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.
On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?
On November 11–12, 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted the fifth annual expert meeting within the strategic dialog organized by Emirates Policy Center with the support of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally the event gathers a large number of specialists in international relations, regional security, and Middle Eastern issues. Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, made a speech at the session devoted to the role of Russia in the modern world, including in the Middle East.
Talking about Russia’s power in the Middle East or in a broader global context, we should probably start with defining what power in the contemporary world politics really means. Is it about material resources that a nation can mobilize to shoulder its foreign policy aspirations — the total throw-weight of strategic missiles, the number of aircraft carriers and combined budgets of national assistance agencies? Is it about the size of your territory or about the natural resources that the territory contains? Is it rather about you GNP or about GNP per capita that defines your power in international relations? Probably not. If you happen to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the jungle, this does not necessarily make you the strongest beast around. A lot depends on how functional these eight hundred pounds are. It may be pure muscle tissue, but it may also be accumulated belly fat.
There is another, more functional definition of power in world politics. Power is defined as ability of states or non-state actors to make other actors do certain things or abstain from doing some things in the interests of those exercising power. To put it in a broader context, you can define power as ability of actors to meet the goals they set for themselves in international relations.
From this vantage point, Russia has recently demonstrated that it is a powerful state, capable of using its power in an efficient way. No matter how we assess the Russian role in the contemporary international system — as a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative, — we should agree that Russia constantly punches above its weight, having more impact on the system that it theoretically should have according to its ‘objective’ economic, technological or demographic potential.
If I were to compare Russia to a large investment fund, I would venture to say that the price of its stocks today is significantly higher than the true value of its assets. Look, for instance, at the recent Russia’s posture in the Middle East region. In my view, we can label it as an exceptionally successful political start-up: with rather modest price paid in blood in treasure, Moscow has been able to turn itself from a marginal player in the region into the arguably most important external power broker.
This apparent gap between the operational power and its material foundation needs an explanation. To say that Vladimir Putin has been simply lucky, making full use of indecisiveness and inconsistencies of the West and exploiting many vacuums of power around the globe is to say nothing. There should be something here about the ability of the Kremlin to make fast and resolute decisions, about its capacity to promptly mobilize Russia’s political and military forces, about the quality of the Russian diplomacy and so on.
Russia’s highly centralized political system, impressive domestic and international state propaganda machinery, its consistency in supporting Moscow’s allies and partners — all these features of the ‘Putin’s style’ foreign policy puts Russia in a league of its own in world politics. It does not have many important features of a truly great power (above all, it lacks a solid and diverse economic foundation), but so far it has been able to capitalize exactly on what distinguishes it from a ‘standard’ Western democracy or a typical non-Western autocracy. In other words, Russia is powerful because Russia is different.
Nevertheless, the Russian way of maximizing its international power contains a number of risks that should not be underestimated. First, the set of instruments, which the Kremlin can use in international relations to advance its goals, is quite limited. Russia is a nuclear superpower, is has military power projection capabilities second only to the United States. It is a global leader in cyber warfare and in a number of futuristic weapons. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power, which it never hesitates to use. It is a member of other international groupings — ranging from G20 and APEC to SCO and BRICS. It is a global supplier of hydrocarbons, many other commodities, as well as of food stock. It is the largest country in the world with eleven time zones.
However, is this set enough for Russia to maintain its status in global politics for all of the XXI century? Until 2050? Until 2030? Probably, not. If so, in the rapidly changing international environment the Kremlin has to consider seriously a significant diversification of its foreign policy instruments with a special emphasis on soft power components (culture, education, social practices, technological edge, science and so on). The sooner we start moving in this direction, the more secure the country’s role is likely to be in the long-term future.
Second, many of current Russia’s foreign policy investments are high-risk investments bordering political speculations. Should Russia continue betting of leftist political regimens in Venezuela or in Nicaragua? Should it bet on Euro-sceptics and right wing populists in the European Union? Should it invest into failing autocracies in Africa? This opportunistic globalism is distracting Moscow from what is truly important for Russia: from resolving multiple crises on the territory of the former Soviet Union, from building stable partnerships with its immediate neighbors, from gradually restoring the troubled relationship with the West.
As for targets of opportunity overseas, any political engagement should be preceded, not followed by a careful consideration of exit strategy options. History teaches us repeatedly: countries that can win wars, quite often lose peace. If you take the ongoing conflict in Syria, it will not last forever. When the name of the game is no longer military operations, but a post-conflict reconstruction, new players will come to the stage, no matter who is charge in Damascus. External powers with deeper pockets than those that Russia has will claim a central role in the post-war Syria. The Kremlin should try very hard to convert its current military successes into less explicit, but a more lasting and a more stable political presence in the country.
Finally, neither Russia, not any other nation should forget that the real foreign policy power comes from the inside. Foreign policy victories might look great and they definitely appeal to the public, but they never become an adequate substitute for victories at home. In the end of the day, the ability to balance economic growth and social equity, preserving national identity and integration into the global community, political representation and efficient governance constitute the only reliable foundation for power in international relations. All other foundations turn out to be quite shaky and fragile.
I have no doubts that Russia has all needed ingredients to stay as a great power, no a global spoiler. It has the potential that makes it capable of being not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution for the international system of the XXI century.
However, the future of Russia’s power and that of Russia’s role will depend on the overall evolution of the system. In a popular American fantasy television series “The Game of Thrones”, characters from time to time remind each other — “Winter is coming”. By “Winter” (with a capital “W”) they mean something really bad, big and unavoidable looming on the horizon. They cannot prevent the Winter, so they have to learn who to survive in this extremely hostile and dangerous environment.
Today, there are many indicators that “Winter” might be the future of the world politics in years to come, that what we observe today is not a bad weather, but a profound climate change. The implosion of the state system in parts of the Middle East, the rise of right populism and nationalism in Europe, Brexit in UK the election of Trump in US, the coming collapse of the US — Russian strategic arms control, a renewed arms race in Asia — there are multiple symptoms of hard times ahead of us.
If the name of the game in the global politics is likely to be security, not development, if the prime goal of nations is going to be survival rather than prosperity, why should Russia change its current understanding of power in international relations? In a way, the Kremlin is better prepared to face the global Winter than most of its competitors and opponents are. To create incentives for the Russian foreign policy to reinvent itself, one has to prove that the global Winter is not the only option. Otherwise the world might face a self-fulfilling prophesy. As they say, “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.”
First published in our partner RIAC
Russia and Comoro Islands Cooperate To Enhance Bilateral Relations
On November 8-10, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Comoro Islands, El-Amine Souef, paid his first official working visit to Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with him on November 9.
After the talks, Lavrov told the media conference that they had confirmed to continue promoting bilateral cooperation in many spheres and work together towards using the existing potential in both countries.
There is considerable potential for cooperation in fishing, renewable energy, the provision of fresh water and agriculture.
“We have agreed to help our business communities establish direct ties and we also exchanged opinions on international issues, reaffirming the identity or similarity of our views,” Lavrov said.
They exchanged of views on international and regional issues of mutual interest with an emphasis on preventing and defusing crises in Africa and the Middle East, struggling against piracy in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean and countering terrorism and extremism.
Lavrov reminded that Moscow firmly supports the principle formulated by the African countries, that is “African solutions to African problems” and urged Africans to find ways of settling conflicts while the international community provides the necessary assistance through the African Union and sub-regional African organisations with the coordinating role of the UN.
Under a memorandum signed by the ministers, Russia will be training law enforcement personnel for the Comoro Islands.
Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, observes that foreign assistance is very essential to transform the economy and improve living standards of the population on the Comoro Islands.
Thus, Russia’s economic engagement is needed at this time, most importantly, to maintain stability and turn around the opportunities into an attractive place. With a relatively small investment, Russia could achieve important results for the Islands, so the first step should be genuine commitment, he told me in an emailed interview from Johannesburg.
One of the world’s poorest and smallest economies, the Islands are hampered by inadequate transportation links. It has a rapidly increasing population and few natural resources.
The low educational level of the labour force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. France, the colonial power, still remains a key trading partner and bilateral donor.
Russia established diplomatic relations with the Comoro Islands after it gained independence from France on 6 July 1975. In mid-2017, Comoros joined the Southern African Development Community with 15 other regional member states.
The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Arabic are also widely spoken. About 57% of the population is literate. The Islands, with a population of about 1.2 million, situated off the southeast coast of Africa, to the east is Mozambique and northwest is Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Russia’s Growing Clout in Asia Pacific Region
In their strategic calculus, the Asia Pacific major powers as well as other countries do not consider Russia a major military power for the region. Although these Asia Pacific countries understand Russia’s military clout in Europe and Middle East, they somehow fail to see how overall Russian military might have an impact in the Asia Pacific region too.
Accordingly, the growing influence of Russia in the region finds less attention on the regional media outlets, the regional discussion platforms and the think tank papers produced across the region. This is a total contrast to Russian involvement in Europe and Middle East, something which receives huge coverage. Despite the low coverage of its engagement in the Asia Pacific, Russia’s geopolitical presence is increasing in the region.
Although its military and economic involvements in the Asia Pacific reduced significantly after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has over the last decade improved and enhanced its military might significantly, making its military a potent power in the region.
Russia has been selling weapons and other advanced military technology to the Asia-Pacific countries in order to bring these countries into its geopolitical orbit. Besides its close military relations with both China and India, Russia is increasingly building good relations with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.
Furthermore, Russia is on a spree of building certain infrastructures in several Asia Pacific countries which would make those countries dependent on Russia for the proper functionality of those infrastructures. Take Bangladesh’s nuclear plant for example. Russia is setting up a nuclear-powered power plant in Bangladesh, and this infrastructure would certainly make Bangladesh dependent on Russia for the technological aspects of the project. Bangladesh has also been purchasing heavy weapons and military vehicles from Russia.
Recently this year, many regional countries were alarmed by Russia’s large scale war games. The fact that the war games was conducted in the eastern part of Russia – which forms part of the Asia Pacific region, unlike Russia’s western part that forms part of Europe – makes it an alarming development for the Asia Pacific region.
According to an Australian news website, the war games, namely Vostok-2018 or East-2018, involved more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1000 aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and support vessels.
More alarming was the inclusion of the Chinese military into the war games alongside the Russians. Around 3500 Chinese troops were said to have taken part in the Russian war games. Troops from Mongolia too joined the drills.
Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, boasted about the drills saying, “Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.”
Condemning the drills, NATO said the war games “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.
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