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Is one Putin things in order?

Luísa Monteiro

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Russia is not widely known for its outstanding abilities in soft power. That could be explained, albeit not justified, for the strong concision characteristic of the communist regime during the Soviet Union years, which resulted in East European countries in general – and Russia specifically – understanding and applying a stricter conduct when it comes to international relations.

Russian Idol

One of the most interesting points of view concerning Russia’s soft power is the one elucidated by Joseph Nye, the scholar who coined the terms and definitions for hard, soft and smart power. He argues that what is intriguing is not the fact of Russia using soft power, but how the country conceives its theory.

Whereas America is as good in causing amazement as it is in using its weapons, Russia still cannot read the American way of life – that is, for itself, an incredible tool of soft power – nor replicate it with facility. What the US have long understood is that it is not about diplomacy only, not about governmental spheres. They realized it was necessary to foment and sell a whole system whereunto culture, education, style and many other aspects of society convert and allure people to consume and admire it. All this enchantment caused by the Stars and Stripes does not undercover, but surely equilibrates the hardness with which it, more frequently than likely, makes use of the sticks.

The Slavic country, for its turn, tends to concentrate its source of culture and welfare transmission in the public administration. On its side, at least, it counts with a former Russian diaspora that results in people craving for identity in the neighbour countries. Also, communication, migratory fluxes and religion end up playing an important part in its relation with fellow nations. In terms of international affairs, it works for the construction of strong union between the ex-Soviet countries, through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, that ideally would counter NATO and the EU.

Russia counts on a vast communication group – RT, the former Russia Today – which is known not only internally, but abroad too. There, investments are high and the speaking languages Russian and English, so the spreading of information is effective, since the group is big in the niche. The pieces of news are diverse and multi biased, in a sense that many ideas are expressed in different ways, also meaning many opinions on a same topic, which sometimes appears dizzying. Besides, the country made it internationally appealing with Rusnet (‘Russia beyond headlines’) and influences the near countries with local transmission, like the First Baltic Channel (FBK), that counts with millions of viewers on the Baltic region, with a flood of articles, not necessarily information. That comes, nonetheless, under the label of freedom of expression – showing us that the media, besides its advances, still has a long way to go.

On the other hand, the country continues to be a dreamland for the several migrants from the near countries. With more work opportunities and a relatively easy procedure to grant citizenship, plenty of workers from Central Asia go to Russia to earn a living (and are undoubtedly an important trump for Russian statesmen when it touches political negotiation).

Those Russian speakers share not only the language, but also culture, beliefs, sometimes religion. That is why traditional values end up having great influence, and politicians found an opportunity in that – a clear example was that the dissemination of the idea that the European politics accepted and stimulated homosexual romantic relationships and that Western behavioursindicated corrupted values kept politically divided and strongly traditional border countries from approaching the European Union, luckily enough for a strong and moralizing Russia that dreams of enhancing its EEU bloc.

The culture is, naturally, another instrument for gathering and working the national sentiment in the peoples spread inside and outside the Russian territory. Designed for this is Rossotrudnichestvo, the State’s agency for soft power. The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation promotes events in memoir of historical facts that are important for the community in the Commonwealth of Independent States (especially for those people who are abroad, that end up being somewhat enthusiasts and feeling closer to their roots). Ideally, the agency serves the objective of fostering friendly ties and, thus, helping achieve and reinforce Russian economic and cultural development. In April, as a matter of elucidation, the agency supported the St. George Ribbons campaign – a tradition that dates from the XVII century but gained a new meaning with the Russian victory over the Nazi Germany in World War II, exact 70 years ago.

A soft spot for a hard conduct

Diplomacy is not what Russia is widely known for, though. Amid the latest polemics, the annexation of Crimea in late 2014 brought extensive criticism for the Russian action towards Ukraine and, unavoidably, there were parallels between the situation then and in 2008, with South Ossetia.

Back in that year, Georgia had some deep separatist issues with South Ossetia, a part of the population from a different ethnicity that wanted to join North Ossetia, an autonomic republic inside the Russian Federation. It has never been proven that Russia really fomented the insurgents against Georgia, nonetheless history does not lie about what happened later and its aftermaths – Russia entered the Georgian territory, supporting South Ossetia and the thousands of Russian citizens that lived there during the process of separation, which culminated in the creation of a new country (recognized by Russia and heavily criticized by the NATO members). Here, even though one must claim the clearness of the use of hard power, it can also be argued that the Russian influence came long before in the region, both culturally and linguistically. Even more than that, in peace missions in Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Crimea, the situation was partly repeated. Hard power came with militarily intervention (claimed to be necessary to ‘normalize’ the situation in Ukraine), however soft power was already there, alive and kicking. Ethnically, they were Russians; democratically, decided to join another country. It should not be taken as sheer free will, especially because of the non-bellicose impregnation of Russian values in its neighbours; likewise, no sort of coercion through weaponry, vodka or Matrioshkas could result in a spontaneous demonstration of willingness to belong to another country in a plebiscite. It is therefore to believe that a process of ‘conquering’ Crimea has started many years before 2014, be that for the importance of that region to the former Soviet Union, be that for the Russian population deeply dissatisfied with the Ukrainian instability in that moment. It is needless to say, on the other hand, that these measures, too, were not supported by the EU or the USA and they used their own hard power through sanctions and suspension of agreements related to Russia. After more than one year, the international community still believes that the intervention harmed Ukrainian sovereignty.

What can be taken from that is that Russia aims to develop its persuasive politic manoeuvres and has been working hard towards it. Maybe in a more sinuous, Spartan way, that shows some points of improvement, but also gives the country the chance of analysing how much it is different from the West and in which points it really wants to be that distinct.

Luísa Monteiro is a bachelor in Social Communication and is currently taking a Master's degree in Communication and Politics at PUC São Paulo. Her researches are closely linked to the studies of internet as a democratic agora and her latest academic production correlates the (offline) social movements and their exposure on the net.

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Russia

Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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

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

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

Bad, but Still a Strategy

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

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

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

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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