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Russian Victim? Repositioning Strategies and Regional Dreams of Dominance

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As a new wave of non-Western countries strive to elevate their profiles and expand their global influence, Russia is taking steps to help secure its future as their leader.

The status-obsessed country has expressed its desire to integrate the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus into a new Moscow-centric coalition called the Eurasian Union. This alliance would help promote Russia to a greater position of authority in the areas of politics, energy, economic governance, and international security.

However, Russia has some major hurdles ahead. In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the official annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, the country has experienced a serious downturn in terms of Western affection. While the move did, for the most part, improve Putin’s image in the eyes of the Russian people – who had begun to doubt the president’s ability to foster economic growth and prosperity – it clearly demonstrated the potential to lead to a complete breakdown of relations with its old rival, the United States. The U.S., whose sanctions have forced Russia’s economy to turn inwards, views Russia’s actions as aggressive and challenging.

These U.S.-imposed sanctions – retribution for what it considers Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine – are concerning to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus because Russia has expanded its control over their key industries (like energy, transport, and telecoms) and has helped keep them afloat economically during difficult times with generous economic cooperation and postponements of debt. Russia still has strong economic, security, and cultural ties with the former Soviet republics, which have significant ethnic Russian populations, host Russian military bases, and get most of their news and entertainment from Russian media providers, but the sanctions can seriously threaten the future of these relationships.

As much as Russia longs to draw these countries into an even tighter embrace, they appear to be seriously rethinking this new reunion with Russia. Many are concerned with Russia’s growing role and its flailing economy, which was already slowing before the Ukraine crisis. These nations can’t help but be wary of the implications of a new union with Russia so relatively soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (in geopolitical terms, a single generation is not a long time.) Unfortunately, the reality is that as Russia continues to divorce itself from the West it will likely call on its former Soviet neighbors to choose their alliances. This at a time when the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus would most prefer maintaining multiple alliances with as many countries that want to cooperate with them.

Since their bequeathed Post-Soviet independence, the ‘stan’ countries have been wedged between the two superpowers of Russia and China and have been in close proximity to the instability of Iran and Afghanistan. Making the best of this geographical arrangement, they have learned how to keep the region relatively stable by balancing the interests of the superior regional powers and considering the interests of the United States. Even though they are not particularly happy with the events within Ukraine, their desire to keep a delicate balance in the region (friends to all, neutral most often) is most likely the justification for not isolating Russia or publically criticizing Putin’s Ukrainian strategies.

And then there is the issue of Iran and its recent nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries. The Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and the Central Asian ‘stans’ may see the lifting of Iran’s sanctions as an opportunity for them to move away from Russian dependence. Iran is no longer off limits as a trade partner and a southern route through it would effectively change the dynamics of trade in the region, giving the smaller countries of the region more leverage at the bargaining table. This would make it at least plausibly easier to resist Russia’s growing sphere of influence.

At the same time, Russia, who played an essential role in securing Iran’s deal, has every intention of benefiting from it by securing lucrative contracts for itself in Iran’s key sectors such as energy and shipping. Also, with the prestige and status as Iran’s main ally, it will most likely use it to improve its global position if not necessarily its international image. Iran stands to benefit from the relationship as well. Under sanctions, Iran’s underdeveloped sectors suffered and now they are free to build up. This means they will need foreign investment – a role Russia is only too happy to fill. The Kremlin has expressed its desire to peacefully cooperate with Iran in the development of Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.

But for many, this does not bode well. Eventually, the issue of Iran’s arms industry will come up again. In five years when the embargo is lifted per the deal, there will be fierce competition among countries that would sell arms to Iran. With Russia becoming increasingly at odds with the West, its emphatic support of and alliance with Iran – whose nuclear deal does not do much to improve its relationship with the United States per se – is highly suspicious and, in my opinion, goes beyond just helping it recover economically. Because Iran has been clear about its intention to uphold its anti-American policies and has plans to continue providing its support to its allies in the region – who also have negative feelings toward the West – this union should be looked upon with at least some concern and apprehension.

With Russia recently joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and taking action to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt, there is no doubt that Russia is positioning itself to reemerge as the dominant figure in the non-Western world. A figure that desperately desires to have the same kind of influence the United States has over its Western allies. But if this is what Russia really wants, it will have to change the way it relates to its smaller neighbors. Instead of projecting the image that it wants to “collect them,” perhaps it should instead redirect its diplomatic energy to soothe them as real partners, equal and engaged.

While international relations have never been Russia’s strong suit in the West – take its revoked G8 membership status as evidence – this doesn’t mean it isn’t capable. For example, it could start by improving its image by ceasing to present itself as a victim. It could, instead, start to take responsibility for its own misfortunes. It could stop referring to the break-up of the Soviet Union as a tragedy and can instead treat it as an opportunity to reinvent itself to become a vital part of the international community. The last thing the international community wants to see is Russia head down the road to total economic collapse but if the country continues to violate international norms, it will only further isolate itself – maybe even to the point of another Cold War with the West.

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Sixty Years and Still Growing Stronger As UN University

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, one of Russia’s largest internationally oriented, educational and research institutions, has marked 60th year of its establishment with series of activities including an evening of congratulatory speeches, culminating with a grand multinational cultural concert in the Kremlin.

The congratulatory messages came from the Kremlin, Russian government, Federation Council, State Duma, Ministries and Departments, Soviet and Russian Graduates’ Associations in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and international organizations such as UNESCO and the United Nations.

From the highest officialdom, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his greetings to the faculty and staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students and alumni of Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) on the academic institution’s anniversary.

The message reads: “Exactly 60 years ago, Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia opened its doors to young people arriving in Moscow from the newly independent countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, offering them a second home. I strongly believe that many graduates hold warm memories of the years they spent studying in our country, their teachers and friends.

Over these years, the university has trained tens of thousands of qualified professionals in economics, agriculture, medicine, law, history, philology and other disciplines, making a unique contribution to strengthening friendship and mutual understanding between people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

It is marvellous that the university treasures these traditions and maintains a high standard of education as one of Russia’s best higher education institutions. Its noble mission helps attract talented, proactive and dedicated young people from across the world who are receptive to progressive ideas and are ready to undertake advanced programmes and projects.”

In a congratulation message, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, noted that the university has long been known for fostering understanding between countries and cultures.

Respect for diversity is one of the strengths. This anniversary comes at a time of test for that vital work. Today’s global landscape is scared by protracted conflicts, a climate crisis and the spread of hatred and disquiet. In such times, the pursuit of knowledge remains more necessary than ever.

It is encouraging to know that the mission of “uniting people of different cultures by knowledge” echoes the aim of key United Nations initiatives, including UN Academic Impact, of which the university is a valued member.

“As we mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and embark on a Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we look forward to continued partnership in shaping a peaceful and prosperous future for all,” stressed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Professor Vladimir Filippov, Rector of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, traced the history of its establishment emphasizing the fact that the significant decision to establish the university was made 60 years ago. It has worked the way from a higher educational institution, mainly trained staff for developing countries to a comprehensive research university – from Peoples’ Friendship University to RUDN University, the scientific and educational centre well-known and recognized in Russian and world rankings.

Today the university brings together students from 158 countries, and the number of RUDN University alumni increases by 5-6 thousand year by year, graduates work in almost all countries.

In 2020, RUDN University alumni are to hold events devoted to the RUDN University anniversary in dozens of countries of the world. RUDN University and its alumni are planting Trees of Friendship in many countries to commemorate its anniversary. Join us!

Professor Filippov concluded: “We are still young, up-and-coming and individual – our university is really the only one. RUDN University is more than just a degree you obtain, more than research, more than collaborations, more than creative environment. RUDN University generation is beyond standards, we create our own history – history of a university of the new type – We are different, we are equal, we are leaders!”

Additional historical notes: The Soviet government founded the university on 5 February 1960. Its stated objective during the height of the Cold War was to help developing nations. Many students from developed countries also attended the university. On 22 February 1961, the university was named Patrice Lumumba University after the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who had been killed in a coup that January.

The stated purpose for establishing the university was to give young people from Asia, Africa and Latin America, especially from poor families, an opportunity to be educated and to become qualified specialists. The organizations, as founders of the university, are the All-Union Central Soviet of Trade Unions, the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee, and the Soviet Associations Union of Friendship and Intercultural Relationship.

The university’s current Russian name is “Российский университет дружбы народов”, which could be translated as “Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia” or, more directly, as “Russian University of the Friendship of Nations“. The English-language version of the university’s website, however, uses the name “RUDN University” with the acronym RUDN derived from the Russian name transliterated into English (“Rossiiskii Universitet Druzhby Narodov”). Nonetheless, it remains most common in English to use the name “Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia” or the abbreviation “PFUR” used officially in official documents by RUDN.

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Putin’s Truth in the Era of Post-Truth

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Every day the newsfeed looks increasingly more like a rising tide of provocative articles on the events of World War II, Nazis, concentration camps, the USSR, Putin, Russia’s constitutional reform. You’ll certainly wonder what the latter two have to do with the rest. And the only way to answer that question is with the well-known mantra:

Information wars have become part of our daily life.

The West is currently fighting at least two of such wars—one against the Chinese dragon, and the other, against the Russian bear. Yet, while the information war against the Far East is mainly fought by the United States, the anti-Russian campaign is conducted mostly in the European media space. Besides pursuing tactical purposes, such as hampering another mutually beneficial Russian-German energy project (like Nord Stream 2, which is 93 percent complete), these battles have a more serious strategic agenda. This is what experts call “cognitive warfare”—war of major meanings and frightening images. In this war, history has become a battlefield.

So, Putin went into the battle to defend the history, the truth, the memory and the meanings—a very Russian, old-fashioned approach. Yet he got a new weapon in his arsenal, having declassified the Soviet archive documents. At a recent meeting with the leaders of post-Soviet states, in St. Petersburg, Putin gave an impressive lecture on how World War II began. In fact, he knew what he was talking about, as Russia’s archives feature plenty of Nazi papers seized by the Red Army. Putin presented official telegrams and diplomatic reports dating back to that period, which had been stored by the USSR. They serve as substantial and plentiful evidence showing that it was not the USSR who incited the global fire. Recently, Vladimir Putin also announced that a most extensive archive of historical materials on World War II would be set up and would be openly available to everyone both in Russia and abroad. “It is our duty to defend the truth about the Victory; otherwise, what shall we say to our children if the lies, like a disease, spread all over the world,” he said. “We must set facts against outrageous lies and attempts to distort history. This is our duty as a winning country and our responsibility to the future generations.”

In contrast, here is a recent tweet by the US Embassy in Denmark which says plainly that it were American soldiers who liberated prisoners of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland. Meanwhile, even weak school knowledge would suffice to understand why that couldn’t be true. Nothing but a little mistake, it appears. In fact, that was exactly what the US replied to criticism.

The long-lasting scandal around the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent equation of Communism with Nazism as “misanthropic ideologies” are part of the same set of examples. The main idea of this narrative is as follows: “Hitler and Stalin conspired against the free world, and Poland was their first victim.”

Indeed, here we should cite Der Freitag which has made a very good point that nowadays we have a fatal tendency to begin at the ending when we talk about events of the past. Yet speaking earnestly, it should be enough to remember the secret diplomacy of the summer 1939, the obscure dealings between various alliances and the enormous gap between the declarations and real intentions of the world’s political actors of that time. In short, things stood much the same way as they stand today. So, instead of habitually laying the blame on the Soviet Union, Polish politicians could for a change rebuke France and the United Kingdom for having failed, despite their obligations to Poland, to actively interfere in hostilities back in 1939. It would also be appropriate to mention the “non-aggression pact” (Hitler-Pilsudski Pact) between Nazi Germany and Poland, concluded as far back as January 1934. Some historians (for example, the famous Rolf-Dieter Müller) believe it to be aimed at involving Poland in a military alliance, possibly with the view to jointly waging war against the Soviet Union, of which both Moscow and the European capitals were well aware at that time.

Yet what’s done is done, and history cannot be rewritten. However, one can try to falsify its interpretation and make it fit today’s reality. What is more, one can use the distant past as a lens to view the events of today. The tendency to such humanitarian violence has unfortunately become a hallmark of our time.

This is what Austrian Der Standard says, drawing the same parallel—it seems that antagonism to the policy pursued by the Kremlin has become a powerful unifying factor. Andrzej Duda proposed to Volodymyr Zelensky that they commemorate Polish and Ukrainian soldiers killed in the 1920s during the fight “against the bolsheviks”, yet he overlooked that back then, 22 thousand Russian prisoners of war died in the Polish Tuchola camp alone. Zelensky, in his turn, urged humanity to join their efforts in countering “destructive ideologies” today as it did 100 years ago. At the same time, in Ukraine, visual rehabilitation of the Third Reich and SS symbols is underway and historical Nazism is glorified. Even the national motto—”Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”—quite evidently resembles in structure the well-known National Socialist salute.

Unfortunately, juggling ideas in the field of history is an inherent part of the European politics and media environment. In a number of countries, modern politicians build on “history” to shape an artificial collective unconscious, hoping to manipulate potential voters’ decision-making. The “Polish scheme“, as it might be called in that case, works as follows:

-First, in the article “Politicians from All Parties Say: Putin Is a Liar and Wants to Hurt Us!”, whose title speaks for itself, member of the European Parliament Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who is also a former Polish prime minister and head of the foreign ministry, says: “There are two issues—the first is whether the so-called historical policy makes sense and the second concerns the current situation related to Russia’s aggressive and deceitful rhetoric.

-Now, there is a matter of money: in an interview with the German newspaper Bild Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of Poland’s ruling party, claims that “Germany should send more troops, especially to the Baltic States. Lessons of the past warn us against stationing more German troops in Poland. Germany must take these concerns into account. One thing is clear, however: we need strong operational and combat readiness in Eastern Europe.” He also insists that Russialike Germanymust pay reparations to Poland, including for destroying the country’s economy, roads, factories, historic buildings and cultural values. Noteworthy is that after World War II, thanks to Stalin’s effort, Poland expanded its territory by one-third, acquiring economically viable Silesia and the Baltic coast from Germany.

-Then, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki writes that Poland was the first country that fought to defend “free Europe“. He forgets to mention, though, that Poland also participated, together with Hitler, in the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

-Against this backdrop, the Internal Security Agency (ISA) of Poland prepares a report about an expected “interference” by the Kremlin in the presidential election in Poland to be held in spring, surely to “undermine the integrity and effectiveness of NATO and weaken the cohesion of the European Union”.

-And incidentally, Putin is on his way to becoming “an aggressive red monarch” and he must go, living up to an idealistic formula that “everything was the way we want it to be today”…

So… following that logic, Putin must go. He must do so precisely because he keeps dispelling European illusions about history, which must be the way we want to see it today.

It matters not that Russia’s political system has entered a new phase of democratic transformation. Neither does it matter that major historical processes are brought about by preconditions and circumstances, not by shouts or newspaper headlines. All this mosaic nonsense is shaping an information landscape that draws historical myth from the past to the present, generating false analogies.

There are those who still tend to analyze current developments through the magic crystal of perceptions built up by history, to expound on Russia’s recent foreign policy through the lens of Stalin’s mythical “aggression” and “the Soviet empire” or to transform assessments on Russia’s internal processes, such as the initiated constitutional reform, applying notions from Russian 19th century novels. “Russia’s civil service could be likened to a pile of iron filings. Just as shavings align themselves with a magnet, so Russia’s apparatchiks align themselves with the magnet called power, without the need for instructions. They guess what is expected of them. That creates an illusion of remarkable unity—at least, as long as there is only one magnet. That is neither Dostoevsky nor Gogol—that is Spiegel.

Normally, the human brain is reluctant to take on complex tasks, it rather feeds on content that can calm it down. Such information should be familiar to it and fit perfectly into its inbuilt concepts.

Once calmed down, one can continue to buy natural gas and coal from the wicked Putin at a good price and sell him Polish apples via Belarus, earnestly believing Russia to be a decrepit totalitarian empire, dormant deep beneath the snow, rather than a complex, dynamically evolving state of the 21st century with great scientific capacity, innovative industry and open society. It seems easier this way.

But this will by no means change the reality: Putin is no tsar, but a national leader who initiates work to update the system of power he himself has constructed, while “Stalin’s version of history” is nothing but gloomy fantasies of narrow-minded people still clinging to the obsolete clichés like “dispatched to the Gulag, the Soviet Union’s archipelago of slave labour camps” and the idea to convene a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council is the most intuitive and sensible proposal in the field of international security over the last two decades.

Now, would you like a bit of post-truth? Let’s imagine that, like many of us here hope, Putin simply resigned. Just try to hypothesize how it would affect Europe. Don’t be deluded though: the best scenario is by no means guaranteed. It is only in academic projections of American geostrategists that a weakened and disintegrated Russia is—for some reason—presented as a blessing. And what if local conflicts, like that in Ukraine, spilled over to Crimea, the Caucasus, the Urals; Islamists and terrorists from Central Asia (their natural habitats) moved to the North, prosperous Europe becoming their final destination? The downfall of the political system, inevitably followed by the coming to power of radical forces, would trigger the collapse of economic pillars, lead to energy supply disruption, losses from interrupted trading transactions for the exports (which already suffer the aftermath of sanction policies) of European goods and services to the Russian market, heighten the growth of shadow economy, create new customs barriers and escalate trade wars. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative would considerably slow down, which would bury all hopes for accelerating Europe’s economic growth using this channel. Migration from Russia, which is currently limited mainly to non-system politicians and businessmen with murky success stories (many of these persons being both at once very often), would become a mass phenomenon, greatly exceeding the number of Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians who have moved closer to the Atlantic. Europe will be swept by a new wave of crime, poverty and totally different values that are very far from the dream of a beautiful and unified Europe. How about this post-truth scenario?

Thus, the fight for history is a struggle for a dignified and dynamic future where no short-sighted ideological considerations can draw dividing lines, no matter how paradoxical this might seem.

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Putin’s Message to African Envoys

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has received, in accordance with the established tradition, letters of credence from 23 new ambassadors in the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. The ceremony, which officially marks the start of their diplomatic activities in the Russian Federation, attended by the heads of diplomatic missions of 23 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Australia.

That included three from North Africa: Mohamed Sherif Kourta (People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria),Lotfi Bouchaara (Kingdom of Morocco) and Tarak ben Salem (Republic of Tunisia).

In his speech at the ceremony, Putin concisely underlined the key global challenges as follows: threat of terrorism growing, arms control system collapsing and global economy increasingly becoming unstable.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Putin took the opportunity, through the diplomatic representatives, to invite foreign leaders and delegations to attend celebrations marking the great event in Moscow. He then proceeded to address specific issues connecting individual countries with Russia.

“Russia has strong and friendly ties with Algeria. The presidential election held there late last year was a big step towards political and social reform in your country. We support Algeria’s balanced policy in international and regional affairs. We see good possibilities for building up economic and military-technical cooperation and for coordinating efforts in the interests of stronger stability and security in North Africa and the Sahel-Saharan zone. I recently had a short conversation with your President in Berlin. I hope to see him in Russia soon,” he told Algerian Ambassador, Mohamed Sherif Kourta during the ceremony.

Putin further expressed high satisfaction with the present state of collaboration with Morocco, and added “both Russia and Morocco have achieved decent results in mutual trade, agriculture, and deep-sea fisheries, but there are still opportunities for advanced Russian technologies and R&D results to reach the Moroccan market.”

With Ambassador Tarak ben Salem (Republic of Tunisia), Putin stressed: “we are resolved to further strengthen bilateral cooperation with Tunis, which is among Russia’s traditional partners in the Middle East and North Africa. We are ready to work together on current regional matters, including a settlement in Libya.”

The newly arrived ambassadors have important and serious diplomatic tasks: to promote the development of comprehensive relations, responsible for expanding political dialogue, make conscious efforts in strengthening trade and economic ties as well as deepening cultural exchanges and promoting people-to-people contacts, facilitate stronger friendship and mutual understanding between their countries and the Russian Federation.

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