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With Ambitious Goals, Russia Joins Foreign Players in Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia has steadily shown interest in many spheres, ranging from political consultations through business and economic cooperation to culture with African countries. Of a special focus, Russia attaches significance to deepening trade and investment cooperation with Africa.

It is encouraging that more Russian companies, being aware of the prospects that are opening in the large market of the continent, are working actively in such fields as nuclear energy, hydrocarbon and metallurgy industries. Russia also pursues a pragmatic policy aimed at enhancing multidimensional ties with the countries of the continent on the bilateral and multilateral basis.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Irina Abramova, newly-appointed Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke recently to Kester Kenn Klomegah, an independent research writer on Russia-African affairs, about some aspects of Russia-African relations, economic cooperation, cultural dimensions and some future prospects.

In the first place, how would you describe Russia’s position towards Africa? And the position towards Africa from the Kremlin?

The events that occurred relating to the military conflict in Ukraine, the introduction of economic sanctions and countersanctions, deteriorating conditions in the energy market, show that the restructuring of the Russian economy is a strategic task of ensuring national security. The transition to the active import substitution should encourage the rapid development of high-tech industries, as well as the modernization of the industry that, in the end, will provide a transition from raw material orientation of the Russian economy to more innovative ways of development.

The task of Russian researchers is to offer theoretically rationale, innovative solutions for the RF to overcome the crisis, which could give significant positive results in the short term. Africa could be one of such effective and breakthrough solutions. It is a compact, comprehensible and relevant to our capabilities possible object of economic expansion in a number of sectors, for products which are closed for western markets, as well as a promising supplier of agricultural and commodities which are necessary for the Russian consumers.

One of the results of rethinking of foreign policy priorities of Russia on the basis of President Vladimir Putin’s initiative was, in particular, a definite shift in Russian foreign policy in the direction of the axis of the East. Nothing new has been revealed regarding the Ukrainian crisis. It served as a new impetus for further development of mutually beneficial cooperation outside of the Euro-Atlantic partners. At the same time, due to the attempts by Western countries to isolate Russia, the growing list of promising new economic partners becomes particularly important and Russian foreign policy rotates the vector, not only to the East but also to the South, in the direction of the African continent. For Africans, Russia still appears as the most likely ally in defending its interests in the world arena as a natural counterweight to the hegemonic aspirations of one or a group of world powers.

As a Director of the Institute for African Studies, what would you say about the development of the current relations between Russia and Africa?

In the eyes of the Russian political establishment and business community, Africa is still viewed as a continent of poverty, endless wars and epidemics, stuck in the pre-industrial stage of development, and surviving only thanks to international aid. Meanwhile, there is a different Africa – Africa with rapid economic growth (5% or more per year for the last twenty years), dynamic formation of democratic management systems, modern structures and institutions of a market economy, a major player in the market of natural and human resources, a key source of growth in global demands, profitable spheres of investment operations.

In recent years, Russia’s relations with Africa is a new trend. It is deepening and becomes a more active political dialogue, activated economic, humanitarian and cultural cooperation. This is facilitated by negotiations at the highest level. Relations develop with leading regional associations, including the African Union. We regularly take part as guests and active participants in the discussions, including on the sidelines of international summits and conferences, and in many African capitals. Relations with African countries and regional associations in the field of security and counter-terrorism.

Building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia. The foreign trade turnover with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa for the period from January to December 2015 was estimated at US$ 3.3 billion. A lot or a little? If we compare with the European Union – US$ 340 billion, China – about US$ 200 billion, well, somewhere close to the United States – US$ 14 billion. Expected by the end of last year, the decline of this indicator compared to 2014 year due to the general financial and economic instability in the world and the limited resources investing in large and expensive projects, the fall in world prices of most commodities.

If we consider our foreign trade it is less than 1%. At the same time Russian business holds a leading position in the exploration, mining (bauxite, gold, and copper, and cobalt, and diamonds, and many more). In the future, we see the participation of domestic companies in a number of African countries, such as Egypt, South Africa, in nuclear power projects. Constant interest in the African market is maintained and major Russian oil and gas operators. An important area of work in this regard is the improvement of the legal framework of our relations with the African states. On the agenda of an agreement with the African partners on economic and trade cooperation in order to avoid double taxation and protection of intellectual property. All these questions are, of course, of great importance for the representatives of our business because they provide a solid foundation for future cooperation.

Yet, it must be noted that a number of Russian companies’ results of the development of the African market does not unfortunately correspond to any of our export opportunities or resources of the vast continent, which has huge reserves. As before, we cannot deny the insufficient knowledge of the Russian business structures specificity of Africa, its requirements, and other parameters.

On the other hand, Africans are poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. Interest in quality enhancing economic ties, including a line of private enterprise, of course, there is a tendency of growth. To do this, first of all, to establish an effective exchange of information in the investment potential of the business, to focus efforts on expanding partnerships, increasing the return on existing cooperation mechanisms and implementation of the most complete and effective projects. In recent decades, marked by a noticeable re-activation of the whole complex of relations between Russia and Africa. At all levels, the attention to this continent in our country increases. It is important that in the process contacts between people expand. More and more of our fellow citizens visit African states, familiarize with their ancient history and culture.

Do you think Russia should transfer its technology to economic sectors such as agriculture, health and manufacturing in Africa?

Russian technology can be quite successfully promoted in Africa, especially today in the context of the weakening of the Russian currency, which makes exports advantages of the Russian Federation. It’s not just about these industries, which you mentioned, but also the exploration, transportation, infrastructure, energy, in particular, the construction of nuclear power plants.

In your view, have Russian authorities supported strongly Russian companies to invest in Africa? Are Russian financial institutions interested in viable corporate projects in Africa?

State support, including investment insurance, is offered mostly to large companies. Meanwhile, the most important task – the support of the middle, including regional, business, and those willing to work on the continent, is more flexible and mobile. This support at the state level is still lacking. As for the Russian small business, it cannot compete with the Chinese and Africans.

What challenges are there for Russia returning to Africa now? Does it face any competition from other foreign players in Africa?

Russia-African relations have a significant and growing resource which is promoting Russia towards achieving national priorities. This includes expanding cooperation with Africa in the international arena in terms of coincidence or closeness of positions on the formation of a new international order, another key international problem, which increases the possibility of consolidating Russia’s position as an independent and influential center of world politics. The presence in the African markets favorable conditions for the implementation of the continuing competitive advantage (for example price) of Russian industrial goods, engineering products, products of the defense-industrial complex, the expansion of opportunities for the implementation of Russian innovative technologies, scientific and technological, educational, health and other services can contribute successful implementation to the import of Russian politics.

At the same time, the development of Russia-African economic and trade cooperation is an effective tool for solving the problems of the Russian industry to ensure scarce and financially the least expensive types of mineral raw material reserves of many species of which Africa is a monopoly in favor of the world level. Russia may be involved in the implementation of projects aimed at achieving energy security in Africa with the use of atomic energy. It has extensive experience in the construction of nuclear power plants, modern technology with exhaust of the post Fukushima generation of safety systems. And finally, in a Russian counter sanctions condition, trade with Africa today is an important source of new demand generated due to changes in the structure of the Russian consumer market. Africa is, indeed, an important and promising partner for Russian business. But, it is a highly competitive market and there are already too many foreign players.

Tell us about some efforts, such as the creation of African Business Initiative, have become so important this time? Would you encourage such private initiatives?

The Institute for African Studies is one of the founders of the initiative. It is a direct challenge – to move from declarations to deeds by bringing together government, diplomatic, scientific, economic and financial resources in order to promote Russian business on the continent. All previous initiatives have not led to the desired results because it didnot have a complex character.

Why Russia’s soft power is softer compared to Soviet days? Can media play any role here?

During the Soviet era, Africa was among our political and economic priorities. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia has largely reoriented to western states. Currently, the Russian Federation does not have a comparable economic potential of the USSR to promote its influence in Africa. However, with existing resources, it is possible to succeed in this business, if you focus on the right directions and actively develop cultural ties with African countries, to provide scholarships to African students, to promote the Russian language and to carry out humanitarian projects. A great contribution to the improvement of Russia’s authority in Africa has made the development of Russian scientists against Ebola vaccine. RF also actively supports all initiatives of African States to establish a more fair world order. In the past few months, as a result of the successful operation in Syria the Russian Federation sharply increased its prestige in Africa. The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. Unfortunately, the Russian man in the street does not know much about Africa. For Africans, so far Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, the majority of Africans still have very warm feelings towards Russia. But in general, and the Russian Federation in Africa, and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly represented in the media.

In this case, what else should be done about investment and business to “catch up” with other foreign players such as China, India, Europe and United States that are very active on the continent?

I think and will strongly suggest that Russia should take the lead in preserving the balance of interests on the African continent in the system…”Russia is a country of the West – the new players (China, India, Brazil)” and to seek cooperation on the full range of African issues, taking into account the national interests of each party.

And finally what should be done to encourage African presence both in terms of economic and culture in the Russian Federation? In this direction, what are your expert recommendations?

It is necessary to organize business forum Russia-Africa, which should be held, at least, one time per year (that is yearly), as well as the organization of African cultural festivals, the festival of African cinema in Russia, art exhibitions and concerts of popular African artists. Creation of a special transmission of Russian television, entirely dedicated to Africa. And all these can be organized in close cooperation with the African diplomatic corps. Increase the number of scholarships to Russian universities for Africans. Active work with the African Diaspora in the Russian Federation.

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Putin Welcomes New Ambassadors in Moscow

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has strongly reminded newly arrived foreign ambassadors of their important mission of promoting relations between their individual countries and Russia, encouraging political dialogue and expanding economic and humanitarian ties.

He received letters of credence from 23 new foreign ambassadors, including four from Africa, in the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. The African ambassadors are: Chol Tong Mayay Jang (Republic of South Sudan), Retselisitsoe Calvin Masenyetse (Kingdom of Lesotho), Komi Bayedze Dagoh (Togolese Republic) and Simon Marco Mumwi (United Republic of Tanzania).

While further addressing them, Putin pointed out that “Russia is dedicated to a peaceful policy and progressively carries out a responsible course in its foreign policy. Russia stands against using politically motivated protectionism measures and sidestepping the norms of international law.”

He explained that Russia’s active participation in global affairs and openness to mutually beneficial partnerships with all countries and regions were motivated by national interest: to create the most favourable conditions possible for Russia to develop dynamically, to achieve ambitious social and economic goals, and improve quality of life for Russians.

In his speech, Putin told the Tanzanian ambassador, Simon Marco Mumwi, “Russia is open to improving mutually beneficial ties with Tanzania, particularly, in nuclear energy and the military-technical sector. And Kremlin welcomes efforts of the Tanzanian government aimed at maintaining peace and security on the African continent.”

Several years ago, Putin rated Tanzania as one of Russia’s key partners in Africa and expressed the desire to strengthen ties in a broad range of fields, noting that there was a big potential for cooperation in areas such as exploration and mining operations. That pledged of exploration and mining operations has been re-affirmed many times.

In other fields, Russia and Tanzania have signed an agreement on cooperation in the defense industry, which envisages arms supplies and cooperation in the military goods production. Russia trains Tanzanian citizens in many universities and institutes in the Russian Federation.

Putin told Chol Tong Mayay Jang, who is representing South Sudan in the Russian Federation, that Russia was ready to advocate a prompt resolution of the internal conflict in South Sudan. It would also support the efforts of mediating states, regional organisations and the international community.

In September 2012, Putin acknowledged that building relations with the newly created Republic of South Sudan was an important part of Russia’s efforts to contribute to development in Africa. He warmly expressed the hope that the establishment and development of South Sudan and its economy would create many opportunities for carrying out joint projects.

With Ambassador Komi Bayedze Dagoh from the Republic of Togo, the Russian leader indicated that his country is interested in expanding friendly diplomatic ties and has good cooperation prospects in geological exploration and the military-technical area while at the same time continues cooperating in training professionals for the small coastal West African country.

In the context of further development of friendly relations with the Kingdom of Lesotho, Russia would pay attention to implementing joint projects, such as extraction of raw materials using Russian technology and investment. Putin said that Russia was satisfied with the level of coordination on issues on the global and African agenda.

In a friendly traditional atmosphere and due to the fact that Russia attaches great importance to relations with each country, Putin concluded by giving the highest assurance in making [the ambassadors] diplomatic activities as productive as possible and that all their initiatives would be supported, at all times, by the Russian leadership, executive bodies, businesses and society.

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The “Russian Card” in the International Game

Igor Ivanov

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In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors.

In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

While doing so, they sacrifice the interests of Russia and the interests of international stability and truth, and even neglect basic logic and common sense. Let us list but a few recent examples.

In Washington, amidst almost completely suspended Russia–U.S. relations, Republicans and Democrats routinely use the “Russian card” as an instrument in their power struggle. The parties are so taken with introducing various acts and bills and making other decisions intended to hurt the Russian leadership as much as possible that they are becoming oblivious to the interests of their own country, including its immediate security concerns.

In Kiev, the “Russian card” is nearly the principal trump card for national self-assertion, the key argument justifying the inability of the current Ukrainian leaders to make any kind of progress in resolving pressing socioeconomic problems. Therefore, it is vital for Kiev that the high level of tensions in their relations with Moscow is maintained. And we see over and over again that when it comes to achieving this goal, anything goes.

London, still haunted by the ghost of its former power, attempts to find a new place for Britain in the changing global power configuration. Who would be a good opponent for London? Brexit did major damage to Britain’s relations with many European countries. Placing itself in the lead of an anti-Russian coalition and calling upon partners to show solidarity with the “victim of Russian meddling,” London can divert attention away from the painful and thus far not entirely successful “divorce from Europe.”

In many European countries, populist parties actively use the “Russian card,” profiteering, in particular, from the costs of the anti-Russian sanctions to their countries. At the same time, however, they do not offer a well-thought-out, long-term vision of the development of their countries’ relations with Russia. If they do come to power, they become less interested in the matter or use it as a trump card in their bargaining with Brussels on other issues that are of greater importance for them.

In Ankara, the “Russian card” emerges from the sleeve each time Turkey has a problem with the United States and its other NATO allies. A possible strategic partnership with Moscow is put forward as a possible alternative to Turkey’s Atlantic orientation. However, there are no reasons to expect Ankara to make a strategic turn towards Moscow right now.

The list of countries and political forces that include the “Russian card” in their diplomatic arsenal can go on and, unfortunately, it is becoming longer. And the “Russian card” is being played not only along the Russian borders, but even in more faraway regions.

Why is the “Russian card” so popular today? We should bear in mind the fact that, in the coming years and maybe even decades, the shaping of a new stable world order will be incomplete, and international relations will be in a state of permanent turbulence. Such a state is fertile ground for politicians who are ready to use any means to achieve profits here and now.

The foreign policy of the current U.S. administration is the starkest example of this state of affairs. Violating international law and treaties, imposing unilateral sanctions, introducing protectionist measures and intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries has just about become the norm of U.S. international conduct. If playing the “Russian card” becomes a norm, too, it will do progressively greater damage to Russia’s standing in the international community and will limit Russia’s options in conducting an active foreign policy.

What about Russia? What should our response to the various games played by political card sharps be?

First, Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors. Therefore, it would be a big mistake to bet on those powers and count on long-term strategic collaboration with them.

Second, the best way to knock the “Russian card” out of the hands of political profiteers is to implement a well-balanced, long-term and consistent strategy of Russia’s relations with a specific state or groups of states. The most instructive case is Russia–China relations. There have been and there will be many attempts to sow doubts or mutual suspicions, to resurrect old grievances and contradictions, but they all come to naught because of a solid edifice of bilateral relations that has been consistently constructed in recent years and which possesses clearly defined strategic benchmarks.

As far as Russia’s relations with the European Union are concerned, attempts to force political manipulators to cease and desist have thus far been unsuccessful. In the early 2000s, Russia and Europe built their relations with the common goal of achieving strategic partnership. Over the course of several years, the parties created a solid legal framework for their relations, increased their trade turnover, reached a new level of mutually beneficial cooperation and expanded educational, academic and public contacts. As these positive trends shrank and the clear benchmarks in Russia–EU relations were lost, the temptation to exploit the topic of Russia began to rear its head. It is a known fact that fishing in troubled waters is a favourite pursuit of many, and this is what we are seeing today in various European countries.

The only way to pull the rug from under the feet of these political profiteers is to develop a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Brussels, define clear and unequivocally exactly what Russia’s interests in Europe are, and abandon unconditionally all attempts to achieve tactical victories by playing on the contradictions between individual EU member countries. Such a principled approach is applicable in other areas of Russia’s foreign policy as well.

Third, we see that all kinds of provocations are one of the main instruments used by those who attempt to play the “Russian card.” These provocations include unilateral sanctions and illegal actions against Russian citizens, Russian businesses, and Russia’s property, spreading false information, etc. The intent here is simple: to draw Russia into a fruitless discussion and an endless “exchange of blows,” forcing it to divert significant political and material resources from resolving truly important problems in the country’s internal development and promoting Russia’s interests on the international arena.

How should Russia react to these provocations? We should remember here that a provocation is only successful when people take the bait. Once again, we could look at China here, whose resolve is also tested on a regular basis. In every instance, China does not react in an emotional manner; rather, its responses are always weighed and thought out thoroughly. In some cases, China will retaliate in kind (as with the United States unilaterally increasing tariffs). In other cases, when such a response is justified, China offers a token display of power. Sometimes, Beijing pretends not to pay any attention to the attacks, but the response may be forthcoming at an opportune moment.

Fourth, much in counteracting anti-Russian attacks depends on the reactions to those attacks in the Russian media. Sometimes, one gets the impression that certain printed media and TV channels are waiting for such provocations to engage in lengthy and aggressive discussions on the subject, provoke an international scandal and to call upon the Russian leadership to respond in the harshest possible manner. Such behaviour, on the one hand, instils the false impression in the public consciousness that Russia is surrounded by enemies and needs to brace itself for the worst and, on the other, it objectively prompts the authorities to take sometimes emotional and hasty actions. Of course, a response is necessary. However, this response should not consist of screaming wildly. It should instead consist of dignified and convincing arguments based on Russia’s long-term interests. Haste in such matters is inappropriate at the very least.

Of course, there are no universal recipes that work in every situation. Every day, we are greeted by a new surprise. But it is important to be guided in every specific case by the key principle: nothing must be done today that could create even greater problems for Russia tomorrow. And let those who love using the “Russian card” passionately build their political houses of cards. Historical experience shows that those houses are unlikely to last.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Is Russia a real national security threat to the west or is it only a paper tiger?

Ajmal Sohail

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Since, the 2008  Presidential elections debate of America, the American political elite and the deep-state consider Russia a number one geo-political threat, to the national security of west in general and of the US in particular.

Throughout, the electoral campaign and televised discussion among numerous presidential candidates, “Russia as a geopolitical rival”, was the main focused topic. Mitt Romney one of the frontrunner of the US presidential elections, labeled  Russia more than a dozen time, narrating that, Russia is the number one geo-political enemy of the United States. All through, the Obama Administration, Russia was mentioned as a counterbalance to the US foreign policy objective. Hillary Clinton the former foreign secretary and democratic top-dog hat always smacked the Russo-phobic dram.  Seeing as, annexation of Crimea, US instituted a large number of sanctioned on Russia, Russia was doomed with sanctions time and again. It is said when it rains it pours.

In recent move, the US Senate legislation proposed to target Russia’s state-controlled banks by freezing their access to dollars—a step which could genuinely damage the Russian economy.

In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a statement emphasizing that Moscow would “counter this war, by economic means, by political means and if necessary by other means.” He viewed the imposition of dollar sanctions, as a crossing of red-line and threat to the national security of Russian federation. However, he did not make it crystal clear, what measures would and could Kremlin embark on to mock the said sanctions.

To facilitate, it is music to ones ear to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of Russia, whether the country is capable of posing threats, to west and especially to the United States. Hence, I begin with the analysis of some political observers and the assessments of Counter Narco-terrorism Alliance Germany.

The measures Kremlin can undertake

Initially, Russia might respond in cyberspace. Microsoft recently reported that hackers tied to the Russian military already launched so-called “spear-fishing” campaigns against three candidates already running in the 2018 elections. Additionally, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats argued that Moscow remained committed to undermining American democracy, warning that the “system is blinking. And it is why I believe we are at a critical point.”

Moreover, while Russia reportedly hasn’t yet hacked into actual state-level election systems, Moscow targeted this infrastructure in 2016. And as election security experts have warned, Russia might even possess the ability to materially influence the outcome of the 2018 elections. Given the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats, if control of the House or Senate were at stake, it’s easy to imagine how this could lead to mass confusion, multiple lawsuits and the type of partisan hostility that would make the 2000 Bush versus Gore Florida recount look like a walk in the park.

The Kremlin could also respond with nuclear saber rattling. During Putin’s March speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly, he announced the development of several new nuclear missiles, while also playing a video simulating a nuclear attack on Florida. It would be easy for The Kremlin to heighten tensions by upping its nuclear rhetoric again. More concretely, the Russians might decide to formally withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and/or refuse to entertain an extension of the New START Treaty. These steps might represent the starting gun for a new nuclear arms race.

Moscow might also escalate its war against Ukraine. For example, Moscow could move additional Russian troops and weaponry into Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to increase military pressure on Kiev there. Alternatively, Russia might also move to take full control of the Sea of Azov. Moscow has reportedly deployed forty of its naval vessels in the Sea of Azov, and Russian forces continue to stop and harass both Ukrainian and international merchant ships traveling through the Azov to Ukrainian ports. Ukraine has increased its naval patrols in response, and it’s easy to envision Russia provoking an armed confrontation in the Sea of Azov that could serve as a pretext for a significant Russian military escalation in the region—a step right out of Moscow’s 2008 playbook for its war in Georgia.

Russia could also increase military tensions elsewhere in Europe as well. It could for example move nuclear-armed missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. Alternatively, Russia could use Kaliningrad as a base for large-scale military exercises that simulate an attack on NATO’s Baltic members and involve occupying the strategic Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.

Putin doesn’t even need to rely on his military to harm American interests either. He could choose to openly increase economic and political support for North Korea, thereby weakening Washington’s ability to pressure North Korea to curtail its nuclear program. Given that North Korea remains on the cusp of being able to reach the continental United States with a ballistic missile this would constitute a significant setback for American interests.

Putin could also administer the coup de grace to Bosnia’s 1995 Dayton Accords—a major American diplomatic success that ended Bosnia’s bloody civil war—by openly supporting independence for Republika Srpska. This could give Putin a trifecta: establish Republika Srpska as a Russian client state in the heart of the Balkans; reignite the civil war in Bosnia; and push Serbian politicians to support Republika Srpska, thereby torpedoing Belgrade’s chances to enter the European Union. To be clear, Medvedev’s threats may be mere bluster, and Moscow could respond to dollar sanctions by hunkering down even further and try to ride out the economic and political storm.

Should the United States — and the West — worry that Russian power is on the rise?

In fact, Russian power is brittle. Masked by the country’s meddling in Western politics, invasion of Ukraine and support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Russia is facing profound societal and economic problems. The country’s aging population and economic weakness are at odds with its military spending and global aspirations. In fact, domestic issues overlooked by the regime will soon restrict Putin’s ability to adventure abroad and project military force. Put simply, Russia lacks the resources to fund its great power pretensions. Consider these five factors.

Russia’s economy is weak

Let’s start by remembering that the U.S. economy is ten times the size of Russia’s. Even during the heady days of high oil prices, Russia was unable to compete with American economic might.

Those days are now long gone. Over the past decade, hydrocarbon exports accounted for roughly 50 percent of government revenue. With oil prices hovering above $100 a barrel for most of the past five years, Russia experienced an economic boom. Indeed, between 2000 and 2013, Russia’s GDP grew almost nine fold, one reason for Putin’s considerable support.

But the recent collapse in global energy prices hit Russia hard, wiping out many of the economic gains of recent years and sending the economy into recession. Moreover, the outlook will not improve any time soon as Russia’s economic growth in 2018-2019 is expected to be minimal.

To prepare for the post-oil era, the Kremlin created a “rainy day” reserve fund from surplus oil and gas revenue in the 2000s. With the drop in oil prices, the government dipped into the fund repeatedly. Since 2014, Russia’s national nest egg has decreased from $87 billion to barely $16.18 billion. The country has another sovereign wealth fund that contains $73 billion, but much of that money has already been allocated.

The economic downturn has already had significant consequences. The World Bank reports that 21.4 million Russians, or 14.6 percent of the population, now live below the national poverty line and the number of Russians earning less than $10 a day has increased 8 percent. In fact, a recent survey found that 41 percent of Russians had difficulty saving enough to buy food and clothes. The Economic Ministry predicted that there would be no improvement to average living standards before 2035.

Russia is facing a demographic crisis

Russians are not having enough children. The country’s fertility rate stands at 1.7 births per woman, far short of the 2.1 births needed just to ensure population replacement. Moreover, Russia’s young men are dying far too early. The average male life expectancy is 64 — lower than that of North Korea and a full 15 years less than that of Germany, Sweden or Italy. This is due to unusually high rates of alcoholism, smoking, untreated cancer, suicide, tuberculosis, AIDS and violence.

In 2012 the WHO attributed 30 percent of all deaths in the country to alcohol; 12 million Russians regularly ingest surrogate alcohol such as medical ethanol, window cleaner and perfume. Russia is suffering an AIDS epidemic, and in the country’s third-largest city, Yekaterinburg, one citizen in 50 has HIV. Similarly, Russia’s homicide rate is 11.3 per 100,000, much higher than the OECD average of 4.1 (Britain’s homiciderate is 0.2).

As a result, Russia’s population is expected to shrink by 16 percent, or 23 million, by 2050, leading to a 25 percent reduction in the labor force. Fewer workers will inflate Russia’s annual pension deficit, which at $54 billion already threatens to bankrupt the government.

Russia can no longer afford to buy off its troubled regions

Russia continues to spend up to $10 billion a year on subsidies to problematic regions such as Chechnya or Crimea. As the handouts dry up, tensions between Moscow and outer regions may boil over, potentially reigniting conflict in the North Caucasus.

Moreover, Russia’s economy is highly regionalized. Just 14 of Russia’s 83 regions add more to the federal budget than they receive in subsidies. Continuing transfers to remote or non-Russian regions may provoke a popular backlash and will restrict Moscow’s ability to prop up separatist enclaves in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Russia will have to reduce military spending

The state of Russia’s economy largely determines its military spending. In 2017 Russia will spend 30 percent of its budget on the military and security services, with only 2.3 percent going toward health care. Because of economic stagnation, in 2016 Russia’s defense spending declined for the first time since the 1990s. By 2020, Russia is projected to spend only $41 billion on the military. That’s less than France spends, with only 46 percent of Russia’s population. Furthermore, spiraling costs in Syria and Ukraine could either force early Russian withdrawal or bankrupt the regime. Indeed, a Russian newspaper recently revealed that the government spends $1.8 billion a year just on military contractors in Syria.

Compare that $41 billion to NATO’s military spending of $892 billion in 2015. That’s a big gap, which looks set to widen. Russia simply cannot outspend — or even match up to — a well-funded and unified Alliance.

Right now, Putin can be assertive because the Russian budget prioritizes guns over butter. Putin’s regime has effectively traded economic well-being and social spending for military might. This bargain cannot hold indefinitely.

Consider, for instance, Russia’s crisis in health care. Roughly 85,000 rural communities have no medical infrastructure whatsoever. Russia came last in Bloomberg’s latest health-care efficiency survey, behind 54 other developed economies. Yet the government plans to cut health spending by 33 percent next year, bringing spending down to just $5.8 billion. The Ministry of Health will receive less than 2 percent of the funding requested for 2017-2025. Salaries for doctors in the poorest regions can be as low as $250 a month and will probably drop further.

Chronic social problems will ultimately upend Russia’s politics

Russians are famously stoic, but they are not automata. Putin’s popularity is founded not just on media manipulation and drum-thumping jingoism but on real economic gains. As Daniel Treisman has shown, even in authoritarian states, economic growth is tied to popular approval.

Indeed, work-related protests are already on the rise. And in a recent survey of Russian citizens, 32 percent of respondents said they might protest if a demonstration occurred in their home town. That’s the highest proportion since Putin first came to power in 1999.

Russia is not a Stalinist dictatorship but a “managed democracy.” A prolonged economic downturn will change attitudes. No matter how powerful or threatening Russia may seem right now, the current situation can’t last. Russian stability — and Putin’s regime — rest on shaky foundations and the cracks are beginning to show. It is said every cloud has a silver lining.

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