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Russia’s Caspian Flotilla outflanks the US Military

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The past month has seen increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow over the Syria-Assad-DAESH nexus of seemingly perpetual conflict. This tension has not been mitigated by the sometimes-substantive but always-political interventions in the region.

While both the U.S. and Russia increase strategic bombing campaigns and deploy ‘special advisors,’ neither have revealed anything beyond their strategic commitments. Until October 7th, 2015, that is, when Russia launched 26 Kalibr SS-N-30A cruise missiles from its recently upgraded and largely secret Caspian fleet.

This display of power and capacity is not a windfall moment that tilts the scales dramatically in Russia’s advantage. I say this only to offer caution as new or emerging military technology and capabilities often go hand in hand with exaggeration. It is, however, a significant moment for Great Power Politics in the region. The Caspian launch was no mere theatre act and will have implications far beyond military tactics.

The first point to deconstruct is the now obvious gap between Russia’s actual capabilities and the American understanding or appreciation of those capabilities. Most of Russia’s naval assets in the Caspian are vessels under 1,000 tons. These have been often described as ‘patrol craft’ or ‘local craft’ in U.S. military circles. Without meaning any disrespect to the U.S. armed services – this is Navy-speak for this is only the Russian coast guard and therefore not a serious capability. This assertion has now been handily debunked, as Russia’s Caspian fleet has quickly proven to be capable of advanced naval operations that extend over 1,500km beyond the Caspian Sea.

Russia did not use its forward-deployed aircraft to conduct this round of bombing. The targets of the Caspian strike (which were reported to be in the areas around Aleppo), could have been more cost-effectively struck with Russian aerial assets already deployed and active in the conflict. Why then was the more difficult road taken? In a word – style. This strike was meant to send a message – not to DEASH, not to Syrian opposition forces, but to the United States. Bryan Clark, who is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, commented that “the Navy should feel embarrassed that they let this happen.” We should be reminded that war has many inputs, some of which are unquantifiable. While this maneuver was cavalier and technically unnecessary, morale on Russia’s southern front is at an all-time high as this display revealed not only a sense of parity in military might on the world stage, but in some ways a competitive advantage.

The geographic and organizational challenges which Russia overcame are also significant. It is not just technology and military will that sends a missile 1,500km across three countries – but military coordination and regional strategic cooperation are also required. The 26 missiles were not launched in a vacuum, but amidst ongoing conflict, aerial bombardment, and Russian/Syrian ground combat operations. The Caspian naval strike, therefore, is not just a testament to Russia’s naval modernization project, but to the nation’s ability to conduct complicated combined-arms operations and to organize these efforts in an international theatre. The past month, if taken as a snapshot in time, should not be held up singularly as evidence of a Russian military that matches U.S. capabilities – let alone as an event signifying a return to Cold War conditions. Nevertheless, the relative change in power dynamics and military capacity between Russia and the US, particularly in the conflict in Syria, is significant. It is this point, that of a relative change in local power, where U.S. political rhetoric can be more fully understood. While Washington increases pressure on Moscow over whom the aerial and naval strikes are targeting (e.g. the fact-fencing over whether Russia is targeting DAESH or simply Assad’s direct enemies), I find it difficult to believe that the U.S. is singularly concerned over the general ethics of Russia’s engagement. It is here where I agree with Bryan Clark, that the US military is embarrassed that they allowed, and were unprepared, for Russia’s quick rise to local superiority in the Syrian arena.

In the past two weeks alone the U.S. Senate and House Armed Services Committees have held several hearings related to the intent, readiness, and capacity of the U.S. military – all with a heavy focus on naval positioning and operations. The primary take-away from these hearings, given both Russian and Chinese modernization and regional operationalizing, is that America is statistically ahead but contextually behind. A related take-away is that the U.S. has a surplus of words and a deficit of actions. One highlight came from Defense Secretary Carter when he said, speaking on U.S. naval strategy, that we will go anywhere international law permits. While it may strike many observers as bemusedly ironic that the U.S. is both hinging and invoking international law as the basis of its strategic parameters, this statement points to an emerging theme – when it comes to the geostrategic hot spots, the U.S. chooses words while rivals choose actions.

Foreign policy is supposed to drive military innovation and evolution. However, sometimes that gets inverted and military innovation drives foreign policy (e.g. we do because we can). The past two decades, due to U.S. military hegemony, American foreign policy had no real competitor. Consequently, the U.S. shaped its military predicated upon pax Americana, which created a foreign policy that encompassed everything. To put another way, today America can’t geostrategically see the world’s trees for its own forest.

Meanwhile, U.S. competitors have crafted a more limited and tailored foreign policy, one that both advances its military capabilities in a more focused fashion and one that is flexible enough to adapt to military innovation. Russia’s Caspian flotilla is an example of this – regionally designed and strategically relevant. I expect that this will not be the last innovation-led foreign policy design the U.S. bears witness to in the coming years. The U.S., both politically and militarily, will have to grapple with the fact that victory is neither granted nor guaranteed based on hegemony and that statistically ahead but contextually behind needs to be a moniker it quickly sheds, both in Washington and on the battlefield.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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

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

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

Bad, but Still a Strategy

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

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

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

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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