Translation by Carla Ferreira
2021 ended in a climate of uncertainty. Are we close to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic? It’s a recurring question among businessmen, entrepreneurs, politicians, and all those whose life was aﬀected, paralyzed, or even ruined by the virus and its consequences.
The statistical data is harrowing, but if we look beyond what is commonly ignored, that these are not just numbers, but lives irreversibly lost or altered, then we’re before a daunting reality, even more so for the families and victims of the irreversible aGer-eﬀects. As of January 24th 2022, there are 349,334,552 conﬁrmed cases and 5,591,704 deaths as a result of Covid-19 infection. Despite this tangible reality, many opt for the intangible, for conspiracy theories, for science denial, for the criminal dissemination of information based only on belief and delirious studies, which in turn is causing an immunization process crisis and is creating uncertainty regarding the evolution of the virus in terms of its mutations.
The virus has done enough to rock the structures of the “normal world” in which we lived before 2020, but while we don’t reach absolute extinction, humanity moves on, the economy and markets remain active day and night, technology evolves, medicine evolves, new hope arises, as well as new perspectives and expectations on life. But, at the same time, our old conﬂicts, our old politics, and our old lies prevail. In this paper, I invite the reader to review the last main events in 2021 in Russia, in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans, and maybe even in some hidden periods of the past, to try to construct an understanding of the possible consequences of last year’s crisis.
Eminent conﬂict between Russia and Ukraine?
Since the end of last year, the eyes of the world have shiGed from the pandemic to an eminent conﬂict between Russia and Ukraine. However, to really understand the conﬂicting relation between the powers featured in the conﬂict, it is necessary to take some steps backward and revisit, even brieﬂy, the genesis of Slavic history.
Around the 5th century, the forces of Prince Vladimir, who ruled the confederation of Slavic tribes that extended from European Russia to a signiﬁcative part of Eastern Europe, conquered the territory, which is nowadays known as Sevastopol, in Crimea. This occupied region became known as Rus de Kyiv. The word Rus, initially meant the Slavic aristocracy of Eastern Europe, later covered all the region’s population, while Kyiv is the current capital of Ukraine. Which means that this conglomerate of tribes is a medieval ancestor to not only the Russian Federation and Ukraine, but also to Belarus. Taking this into account, it is diﬃcult to ascertain to whom Crimea belongs, which besides having historical importance to the origins of the Russian and Ukrainian civilizations, is also geographically relevant since it provides access to the Dardanelles Strait, the Strait of Istanbul, and the Black Sea.
The Russian territory is colossal, comprising parts of the European and Asian continents. However, the Russian Federation has an underdeveloped maritime trade, due to the fact it doesn’t have any oceanic ports of warm water, being restricted to enclosed seas, like the Black Sea, or to ports that freeze over during parts of the year like the Artic and Vladivostok port. The Russians’ incessant obsession for the Crimean territory comes from this strategic problem, already recognized by Tsar Peter the Great. It originated a signiﬁcant number of armed conﬂicts
in the region since the Middle Ages, like the several wars against the Turks due to territory annexation carried out by Tsarina Catherine the Great, and the Great Crimean War.
Now let us turn to the 20th century, more speciﬁcally, to the ﬁrst years following the Soviet Revolution of 1917. At this period, Crimea was made into an autonomous republic of Russia, until the year 1954, when it was put under the Ukrainian administration for territorial reasons. Of course, the Soviet government at this time did not foresee that Ukraine, along with Crimea, would declare independence from the USSR in 1991, becoming the third-largest nuclear power in the world but without any operational arms control. An agreement was then signed with the countries of the former USSR, namely Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine would have their territorial integrity guaranteed by the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom if they chose to give up their nuclear arsenal. Another issue triggered by the independence of Ukraine was the control over Black Sea troops, dealt with in 1997 by the signing of the “Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of The Black Sea Fleet”, which determined the division of the former Soviet troops between Ukraine and Russia as well as determined the conditions for the lease or mutual operation of the bases in the region. Russia kept 80% of the ﬂeet and the right to station troops in the Crimean territory.
The relatively peaceful period that had since 1997 came to an end in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovich’s government straightened ties with the Russian Federation by extending base leases and signing gas supply contracts, backing down on a trade deal with the European Union. This event was followed by protests against Yanukovich’s leadership, who was accused of corruption for prioritizing his relationship with Moscow, which supported his government, and for acting against national interests, notably the rapprochement with Europe. Joined by Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich accused the opposition protests of being created by American interference with support from nationalist, neo-Nazi, and neo-fascist groups, speciﬁcally the Azov Medallion, that supposedly was persecuting the Russian community.
On the 2nd of February 2014, Yanukovich falls, and the US recognizes the provisional government of Oleksander Turtchynov who ruled until the date of the presidential elections, 25th of May of the same year. As expected, Putin disavows the event, accusing it of being a coup against a legitimately elected government through a democratic vote.
In the meantime, in Crimea, protests were unfolding both for, calling for the protection of Russians against Ukrainian aggression, and against Russia, until unidentiﬁed elite Russian troops seized the main military bases in the region, an incident accompanied by the defection of part of the Ukrainian navy, On the 16th of March, a referendum in Crimea approved the independence of the peninsula as well as its annexation by Russia. The referendum was considered illegitimate by the Americans due to the fact it was run under Russian occupation, which did not stop Putin from recognizing Crimea as part of his territory, starting a conﬂict that although unoﬃcially endures to this day, mainly on East Ukraine.
At present, we have reached a border dispute susceptible of evolving into an armed conﬂict with global proportions. Some people interpret this event as a reproduction of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, supposedly hinting at a new Cold War. But are these fears justiﬁed by a real risk or just part of collective hysteria? What will be the next moves of the nations involved in this struggle?
According to Ukraine’s Minister of War Veterans Aﬀairs, Yulia Laputina, the supposedly imminent conﬂict stems from the deployment of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders months ago. We already have an idea of the years of history that
undoubtedly inﬂuenced events in 2014 and continue to inﬂuence them in 2022, but what was the trigger that caused this threat of war shrouded by a darker nature?
Moscow sees NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe as a threat to the sphere of inﬂuence that almost disintegrated with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire and with Russia’s weakness over the last 30 years, the United States has assumed a privileged position in the international system, conﬂicts and geopolitical tensions between nuclear powers have not been a reality. However, with emerging internal tensions in the U.S. and the wearing down of the leadership posture assumed by the country, it is likely that a process of decline will begin in relation to the role it occupied, while Russia, being an energy superpower, supplier mainly of natural gas, progressively regains the strength to dispute a leadership position which involves security and inﬂuence at its borders. These are threatened by NATO’s advance, which translates into the involvement of countries such as Ukraine, seen by the Russians as a “buﬀer” against Western and NATO countries, in the sphere of inﬂuence of the Americans, who, should they reach into neighboring countries, would be able to position missiles that could reach the capital Moscow in a matter of moments. We cannot predict exactly whether the conﬂict will erupt into an armed conﬂict or not, or whether the new sanctions will result in a Russian backlash, but we may be facing the materialization of a new status quo, in which similar tensions will always be present between the powers of the international system.
Frontier Crisis in Belarus
Still in the Eastern European region, yet another border row is taking place originating from a migration crisis allegedly propagated by the Belarusian government in retaliation for sanctions applied by the European Union. It all started in August 2020 with the re-election of the Belarus dictator with 80.23% of the vote and with relevant evidence of electoral fraud. As a result of this suspicion, protests against the government spread through the capital Minsk, which were violently repressed with some demonstrators being arrested, leading to sanctions imposed by the European Union against 59 members of the Belarusian government, including the dictator Aleksander Lukashenko and his son Viktor Lukashenko, who had their assets frozen within the common European space as well as being banned from traveling within it.
Another occasion that led to further sanctions by the European bloc was the seizure of journalist Roman Protasevich, who disseminated information about Lukashenko’s anti-election protests via Telegram, carried out by diverting a Lithuania-bound Ryanair ﬂight to Minsk. The result of this plot was the closing of the bloc’s airports to planes coming from Belarus and restrictive economic sanctions against companies vital to Lukashenko’s regime.
Lukashenko, being aware that the access to the European bloc via his country’s borders is much preferred to sea routes by migrants, is said to have used a partnership between Belarusian state tour operators and Turkish and Iraqi trave agencies, known to provide visas with an unusual ease. These provided tourist visas for migrants and promised access to the European Union with the clear intention, according to Warsaw, of creating a migration crisis aimed at forcing the European Union to liG the previously established sanctions.
As a result of Lukashenko’s actions, in early 2021 4000 migrants mainly from the Middle East made their way to Lithuania’s borders, making it the most aﬀected country by the crisis next to Latvia. In August, the number of illegal attempts to enter almost reached 3000 in Poland, 50 times higher than the average. In September of the same year, Warsaw declared a state of emergency to deal with the crisis aGer 7 migrants died on its borders from hypothermia caused
by the hostile temperatures in the region, resulting in the approvement of a law authorizing the expulsion of illegal migrants in Poland in October, who were prevented from returning to Minsk.
For its part, the Polish government deployed 15 military personnel and added a barbed wire fence increasing the chance of confrontation with the migrants who so far accounted for more than 35,000 illegal attempts to cross the country’s borders. In October, the parliament approved the budget of 353 million euros for the construction of a wall that will cover an estimated 180 kilometers of the eastern border area with the EU, which in turn used strong diplomatic pressure to force the Iraqi government to suspend ﬂights to Minsk, as well as convincing Turkish Airlines and Belavia to stop transporting passengers from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, with a few exceptions, since a large part of the migrants came from these countries.
With the eﬀorts of the Poles to prevent the migrants from entering, it is to be expected that Lukashenko would back down from the oﬀensives, denying himself to be responsible for the crisis. Being prevented from entering, the migrants begin to take more aggressive stances against the Polish forces as they learn of their imminent return to the countries from which they ﬂed.
Putin and the Internet
Let’s return to Russia, but this time let’s look at the country’s internal aﬀairs, speciﬁcally the Kremlin and Putin’s regime, which is heading towards a tyrannical form of government, which can be observed not necessarily to manipulate the elections directly, but in the way the government has been trying to get rid of the opposition led by Alexei Navalny. Is Putin trying to somehow build himself up as a Tzar?
In 2021, Putin overcame a constraint in the constitution that prevented him from continuing his current term beyond the year 2024, a limit that extended to at least the year 2036, and it would be no surprise if in the future he found yet another way to extend his stay in power.
Navalny’s arrest and the persecutions and reprimands of his supporters and team, in addition to his ban from the state television network are not enough to deny an undeniable reality, that the strength of Putin’s United Russia party is not hegemonic, and that a large part of the population is against the current regime and in favor of a change, which is revealed by social networks, especially by the numbers of Navalny’s YouTube channel that equals those of the Russian government television channels.
The challenges to the eﬀective establishment of Putin’s authoritarianism lie primarily in the political militancy of civilians on social media, which is far more relevant today worldwide than the old media and communication means. Banning or restricting the general access of the population to new media would be problematic and would surely trigger almost unanimous discontent and the popularity of United Russia would be further damaged, mainly because many Russians use platforms such as Twitter and YouTube (main media used by the opposition) for entertainment and leisure purposes, and care nothing about politics. The alternative found was then to classify Navalny’s positions as extremist, banning the operation of his websites, making it diﬃcult for him to access Twitter, and taking legal action against the Google and Apple app stores requiring them to remove the opposition’s content. Despite this, Navalny’s videos continue to circulate on YouTube and new moves are expected against the company to completely censor his rival, while a new national video network is created, RusTube, serving as a replacement for Google’s video platform, a step forward for Putin’s tyranny in the war against the internet, signifying complete control of information and dissemination networks.
Covid in Eastern countries
In Eastern Europe, a new outbreak of Covid-19 infections is emerging due to the rejection of vaccination by the population, which represents approximately 90% of hospitalize patients in Romania with some exceptions, being vaccinated elderly people or people in a poor state of health. With an average of 15 000 daily infections, the country is concerned about critically ill patients having to wait for vacant beds in treatment units.
In Lithuania, infections are at their highest since December 2020, causing planned surgeries to be suspended because of the overwhelming occupation of hospital wards by those infected with Covid.
Russia faces stagnation as it contemplates an alarming 1000 daily deaths. The country is also resistant to vaccination, and due to the crisis, health authorities are urging the population to get vaccinated. The fully vaccinated in Russia represent a ﬁgure of only 33%.
It can be expected that the numbers of infections will remain high as long as vaccination does not show signiﬁcant increase, so that such critical situations do not continue to arise.