After inauguration Vladimir Putin will undoubtedly place a focus on Asia. This region will remain a dominating geopolitical and geoeconomic vector for Russia during the following years.
This is caused by the fact that the Asian region demonstrates best economic growth. Therefore, Asian economies offer more promising and stable markets to Russian exporters. Moreover, Russia is seeking for tighter relations with Asia impelled by the Western world that raises political claims against it which are extremely inimical to the current political system.
At the same time, this cooperation will be only one of the many aspects of the “big geopolitical game” played by the Kremlin in the East. We also predict high probability of a conflict caused by the struggle for political domination in the Middle Asia between the main global players such as China, Russian and the USA which will permanently involve more and more regional participants – Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran being among them.
After Vladimir Putin first announced his intention to return to the Kremlin back in the autumn of 2011, one of the first points of his presidential programme was devoted to his vision of the Eurasian Union (EAU). In the eve of the last summit it was Prime-Minister of the RF Vladimir Putin who lobbied the Eurasian Union concept having published an article under the title “New Integration Project for Eurasia – a Future that is Born Today”. Thus, his return to the Kremlin will probably trigger this vector of Russia’s foreign policy.
Moscow’s EAU project will be based on the organization’s political background – that is the creation of another world’s political pole. The EAU is basically an endeavour to alter the form of relations between the members of the CIS which failed to demonstrate efficient cooperation throughout the organization’s history. This results in the fact that the countries are now seeking for new centres of influence thus reducing Russia’s influence thereon. That is why Moscow needs to create a new geopolitical and geoeconomic space that would allow for the efficient balancing of relations with the EU, the US and China, as well as maintaining its political and economic influence on the countries of the said perimeter. It seems that the only proposal Moscow can present in this situation is to undertake yet another endeavour to unite all the former soviet republics under a new economic association.
We believe that the main obstacle for the efficient development of the EAU is the economic imbalance of its potential member-states. The present-day EAU’s ‘troika’ show significant dissimilarities in their national economy. Thus, Russia’s GDP is USD 2.218 tn., while Kazakhstan demonstrates GDP in the amount of USD 129.8 bl., and Belarus – USD 131.201 bl. A great number of differences can be detected in the raw material base of the above-mentioned countries – the RF and Kazakhstan are large carbon exporters while Belarus is entirely dependent on energy carriers import. All the three countries cannot possibly offset the economic needs of each other by means of their own resources. This means that the key decisions will be made by the country with the soundest economy – that is Russia. In the context of Belarus – or a country with a similar potential that will be involved in the project – this will result in the depression of the national market, and the efforts of the national producers to protect their interests will probably lead to the attempt of controlled regime change. This – in its turn – may result in the de facto loss of statehood. As for Kazakhstan, this whole situation will force the country to seek for an alternative partner, Beijing being the most probable candidature.
Significant economic imbalance between the project’s participants and the Moscow’s attempt to push through key decisions have already proved the existence of a conflict. This is also evidenced by the issue with the Customs Union. Another sample is ‘cheese war’ between Russia and Ukraine. The latter has basically failed to achieve integration within its structure within the past year. Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus have not yet settled the issues related to joint technical regulation and control, nor adopted single technical regulations. In view of the above-said, the EAU will bring to light yet more issues.
As far as Moscow’s interests are concerned the EAU space is considered to be a single market for Russian producers. That is why, in our opinion, integration processes will be accompanied by driving member-states of national and foreign investors out of the market. In particular, we predict privatization of Belarusian oil-refining industry by Russian companies in the nearest future which will mark the final stage of establishing Russia’s monopoly on this country’s energy market. It is not improbable that Russian will attempt to create conditions aimed at preventing foreign – Chinese in the first place – investments in the economy of one of the key EAU participants – Kazakhstan.
Nowadays Russia has a guarantee of presence on Central Asia markets due to old political elites of these states. After Arabic spring in January 2011 we predicted the possibility of changing elites in several states in region in medium future. It is a greatest risk for Russian positions in Asia, because the youth in the region has minimal ties with Moscow. And that is why the initiative to create EAU is very important for Kremlin: it gives the possibility to substitute old mental values to the new reference points based on economy and social-economic categories supported by new generations. Only this way is available for Russia to save it presence and influence in the region.
We think Russian return to Asia could lead to confrontation with China, but in perspective not less than 5-7 years. The time of changeover of the regimes in several Central Asian countries is approaching. And we have no confidence that Turkmenistan scenario of non-violent transformation of power after the death of President Niyazov will repeat.
Several countries, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have very high risks of destabilization after Rahmon and Karimov leave the presidential offices. It will be turning point in relations between Russia and China. The confrontation of elites and their struggle for power will lead to the searching of support both in Moscow and in Beijing. And we think that the main risks are in internal battles for power and for external support between elites and tribes leaders among these states. It could have a negative impact on relations between Russia and China in perspective.
China has a greatest potential in the region. Today Moscow sees a partner in China especially in economical, regional infrastructure projects and in the trade. It is a source of finance and non-politicized export market that could give stimulus of growth to the weakly diversified Russian economy. Because Asian markets have more perspective for Russian economy depended from raw material export. It is very important for Moscow in post-crisis world economy architecture. But in fact the Western policy to Kremlin resulted in Russian turning to the East. Russia has no choice.
The axis Moscow-Beijing is very effective balancing factor in modern international policy and supporting multipolar world. So we think that that the Putin’s eastern strategy of Russia will lead to strengthening of ties between two countries with economical dominant.
In the context of Ukraine, accession to the EAU is equal to accession to the Customs Union. Under the present-day circumstances, joint participation in any economic project with Russia will result in the destruction of the current economic structure of Ukraine and transition to a raw material model by means of a hostile take-over of the strategic industries. The explanation of this lies in the fact that the structure of non-energy export of Ukraine and Russian are sufficiently similar which results in the rise competition between the two countries on foreign markets. Fracture of financial and industrial groups that now exist in Ukraine will – in its turn – allow Moscow to weaken opposition of the national political elites to political integration projects. That is why economic alliance of Ukraine and Russian will result in political integration which may lead to the de facto loss of independence.
The Road Ahead: Dissecting Russia’s Economic Diplomacy With Africa
During the September ceremony to receive foreign ambassadors, Russian leader Vladimir Putin offered spiteful goal-setting policy outlines and some aspects of lofty Russia’s economic policy directions for Africa. Most of these directions considered significant have, over these years, featured prominently in all his previous speeches on Russia’s relations with Africa.
On September 20, in the St Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin received letters of credence from 24 newly-arrived ambassadors, including nine from Africa (Algeria, Egypt, DR Congo, Libya, Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda). By tradition, Putin briefly characterised the relations between Russia and countries whose envoys came to the Kremlin ceremony.
In a grandiose style, Putin gave a line-up of cheerful-looking ambassadors a step-by-step account of the global situation, the necessity for Russia’s “special military operation” in neighbouring Ukraine, questions relating to regional security, and economic instability due to rising prices for energy and commodities. He underscored the development of multipolar and more democratic and fair world order had entered its active phase.
“Regrettably, the objective movement towards multipolarity has come up against resistance from those trying to preserve their dominant role in international affairs and to control everything – Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa,” Putin said.
Referencing the current international situation with an emphasis on the critical regional problems of the African continent and the bilateral relations of African countries whose ambassadors were accredited to the Russian Federation, Putin stressed “the importance of the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in 2023 for strengthening diverse relations between Russia and African countries.”
Putin further touched on Moscow’s efforts to restore its geopolitical foothold on the continent after the historical collapse of the Soviet era. While the summit is considered a significant development for Russia’s power-wielding ambitions, Putin strongly reminded African ambassadors that the second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled to be held in St Petersburg in 2023. “We hope that together we will be able to give a new impetus to the comprehensive development of mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the African states,” he said.
Significant to note here that at the far end of the first summit, Russia and Africa issued a joint declaration; among the questions was to hold the summit every three years. Both Russia and Africa could not hold the summit during its third year, both Russia and Africa failed to choose the summit venue. While reasons were not assigned for this sharp inconsistency, policy experts suggested either the Central African Republic (CAR) or the Republic of Mali could hold the summit. CAR and Mali are “reliable Russia’s partners,” and holding the summit would have resonating effects.
During his speech, Putin invited the President of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to visit Russia. Understandably, Algeria is Russia’s second-largest trading partner in Africa regarding trade volume. And trade and economic cooperation continue to develop actively, as well as ties in other areas, including military-technical and cultural ties. Reports say Russia supports Algeria’s balanced regional and international affairs policy and continues to work together towards strengthening stability in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahara-Sahel region.
“We consistently build friendly relations with Egypt under the fundamental Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation signed in 2018. We view Egypt as one of our most important partners in Africa and the Arab world. We are in constant contact with President Sisi,” according to Putin.
The intergovernmental commission has been working, promoting trade growth, which increased by more than 40 per cent in the first six months of this year. Large joint projects are being implemented, such as constructing the El Dabaa nuclear power plant and creating a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal. There is a regular political dialogue and close foreign policy coordination. Within the general policy framework, Russia does not grant concessionary loans and has not publicly allocated a budget for Africa.
But in this exceptional case, Russia and Egypt signed an agreement, and the total cost of construction is fixed at $30 billion. Russia provides Egypt with a loan of $25 billion, which will cover 85% of the work. The Egyptian side will cover the remaining expenses by attracting private investors. Under the agreement, Egypt is to start payments on the loan, which was provided at 3% per annum, in October 2029.
Ambassador Harouna Samake (Republic of Mali) was among the envoys in the Kremlin and listened attentively as Putin welcomed the intention of the leadership of the Republic of Mali to form a long-term strategic partnership with Russia and develop mutually beneficial ties.
During a detailed telephone conversation in August with Interim President Assimi Goïta, Putin agreed to continue joint efforts in countering international terrorism and religious extremism. He further pledged that Russia would continue to provide the Malian people with comprehensive assistance and support in various ways.
The same diplomatic rhetoric praised Russia’s relations with Uganda, one of Russia’s reliable partners in Africa. The United Republic of Tanzania has listed promising spheres such as peaceful nuclear research, transport, energy and tourism. These spheres have been on Russia’s list for many other African countries.
Over the years, Russia has performed dismally in Africa’s transport and energy sector. In theory, it has expressed heightened interest in exploring and producing oil and gas in Africa. But so far, its investment efforts are not seen in the region. Russia claims the leading position as an energy supplier and is now rapidly diversifying its products at discounted prices to the Asian market. Therefore, it is logical that African leaders should not expect much from the Russian Federation in this oil and gas (energy) sector.
Currently, all African countries have a serious energy crisis. Over 620 million in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity out of 1.3 billion people. In this context, several African countries are exploring nuclear energy as part of the solution. Three decades after the Soviet collapse, not a single nuclear plant has been completed in Africa.
Some still advocate for alternative energy supply. Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko, Founder and Executive Director of Danquah Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes policy initiatives and advocates for Africa’s development, wrote in an email that “Africa needs expertise and knowledge transfer that can assist Africa to develop its physical infrastructure, add value to two of its key resources: natural resources and human capital.”
Russia has respectable expertise in one key area for Africa: energy development. “But, has Russia the courage, for instance, to take on the stalled $8-$10 billion Inga-3 hydropower project on the Congo river? This is the kind of development project that can vividly send out a clear signal to African leaders and governments that Russia is, indeed, ready for business,” he said in an interview discussion.
The renewable energy potential is enormous in Africa, citing the Democratic Republic of Congo Grand Inga Dam. Grand Inga is the world’s largest proposed hydropower scheme. It is a grand vision to develop a continent-wide power system. Grand Inga-3 is expected to have an electricity-generating capacity of about 40,000 megawatts – nearly twice as much as the 20 largest nuclear power stations. The cost of building nuclear power does not make sense when compared to the cost of building renewables or other energy sources to solve energy shortages in Africa.
With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russia has engaged in sloganism, and many of its signed agreements have not been implemented. The joint declaration adopted at the first summit is intended to raise the African agenda of Russia’s foreign policy to a new level and remains the main document determining the conceptual framework of Russian-African cooperation. Many remain as submit paperwork. China, Japan, India, the United States, the European Union and other players are progressively implementing their African strategies.
Over the years, Russia has shown high interest in Libya, whose ambassador, Emhemed Almaghrawi (State of Libya), was part of the Kremlin ceremony in September. Over the years, Russia has struggled to improve its bilateral political and economic dialogue and cooperation with that North African country. It has faced many pitfalls and obstacles, though.
“We attach great importance to relations with Libya and are interested in a fair and lasting settlement of the protracted internal conflict in that country. Russia will continue to support Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and help the friendly Libyan people defend their right to a decent life, peace and security. As the internal situation in Libya stabilises, we look forward to resuming bilateral cooperation in various fields,” Putin said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the Atlantic alliance when he spoke to students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in Moscow on September 1. Russia claims it lost billions of dollars in energy, defence, and infrastructure contracts it had negotiated with the removal of Col. Qaddafi. Russia’s state arms exporter lost an estimated $4 billion in Libyan contracts after the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya.
Russian Railways had secured a $3 billion contract to build a high-speed rail link from Sirt to Benghazi. Many of these contracts were either signed in Qaddafi’s presence or were organized by him. Russia’s state news agency ITAR-TASS estimates that the country could lose as much as $10 billion in business if Libya’s new leadership challenges the legality of the existing contracts.
As Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observes that military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with some African countries.
“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” she acknowledges, “and it will continue so in Russia’s relations with Africa.
Russia has made significant arms deals with Angola and Algeria. Reports show that Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Mali, Sudan and Libya have also bought arms from Russia. Small countries such as Burundi, Botswana, and Rwanda, with distinctively impoverished populations and budgetary limitations, have signed agreements. Russia also provides military training and support; it has defence orders worth $14 billion from African countries.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, quoting military experts, Russia has much to gain by promoting and attempting to dispose off its Soviet-era military equipment in Africa. After all, Russia is self-sufficient and has economic independence, so with enthusiasm, convincing African leaders to purchase fertilizers and grains, thereby pushing them towards depleting their hard-earned revenues. Without a doubt, African leaders endlessly boast of vast uncultivated lands, making little efforts to support and mechanize agriculture.
During these months of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and sanctions from the United States, Europe and Pacific allies, Russian diplomacy has repeatedly stressed that Moscow is ready to export 30 million tons of grain and over 20 million tons of fertilizer by the end of 2022.
According to local Russian media reports, the Russian Agriculture Ministry’s Agroexport Federal Centre for Development of Agribusiness Exports, in close partnership collaboration with Trust Technologies and the business expert community, drew up a business plan for the development of exports for agricultural products (grain, dairy, meat and confectionery products) to promising markets of African countries.
The project’s goal is to prepare a practice-oriented model for increasing supplies and enhancing the competitiveness of Russian agricultural goods in the African market. The report says nine African countries have been chosen as target markets for the delivery of agricultural products. These are Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Tunisia and South Africa.
That report explicitly notes African leaders’ readiness to spend state budgets on food imports; without a doubt, “food security” is the central theme for the 2023 Russia-Africa summit. These countries account for 40% of the continent’s population and one-third of all African imports of agricultural products; Russia estimates to earn some $33 billion from Africa.
In practical terms, a microscopic analysis of Russia’s economic presence gives many interpretations and contradictions. While currently, Russia seems to be soliciting the support of Africa to lead the emerging new world order, Russia still does not recognize that it needs to adopt more public outreach policies to win the minds and hearts of Africans. Its economic footprint on the continent is comparatively weak. Instead of addressing its own investment agenda, it has consistently criticised other foreign players, especially the United States and European countries, that are active in Africa.
Many Russian companies have abandoned their projects in Africa. The latest is the lucrative platinum project contract that was signed for $3 billion in September 2014, the platinum mine is located about 50 km northwest of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. The Darwendale project involves a consortium of the Rostekhnologii State Corporation, Vneshekonombank and Vi Holding in a joint venture with some private Zimbabwe investors and the Zimbabwean government.
After widely campaigning for the construction of what was referred to as the “Southern Oil&Gas Pipelines” that was supposed to connect three or four southern African countries, Russia’s Rosneft finally abandoned the project. And similarly, State Nuclear Enterprise Rosatom never mentioned again the proposed nuclear plant construction signed by Jacob Zuma of South Africa.
Russia’s Lukoil undertook exploratory feasibility studies in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, only to abandon these projects. Nigeria’s Ajeokuta Steel Plant project remains a dream project for Russians. Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the Russian mining giant, ceased operations in Botswana. It owned a stake in the Tati Nickel in Botswana, where production was expected to reach its highest level. It has previously given a positive assessment of the possibilities for developing its production assets in South Africa and many African countries. There is a long list of Russian companies that under-performed or performed badly and finally exited Africa.
Just a few weeks before his departure from Moscow, the Zimbabwean ambassador to the Russian Federation, Brigadier General Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview discussion that several issues could strengthen the relationship. One important direction is economic cooperation. African diplomats have consistently been persuading Russia’s businesses to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) as an opportunity for Russian businesses to establish footprints on the continent. This view has not found favour with them, and it is hoped over time, it will.
Although the government has not pronounced incentives for businesses to set sights and venture into Africa, Russian businesses generally view Africa as too risky for their investment. He said that Russia needs to set footprints on the continent by exporting its competitive advantages in engineering and technological advancement to bridge the gap that is retarding Africa’s industrialization and development.
“Worse is that there are too many initiatives by too many quasi-state institutions promoting economic cooperation with Africa saying the same things in different ways, but doing nothing tangible,” he told me during the lengthy pre-departure interview. He served the Republic of Zimbabwe in the Russian Federation from July 2015 to August 2022. He previously held various high-level posts, such as military adviser in Zimbabwe’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and as an international instructor in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
There are several similar criticisms from former ambassadors. According to Mandisi Mpahlwa, former South African Ambassador, Sub-Saharan Africa has understandably been low on post-Soviet Russia’s list of priorities, given that Russia is not as dependent on Africa’s natural resources as other major economies. The reason: Soviet and African relations, anchored as they were on the fight to push back the frontiers of colonialism, did not necessarily translate into trade, investment and economic ties, which would have continued seamlessly with post-Soviet Russia.
“Russia’s objective of taking the bilateral relationship with Africa to the next level cannot be realized without a close partnership with the private sector. Africa and Russia are close politically but geographically distant, and the people-to-people ties are still underdeveloped. This translates into a low level of knowledge on both sides of what the other has to offer. There is perhaps also a fear of the unknown in both countries,” Mpahlawa said in an interview after completing his ambassadorial duty in the Russian Federation.
Russia has a lot of policy weaknesses in Africa. Reports indicated that more than 90 agreements were signed at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit. Thousands of bilateral agreements are still on the drawing board, and century-old promises and pledges for supporting sustainable development are authoritatively renewed with African countries. Like a polar deer waking up from its deep slumber, Russia is flashing its geopolitical headlights in all directions on Africa.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website indicates that there have been several top-level bilateral meetings, signing of MoUs and bilateral agreements during the past years. In November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the premises of TASS News Agency was very critical of Russia’s current policy towards Africa.
While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues and definitive results on the agenda remains small. It explicitly points out the inconsistent approach in dealing with Africa. Russia lacks public outreach policies for Africa. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.
Ultimately, actions, not words, will determine if upcoming Russia -Africa Summit and the proposed Africa strategy will reset relations with the continent. The significant fact here is that little has been achieved since the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador-at-Large and head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, Oleg Ozerov, food security will be one of the top issues on the agenda of the second Russia-Africa Summit.
It is a fact that Russia’s ties with Africa declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, Russia continues efforts in search of possible collaboration and opportunities for cooperation in the past years. But most essentially, Russians must understand clearly that little has been achieved in Africa. Several bilateral agreements signed with individual countries are not implemented, while in the previous years, there has been an unprecedented huge number of “working visits” to Africa.
According to our research findings, in stark contrast to key global players, for instance the United States, China, the European Union and many others, Russia’s policies have little impact on African development paradigms. Russia’s policies have often ignored Africa’s sustainable development questions. Experts have repeatedly suggested Russia adopt an Action Plan – a practical document that would fill cooperation with substance between summits. In conclusion, Russians must strongly remember that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.
Russia Facing China: Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella?
Whenever I read another Western report on the prospects of Russian-Chinese relations, the old children’s fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood involuntary springs to my mind. In this well-known story, a little girl walks through a dense forest to bring cakes to her sick grandmother, unexpectedly stumbling upon an angry hungry Wolf. The light-hearted girl talks to the cunning Wolf, only to expose the purpose of her walk in the dark forest. Needless to say, this dangerous adventure cannot end well for Little Red Riding Hood: the insidious Gray Wolf eventually eats both the old sick grandmother and the tale’s main character.
With a little stretch of imagination, we can draw an analogy between the plot of this horror tale for kids and the West’s interpretations of the current relations between Russia and China. It is clear that Moscow has to play Little Red Riding Hood, stupid and naive, while Beijing is a fierce and ruthless gray villain. The emerging friendship between the two inevitably entails most tragic consequences for the girl. This is to say, Russia’s economic, technological, military and otherwise dependence on China will over time grow to an extent that Beijing will be able to take advantage of this growing dependence by turning Moscow into its obedient and compliant vassal.
While the fairy tale ends with the hapless Little Red Riding Hood set free from the wolf’s belly by the hunters who had arrived just in time, the real-life Russia cannot rely on a miraculous rescue. Moscow will have to accept the unpleasant status of an “outlying ulus” of the Middle Kingdom, with all the ensuing consequences for the Kremlin’s international ambitions. As President Vladimir Putin said on a slightly different occasion, “like it or don’t like it—it’s your duty, my beauty.” Unless prompt hunters (perhaps, the noble Americans and their faithful NATO allies?) eventually restore justice, bringing this story to a happy ending.
Still, when I come across the many Russian publications on the same interesting topic of bilateral relations with China, I can’t help but think of another well-known product of folk fantasy, the fairy tale Cinderella. It also tells the story of a young girl who is systematically mistreated and in every way abused by her ugly stepmother and heartless stepsisters. Fortunately, poor Cinderella is saved by her fairy godmother, who appears at just the right moment, generously dressing Cinderella for the upcoming royal ball. With one wave of her magic wand, the good fairy turns a pumpkin into a golden carriage, mice into horses, a rat into a coachman, and lizards into footmen. Cinderella’s filthy rags are miraculously transformed into a beautiful dress studded with jewels. For an additional gift, Cinderella receives glass slippers, which make the girl absolutely irresistible in the eyes of the local prince, who happens to be on the look-out for a suitable bride.
A large number of Russian analysts, politicians and journalists seemingly perceive China as the modern incarnation of the fairy godmother, ready with her magic wand to solve all the numerous problems of modern Russia, quickly and painlessly. They expect Beijing to vigorously oppose U.S. and EU anti-Russian sanctions, increasing purchases of Russian hydrocarbons and food at prices favorable to Moscow, providing Russia with critical technologies, and consistently supporting the Kremlin in all international organizations and multilateral forums. Multifaceted cooperation with China should allow Russia to avoid international isolation as much as enhance its status and influence in international affairs. Thus, despite all the machinations and intrigues of the envious and malicious relatives, Cinderella arrives at the royal ball in dazzling splendor and magnificence.
Moving on with this fairy tale analogy, we can argue about who the Prince Charming is in this case, and what fair punishment awaits Cinderella’s relatives in the end. The latter should obviously be understood as the notorious “Collective West.” In the end, all these details are not so important. What is important, though, is the understanding of China. Whereas it emerges as absolute pure evil in Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella rather portrays China as the embodiment of an equally absolute pure good.
However, the world of fairy tales and the world of international politics have little in common. No matter what anyone says about Vladimir Putin, he appears neither the naive and frivolous Little Red Riding Hood, nor the battered and hardworking Cinderella. The Russian President remains one of the world’s most experienced state leaders. For more than two decades, he has consistently stressed the paramount importance of efforts to bolster Russia’s national sovereignty and independence. If national sovereignty were a religion, the Kremlin could rightfully claim to be the cathedral of that religion. It is hard to imagine a situation where Vladimir Putin, or even one of his likely successors, would willingly sacrifice the country’s sovereignty and independence, even for the sake of promoting cooperation with China.
Perhaps even more importantly, modern China is ill-suited to the role of the hungry evil Wolf or the generous fairy godmother. The characters of children’s fairy are inevitably one-dimensional, grotesque, and poster-like. In fact, they represent either absolute evil or equally absolute good, which is the intrinsic value of fairy tales passed down from generation to generation. They help children clearly distinguish good from evil, white from black, and justice from injustice. These fundamental differences, fixed in children’s minds, come to be one’s moral bearings, without which a person cannot do in adulthood.
In politics, however, this kind of one-dimensionality is a rare thing. The real China, in contrast to the imaginary one, is a vast and rather complex country, with its numerous and varied national interests, aspirations and priorities. Some happen to coincide with those of Russia, some overlap only partially, while others diverge altogether. Therefore, it would be hardly fair to define Beijing’s foreign policy as “pro-” or “anti-Russian,” since they have always been and will primarily be “pro-Chinese.”
There is no doubt that Russia and China currently converge in their approaches to a number of critical issues of international security and development. Such unity is historically justified as it reflects the current geopolitical landscape in the international system. A convergence of interests forms a solid foundation for long-term mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries. It is to be hoped that the relations between the countries will remain dynamic, acquiring new and important dimensions over time.
Far from our two countries only, it is the international system at large that stands to benefit from a stable, predictable and sustainable Russian-Chinese partnership. The numerous prophets hoping for an imminent crisis in Moscow-Beijing relations and going on to predict a conflict between the two should think about the various grave consequences of such developments, not only for Russia and China, but also for the rest of the world. Tactically, many countries could probably take advantage of a Russian-Chinese rupture. Strategically, though, another tectonic split in the international system would not serve the interests of any of the responsible actors in world politics.
Nevertheless, Russian analysts and journalists should not flatter themselves, because no one will solve Russia’s own problems for it. No good wizard can turn a pumpkin into a carriage, mice into horses, and ash-soaked rags into a gorgeous ball gown. No generous fairy will shoe Russia in shimmering glass slippers, and no Prince Charming awaits Moscow at the magical royal ball.
Russia should fight corruption and mismanagement, the overreach of officials, and oppression of small businesses, all on its own. The country should invest in human capital, promoting its innovation sector, introducing full-fledged federalism and local governance, increasing the efficiency of the court system at all levels, and unleashing the creative potential of Russian society to its fullest. The faster and further Russia advances these goals, the more valuable a partner it will become—both for China and other foreign countries. This, in turn, means that the current crisis in the Russia-West relations should become another incentive to speed up the socio-economic modernization of the country, rather than slack or freeze it.
From our partner RIAC
The Alliance of Downtrodden Empires
There are many commonalities and differences, to the point of contradiction, in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish political and economic positions, calculations, and priorities. Nevertheless, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara maintain an alliance or, at least, close coordination that includes conflict files, that all or some of which are involved in different arenas.
To explicate this, it is possible to go back to the modern history of the three states, and to the fall of their empires. The empires that had their center in geography continued for long periods of time with space for their expansion and contraction and for their wars and the alteration of the territorial and water borders between them.
Russia witnessed the fall of two empires that ruled and sometimes fused their surroundings, and they played a central role in international relations for centuries. From the Russian Empire, which expanded in Europe and Central Asia and extended from the maritime borders in the east to with Japan to the Polish lands in the west which collapsed during World War I, to the Soviet Union, which ruled from Moscow an empire similar to the one that its leaders had brought down before its power increased after World War II to include Europe the entire East. The fall of the Union in the early nineties was a humiliation for the Russians and bitterness for an imperialist ambition that became unable to achieve its aspirations. In that humiliation and the bitterness that followed and the difficulty of being satisfied with the nation-state borders, Putinism was formed, and its rise attempted to marry Russian nationalism, Tsarist Orthodoxy, and Stalinism, based on violent suppression of the independence rebellion (Chechnya). Direct military intervention in the periphery (Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), leading to two comprehensive wars in Syria to declare a return by force to the international arena, and a denial of the legitimacy of the existence of an entity in Ukraine under the pretext of an American and Western threat to national security.
Iran, for its part, has not adapted to its national borders since it was drawn after the fall of Qajar rule and the rise of Reza Pahlavi to power after the First World War. The imperial intransigence of the new Shah and then of his son Muhammad, with historical arguments or a connection to a Persian bond, brought down Iranian relations with Afghanistan, Iraq and Bahrain ambiguities and tensions that remained until 1979. Then the Khomeinist “exporting revolution” ideology after the overthrow of the Shah, and the erupting Iran-Iraq war that followed in the eighties, transformed the Iranian ambition into a basis for forming alliances and loyalty in the Shiite communities in nearby states. Relying on previous attempts to influence the states were minorities of the Persian League and the historical Persian influence. Iran’s political and strategic expansion was enshrined after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regimes in Iraq. Tehran took advantage of the American occupation and the chaos it created to extend its influence to the west and complete a strategic arc that passes through Baghdad and Damascus, which is ruled by its ally Assad, and then reaches Beirut, where Hezbollah is founded and supported by Iran. Through it, it was able to engage directly with the Israelis, in order to raise a political-ideological position that provides popularity, and as a response to Tel Aviv’s threat to its nuclear program. Furthermore, Tehran provided finance and arms for Palestinian forces on one hand and Yemeni forces on the other, placing it at the heart of the conflict in Palestine and on the edge of the Red Sea overlooking vital navigation that affects the global economy.
As for Turkey, despite retreating from emerging ‘national’ borders and strict neutrality imposed by Atatürk through the establishment of the republic after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite a subsequent political and cultural push towards Europe and the joining of the NATO after World War II, it remained the result of its nationalist discourse. As a result of the massacres that accompanied the fall of the Ottomans, its relations with its surroundings are tense. Of course, the matter applies to Soviet and then independent Armenia, to Greece and then Cyprus, where it intervened militarily in 1974, and it applies to Syria and Iraq, where the border problems and the depth of the Kurdish question, represent its most prominent concerns. Morevore, it relates to some regions of Central Asia where the geographical contact and historical frictions between empires, and where there are Turkish-speaking national minorities. To all of that in 2002 was added a very important element linked to the Islamic identity that Erdogan and his party had elevated. He returned Turkish priorities to an eastern and southern orientation and made Ankara invest in the remnants of the Ottoman League to build an Arab presence (in cooperation with Qatar), then it overtook that about years ago. Building an African economic presence and playing intermediary roles between countries and regional hubs to demonstrate influence beyond the borders of what was a sultanate for centuries.
Undoubtedly, the issue of warm waters, the control of straits, and sea lanes is a priority for the three parties, both in past and present, for economic and geopolitical reasons. In turn, this explains another aspect of the current alliance (and competition) between them.
The Black Sea and within it the ‘Sea of Azov’ is Russia’s only water port that can be permanently relied upon economically and militarily, as it reaches through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean ‘where Moscow’s only base is in Syria’. Obviously this is because of the impossibility of the Russians using their northern, eastern and northwestern seas due to the freezing of its waters for long months. This fact, of course, puts them in direct contact with Turkey, their partner in the maritime domain, and their obligatory waterway to the world. The latter, in turn, seeks to expand its exceptional water presence and establish areas of influence, whether in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine, in the Aegean Mediterranean Sea facing Greece, or in the Libyan West to reach the southern Mediterranean shore and energy fields.
When it comes to the Iranian case, the same water priority takes on another dimension, related to the control of the straits in addition to access to the Mediterranean. From the Strait of Hormuz, the oil artery separating the Indian Ocean from the Gulf, to Bab al-Mandab ‘the entrance to the Red Sea connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean’ to Syria, Lebanon, and their Mediterranean ports. Tehran is seeking to impose its control and presence through its armed forces or the forces of its allies ‘the Houthis, the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah’.
As a consequence, the maritime water issue, as the overlapping areas of geographical influence, and the recent past, which did not go beyond the complex and confusing present with its consequences during the transition from the empire to the nation-state, bring the Russians, Iranians and Turks together, despite the distinctions and different aspirations.
If we add to all the above, hostile discourses against Western hegemony in the capitals of the three states, an intertwining in their roles and occupations in Syria for years, their economic cooperation in the face of old American and European sanctions on Iran and the latest ones on Russia, examining the characteristics of Turkish mediation between Kyiv and Moscow, monitoring the Russian, Iranian and Turkish cooperation projects with China and India, we will see the depth of the mutual need for coordination between the heirs of the ‘Downtrodden Empires’. This common needs seem sufficient so far to curb the antagonism between Ankara on the one hand and Moscow and Tehran on the other hand in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. It also gives the impression of satisfactory to overcome the difficulties between them in the Syrian arena, where they share the Astana path despite their contradictory positions and locations. Additionally, it puts to limit the repercussions of the clash between Russia ‘through ‘Wagner’ mercenaries; and Turkey ‘through drones and field experts’ in Libya. Finally, it seems sufficient to perpetuate Russia’s request to Turkey to mediate in the Ukrainian war, despite Ankara selling Kyiv the famous ‘Bayraktar’ drones with which the Ukrainians hunt Putin’s tanks crawling on the ruins of their cities.
The bottom line is, situations are not likely to change in the near future, even if the relationship of the three states or one of them changes with the West, given that diversification of options, taking advantage of the position, role, contradictions, and blackmailing the opposing parties have become a feature of international politics today. There are no signs that this needs to be changed.
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