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Strategic Patience Paid Off: Russian Regional Hegemony in the Caspian

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It has been almost one year since the IV Caspian Summit in Astrakhan, Russia, where the presidents of the five Caspian states signed a political declaration that denied any foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea.

By removing any Western military influence in the region, Russia will be able to maintain the regional hegemony it considers its natural birthright. Examining how scholars have so far in general viewed the Russian orchestration of this decision is both important and enlightening and reveals a plan that has long been in the making.

Sokolsky and Charlick-Paley (1999) studied Russia’s influence in the Caspian region and noted that the littoral states were dependent on Russia for trade, energy supplies, military equipment and training, and internal and external security. Russia also exploited its leverage and the weakness of the littoral states to extract military and economic concessions, including basing rights, participation in energy projects, and favorable decisions on pipeline routes. Menon, Fyodorov, and Nodia (1999) echoed these findings by stating that Russia maintained strong political, economic, and military ties to several littoral states from a position of dominance.

Sokolsky and Charlick-Paley (1999) also predicted that Russia would alter its policy toward the littoral states to a more cooperative and less confrontational policy. They also added that because the littoral states saw Russia as a stabilizing force and feared that Russian disengagement could worsen stability challenges within the region, they tended to view Russia as the region’s peacekeeper. As seen in the IV Caspian Summit, Russia was able to capitalize on that history and nudge the littoral states into agreeing to block foreign militaries from the Caspian region by acting as a supporter, protector, and friend. Russia convinced the states that their militaries were strong enough to defend themselves only if they would have protection from the Russian military as well.

Griffith (1998) also made predictions on Russia’s future motives toward the Caspian littorals. He discussed Russia’s loss of power in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the chief factor behind its motives. The loss of power meant a loss of control over the republics that were once an important buffer zone between the USSR, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Also, Russia saw Western oil industries in the Caspian region as a potential source of competition and threat to Russian economic hegemony and influence. Because of these threats, Griffith predicted that Russia would attempt to coerce the Caspian states into an economic-military-political union, which finally came to full fruition during the IV Caspian Summit.

German (2014) discussed Russia’s views of a foreign military presence in the Caspian region, especially the US and NATO, as a provocative step. Russia was always determined to contain the influence of external actors and maintain the status quo in the Caspian Sea to ensure that its influence was not eroded. Abilov (2012) also commented on Russia’s desire to contain American influence in the Caspian region. The primary ambition of Russia was to preserve its regional power status and impose its political and economic will. Russia also intended to create new regional and international forums in order to maintain its sphere of influence there. German suggested the United States should try to develop its relations with the littoral states while acknowledging the significance of Russia’s role in the region, as well as the vulnerability Russia felt on its southern periphery if it was not the sole hegemonic power in the Caspian.

Thus, as we can see, Russia has been working to gain trust with and influence over the littoral states for years. According to Chufrin (2001), Russia had always strove to work with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran in order to stop or slow the inexorable draw toward the West. In promoting relations with Iran, Russia seemed to be more successful, entering large-scale political and economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Even though part of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) between the United States and Iran is to forego nuclear weapons attainment, without any foreign militaries in the Caspian, Russia might be willing and able to illicitly provide Iran with the necessary materials and technology without American knowledge.

What ties all of these moves together in a disconcerting manner for the Caspian littorals, going back more than fifteen years, is Russian hegemony and its global imposition of strategic interests. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 has many post-Soviet states concerned about Russia’s future desires to reclaim Soviet territory which it feels is its birthright. Kistler (2014) discussed each of the post-Soviet state’s concerns and pleas for help from NATO. The decision to block the US and NATO from the Caspian region makes foreign intervention against any future possible Russian annexations much more difficult.

Russia’s desire for dominance in the region fuels its agenda to keep the littoral states politically dependent while building trust so as to instill a positive global image and influence within its ‘near abroad.’ This slow and steady strategy has culminated in the decision to lock the United States, NATO, and any other foreign military from the Caspian region, thereby allowing Russia to remain the dominant regional hegemon without firing a single shot or putting a single boot onto foreign territory. It was impressive geostrategy, if also unnerving to the West.

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Russia’s Support for Terrorism: A Carry-Over of Soviet Policy

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Soldiers from the Wagner Group (source: middleeastmonitor.com)

During the Cold War, the Kremlin was a supporter of foreign terrorism, in order to destabilize enemy governments or to further Moscow’s policy objectives. The same strategy is being used, today, by the Russian Federation in countries around the world.

Beginning in the 1990s, critics of the Kremlin began turning up dead in Ukraine and Western Europe, including in the United Kingdom. Russia has also been accused of backing despots and dictators who have committed massacres and other crimes against humanity, such as Syria’s Assad, who was accused of supporting chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Currently, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, a private military and security companies (PMSCs) is actively fighting in conflicts, ranging from Ukraine to Syria, where they have been accused of war crimes, including targeting civilians, murder, rape, and torture. The Wagner Group has been declared a Transnational Criminal Organization by the United States and is expected to be recognized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by both the E.U. and the U.S in the near future. If that designation is applied to Wagner, the Russian Federation will be an official sponsor of international terrorism.

During the Cold War, the West similarly accused the USSR of supporting terrorism, an accusation which the Kremlin emphatically denied. Before discussing the veracity of these accusations, it would be constructive to define terrorism. The definition of terrorism used for this article is violence or the threat of violence applied, often against civilian targets, in order to bring about change, often political, religious, or social.

In 2011, the Director of the CIA released a report, finding that the Soviet Union supported terrorism, in the form of foreign insurgents and fighters, if such support was constructive to the goals of the Soviet state. This was the case in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Angola, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Chile, among others were supported somewhat covertly. The Soviet Union openly supported some groups which enjoyed a certain degree of political legitimacy within their own territory, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) or the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO).

When the Soviet Union dealt with foreign extremist groups, however, they camouflaged their involvement. Often, support was carried out through allied and radical states. Many of these radical states also support terrorist groups, on their own, which further complicates an analysis of Soviet involvement. The CIA charges that Soviet support for terrorism fell into several categories, among them (1) Support for anti-Israel and anti-U.S. groups, (2) Soviet-backed insurrections in Third World countries, which the Kremlin made more socially acceptable by dubbing them liberation movements, and (3) Violence by left-wing groups in the West, which did not overtly reveal the direct involvement of the Soviet Union.

One example of a foreign terrorist group supported by the USSR was Italy’s Red Brigades. This violent far-left Marxist–Leninist group, was responsible for hundreds of deaths, in the 1970s and 1980s, including the abduction and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The Red Brigades were born of the radicalization of the 1968 student movement, which took place across the European continent. The Red Brigades were linked to the Soviet Union through the Italian Socialist Party and through training and support received in Czechoslovakia. U.S. intelligence services believe that the Red Brigades and other terrorist organizations were supported by the Soviet Union to covertly carry out state objectives. In 1981, the group kidnapped a NATO officer, United States Army General James L. Dozier. The Red Brigades was later discovered to have kept files on NATO leaders. Opposition to NATO has been a longstanding policy of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Many experts, writing during the Cold War, believe that supporting terrorism was an integral part of the Soviet strategy, a strategy meant to destabilize Western democracies. Other experts were of the opinion that Soviet support for terrorist groups was short-lived, deriving from an immediate need to fulfill a particular policy objective. After reviewing declassified documents, in the post-Cold War era, the Soviet Union’s relationship with terrorism was inconsistent. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union did not trust these organizations. But, during the 1970s, their policy changed. And, by the 1980s, the Kremlin was regularly supplying weapons to the PLO, among other terrorist groups. And this was indeed part of the Kremlin’s Cold War strategy, as long as the terrorist groups focused on Western targets.

In the wake of the capture of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of attempting to “foster, support and expand” terrorist activities by “training, funding and equipping the forces of terrorism”. It is well documented that the Soviet Union was guilty of state terrorism, utilizing torture, arbitrary detention, intimidation, and imprisonment, often under inhumane conditions, against its own citizens in order to maintain control. States sponsored by the Soviet Union, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, were guilty of similar crimes on the domestic front, while also exporting murder to other countries.

               The Soviet Union was also guilty of violations of human rights, such as massacres, in armed conflict in Afghanistan. Rebel groups supported by the Soviets also engaged in similar terroristic massacres. Regarding terrorist organizations in Western Europe, such as the Red Brigades and Germany’s Red Army Faction, some experts claim that there is little hard evidence of direct support by the Soviet Union. However, they also find that Libya and other countries supported by the Soviet Union directly supported such groups. Consequently, arms and funds for the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups flowed from the USSR, through other international terrorist organizations supported by the USSR. Additionally, there is evidence that Red Brigades operatives were trained in Czechoslovakia, although it is unclear if this was at the behest of the Soviet Union.

The 2011 findings of the Director of Central Intelligence are even clearer and more direct in their accusation that “the Soviets have no moral compunctions about supporting foreign insurgent and terrorist groups”. Additionally, the Director of Central Intelligence posits that Eastern European countries follow the Kremlin’s lead in terms of supporting terrorist groups, which further obfuscates Moscow’s involvement. Moscow also condemns the actions of Western terrorist groups, such as Germany’s Red Army Faction and France’s Action Direct, in order to send a signal that Russia, like Western powers, opposes terrorism. On the other hand, Moscow and the Soviet Bloc also opposed efforts to form international anti-terrorist policing agencies.

A recent example would be that after 9/11, Vladimir Putin made a big show of joining in western efforts to combat terrorism, but this was because he needed international support for his condemnation of Chechen freedom fighters. Since then, he has reversed his stance on cooperating with the west. Additionally, he now supports the Chechens and has deployed them to Ukraine, where they have been accused of atrocities. This raises the question of whether or not the Kremlin’s deployment of Chechens to Ukraine could be considered supporting international terrorism.

Experts, such as those at the Brookings Institute, currently believe that the Russian Federation is a sponsor of terrorism, an opinion supported by the State Department. Russia’s actions match the definition of terrorism in that they involve violence, committed in a foreign country, with a political motive. Modern Russia’s support of terrorism is an extension of the Soviet Union’s support of terrorism beyond its borders, including in Western Europe.

Whether a group utilized these violent actions to achieve independence or some other goal was of no interest to the USSR, which was only concerned with promoting its own foreign policy objectives. Evidence shows that the Kremlin was directly, or indirectly, supporting multiple insurgent and separatist movements. A concrete example would be El Salvador, where the revolutionaries coordinated directly with Moscow. The Kremlin provided local groups with guns and training. The International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party was directly responsible for operations focusing on establishing new, foreign governments. A range of military and paramilitary training and support was provided to insurgent groups by the KGB, GRU, and 10th Directorate of Soviet Staff. This included training revolutionaries from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia in training camps, both inside and outside of the Soviet Union, as well as in other Soviet Bloc countries. The weapons often flowed through Cuba, Libya or Czechoslovakia. Semtex, the explosive used by many terrorist groups, of the time, was invented in Czechoslovakia.

Today, in addition to the semi-covert aid the Russian Federation extends to the PLO and other terrorist organizations, the Wagner Group enjoys overt support. They obtained their training and weapons directly from the Kremlin, and actively deployed by Russian companies, close to the government, engaging in acts of terrorism.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and became the Russian Federation. The KGB was replaced by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Putin, a former KGB agent, was once head of the FSB. The tactics, training, experience, personnel, and even the leadership of KGB have carried over to the FSB, as has the Kremlin’s support for foreign terrorism.

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Context and Practice of International Politics: Experience in 2022 and Expectations from 2023

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The dramatic events of 2022, centred on the military-political conflict between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian issue, are a vivid example of the interaction of context and practice in international politics. The global context, within which one cannot help but consider the most acute manifestation of the current clash of interests, is the end of a period which saw the relative monopoly of Western countries in world politics and economics, their ability to determine what the international order should be.

The practice of world politics is determined by the still-colossal resources of the United States and Western Europe, on the one hand, and by the obvious insufficiency of the forces that are their main opponents – China and Russia – insufficient for a real fight. As a result, if the objective factors in the development of international politics and the world economy speak in favour of the inevitable retreat of the former leaders to new positions, then the subjective qualities of their opponents, and indeed of the powers of permanent status, are such that the advent of a new international order looks like a completely uncertain prospect.

The change in context, which is very likely to be one of the factors underpinning Russian resolve, is quite obvious. First, it is easy to see this in the voting in the UN General Assembly on the resolutions adopted by Western countries as part of their anti-Russian campaign.

Despite the fact that, from the point of view of formal international law, condemning Russia would not be a problem for it, an increasing number of countries prefer to exercise moderation, by abstaining or avoiding voting on such resolutions. Of course, this contributes to the infrastructure of institutions created over the past couple of decades that are not oriented towards the West and are not subject to its will – BRICS, the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union. But first of all, many countries simply do not feel the need to unconditionally support the West in its campaign against Moscow. It does not meet their interests or their main goals of development; these states do not have their own claims against Russia. In general, it should be noted that the reaction to Russian actions since February 2022 has been extremely mild. For example, in 2003, the Indian Parliament passed a special resolution condemning the US and allied invasion of Iraq, which is now unimaginable outside of the West in relation to Russia.

Second, the change in context is underlined by the failure of the US and its allies to build a sustainable broad-based coalition against Russia early in the conflict. Now the list of states that initiate measures of economic war against Russian interests is limited to permanent members of the military-political blocs of the West – NATO and the European Union, with the involvement of Japan and Australia, which have strong bilateral allied relations with the United States. All other countries of the world, with the exception of the microscopic clients of the United States in Oceania or the Caribbean, only enforce “sanctions” at the state or corporate level under pressure. In other words, the circle of those whom the United States and the European Union do not have to force to carry out their decisions regarding Russia turned out to be extremely narrow. This means that relations between the West and the rest of the world are now based on a repressive policy of coercion, which in itself does not mean anything good for the global positions of the United States. First, because it inevitably forces a significant number of countries to strive to extricate themselves from American influence for purely practical reasons. The need to fear Western reprisals is gradually shifting relations with the West from factors that promote development to those that hinder it. Thus, we cannot have serious doubts that the context – the objective development of the international environment – is now very friendly for Russia and its main interests.

This allows Moscow and Beijing to look to the future with relative confidence and to assume that they are on the “right side of history”, while their opponents in the West resist inevitable changes. However, it is worth recognising that a favourable context is an important, but not the only condition for the survival of states in a chaotic international environment. No less significant is the ability of states to respond to current challenges that arise during critical historical periods. The fact is, what we are experiencing now represents just such an era.

Therefore, in addition to the realisation of its selfish interests, the whole world is closely watching the ability of Russia to survive and succeed in various aspects of its conflict with the West. In particular, attention is drawn to the ability of the Ukrainian forces to continue active resistance, especially in the context of a fairly stable supply of weapons from the West. Whether we like it or not, the pace at which Russian goals are being realised on the territory of Ukraine is becoming a factor that influences the behaviour of friendly states. In addition, the apparent concentration of Moscow’s efforts in one direction creates numerous temptations for third countries to solve their problems with less regard for Russian preferences. For example, we see the behaviour of Azerbaijan in its difficult relations with Armenia; it shows signs of haste, caused by the understanding that Russia is not ready for sufficiently decisive action in the South Caucasus. We find less striking examples in Central Asia, where the political regimes perceive the course of Russian operations in Ukraine as an incentive to achieve their own short-term goals. In short, Moscow’s justified delay in resolving the most important aspects of the Ukrainian problem creates nervousness in its environment, which would be better avoided. In a more favourable position is China, which has not yet joined the direct confrontation with the West. Despite the fact that the problem facing the leadership of the PRC is no less significant, as Taiwan is a constitutional part of Chinese territory, Beijing is still showing restraint. This helps to buy time, but increases the world’s fears that the Chinese authorities are behaving this way not because it is part of their long-term strategy, but because of the inability to act more actively. At the same time, one must understand that restraint is good for the time being: for example, the United States 105 years ago chose the moment to enter the war with the Central Powers, and did not experience fears about its consequences. Although, of course, every historical comparison is an oversimplified vision of the situation due to the change in that very context.

In summary, as conflict grows over the structure of the future international order, the tension between context and practice can grow as much as it shrinks. However, in any event, it will be the most important systemic characteristic of the confrontation, which we had the opportunity to observe throughout 2022 and will continue to do so. In this sense, 2023 may turn out to be, in a certain sense, a turning point – the opposing sides will begin to run out of accumulated reserves and the question will arise of mobilising the resources that they originally planned to save for the purposes of future development. In this regard, it will be important for Russia to use a favourable context not only as a confirmation of its strategic rightness, but, first of all, as a source of resources for its own stability. This means making relations with the World Majority a central part of our foreign economic relations and making real efforts.

from our partner RIAC

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The Status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine: The Reason Why China Stands to Neglect

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The status of Crimea is a contentious issue between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a move that was widely condemned by the international community. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over Crimea, and many countries, including the United States and European Union, have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation.

Since then, Russia has been controlling the region and has been accused of human rights violations and suppression of the Crimean Tatar minority by several countries and international organizations. Ukraine, on the other hand, considers Crimea as an integral part of its territory and has not recognized the annexation. The issue remains unresolved and is a source of ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine, as well as between Russia and the international community. However, it’s worth noting that China has not taken a clear stance on the issue and has been trying to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine.

China has not taken a clear stance on the issue of the status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine for a few reasons:

Diplomatic strategy: China is known for its “non-interference” policy in the internal affairs of other countries, and it may choose not to take a clear stance on the issue to avoid offending either Russia or Ukraine, with whom it has important economic and political ties.

Strategic Interests: China has a strong economic and trade relationship with both Russia and Ukraine, and it may not want to risk damaging those relationships by taking a clear stance on the issue.

International politics: China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and it may not want to isolate itself from other members by taking a clear stance on the issue.

While China not taking a clear stance on the status of Crimea may help it maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and avoid isolation from other members of the international community, it could also pose potential threats for the countries in the international borders. Some of the potential threats include:

Escalation of tensions: If China’s non-interference policy is perceived as support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it could further escalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and potentially lead to more aggressive actions by Russia in the region.

Loss of trust: If China is perceived as not standing up for its own principles, especially when it comes to international law and sovereignty of other countries, it could lead to a loss of trust among other countries, and make it harder for China to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Economic sanctions: If China’s non-interference policy is perceived as support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, other countries may impose economic sanctions on China, which could hurt its economy and trade relationships.

Loss of reputation: If China is seen as not standing up for the international laws and principles, it could harm its reputation as a responsible stakeholder in the international community.

Military Conflicts: If tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalates, China might be forced to take a side, and it could lead to military conflicts in the region which might have an impact on China’s own security and stability.

The issue of the status of Crimea between Russia and Ukraine is a complex and longstanding one that has not yet been resolved. A few possible solutions to this issue could include:

Diplomatic negotiations: Both Russia and Ukraine, with the support of the international community, could engage in diplomatic negotiations to find a solution that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.

International mediation: An international mediator, such as the United Nations, could be brought in to facilitate negotiations and help find a peaceful solution to the issue.

Economic sanctions: Economic sanctions against Russia, imposed by the international community, could be used to put pressure on Russia to withdraw from Crimea and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Military intervention: Military intervention could be used as a last resort if diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the issue, but this would likely lead to a much more serious and prolonged conflict.

As for China, it could play a role in resolving this issue by:

Supporting International Laws: China could support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and respect the international laws and principles.

Mediating: China could act as a mediator in resolving the issue, by bringing both Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, and help find a peaceful solution.

Taking a clear stance: China could take a clear stance on the issue, and this would show that it is a responsible stakeholder in the international community and that it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries.

It’s worth noting that resolving this issue will require a coordinated and multilateral effort from the international community, and China could play a key role in resolving the issue of the status of Crimea, by being a responsible stakeholder in the international community, and taking a clear stance on the issue. China is also known to follow a policy of “One country, two systems” which means it would not like to interfere with other countries internal affairs thereby China has been trying to maintain good relations with both Russia and Ukraine and avoid taking sides on this issue. It would evidently mean that China is not able to exert any direct influence on the situation in Crimea, and it may be perceived as not standing up for its own principles, especially when it comes to international law and sovereignty of other countries.

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