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Trends To Watch In Russia In 2013

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It began with a roar and it ended with a whimper.As 2012 wound down in Russia, the soaring expectations for change that accompanied the civic awakening and mass protests at the year’s dawn had clearly faded.

But the social, economic, and political forces that spawned them will continue to shape the landscape well into the new year.
A fledgling middle class remains hungry for political change, splits still plague the ruling elite over the way forward, and a fractious opposition movement continues to struggle to find its voice.

With the Kremlin unable to decisively squelch the mounting dissent and the opposition unable to topple President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered an uneasy holding pattern that has the feel of an interlude between two epochs.

“I don’t think we are at the end of the Putin era, but we are at the beginning of the end,” says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly “The Economist” and author of the recently published book “Deception.”

With economic headwinds on the horizon, generational conflict brewing, and new political forces developing, Russian society is changing — and changing rapidly. But the political system remains ossified.

So what can we expect in 2013? Below are several trends and issues to keep an eye on in the coming year.

The Oil Curse: Energy Prices And The Creaking Welfare State

If 2012 was all about politics, 2013 will also be about economics.

The Russian economy, the cliche goes, rests on two pillars — oil and gas. And both will come under increasing pressure as the year unfolds.

World oil prices, currently hovering between $90 and $100 per barrel, are expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future. And any sharp drop could prove catastrophic for the Russian economy.

Energy experts and economists say Russia’s budget will only stay balanced if oil prices remain between $100 and $110 per barrel. Five years ago, the figure needed for a balanced budget was $50 to $55.

Meanwhile, Moscow’s dominance of the natural gas market is being challenged by the development of new energy sources like shale gas and liquefied natural gas.

“The Russians are going to have to face, just as the Saudis did in the 1980s, the possibility of dropping energy prices,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

The flush days when petrodollars could power Russia’s economy and lubricate Putin’s political machine are coming to a close.

How the political system responds to these challenges will be a key question in 2013.Leading Russian economists like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have stressed the need to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on nonrenewable energy. Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have likewise made calls for diversification.

But despite all the rhetoric, there has been little real action.

Part of this is due to fierce resistance from powerful figures in the Russian elite with ties to the energy industry, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin crony.

But the reasons for inaction are actually much more fundamental. Diversifying and modernizing Russia’s economy would entail a degree of decentralization and the subsequent development of alternative centers of economic power. This, in turn, would eventually lead to new centers of political power with more independence from the Kremlin than Putin appears willing to tolerate.

“The decoupling of gas and oil prices, the large quantities of liquefied natural gas on world markets, the growth of shale gas have all [diminished the regime’s] ability to collect natural-resource rents,” Edward Lucas says. “And the collection and distribution of those rents is central to its model.”

With resources declining and no economic diversification program in sight, the authorities appear to have concluded that they need to reform the country’s creaking social-welfare system. But such a move is certain to be politically volatile, especially since Putin’s main base of support is now the rural poor and the working classes.

The Kremlin is still haunted by the protests that broke out in 2005 when the government attempted reforms to the social safety net.

Fathers And Children: The Looming Generational Conflict

When Putin took power in 2000, the 40-something former spy looked like an energetic young leader, especially compared to his geriatric predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

But more than a decade later, he and his team are aging together. And by most accounts, they intend to remain in office at least until 2018 — and possibly until 2024. By that time, much of his ruling circle will be in their 70s.

The comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev that accompanied Putin’s return to the Kremlin were not superfluous. In addition to the fears of stagnation, the graying of Team Putin also sets the stage for a generational conflict within the elite.

“The lack of institutional mechanisms for promotion and rotation is a problem because, when you don’t have that, it leads the younger generations to get frustrated if they don’t believe there is a way to advance within the system,” Gvosdev says. “If everything is blocked off it creates tension. You can’t just freeze the government establishment because the energy of people is going to be directed toward breaking into it or replacing it, and that becomes a danger.”

How this generational discord develops will be one of the key underlying trends to watch in 2013. This is especially true since a whole new cohort entered the elite over the past four years.

During his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev made a concerted effort to bring younger cadres into the Kremlin, which analysts say added a political element to the generation gap.

“Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration,” prominent Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” this summer. “The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term.”

The young guns who came in with Medvedev are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. “Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition,” Kryshtanovskaya said.

The generational gap in the elite is mirrored by a similar one in society as the cohort born after the fall of the Soviet Union — and which has only faint memories of the chaos of the 1990s — comes of age.

“This group of citizens sees itself as not only post-Soviet, but non-Soviet,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They don’t consider themselves to be vassals of the state. They are more free-thinking.”

Lipman adds that this younger generation is helping fuel Russia’s civic awakening. “This process is irreversible,” she says. “And as Russia continues to urbanize and cities become centers for younger people, this process will only accelerate.”

Strange Bedfellows: When Aleksei Meets Aleksei

When speculation emerged that anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin may be cooperating politically, it raised eyebrows among Kremlin-watchers.

And the reason for the interest goes much deeper than an abiding fascination with these two emerging players on the political scene.

An alliance of the Alekseis would have pointed to one of the key developments analysts have been watching for since mass protests broke out a year ago: collaboration between the technocratic wing of the elite and moderate elements in the opposition.

Such a marriage makes sense in many ways. Elite technocrats understand that Russia is dangerously dependent on energy exports, that current levels of corruption are unsustainable, and that in order for the economy to diversify and modernize, the political system will need to become more pluralistic.

Moreover, as moderate opposition activists come to understand that a colored revolution in Russia is unlikely, they are more likely to place their hopes in evolutionary change.

And in the event that the Putin regime begins to look dangerously shaky, overtures from inside the halls of power to the opposition will become more likely.

“We are going to see more people toying with defection to the opposition, people opening up back channels,” says Mark Galeotti, the author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows” and a professor at New York University. “We’re going to see the economic elite trying to reach out [to the opposition] and this is going to be very dangerous for the state.”

On the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a bloc is already emerging that seeks to negotiate political change with willing elements in the Kremlin, rather than trying to topple the regime, according to press reports.

The faction apparently includes 16 members of the 45-seat council. In addition to Navalny and his backers, it reportedly includes socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and her supporters, as well as longtime opposition figure Ilya Yashin and entrepreneur Aleksandr Vinokurov, the co-owner of Dozhd-TV.

For his part, Kudrin has been trying to position himself as a bridge between the opposition and the authorities to foster what he calls “evolutionary change” toward greater pluralism. So has billionaire oligarch and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.

If a bridge is ultimately built between the opposition and the technocratic wing of the elite, it could result in negotiated political reforms, in the co-opting of a vital wing of the Kremlin’s opponents — or a measure of both.

“I think it is more likely that as we see divisions within the regime that one faction tries to exploit public discontent,” Lucas says. “It will still be kind of ‘inside baseball’ rather than a 1917-style change.”

Beyond The Street: Will The Opposition Mature?

Bouts of soul searching are an inevitable ritual after the past few opposition demonstrations.

The heady days of December 2011 and January 2012, when dissenters found their voice and discovered they were not alone, are a fading memory. Likewise, the period from the beginning of the year until Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May, when the opposition seemed to control the national conversation, is also over.

And opposition leaders look increasingly uncertain about what to do next.

“They’re focusing on the glory days, the revolutionary days of December through May. But nobody is thinking about what happened after May, when they lost control of the agenda,” says Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. “How are they going to recapture the agenda and how are they going to really start making connections with society?”

The opposition, of course, is not a unified movement. It comprises nationalists, leftists, and liberals, united only by their opposition to Putin.

Will a single leader emerge in the coming year? Will the Coordinating Council, an elected body designed to bridge the divides in the opposition and establish a bond with civil society, prove an effective form of collective leadership?

“A process we are going to see is the opposition actually beginning to fragment,” Galeotti says. “You will begin to see ideological blocs, real opposition movements rather than just the generic ‘we want Russia without Putin’ thing. But it will be a painful process.”

What happens with the opposition, whether it is able to move beyond the street and develop into a potent political force, is a trend to watch because there is a deep well of discontent in society to potentially tap.

“They have this feeling of stagnation,” Lucas says. “Of institutions that don’t work, of a public life plagued by lies, evasions, and propaganda. They want more decent behavior by public officials and public institutions and they aren’t getting it.”

Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

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Any “red lines” left for Putin?

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“Red lines” have become a ubiquitous narrative of Russian-initiated conflict with the West. Putin repeatedly used “red lines” as a warning metaphor for the West, trying to establish his boundaries of international influence. The “red lines” acquired this warning connotation in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on April 21, 2021, to be repeated several times later up to February 24, 2022. As explained by his press-secretary Dmitriy Peskov and many other Russian politicians and experts, “red lines’ relate to Russian national interests, outlining its national borders. 

And not only Kremlin but the West also talks about “red lines”, though the West sees “red lines” in using nuclear weapons by Putin in his futile attempt to conquer Ukraine. 

When addressing the nation on February 24, 2022, announcing an invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that any “interference” in Ukraine by outside powers would be “a red line” for Russia. However, the West started to support Ukraine long before the Russian invasion supplying Javelins and intelligence information. The West certainly interfered in different ways from the first day of the Russian invasion providing more weapons, ammunition, humanitarian aid, volunteers, anti-Russian information campaigns, sanctions, intelligence sharing, and military training, to name a few. 

All Kremlin’s propaganda targets the inner audience first. When they speak to the West, at the same time, they address ordinary Russians. The apparent importance of “red lines” for the Kremlin, the ability to show that they are not violated, made the West artfully create information campaigns before supplying new deadly weaponry to Ukraine. These information campaigns aim to provide valid arguments for such supplies as a response to the escalation of the war from the Kremlin’s side. At the same time, they shift attention from the weaponry itself to “conflicts” inside the NATO countries around the supplies. They expose various technical problems, such as a lack of trained personnel to master new weaponry, no service maintenance base, and others. Finally, these information campaigns often highlight Kremlin’s atrocities against civilians (Bucha and missile bombing cities, villages, and critical infrastructure).

We have seen these tactics successfully employed more than once. The Kremlin’s loss of information war has become evident from the beginning of the war. However, when one talks about supplying Ukraine with modern tanks to fight against the Russian army, it takes one to be a master of information tactics to supply the tanks and not to break this crucial “red line.” For the last two decades, Putin has made the Victory of the USSR in the Greta Patriotic War (WW II in the Western tradition) the main achievement of recent Russian history, utilizing it as a unifying myth for multi-national Russia. This myth also serves as a justification for its aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, this makes it very painful for Russia to think of fighting with foreign tanks, especially german tanks, making this red line very thick and visible.

Nevertheless, the West could dilute it without any seemingly essential consequences. Let’s see how it was done.

The German play: at first, Olaf Sholz, Chancellor of Germany, said that Germany would allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine only after US Abrams; this statement gets immediately refuted by the German Minister of Defense; the refutation followed by supporting statements in the US media that even go as far as saying that the German position irritates Washington.

The Polish play: first, Poland says that it can send a Leopard tank to Ukraine; then it refutes it; then Poland threatens that it would send the tanks even without Germany’s consent, to be followed by a statement of Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs that Germany would not block Poland sending tanks to Ukraine.

All these “conflicts and disaccords” happen before an official decision-making session in Rammstein format. Then the plays continued with Boris Pistorius, recently appointed Germany’s Minister of Defense, who, after the meeting at Rammstein, not only said that there were other countries besides Germany to disagree on shipping tanks to Ukraine (although he never revealed which ones), but also hinting later that the decision on tank shipping could be negative. In such a case, the decision would become irreversible. They even remembered a previous German Minister of Defense who allegedly refused to conduct an inventory of available Leopard tanks.

Less than five days later, a positive decision is taken, making it hard to believe that such significant disagreements and confusion could exist not only inside Germany’s government but also between leading European countries and the US. Of course, conflicts and disagreements might exist, and they do exist for different international topics. However, it is hard to imagine them being so publicly visible on such a vital issue as the Ukraine-Russia war. The war has been going on for almost a year now, and effective mechanisms of communication and decision-making must have been developed, at least in such an essential part of it as military aid.  

After the war’s beginning, the West took a principal position in the war: to provide diverse support to Ukraine to fight against Russia. All sanctions and humanitarian and military aid issues get communicated, coordinated, and then agreed upon. 

According to Francis Bacon’s famous quotation, knowledge is power; this power comes with information, and information comes with noise. The West utterly understands it employing this understanding with art and craft. And the Kremlin fails to play this game. Instead, this wonderful chaos of noise prior to any critical decision allows for diluting more and more “red lines.”

These information tactics allow the West to supply Ukraine with more deadly weapons. We will see another act of this information play before a decision to ship modern jet fighters to Ukraine is agreed upon. Then, of course, there will be the same level of “disagreements and conflicts,” but eventually, one shouldn’t doubt that Ukraine will get jet fighters, starting with Soviet MIG- and SU-fighters from Slovakia and Poland, then followed by F-16s and other NATO models.

The Kremlin’s reaction is precious. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, commented on the decision to ship tanks to Ukraine, saying that it became clear to the Kremlin that there was no accord in the West in general around the issue of military aid to Ukraine. Also, the fact that the West has enough modern tanks capable of fighting with Russian remains obscure for the Kremlin, according to Peskov. This is what the Russian propaganda wants and needs to see: disagreements and conflicts. This conflict’s agenda allows them to lullaby the Russian people with tales that the support for Ukraine will wither soon and that Russians need to be patient just a little bit more. Then Victory will come, exactly like in the Great Patriotic War.

The strategy of the West is clear; no Western country wants to be at war with Russia. At the same time, Ukraine needed support, so the West started supplying it with more advanced weapons. Now the supplies happen much quicker than at the beginning of the war. The “tank case” shows this change in the western approach to the weapon supply, where a silent embargo on offensive weaponry was in effect for 11 months.

The Kremlin’s narrative of “the red lines” failed from the beginning as Russia violated international “red lines” when it invaded a sovereign state. Furthermore, this ‘red line” is not only part of Western values but is one of the pillars of the system of International Law. Another pillar of international relations is that supplying weapons and even using one country’s experienced army officers to help another country’s army in its military actions has never been seen as direct involvement in a war. No one has seen, or described Soviet military support and presence in Vietnam against the U.S., or in Egypt and Syria against Israel  as direct war between the U.S. and the USSR. 

Putin’s several public warnings to respond if NATO crossed “red lines” by providing Ukraine with certain missile strike systems remained just words. Other prominent Russian officials repeatedly made similar warnings, promising to consider U.S. and NATO vehicles transporting weapons on Ukr

The West understands that Putin’s “red lines” are for the internal agenda only. Even the fact that they are not named but outline some obscure “national interests’, allows the Kremlin to interpret them differently, twisting its propaganda around. But the “red lines” do exist. The West should not underestimate them. Inability of the Kremlin to define and observe them. It is quite obvious that the next “red line” is national borders between and Ukraine and Russia as of Feb.24, 2022. This issue lacks accord in the West. Should Ukraine get Crimea back? Should it get it now or later? Should the West publicly announce its “red lines” outlining them as the Russian Federation’s borders as of 1991? 

While these questions are still to be answered, one red line obviously exists for Putin. This line is his personal safety, and in the current power construction in Russia, Putin can secure his safety only if he retains power. When the West challenges his personal power, then he will feel the real threat. One should remember that it might be dangerous to corner a rat, especially one with a nuclear bomb. Putin’s body, ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, regularly reminds us of that, saying that “a nuclear power can never lose a conventional war.” His regular remarks clearly state that the Kremlin acknowledges its possible defeat in Ukraine, but they also warn against such outcome. We should hope that Western leaders have learned how to play with Russia and will continue the winning game, weakening Russia further and successfully staying away from nuclear confrontation.

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Russia’s Support for Terrorism: A Carry-Over of Soviet Policy

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Soldiers from the Wagner Group (source: middleeastmonitor.com)

During the Cold War, the Kremlin was a supporter of foreign terrorism, in order to destabilize enemy governments or to further Moscow’s policy objectives. The same strategy is being used, today, by the Russian Federation in countries around the world.

Beginning in the 1990s, critics of the Kremlin began turning up dead in Ukraine and Western Europe, including in the United Kingdom. Russia has also been accused of backing despots and dictators who have committed massacres and other crimes against humanity, such as Syria’s Assad, who was accused of supporting chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Currently, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, a private military and security companies (PMSCs) is actively fighting in conflicts, ranging from Ukraine to Syria, where they have been accused of war crimes, including targeting civilians, murder, rape, and torture. The Wagner Group has been declared a Transnational Criminal Organization by the United States and is expected to be recognized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by both the E.U. and the U.S in the near future. If that designation is applied to Wagner, the Russian Federation will be an official sponsor of international terrorism.

During the Cold War, the West similarly accused the USSR of supporting terrorism, an accusation which the Kremlin emphatically denied. Before discussing the veracity of these accusations, it would be constructive to define terrorism. The definition of terrorism used for this article is violence or the threat of violence applied, often against civilian targets, in order to bring about change, often political, religious, or social.

In 2011, the Director of the CIA released a report, finding that the Soviet Union supported terrorism, in the form of foreign insurgents and fighters, if such support was constructive to the goals of the Soviet state. This was the case in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Angola, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Chile, among others were supported somewhat covertly. The Soviet Union openly supported some groups which enjoyed a certain degree of political legitimacy within their own territory, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) or the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO).

When the Soviet Union dealt with foreign extremist groups, however, they camouflaged their involvement. Often, support was carried out through allied and radical states. Many of these radical states also support terrorist groups, on their own, which further complicates an analysis of Soviet involvement. The CIA charges that Soviet support for terrorism fell into several categories, among them (1) Support for anti-Israel and anti-U.S. groups, (2) Soviet-backed insurrections in Third World countries, which the Kremlin made more socially acceptable by dubbing them liberation movements, and (3) Violence by left-wing groups in the West, which did not overtly reveal the direct involvement of the Soviet Union.

One example of a foreign terrorist group supported by the USSR was Italy’s Red Brigades. This violent far-left Marxist–Leninist group, was responsible for hundreds of deaths, in the 1970s and 1980s, including the abduction and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The Red Brigades were born of the radicalization of the 1968 student movement, which took place across the European continent. The Red Brigades were linked to the Soviet Union through the Italian Socialist Party and through training and support received in Czechoslovakia. U.S. intelligence services believe that the Red Brigades and other terrorist organizations were supported by the Soviet Union to covertly carry out state objectives. In 1981, the group kidnapped a NATO officer, United States Army General James L. Dozier. The Red Brigades was later discovered to have kept files on NATO leaders. Opposition to NATO has been a longstanding policy of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Many experts, writing during the Cold War, believe that supporting terrorism was an integral part of the Soviet strategy, a strategy meant to destabilize Western democracies. Other experts were of the opinion that Soviet support for terrorist groups was short-lived, deriving from an immediate need to fulfill a particular policy objective. After reviewing declassified documents, in the post-Cold War era, the Soviet Union’s relationship with terrorism was inconsistent. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union did not trust these organizations. But, during the 1970s, their policy changed. And, by the 1980s, the Kremlin was regularly supplying weapons to the PLO, among other terrorist groups. And this was indeed part of the Kremlin’s Cold War strategy, as long as the terrorist groups focused on Western targets.

In the wake of the capture of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of attempting to “foster, support and expand” terrorist activities by “training, funding and equipping the forces of terrorism”. It is well documented that the Soviet Union was guilty of state terrorism, utilizing torture, arbitrary detention, intimidation, and imprisonment, often under inhumane conditions, against its own citizens in order to maintain control. States sponsored by the Soviet Union, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, were guilty of similar crimes on the domestic front, while also exporting murder to other countries.

               The Soviet Union was also guilty of violations of human rights, such as massacres, in armed conflict in Afghanistan. Rebel groups supported by the Soviets also engaged in similar terroristic massacres. Regarding terrorist organizations in Western Europe, such as the Red Brigades and Germany’s Red Army Faction, some experts claim that there is little hard evidence of direct support by the Soviet Union. However, they also find that Libya and other countries supported by the Soviet Union directly supported such groups. Consequently, arms and funds for the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups flowed from the USSR, through other international terrorist organizations supported by the USSR. Additionally, there is evidence that Red Brigades operatives were trained in Czechoslovakia, although it is unclear if this was at the behest of the Soviet Union.

The 2011 findings of the Director of Central Intelligence are even clearer and more direct in their accusation that “the Soviets have no moral compunctions about supporting foreign insurgent and terrorist groups”. Additionally, the Director of Central Intelligence posits that Eastern European countries follow the Kremlin’s lead in terms of supporting terrorist groups, which further obfuscates Moscow’s involvement. Moscow also condemns the actions of Western terrorist groups, such as Germany’s Red Army Faction and France’s Action Direct, in order to send a signal that Russia, like Western powers, opposes terrorism. On the other hand, Moscow and the Soviet Bloc also opposed efforts to form international anti-terrorist policing agencies.

A recent example would be that after 9/11, Vladimir Putin made a big show of joining in western efforts to combat terrorism, but this was because he needed international support for his condemnation of Chechen freedom fighters. Since then, he has reversed his stance on cooperating with the west. Additionally, he now supports the Chechens and has deployed them to Ukraine, where they have been accused of atrocities. This raises the question of whether or not the Kremlin’s deployment of Chechens to Ukraine could be considered supporting international terrorism.

Experts, such as those at the Brookings Institute, currently believe that the Russian Federation is a sponsor of terrorism, an opinion supported by the State Department. Russia’s actions match the definition of terrorism in that they involve violence, committed in a foreign country, with a political motive. Modern Russia’s support of terrorism is an extension of the Soviet Union’s support of terrorism beyond its borders, including in Western Europe.

Whether a group utilized these violent actions to achieve independence or some other goal was of no interest to the USSR, which was only concerned with promoting its own foreign policy objectives. Evidence shows that the Kremlin was directly, or indirectly, supporting multiple insurgent and separatist movements. A concrete example would be El Salvador, where the revolutionaries coordinated directly with Moscow. The Kremlin provided local groups with guns and training. The International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party was directly responsible for operations focusing on establishing new, foreign governments. A range of military and paramilitary training and support was provided to insurgent groups by the KGB, GRU, and 10th Directorate of Soviet Staff. This included training revolutionaries from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia in training camps, both inside and outside of the Soviet Union, as well as in other Soviet Bloc countries. The weapons often flowed through Cuba, Libya or Czechoslovakia. Semtex, the explosive used by many terrorist groups, of the time, was invented in Czechoslovakia.

Today, in addition to the semi-covert aid the Russian Federation extends to the PLO and other terrorist organizations, the Wagner Group enjoys overt support. They obtained their training and weapons directly from the Kremlin, and actively deployed by Russian companies, close to the government, engaging in acts of terrorism.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and became the Russian Federation. The KGB was replaced by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Putin, a former KGB agent, was once head of the FSB. The tactics, training, experience, personnel, and even the leadership of KGB have carried over to the FSB, as has the Kremlin’s support for foreign terrorism.

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Context and Practice of International Politics: Experience in 2022 and Expectations from 2023

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The dramatic events of 2022, centred on the military-political conflict between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian issue, are a vivid example of the interaction of context and practice in international politics. The global context, within which one cannot help but consider the most acute manifestation of the current clash of interests, is the end of a period which saw the relative monopoly of Western countries in world politics and economics, their ability to determine what the international order should be.

The practice of world politics is determined by the still-colossal resources of the United States and Western Europe, on the one hand, and by the obvious insufficiency of the forces that are their main opponents – China and Russia – insufficient for a real fight. As a result, if the objective factors in the development of international politics and the world economy speak in favour of the inevitable retreat of the former leaders to new positions, then the subjective qualities of their opponents, and indeed of the powers of permanent status, are such that the advent of a new international order looks like a completely uncertain prospect.

The change in context, which is very likely to be one of the factors underpinning Russian resolve, is quite obvious. First, it is easy to see this in the voting in the UN General Assembly on the resolutions adopted by Western countries as part of their anti-Russian campaign.

Despite the fact that, from the point of view of formal international law, condemning Russia would not be a problem for it, an increasing number of countries prefer to exercise moderation, by abstaining or avoiding voting on such resolutions. Of course, this contributes to the infrastructure of institutions created over the past couple of decades that are not oriented towards the West and are not subject to its will – BRICS, the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union. But first of all, many countries simply do not feel the need to unconditionally support the West in its campaign against Moscow. It does not meet their interests or their main goals of development; these states do not have their own claims against Russia. In general, it should be noted that the reaction to Russian actions since February 2022 has been extremely mild. For example, in 2003, the Indian Parliament passed a special resolution condemning the US and allied invasion of Iraq, which is now unimaginable outside of the West in relation to Russia.

Second, the change in context is underlined by the failure of the US and its allies to build a sustainable broad-based coalition against Russia early in the conflict. Now the list of states that initiate measures of economic war against Russian interests is limited to permanent members of the military-political blocs of the West – NATO and the European Union, with the involvement of Japan and Australia, which have strong bilateral allied relations with the United States. All other countries of the world, with the exception of the microscopic clients of the United States in Oceania or the Caribbean, only enforce “sanctions” at the state or corporate level under pressure. In other words, the circle of those whom the United States and the European Union do not have to force to carry out their decisions regarding Russia turned out to be extremely narrow. This means that relations between the West and the rest of the world are now based on a repressive policy of coercion, which in itself does not mean anything good for the global positions of the United States. First, because it inevitably forces a significant number of countries to strive to extricate themselves from American influence for purely practical reasons. The need to fear Western reprisals is gradually shifting relations with the West from factors that promote development to those that hinder it. Thus, we cannot have serious doubts that the context – the objective development of the international environment – is now very friendly for Russia and its main interests.

This allows Moscow and Beijing to look to the future with relative confidence and to assume that they are on the “right side of history”, while their opponents in the West resist inevitable changes. However, it is worth recognising that a favourable context is an important, but not the only condition for the survival of states in a chaotic international environment. No less significant is the ability of states to respond to current challenges that arise during critical historical periods. The fact is, what we are experiencing now represents just such an era.

Therefore, in addition to the realisation of its selfish interests, the whole world is closely watching the ability of Russia to survive and succeed in various aspects of its conflict with the West. In particular, attention is drawn to the ability of the Ukrainian forces to continue active resistance, especially in the context of a fairly stable supply of weapons from the West. Whether we like it or not, the pace at which Russian goals are being realised on the territory of Ukraine is becoming a factor that influences the behaviour of friendly states. In addition, the apparent concentration of Moscow’s efforts in one direction creates numerous temptations for third countries to solve their problems with less regard for Russian preferences. For example, we see the behaviour of Azerbaijan in its difficult relations with Armenia; it shows signs of haste, caused by the understanding that Russia is not ready for sufficiently decisive action in the South Caucasus. We find less striking examples in Central Asia, where the political regimes perceive the course of Russian operations in Ukraine as an incentive to achieve their own short-term goals. In short, Moscow’s justified delay in resolving the most important aspects of the Ukrainian problem creates nervousness in its environment, which would be better avoided. In a more favourable position is China, which has not yet joined the direct confrontation with the West. Despite the fact that the problem facing the leadership of the PRC is no less significant, as Taiwan is a constitutional part of Chinese territory, Beijing is still showing restraint. This helps to buy time, but increases the world’s fears that the Chinese authorities are behaving this way not because it is part of their long-term strategy, but because of the inability to act more actively. At the same time, one must understand that restraint is good for the time being: for example, the United States 105 years ago chose the moment to enter the war with the Central Powers, and did not experience fears about its consequences. Although, of course, every historical comparison is an oversimplified vision of the situation due to the change in that very context.

In summary, as conflict grows over the structure of the future international order, the tension between context and practice can grow as much as it shrinks. However, in any event, it will be the most important systemic characteristic of the confrontation, which we had the opportunity to observe throughout 2022 and will continue to do so. In this sense, 2023 may turn out to be, in a certain sense, a turning point – the opposing sides will begin to run out of accumulated reserves and the question will arise of mobilising the resources that they originally planned to save for the purposes of future development. In this regard, it will be important for Russia to use a favourable context not only as a confirmation of its strategic rightness, but, first of all, as a source of resources for its own stability. This means making relations with the World Majority a central part of our foreign economic relations and making real efforts.

from our partner RIAC

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