Next year 2017, is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, also called in various circles as the Bolshevik Revolution or the October Revolution. This event of monumental proportion, had sweeping implications for entire humanity and the world was never the same again.
Unfortunately, during the cold war period, populist media succeeded in creating image of Soviet Union as an evil empire clad in Iron Curtain, there by is isolating October Revolution as partisan heritage of section of Global society. It is true that the then Soviet ruling class did not help the cause either.
It was only post 1989, that mainstream Russian/Slavic scholars from the western academic world could freely travel and research the Russian History and once various state archives were thrown open and official files were made available for public scrutiny that an alternate fact based research gathered momentum. Today, more up to date and panoramic view of the history is available about events before and after the Russian Revolution.
Aeschylus, the famous Greek tragic dramatist has said, “In war, truth is the first casualty”. In case of Russian Revolution it was three wars combined in one. The First World War, the War with Tsarist forces and the Civil War. This has made development of historiographical narrative of the entire Russian Revolution too daunting a task.
This paper tries to analyse one relatively small but significant event of this saga; The Kronstadt Uprising which was unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the closing phase of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a municipal town located on Kotlin Island, 30 kilometres west of St. Petersburg near the head of the Gulf of Finland. The fort of Kronstadt was the seat of the Russian admiralty and the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. (formerly Petrograd
Kronstadt sailors had an uninterrupted history of revolutionary activity. They were at the forefront to storm the winter palace, and celebrated the February Revolution of 1917 by executing their officers. In May, they established an independent commune in defiance of the Provisional Government; in July they took part in the abortive rising against Kerensky; in October they helped to bring down his government. In January 1918, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly by heckling Mensheviks and preventing their leader Martov and practically forcing he and other Mensheviks leave the meeting. An early sign of democratic deficit of Bolsheviks. The late Anarchist historian Paul Avrich, writer of an earlier history (Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970) in his book describes life in Kronstadt as follows
For the most part, the citizens themselves administered the social and economic life of the city, through the medium of local committees of every sort (as hallmark of) libertarian atmosphere. Kronstadt’s residents displayed a real talent for spontaneous self-organization. Apart from their various committees, men and women working in the same shop or living in the same neighbourhood formed tiny agricultural communes, each with about fifty members, which undertook to cultivate whatever arable land could be found on the empty stretches of the island. During the Civil War, says these collective vegetable gardens helped save the city from starvation.
Cherishing their local autonomy, the Kronstadt population warmly endorsed the appeal for “All power to the soviets” put forward in 1917 by Lenin and his party. They interpreted the slogan in a literal sense, to mean that each locality would run its own affairs, with little or no interference from any central authority.
Avrich considers Kronstadters as volatile champions of direct democracy.
As it is well known now, the infant Bolshevik regime had emerged with a precarious victory. Major Civil war erupted at the heels of revolution. First the former Czarist generals organized White armies and with end of first world war the allied powers, sent expeditionary forces to join white guards against the new regime.
As contingency measures, the Bolshevik government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. This only added fuel to the fire as the successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution had already produced famines and food shortages. War damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.
It is pertinent to note here, that the white Guards were not only the Tsarist Generals and Nobility or the armies of some 30 countries from all over the world. The Bolsheviks were also fighting with their former comrades like Anarchists, Left Socialists Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who all had contributed towards realisation of October dream in their own ways but had differing plans for the future.
Under such dire circumstances, fighting every odd, it may be pertinent to ask the question; what were the pressing ideological consideration to have an all out war against every one there by dwindling resources and creating cracks even in the infantile Bolshevik citadel. After all the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 had 352 the Left SR delegates as compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. More over the disagreement with Left SRs were about suppression of rival parties, the death penalty to fellow comrades of all colours and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
As regards Anarchists, once again I quote Paul Avrich from Russian Review, Volume 27, Issue 3 (Jul., 1968), 296-306.
When the first shots of the Russian Civil War were fired, the anarchists, in common with the other left-wing opposition parties, were faced with a serious dilemma. Which side were they to support? As staunch libertarians, they held no brief for the dictatorial policies of Lenin’s government, but the prospect of a White victory seemed even worse. Active opposition to the Soviet regime might tip the balance in favour of the counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, support for the Bolsheviks might serve to entrench them too deeply to be ousted from power once the danger of reaction had passed. After much soul-searching and debate, the anarchists adopted a variety of positions. A majority, however, cast their lot with the beleaguered Soviet regime. By August 1919, at the climax of the Civil War, Lenin was so impressed with the zeal and courage of the “Soviet anarchists”, as their anti-Bolshevik comrades contemptuously dubbed them, that Lenin counted them among “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power
Here, it is only natural for anyone to wonder What was the mindset of Bolshevik leadership that lump Mensheviks , left SR’s and Anarchist with the white guards and Black 100’s and other reactionaries? Would it have not been a clever strategy to pool in resources with other left parties and isolate the real counter revolutionaries with an all out attack. Such step would have conserved already overstretched resources, reduced loss of human life and restricted the magnitude of mass discontent among its own populace. Politician Lenin prevailed over the statesman in him.
As expected this all out civil war brought to the Russian society enormous hardships. In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives–apart from the military casualties of the civil war. In some, the population had been reduced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial output to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value. Nearly half the industrial work force deserted the towns for the villages. The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia.
The cornerstone of Lenin’s policy of War Communism was the forcible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. “We actually took from the peasant,” admitted Lenin, “all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers.” Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peasantry resorted to both passive and active resistance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the governments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.
For urban workers the situation was even more desperate. Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was distributed according to a preferential system which favoured heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Less important ones received only 200 grams of black bread a day.
The civil war also resulted in acute shortage of skilled labour. Those who ran factories during Tsarist period refused to cooperate with the new Government unless paid higher wages and better facilities. This led to the gradual abandonment of workers’ control in favour of management by “bourgeois specialists.” A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. For the rank-and-file workmen, the restoration of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism …. Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921…murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the potential loss of rations.
At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.
Once civil war subsided and a White restoration was no longer a threat, peasant and worker resistance became violent. There were mass strikes in Petrograd.
Back in Kronstadt, when news of the Petrograd strikes reached the sailors, they immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate. The delegates reported back on February 28 to a sailors’ meeting. Mammoth crowd of 16,000 sailors, soldiers and workers heard the report and then passed a resolution, which was to become the rallying point of the rebellion: The resolution sought; new elections to Soviets by secret ballot, freedom of press and political agitation for all left leaning groups, equalization of food rations between workers and party leaders and the lifting of ban on free exchange for agricultural goods.
At this stage the sailors didn’t see themselves as being in open revolt. In fact, they sent a committee of thirty men to confer with the Petrograd Soviet for an amicable end to the strike who were promptly arrested by secret police upon their arrival in Petrograd. The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land.
On March 5, Trotsky issued an ultimatum in which he promised to “shoot like partridges”(birds found in Europe). On March 7, an aerial bombardment was launched against the island, which continued over several days. After the first attack on 9th March failed, on the night of March 16, the last assault began. 50,000 Communist troops were pitted against 15,000 well-¬entrenched defenders. By morning the battle raged within the city itself. Women as well as men fought ferociously to save Kronstadt, but by evening Bolshevik troops conquered Kronstadt. Had they held out much longer, a plan sanctioned by Trotsky to launch a gas attack would have been carried out.
Kronstadt fell. In all, the Bolsheviks lost about 10,000 men, the rebels about 1500; about 8000 rebels fled across the ice to Finland; another 2500 were captured and either killed or sent to labor camps.
”It was not a battle,” said the Bolshevik commander later, “it was an inferno… The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage.”
Contrary to Bolshevik estimate;
The rebels were not necessarily anarchists. They were seeking alternatives within Bolshevik polity
It was in no way, White Guard sponsored conspiracy.
Kronstaders never engaged in any dialogue with outsiders or the dissident groups
Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Victor Serge the Russian Anarchist who reluctantly sided with Bolsheviks even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. The NEP implemented only an year later, replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.
At the Tenth Party Congress Lenin commented, “They didn’t want the White Guards, but they didn’t want us, either,” The historiography of Kronstadt offers several varying versions but the one I find most convincing is the following;
Bolsheviks had no experience with administration and no guide book to build socialist state. Under such circumstances when there was no precedence or no written laws, every decision was being taken on the basis of heated ideological debates on party forums in ad hoc manner. These debates were highly polemical and often resulted in reducing problems to polarised absolutes.
Even famous Anarchist Alexander Berman agreed that, there was no other party in Russia capable of defending revolution. Bolsheviks exploited this fear of “return of white guard should there be a deviation from Bolshevik course” to the hilt. Thus fear of deviation became the central tenet of Bolshevik political ideology. Fear of potential left or right deviation prompted Lenin in the 10th party congress to ban factionalism in the party. Increasingly the propaganda acquired universal validity that there is no middle position. You are either with proletariat or with bourgeoisie. There is no third option. The entire population was made to believe in this THEY or US dichotomy. Soon the hallmark of revolutionary mind set got cast into the mentality of absolutes. Unfortunately this had disastrous consequence not only in terms of inner party democracy but the very rise of Stalin. It made the entire ideology simplistic mechanistic decision tree paradigm, which got progressively fossilized and eventually dead. In that sense, Kronstadt was an early warning, which even great ideologue like Lenin missed out. Who knows, he may have thought of correcting this tendency later, for which he never got time. Because by then Stalin a relatively green horn in Ideological matters, had established his tentacles in the party organisation across the country. The tactical political absolutism was convenient to him to build a cadre loyal to him. Because the slogan you are either with Bolshevik or you are a counter revolutionary, was malleable enough to twist into, you are either with Stalin the chosen disciple of Lenin or you are counter revolutionary eminently worthy of elimination of being consigned to gulag.
Why and How Russia is poised to strengthen its Afghan Role
After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the USSR’s subsequent disintegration, Russia seemed neither interested in nor capable of securing a pro-Moscow regime in Kabul as was seen during the Cold War. In a move aimed at safeguarding its strategic back yard (Central Asia) from the rising menaces of drug trafficking and Islamic fundamentalism (non-conventional threats) emerging from Afghanistan, Russia accepted the American presence (a conventional threat) in the region post-9/11. However, any academic pursuit at understanding the Russian role in Afghanistan in perspective must incorporate efforts at grasping Moscow’s threat perceptions to its strategic interests emanating from Kabul.
How Interests in Central Asia Shaped Moscow’s Afghan Concerns and Role
Russia has had both geopolitical and geo-economic interests in Central Asia. It considers Central Asia its strategic back yard and has a monopoly over pipeline diplomacy as it continued to supply the Central Asian natural resources through the pipelines existing since Soviet times. Russian role in Afghanistan has been shaped primarily by the threats to the region emanating from and facilitated by the latter. Post 9/11, the Russian policy has been evidently geared towards containing the American penetration into the region as well as preventing the Central Asian Republics from radical Islamic influences and drugs generating from Afghanistan. The American objective of laying down alternative pipeline routes for transfer of Central Asian resources to the world market through Afghanistan threatened Russia’s interests.
It is noteworthy that the American strategy gravitated towards the Eurasian region not only with an aim to develop continental strategies to contain the regional influence of Russia, Iran and China given their geographical contiguity to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region, the natural resource potential also attracted the American attention. These objectives became the prime movers of US policy towards the region apart from the immediacy of the threat of terrorism which rose to prominence as being a national security threat. It is worth recalling that In a move to reach out to the Central Asian region, the US Congress started passing bills that called for diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region starting from late 1990s. The Bush Administration soon after it formed the government released an energy policy report indicating that the exploitation of Caspian energy resources could not only benefit the economies of the region, but also help mitigate possible world supply disruptions which was considered a major US security goal.
Russian lingering concerns remained that the flight of many Soviet Muslims during Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign and nationalist purges created a permanent Soviet exile population in Afghanistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the resultant weakening of its control over the Islamic republics, Russia believed that a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan would push these people towards the north. Secondly, the regime through its Islamic influences would use the exiled population to destabilize the newly independent Central Asian Republics. Rise of Islamic opposition groups in different Central Asian states strengthened such Russian belief. This apart, the collapse of the Soviet-era economies and the elimination of Soviet-policed borders led to a quick surge in the production and trafficking of drugs in the Central Asian region.
Russia perceived substantial threat when the Taliban rose to prominence in Afghanistan. For instance, Sergie Ivanov, the head of Russian Security Council, threatened to lunch missile and air strikes against Afghanistan after accusing the Taliban government of assisting the Chechen resistance. Moscow further accused the Taliban of giving sanctuary to Islamists from some of the Central Asian states and allowing them to train for guerrilla warfare to destabilise the states. During the Afghan civil war, Russia kept pouring weapons and money in support of Uzbek and Tajik warlords. When the civil war entered a decisive phase, Russia in order to push the Taliban out of Tajik and Uzbek areas threw its weight behind Ahmad Shah Massoud who had bases in Tajikistan.
However, many scholars viewed threat perceptions from all these sources were although relevant but deliberately exaggerated by the Russian authorities with an aim to exercise firm control over the former Soviet republics. The developments in Chechnya, Central Asia (civil war in Tajikistan) and Afghanistan were seen as part of a larger plot hatched by a secretive network of Islamic activists and terrorists whose main goal, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service has been to create a Great Islamic caliphate. However, scholars like Rasul Bakhsh Rais argue that the link between the Taliban and the Islamic movements in Central Asia was questionable. According to him all these movements have indigenous roots and Russia and the ruling elites in Central Asia exaggerate the transnational links among the Islamic movements to divert attention from their own political failures.
Russian Afghan Concerns post-9/11 and Aspirations for a Larger Role
After September 11, 2001, Russian leader Vladimir Putin not only described the terrorist attacks on the US by al-Qaeda as “barbaric” in a TV broadcast but also ensured Moscow’s cooperation, ranging from providing all the information at its disposal about terrorist bases to assuring Russian secret services’ cooperation with the West. Russia’s support for the US-led “war on terror” in response to 9/11 was evidently driven by its national interests apart from the despicable nature of the terrorist acts themselves.
The Russian perspective on and support for the US-led Afghan war efforts were influenced by Moscow’s desire to cultivate international support for its concerns stemming from the uprising of radical Islamic forces in Chechnya. Second, Moscow believed that by cooperating with the US-led war efforts, it could overcome challenges posed by such destabilizing forces as the rise of Islamic opposition movements and drug trafficking in its Central Asian back yard.
Third, in its support for the Afghan war, Russia saw an enhanced prospect for the Northern Alliance group coming to power in Afghanistan, and fourth, a relatively economically and militarily weaker Russia could not completely insulate itself from the US call for a “war on terror,” as it was trying to reset its relations with the West after the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Moscow had supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in terms of arms and economic aid during the Afghan civil war, and to ensure the Northern Alliance group’s rise to power, it provided key support to the alliance during the “war on terror.” For instance, the Russian provision of 60 T-55 battle tanks, 12 T-62 K command tanks and 30 infantry fighting vehicles to Northern Alliance during the war bears testimony to this fact.
However, Russian support for the American-led Afghan war was far from being full-fledged and unconditional. As the US and its NATO allies were drawing close to the areas of Moscow’s strategic interests, suspicions over US geopolitical objectives became visible at the same time, immediately after the American declaration of the war, when then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov ruled out any presence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region and the Chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, remarked that Russia had no plans to participate in a military operation against Afghanistan.
Russian suspicions remained as to the intensity of the US engagement with the Central Asian states in the guise of taking on terrorism within the framework of “Operation Enduring Freedom.” In order to secure a firm foothold in Central Asia, the US not only secured temporary forward basing in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, strategic engagement in the region was also fostered through access to airspace and restricted use of bases in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
There were frequent instances of US official visits to Central Asia, intelligence sharing and improved coordination within the US Central Command. Further, American interest to revive the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project in 2002 in an attempt to end Russian monopoly over supply routes to transfer Central Asian resources, which was undergoing uncertainties due to the turbulence perpetrated by the Taliban, corroborated Russian suspicions over US geopolitical interests.
As the American entrenchment in the Central Asian region deepened, the countries of the region were asked to fulfill their bilateral and other obligations to Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, during his stint as a Russian envoy to NATO between 2008 and 2011 took efforts to make it clear that Russia wanted to help the US and Afghanistan as part of the international community but on its own terms.
Around the same time, Russia although did not object to in principle but viewed skeptically several new transit corridors laid down by the US to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan (the routes are collectively termed the Northern Distribution Network), and emphasized that these must not be used to transfer lethal goods. On the other side, many US officials were envisaging the network being transformed into a Modern Silk Route.
In response to the US military bases in different parts of Central Asia, Russia established its own bases, but their direct contacts were surprisingly limited. In response to the greater role of the US in the region, Russia called for a larger role of regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in securing security and stability in Afghanistan.
Perhaps because of Russia’s overriding influence due to its monopoly over oil supplies, the Central Asian states agreed to strengthen CSTO as an alternative to NATO. In one of the top-level summit meetings, in 2011, the CSTO leaders unanimously agreed that countries outside the regional security bloc would only be able to establish military bases on the territory of a member state with the consent of all member states.
Responding to the evolving Afghan scenario, Russia not only made efforts at diplomatically engaging successive Afghan governments, it attempted to establish itself as a major stakeholder in the Afghan peace process too. Being excluded from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to broker peace of which the US, China, Pakistan and Afghan government are members, Moscow opened up its channels to play its part in the Afghan peace process taking other regional countries and the Taliban on board. Realizing the geopolitical importance of the outcomes of regional war and peace efforts, Moscow has allegedly shifted its support from the fragmented Northern Alliance group to the Taliban in order to strengthen its Afghan role. Washington believes that Moscow is channelizing its support toward the Taliban to impede the peace process in Kabul and roll back progress made by US-led forces and drive a wedge between the US and its coalition partners, while Moscow keeps denying allegations of its support for the radical group.
US State Department officials, however, have expressed concerns over Moscow’s failure to work with Washington in Afghanistan, and some US military officials on the ground have not hesitated to accuse Russia of providing arms to and sharing sensitive intelligence with the Afghan Taliban.
As things stand now, Russia has admitted to opening up channels of communication with the Taliban with such objectives as protection of Russian citizens in Afghanistan, promotion of peace in Afghanistan and above all, containing the influence of ISIS – which is considered by Russia a more dangerous threat to the Central Asian region because of its transnational objectives and role.The Taliban’s quick agreement to join Russian-led peace talks scheduled to be hosted by Moscow on September 4 this year indicated Russia’s outreach to the group. Washington’s rejection of Russia’s invitation to participate in the peace efforts underlined geopolitical suspicions of each other’s intentions. The Russian leadership, however, postponed the talks to facilitate the participation of the Afghan government and other stakeholders in the peace process.
Russian intelligence has projected that ISIS has an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters including many foreign fighters (those fleeing Syria after being recruited from the Central Asian region) spread across eight to nine provinces, including its sway in the northern province of Jowzjan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, carrying a dangerous portent for the Central Asian states.
Moreover, Russian officials have argued that the radical group has been able to recruit many people from the Central Asian region, posing a serious threat to Russian security concerns. Moscow has also been seen praising the Taliban’s efforts at containing drug trafficking into Russia’s back yard.
Nonetheless, given its lingering suspicions of US geopolitical intentions, Russia may be using its support for the Taliban as a hedge against growing American influence in the region. Moscow has rejected Washington’s estimate that the numerical strength of ISIS varied from 1,500 to 2,000 and disputed the claim that the group’s influence was limited to such provinces as Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan and consisted of only local defectors from the Taliban and other militant groups. Moscow has allegedly charged the US with sharing common interests with ISIS in keeping Afghanistan embroiled in instabilities and disorder so that it could have a permanent military presence in the region.
The geopolitical rift between the two powers has been further exacerbated by continuing US sanctions on Russia, which will have impacts on the peace process in Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Syria, Russia has stepped up its support for the Damascus regime by supplying S-300 missiles, and Idlib continues to be a hotbed of geopolitical jostling for influence between Moscow and Washington.
Afghanistan, as another site for their scrambling for geopolitical supremacy, will continue to witness an enhanced role of Russia, preventing cooperation between the two powers unless Moscow’s regional geopolitical claims are counterbalanced by a global US geopolitical role.
Russia and Multilateral Diplomacy in East Asia
When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August 2018 it was revealed that President Vladimir Putin was planning to take part in the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS) in Singapore this November. This will mark the first time that the Russian leader has attended the event since the country became full member of the EAS. Putin will also pay a state visit to Singapore and take part in the Fourth ASEAN–Russia Summit .
The President’s participation in the EAS has been a long time coming and his attendance will demonstrate that Russia is taking multilateral diplomacy in Asia seriously and that it cares about the EAS as the main ASEAN-centred security mechanism. Does Vladimir Putin’s upcoming trip to Singapore indicate that Russia is pushing a new agenda in its Asian policy?
A List at the End of a List
Just like there seems to be no country whose geographic position is not strategically advantageous, it would seem that there is no area of Russia’s foreign policy that is not a priority of some sort. In the official discourse, it is not customary to talk about Russia’s own pivot to the East, because formally there was no change in the priorities and East Asia has always been one. But speaking realistically, it can also be said the priories remain unchanged in the sense that Asia is still a secondary focus for Russia’s foreign policy efforts compared to other areas that are of priority concern mostly because they are prone with conflict.
At the same time, while Russia and the West seem unable to resolve their protracted conflict, Asia remains an important source of good news for Russia, an area where constructive forms of international relations still prevail over various forms of geopolitical competition. The Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok in early September, which was attended by the heads of state or government of China, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, is a good example of such positivity.
Perhaps it is image of relative harmony that makes the topic of Asian multilateral institutions less interesting for observers and relegates it to the bottom of the list of the priority areas of Russian policy in Asia. When Russian official speak of the country’s Asia policy, they usually start with Russia’s bilateral relations with regional leaders – China, Japan, South Korea and India – before turning to the Korean nuclear problem. Only then do they list the various multilateral diplomacy institutions around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): the ASEAN–Russia Dialogue Partnership; the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting with Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus); the East Asia Summit; the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), among others.
Meanwhile, multilateral diplomacy in Asia is an agenda item that checks several crucial boxes for Russian foreign policy ideology.
First, the region is home to rising powers which, according to the official Russian theory, will build the new ‘polycentric world’ and these players include both individual countries such as China, India or Indonesia and organizations like the SCO and ASEAN itself. Second, the principle of non-alignment, multilateralism and inclusivity in the form of ASEAN-centric organizations is still in vogue here, that is, there is ‘Asian NATO’, but instead a dense network of inclusive dialogue platforms (even North Korea takes part in ARF meetings). Third, ASEAN and larger formats around it continue to take the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states very seriously and avoid discussing each other’s domestic workings, which is also in the set of values that Russia is promoting on the international arena.
At the same time, all of this ideological affinity is not easily converted into practical cooperation. Every year, dozens of events are held within the framework of the ADMM, ADMM-Plus, ARF and EAS platforms, which are attended by the ASEAN dialogue partners. Diplomats from the partner countries are well aware of how difficult it is to maintain meaningful participation in all of them. It was only last year the Russia – last of the dialog partners – opened a full representation to ASEAN and given the limited international competencies of most Russian ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the relevant subdivisions of the Ministry of Economic Development remain disproportionately burdened with maintaining Russia’s participation in these formats.
In practical terms, the most visible step taken by Russia in multilateral institutions in Asia was the 2010 initiative to launch a “dialogue on issues of forming a new security and cooperation architecture in the region” within the EAS format. The set of characteristics that make up this system changes from speech to speech, but is usually said to be based on principles of collectiveness, multilateralism, equality, inclusiveness, openness, non-alignment and indivisibility. In the real world, Russia’s initiative is embodied in a series of working-level workshops on the regional security architecture. Six such workshops have been held and are usually attended at the level of division chiefs. There are also plans for a format where EAS ambassadors in Jakarta are to discuss the topic.
An initiative of this kind clearly appeals to ASEAN as an organization in the very centre of multilateral diplomacy in Asia, all the more so because the selection of principles proposed by Russia is recognized, at least vocally, by almost every single member of the United Nations. But even this seemingly win-win ideological construct runs into harsh geopolitical realities. In private conversations, ASEAN diplomats have in recent years expressed scepticism about Russia’s ideological leadership in this initiative: they say that it is not Russia’s place to talk about the indivisibility of security and then conduct joint military exercises with China, which the smaller countries in Southeast Asia evidently fear.
However, the main difficulty for the Russian initiative is different – as with many other processes in ASEAN-centric formats, it is not entirely clear whether an initiative on the creation of a new security architecture will come to life beyond workshops and statements. There is reportedly a collective document that could, following discussions, form the basis for a set of rules of conduct in the Asia-Pacific Region that could then be converted into another document that may even turn out to be legally binding.
Russia’s participation in ASEAN-centred multilateral mechanisms is not limited to the initiative. For example, Russia along with Laos is co-chair of the ADMM-Plus Expert Working Group on Humanitarian Mine Action. In 2014–2017, it co-headed (with Thailand) a similar group on military medicine. In 2019–2020, Russia will, alongside Indonesia, co-chair the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Counter Terrorism and Trans National Crime.
The (Not) New Sheriff In Town
Multilateral diplomacy in East Asia has traditionally enjoyed the support of all the key players in the region. However, this is mainly due to its openness and inclusivity. Unfortunately, this inclusivity proceeds from avoiding any kind of hard position or going against the consensus. Serious security issues are discussed on these multilateral Asian platforms that first seek to not offend anyone be uncontroversial and only then to be effective or even meaningful. What is more, the major powers support the ASEAN centrality because they know that ASEAN is in no condition to enforce any decision. This means that the United States and China can act pretty much as they please without feeling any kind of restrictions on the part of the regional community.
None of this means, however, that the numerous dialogue mechanisms that exist in the Asia-Pacific region are purely imitative and decorative in nature. They perform an important function – namely, socialization and the creation of an information flow among states. This mutual awareness of each other’s intentions, interests and positions should in theory build trust among all players or at least remind them that when crisis strikes there is a platform where they can talk before taking up arms. In other words, the multilateral security system in Asia works, although it does not meet the grand expectations of observers who want to see it as a safeguard of international security in Asia. On the other hand, recent experience of Europe demonstrates that we relying too much on collective security systems.
When faced with any serious security challenge, the countries in the Asia Pacific rarely rely on multilateral institutions for protection or mediation. And the fact that they turn to more traditional foreign policy instruments underscores the inability of multilateral mechanisms to fulfil their stated functions. The new concepts and strategies that have emerged in Asia and are designed to counterbalance China will be seen by many smaller countries in the region as an opportunity to gain real protection from Chinese assertiveness, at least to the extent possible.
In the coming years, these alternative formats will likely revolve around all sorts of ‘Indo-Pacific’ initiatives and platforms. The revived U.S.–Japan–Australia–India quadrilateral dialogue – no doubt aimed at new and better containment of China – will also extend its cooperation formats to a wider audience of partners in Asia. The key partners here will most likely be Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Another example is America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision announced recently as the economic leg of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. The long-awaited trilateral partnership for Indo-Pacific infrastructure investment has also arrived. While these initiatives do not seem to be as ambitious as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, they do already have an advantage over it – they are not Chinese. In today’s climate of growing fears of debt trapping and Chinese ‘sharp power’ this gives a measure of hope to U.S. and Japanese infrastructural investors aiming at Southeast Asian and Eurasian markets.
All this creates challenges for the relevance of multilateral institutions in Asia. When the Quad re-emerged November 2017, the news caused concern in Southeast Asian countries: what will this mean for ASEAN centrality? This concern was addressed by a diplomatic appeasement campaign, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong went on an extensive tour of Asia to calm the waters. An important result of this work was the joint statements made by the Quad foreign ministries following the second meeting on June 7, 2018, with all four texts essentially boiling down to a reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality.
Even without these new plurilateral formats, ASEAN-centred mechanisms were a target for criticism. For example, every time the situation on the South China Sea flares up, ASEAN is criticized for not being able to adopt a unified position. The ten member states of ASEAN are to varying degrees willing – or, rather, unwilling – to upset China. This is why they prefer to adopt a position with the lowest common denominator. ASEAN and China have been developing a Code of Conduct for the parties in the South China Sea for several years now. The document should be an important milestone in the settlement of the conflict, or at the very least reduce tensions in the region. A Single Draft was only agreed upon this year, and it is nothing more than a set of asks from all parties – even the most glaring contradictions have not been removed.
What Russia Brings to the Table
The problems of ASEAN-centred mechanisms are not unique to multilateral diplomacy and, of course, do not diminish the significance of the EAS for Russia. First of all, Vladimir Putin’s participation in the East Asia Summit is not as important for the EAS as such as it is for Russia–ASEAN relations. The East Asia Summit is important as a vanity project for ASEAN, a living embodiment of the principle of ASEAN centrality, when all the great powers in the Asia-Pacific Region come together under ASEAN convening power to discuss regional issues. The declaration following the Third ASEAN–Russia Summit in Sochi noted, in typical ASEAN-speak, that more attention on the part of Russia towards the EAS would serve as an important step on the way to upgrading the status of the dialogue partnership between Russia and the ASEAN to ‘strategic dialogue.’
In this sense, the President’s trip to Singapore in November can only be a success. Russia will remind everyone of its status as a major player in the region and share a vision of the regional security system that will be difficult not to support. President Putin will talk about the Greater Eurasian Partnership – Russia’s idea of a vast space with unified rules of the game in trade an investment, stretching all the way from the European Union to ASEAN. Commentators will point to Russia’s significant potential to play the role of a third force, whose appeal will only grow as the competition between China and the United States intensifies.
The ‘third force’ idea has long existed in the Russian discourse on Asian politics but requires critical assessment. There are two key weaknesses in the argument.
First, Russia does not enjoy a high level of influence in Southeast Asia, and its objective ability to bring attractive proposals to the region is also limited. While the countries in the Indo-Pacific currently account for a third of Russia’s foreign trade, for none of these countries does Russia itself exceed 3 per cent. Russia has unique products and services in several strategically important sectors – arms trade, information security, minerals and energy. However, this proposal has existed for several decades now, while the results (with the exception of Vietnam) have been spotty. The same goes for the Russian military presence in the Western Pacific; this presence is reasonably limited, which, on the one hand, reduces the risk of Russia being drawn into regional conflicts. On the other hand, it prevents Russia from playing in the same league as the United States and China.
autonomy in Asian affairs. Thanks to the coverage by international media and experts, Russia is increasingly seen as a country whose deteriorating relations with the United States are making it more and more dependent on China. The nuances of Russia’s balanced stance on the South China Sea, for example, are no longer seen as such behind the smokescreen of joint military exercises with China and the support of Beijing’s refusal to recognize the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016.
In this context, Russia may find it difficult to portray itself as a third force in Asia. It may be more worthwhile to invest more in maintaining the existing mechanisms of multilateral diplomacy. For Russia, which does not have the resources of China or the US, a sensible long-term strategy would be to strengthen the institutional framework, especially if it works at the same time to increase trust in Russia as a country that adheres to the rules of international cooperation. Building practical cooperation and developing new initiatives in multilateral mechanisms in Asia to match its rhetoric could have a positive reputational effect for Russia and its influence in Southeast Asia at a relatively low cost, even if it is old-fashioned and naïve to talk earnestly about collective security these days.
Such a strategy would no doubt require more serious investments in the bureaucratic, intellectual and organizational support of Russia’s work in multilateral mechanisms in Asia. It is necessary to gain the understanding and support of all stakeholders throughout the executive branch in order for Russia to step up its participation in the dozens of issue-specific dialogues under the ASEAN banner.
 At the time of publication, there is no official confirmation that the ASEAN–Russia Summit will take place; however, recent statements made by Deputy Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation Sergey Gorkov during his visit to Singapore imply that it will. See: http://economy.gov.ru/minec/about/structure/depasiapacific/201802091
First published in our partner RIAC
Putin Welcomes New Ambassadors in Moscow
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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