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The Ass and the Elephant: Russia and the American Presidency

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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Whether one truly believes in the old adage that the President of the United States is the ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘the most powerful person on the global stage,’ it is unquestionable that whoever holds the Oval Office in the White House wields tremendous influence and impact far beyond the borders of America. As the world looks on with fascination in 2016 at the coming confrontation between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, questions remain as to which candidate is favored by which foreign leaders.

While mainstream American media is still basically covering the race with horrified fascination at the popularity and perseverance of the Trump campaign, the reality beyond America seems to show his candidacy is being taken quite seriously by other countries. Some may even be taking it not just seriously but favorably when compared to the anticipated presidency of another Clinton.

At the moment, Russia seems to be one of those countries. However, deeper analysis shows this ‘support’ might be more of an indictment against past Hillary positions and statements rather than based on real evidence that accurately predicts what a Trump presidency might mean for Moscow. In fact, looking at both candidates strictly from a ‘what-this-means-for-Russia?’ perspective reveals the next four years of White House-Kremlin relations could be rather problematic no matter who wins.

Hillary Clinton

Before some of the specific statements and positions of Hillary Clinton on Russia are considered, a subtle comment needs to be made about the state of foreign policy within the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to potential candidates for President. Approximately four years ago I published a very popular piece that argued how the foreign policy of President Barack Obama was by and large ‘Republican’ in its conservative orthodoxy. While I admitted that this traditionalist approach could be partially explained by the personal comfort level of the President himself, American presidential race history also weighed heavily in explaining these right-of-center positions for a left-of-center President. This same heavy weight affects Hillary just as much as Obama and therefore bears repeating.

Why do liberal leaders in America become largely conservative statesmen when it comes to real decision-making on the global stage? Some of this is undoubtedly tied to what Democrats have had to fend off as an entire party in the past generation of presidential races: that Democrats are too focused on domestic affairs and are unfit or inexperienced to handle world affairs. In essence, Democrats always have to defend against the accusation of being foreign policy weaklings. This accusation is never leveled against Republican candidates (even when a particular candidate may be internationally amateurish, his party’s reputational legacy is apparently automatically transferred to him. This is clearly happening today with Trump).

This ‘Chamberlain Syndrome’ (Democrat-as-global-appeaser) has existed for quite some time, but it was surely exacerbated by 9/11 and the new emphasis on national security. It was a major part of the lead-up to the 2004 election, when some analysts warned, ‘if Democrats are to have any hope of returning to power in 2004, or even of running competitively and keeping the U.S. two-party system healthy and balanced in the coming decade, they will have to convince the American people that they are as capable as Republicans of protecting the United States from terrorism and other security threats.’ While it was assumed that it would be quite some time before Democrats could actually win national elections based on their national security and foreign policy stances, the big hope was to have the party advance far enough so that it would stop losing national elections solely because of these two factors. This was arguably the biggest lesson learned from the Democratic failure of 2004, when Vietnam war veteran, Purple Heart winner, and long-time Foreign Affairs Senate stalwart John Kerry lost to Bush, who had no such international military service accolades to lean on.

While in the past Democrats could always criticize Republicans for being too eager to consider war (all stick, no carrot), the reverse accusation thrown back at Democrats post-9/11 seemed more damning (all carrot, no stick). What Democrats as a party needed to ensure was that Americans could see them as not too weak or awkward when it came to handling said stick. Undoubtedly this was a legacy lesson made disturbingly eternal when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis stuck his head out of a tank in 1988, ostensibly to make people believe in his toughness, and instead became the butt of such jokes and ridicule that it arguably led to his loss to George H.W. Bush.

It seems clear that ever since that debacle Democrats have been quick to overreact to such criticism. They thus tend to be even quicker than Republicans to line up and show the ‘military chevrons’ symbolically tattooed on their arms, signifying their willingness and capability to defend America as aggressively as the opposing party. This historical weight was prominent on Obama because his past experience as a Chicago community organizer, followed by very limited service as a single-term Senator, created a hyper-sensitivity to ‘not being internationally ready.’ If anything, this same weight is heavier on Hillary: not only must she fight the traditionally sexist accusations made against all women politicians as being ‘peacemakers’ and not ‘war-makers.’ She also must fight her own personal history, which if anything began as classically feminist and liberal, two things never commonly associated with the military or the utilization of hard power. Given this background, both within the party in general and her personality in specific, it becomes much easier to understand why Hillary’s comments and positions over the years have been so decidedly skeptical and critical toward Russia. Easier to understand, however, does not necessarily translate into easier to accept.

-Many of Hillary’s critics tend to cite her steadfast belief in the mythology of ‘American exceptionalism’ and the country’s self-proclaimed role as ‘leader of the free world.’ To be fair, most Washington politicians will at least give public voice to these same ideas but few have also been Secretary of State and maintain very close ties to the military-security complex. It was Ralph Nader who decried her as both a ‘deep corporatist and deep militarist…never having met a weapons system she didn’t like.’ Perhaps most significant, this characterization would have been impossible to imagine when she began in Washington as First Lady. One only need look at the failed managed health care initiative Bill Clinton gave to her charge during his first term to see how dramatically her issue foci and temperament have adapted over time.

-Hillary still maintains unofficial and official contacts within her Eastern European team that are, amazingly, highly adaptable neoconservative holdovers from the Bush administration and have succeeded in staying near to the ears of Obama, Clinton, and Kerry over time. Anatol Lieven, the renowned scholar at King’s College London, has openly decried that too many of the figures currently surrounding Hillary are old school members of the military, foreign policy, and security establishment that chronically view Russia with Cold War attitudes, regardless of evidence.

-During the Crimea crisis in 2014, Hillary tried to make a connection between Putin policy on the secession/annexation issue with policies pursued by Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. Given that over 20 million Russians died fighting Hitler, a sacrifice many historians the world over consider the crucial lynchpin that ultimately led to Hitler’s defeat, and that WWII in Russia is officially known instead as the ‘Great Fatherland War,’ it was incredibly rash and ill-thought to make such flippantly inaccurate connections given how important Russian-American relations will continue to be to the office Hillary is pursuing.

-At the powerful and influential Brookings Institution, Hillary stated that more needed to be done to ‘up the costs’ on Russia in general and Putin in specific because of Russian action in Syria. These comments were of course made under the aegis of honoring international law and wanting an end to conflict, even though Russia was formally invited to enter Syria and its intervention was technically in line with said international law. Neither statement can be formally applied to the American assistance given to the chaotically diverse opposition groups trying to overthrow Assad. This type of ‘reworking the narrative’ is continually irritating to Russia: what it considers to be blatant and untruthful manipulation of the global media covering events actually transpiring on the ground.

-Hillary has not been very gracious when discussing her personal opinion of Putin as a man, having once even described him as having ‘no soul.’ In her book “Hard Choices”, she called him ‘thin-skinned and autocratic.’ This fuels a general perception within the corridors of power in Russia that perhaps Hillary views this relationship too personally: that as long as Vladimir Putin is President of Russia (which could very well be for the entirety of a Hillary presidency), then she will not strive to achieve better relations with the country nor will she even treat Russia as an equal partner on areas of global mutual interest.

-Hillary has maintained self-serving double standards in interviews, drawing false distinctions between the presidencies of Medvedev from 2008-2012 and the return of Putin after 2012. On the one hand, she would decry Medvedev of simply doing the bidding of Prime Minister Putin, but then on the other hand would praise her ability to work and get things done with Medvedev. Medvedev, therefore, has been both a puppet who does nothing and a puppet master who let the United States achieve a nuclear arms deal, Iranian sanctions, and facilitate further operations in Afghanistan. In a massively publicized interview with the famous television journalist Judy Woodruff, Hillary clearly established a stance marked by distrust and wariness toward Russia, even if begrudgingly acknowledging that it was still a country that had to be worked with.

While many traditional liberals within the Democratic Party have issues with what they consider to be the blatantly ‘far right’ conservative foreign policy positions of Hillary, the real concern for the Russian Federation is that it sees her as a candidate that, correctly or incorrectly, wants to use Russia and Putin as a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy to establish her own ‘toughness’ on the global stage and leans on outdated Cold War rhetoric to analyze contemporary strategies and initiatives. If Russia is interested in establishing new 21stcentury relations with the United States not beholden instinctively to the legacies of the 20th, then it is hard-pressed to view Hillary Clinton as the President that would be willing to create such an environment. This is what likely fuels the quasi-positive statements coming from Russia about Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Russia should be wary of wanting a President just because he isn’t Hillary. While Donald brings a different style and approach to potential relations with Russia, it does not mean those relations will produce anything new and innovative.

Donald Trump

Having examined some of the more strident comments and commentaries made by Hillary toward Russia, it is hard to avoid the impression that Russia may be ‘supporting’ a Trump presidency in very much the same way so many Americans are: they simply do not want a Clinton presidency. In my university classes I often caution students from engaging in what I call ‘negative voting:’ the vote being cast is not so much FOR a particular candidate but rather AGAINST the opposing one. When citizens cast votes based on negation rather than affirmation, then it is not uncommon that the succeeding presidency is ultimately disappointing. I believe this will be applicable to Russia as well if it thinks simply preventing Hillary results automatically in a better presidency for Russian-American relations. To wit:

-Within Donald’s campaign has been a penchant for making bold statements that subsequently get walked back soon after. He did it with the building of a wall against Mexicans; did it with the promise to tax the super-rich; did it with the promise to raise the minimum wage; did it with the proposal to simply ban all self-declared Muslims from entering the country. While many Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) lament this as making it impossible to understand just what a Trump presidency will truly look like, many former business associates have warned that this spinning and counter-spinning is what his administration will be: no solid principles, simply a willingness to jump back and forth across diametrically opposed positions with no real logic as to why. Ultimately, the accusation is one of being supremely self-serving. Russia may think this is a personality it can work with, but that makes an assumption that the self-serving egotism will be rational and predictable. Moscow seems to emphasize the word ‘pragmatism’ with Donald. But the policy spins, flip-flops, and contradictions do not indicate pragmatism. They indicate unreliability.

-Donald has made headlines by saying he is willing to work with Russia, ‘but only from a position of strength,’ while also adding that the United States should be willing to walk away from Russia if it is ‘too demanding.’ Since Hillary has so clearly staked out a position openly antagonistic toward Russia, comments like these from Donald make it seem like a dramatically different policy. In real terms, it is not. The key is cluing in to the code words. Whenever a politician in America speaks about positions of strength and not wanting to see an opponent too demanding, it is basically arguing for the very same position crafted by Hillary: the preferences of the United States will take priority and working together only takes place if America is granted the clear leadership role. This attitudinal arrogance has been sanctified in Russian-American relations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and no President so far has seemed willing to blaze a new path. Donald’s comments are not trailblazing: they are secretly masked to hide what will simply be more of the status quo. He will be partner to Putin as long as Putin accepts a subordinate role, which, obviously, seems highly unlikely.

-The previous point is a perfect segue to what will likely be the real fuel between Trump and Putin – ego and machismo. These two things are currency to Donald. It is clearly what he admires about Putin: whether countries around the world approve or disapprove of Putin policies and initiatives, one thing is never denied – his power and undeniable sense of authority over his administration and system. That Donald sees this as something to admire does not in fact indicate a willingness to be ‘mentored’ by Putin. Rather, it is far more plausible that the relationship devolves quickly into a battle of egos. In America, this is often denigrated as a ‘pissing contest.’ When Putin called Donald a ‘bright person, talented without a doubt,’ it inspired Trump to respond: ‘I like him because he called me a genius. He said Trump is the real leader.’ In other words, substance matters not. Just be sure to stroke the Donald’s ego and he will consider you a ‘friend’ and ‘partner.’ But what will his mercurial personality do when a disagreement on substance overrides any mutual admiration society based on style? For Donald, it will be the end of partnership, the end of friendship, and thus, the end of ‘new’ Russian-American relations. Ironically, Russia may find out that only Putin is the pragmatist. Donald is simply a narcissist.

-In a bit of reverse psychology, Russia should be wary when one of the most biting opponents of Putin, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, vociferously proclaims how Trump is the American version of ‘Putinism’ and that Donald’s presidency would be the ‘best hope’ for Russia.[8] Kasparov’s logic is that the election of Donald would severely weaken American democracy and rip apart positive trans-Atlantic relations. Put simply, Kasparov treats Donald like a de facto agent of Russian interests, ie, Donald would be willingly subordinate to Putin. As mentioned before, ego and narcissism will not allow that. In the current state of Russian-American relations, when so many Americans are being fed stories about the adversarial aggressiveness of Russia, there simply is no evidence-based thought process to make someone believe Donald would buck American opinion about a so-called enemy. Rather, he is much more likely to sycophantically cater to American paranoia, in order to guarantee his own need for self-aggrandizement.

-Finally, the comments of Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Upper House Committee for Foreign Affairs, illustrate perfectly how much of the hope on Donald is really just about the lack of hope with Hillary:

“New chances may appear only as radically new tendencies in the White House, and we are talking not only about pro-Russian sentiments, we simply need some fresh air, some ‘wind of change’ in Washington. Then, we can reset certain things and agree on continuation of the dialogue…In the context of these two factors Trump looks slightly more promising…At least, he is capable of giving a shake to Washington. He is certainly a pragmatist and not a missionary like his main opponent Clinton.”

What this article has established is how misplaced such faith tends to be when considering Donald. People in Russia are making false connections: if you are not a missionary, then you must be a pragmatist. There are other more dangerous and damaging options in that equation. It is not binomial, 0 or 1. To repeat: just because Donald is not Hillary does not mean he is better or more approachable for Russia. His track record and personality indicate otherwise.

There are in fact some figures of cautious moderation in Russia and they are offering wisdom on the coming election. People like Aleksey Pushkov, head of the Lower House Committee for Foreign Relations, and Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, while admitting their understanding of the immediate Russian attraction of Donald over Hillary, also emphasize how the ‘system’ of Washington politics tends to bring any incoming President quickly to heel and that it is impossible to truly know what to expect from a Trump presidency. I think it is possible to reliably guess, however. For Russian-American relations to significantly change from its current negative status quo, the incoming President would have to be eager and intellectually motivated to instill innovative new political thinking and diplomatic pathways. Hillary has clearly staked her position in the ranks of the Old Guard of suspicion, skepticism, and distrust. Donald perhaps has not done this publicly. But his need to be adored and admired by the American public (an American public constantly fed a steady stream of negative perception and analysis about Russia and Russian leadership) means he would have to be willing to abandon the feeding of his narcissism for the sake of improved Russian relations. And while there are many mysteries in this world, one thing is most certainly NOT a mystery: the person Donald has always loved most of all is…..the Donald. Thus, Russia needs to be careful as it approaches the coming 2016 American presidential elections. Some loose assumptions and false connections are driving apparent loyalty to a candidate that is unlikely to offer anything close to what is hoped for. Indeed, it may just be the sad news that 2016 goes down simply as the American election that offers Russia option ‘C’ as the best choice: None of the above.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Analysing the Russia Report: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Ernest A. Reid

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The long-awaited Russia Report has finally been released by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. However, whether it has lived up to all of its anticipants’ expectations is rather a matter of debate. While countless media pundits and pseudo-experts on both sides are already caught up in a frenzy of harvesting it for out-of-context quotes to aid them in their battles against Russia or Britain, Conservatives or Labour, Putin, Johnson or Corbyn, political scientists and security analysts are more likely to find the Report lacking in objectivity and rather revealing Britain’s political plans than making any significant contribution to the existing knowledge on Russia.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that the Report is not an impartial piece of analysis but rather a biased text that seems to use a number of framing techniques in order to promote certain agenda. It begins with an outline of a fairly one-sided “Us vs Them” narrative, in the spirit of Teun van Dijk’s “ideological square,” of selfless Britain extending the helping hand to malicious Russia just for Vladimir Putin to fool the West over and over again. While mentioning the death of former double agent Alexander Litvinenko in late 2006 (allegedly organised by the Russian state) as the moment of Russia’s metamorphosis into an “established threat,” the distinguished authors seem to omit the “Spy Rock” scandal which had revealed Britain’s less-than-friendly spy activity in Russia earlier that year. In the same fashion, it is Moscow (rather than Washington) that believes in the “might is right” world order, “flouting the Rules Based International Order” is a privilege that cannot be bestowed upon non-Western democracies and the zero-sum game concept is, apparently, exclusive to the foreign policy decision-making of the Kremlin, which seems to be intent on “damaging the West” because it’s “good for Russia.” Moreover, the authors attribute Russia’s view of NATO and EU having “a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality” to “paranoia” rather than the military build-up along their borders with Russia, regular military exercises in the region and the economic sanctions.

Hence, with the aid of rather primitive framing tools the introduction sets a very subjective tone for the rest of the Report and has more in common with an average article in The Economist than with a serious government document. However, this is hardly surprising taking into account the line-up of “witnesses” among whom are an American journalist who has indeed worked for The Economist and Washington Times and has been a staunch critic of Russia, a British writer whose books may well be mistaken for pulp fiction with titles such as Spies, Lies and How Russia dupes the West, leaving little to the imagination, and an American-British businessman who has been convicted on charges of tax evasion in Russia and has been one of the initiators of the infamous Magnitsky Act, as well as two essentially more respectable gentlemen who nevertheless are not particularly known for a neutral stance on Russia either. Unfortunately, the quality of sources also varies significantly across the Report, ranging from the undisputedly reputable GCHQ to the likes of BuzzFeed and vague references. All of the above means that one must apply a strong discursive filter when reading the Report in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In spite of its ontologically anti-Russian angle embedded within the introduction, the Report does nevertheless make a number of correct (albeit obvious) observations. Among them are the “inheritances from the USSR and its status as a victor of the Second World War” in the form of the nuclear weapons and permanent seat on the UN Security Council as some of Russia’s primary strengths. The report also notes how Russia’s “large and powerful” armed forces and heavily-resourced intelligence services, as well as “lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business” (i.e. centralised power) allow it to “leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time,” which gives Moscow a significant strategic (i.e. speed) advantage over Britain with its less centralised and more cumbersome bureaucracy. The Report also identifies some of Russia’s weaknesses, such as its relatively small population, weak economy and “lack of reliable partners or cultural influence outside of the former USSR.” The Report also does a good job at defining Russia’s “relatively limited” aims in terms of playing the dominant role in its traditional sphere of influence (former USSR) and keeping its current leadership intact.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that a substantial part of the Report is dedicated to recycling the mainstream media’s standard anti-Russian propaganda schemata and regurgitating the already-voiced UK government positions on Russia’s alleged complicity in Litvinenko’s assassination, Salisbury incident, 2016 US elections outcome, failed Montenegro coup, Brexit and even the Scottish referendum. However, the Report does also introduce some new information, such as GCHQ reports of GRU actors “orchestrating phishing attempts” against a number of Government departments and “indiscriminate and reckless cyber-attacks targeting public institutions, businesses, media and sport,” as well as apparent “links between serious and organised crime groups and Russian state activity,” which certainly are points of concern that must be addressed by Her Majesty’s Government.

Unfortunately, the findings such as the aforementioned revelations are rather scarce, as much of the new information provided to the Committee by GCHQ and other Agencies has been redacted. For instance, when assessing the potential connection between “bots and trolls” and the alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum the Committee had apparently contacted MI5, requesting evidence, and the Agency’s response, as documented in the Report, was as follows: “MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies.” In the same fashion, the section discussing instrumentalisation of GCHQ and SIS for open source research ends with “However, we have found *** which suggests that ***. ***.” While such heavy redaction may well be necessary for security reasons, they nevertheless obfuscate the essence of the Report and reduce its potential utility as a credible source.

Apart from the section on cyber security there are also sections on “Disinformation and Influence campaigns,” which reinforces the idea that any narrative contrary to that of the Western media is “disinformation” (e.g. RT and Sputnik), and on “Russian expatriates,” which gives relatively accurate description of the “Londongrad” phenomenon whereby the UK’s lax financial regulations of the previous decades have resulted in Britain becoming a “laundromat” for illicit finances of various Russian businessmen who have come to be “well integrated into the UK business and social scene” by co-opting a variety of people — from PR specialists and lawyers to members of the House of Lords — into their schemes.

However, what is of greater interest are a number of initiatives that seem to be explicitly and implicitly promoted in this document, as they may well be implemented in due course. First of all, one can observe a series of statements about the GCHQ, SIS, MI5, MI6 and NCA being under-resourced, both financially and personnel-wise, especially in regard to their Russia desks. Also, a notion of the Agencies seemingly avoiding taking the lead and feeling somewhat secondary in terms of the responsibility for “the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes” seems to be implied several times throughout the Report. These recurring themes suggest that one of the Report’s key goals is to secure more funding for the Agencies, so that they are able to launch new recruitment campaigns and expand their Russia-related operations, and to potentially give the Agencies more powers. Another recurring theme is the cumbersome bureaucracy, which seems to impede Britain’s capacity for rapid response, and the need for “greater cohesion,” which suggests that another aim of the Report may well be to initiate a process of de-bureaucratisation (in respect of the Intelligence sector) and maybe even centralisation of power to some degree.

The Report is also apparently promoting tighter control in regards to social media companies (requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5) and firmer grip on the UK business community and even the Lords (e.g. potential introduction of an equivalent of US Foreign Agents Registration Act is mentioned rather unequivocally), not to mention highlighting the issue of Russian media outlets in the UK (RT in particular). We may therefore expect to see a McCarthyist-style witch hunt that would target anyone with “Russian connections,” potential “Kremlin agents” — from the usual suspects such as RT and wealthy Russians to British politicians, lawyers and businesspersons of all sorts. Most important of all, the Report seems to advocate for a more aggressive/offensive strategy towards Russia — from development of stronger Cyber Offensive capabilities and curbing of the Russian influence in the former USSR to pressuring countries with moderate and friendly stances towards Russia to review their foreign policy programs (e.g. France is mentioned several times throughout the Report and is portrayed as a victim of Russia unwilling to confront its alleged aggressor) and “leading international action” against Russia’s influence elsewhere in the world alongside the US, with the post-Salisbury purge of Russian diplomats portrayed as somewhat of a benchmark and a diplomatic success.

Finally, as far as dialogue is concerned, there is an acknowledgement of the need for “limited channels of communication with the Russian government,” “direct conversations” as means of reducing “the risk of miscommunication and escalation of hostilities” and utilising “opportunities to de-conflict military activities in areas where both the UK and Russia have active military presences.” However, the Report rules out “any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present.” Furthermore, with Whitehall’s long-term strategy to develop “a Russia that chooses to co-operate, rather than challenge or confront” being mentioned more than once makes one wonder if a gradual regime change strategy is not completely off the table.

All in all, the Russia Report has not revealed anything new in terms of the official UK stance on Russia and has rather reinforced the previously voiced positions of HMG. However, it has revealed a number of initiatives, which, if implemented, may not only decrease any influence Moscow may currently have within the UK, but may well mean a new hybrid offensive against Russia, which is highly likely to lead to overstraining of resources on both sides and further deterioration of Russo-British relations.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia’s Troubles with Its “String of Pearls”

Emil Avdaliani

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An important part of Russia’s grand strategy in terms of foreign policy is its purposeful creation and management of conflict zones across the post-Soviet space. This has to do with the battle Russia is fighting with the West over the borderlands—i.e., the regions that adjoin Russia from the west and south.

Maintaining the 11 buffer states around Russia (excluding the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) is a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. The Russians knew that because of their country’s low economic attractiveness, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same was likely to occur with Moldova and Ukraine on Russia’s western frontier, as their geographical proximity to and historical interconnections with Europe render them particularly susceptible to the West’s economic and military potential.

To prevent Western economic and military penetration, the Kremlin has deliberately fomented various separatist conflicts. This policy has been successful so far, as the EU and NATO have refrained from extending membership to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

However, Russia now faces a different problem: its long-term vision for the separatist regions is becoming increasingly unrealistic. While in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts only in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, Moscow’s responsibilities had increased significantly by the late 2010s.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Donetsk and Luhansk became part of Russia’s “separatist empire.” One could also add Syria to the list. The latter’s inclusion might be surprising, but considering the level of Russian influence there and the stripping away of many of Damascus’s international contacts, the war-torn country is essentially now fully dependent on Russia.

With Syria and Donbas on the roster, the Kremlin now has to manage a range of territories that rely almost entirely, in both the military and the economic senses, on Russia—but that are also geographically dispersed, economically disadvantageous, and geopolitically vulnerable. Even the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh, in which Russia is not militarily involved, is under the geopolitical influence of the Kremlin.

This means that at a time when economic problems resulting from the pandemic, Western sanctions, and the lack of reforms are looming large on the Russian home front, Moscow has to pour yet more money into multiple separatist actors spread across the former Soviet space, as well as Syria. Moscow’s broader strategy of managing separatist conflicts is therefore under increasing stress.

It is more and more difficult for the Kremlin to maneuver across so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, participants have tried to play their own game independently from Moscow. Kyiv and Chisinau, for example, have considered constraining the breakaway territory of Transnistria, and Moscow—which has no direct land or air route (Kyiv would likely block the latter)—can do little about it. In Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces stand by and watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil—an indication that despite Russia’s military presence, the West is continuing to expand its military support for Georgia.

Geopolitical trends indicate that Russia’s long-term “separatist” strategy to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is losing its effectiveness. While it is true that Moscow stopped its neighbors from joining the EU and NATO, its gamble that those breakaway regions would undermine the pro-Western resolve of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has largely failed. Although Russia remains militarily predominant, Western expansion via the powerful weapon of economic influence is proving to be more efficient.

Nor can the Russian leadership solve the problem of its failure to entice states around the world to recognize the independence of breakaway states. For instance, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have extended them recognition—not a prominent set of states from a geopolitical point of view. This trend is not likely to change anytime soon. Moscow simply does not have sufficient resources—and in any case, US laws withholding financial aid from states that recognize the independence of separatist territories throughout the former Soviet space remain a major disincentive.

Nor does Russia have any long-term economic vision for the breakaway states. Dire economic straits have inevitably caused populations to flee toward abundant medical, trade, and educational possibilities. Usually these are territories from which the separatists initially tried to break away. The Kremlin has failed to transform those entities into secure and economically stable lands. Crime levels have been on an upward trajectory, too, as high-level corruption and active black markets have undermined the effectiveness of Moscow’s spending.

Over the past several years, there have been hints in the media about rising discontent within the Russian political elite on how the breakaway territories (plus Syria) are being run. Questions have been raised about how Russian money is being spent and about the increasingly predatory nature of the separatist (plus Syrian) political elites, which are focused on extracting as much economic benefit as they can from Moscow.

This situation is similar to the state of affairs in the late 1980s, just prior to the Soviet collapse. At that time, members of the Soviet elite started to realize that Moscow had become little more than a supplier to Soviet republics that had grown more and more predatory as corruption skyrocketed and production levels sank. The result was the Soviet dissolution.

The Soviet level of endowment to the republics was far higher than it is now, but a similar pattern is emerging. Moscow has to cope with domestic economic troubles, “disobedience” from separatist leaders, and problematic relations with the West. These challenges make it increasingly difficult for Moscow to pull the strings in multiple separatist regions at once. Even in Syria, the Kremlin’s spending is occasionally questioned by Russian analysts and politicians. The Russian elite has grown less willing to provide direct economic benefit to the separatists, as the return is too marginal to warrant the expense.

Author’s note: First published in BESA Center

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Russia marks 15 years of its membership in OIC

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On June 30, 2020, the Russian Federation marked the 15th anniversary of its joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference (presently the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), as an observer.

Russian and foreign politicians, as well as the leadership of the OIC, took part in a videoconference organized on the occasion by the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The participants discussed a range of important issues, including the development of political dialogue and across-the-board cooperation between Russia and the countries of the Islamic world. They also underscored the significance of Russia’s joining the OIC in 2005 as an observer.

However, the extensive preparatory work, carried out over several years ensuring the success of the Russian bid to join the organization as an observer has been largely ignored.

One aspect of that preparatory work was the need to ease tensions and explain the real meaning of the events in the North Caucasus, where the Russian Federation had to deal with a large-scale conspiracy by international terrorist organizations and a maze of anti-Russian forces supporting those organizations.

The February 2004 visit to Saudi Arabia by the first president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmat Kadyrov, who led a delegation of public and religious figures representing Russia’s North Caucasus republics, was a significant part of that preparatory work. 

The prospect of such a visit was discussed by President Vladimir Putin and the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdullah on September 3, 2003.

However, the whole idea faced serious hurdles due, among other things, to the presence in Saudi Arabia of opponents of our rapprochement, who were influenced by anti-Russian forces and criticized Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal Al-Saud, told me, as Russia’s Ambassador to the Kingdom, that “the fate of the visit is in the hands of Crown Prince  Abdullah,” who was then the de facto leader of the country (King Fahd was seriously ill and was virtually incapacitated).

After a tense, over two-hour-long discussion of the issue with the Crown Prince, he gave the visit the go-ahead, adding that all members of the delegation and accompanying persons would, without exception, be treated as “personal guests of the King of Saudi Arabia” and placed in the official government residence.

Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia, Akhmat Kadyrov met with top members of the Saudi government, including the foreign minister and ministers of the economic bloc, the leadership of the OIC, the President of the Islamic Development Bank, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, and local public and religious leaders.

Akhmat Kadyrov’s excellent knowledge of the Arabic language and the intricacies of Islamic culture and his frankness eventually broke the ice of mistrust and contributed to the success of negotiations on Russia’s accession to the OIC.

Morocco’s ex-Foreign Minister Abdul Waheed Belkaziz, who served as the OIC Secretary General between 2000 and 2005, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Saud, who organized a meeting in Jeddah of representatives of OIC member countries to present weighty arguments in favor of the importance of Russia’s joining the alliance, played a major role in establishing a new climate of friendship between Russia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. During the meeting we agreed to amend the IOC Charter so that it would allow Russia to join the organization as an observer.

Today, our cooperation is many-sided and productive. It is really imperative for us to bear in mind our previous experience of friendly interaction and to give credit to our partners, including the Saudis, who played such an important role in opening up new opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the Arab, Islamic world.

From our partner International Affairs

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