If history has taught us anything, it is that Russia has a habit of grinding down its enemies. There are 7.2 billion people on this planet but the United States fears only one man — Vladimir Putin. That’s because on virtually every front of the new Cold War, the Russian president is walloping the collective challenge of the West. Fear can make you do strange things — for the second year running, Forbes magazine has named Putin as the world’s most powerful person.
It is said about the Russians that they take a long time to saddle their horses, but they ride awfully fast. After patiently nursing the collapsed Russian economy back to health from 1999 to 2007, Putin started pushing back against the western encirclement of his country. In Syria, Crimea and Ukraine, the West has faced humiliating setbacks and melted away at his approach. In the high-stakes game of energy, it will be Russian — not western — pipelines that will dominate the Eurasian landmass.
But instead of scorekeeping, a more instructive exercise would be to try and understand how Putin has managed to keep Russia ahead in the game. More than any other leader, the Russian president by virtue of his KGB experience understands how the US operates. The American modus operandi — in sync with the British — is to organise coups, rebellions and counter-revolutions in countries where nationalist leaders come to power. Iran, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Ukraine are the classic examples.
John Perkins writes in Confessions of an Economic Hitman (2004) how he and other ‘hitmen’ like him were sent to developing countries as consultants to bribe or coerce diplomats, economists, administrators and politicians to do the bidding of the US. Often they succeeded, but if they failed then the CIA would send in the ‘jackals’ — professionally trained assassins who would engineer the deaths of those who stood in the way of complete American domination. (Chilean prime minister Salvador Allende’s assassination — the result of a request by PepsiCo chairman Donald Kendall to the company’s former lawyer president Richard Nixon — is a classic example of a CIA jackal job.)
This one-two punch by economic hitmen and assassins was so effective in creating banana republics that the US rarely had to up the ante. Among the rare occasions the US had to use the military in pursuit of commercial aims was in Iraq, and to a limited extent in Libya.
Putin knows the US has attempted — and will continue to attempt — regime change in Russia. As a former KGB officer stationed in East Germany, he knows the hitmen are looking for an opportunity. That’s precisely why he kicked out rogue agencies such as USAID and the British Council, both of which are fronts for Anglo-American secret services.
“One of the things to understand is that he in particular studied counter-intelligence which is key in understanding why he’s the critical player,” writes Joaquin Flores in the Center For Syncretic Studies website. “Counter-intelligence is not just finding spies, but it’s actually countering the work of other agents who are embedded or whose work involves embedding themselves to destroy institutions from within.”
Parallel to American black ops is naked war. The US economy — and that of its sidekick Britain — is a war economy. Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev said at a June round table in Moscow: “The Americans have gained from every war in Europe — World War I, World War II, the Cold War. The wars in Europe are the means of their economic miracle, their own prosperity.”
PUTIN vs OBAMA: NO CONTEST
Syria: Putin-1, Obama-0
Crimea: Putin-1, Obama-0
Ukraine: Putin-1, Obama-0
Pipelines: Putin-2, Obama-0
Iran: Putin-3, Obama-0
Egypt: Putin-1, Obama-0
Forbes: Putin-2, Obama-0
Nobel Peace Prize: Putin–0, Obama–1
Bombed countries worldwide: Putin–0, Obama–8
Bombing countries while receiving Nobel Peace prize: Putin–0, Obama–2
The Nobel committee’s choice of Obama sparked bitter controversies – it was the only Prize winner waging two wars at the time. Believe or not, Obama was praising war as an instrument of conduct even during the Nobel ceremony (?!?).”Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.” Waging war is not a way of imposing the will of the US on the world, he said, but a way of seeking a better future for its people. (?!?) “The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” Nobel laureate said thanking to the Committee.
The ongoing skirmishes in Ukraine are clearly a pretext to pull Russia into a direct military confrontation with the Ukrainian armed forces, in order to create a regional war in Europe.
Russia’s response is two-pronged. One, by refusing to get into a shooting war with the Ukrainian thugs, it keeps the Americans frustrated. Washington’s inaction in Ukraine was brilliantly described by a Chinese general as a symptom of America’s strategic “erectile dysfunction”.
Secondly, Putin is employing asymmetrical strategies to stop — and ultimately bring down — the American empire. A key element of this strategy is to strike at the key pillar of American power — the dollar. Russia — with support from fellow BRICS members China, India, Brazil and South Africa — is moving away from dollar-denominated trade, a step that will seriously impact the barely growing American economy.
According to financial portal Zero Hedge, “Glazyev’s set of counter-measures specifically targets the core strength of the US war machine, i.e., the Fed’s printing press. Putin’s adviser proposes the creation of a ‘broad anti-dollar alliance’ of countries willing and able to drop the dollar from their international trade. Members of the alliance would also refrain from keeping currency reserves in dollar-denominated instruments. An anti-dollar coalition would be the first step for the creation of an anti-war coalition that can help stop the US’ aggression.”
Ukraine could eventually turn out to be the catalyst for Europe’s divorce from the US. This is because sanctions against Russia are threatening business houses in Germany and other western European countries, which have over the past two decades developed deep links with the Russian economy. “Somewhat surprisingly for Washington, the war for Ukraine may soon become the war for Europe’s independence from the US and a war against the dollar,” says Zero Hedge.
Moscow is also pushing for institutional changes. The $100 billion New Development Bank, co-owned by the BRICS, will not only counter the influence of western lending institutions but also stop the flow of cash from the developing countries to the West.
The current lending system is skewed in favour of western countries because loans by the World Bank and imf come with a basketful of conditions. For instance, when these two outfits offer a loan, it can be used to purchase goods and services only from the West. Or the loan can be used only for building dams but not on, say, drinking water utilities.
Of course, the expertise and material for building dams will have to come from the US and Europe. And when the drinking water supply remains poor, it creates demand for — mostly western-owned — colas and bottled water. The new bank will, therefore, hit the West where it hurts most — in the pocket.
Even as Putin has been making all the right moves on the geopolitical chessboard, his opponents aren’t sitting idle, watching their empire fold up. The Russian rouble is getting hammered even as the price of oil is being driven into the ground by the Saudis at the bidding of their American overlords. No surprises here — the Americans will relentlessly try to weaken Russia as it is the only country that stands between Washington and world domination.
However, Putin is a judoka who knows how to use his opponent’s force against the opponent itself. He knows the West’s salad days are over and it is not in a position to take on the Russian military. He’s content to watch the Americans commit strategic overreach — taking on Russia and simultaneously trying to contain the irresistible rise of the BRICS.
Putin is fortunate that his heavyweight partners in the BRICS continue to back Russia in its tussle with the West. Both India and China agree Moscow has legitimate interests in Ukraine and Crimea. Recently, the brics ticked off Australia for its foolhardy proposal to ban Putin from the G20 summit.
Such assurances of support have emboldened Putin to show the West the finger. In 2012, he nonchalantly skipped the G8 summit, and earlier this year, he merely shrugged when the G8 went back to G7 — the pre-Cold War configuration. (With members such as Canada, the G7 is a joke anyway.)
If history has taught us anything, it is that Russia has a habit of grinding down its enemies. After Napoleon and Hitler, it could be the turn of the Americans to realise the dangers of bear-baiting.
(This is an updated version of an article that appeared in Tehelka Magazine, Dec 2014)
Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”
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
Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans
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.
China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears
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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