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Growing Russia-Iran military relations: An illusion?

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Not at all! Not an illusion, at least for time being. Russo-Iran relations are steadily growing and deepening. Moscow and Teheran are changing from the pragmatic business model of “armament supplier-buyer” to military cooperation. The closer cooperation serves both to target opponents of Assad – some of them backed by the USA – while also sending a sharp message to the US as fighting over the divided city of Aleppo reaches a critical point after five years of inconclusive civil war.

Six Russian long-distance Tu-22M3 and four Su-34 frontal bombers went to the Khamadan Airport in Iran on August 16. Arrival of Russian bombers at Hamadan Airbase in Iran – historic development captured headlines around the world – has set the tone for new type military relations between Russia and Iran –both have maintained, since the breakup of US-Iran military relations, strong military tires for a long time now. Further, the long-range Russian bombers armed with full payloads took off from Hamadan Airbase to attack facilities controlled by Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Jabhat Al Nusra (which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh Al Sham) in Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor and Idlib provinces. On August 16, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s Secretary of Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) stated that Iran had agreed to share its military facilities and capacities with Russia.

Russian strategic bombers launched from Iran struck rebel positions in Syria last week, in a second day of attacks that multiply Russian firepower in the Middle East and underscore unprecedented military cooperation between the Islamic Republic and a foreign power.

Military experts say this move was motivated both by economic reasons and the necessity to change the course of the battle for Aleppo. During combat missions in the Deirez-Zor Province on August 17, the planes destroyed an IS command post, killing over 150 Syrians. The Kremlin says the Tu-22M3 bombers attacked targets of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other factions in Syria that oppose President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of both Moscow and Tehran.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, it was necessary to relocate its war planes to the combat zone and increase the effectiveness of the mission flights. The Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, currently being used by the front line aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces, is not suitable for the Tu-22M3. The runway is too short and there is a lack of necessary infrastructure. Consequently, Russia and Syria asked Iran to let Russia deploy its planes at an Iranian base. Russia has increased the effectiveness of the long-distance flights at least threefold. Now each Tu-22M3 bomber carries about 20 tons of warheads and receives four-five targets for each flight.

The aim of the Russian terror operation in Syria was not only to support the Bashar al-Assad government and to fight terrorism, but also to get out of the political-diplomatic isolation in which the country found itself after the Ukrainian crisis. Iran says it brought Russia into the Syrian civil war due to its need of an air power to coordinate the ground operations, which Iran planned. Iranian parliamentarians raised concerns about the possibility of a foreign country establishing a military base in the country, which would violate the Iranian Constitution. High-ranking officials responded that the use of Hamedan air base was strictly for refueling purposes, while other officials assured the media that Russian planes would remain in Iran temporarily. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced Aug. 22 that the planes had left Iran “for the time being, after speculation that the departure of the Russian planes was due to outside pressure or internal disagreements.

Last week, a Russian transport helicopter Mi-8 was shot down in opposition rebel territory in northern Syria and all five crew and officers onboard were killed, the Kremlin said, in the deadliest single incident for the Russian military since its involvement in Syria’s civil war. The Mi-8 helicopter was shot down in Idlib province while returning to the Russian air base on Syria’s coast after delivering humanitarian goods to the city of Aleppo, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The helicopter had three crew members and two officers deployed with the Russian center at the Hemeimeem air base on the Syrian coast. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. Idlib province has a strong presence of fighters both for the al-Qaida branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front and other groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Nusra Front announced last week that it was changing its name and relinquishing ties with al-Qaida in an attempt to undermine a potential US and Russian air campaign against its fighters. The group is part of a coalition of insurgent groups called Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, which has captured most of Idlib.

In July, two Russian airmen were killed in the central Homs province when their Mi-25 helicopter was shot down by what the Defense Ministry said were Islamic State fighters. A Mi-28N helicopter gunship crashed near Homs in April, killing both crew members, but the Russian military said there was no evidence it came under fire.

A Russian warplane was shot down by a Turkey along the Syrian border in November, and one of the two pilots was shot and killed from the ground after ejecting. Earlier a Syrian military official said that government forces repelled an attack by insurgents that was an attempt to break the siege imposed on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo. The development came a day after Syrian rebels launched the offensive to break up the government’s siege of eastern, rebel-held part of the city.

Basis

The Iran-Russia cooperation results from “the crisis of terrorism that has been created by some destructive countries in West Asia region and America, therefore Russia has found the right treatment for the region. Top Iranian officials often accuse the USA of creating and backing ISIS and other jihadists fighting Assad regime, claiming it is a bid to undermine their own Iran-led axis of resistance against US and Israeli influence in the region.

Indeed, the Iran-Russia cooperation looks temporary, defined by mutual recognition of the threat of ISIS, and “is not a coalition against a third-party state such as the USA, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. It is true that taking the lead in battling and destroying Daesh ISIS in Syria and Iraq will have broader geopolitical consequences for rival states, but Moscow and Tehran have never wanted to exclude other actors from the Syrian scene. Their military cooperation is only aimed at accelerating the political solution and not winning the war in a zero sum manner. Therefore, Washington and its allies, if determined to defeat ISIS, should not feel concerned about possible long-term strategic consequences.

Russia-Iran relations have varied, often pragmatically but sometimes capriciously, according to broader agendas and with an eye to the US. Russia built Iran’s only nuclear power plant at Bushehr, but finished it years late and with frequent disputes over payments that at times seemed to emerge only when Russia was trying to cozy up to the USA.

In the 1990s, Iran refrained from backing Islamist Chechen rebels in their fight against Moscow in the 1990s, even as it supported similar militias elsewhere. Yet Russia repeatedly voted alongside the US to impose UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

And earlier this year – as sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program eased as part of a July 2015 accord with world powers – Russia agreed to sell Iran its S-300 anti-missile system, among many other arms sales. Iranian media reports that “substantial” parts of the S-300, which is to defend Iran’s nuclear sites, have already been delivered.

But while both sides have downplayed any greater regional ambitions, others see a larger strategy at play. “There could be more, and the possibility of spreading the Russian air campaign to Iraq,” says Felgenhauer. “The thing is not about Syria per se. Syria is important, but there is more: Russia wants to spread its influence over the entire region, have bases all over, push the Americans out and become the dominant power in the region.”

Meanwhile, Syria became an arena where, within a short span of time, Russia, with assistance from Iran and India was able to establish itself as a global power that could rapidly project its might thousands of kilometres away from its borders and at the same time, effectively strike terrorist groups who were also threatening the interests of the West.

UN estimates some 300,000 people are still trapped in the rebel section of Aleppo, with dwindling food and medical supplies. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned on Friday that basic supplies in eastern Aleppo could run out in three weeks.

Monday’s helicopter downing was the deadliest for the Russians since Moscow began carrying out airstrikes in Syria in support of Assad’s forces last September.

Strategic military cooperation

President Vladimir Putin met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran – “the most important in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. Iran’s leader, in an unprecedented characterization of any foreign leader, called Putin “a prominent figure in today’s world”. In January this year, Moscow and Tehran signed a military-cooperation deal that called for wider collaboration around the training of personnel and counter-terrorism activities.

Cooperation between Iran and Russia took a practical turn during the Syrian war. Both countries supported Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in direct opposition to the USA and western interests, as well as the interests of various regional actors. Relations between the two states continued to strengthen over time. In November 2015, in a high-profile meeting, Russian

Iranian and Russian interests coincide in two major areas. Apart from defying US hegemony, both countries seek to halt the expansion of US military bases in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region, as well as in this part of the world have given rise to a perceived threat to the security of Iran and Russia. These geopolitical sensitivities have formed a natural basis for cooperation between Iran and Russia. In the case of Iran, this has been one of the pillars of its foreign policy since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Russians, on the other hand, seek to ameliorate their wounded pride and increase their prestige as they attempt to address what they perceive as a lack of international respect and influence. In 2005, Putin said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

The emergence of a pro-West government in Ukraine in 2014 added to Russian anxieties. The Russians were concerned about a possible NATO military presence in their backyard. That exacerbated the confrontation between Russia and the West, led by the US, and sparked a chain of tit-for-tat actions and reactions. The Russians are now under economic pressure due to the sanctions imposed by the West with the US taking a leading role. In this context, Iran was identified as the best candidate for a Russian alliance in order to create a power pole to combat the pressure placed on Moscow by the West/US.

Another common strategic imperative for Iran and Russia emerged as events unfolded in Syria. The rise of terrorists is a serious threat to the security of both countries. Russia has been in a state of war with radical elements from Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics since the 1990s. The country has been targeted by several terrorist attacks and in June 2015, the Chechen terror group pledged allegiance to Daesh.

The USA and its regional allies were against the active involvement of Russia in the Syrian war because the Russians aimed at stabilizing the vulnerable fronts in favour of the unwanted Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad. The regime had suffered severe setbacks on the battlefield prior to Russia’s intervention. However, on the other hand, Russia’s military involvement was in line with US/West strategic goals of uprooting extremist groups. Russia’s assumed role as a major player in Syria guarantees its influence in mapping Syria’s post-war politics. This will also allow Russians to tackle their conflict with the West over Ukraine from a position of strength. On the Iranian side, as chaos grew in Syria, the rise of Daesh and the expansion of their significant presence in Iraq, which is within close proximity to Iran, became a formidable threat to the country’s national security.

Syria is of vital importance to Iran for other reasons beside the urgent threat posed by Daesh. Iran’s hostility towards Israel is an entrenched part of its foreign policy since the Iranian Revolution. Iranians took advantage of hostile relations between Syria and Israel for almost 30 years. By strengthening their ties with Syria, they sought to make Syria a de facto shield against a possible military confrontation with Israel.

In addition, with the logistical and economic assistance of the Iranians, Hezbollah of Lebanon emerged in the 1980s as a paramilitary organisation. The move was aimed at countering Israel’s hegemony in the region. Meanwhile, in a context of deterrence, Hezbollah could act as an Iranian proxy force that could pose a constant, potential threat to Israel’s anti-Palestine strategy. Syria shared the same vision with respect to Hezbollah, and as such, Syria became a vital corridor through which Iran could transport weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On another front, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has added new dimensions to Syria’s geopolitical significance for the government of Iran.

Russian military bases?

For Russia’s part, its decision to use the Shahid Nojeh military airbase in western Iran underscores its calculation that bolstering its nearly year-long overt military intervention – which began dramatically with Russia airstrikes launched from a base in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia – can help tip the battlefield in Assad’s favor. It means that keeping Assad in power is very important for Iran, and for Iranian hardliners too, since they are allowing an infidel military on their sacred territory.

Since last November, Russia’s strategic bombers have had to fly from an old Soviet airbase at Mozdok in southern Russia. The 650-mile distance to Aleppo from Mozdok is not much shorter from the western Iranian base near Hamedan, as the crow flies. But Russian planes must skirt Turkey, and targets in eastern Syria – and also anywhere in Iraq, should Russia eventually choose to take on IS targets there – are significantly closer from Iran. Flying out of Iran, therefore, enables Russian jets to carry full payloads of 24 metric tons – more than the maximum for the longer run from Russia. That is of course significant, experts say, because since they are carpet bombing Syria, the more bombs you take, the more land you cover. “Right now at this pivotal point in the battle for Aleppo, it is very important that Russia has drastically increased bomb-carrying capability, to bring the bombs to the Syrian opposition.

A top Iranian official said the new arrangement was Syria-specific but also “strategic,” and a “warning to terrorist-supporting countries” – an oblique reference to the US and its allies, which want to see Mr. Assad removed from power. While Iran- and Russia-led cooperation had already made life very tough for Syrians , the new expansion “will continue until they are completely wiped out,” said Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Russian airstrikes have hit not only ISIS jihadists, US officials say, but many more since last year have struck anti-Assad forces backed openly or clandestinely by the USA and its allies. The US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq has help reduce territory of the self-declared caliphate by 30 percent, according to the Pentagon.US officials would say only that they are in “close contact” with Russia as they push for a negotiated solution to a war that has ravaged Syria, claimed more than 400,000 lives, and produced nearly 5 million refugees.

Russia says it has no hidden agenda of securing a military bases in Iran.

Trust deficit

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian withdrawal from Syria last March, and troops were filmed returning home. But that was just a gimmick as there has been little slowdown since, and Russia’s defense ministry said it “eliminated” five weapons depots in the first day of new strikes.

Top Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi noted that Russian planes were only refueling at the base, and that “generally, there is no stationing of Russian forces” in Iran. Washington called the move “unfortunate” and said it “pushes us farther away” from a nationwide cease-fire and the UN-sponsored political process in Geneva that includes Russia. Earlier this week, Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu was quoted saying the USA and Russia were in “a very active phase” of talks about the surge of fighting in Aleppo, “to start fighting together to bring peace.”

The Russian military presence is sensitive in Iran, where revolutionary ideology since 1979 opposed both US and Soviet influence during the cold war, and categorically, in rhetoric at least, rejects foreign meddling. Ali Larijani, Iran’s speaker of parliament said that it was “forbidden” by the Constitution to create a foreign military base, and that Iran had not “given the base over to Russia in military terms.”

While these determinants have created a strong foundation for a strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, it could be argued that some factors may prevent the alliance from lasting through the long term. First, the Iranians distrust the Russians. They still remember the annexation of a large territory of Iran as a result of several battles with the Russians in the 19th century. The Russians also supported several United Nations sanctions against Iran during Tehran’s crisis over its nuclear program.

It can be claimed that Russia and Iran have different motives in Syria. While this assertion is true, the strategic interests of Russia and Iran converge to a high degree. Russia knows only too well that in the absence of a motivated ground force (i.e., Iran’s proxies), their military operations will have no chance of succeeding in the Syrian asymmetric war.

They also sold their friendship with Iran when the opportunity arose. In 2010, the Russians suspended the delivery of a number of S-300 missiles that Iran had already paid for. It may never be revealed what sort of deal was made between the US and Russia at the time, but the Foreign Policy article titled, ‘How the Obama Team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran’ said: The Russian decision was a dividend of the Obama government’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia.” That said, it is worth noting that alliances between countries are not based on trust. Rather, they are based on the countries’ interests. For example, even though the US and Israel are close allies, they do not trust each other. Americans spy on Israelis and vice versa.

Observation

Latest developments once again raise the question as to whether the Tehran-Moscow alliance is tactical or strategic and whether the development is sustainable and long term.

The Iranian and Russian strategic intent in Syria seems much closer than the Russian and American strategic intent in Syria, an earlier agreement by the USA and Russia to seek a negotiated solution having failed. The Russian military tends to be secretive, so that was a political decision to demonstrate to the world that Russia and Iran are militarily together.

The Iranian-Russian conflict with the USA over American hegemony, which has been amplified by the diverging interests of Iran and Russia on the one hand and the US and its regional allies on the other, is not going to be resolved in the near future. In addition, the conflict between Russia and the US-led West over Ukraine has become a Gordian Knot with no solution on the horizon.

Iran’s decision to openly allow foreign troops on its soil for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – and the first Russians since World War II – is testament to its desire to achieve strategic gains and ensure that the high cost of its involvement in the Syrian war, including the loss of more than 400 Revolutionary Guard troops and a number of generals, not be in vain.

Against this backdrop, it is safe to assume that the Iranian-Russian alliance will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Perhaps just as significantly, the high-profile move allows both nations to ease their isolation, imposed by the USA and the West, while spreading their regional influence through the use of hard power.

There is a possibility of USA and Russia jointly fighting for the blood of Syrians and other Arabs in West Asia by not letting Assad to quit and encouraging him to continue posing an adamant “winner” posture.

Washington has no plan or intention of leaving energy rich West Asia and Central Asia and would continue to use its Asia pivot for some more time. Since Arab leaders, Iran, Syria as well as Moscow have shown their “soft” willingness to cooperate with Pentagon-CIA, Arabs would continue to die.

No other alternatives!

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Putin Welcomes New Ambassadors in Moscow

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “Russian Card” in the International Game

Igor Ivanov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in our partner RIAC

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

Ajmal Sohail

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

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

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

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

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

The measures Kremlin can undertake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia’s economy is weak

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

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

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

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

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

Russia is facing a demographic crisis

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

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

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

Russia can no longer afford to buy off its troubled regions

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

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

Russia will have to reduce military spending

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

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

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

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

Chronic social problems will ultimately upend Russia’s politics

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

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

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

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