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“Pivot to the East” and Russia’s Southeast Asia Gambit

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Throughout 2015, the Russian Federation engaged in a variety of initiatives in a region that often falls outside of the conventional analysis of Russia’s foreign policy- Southeast Asia. After a period of relative neglect, dating back to the late Soviet era in some cases, Russia has once again emerged as an external actor in this region.

Of course, Russia has been somewhat active in Vietnam lately, and has made some inroads with that country, such the re-opening of Cam Ranh to Russian naval vessels. Yet in addition to a revival of Russia-Vietnam ties, there are a few other states in the region that have generally been closer to either China or the United States with which Russia has begun to deepen relations. In particular, China’s longtime partners Cambodia and Myanmar have increased their bilateral cooperation with Russia, while even steadfast US ally Thailand has begun to develop a friendlier connection with Russia.

It is too soon yet to state that Russia has emerged as a major player in Southeast Asia. Nor is there substantive evidence that Russia will actually attain this status in the region. Nevertheless, Russian overtures to several Southeast Asian states give a clear indication that Russia’s policy of “pivot to the East” extends far beyond its relationship with China. In fact, the very fear that Russia’s Asian policy orientation may be limited to, or even subordinate to China is likely one of the biggest reasons why Moscow has begun to extend its hand of friendship to various countries in the region.

One country with which Russia has not had strong ties, but one which Russia has recently reached out to is Cambodia. Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, visited Cambodia in November 2015, where he and his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen reached a number of agreements. The various measures implemented included agreements on foreign investment as well as a memorandum of understanding and cooperation on money laundering. It was the first time since 1987 that Moscow had conducted an official-level visit to the country. Since that time, China has been Cambodia’s most important major partner, especially under the leadership of Hun Sen.

Similar with Cambodia, Myanmar has generally been under greater Chinese influence. Moscow’s relationship with the secretive government in Yangon, while growing, especially in terms of small-scale military cooperation, has also been rather limited. In the late summer of 2014, however, the Russian government signed an agreement with Myanmar to increase the volume of trade between the two countries from $117m to $500m, although trade figures indicate that Russia had not been able to significantly boost its exports to Myanmar going into 2015. Nevertheless, the two countries pledged at the end of 2015 to continue fortifying their bilateral relationship.

Yet another unlikely potential partner for Russia is the traditional US ally of Thailand. When Prime Minister Medvedev paid an official visit to that country in 2015, the Thai military government was in a slightly strained relationship with its allies in Washington. For Bangkok, the visit from the Russian Prime Minister offered a sense of legitimacy, especially in light of criticism from the UN. Furthermore, the governments in Bangkok and Moscow, as well as the Russian and Thai business communities have hoped for a deeper development in economic cooperation. This incudes an increase in Russian arms sales to Thailand as well as the possibility of conducting trade using the Russian ruble and Thai baht. Of course, such Russian overtures toward the Thai kingdom do not necessarily pose any strategic challenges to the United States and its relationship with its longtime ally.           

With Russia experiencing some degree of economic and political isolation for its foreign policy adventures over the past two years, Russia has found itself in a favorable position to develop closer ties with other “isolated” countries. This may explain in particular Russia’s developing ties with Myanmar, as well as Russian overtures to the current Thai government, which has drawn some scorn from Washington.

Furthermore, conventional thinking about Russia’s recent overtures to various states in Southeast Asia seems to be that Russia is attempting to demonstrate to the US that it is a global power with far-reaching interests. While there is certainly merit to the position that Russia’s foreign policy activities in Southeast Asia have been taken primarily with the United States in mind, one must also consider the China aspect of Russia’s growing role in Southeast Asia.

In fact, there is a high likelihood that Russia is seeking not so much to undermine the United States in Southeast Asia, but rather is attempting to hedge against the rising power of China. With the US’s deep strategic presence in Southeast Asia firmly established, especially in places such as Thailand, it makes little sense that Russia would sincerely attempt to undercut the United States in the region, especially when Russia has so little influence or even historic legacy in Southeast Asia to begin with.

Rather, an increased Russian economic and, in limited terms, security presence in Southeast Asia provides an outlet whereby Russia can show that it is an Asian power independent of its relations with China. Furthermore, a stronger Russian presence in Southeast Asia allows for Russia to establish itself as a competitor in what has otherwise, in some respects, been part of a Chinese sphere of influence. This is especially true given the fact that many Russian policy elites perceive that China has been encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia.

Russia’s influence in Southeast Asia will likely remain dwarfed by that of China and the United States for the time being. Yet slowly and quietly, Russia is emerging as a player in the region once again. Its ability to increase and project influence in Southeast Asia, an area not traditionally part of its sphere of influence, may in fact be a metric by which to gauge the success of Russia’s “pivot to the East”.

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Parliamentarians: An Integral Part of Diplomacy

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The State Duma, the lower house of parliamentarians, with the Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, has held a preparatory meeting to brainstorm for views and opinions for consolidating the future of Russia-Africa relations. The meeting also aimed at preparing for the Russian government proposed Inter-Parliamentary Conference Russia-Africa planned in 2019.

Viacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma, stressed the importance of regular meetings to shape the future relations between the two countries. “We have great expectations for the inter-parliamentary conference Russia-Africa which we are planning to hold in 2019. In our opinion, it will serve as a stimulus and initiate some processes aimed at the development of relations between our parliaments,” said the Chairman of the State Duma, opening the meeting.

“We are going to provide support through the parliamentary dimension for the development of inter-parliamentary contacts in terms of the preparation of the Russia-Africa conference. It was initiated by President Vladimir Vladimirovich during the 10th Anniversary BRICS Summit in Johannesburg in July,” the Chairman of the State Duma emphasized.

He conveyed an invitation to this conference to the chairmen of African parliaments, leading experts and representatives of business circles. It is planned that the heads of states will take part in the conference.

“We believe that such a format will allow us to productively discuss the agenda on intensifying our relations, bring together approaches on a number of issues and contribute to the preparation of the conference in the framework of agreements reached at the level of heads of state,” he added.

Volodin assertively pointed to the growing business component of Russia’s relations with African countries, in particular, the trade turnover increased by more than a quarter compared to 2016 and amounted to about 26.1% or US$17.4 billion.

Speaking about the upcoming conference, “Russia – Africa,” Leonid Slutskiy, Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, expressed the hope that it will become regular and will be constantly held in Moscow. “I believe that such conferences will help us seriously bring together our positions and views, bring our countries, peoples, and parliaments closer together,” Leonid Slutskiy said.

On her part, Olga Timofeeva, Deputy Chairwoman of the State Duma, noted that the mutual interest of Africa and Russia is steadily growing. “In recent years, with its demographic and economic potential, Africa has become a new world center for global development.

She also informed that there are seven “friendship groups” with African countries in the State Duma, and are ready to work within new formats of interaction. The parliamentarian expressed hope that this meeting becomes the basis of a long-term cooperation.

Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to the Russian Federation, noted that the parliamentary platform could be used to exchange views on common problems, common issues for the African continent and the Russian Federation.

She added: “We hope that the Chairman of the State Duma will outline the priorities of our cooperation and offer a comprehensive program, proposals for cooperation between the Pan-African Union and the State Duma, which will allow our parliaments to work effectively as legislative bodies.”

Smail Allaoua, Ambassador of Algeria to the Russian Federation, said: “We are proud of our relations with Russia. Russia managed to develop very good relations with each country of the African continent.” He also noted the importance of developing the inter-parliamentary contacts. “Parliamentarians are an integral part of diplomacy,” said Allaoua.

The Ambassador of Algeria also added that his country was ready to actively participate in the preparation of the forthcoming Inter-Parliamentary Conference and, in general, in strengthening and expanding relations with Russia.

Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, thanked the State Duma and personally Viacheslav Volodin on behalf of the Foreign Ministry for organizing the meeting. He reminded that the relations between Russia and Africa have a long history and are lined-up on the principles of equality and mutual respect.

In recent years, communication have intensified and are developing in various directions. “Invariably, and not playing with words but in practice, we support the principle formulated by the African countries – African solutions to African problems,” concluded the Deputy Minister.

The first Russia-Africa Inter-Parliamentary Conference and a special mini business forum under the theme “Russia – Africa: Horizons of Cooperation” was held on June 15, 2010.

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What Remains of the Relationship between Russia and the European Union

Natalia Viakhireva (Evtikhevich)

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We May Have Stumbled, but We Have Not Fallen Down

On Friday November 9, 2018, Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz made a statement about the detention of a retired Austrian officer on suspicion of spying for Russia. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Karin Kneissl cancelled her December visit to Russia. That very same day, the Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia, Johannes Aigner, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Journalists expressed concern that the situation would have an impact on the development of relations between Russia and Austria and further effect the EU–Russia relationship. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov expressed his regret that the West was increasingly turning to “microphone and megaphone diplomacy” instead of turning to Russia directly for clarification, which has always been the case in international relations.

The fallout from this incident will only become clear later. It is unlikely that it will result in any serious consequences, for example, a new round of sanctions or a sharp deterioration in relations. At the very least, Friday’s events did not affect the development of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy. On Monday November 12, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted a seminar entitled “EU–Russian Relations in the Context of the Republic of Austria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.” The meeting was organized by RIAC in conjunction with the Embassy of the Republic of Austria in Russia and the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation. It was attended by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Alexander Grushko, Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia Johannes Aigner and the Head of the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation Markus Ederer. Participants included ambassadors of EU countries and Russian experts on EU–Russia relations. During the closed-door discussion, the ambassadors and experts talked about factors influencing the development of bilateral relations between Russia and Austria, and between Russia and the European Union, and outlined a number of development trends. It is important to note here that Friday’s incident was not brought up or discussed at the meeting.

Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Presidency of the Council of the European Union changes hands among EU member countries on a rotating basis every six months. During the six-month presidency, the country chairs meetings of the Council at all levels, ensuring consistency of the European Union’s work within the Council. To this end, the European Union employs a mechanism of a “trio presidency,” or simply Trio. Trios set long-term goals and draw up a common agenda on the main issues to be considered by the Council over the course of the next 18 months. Each country then prepares a more detailed programme on the basis of this agenda for their respective six-month terms. Presidency of the Council of the European Union entails, first and foremost, supervising the Council’s work on the development of EU legislation. The president country chairs meetings of the Council’s various structures, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs Council. However, it does work in close cooperation with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and supports its work.

Austria took over presidency of the Council of Europe for the second half of 2018, being part of the trio that includes Estonia and Bulgaria. Contacts between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the European External Action Service have been adequately maintained during the Republic of Austria’s presidency. Dmitry Medvedev has met with Jean-Claude Juncker, Sergey Lavrov has met with Federica Mogherini and regular working meetings and expert discussions have taken place. Indeed, Russia has a special relationship with Austria. Throughout the crisis, Austria has been a bridge between Russia and the European Union, maintaining an objective and loyal attitude towards the country and not succumbing to the general hysteria sweeping the continent. Austria has always believed that it is important to preserve communication channels with Moscow. For example, Austria did not follow the lead of other Western countries that expelled Russian diplomats in a display of solidarity with the United Kingdom following the Skripal case. In the context of the crisis in EU–Russia relations, it is in the interests of both sides to have a neutral mediator. We have to hope that Austria will continue to fulfil that role.

Islands of Cooperation between Russia and the EU

The discussion at the seminar once again demonstrated that Ukraine remains a sticking point in EU–Russia relations. Moscow and Brussels differ in their opinions on the reasons for the crisis in their relations, as well as on the reasons for the Ukrainian crisis and current events around it. As far as the European Union is concerned, the crisis has been primarily caused by Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, believes that the causes of the crisis had been simmering long before the events in Ukraine, owing to the accumulated problems between Russia and the West. Key among these problems, according to Russia, is the eastward expansion of NATO in total disregard of Russia’s security interests. Moscow regards the events in Ukraine in 2014 as a coup d’état that threatens the Russian-speaking population and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, while the European Union sees them as a popular protest against the regime. Both Russia and the European Union call for the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, the approaches of the two sides are irreconcilable. Russia believes that Kiev’s policies are blocking the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The European Union sees otherwise, blaming Russia’s policies for impeding the proper fulfilment of the agreements. Russia does not even see itself as a party to the conflict. Moscow is in favour of improving relations with the European Union, as it believes that further deterioration is not in the interests of any of the parties. For the European Union, improving relations involves changing Russia’s policies.

Despite the deep crisis in EU–Russia relations, there do exist certain “islands of cooperation.” First and foremost, humanitarian cooperation remains one of the few areas of regular interaction between the two sides. This includes cooperation in science, culture, education and academic exchanges. Liberalizing the visa regime would contribute to greater mobility and success in this area, but it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future given the current political climate.

When states experience difficulties in their official relations, non-governmental channels are often used to maintain a dialogue – non-profit organizations, analytical centres, contacts among academic institutions and scientists, expert dialogues, etc. The political situation could very well change at some point in the future, which is why it makes sense now to work out a strategy for cooperation if and when that does happen, at least at the expert level.

Russian experts and members of the political community support the idea of cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), seeing it as a niche area of interaction with the participation of Russia and the European Union. However, European experts and EU officials have expressed their concerns that the EAEU is not a purely economic integration association. In particular, many European experts see the creation of the EAEU as an attempt to restore Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. At the political level, the reaction is more restrained. The Global Strategy for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union states that the European Union supports regional integration and is prepared to cooperate with regional associations. However, the Eurasian Economic Union is not named as one of those associations. EU officials complain that the interests and positions of the EAEU member countries are not aligned, which makes it difficult to cooperate with it as an association. At the same time, attempts have been made to cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union at the technical level. It is probably best in this situation to work out issues of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy beforehand, involving representatives from interested EU and EAEU countries in the process.

Russia and the European Union have common interests with regard to China. In particular, many experts believe that both players could take a more proactive stance on China’s Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen connectivity in the Eurasian region. Cooperation could be built in the format of the European Union, Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union, China and Central Asian states.

Of course, this set of initiatives is not enough for a full-fledged cooperation agenda, but it is a niche for interaction during the crisis in the relations between Russia and the West. Limited interaction between Russia and the European Union is evident against the background of a rapidly changing world, the growing threat of terrorism and extremism, the conflict in the Middle East, the technological revolution in the military sphere, the growing threats in cyberspace and the significant changes in the foreign policy of the United States under the Donald Trump administration, which has seen the country increasingly becoming a factor of instability and unpredictability in global politics. It is in the interests of both Russia and the European Union to come together to resolve these issues, as well as many others, in a coordinated fashion.

First published in our partner RIAC

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On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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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

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