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A New Great Game in the Caspian: NATO and Russian Countermeasures

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Russia has worked diligently to keep NATO from entering its perceived geostrategic territory, even if that comes at great personal cost to the nation, which it has on a number of occasions.

Russia’s latest move to block NATO’s entrance into the Caspian region came after it led other littoral states to sign a declaration guaranteeing stability and security in the region. The presidents of the five Caspian states signed the political declaration, which ensures that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to maintain an armed forces presence in Caspian territory. This effectively shuts NATO out of the area and prevents it from establishing any foreign base of operations in the foreseeable future. The issue to consider: how much does this matter and why?

The most interesting aspect in this scenario is the change in political favor by some of the Caspian states. Azerbaijan in particular has been a strong strategic energy partner with the US and Europe since its separation and subsequent independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country possesses a wealth of natural gas and oil riches that have continuously gone westward. This is partly a strategy of Western desire to purchase oil from Azerbaijan in place of Russia, as it effectively keeps the money out of Russia’s oil economy. This is why it is of particular interest that Azerbaijan is now siding more closely with Russia on a declaration that would effectively keep its Western economic allies out of the area. Aside from Azerbaijan’s strong economic ties to the West, it has also contributed some logistical support to the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Thus, at one point in time both its security and economic interests aligned with that of the West.

For Azerbaijan to side with Russia on the declaration would seem to fly in contradiction to what the nation has been doing for the past two decades: cultivating a Western-leaning relationship. Azerbaijan appears to have voluntarily put that relationship in jeopardy, or at the very least placed it in a more stressful situation than before. One could even argue that Azerbaijan missed a glorious opportunity to ally itself closely and personally with NATO by having a foreign operating base established within its borders. This could have led to an expansion in economic trade first and foremost and could even have cultivated further security coordination and cooperation. It seems likely this is NATO’s long-term desire. However, this was precisely what Russia was aiming to prevent by leading the Caspian states to sign the declaration.

Russia has no interest in having NATO encroach further onto its geostrategic territorial influence. Aside from the residual Cold War tensions that still exist between the US and Russia, there is also a tangible security concern for Russia: the West has already advanced further east than Russia would like or can tolerate. What first began as an exclusively Western European treaty has gradually spread further and further east to the point where nations such as Turkey are being actively courted to join the organization as a permanent member. In fact, Turkey was very close to joining NATO as a permanent member recently. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Russia intervened with those talks and ultimately succeeded in putting them down. Its actions in Azerbaijan can be seen as a preemptive strategy, utilizing what it learned observing NATO’s courting of Turkey. For Russia, the idea is to get out ahead of NATO and foster a relationship between it and the Caspian states, thus mitigating NATO’s objectives to advance further east.

Thus, NATO penetration into the east has been put on hold for the time being. Russia’s obvious desire to keep the US in particular away from its eastern and southern borders weakens the likelihood of NATO penetration in the area. This could mean that in the future Caspian nations are tied to Russia more deeply, particularly as it concerns security and other military activities. The main takeaway from the Caspian summit is that Russia is now the main military force in the area. It is without a doubt the most powerful of the five Caspian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran). In fact, Russia’s military is more powerful than the rest of the Caspian states combined. Russia has effectively assumed control over the Caspian region so far as international security and military deterrence is concerned. However, some concessions were made by Russia in order to achieve this end. The belief is that Russia would rather make minor economic concessions to the Caspian states rather than allow major security concerns to arise by not making such compromises.

Though it would seem that NATO has hit some serious resistance in its drive to expand east, with failed initiatives in Turkey and now the Caspian region, NATO is undoubtedly still looking to push east for both economic and military reasons. NATO is not pushing simply to intrude on Russian borders, however. Though it would give the alliance a significant strategic advantage to be able to set up a base of operations that could also fall under a missile defense plan, allowing them to install missiles closer to Russia, there are still a number of economic reasons for NATO to continue its drive east. Ironically, though this deal may have squashed NATO’s strategic goals of intruding on the Caspian area in the short-term, it may have opened the door for further oil pipelines to be built in the long-term which could benefit NATO allies. One of Russia’s main concessions was to help build a north-south corridor linking Western and Northwestern Europe to the Caspian basin, making the shipping route considerably shorter in the process. This would be expected to lead to some economic stimulation primarily for Caspian nations but also some Western states by extension.

Russia is keen to protect its geostrategic border areas, even if that comes at some economic cost to itself. The Caspian deal demonstrates that Russia is proactively creating a buffer zone of economic and strategic partners that will be militarily dependent upon its might. So far the Caspian region is the only real success it has had toward that end, as Turkey has remained independent from complete Russian influence. While this should not have any major impact on NATO and its current operations in Western Europe, it will mean that NATO needs to find a new angle for entry if it wishes to keep pushing eastward. What this brief analysis hopefully shows is how that push will likely always be met by Russian resistance and not entirely without solid geostrategic logic that encompasses not just military objectives but long-term economic ones as well. A new game is afoot in the Caspian, still shrouded in the trappings of military garb but really more about the soft power of economic clout.

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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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Russia invites African leaders to Sochi Summit

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russia has finally announced that it would host African leaders and corporate business tycoons in a high-level October summit in Sochi, south coastal city, to roll out a comprehensive agenda and strategy aimed at raising the existing overall Russia’s economic profile in Africa, St Petersburg based Roscongress, the official organizer of the October summit, said on its website.

It is currently collaborating with the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Export Center and the African Export-Import Bank in organizing the forthcoming business summit.

Roscongress is a non-profit foundation that has grown into a high-profile organization and gained recognition as an effective organizer of the most important business conventions and exhibitions, both in Russia and beyond.

Anton Kobyakov, an Advisor to the Russian President, said that the Russia-African summit primarily seeks to deepen understanding of the business climate, accelerate investment and partnership possibilities in Africa.

“The upcoming summit will be unique in the history of relations between Russia and African countries, and will plot the vector for the further development of bilateral and multilateral contacts for decades to come,” he said.

In his contribution, Professor Benedict Oramah, President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), explicitly noted that Russia had the necessary capabilities and, most importantly, the experience and professionalism of its people who could support in these efforts in consolidating the relations.

Russia, by holding various events regularly, would provide an additional impetus for the development of trade and investment opportunities for both countries.

Quite recently, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with the Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, that Russia would take adequate steps to deliver on pledges and promises with Africa countries. “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps,” he said.

Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has expressed optimism and full-fledged support.

“It is evident that the significant potential of our economic cooperation is far from being exhausted and much remains to be done so that Russia and Africa know more about each other’s capacities and needs,” Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged in the current Russia’s relations with Africa.

He explained further that arranging an event of such a scale with the participation of over fifty heads of state and government required most careful preparation, including in terms of its substantive content and equally important was African businesspeople who have been looking to work on the Russian market.

“The economic component of the summit has a special significance as it would be of practical interest for all the parties. As such, specific Russian participants in bilateral or multilateral cooperation should be identified, which are not only committed to long-term cooperation but are also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition,” Minister Lavrov noted in an interview.

For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and find new strategies of cooperation in energy, oil and gas, trade and industry, agriculture and other economic areas. Undoubtedly, holding a Russia-African summit would help deepen economic cooperation on the full range of spheres in Africa.

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