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.
Eurasia’s Great Game: India, Japan and Europe play to Putin’s needs
Eurasia’s Great Game is anything but simple and straightforward.
A burgeoning alliance between China and Russia that at least for now is relegating potential differences between the two powers to the sidelines has sparked a complex geopolitical dance of its own.
With India, Japan and Europe seeking to drive a wedge between the two Asian powers, Central Asian states, where anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, are quietly rooting that Asian rivalries will grant them greater manoeuvrability.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Russia this month during which he attended the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, established to attract Asian investment in the country’s Far East, announced a US$1 billion credit line to fund development of the region.
Mr. Modi and Russian president Vladimir Putin also agreed to establish a maritime link between the Far East’s capital, Vladivostok, and Chennai that would reduce transport time from 40 to 24 days.
The connection potentially could serve as an extension of the Indian Ocean Corridor that links India to Japan and the Pacific and competes with China’s pearl of strings, a series of ports across Asia in which China has invested heavily.
In contrast to Mr. Modi, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has attended the forum since its inception in 2015, did not announce any major deals in response to Mr. Putin’s insistence that “the development of the Russian Far East, strengthening its economic and innovation potential, and raising the living standards of its residents among others, is our key priority and fundamental national goal.”
With the trans-Atlantic alliance fraying at the edges, Markus Ederer, the European Union’s ambassador to Russia and one of the EU’s top diplomats, appeared to recognize Mr. Putin’s priorities when he urged the bloc, to engage on a massive scale with Russia on some of the most tricky political and security aspects in their relationship despite differences over Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, human rights and alleged Russian interference in various European elections.
In a memorandum to senior bureaucrats, Mr. Ederer suggested that 5G mobile communications, personal data protection, the Artic, regional infrastructure and the development of joint policies on matters such as customs and standards by the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland, should be topics on the EU-Russian agenda.
Mr. Ederer said that these were areas “where leaving a clear field to our competitors by not engaging would be most detrimental to EU interests.”
He argued that a “pragmatic” move towards “enhanced co-ordination” with Russia was needed to combat “Eurasian competition” as China’s influence grows.
The EU “would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia. Engaging not only with China but (also) with Russia…is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage,” Mr. Ederer asserted.
Messrs. Modi, Abe and Ederer see opportunity in what Thomas Graham, a former U.S. diplomat and managing director of Kissinger Associates, describes as Russia’s need for “diversity of strategic partners in the (Far East) to maintain its strategic autonomy (from China) going forward.”
The EU, India and Japan hope to capitalize not only on Russia’s requirement for diversified investment but also Mr. Putin’s need to counter widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the Far East that has turned against his government at a time that protest in Russia is accelerating and after Mr. Putin’s party this month lost a third of its seats in the Moscow district council.
Public sentiment east of the Urals is critical of perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources including water, particularly in the Trans-Baikal region.
A petition initiated earlier this year by prominent Russian show business personalities opposing Chinese plans to build a water bottling plant on the shores of Lake Baikal attracted more than 800,000 signatures, signalling the depth of popular resentment and pitfalls of the Russian alliance with China.
Protests further erupted earlier this year in multiple Russian cities against Chinese logging in the Far East that residents and environmentalists charge has spoilt Russian watersheds and is destroying the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard.
The protesters, who also denounced construction of housing for Chinese workers, are demanding a ban on Russian timber exports to China.
Underlying the anti-Chinese protests is the lopsided nature of economic relations that Russia scholar Leo Aaron says fits Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s definition of colonial trade, in which one country becomes a raw material appendage of another.
“China is Russia’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU) and Russia’s largest individual partner in both exports and imports. For China, the Russian market is at best second-rate. Russia ranks tenth in Chinese exports and does not make it into the top ten in either imports or total trade,” Mr. Aaron said.
He noted that three-quarters of Russia’s exports to China were raw materials and resources as opposed to consumer goods, electronics and machinery that account for the bulk of Chinese sales to Russia.
European, Indian and Japanese efforts to capitalize on anti-Chinese sentiment taps into a deeply embedded vein.
Writing under the pen name P. Ukhtubuzhsky, Russian author Nikolai Dmitrievich Obleukhov warned already in 1911 that “Russians are being displaced by the yellow races who seize commerce, industry, wages, and so on… God guides people. Those nations who protect Good and Truth will be victorious. If Russia, carrying the light of Orthodoxy, faces in Asia the yellow races wallowing in the darkness of paganism, there cannot be any doubt as to the outcome of this struggle.”
Mr. Putin, presiding over a country in economic trouble, can’t create the margins of manoeuvrability that he needs on his own. He hopes that India, Japan and Europe will come to his aid.
Why We Should Not Expect Russia to be Welcomed Back into the G7
The history of relations between Russia and the G7 can be compared to a multi-act play with a convoluted storyline, magnificent scenery, a number of vivid characters and unexpected plot twists.
Objectively, such a play more looks like an epic tragedy or, at worst, a sentimental melodrama. But, personally, I liken the misadventures of the “Group of Seven,” which has not become a full-fledged “Group of Eight,” to Moliere’s famous comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.
This comedy tells the story of a French “bourgeois” of the 17th century, Monsieur Jourdain, who dreams passionately of being accepted into noble society. Everybody who can take advantage of this obsessive idea of the naïve Jourdain, including toadies from among the impoverished aristocrats, numerous tutors of how to act correctly in “high society” and even his closest relatives do just that. In the end, Monsieur Jourdain’s dream almost comes true: during a pompous and fanciful ceremony, he is awarded an imaginary Turkish high rank of Mamamouchi. The initiation ceremony, of course, turns out to be a complete deception and a swindle.
I will dare state that, like Monsieur Jourdain, who never turned into a real nobleman, Russia, even after formally joining the G7 in 1998, never became a full member of this group. Some of the issues – especially those related to economics and finance – were still discussed in the G7 format, and the annual G8 summits turned Russia into an object of criticism and mentoring edifications more often than any other member of this club. Mutual grievances, frustrations and claims had been accumulating for many years, and the sad reality of 2014 was either a historical inevitability or at least a completely predictable ending to a protracted play.
When President Yeltsin first submitted an application for Russia’s membership in the G7 back in 1992, there were simply no other alternative associations in the world where Moscow could try to squeeze in. Structures such as the G20, BRICS or SCO did not exist at the time, and Russia’s membership in NATO and the European Union seemed unrealistic even then. Therefore, joining the “Group of Seven” not only pursued situational tasks (access to financial and technical assistance from the West, restructuring Soviet debts, combating discrimination of Russian goods), but also had symbolic political significance (a kind of compensation for Moscow’s loss of its “superpower” status).
The Western “Group of Seven” also set quite specific situational goals: the accelerated military drawdown of Moscow in Central Europe and the Baltic states; the prevention of leaks of Soviet nuclear technologies; and the consolidation of the results of economic reforms of the early 1990s. However, political considerations played an important role both for Western heads of state and for the Russian leadership. Russia’s integration was to confirm the global aspirations of the G7 and the universalism of Western values. It is curious that the task of including China or even India as the “largest democracy in the world” had never been posed to the G7 members in practical terms – Russia was clearly seen as the preferred, if not the only, candidate for accession.
Despite all the difficulties, awkwardness and inconvenience associated with the integration of the not quite stable, not quite democratic and not quite “western” Russia of the 1990s into the “Group of Seven,” this process was stimulating for the group as a whole. The participation of a new non-standard partner contributed to the emergence of new ideas, strengthening the discipline of the old members, and enhancing the overall tone and ambitions of the group. Appointing a rude and awkward rough man as a new gym teacher to a female high school teaching team that had refined their working partnerships and become a close-knit group after many years of joint work has a similar stimulating effect.
But such idyll lasts only until the gym teacher begins to actively meddle in the work of the teachers’ council and cast doubt on the wisdom of the school principal. And this is exactly what happened in the G8 at the beginning of the century. Whereas for Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s membership in a privileged western club remained mainly a matter of the country’s symbolic status in the world, Vladimir Putin considered the G8 primarily as a tool for the practical realignment of the world order, in both the security and development spheres. Moscow has challenged Washington’s previously unquestioned hegemony in the G8 by raising the issue of American-led intervention in Iraq. Moscow insisted on including non-traditional challenges and security threats in the agenda of the G8 summits. Moscow called on partners to strengthen G8 institutions by increasing the number of regular meetings of ministers of natural resources, science, health, and agriculture.
The increased activity of the Russian neophyte faced growing resistance on the part of the G8 veterans. The new initiatives of the “high school gym teacher” no longer moved, but rather irritated the conservative teachers’ council, not to mention the authoritarian American principal. After the triumphant G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006, an ever more obvious sabotage of the Russian agenda began: the G8 took the annoying gym teacher down a peg. It turned out that no G8 declarations on global energy security had been perceived by EU officials as a guide to action. The G8’s common positions on international terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation do nothing to dampen the desire of United States for the further expansion of NATO eastwards. And recognizing Russia as a member of the “Western Club” does not signify that the West refuses to try to weaken Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
The catalyst for the decline of interest in the G8 format from the Russian leadership was, of course, the creation of the G20. A significant part of the issues of global governance that were of great interest for Moscow moved to this platform. Russia felt more comfortable in the G20 compared to the G8: in a more representative association, Russia had new partners and additional opportunities to form tactical coalitions and advance its interests. It is no coincidence that since the expulsion of Moscow from the G8 in the spring of 2014, the Russian leadership has been constantly emphasizing the obvious defects in this structure compared to the G20.
Is Moscow’s return to the “Group of Seven” realistic in the foreseeable future? This question has been raised more than once over the past five years by certain Western leaders, including Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. Common sense suggests that this return will never take place. The play was performed, the curtain fell, the audience whistled and applauded, and the critics are scribbling their comments and reviews.
There will be no return, if only for the reason that there is still no unity regarding the conditions for this return among the “Group of Seven.” While the current German position connects the reconstruction of the G8 with the progress in implementing the Minsk agreements on Donbass, Canada is ready to welcome Russia to the updated G8 only if it comes there without Crimea. Historically, the G7 never had any formal procedures and mechanisms for accepting new members, but most likely, a decision on such an important issue will be taken by consensus. And reaching a consensus at the moment seems impossible.
The G7 itself is in the process of deep transformation and a thus-far not very successful search for a new identity. Donald Trump confronts the rest of the club in a harsh manner, being quite provocative at times in that confrontation. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has many fundamental disagreements with French President Emmanuel Macron, and with the leadership of the European Union as a whole. Italy in its current state is hardly capable of taking on any serious international obligations. As a result, the G7 looks like a suitcase without a handle – one can neither carry it nor leave it behind.
Does this mean that Russia should not deal with the G7 at all? Absolutely not. The history of the “Group of Seven” knows many countries, non-permanent members of the club, who participate in the work of the Group. The recent summit in Biarritz, France, was attended, among others, by the leaders of India, Egypt, Australia and even Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had come under personal sanctions from the United States literally the day before the meeting.
Returning to the “G7+1” formula may be a better solution for Russia than restoring the G8. Provided, of course, that the Russian side will not find itself in the position of a suspended gym teacher invited to the teachers’ council only to get another portion of reprimands from stiff colleagues.
It is clear that the leaders of the “Group of Seven” are most interested in discussing current issues of international security with Russia, including the situation surrounding Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and Venezuela, as well as arms control and strategic stability. But most of these issues are already being discussed at other time-tested platforms. However, joining the G7 discussion on the problems of digital economy, international tax reform, fighting trade protectionism and eliminating global inequality would certainly be nice.
The stakes in this game are not as high for Russia as they were a quarter of a century ago. The G7 is no longer a unique or even the main laboratory where the components of the new world order are being developed and piloted. And the repertoire of Russia’s foreign policy is not limited to the part of the self-confident, but at the same time diffident and arrogant Monsieur Jourdain from Moliere’s comedy.
From our partner RIAC
Troubled Partners: What Russia and Turkey are Dividing Up in Syria
“Turkey is our close partner, our ally,” said Presidential Spokesperson and Turkologist Dmitry Peskov on the eve of the meeting in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. On August 27, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, where they held a working meeting on the bilateral agenda. Regardless of all their differences, the two countries still need each other greatly.
Although relations between Moscow and Ankara are developing in many areas, the focus was naturally on the further actions of the parties in the crisis-affected Syria. Will Turkey conduct another operation in Syria? And what is Moscow’s opinion?
Several events of importance for Russia–Turkey relations took place a week before the presidents met. On August 21, the first creditor was selected for the company building the Akkuyu NPP strategic facility. On August 27, deliveries started on the second S-400 battalion to Mürted Air Base in Ankara. As the United States removed Turkey from the F35 project following the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, analysts believe that Turkey might look at Russia’s Su-35 or Su-57. These are the aircraft the Turkish President saw at the MAKS Salon.
But the meeting took place against the backdrop of the escalation of the situation in the Syrian Idlib province and the announcement of the establishment of a Joint U.S.–Turkey Operation Centre.
And it was the desire to overcome contradictions over Syria and prevent a crisis in the bilateral relations that led the presidents to hold an unplanned meeting in Zhukovsky following an urgent telephone conversation on August 23.
At the press conference held after the meeting, Vladimir Putin noted two key elements in Russia’s approach to the Syrian settlement: the priority of working within the Astana format and the launch of the the Syrian Constitutional Committee “that, as we hope, will be able to start its activities in Geneva in the very near future.”
Ankara had previously expressed its discontent with the Syrian government forces taking control of towns in the north of Hama Governorate and in the south of Idlib Governorate, including the town of Khan Shaykhun. Approximately 200 Turkish soldiers are still surrounded in the town of Murak, which makes the situation extremely uncomfortable for Ankara. This Turkish contingent served as an observation post established under the Turkey–Russia Memorandum on Idlib signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018 as part of de-escalation in the Idlib zone.
The situation deteriorated following reports that the Syrian Air Force had carried out an aerial strike on a Turkish convoy. After a telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan, reports started to surface that a Russian military police force had inserted itself between the Syrian military and the Turkish observation post. Turkey might find a way out of the situation by withdrawing its observation post from Murak and launching a new operation in the north of Syria against the U.S.-supported Kurds. Given the situation, it is desirable for Russia to find a way of advancing the dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds.
While Ankara supported the Syrian opposition, it undertook under the Sochi agreements to fight terrorism in Idlib and facilitate the opening of the М5 and М4 highways leading from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus via Idlib, and from Aleppo to Latakia via Idlib. Most likely, implementing this provision is the key objective for Moscow. Once М5 and М4 are secured, the logistics infrastructure might have been put into operation once again and pathways opened for restoring economic ties between Syria’s regions. This never happened.
With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian military continued intermittent hostilities in the Idlib Governorate for approximately six months. Following another round of talks in Nur-Sultan on August 1–2, Damascus announced an armistice. The ceasefire failed, however, due to attacks perpetrated by the militants in Idlib. Subsequently, the government forces and their Russian allies significantly intensified their activity. Offensives were mostly undertaken at night. By mid-August, the Tiger Forces equipped with Russian-made night-vision devices and Т90А tanks with thermal imagers succeeded in breaching the defence of the terrorists and groups that oppose Damascus in the north of the Hama Governorate.
The Idlib Governorate and its eponymous capital are largely controlled by the forces of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (outlawed in Russia), which has managed since January to expand its power by subsuming other groups, largely labelled pro-Turkish.
Back then, Turkey succeeded in stabilizing the situation, yet failed to radically change it in favour of Turkey-friendly forces such as al-Jabha al-Wataniya Li-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front), which is in opposition to the government. Russian and Turkish analysts already appeal to the Sochi agreements, yet each party accuses the other of undermining their implementation.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov openly stated that the actions of the Syrian government forces in Idlib are legitimate and do not violate the Turkey–Russia Memorandum. The terrorists in the area now controlled by the Syrian military had posited a threat to Syrian territory and the Russian military base in Khmeimim. Turkey faces a difficult predicament with regard to its domestic audience, and the processes in Syria could result in escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
However, the ties developed over the recent years, as well as the strategically important joint projects and Erdogan’s commitment to increasing mutual trade turnover from USD 25–30 billion today to USD 100 billion (which he again confirmed at the MAKS opening ceremony) demonstrate both desire of both parties to avoid a crisis similar to the freeze put on the relations in 2016.
Erdogan informed Putin about the plans to launch an operation against the Kurds in the northeast of Syria. One might surmise that Turkey sees the solution in shifting the emphases in its “Syrian” policies and in concentrating on the Kurdish threat, since Turkey’s current policy in Syria is conducted in two areas: Idlib and the Trans-Euphrates region. Unwilling to be tied solely to the Astana format, Turkey is also building an appearance of collaboration with the United States. The operation in the Trans-Euphrates region today is the key point for Ankara. This operation will be the result of the pressure Turkey puts on the United States, an ally of the Kurds.
Ankara’s main goal is ostensibly to create a buffer zone in the north of Syria to prevent the Kurds from implementing a project there.
This will allow Ankara to cut ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey and bring Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs, back to settle in the new “safe zone.” The United States has even convinced even the Kurds that the “safe zone” is necessary. The question, however, is how deep the Turkish military will go into the territory. They want to go more than 30 kilometres into the territory currently controlled by the allies of the United States from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Judging by the leaked reports, the United States has proposed only five kilometres. That certainly will not be enough for Turkey.
Answering a question about the Trans-Euphrates region at the press conference after the meeting of August 27, Vladimir Putin said, “We understand Turkey’s concern related to ensuring the safety and security of its southern border, and we believe these are legitimate interests of the Republic of Turkey… We proceed from the premise that establishing a safe zone for the Republic of Turkey at its southern borders will be a good condition for ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria itself.”
Turkey believes that the threat to its security comes from the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlling the northeast of Syria. Ankara identifies them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It should be noted here that Moscow occasionally reminds Turkey of the 1998 Adana Agreement concluded between Ankara and Damascus to resolve the “Kurdish question.” Back then, Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. This agreement regulates the provision of security in border areas.
In recent months, the President of Turkey has repeatedly stated that Turkey had made an earnest decision to launch a new offensive, the third operation in Syria following Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Turkey has been transmitting these sentiments for some time now to both the U.S. and the Russian militaries. However, in order to conduct an operation in the north of Syria, Ankara needs to ensure that certain conditions are in place. Each element, particularly air support for the offensive and the involvement of the Syrian opposition forces, is linked to Ankara reaching a consensus, even if a silent consensus, with Washington and Moscow.
An agreement with Moscow is important for Ankara in order to at least temporarily suspend hostilities in Idlib, as it would allow at least some Syrian opposition forces to be moved to the area of Turkey’s new operation in the northeast of Syria.
As regards Idlib, Moscow and Ankara could agree on Damascus taking control of the М4 and М5 highways, while Turkey’s safe area in the northeast would be greenlit. The question hinges solely on consent to the launch of the operation. How the parties will conduct their operations and whether they would succeed will be up to them.
Currently, the question remains open as to how much the United States is willing to concede to Turkey. However, as Turkey launches its operation, Russia has an opening to interact with Kurds. If the United States allows Turkey to go too far, Kurds will realize the former cannot ensure their safety.
For the Kurds, this setup is fraught with the risk of possible loss of all their achievements (and territories). Moscow could work through the question of resuming serious talks between the Kurds and Damascus, thereby allowing the Kurds to avoid clashes with Turkey.
… A summit of the Astana process guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be held in mid-September. The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is expected to be announced at the summit. Recent developments in the war bolster Damascus’ bargaining positions, yet at the same time they endanger the continuation of the political dialogue. The Russia–Turkey context is important as well, as the two countries strive to move beyond cooperation in Syria, understanding how complicated it is to achieve agreements.
Should Turkey launch an operation against Syrian Kurds, it will allow Ankara to “save face” concerning its Idlib losses. It will also allow Moscow to act as an intermediary and lead the Kurds and Damascus to an agreement. Much, however, will depend on the capacity in which the United States will continue its presence in Syria in and on whether the Kurds and Damascus will be able to move away from their maximalist counter-claims.
Moscow and Ankara understand that their partnership is difficult, but mutually necessary. Such partners can create quite a lot of trouble, but they are valuable because they steer an independent course and understand and recognize each other’s national interests, as well as the need for coordinating their stances.
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