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Fate of disarmament: Russia-USA tension; Putin suspends weapons-grade plutonium deal

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It might amount to over-simplification of the facts if one says USA or Uncle Sam, using militarism as its key foreign policy tool, is the root cause of all troubles and tensions the world and humanity facing today. How come having got largest WMD on earth and having tested the efficacy of bombs on humans in Japan, USA has also been able to dictate its terms to the world nations?

Today world is being threatened by the menace of nuclear weapons (nukes or WMD), capable of dismantling entire world along with living beings and non-living things. Yet, the world’s top nuclear weapons’ states like USA, Russia, UK and China have not made any sincere attempt to rapidly reduce nuclear weapons according to a reliable time table plus easily verifiable methods and briskly make the world free from WMD.

Instead of taking steps to realize the objective of total disarmament and denuclearization, super power USA and other world nuke powers just threaten Iran, North Korea, among others who want to acquire nuclear technology at par with others seeking it for peaceful purposes, thereby giving a false impression that they seek to destroy their own nukes. These naughty powers threaten them because they just do not want more countries to join the nuke club to share its bogus prestige.

Nuclear weapons like climate disorder complicate the international environment and add to the human insecurity. A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission (fission bomb) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear weapon). Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first test of a fission (“atomic”) bomb released the same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT (84 TJ). A nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation. Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control have been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for the purposes of testing and demonstration. Only a few nations possess such weapons or are suspected of seeking them. The only countries known to have detonated nuclear weapons—and acknowledge possessing them—are (chronologically by date of first test) the USA the Soviet Union (succeeded as a nuclear power by Russia), the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to USA and other western veto members, Israel also possesses undeclared and unlawful nuclear weapons, though in a policy of deliberate ambiguity to confuse the IAEA and UN, it does not acknowledge having them. Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands are nuclear weapons sharing states.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) aimed to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, but its effectiveness has been questioned, and political tensions remained high in the 1970s and 1980s. As of 2016, 16,000 nuclear weapons are stored at sites in 14 countries and many are ready for immediate use. Modernisation of weapons continues to occur. But outdated nukes retained in arsenals pose danger to the world.

US-Russia deal

USA and Russia, with the largest nuclear assets and arsenals, do not have any plan for credible disarmament to make the humanity fear less.

During the cold war, both the then super powers USA and Soviet Union amassed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons as defense measures against each other. The highly destructive potential of these arsenals were meant to deter direct conflict between the United States and USSR, since any direct war between two powers with that amount of nuclear destruction would completely wipe out both sides. After the fall of the USSR, relations between the two countries began to normalize, and portions of these stockpiles began to be eliminated. But relations between the US and Russia have begun to sour again. The Russian presidential decree claims that “a fundamental change of the circumstances” has taken place between the two countries since 2010, according to the state-owned TASS Russian News Agency.

A nuclear deal signed by the USA and Russia in 2000, hailed as a step forward in cooperation between former enemies towards the common goal of eliminating cold war nuclear stockpiles, has been suspended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The deal, which was expanded in 2010, put both countries on a course to securely dispose of over 34 tons of plutonium, enough for almost 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the Russian presidential edict that suspended the agreement on October 03 cited “unfriendly actions” on the part of the USA, but said that Russia’s plutonium would still only be used for peaceful purposes.

The treaty, on the disposal of plutonium, the material used in some nuclear weapons, was concluded in 2000 as one of the framework disarmament deals of the early post-Cold War period. It required Russia and the USA to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium, a deal which represented another encouraging step away from nuclear doomsday and an insurance policy against the materials falling into the hands of “terrorists or rogue states”. The deal has no bearing on the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia or the United States. Instead, it concerns 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country that might go into a future arsenal, none of which has yet undergone verifiable disposal.

Under the agreement, which was signed in 2000 and expanded in 2006 and 2010, Russia and the USA each were to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads. When it was signed, the deal was touted as an example of successful cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation between Washington and Moscow.

The deal of disposal of weapons-grade plutonium has been a symbol of US-Russian rapprochement that has fallen apart amid tensions over Ukraine, Syria and other disputes. A 1993 agreement allowed Russia to sell blended-down uranium bomb cores to American utilities for use as fuel rods in civilian power plants, in a swords-to-plowshares program called Megatons to Megawatts. This program generated about 10 percent of all electricity in the United States for 20 years, until 2013. The plutonium program, while smaller, held the potential to also yield energy for civilian electrical networks.

Russia will withdraw from the original pact and subsequent amendments, the decree says, meaning that the country will no longer be treaty-bound to destroy its plutonium stockpiles. But the decree also offers an assurance, backed by no bilateral agreement, that the plutonium will not be used for military purposes. These agreements were designed to limit and circumscribe the future chances of getting back into a competition over nuclear arms. It was an important step in defusing the strategic nuclear arms race.”

Other US-Russian nuclear deals still stand, including the pivotal New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each country. In its statement, the State Department said Russia had not lived up to the terms of an agreement last month to restore the cease-fire in Syria and ensure sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged cities.

Russia had viewed the agreement as rendering disarmament irreversible by destroying the fissile materials accumulated during the Cold War. In this light, the Russians had interpreted the treaty as requiring that the plutonium be irreversibly transformed into nonexplosive materials by using it in civilian nuclear power plants as a type of fuel, called mixed oxide fuel, or mox. Russia is pressing ahead with that. But glitches and cost overruns in the mox plant at Savannah River, S.C., delayed the American program. President Obama proposed canceling the program in the 2017 budget and instead sending the plutonium for long-term storage at a nuclear waste site in Carlsbad, N.M. The US State Department has said the move complies with the treaty, but the Russians have said it does not, as Putin reaffirmed on Monday.

The plutonium decision follows the failure of a USA-Russia ceasefire in Syria last month. Washington and Moscow continue to trade accusations over which side was responsible for breaking that agreement, even as fighting escalates around Aleppo. “President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria has led to international sanctions and at least a partial isolation internationally,” John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 tells the Monitor in an email. “He blames the USA for these problems and has few instruments that he can use to effectively retaliate. So he has chosen the renunciation and violation of arms control agreements as a way to express his unhappiness with US policy.”

Collins, who was the US ambassador to Russia when the agreement was signed, called the abrogation a “strange move,” given the extraordinary danger, not least to Russians, should plutonium fall into terrorist hands. He added that it was “in my understanding the first time they have withdrawn from a specific nuclear agreement,” highlighting the slide in relations lately. Russia and the United States had reaffirmed the plutonium disposal agreement in 2009, as President Obama pursued the “reset” policy with Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president.

Separately, the US State Department said it was suspending bilateral contacts with Russia over Syria, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s threat to suspend contacts amid new attacks on the city of Aleppo.

USA says it remains “interested” in arms control and would be ready to sit with Russia to discuss the agreements that the Kremlin has either violated or renounced. But the USA is not willing to acquiesce in Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine or its revisionist aims in Europe. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the government was disappointed by the Russian decision since “both leaders in Russia and the United States have made nonproliferation a priority.” “We’ve also been quite disappointed by a range of Russian decisions both in Syria and inside of Ukraine,” Earnest said, adding that the decision on the plutonium deal was part of a problematic pattern.

Putin’s decree cited as reasons for Moscow’s move the “emerging threat to strategic stability as a result of US unfriendly actions,” as well as Washington’s failure to meet its end of the deal. It said, however, that Russia will keep the weapons-grade plutonium covered under the agreement away from weapons programs.

Putin pointed to the stalled plant construction earlier this year when he accused the US of failing to meet its end of the deal. He also argued that the policy change would give the U.S. “return potential,” or a chance to recycle the material back into the weapons-grade plutonium. “Russia has been observing the agreement unilaterally for quite a long time, but now it no longer sees such a situation as possible amid the tensions,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Commenting on Putin’s move, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the USA has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation,” citing US sanctions on Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis and deploying NATO forces near Russian borders. “We would like to bring Washington back to understanding that it can’t introduce sanctions against us in areas where it’s quite painless for the Americans, and at the same time continue selective cooperation in areas it sees as advantageous,” the Foreign Ministry said. It emphasized that Moscow was suspending the deal and not annulling it altogether, adding it would be ready to restore the plutonium agreement if the USA takes Russian concerns into account.

Tension

The increasing tension between the two superpowers stems in large part from conflicts in Crimea and Syria, with the US and Russia constantly finding themselves supporting opposing powers in local conflicts in the manner evoking Cold War skirmishes. In Syria, for instance, both countries have a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State. But the countries back different factions in the Syrian civil war, making chances of genuine cooperation between the US and Russia slim at best.

Russia and the USA last signed a nuclear disarmament accord in 2009, when both sides agreed to a new limit on delivery vehicles such as bombers or cruise missiles of 500 to 1,100, and a limit on deployed warheads as low as 1,500. In the chaos surrounding the end of the Cold War, the USA embarked on a sweeping program to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and fissile materials by returning them to Russia from former Soviet states and upgrading security at storage areas. The Soviet nuclear program was so entwined with the economy and society that slowing the Cold War military machine took years and cost United States taxpayers billions of dollars. In several cities, specialized nuclear reactors, for example, continued to pump out plutonium because they were also used to heat water for residential use in showers and space heating in nearby towns..

The Kremlin had signaled previously that it planned to cut back on mutual efforts with the USA to secure nuclear material on Russian territory. Times have changed, Putin wrote in the decree signed on Monday. “The threat to strategic stability posed by the hostile actions of the USA against Russia, and the inability of the USA to deliver on the obligation to dispose of excessive weapons plutonium under international treaties” forced Russia’s hand, he wrote.

Russia said last year it had started up a plant that produces mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel known as MOX from weapons-grade plutonium. Meanwhile, the construction of a similar US plant in South Carolina has been years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

In April, Russia began to express concerns that the USA was not living up to the 2010 agreement. The agreement stipulates that the plutonium is supposed to be disposed of in a specific, but expensive, way. A Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, which would have recycled the plutonium into mixed-oxide commercial nuclear reactor fuel, was supposed to be built for $1.7 billion, but ballooned to $7.7 billion in 2013, according to RT. The facility, which is expected to cost at least $1 billion per year to operate, has yet to be completed. As the cost and problems with the MOX facility piled up, the Obama government proposed a different, more cost-efficient method involving diluting the plutonium and storing it in special facilities. Russia expressed concerns that the US chemical process of disposal would be easily reversible, allowing for the reclamation of weapons-grade plutonium. The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a proposal the Russian position had “little technical merit,” and went on to point out that Russia’s disposal approach would produce fissile material that might not be “weapons-grade” but could still be “weapons-usable” itself.

The USA wants to cancel the Savannah River Site’s MOX project and use an alternative method for disposing of excess plutonium. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state-controlled Rosatom nuclear corporation, said that while MOX makes sure that weapons-grade plutonium can’t be used for any military purposes, the U.S. intention to dilute and stockpile the material means “it could be dug up again.”

In Putin’s second term in office, Russia pulled out of a treaty governing conventional forces in Europe in retaliation for the Bush regime’s abrogation of the antiballistic missile treaty that prohibited missile defense systems.

As part of the suspension, the USA is withdrawing personnel that it had dispatched to take part in the creation of a joint US-Russia center to coordinate military cooperation and intelligence if the cease-fire had taken hold. The suspension will not affect communications between the two countries aimed at de-conflicting counter-terrorism operations in Syria.

Observation

A strain in ties between the former Cold War rivals has escalated in recent weeks followed the collapse of a truce in Syria and the Syrian army’s massive onslaught in Aleppo under the cover of Russian warplanes.

It seems unlikely that the two countries will resume cooperation on plutonium soon. The abrogation signals that the nuclear agreements that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union and were to lead the world back from the hair-trigger brink of atomic conflict could be open to revision, as Russia’s relations with the West sour on a range of disputes today, including Syria and Ukraine and the Kremlin’s interference in the domestic politics of Western democracies.

As ties with the West have frayed under Putin, analysts in Moscow have floated the prospect of a Russian pullback from an array of disarmament agreements dating from a period of greater friendliness. Two years ago, for example, Washington accused Russia of violating another bedrock security agreement by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.

In a draft bill on suspending the plutonium agreement sent to parliament, Putin specified the document could be restored if the USA reverses its moves to deploy its forces near Russia’s borders and pulls them back to areas in Europe where they were in 2000. He added that the US should also “renounce its unfriendly policies” by revoking anti-Russian sanctions and compensating Russia for the damage incurred by them and by “putting forward a clear plan for the irreversible disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium in line with the agreement.”

Russia has only suspended weapons-grade plutonium deal with USA and not entirely withdrawn from the deal, giving rise to speculation about its expectations from USA in order to subsequently withdraw the suspension and resume the bilateral deal action. Saying relations with the USA have deteriorated in a “radically changed environment,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia withdrew from a landmark nuclear security agreement, in a troubling sign that the countries’ cooperation in a range of nuclear areas could be threatened.

The Kremlin first wants the removal of all economic sanctions and compensation for the damage they have caused; the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which allows Americans to freeze the assets of Russian officials thought to have been involved with human rights violations; and reductions in the American military presence in countries that joined NATO after Sept. 1, 2000.

The suspensions of the deal will likely further strain tensions between the two powers, which have been increasingly at odds in recent years. The presidential decree for the suspension could still be overruled by the Russian parliament. However, the chances are “near zero,” particularly as Russia looks to regain cold war-level influence. The suspension can be undone quickly if that is what Putin wants.

Unless the USA shows the way to the world by dismantling its own nukes first and then works for total disarmament and denuclearization, the world would continue to manufacture more and more nukes. Terrorism of states and illegal invasions and destruction of alien nations by NATO and allies like Israel cannot do away with nukes.

Peace cannot be established in the world so long as colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, requiring nukes to threaten weak nations, decide policies for the humanity.

Humanity is shivering, including Americans!

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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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