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 Battle for the Indian Ocean and Island States
Russia has taken an increasing interest in strengthening consistently its diplomacy with small island States especially Cape Verde, Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles. Late December, the Kremlin appointed Deputy Director Artem Kozhin at the Foreign Ministry as the new ambassador to the island of Seychelles, signaling the strategic importance it attaches to this island state of Seychelles with an estimated population of 85 thousand, located in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and east of Kenya.
Former Russian ambassador to Seychelles, Alexander Vladimirov said the relations between the two countries have been extremely cordial since the two countries established diplomatic relations following the independence of Seychelles in 1976. Russia and Seychelles have seen remarkable developments between the two countries, including the arrival of many Russian tourists. Russian investors have been investing in the country.
On June 30, 2016, Russia and Seychelles marked their 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the years, both have pledged to forge mutual cooperation in many spheres, but little is tangibly visible.
Notwithstanding that little progress, an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Seychelles waiving visa requirements for short-term trips by citizens of both countries was signed in Victoria, Seychelles, on Sept 2, 2015. Under the agreement, citizens of Russia and Seychelles with a valid passport, including a diplomatic or official passport, are exempted from visa requirements and may enter, stay or transit the territory of the other state without a visa for a term of up to 30 days.
As expected, both countries have exchanged official visits and held meetings at different times. During one of such meetings, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, underscored the mutual interest in and readiness for the development of a joint plan for partnership, including transport and energy between Russia and Seychelles, and that would include the Southern African Development Community.
As far back as March 2015, on the topic that appeared that Russia planned to open military bases in Seychelles, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Cuba, Lavrov vehemently responded: “It is absolutely wrong. We have no plans to create military or marine bases abroad, but to resolve specific tasks: fighting piracy, pirates have appear in many parts of the world. Our fleet makes long-distance voyages. We agreed with some countries, that our ships use the existing infrastructure for calling into ports for maintenance and small repairs, supplementing food and water reserves, and for recreation of crews.”
Seychelles has over the years, suffered from sea piracy. However, the island is a key participant in the fight against Indian Ocean piracy primarily committed by Somali pirates. Former president James Michel said: “The pirates cost a great percentage of the Seychelles GDP, including direct and indirect costs for the loss of boats, fishing, and tourism, and the indirect investment for the maritime security.” These are factors affecting local fishing – one of the country’s main national resources.
As a support base, the island is currently strategic zone for the United States¸ China and India that are already competing in the Indian Ocean. But Sanusha Naidu, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue based in Pretoria, South Africa, thinks that it is very strategic for Russia to strengthen engagements with these island States, especially Seychelles.
“Part of this will enable Moscow to have an important maritime security presence from the Indian Ocean Rim on the East Coast to the Atlantic seaboard on the West Coast. This could offer important sea-lanes for Moscow’s economic transactions. But, it also represents crucial footprint to keep up with competitors like China and the United States in terms of geo-political interests,” Naidu told Modern Diplomacy.
In July 2019, President Vladimir Putin accepted the credentials of 18 newly appointed foreign envoys, among them was Louis Sylvestre Radegonde (Republic of Seychelles). Putin pointed to the fact that Russia maintains friendly relations with the Republic of Seychelles. It counts on further joint work to expand cooperation including tourism, trade, economic and humanitarian spheres, noting strongly that the tourism sector is the primary industry of that country.
Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries. Based on this fact, Professor Dmitry Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies, explained to me that “as part of the sustainable efforts by Russia with individual African countries, Russia and Seychelles could cooperate in the priority areas such exploring the seabed for minerals, fishing and seafood processing, aquaculture and marine services (including marine finance and marine biotechnology).”
In an emailed interview for this article, Punsara Amarasinghe, who previously held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and now a PhD Candidate in Law from Scuola Superiore Universitaria Sant’Anna di Pisa in Italy, discusses some aspects of Russia’s relations with Seychelles.
The diplomatic relation between Russia and Seychelles does not have a long history compared to the robust relations between Russia and other African states. Nevertheless, in its brief history staring from 1976, Seychelles had made a rapport with the USSR. In particular, USSR ships anchored in Seychelles and Seychelles supported Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, Russian influence in Indian Ocean waned in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet era and Russia’s interest in Seychelles consequently diminished.
Recently, Russia’s interest in Indian Ocean and African states have been escalated as a part of its global agenda to restore Russia’s role. Especially just a week before the assassination of Iranian General Solemani, Russia participated in a naval exercise along with Iran and China in Indian Ocean proving its interest in the maritime expansion in Indian Ocean.
Amarasinghe wrote in his email: “The indispensable importance of Indian Ocean appears as a key factor for any state interested in power expansion. It was not an exaggeration that Robert Kaplan vociferously exclaimed that one who controls Indian Ocean, will control the geo-political center of the world. Currently the only active military base of the US is located in Diego Garcia, 1800Km away from the Seychelles. The geographic position of Seychelles is alluring for Russia’s blooming military interests and if Seychelles allows Moscow to initiate a military base in the island, the maritime hegemony upheld by the United States will be undoubtedly challenged.”
More importantly, the crucial location of Seychelles parallel to African continent makes it a unique destination as a military base. However, realistically we cannot assume the possibility of seeing a Russian base in Seychelles in near future. Indeed, it is true that Seychelles’ main port Victoria was opened for Russian vessels for refueling and other logistical issues. Yet, the same offer was given to many other nations including China and the United States.
On the other hand, Russia’s internal economic chaos have significantly hit the military expenditures of the Russian army and it is a fact beyond dispute that the Chinese and the United States military budgets are forged ahead Russian annual military budget. The practical circumstances may not make it an easy task for Russian Federation to build a military base in the Seychelles, even though it has a significant strategic importance, according to Punsara Amarasinghe.
Nevertheless, if Chinese can pursue its fortune in Seychelles, it would be much significant for them as a military access to Indian Ocean and an apt strategic position for maritime Silk road. China has already established a military base in Djibouti and its proximity to the Seychelles will secure Chinese military presence strongly in Indian Ocean challenging the US hegemony. It seems to indicate that rather than thinking of a military base fully controlled by Russia, it is likely to see much of Chinese presence in Indian Ocean, or perhaps, in Seychelles. It will inevitably assist Russian interests too.
Maldives, independent island in the north-central Indian Ocean, while Mauritius is further south, located about 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of Africa. Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries.
By demographic developments down the years, Seychelles is described as a fusion of peoples and cultures. Seychellois, as the people referred to, are multiracial: blending from African, Asian and European descent creating a modern creole culture. Evidence of this strong and harmonious blend is seen, for instance, in Seychellois food that incorporates various aspects of French, Chinese, Indian and African cuisine. French and English are official languages. Seychelles is a member of the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations.
Searching for a New World
The assassination of Iranian General Soleimani upon the order of the President of the United States on the territory of another sovereign state once again undermined the legal foundations of the entire system of international relations.
No matter how hard the U.S. Administration attempts to justify the decision of its President, it is perfectly clear that the situation in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf has become even more tense and unpredictable. Washington’s actions in recent years continue to destroy the legal foundations of international relations and demonstrate the increasingly defiant attempts of the United States to impose its terms, interests and “rules” of conduct on the rest of the world. Consequently, the assassination of the Iranian general is not so much a challenge to Iran as it is a challenge to the entire global community.
This begs the obvious question: Where might Washington’s politics lead and is there a way of opposing them without plunging the world into global disaster?
In the United States itself, many people are starting to realise that the course currently being steered by the U.S. Administration may do irreparable damage to the country’s own long-term interests. The American public was mostly restrained in its reaction to President Trump’s decision to eliminate the Iranian general. The provocative actions of the United States are increasingly isolating the country. Even its traditional allies are beginning to distance themselves, as they feel the consequences of Washington’s imperious unilateralism. The implications of the internal struggle currently unfolding over U.S. foreign policy will become apparent after the November presidential elections. However, whatever the outcome, we must concede that it will take a long time to redress the damage that the U.S. Administration has caused to the entire system of international relations.
As for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, we can expect stronger anti-American sentiment and a general weakening of Washington’s influence on regional developments. The general lack of enthusiasm in the Middle East about the regional settlement plan touted by the U.S. Administration as “the deal of the century” suggests that the settlement is likely doomed to failure. In reality, the idea was just a way for the United States to retain its presence in the region.
Most of the United States’ allies are taking a “wait-and-see” approach following the dramatic events in the Middle East. Their stance is in some way understandable: they cannot come forward as one and directly criticise the United States, yet individual voices will go unheard. Consequently, most European capitals confined themselves to vague formal statements and general pronouncements. Nevertheless, the United States’ allies are becoming increasingly vexed by the unilateral actions of the country’s Administration, for which the “America above all” principle has become a way of life. However, for various reasons, the countries of Europe, as well as other allies of the United States, are not ready to oppose Washington’s politics on their own. That said, the process has begun, although it promises to be a long and arduous road.
In this context, particular responsibility lies with those few international actors that are capable and, just as importantly, ready to oppose Washington’s unrelenting pressure in the interests of global security. The only fully sovereign and independent actors that come to mind here are, of course, Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council that enjoy significant weight in many global and regional issues and have massive combined military containment potential. Russia and China command respect in the global community and therefore bear special responsibility for the future world order.
The international community today—both at the level of public opinion and heads of state and international organisations—is listening with particular attention to the signals coming from Moscow and Beijing, recognising them as essential landmarks for adjusting their own stances and strategies on the key issues of international politics. Given the increased instability and unpredictability of the global environment, the importance of such landmarks increases significantly.
The model of Russia–China bilateral relations is seen as such a landmark in itself, as a demonstration of the feasibility of building ties based on carefully balanced interests without sacrificing national sovereignty and without opposing these relations to other foreign policy priorities. Equally relevant is the practical experience of new multilateral unions, including BRICS and the SCO, which allow states with highly divergent interests (for example, India and Pakistan) to interact successfully and constructively.
The special responsibility that rests on the shoulders of Russia and China entails additional, loftier requirements for the global political cooperation between the two states. Today, the question is how to coordinate the two countries’ long-term foreign political strategies more closely and promote joint initiatives that concern the fundamental issues of the future world order.
Naturally, Russia and China cannot claim a monopoly for developing new rules of the game for the future global political system. These rules should emerge from negotiations, consultations and discussions within a wide variety of multilateral formats, from global platforms such as the United Nations to the narrow-format meetings of public organisations and expert communities. Yet, the deeper and more strategic Russia–China coordination is, the more productive multilateral formats can become.
From our partner RIAC
Putin’s “January Sermon”: Is it a path to democratization of Russia or a hoax?
The volatile political trajectory and its subtle actions in Russia have always created awe among the political pundits in the West who are immensely obsessed with the geopolitical space in Ruski Mir. However, history has always aggrandized Russia as a state that cannot be easily fathomed. Just like how a dull and calm plot reaches its most unexpected culmination in a Dostoyevsky’s novel, the political trajectory in Russia has always been thrilling. The most recent political events followed by president Vladimir Putin’s annual speech in the state Duma on 15th of January is an epitome for the uncanny political nature of the world largest state.
The speech delivered by president Putin on 15th of January in the Duma was entirely an unexpected political explosion. In his speech, he proposed a serious of constitutional changes that would escalate the powers of the parliament eventually leading to an increase of prime minister’s power. Article 83 and 84 of the Current constitution in Russian federation have vested considerable power in the hands of the president over the state duma and the proposed changes would inevitably revoke them. A legitimate question appears before any inquisitive person on Russian politics is “Why Putin would allow Duma to curtail his power “. Political history of president Putin has aptly proven his sharp political acumen as a politician who properly kept his grip. However, this time he opted for rather a completely a different strategy by empowering the state Duma, which is the lower house of Russian parliament to appoint the prime minister who is currently being appointed by the president with Duma’s consent.
The increasing the power of a national council happens to be the most notable proposition of these recommendations and Putin indicated the need to strengthen the constitutional role as a crucial factor. The state council was a creation of Putin during his first term in Kremlin. Thus far it has served as an advisory body and it is consisted of regional governors, speakers of the both houses in the parliament and the party leaders. The proposed constitutional recommendations will boost its power and it is still unclear the way it would safeguard Putin from a political ebb. It not clear what role president Putin fancies in empowering the national council from nonentity to a powerful tool in Russian state apparatus. The evasive step taken by the former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 seems like a potential strategy Putin determines to implement. The last holdover from the Soviet era Kazakhstan resigned from the presidency and retained the influential job of leading country’s security council as the leader of the nation. Perhaps, Putin will embrace the same strategy of symbolizing an honorable step down while keeping his grip in a different way such a making himself as the head of the national council. Yet, making such an arm chair prediction about his possible strategy to remain in power beyond 2024 may be rather futile as Vladimir Putin has always shown a political unpredictability in his actions.
The appointment of Mikhail Mishustin to the prime minister post after Dmitry Medvedev stepped down along with his cabinet is the next notable incident emerged after 15th of January. Unlike Putin’s protégée Medvedev the newly appointed president holds no significant political activism as an ally or at least as a panegyric. He is being described as a technocrat and apolitical figure who was responsible for transforming the aged old Russian tax service into an era of digitalization. From a vantage point, the choice of Putin appears to be a wise move with the meritocratic capability of Mishustin regardless of his lack of affinity with the politics. Since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the economy of Russia has been in the doldrums and some economists have described the last decade as a stagnant decade for Russia’s economy. Given his solid background in economics and practical experience with taxation may prove his competence to become the premier in midst of an economic stagnation. Mishustin’s appointment reminds of the count Sergei Witte’s appointment by Tsar Nicolas II in 1905 whose capacity as an econometrician boosted Russia’s industrial growth for a shorter period.
The democratic reforms have always been sort of tough moves throughout Russian history. Especially the centralization of political power has always impeded Russia from reaching democratization. The confrontation between president Yeltsin and the parliament in the fall of 1993 eventually ended up in Yeltsin’s outrageous move of sending armed tanks to the parliament building. The current Russian constitution which has placed enormous power under in the hands of the president is an offshoot of the constitution adopted in Yeltsin era. Putin’s abrupt decision to reduce that will at least theoretically undo the damage wrought by 1993 constitution. In principle, the transition of power from the president to the parliament will pave the way to increase the high chances of check and balance in power crating a greater change in Russian political culture.
All in all, the ostensible motive of the constitutional reforms will assist Russia to get into better strides as a normal democracy without enabling the centralization of power around one man. But can we believe that country that has never undergone a proper western democracy will be adamant for such a mammoth change? The real politic in Russian history has always shown the rise of lesser known political characters to the zenith of power by taking the advantage of chaos. When Russian state was in a verge of extension Mikhail Romanova came out of nowhere and created the house of Romanovs that lasted for three hundred years. When Lenin died creating chaotic power vacuum in 1924, lesser known Stalin exterminated all his foes and tightened the power of newly born USSR and finally made it a super power. The sudden power shift Putin proposed on 15th of January is simply a tranquil sign before a great political storm in Russia and ironically Russians are no strangers for such political storms.
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