo-Stalinist and neo-fascist relatives, not to mention the useful idiots who spout off in the media and cackle from their perches, would like to see the Russian invasion disappear from the headlines. In this day and age, what comes off the front page is easily ignored. These people think it is convenient to forget the aggression decided by Vladimir Putin, which, moreover, has nothing geopolitical about it - if it did, the autocrat would have a different position on the candidacies of Finland and Sweden for NATO membership, not to mention the Baltics. It is now clear that Putin is dreaming up the old wives' tale of the historical destiny of Mother Russia.

I will not discuss the subject of NATO this time either. That will be the subject of future chronicles. Even knowing what has been written around, including a full-page article in a well-known weekly newspaper - a flood that shows at least two flaws: that the author does not know how the NATO budget is constructed; and that he gives an importance to the Secretary-General of the organisation that he does not have. Jens Stoltenberg is a skilful facilitator, well presented, prudent with his words, a balancer who makes a virtue of his weak oratory skills. But the power does not belong to him. It resides in some member states, starting with the USA, but not only there. Take countries like Poland and Latvia, for example, and not forgetting the example of Turkey. To claim, without hesitation, that Stoltenberg is the boss of Europe, or the West, is the idle talk of someone who says a lot about something he knows little or nothing about.  

Someone suggested I write about the recent BRICS summit in Beijing on 23 June, this being the year of the Chinese presidency. It was clear that China is seeking to transform the BRICS into a political and economic bloc capable of being an alternative to the G7. And for this, it is trying to introduce a new format, which would include, besides Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, other emerging countries, Argentina in Latin America, Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal in Africa, and others, such as Thailand, Indonesia or even Kazakhstan. Here I would make two observations, after recognising the economic dynamism of China and the relative weight of the other members in the world economy. First, the BRICS, like the G7, speak of cooperation and multilateralism, but in reality constitute blocs inspired by rivalry and hegemony. Second, if I had to choose between the democracy and human security practised in the BRICS or in the G7, I would certainly prefer the Japanese model, for example, to that of neighbouring China. The values of freedoms and human rights are fundamental criteria.

Indeed, my purpose is to underline the potential that exists at G20 level. This is the only organisation outside the United Nations system that can bring together the powerful North and South. It should therefore be seen as a good bet for international political and economic collaboration. And today it is essential to talk again about cooperation and complementarity, given the challenges we all face. Leaders must get out of merely antagonistic speeches.

The G20 foreign ministers have been meeting since yesterday in Bali, Indonesia. Despite the tense atmosphere, none have missed the call, not even Antony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov. No bilateral discussions are expected between the two. The hostility between Russia and the US is too great, unfortunately leaving no room for a meeting at that level. But Blinken met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and was positive. He showed that the G20 offers opportunities, that it is a platform that should be maintained and strengthened. Its composition prefigures to some extent what would be a modern version of the UN Security Council.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 8 July 2022)




Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine: the NATO Russian salad

Notes in the margins of the NATO summit

Victor Ângelo


Sweden and Finland seem to have accepted, without much discussion, the demands imposed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The absolute priority for both was to quickly move forward with the NATO accession process.

Shortly before the announcement of the agreement between the two candidate countries and the president of Turkey, the prevailing prognosis was that the impasse would drag on for some time, perhaps even until the Turkish presidential elections, scheduled for June next year. Erdogan would stand to gain from the continuation of the blockade, on the domestic political front. His refusal would be continually propagandised as a nationalist stance, a demonstration of power, at a time when the Turkish people feel marginalised by westerners, in particular the European Union.

By raising the veto threat, moments before the official opening of the NATO summit in Madrid, Erdogan surprised us. We were told afterwards that this showed the cohesion that exists within the Atlantic Alliance. I am one of those who do not buy that narrative. And once the terms of the agreement were known, it was clear that Erdoğan had won the arm wrestling.

The Swedish and Finnish concessions raise several types of concerns. I will mention two in a moment, not to mention the unease that comes from submitting to a despot. And let me not forget that the blackmail will continue until the Turkish parliament ratifies the accessions.

Firstly, because they show that there is an enormous fear of possible aggression from Moscow. In other words, the Nordics are actually convinced that Vladimir Putin's Russia represents a serious threat to peace in that part of the European continent.

Second, because the agreement provides for the possibility of extraditions of Kurdish militants and other refugees that the autocrat in Ankara has in his sights. We know that Erdoğan places no value on human rights or the independence of the justice system in his country. It is an aberration to have such a regime at the head of the second largest member country of the Atlantic Alliance. But it is also true that regimes - and dictators - are passing, they are not eternal. It may be that next year Erdoğan will lose the elections and Turkey will return to democratic practices. Then, sooner or later, one of the reforms to be made will be to include in the organisation's treaty the possibility of suspending one of the members while a situation similar to the one currently experienced in Turkey lasts. Today, this possibility does not exist, and it is sorely lacking.

Beyond the approval of the new strategic concept, it is the outcome of what is happening in Ukraine that will be truly transformative. The Madrid summit recognised that Russia cannot be allowed to win the conflict it has provoked. In today's times, the violation of international law and order should not bring advantages to the offender. Already the G7 meeting, a somewhat confused summit on the eve of the Madrid meeting, had reached the same conclusion. But such a declaration only has value if it is translated into concrete actions that prevent Moscow's victory.

Unfortunately, I would say that we are not on the right track. There is even a risk, if nothing more and urgently is done, that we will witness the progressive destruction of Ukraine. The current dynamic of war of attrition plays in Russia's favour, for several reasons. Russia's trump cards are a markedly stronger economy, greater military resources and a philosophy of war based on the destruction of infrastructure and urban areas, destroying ways of life and creating terror among the civilian populations who are the victims of aggression.

The European democracies cannot win this vital battle without a deeper, accelerated commitment that is well explained to the citizens. At the current rate, aid in terms of arms will not arrive in time, nor will it be sufficient. What is more, Ukraine alone will not have the strength to restore its sovereignty. We will see, in the near future, whether the Madrid summit took this evidence into account by promising Ukraine the firm and continued support of the members of the Atlantic Alliance.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 1 July 2022)


Monday, 4 July 2022

The Suwalki Gap and Lithuania's mistake

Lithuania and Borrell erred, must make amends

Victor Angelo

The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell considers the Lithuanian decision to ban the transit through its territory of certain goods in circulation between other parts of Russia and the Russian region of Kaliningrad as correct. Borrell further clarifies that the ban only includes goods that are on the EU's sanctions list. That is, steel and other metals, construction materials, technological items and soon coal and later oil. Borrell seeks to protect Lithuania by saying that the decision of that country's government merely complies with what had been approved at European level. The ban covers about 50% of rail and road traffic between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. It does not concern the passage of persons, which remains open, albeit with some long-standing restrictions.

While I have great respect for the Lithuanian government's determination, I see the measure as a serious mistake. And I do not agree with Borrell's and others' defence of it. The sanctions adopted by the EU do include a clear reference to the transit of goods. But what is happening in the Suwalki corridor - the 65 km long strip of land linking Kaliningrad with Belarus and then the rest of Russia - is different from the transit of goods for import or export reasons. The sanctions clearly concern Russia's foreign trade. In the case in question, it is a matter of allowing movement between two parts of the same country. The issue should therefore be seen as a matter for the Russian domestic economy and thus outside the restrictions imposed by Brussels.

Moreover, all this has a very delicate political connotation. This opens up a new front for direct confrontation between the EU and Russia. It is particularly dangerous and distracts us from the fundamental, urgent, priority concern, which is to focus all our energies on supporting Ukraine and its legitimate defence efforts. It is dangerous because it gives Russia an easy pretext to exploit for a very strong offensive against Lithuania, a member of NATO. However, Lithuania, like its two neighbours to the north, Latvia and Estonia, is very difficult to defend. Several strategic exercises, simulated at the highest level of NATO command - I had the opportunity to participate in some - have repeatedly shown the extreme fragility of any of these three countries, in the case of a hostile military intervention coming from the neighbourhood. They are small territories, without strategic depth, easy to occupy. We have thus opened a conflict at a weak point in our defence space. This is certainly not an intelligent strategic decision, let alone a wise one. Moreover, there was no need for it.

At this point it remains to be seen what kind of retaliation the Kremlin will adopt. But the partial blockade of Kaliningrad is seen in Moscow as something very serious. And that makes me quite worried. In all likelihood, Vladimir Putin will respond to this challenge on the very eve of the NATO summit, due to take place in Madrid from 28 to 30 June.

Borrell should be advised to review his position on this partial blockade without delay. There must be courage and common sense in the key countries of the European Union to say, loud and clear, that the moment demands prudence and a calm understanding of what is appropriate and a priority. It is clear that Mr Borrell and all the others are expected to unequivocally condemn Russian policy and the war of aggression against Ukraine and to speak clearly on the issues of food safety and respect for the international order. They must demonstrate European firmness, defend our interests and counteract the disinformation campaigns that Russia is carrying out in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. But always with the concern to be seen as representatives of a Union that wants peace and respect for the rules of good neighbourliness. And which knows how to rectify its mistakes.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 24 June 2022)

Monday, 20 June 2022

Asking a few questions

A very unusual year: where are we heading to?

Victor Angelo


The Russian Armed Forces are currently firing thousands of shells a day at Ukraine. My friend Zulmiro, who is, and always has been, a primary communist militant, is not bothered by this volume of daily destruction. For him, every Ukrainian is a Nazi. Although he cannot explain the concept of Nazism in the year 2022, the accusation, imprecise as it is, justifies everything and tidies up the matter. It is impossible to argue with him, despite many decades of friendship. In view of this, and moving to a more general level, I ask how it will be possible to launch a process of negotiations between the Ukrainian leadership and Zulmiro's idols in the Holy of Holies, the Kremlin? That is one of the big questions of the moment. There is talk of diplomacy, but that, what does it mean?

Meanwhile, the Russian gamble continues to be on force, terror, and violation of the international order. Vladimir Putin and his men want the annihilation of the Ukrainian state and the surrender of its leaders. To achieve this, they will continue to machine gun and wipe out Ukraine. Systematically and intensely, with total inhumanity and a great sense of urgency, to weaken the Ukrainians' capacity for resistance and legitimate defence to the utmost before the promised arms arrive from Western countries.

Many do not want to look seriously at the question of self-defence, preferring, on our side, the comfortable ambiguity proper to nations well established in life. On the one hand, we help the victim and, on the other, we try not to harass the aggressor beyond the limits that could jeopardise our peace of mind. We keep repeating that we are not at war with the Putin regime, a half-truth which certainly makes him laugh with irony. He is at war with us, and he knows that the wars of today can be fought with missiles and cannons, as in the case of Ukraine, or with power cuts, cyber sabotage, disinformation, financing of extremist groups, and much more.

Self-defence raises a strategic question: either we ally ourselves with the aggressed, the weaker, or tomorrow it will be our turn. We may be on the verge of the decisive moment: to support with a new kind of intensity or just with minimal costs?

Looking further ahead, I would say that it has been decades since the international situation reached such a dangerous point as now. On top of a pandemic that has paralysed the world, we now have a combination of very serious conflicts and tensions. In Ukraine, Yemen, around Iran, in and around Burkina Faso, Libya, Myanmar, in addition to the never-ending crises in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Congo (DRC) and others.

In the most developed countries, people are coming out of the peak of the health crisis with a very acute consumerist fever. The issue of global warming, and the accelerated destruction of nature, has disappeared from the radar of citizens and the speeches of politicians. Even Greta Thunberg, who had mobilised global attention in the period before the pandemic, can not make herself heard.

Then came war, thanks to the imperialist and dictatorial madness of Vladimir Putin. I am sorry to say to the analysts who talk about these things that this is not a geostrategic issue. Putin wants to be the Tsar Peter the Great of our times, when he may end up being seen as the little Hitler of 2022.

Meanwhile, the tension between the US and China has entered a far more dangerous phase. And the impoverishment of the most vulnerable countries, something that has disappeared from the fat print of newspapers, is accelerating. In Sri Lanka, the Sahel countries, Central America, Haiti, and Pakistan, to name but a few. And the economies of the richest nations are increasingly living off the debt of future generations, amidst inflation that shows the mismatches between production, imports, and consumption patterns. Meanwhile, multilateral organisations continue to lose strength and image.

We are at a crossroads of critical uncertainties and serious risks. Where are we heading to? And where are the visionary leaders capable of proposing common-sense paths?

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 18 June 2022)


Saturday, 11 June 2022

Emmanuel Macron and the new political game

Emmanuel Macron: his and our challenges

Victor Ângelo


This Sunday and next Sunday the legislative elections are taking place in France. Emmanuel Macron needs a presidential majority in the next National Assembly. In other words, a victory for Ensemble, the coalition of centrist parties that supports him. Bearing in mind the fractures in France, the country's weight in European politics and economics, and the complexity of the international situation, I hope he can achieve this. But above all, because the alternative would be a coalition dominated by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a narcissistic lunatic and demagogue who proposes an unrealistic programme. Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale, Nupes, is the name of the amalgam that Mélenchon has managed to build, and which has more than three hundred candidates from his party in the elections. The other partners are there like sidekicks: a hundred ecologist candidates, sixty from the old Socialist Party, and fifty from the communists.

It is a coalition in which the extremists dictate the rules of the game and define the programme. The moderate left is limited to an opportunistic collage to try to avoid shipwreck and save a few seats in the National Assembly. Nupes is exactly the opposite of what has happened in Portugal in recent years. Here, the socialists handled the agenda, and the radicals were invited to clap, when necessary and without the exercise of executive power. If Mélenchon and his people got the parliamentary majority, France would enter a phase of populism that would lead to the explosion of public debt and end in bankruptcy. Note that at the moment, still far from the fanciful policies that Nupes proposes, the country already spends more than 60% of its GDP on public spending. With Mélenchon, the financial crisis would be followed by a political crisis, with serious repercussions in Europe, given the central role France plays in the EU.

I repeat: for the good of France and the peace of mind of those who believe in the European project, it is essential that the movement supporting Macron obtains an absolute majority. But as I have already said here, Macron has to be seen as a reformist close to popular concerns. That is a dimension that any leader has to project, in the complicated context in which we live.

On the external front, Macron's ambition is a mix that is not always easy to understand. It combines good intentions, a broad vision with nationalism and a lot of personal presumption.  On the one hand, he wants a more sovereign EU. On the other, he acts as if France and himself should take the lead in achieving that goal. It is obvious that he sees in António Costa an important ally. But it is also well known that he has recently created some resistance in Eastern Europe. The insistence on talks with Vladimir Putin and the ambiguity of his recent statements run counter to his dream of European leadership. Moreover, they must be seen in the context of a competition between Macron and Erdogan, for whom he harbours deep personal antipathy and total political mistrust.

The French election comes at a time when Europe needs to remain cohesive. And not just in relation to Vladimir Putin's Russia, although that is the most immediate challenge. Indeed, the EU has managed to preserve a good level of coherence in responding to Putin. I say this, but I also recognise that in the future it may be more complicated to maintain European unity. The sanctions packages approved so far are by and large the most appropriate. They combine immediate impacts with fundamental long-term consequences. They have some costs for us, but that is the price to pay for creating a new European order.

The big question, beyond sanctions, is to define what political role Europe can play in finding, as promptly as possible, a solution that guarantees the legitimate defence of Ukraine and recognises its sovereignty, its right to live in peace and to make its own political choices. This is where Macron and others must focus their foreign policy efforts. For now, nobody knows how this war will evolve and how it will be possible to find, urgently, before the situation slips even further, a just peace. And that is very worrying.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 10 June 2022)



Monday, 6 June 2022

Ukraine: what's next, after 100 days of agression?

Ukraine: looking beyond 100 days of aggression

Victor Angelo

President Zelensky has stressed that the war will only end with recourse to diplomacy. He is right. He needs to build a peace agreement with the aggressor. This will not be easy. The agreement cannot reward what has been a clear violation of international law, a succession of war crimes, destruction, and acts of pillage. This is the great dilemma, which makes any mediation process a puzzle. In this scenario, an agreement will only be possible between a position of strength and one of weakness. This is a dramatic conclusion. It leads to the search for the crushing or humiliation of the adversary. 

At the outset, one would say that prolonging hostilities is to the advantage of the stronger side. The courage and determination of the Ukrainians would not be enough to respond effectively to a prolonged offensive conducted with unbridled brutality.

It is in this context that external aid is essential. Neither the US nor the EU countries can let Vladimir Putin's Russia defeat Ukraine. If that were to happen, peace, security and democracy in Europe would be seriously undermined. Now it would be Ukraine, tomorrow it could be Poland, Lithuania, or any other country in our geopolitical space. Or we would simply continue to live side by side with a neighbour always ready to do us harm.

Thus, each bloc must assist Ukraine with the means available. On the American side, it has now been decided to provide an arsenal of advanced technology and long-range weapons. The admonitions coming from Moscow following this decision by Joe Biden found an answer in the text that the President signed this Tuesday in the New York Times: it is not about seeking a war between NATO and Russia. The aim is to enable the Ukrainians to have the means to exercise their right to self-defence.

On the European side, the package of sanctions adopted this week at the European Council should be seen in a positive light. It goes as far as the consensus allows. What is essential is that it is finalised without further delay - Hungary continues to put up obstacles - and applied at an accelerated pace.

Even more important is the agreement between the EU and the UK that makes it impossible for ships carrying Russian oil products to insure their cargoes in London and the rest of Europe. Without such insurance contracts, the big shipping lines are no longer able to operate in the service of Russian exports. Experience with Iran shows that such a measure sharply reduces oil exports. This is certainly one of the sanctions so far with the greatest impact.

As I have said several times, sanctions have fundamentally three objectives. To express political condemnation. To reduce the financial capacity that sustains the war machine. And to disconnect the Russian Federation from more developed economies, to emphasise that there is a connection between respect for international law and participation in global markets.

Sanctions should be part of a future negotiation of normalising relations. But they can only be lifted when the Kremlin is no longer seen by Europe and its allies as an unpredictable and threatening regime.

In addition to arms and sanctions, it will be necessary to continue financial support to Ukraine. This support is a potentially delicate matter at a time of relatively anaemic economic growth in Europe and when the rising cost of living is becoming a major concern. But it is the price we have to pay to maintain our stability and security. It is an effort that will last for some time. Later, when entering the negotiation phase, the mediators will have to include on the agenda the issue of war reparations and the financing of Ukraine's reconstruction.  

On this 100th day of the aggression, we are facing a very complex situation. Future scenarios, especially for the next three weeks, should include several concerns. But for now, the priority challenges are four: immediately strengthening Ukraine's defence capacity; deepening isolation and weakening Russia's public finances; maintaining unity amongst us; and continuing to insist on the diplomacy of peace.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated  3 June 2022)

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Freedom in a digital world

Digital activism in a framework of uncertainty

Victor Ângelo


I participated this week in a webinar about "Internet and Geopolitics". The question at the centre of the debates was very direct: is a global, universal, and open internet possible?

The question came from civil society associations that militate for digital freedom. And they follow the line of the United Nations: in June 2020, António Guterres proposed a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, with the aim of achieving that by the end of the decade every person can access the internet at a minimum cost and without obstacles.

The reality is very different. At this moment, there are two parallel digital universes. The international one, essentially North American, built around platforms that are part of our everyday life. And the Chinese, a reproduction of the Western constellation. We can subscribe to the Chinese platforms, but the residents of China do not have access to the international networks, which are blocked by Beijing. So, the answer to the central question can only be negative. Access to the internet is, in autocratic regimes, limited or banned for political reasons. 

Beyond calls for multilateralism, new 'silk routes' and progress in communications and transport, we are moving fast towards a historical phase of fragmentation and open rivalries between blocs of countries. In the digital area, this competition centres on the issues of artificial intelligence, data clouds, cybersecurity, espionage, competing political narratives and surveillance of citizens.

Those in power, whatever they may be, increasingly use social media to influence public opinion, manipulate political discourse and create an interpretation of reality that is favourable to them. Donald Trump has excelled in this art. Today, Narendra Modi is the incumbent leader who is followed by the largest number of people, some 175 million. Modi knows that images attract attention if they are intuitive, dynamic, colourful, and empathetic. In Portugal, António Costa has around 266,000 followers on Twitter. It's not much, but in our country, what continues to weigh is the frequent presence on free-to-air television channels. President Zelensky's official Twitter account has 6.2 million subscribers. The Ukrainian leader has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for communication through digital media.

As a curiosity, note that Cristiano Ronaldo has around 445 million followers on Instagram, Lionel Messi 329 million and Khaby Lame, an Italian influencer of African origin, is followed by 136 million via TikTok. What would happen if one of them launched into political activism?

As for the confrontation with Russia, it seems clear to me that it will contribute to the deepening of geopolitical fractures. Nobody knows how the war of aggression against Ukraine, or the huge crisis triggered between Russia, the United States and the various NATO countries will evolve. However, it is clear that we are still on an escalation course, in a highly complex and exceptionally worrying context. On the one hand, it is not acceptable to systematically violate the international order, as defined in the United Nations Charter, nor to disrespect with impunity the institutions that are the pillars of peace and security, such as the International Court of Justice. Nor is it acceptable that international law, the basis of relations between states, should no longer apply to the major powers, giving primacy instead to their geostrategic interests, in the old concept of force as the main lever of power. On the other hand, there is a very serious risk of a new, large-scale, global confrontation.

In this context, my suggestion is simple: civil society can use the digital platforms to tip the balance towards the side of law, moderation, and peace. And start by promoting international agreements on cyber non-aggression to critical infrastructures, essential for the daily life of every citizen.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 27 May 2022)




Saturday, 21 May 2022

Looking at a possible UN role in Ukraine

UN: a roadmap for peace in Ukraine

Victor Angelo


More than a month has passed since an open letter was sent to the UN Secretary-General on the situation in Ukraine, signed by former senior officials. Meanwhile, António Guterres has been in Moscow and Kyiv, and has managed to push forward the UN humanitarian response. The political dimension, however, continues to be determined elsewhere. In general, words coming out of the West have been accentuating the possibility of a Ukrainian victory. Statements of this kind tend to aggravate the confrontation. It is true that there has been a considerable increase in arms support to Ukraine and that this is positive, as it allows for a redoubling of self-defence efforts. But in public, we should only talk about self-defence and, in tandem, the urgency of peace.

In this context, it makes perfect sense for the Secretary-General to stand up for a political process that recognises both the right to self-defence and war reparations, and the imperative of a peace agreement, guaranteed by the United Nations.

A new open letter should now insist on this line of action. A draft was prepared this week. I was one of those who found the text too vague, when the moment demands clarity and a firm assumption of responsibilities. So, for the time being, there will not be a new missive from us. The important thing is to show that the political pillar of the United Nations has the necessary authority to propose a way out of the crisis which will counter the escalation of military aggression and prevent the destruction of Ukraine.

The UN's political agenda could be built around four converging lines of intervention.

First, by seeking to establish temporary pauses in the fighting, in various localities deemed vulnerable, in order to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian assistance. In this vision, the pauses would be monitored by a contingent of UN observers, with a mandate from the Security Council. The proposal to create a group of international monitors would be appreciated by many, although it is acknowledged that it would encounter immense obstacles to be approved.

Second, by maintaining a constant call, repeated until heard, for an end to hostilities and acceptance of a UN-led mediation process, which could include the preparation of a conference on a new framework for cooperation and security in Europe. 

Third, by continually recalling the Geneva Protocols on the limits of war. The major concern is the defence of civilian populations. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited; acts of military violence to create terror are a war crime; infrastructures essential to the survival of communities must be spared; certain types of munitions are absolutely prohibited, including cluster bombs, chemical and biological weapons. It is also time to underline the rules on the treatment of prisoners of war, now that the defenders of the last stronghold in Mariupol have surrendered to Russian troops. This surrender is a highly political and symbolic event, which calls for a special reference, in defence of the rights of these prisoners. And of all the others, of course. 

Still under this heading, it seems essential to me to reiterate that the UN is already engaged in documenting possible war crimes and will seek, as far as possible, to increase its efforts in this regard.

Fourth, bearing in mind the divisions within the Security Council, and considering this war to be the greatest threat in 77 years, the Secretary-General could try to set up a Contact Group on the conflict. Such a group would bring together several influential countries that would be in constant liaison with Guterres in the search for solutions. It is a way to multiply the Secretary-General's capacity for intervention and to create a circle of support to protect him from political attacks. It would also show that the crisis has an international and not just a European scope.

None of this would be easy. But the fact remains that the job of UN secretary-general is anything but an easy one.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper. Edition dated 20 May 2022)