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The Rebirth of the Patriarch of Moscow

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The Orthodox Church and the Christian tradition have always assumed a role of primary importance in Russian history and tradition.

The origins of Christianity in Russia go back to 988 and coincide with the baptism of Prince Vladimir the Great. He had come to Constantinople, following which the evangelization of the Principality Kievan Rus’ started. The latter included the space currently occupied by the areas of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus, considered the predecessor of the Russian Empire. Formed by Igor in 882, the Principality Kievan Rus’ is the first political form organised by the Oriental Slav tribes placed on those territories. This gave rise to the common orthodox faith and the Russian people’s sense of national belonging.

Retracing the path of the Principality one can indeed observe that the Orthodox Christian Faith was immediately embraced by those populations. It also succeeded in asserting itself in the Eastern zones, where there was strong pagan influence. This barely digested the advent of the new creed and accompanied their evolution, acting as a stalwart for the Country’s national and cultural identity. Orthodoxy is even granted with Scripture, which is surely a culture’s fundamental principle. It was introduced via the spread of Christianity among the Slav tribes through the creation of the Cyrillic characters due to two great saints, Cyril and Methodius. It also constituted the prerequisite for the political and cultural development of the Principality of Kiev, leaving a heritage that would last even after its disintegration.

Indeed, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orthodox religion regained that role it traditionally enjoyed.

To understand the extent of this phenomenon, one can analyze some statistics carried out by the International Social Survey Programme:“Russians return to religion, but not to Church 10/02/2014” relating to the number of the faithful in the Country between 1988 and 2008.

If in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox church counted 67 dioceses, 21 monasteries, 6,893 parishes, 2 academies and 3 theological seminars. In 2008 it counted 133 dioceses, over 23,000 parishes, 620 monasteries (including 298 male ones), 322 convents, 5 academies and 32 theological seminars, 43 schools for seminary preparation, 1 theological institution, 2 orthodox universities and 2 female diocesan theological schools.

Examining the data also reveals that between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults considering themselves orthodox had grown from 31% to 72%, while the share of the Russian population not considering themselves religious had dropped from 61% to 18%. However, research carried out by the International Social Survey Programme also reveals that the return to religion does not correspond to its practice. The research demonstrates two substantial facts: only one in ten of those declaring themselves religious attended mass at least once a month; the growth in practisers was ridiculous when compared to that in believers. The latter is borne out by the fact that from 1991 to 2008 it was just 5 percent, going from 2% to 7%.

The growth in the population towards the various religious affiliations was also analyzed over various demographic groups. This analysis revealed that from 1991 to 2008 there was an increase of around 38% in women approaching Orthodox religion, going from 43% to 81%; and an increase of 46% in men, going from 17% to 63%. It also reveals that the increase in identification with Orthodox religion grew by 43% in youthful groups, aged between 16 and 49, going from 26% in 1991, to 69% in 2008, and by 39% amongst those aged over 50, going from 40% in 1991 to 79% in 2008. One may further register that approach to the Orthodox Faith grew substantially in the population with a high level of education, and in particular graduates. This can be augmented by the facts that in 2008, women of faith were the majority and practicing more than men, and that the over-70s were a more religious group than the youngsters. Reference to age therefore, highlights that the elderly form the most religious: 82% of the over-70s declare they are orthodox, in comparison with 77% of people aged between 50 and 69 and 74% of those aged between 30 and 49. Finally, the 62% of youths aged between 16 and 29 remains.

Although the above-mentioned study displays a clear discrepancy between the practicing and non-practicing faithful, the great rebirth of orthodoxy in the Russian people cannot be denied. In this regard, it is interesting to quote the episode of great mass participation occurring in November 2011. Three million Muscovites, facing the cold and rain, poured onto the streets to venerate the belt of the Virgin. This had benn brought from Mount Athos to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (the church destroyed by Stalin and substituted by a pool, but rebuilt in a few years under El’cin).

There is no doubt that this rebirth was supported by the collaboration between the Church and political power. This significantly grew over time and intensified on the occasion of two events in particular: the election of Archbishop Cyril Somolensk as patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in 2009, and Vladimir Putin’s return to power in 2012.

The Orthodox church’s policies can actually be easily reconciled with Putin’s vision and his strong call to the Country’s traditions. Patriarch Alexei II had already set himself clearly apart from the Western concepts of “human rights” and “globalization”, considering them unsuited to Russian specifics. Further, Cyril I, his successor, issued the “Declaration of Human Rights of Russia’s Orthodox church”, after repudiating the Western Universal Declaration of Man’s Rights.

The intensification of relations between Church and State has become even more evident in recent years. Indeed, on the forth anniversary of the nomination of Patriarch Cyril, the Kremlin explicitly wished for the Orthodox church to raise its beneficent role in society. In a meeting between the State and religious exponents, held on 11 February 2013, Putin also underlined the need to give the Orthodox church more space. This extended, to political questions regarding matters like the family, education of youths and the patriotic spirit. With reference to defending these values, in particular the family, Russia has often wished to confirm and remark defending traditional, natural values of human society. To this end it has underlined its conception of “family” – understood as the basic element in ordered development for State and society – and the realization of a political and social strategy favouring it. These have decisively contributed to inverting the very negative demographic trend afflicting the Country over the last decades, warding off out-and-out social disaster. If one considers that the “demographic Winter” striking Russia around 1991 to 2005 is now a common situation in most European states, there can be no doubt that the Russian model constitutes an international example.

Keeping these facts in mind, in some alarming cases the attempt to define and orient States’ policies supporting families and young mothers is even more important and current. It aims to guarantee correct demographic development, crucial for effect on the process of State’s main internal and external policy. In this regard, President Putin has often insisted how humanity today clashes with very serious challenges, like continuous attacks on the institution of the family. This explains why Putin’s Russia is very interested in demographic and family matters. Protecting the rights and interests of families, motherhood and childhood is a priority for public authorities. This actively support and encourage politics and initiatives in their favour: they, benefit from the close collaboration with non-governmental organisations and voluntary citizen associations. Russia’s objective is to defeat this long-lasting demographic deficit, by reaching a fertility rate of 2,1 instead of its current 1,7.

Indeed, for the Russian authorities the problem of birth reduction cannot only be attributed to the economic sphere. It has deeper, cultural roots hence the need to intervene in the fields of education and information too. On many occasions, both Putin and Patriarch Cyril have emphasised that the globalised financial system caused the world economic crisis as of 2008, creating and making hegemonic speculative, parasitical financing. It is also responsible for the ethical, moral yielding developing internationall to create a dangerous ‘tendency to destroying human society’. This moral crisis had exacerbated a tendency to selfishness and individualism. These phenomena appear in Russia as the “social orphan”: 80% of abandoned children normally have both parents, who intentionally choose not to bring them up.

One may further note that a new agreement between the Church and the Counts’ Court was recently signed at Moscow. It aimed to raise morale in Russia, impaired by corruption, a real blight there; and safeguard the national spiritual, historical and cultural heritage, necessary for the social good. On the occasion of signing, Patriarch Cyril declared that “The work of the Counts’ Court has a substantial impact on society’s moral climate. We know that corruption degrades human beings. And if corruption reaches a significant extent, it erodes the healthy fabric of society and undermines the basis of the State.”

In fact, for Cyril, the “current vices, connected with theft of public and state property” are attributed to the difficulties faced by the population in the ’90’s and early 2000’s. They are, “the collapse of the economy, the destruction of certain ideals and the attempt to create new ones”.

For these reasons, the Kremlin considers the Church a fundamental ally to preserve Russia’s spiritual and cultural identity. Politics and the Church are intertwined: the Kremlin needs to promote the Church as an organ representing the nation’s values to regroup consensus; it is opportune for the Church to collaborate with politics to promote choices protecting the family and safeguarding public morality. With reference to safeguarding life, the Orthodox church has worked hard to explain that abortion is nothing but the killing of an innocent human being. The work of many NGOs promote the pro-life cause in Russia.

Another emblematic case of the common political strategy linking the Orthodox church and the Kremlin is the anti-blasphemy. This was adopted following the episode of three feminist activists, Pussy Riot, who played in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Their rock music, blasphemous in character, was performed on the platform of the altar, to protest against Putin’s policy. For the secular authorities the gesture was considered as one by hooligans or vandals; for the Ecclesiastical leaders it was blasphemous profanity.

Further, the Church supported the new regulations limiting access to abortion; and Putin’s law forbidding the publication of material portraying homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals.

The Orthodox church’s action also spreads internationally, appearing as the promoter of dialogue between different religions and cultures. Patriarch Cyril actually stated the need to build orthodox geopolitics, in line with Putin’s foreign policy. To favour this role, the “Inter-Religious Council of the Russian Federation” and its analogous “Inter-religious Council of the CSI” (Community of Independent states) were set up in 1998. Orthodox Christians, 230 million in all, include: countries orthodox by tradition (Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldavia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, the Ukraine), with their own orthodox national Churches, countries containing orthodox ethnic-cultural minorities (Albania, Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, Slovakia), and countries containing orthodox faithful, principally in Western Europe. Patriarch Cyril often visits countries from the former Soviet belt to consolidate cultural, religious, but also political relations. The Orthodox church moves in the former Soviet area, which the Kremlin aims to regroup. All this, supports the government’s foreign policy, continually appealing to a shared values between the “sister nations” with “a unique story, a unique Church and unique future”.

To understand the importance one may refer to Eirini Patsea’ article, “Church diplomacy: Greece, Russia and beyond”.

The author stresses that “after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox post-Soviet states chose to submit to the spiritual leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; not the Patriarchate of Moscow. It was important, for those states and for their western interlocutors, that they cut the cord from the ROC and the Soviet politics”.

With reference to foreign policy, the situation lived in the Ukraine following the conflict is also interesting. In this country Orthodox church exponents were submitted to pressure from the Ukraine’s new “nationalist” authorities and other organisations. The latter wished to take over faculties to transfer the clergy depending on the Moscow Patriarch under the Kiev Patriarch (the latter not recognised, not even by the Constantinople Patriarch). In this regard it should be stressed that the Ukraine counts the highest number of orthodox parishes after Russia.

To conclude, it is fundamental to underline that this type of collaboration between Church and state has facilitated the rebirth of faith in Russia. It is possible in the traditional acephalus-national reality of Orthodoxy, which has made the “symphonic” Caesaropapism the true foundation of Russian identity for centuries. It is then clear that the model cannot be exported. However, the National character of the orthodox Ecclesiastical reality has not hindered the possibility of an “orthodox ecumenism” open to international dialogue between cultures and religions.

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Standing for Everything Evil against Everything Good: Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe

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In late January, researchers from the renowned U.S. research centre RAND Corporation made their contribution to maintaining anti-Russian sentiments by publishing an analytical paper entitled “Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe: Understanding the Threat.” The report was sponsored by the U.S. Army, and it is to the U.S. Army that its conclusion is formally addressed, offering recommendations on counteracting Russia’s hostile measures in European countries.

This is not the first time that the RAND Corporation has prepared research analytical reports for the U.S. Armed Forces on various topics in international interaction. For instance, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s study “Networks and Netwars. The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy” published in 2001 and commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, is one of the first works on cyber warfare and it is already considered a classic. There are, however, reasons to believe that the rather opportunistic report on Russia’s hostile measures in Europe will have a somewhat different future.

“J’Accuse…!”

Before making accusations against Russia, the authors of the report make a series of important qualifications in their introduction that significantly reduce its academic value:

  1. First, the researchers from the very outset acknowledge that proving or disproving Russia’s malicious influence in Europe is virtually impossible and they do not even try to do so.
  2. Second, unlike historical studies, their report is instead geared towards prognostication, that is, this paper is by default “debatable, based on individual observations and dependent on circumstances.”
  3. Third, the authors acknowledge that the current problems and disagreements in European countries are not the result of the malicious actions of Moscow.

Nevertheless, Russia has tried and will apparently continue to try in the future to use European disagreements to achieve its five principal foreign political objectives:

  1. pursuing security and survival of the regime;
  2. developing and maintaining great-power status;
  3. exerting influence within the near abroad in order to pull these countries into its sphere of influence;
  4. increasing cooperation and trade with Western Europe;
  5. undermining enlargement of the European Union and NATO into the post-Soviet space.

It is assumed that Moscow will use “measures short of war” as a tactic. This term was introduced by George Kennan in the late 1940s to denote the hostile actions of the USSR and spanning a broad range of political, economic, diplomatic, intelligence and military steps.

Russia is most likely to put pressure on individual European countries in order to create a crisis and a subsequent window of opportunities to boost its own influence.

At the same time, several groups of countries are within Moscow’s orbit: the Baltic states and the states of Southeast and Western Europe. In each region, Russia has its interests and leverage that it can use to achieve its above-state foreign political objectives.

Europe in Russia’s Cross-Hairs

RAND Corporation researchers believe Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are most vulnerable to Russia’s negative influence due to five basic reasons:

  1. They are the most vulnerable NATO and EU countries due to their geographical location (common land border with Russia).
  2. They pose a threat for the regime in Russia as successful democratic societies and full-fledged members of the western community.
  3. Using hostile measures in the Baltic countries could have a positive impact on the Kremlin’s ratings, since many Russian citizens view these countries as hostile.
  4. Moscow can exert significant influence on the foreign and domestic policies of those countries given their common Soviet past, the feeling of nostalgia that can also be used.
  5. Moscow’s support for Russian-speaking communities in those countries.

On the whole, the authors of the paper agree that the greatest danger for the Baltic countries stems from Russia’s support for the Russian-speaking diaspora that could become a sort of “fifth column” in the states and a conduit for Russia’s interests. They also note that the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia still faces certain discrimination, particularly when it comes to finding employment, which Russia can use to its advantage. The possibility of military intervention using “little green men” should not be discounted either, but the probability of this happening is much lower, since the Baltic countries have long since joined NATO and have essentially delegated their security to those EU and western European countries that have significant military capacities.

The situation in the countries of Southeast Europe is somewhat different, where poverty is the main problem that opens a window of opportunity for Russian influence. Indeed, Bulgaria and Romania have the lowest per capita GDP among EU member states. As a result, Moscow may be able to influence the politics and policies of these countries through investments by Russia’s largest foreign economic actors, primarily from the energy sector. For instance, Bulgaria’s only oil refinery in the port city of Burgas is owned by Russia’s Lukoil, and the paper’s authors believe the refinery was significantly undervalued when the Russian corporation bought it. Therefore, in the countries of southeast Europe, the Kremlin will use primarily economic measures including bribery and blackmail to destabilize the situation.

However, the most desirable outcome for Moscow is to foster pro-Russian sentiments in the countries of Western Europe, as it is here that Europe’s wealthiest and most influential countries – the closest allies of the United States – are located. RAND Corporation researchers believe that the Kremlin will see even the slightest signal of a potential split in the transatlantic partnership as a major foreign political victory.

Western European countries are currently faced with a knot of complex problems that Russia can successfully use for its own purposes: dissatisfaction with the economic situation (unemployment and economic stagnation), the crisis of traditional political parties, illegal migration and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

It is these difficulties in Europe’s development that will give Russia a chance to sow discord between NATO member states and further its great-power status. Although none of the manifestations of the crisis mentioned above stem from Russia’s politics, they all afford strategic opportunities that Russia can use to drive a wedge between the EU countries and undermine transatlantic partnership.

Europe’s problems in the economy, immigration policy and the fight against terrorism have become a breeding ground for various radical parties that pursue nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-European and generally more stringent security policies, which, the report claims, plays into the Kremlin’s hand. At the same time, RAND Corporation researchers note that the assistance that Moscow has provided to these parties has not played a decisive role in increasing their influence, since they have always had their voting base. Another matter is that, in times of difficulty, the number of dissatisfied people increases, and their electoral base increases accordingly.

At the same time, even though the authors of the report are convinced that the unfavourable economic situation and security threats stemming from the countries of the Middle East will make Europe more vulnerable to Russia’s hostile measures in the coming years, Russia will fail to exert significant influence on the policies and politics of western European countries and deflect attention from the situation in the east of Ukraine and from the annexed Crimea.

Therefore, in regard to western European countries, Moscow will continue its tactics of assisting radical Eurosceptic parties, using energy as a means of putting pressure (so-called “energy weapons”), using close ties with and support for individual influential pro-Russian politicians, including former state figures (in particular, Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi and Miloš Zeman, who actively support Moscow), expanding its information and propaganda campaigns (for instance, through RT, although its audience in the EU countries is relatively small), and utilizing subversive measures through various non-profit organizations (for instance, the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation).

What the United States as a Whole, and its Military in Particular, Should Do to Counteract Russia

In response to these methods for putting pressure on European countries, the authors of the report propose countermeasures that are rather general and have been suggested several times:

  1. Building the rule of law in Europe and offering aid in fighting corruption.
  2. Provide assistance (both administrative and material) on the part of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute to political parties.
  3. Ensuring the Robust engagement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in order to counteract Russia’s propaganda machine led by RT.

Suggestions for the U.S. military are not strikingly new either, and some of them are simply not easily implementable:

  1. Deploying the military in closer proximity to Russia’s borders, for instance, in the Baltic countries, on condition, however, that an escalation of tensions with Russia is avoided (this is not very likely today).
  2. Developing opportunities for blocking Russia’s hostile measures, primarily through intelligence and counter-intelligence.
  3. The U.S. military taking more active steps to prevent crises in European countries that Russia could use to implement its foreign political objectives.
  4. The U.S. government taking timely and decisive steps in crisis situations in Europe. The United States should be ready to intervene in a broad range of conflicts in Europe to minimize side effects that Russia could use to advance its own interests.

On the whole, the report appears to be perfunctory in nature and gives the impression that the United States does not consider Russia to be a major rival in Europe, at least for the time being. More likely, Washington views Moscow as a sort of irritant, but not as a player in European affairs. What is also interesting is the authors’ conclusion that there is a reverse relation between Russia’s opportunities for interference and its abilities to achieve its objectives: where Moscow has influence over certain actors, it does not have the opportunity to exert major influence on policies and politics. Only time will tell whether they are right or whether this is wishful thinking.

Conclusions for Russia

Against the general background of the massive anti-Russian hysteria that has recently swept the United States, the RAND Corporation report has several reasonable and balanced ideas. First, Russia is not to blame for all the crises that have befallen European countries of late. Second, the authors of the study acknowledge the fact that Russia has its objective interests in Europe, which Russia will try to promote by influencing the policies of European countries. But why should this influence be solely hostile and malicious? Why is Russia seen as a sort of enfant terrible of the European subcontinent that is, by default, blamed for all of Europe’s problems?

European countries experience two principal emotions here: disappointment and anger. Disappointment stems from Moscow’s failure to join the western world, the full allure of which was shown to Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. The list of reasons for this development can be very long, but the essence of changes in Russia today is clear: the western model will not be accepted to the detriment of the Russian values. This causes anger on the part of Europe and the United States: How can a country that until recently was receiving humanitarian aid from us and living from one IMF loan to the next so recklessly reject such a successful model of economic and public modernization?

The current crisis in relations with European countries is a natural and expected response on the part of Moscow to the refusal of Europe’s ruling parties to accept Russia’s worldview and values and the reluctance to understand its motives and principal concerns. The global situation has changed radically, while this mentality has persisted. This explains the desire to punish Russia in economy, politics and sports, to depict it as a lying state incapable of reaching and maintaining agreements. Clearly, this is a dead-end road.

To develop successfully, Russia needs to have close ties with Europe that would be advantageous for both sides, while European countries cannot do without their eastern neighbour. It is a great shame that the second half of the 2010s may go down in history as a time when, instead of engaging in a much-needed and useful dialogue, the parties competed in demonizing each other.

During his latest State of the Union Address, Donald Trump stressed that his administration will “will never apologize for advancing America’s interests.” Russia should adhere to a similarly strong and open position in regard to its foreign political interests. Its actions should be consistent and well-founded, but do not necessarily need to be met with general approval. Sooner or later, this will result in the reformatting of relations both with the United States and with Europe, which will be based primarily on mutual interests, instead of mutual grievances.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia, Ukraine And The Disputed Crimean Peninsula

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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In this exclusive video for In Homeland Security, American Military University’s Dr. Matthew Crosston, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, discusses the tumultuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine since the 2014 ‘Maidan Revolution’ and how each nation, the United States, and NATO all view the disputed peninsula of Crimea. There is a transcript of the video below.

Transcript of Dr. Crosston’s Analysis:

If we’re looking at the Russian Ukrainian conflict, sort of en mass, going back to its beginning foundation, for Russia at least it starts with the Maidan Revolution – or even the precursors to what created the Maidan Revolution. And, that’s something that we get a little bit of a debate or a discussion in the West about. The Russians feel that the West sort of made some sneaky promises behind the scenes to Ukraine – the people who would ultimately lead this revolution and cause the sitting president to flee to Russia and have a new president come in and take his place who was much more EU-friendly much more-NATO friendly much less Russian friendly. The Russians always saw some subterfuge in that action. They never saw it as a natural organic revolution. They always saw it as an example of Western interference, and they – therefore – felt justified to say well if you can interfere, we’re going to interfere because if you’re just playing out your interests on the ground in Ukraine why can’t we play out our interests on the ground in Ukraine?

Besides, we also think Ukraine is a better partner to us and should be a bigger compatriot of our interest because we have religious, cultural, historical ties. No matter how you try to play it in the West, Ukraine and Russia should not be at odds against each other, Ukraine and Russia should not be enemies. They are the more natural allies. And in the end since you’re making false promises we’re going to find out how much you really mean it when you tell Ukraine secretly whisper-whisper behind our backs [saying] don’t listen to Russia don’t do anything about Russia. Come to us instead. Ukraine really believed in that the people who led the Maidan Revolution believe that would happen. So then what we call the annexation of Crimea (but yet in Russia they call the secession of Crimea into the Russian Federation because the people in Crimea held a referendum saying we want to be part of Russia) – we don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore. We portray that as being Russia forced that on Crimea. The Russians say the Crimeans voiced their political will, and we back them up – which is what you guys in the West didn’t do for Ukraine when we did it.

The Kerch Strait

What’s above the Kerch Strait – which never gets played in Western media – is this massive eight-lane superhighway that actually the Russians built and had actually in place as a as an agreement and was already begun to be built before the Maidan Revolution and is now complete. What it does is it connects as a land bridge – it connects from Rostov in Russia and over into Crimea. So that you don’t have to go through Ukraine at all to get into Crimea. That’s where those naval vessels were;  that’s where the Russians they were getting near the bridge – without any knowledge or any announcement of anything preordained.

So, the Russians said ‘what are you doing here?’ Ukrainians don’t answer. And, the Russians start playing with it, and they said ‘well we’ll see how tough you really are … you really going to use these naval ships? Are you really going to do an action here? That’s why the Russians call it a provocation. And, in the West – we say the Russians are just making up the word ‘provocation’ because these vessels weren’t doing anything. But, we are ignoring how the perspective of the Russians – near this massive land bridge (that literally now connects Russia to Crimea), how would they interpret the presence of military vessels unannounced with no declared plan of action – just this sort of mysterious presence? They did what most countries probably would do, but what they did goes against our interests, so therefore we have a problem with Russia’s actions.

No World War 3 Imminent

Russia has seen – really, quite frankly – since the 90s (with Clinton) this sort of slow very gradual encroachment where more and more members of what they used to consider their sphere of influence or their regional neighborhood (the Russian regional neighborhood) more and more people become part of NATO. But the one part they’ve always laid out is like the parts that have always sort of been Russian, and you can’t underestimate what Ukraine means to Russians in their memory as far as their historical cultural and even religious memory – that area Ukraine and Russia has always been tied together. So that might be the red line (no pun intended) for the Russians drawn in the sand – Ukraine will not go to NATO – will stand up against that. And, I think maybe the possibility was that NATO thought ‘well let’s test that a little bit because maybe they’re saying it of course we understand why you say we need machismo on that, you need some bravado on that, but let’s see if you really mean it.’ And, as it turns out, the Russians said ‘yeah, we do really mean it. Now do you really mean it? Are you really going to come to bat for Ukraine if we step up?’ They stepped up, we stepped back. That sounds bad but it’s not World War 3, and won’t be World War 3 because it means the two big sides – the two big players (Russia and the United States) – are declaring: Ukraine is enough for us to get into [inconsequential] fights over, [but] it’s not enough for us to get into a real war with each other over. And, that’s the part that’s going unsaid in the West that we should emphasize more.

Author’s note: This video first appeared at Homeland Security

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The Death of the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ Project?

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Russian relations with Europe are part of a complicated story rooted in military, economic and often ideological realms. Both entities have for centuries tried to find a modus vivendi, but have so far failed. One compromise suggested for Europe and Russia was an economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok – the space characterized by a unified economy, political understanding and even deep military cooperation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for years advocated the idea, making speeches about the case. To be clear, Putin was not the first to propound it, but was merely reflecting on similar ideological arguments of the past. A transcontinental union spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific is a geopolitical concept that pops back up from time to time and is linked to neo-Eurasianism, before which the geopolitical space was made up by the triangle of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan.

One space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which one might also call “Greater Eurasia”, would make Russia pivot to the West. This was an attractive idea for the European and Russians. Indeed, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said that she hopes “Russia would increasingly develop ties with the European economic area, finally resulting in a common economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

How would such cooperation look? Perhaps it would imply at least a free trade agreement (FTA), whose core features might involve the cutting of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Business interests in the EU as well as Russia are likely to be supportive of such a proposition. Putin stated that “in future, we could even consider a free trade zone or even more advanced forms of economic integration. The result would be a unified continental market with a capacity worth trillions of Euros”.

Surely when we talk about Russia in this context, we need to understand this space as including neighboring post-Soviet states. Russia launched its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project back in 2015.

One would think that for the EU, an FTA with the EAEU would be an advantageous proposition from an economic standpoint, since it would give preferential access to an important market. But one would expect the pre-conditions posed by the EU for the opening of negotiations to be many and quite stringent.

For Moscow, this positioning might be more economically advantageous, as the EEU could be a bridge for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with the European market. On the map, all appears logical and attractive, but in reality, China’s BRI, although not against being cooperative with other blocks, still aims at pulling major Eurasian resources towards itself. Russia’s EEU, weaker in dimension than the BRI, will inevitably be drawn to Beijing with growing grievances on the Russian side.

Back to the unified Russia-Europe economic space, there remains the fundamental question as to whether or not Russia would consider an FTA with the EU to be in its interests. Is the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ idea serious? In Russia, many would fear that an FTA with the EU would be too imbalanced, or asymmetric in favor of the EU. Indeed, most Russian exports to the EU, such as oil and gas, are already being traded without tariffs. Also, the challenge for any petro-economy to sustain a substantial and competitive industrial sector would be a tough task to pull off.

So far, we have given a pretty rosy picture of the two stood regarding the project just several years ago, in the period before the Ukraine crisis.

When discussing Russian geopolitical moves, one needs to remember how important Ukraine is and how the latter has been a driving factor in Russia’s calculus. Ukraine has always been the main point of any of Russia’s grand projects of the past and present. The modern EEU, an ambitious project that goes well beyond the simple removal of borders between the five ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia), is weak economically and geographically without Ukraine. Many believe that even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia-Europe relations were strained and a crisis was inevitable, but it should not be forgotten that it is still Ukraine which made the differences insurmountable. It could even be argued that the Ukraine crisis put an end to any grand strategic view between Russia and Europe. The “Lisbon-Vladivostok” vision, it could be argued, is now dead.

Beyond the Ukrainian issue are also other important issues which are likely to stop any furtherance of the Greater Eurasia project. Europe and Russia are not just two competing economic blocs, but two blocs with opposing values and political systems. A compromise between the two has not been seen in the history of the past several centuries, except for short periods of time when Russian military power was needed in settling inter-European problems.

Moreover, put in the longer-term perspective, we see that the abandoning of the grand Lisbon-Vladivostok vision follows what is taking place across the entire Eurasian continent, where pragmatism and a reliance on real state interests and capabilities are back in fashion following the hopeful post-Cold War years.

Over the past several years, Russia has also leant towards the East. And while it is often put to question just how deep the Russian pivot to the East is, certain geopolitical tendencies lead us to support the idea as fact. Moscow portrays this policy as its own choosing, but the reality is that from three grand avenues (Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia) of projection of Russian geopolitical influence, it is only in Central Asia that Moscow does not meet important pushback from any Western power, while Chinese influence is only seen in economics. This simple vector of projection of Russian power is quite telling at a time when Moscow is more drawn to the East rather than the West, spelling a death note to once grand plans of an economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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