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Putin’s new Eurasian policy: Asian vector for Russia

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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.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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