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Russia self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russia-backed breakaway regions of Georgia were recognized by Russia as independent states following the Russia-Georgia war of August, 2008 in a hasty and emotional rather than rational move. The recognition must be reviewed in the light of the annexation of Crimea and the two brutal and bloody wars Russia had waged against its own breakaway region Chechnya.

Considering the implications of the Crimean annexation, the Chechen conflict and the recent Russian behavior in Syria what the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is? I argue that the Russia perspective is awkward while the implications of the Crimean annexation and the Chechen conflict are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have appeared to be in a humble position. Yet due to Russia’s behavior on the Syrian crisis, the international community is likely to regard the independence of Russia-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia more adversely.

To justify its annexation of the Crimea and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian leaders have repeatedly and publicly stated that Kosovo declared independence and was recognized by western nations, why not Crimea, why not Abkhazia, why not South Ossetia. With Russia’s own advocating and recognition of secessionist regimes in the post-soviet space like Abkhazia and South Ossetia based on the Russian elite’s “why not” logic may well retrigger a wave of national movements like the past Chechen movement by the force of the same logic: Crimea seceded from Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia and were recognized by Russia, why not Chechnya?!

Russia doesn’t seem to have a valid answer to that question. Although Crimea’s secession from Ukraine may be regarded as encouragement for Chechens, who advocate Chechnya’s secession from the Russian Federation, Crimea’s annexation by Russia sends a crystal-clear and strong message: one may secede from others but Russia and may be annexed to none but Russia.

Then, what about Abkhazia and South Ossetia? It is 8 years on that Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been recognized by Russia as independent states. The question of secession and independence may be raised not only by Chechnya but also other Muslim regions of ‘multi-national and multi-faith’ Russia. Such scenario may end up in fatal effects on Russia’s national security and territorial integrity because the independence of a Russian autonomous republic could represent a precedent for other Russian regions to follow. Therefore, it could have been logical to expect Russia to favour Georgia’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty because Russia has quite a few autonomous republics that are prone to secessionism. But it did act contrary to expectation.

A vital nuance here is that Georgia had taken orientation towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, which may mean the US or NATO military presence on Russia’s borders in future. During the Chechen wars, Russia has repeatedly blamed Georgia for being used by Chechen rebels. Any ‘third-party’ military presence in Georgia is perceived by Moscow as a direct threat to the national security. This perception is amplified by assumptions that such presence could result in more opportunities for secessionists in Russia’s North Caucasus. Secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are like a sky-fallen ‘gift’ for Russia to prevent such scenarios from happening.

So, Russia looks at the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through this prism of its national security. Therefore, it is very likely scenario that Russia will aim at annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at some point in future in a way similar to the Crimean annexation.

What that scenario means for Abkhazia and South Ossetia? These breakaway regions seceded from Georgia to become independent not part or dependent of Russia. They could have been better-off within Georgia rather than within Russia though. Abkhazia and South Ossetia could have better and stronger position in relation to small Georgia rather than to giant Russia where being just one of numerous autonomous republics they could find themselves in a humble position.

Apart from political aspects, even practicalities of the Abkhazian or South Ossetian independence looks troubled. Yet there is North Ossetia within Russia. Probably, one day North Ossetia and South Ossetia would like to be united. No doubt that Russia will not afford for them to unite as a nation independent of Russia. So, in the best case scenario they would be able to unite within Russia.

The populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia fluctuates around 240,000 and 60,000 accordingly. These tiny populations are not homogenously Abkhazian or Ossetian. The demographic compositions are ethnically and religiously very diverse. Abkhazians and South Ossetians sound furious about the Georgian nationalism and obsessed with promoting their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. That is good undertaking. But it is not unambiguous, is it? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both inhabited by other ethnicities like Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Turks, etc. if that identity is so vital, why they are not appealed to other ethnicities as well?!

Furthermore, there is domestic opposition to unification with Russia in particular in Abkhazia. Russia doesn’t seem to be attractive to Abkhazia. As a result of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, the number of Chechen civilian casualties is estimated around 200,000-300,000, which roughly equals to total populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the Russia’s record of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, and in particular the rights and powers of autonomous republics is much troubled. All these factors help to explain why ordinary populations as well as arrays of elites in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia would oppose to unification with Russia or at least would be much divided on unification with Russia. Yet, these regions are heavily dependent on subsidies from Moscow. And they have become more isolated from the international community after the Russian-Georgian war of August, 2008. And nowadays those breakaway regions even more than ever would feel the consequences of the negative attitude from the western world in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russian behavior on the Syrian crisis. The western response to Russia’s behavior and role in the separatist conflicts on the post-soviet space is much late though.

By recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow put itself in an awkward position while ‘helped’ Tbilisi get the rid of the Sword of Damocles hanging over Georgia, which was the fear that Russia could recognize the independence of the breakaway regions. And the proper way to follow for Tbilisi is to continue on its democratic path towards the European integration based on unifying values like democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc. Only in this way Georgia may achieve two important objectives – ensuring the well-being of its citizens and generating power of attraction to mingle with its breakaway regions. Meanwhile Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be ready for political, economic and other turbulences to come. They have become heavily dependent on Russia, which goes through hard times due to plummeting energy prices, international sanctions, and political troubles due to its interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and elsewhere.

As Robert Strausz-Hupe famously said “a nation must think before it acts”. Russia should have thought before acting with regard to the recognition of the breakaway regions of Georgia. A consequence of that hasty and emotional decision is that Russia is confronted by a terrible dilemma either to let Abkhazia and South Ossetia go on as independent states or to annex them. Neither way works for the Russian perspective. Independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent an undesired precedent for Chechnya and other Russian regions. The annexation could have also bitter consequences: on one hand, it could trigger opposition from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and on the other hand, could cause another wave of international sanctions against Russia, aggravate Russia’s already damaged international reputation, and even more importantly, contribute to depicting Russia as aggressive and hostile on the neighboring post-soviet nations, who has been suffering from or prone to Russian-backed separatist conflicts. To put it differently, Russia looks like self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The conclusion is that the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia appears to be awkward and humble despite the defiant rhetoric of the Kremlin. And the phrase that best describes the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is ‘poor present, uncertain future’.

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On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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On November 11–12, 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted the fifth annual expert meeting within the strategic dialog organized by Emirates Policy Center with the support of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally the event gathers a large number of specialists in international relations, regional security, and Middle Eastern issues. Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, made a speech at the session devoted to the role of Russia in the modern world, including in the Middle East.

Talking about Russia’s power in the Middle East or in a broader global context, we should probably start with defining what power in the contemporary world politics really means. Is it about material resources that a nation can mobilize to shoulder its foreign policy aspirations — the total throw-weight of strategic missiles, the number of aircraft carriers and combined budgets of national assistance agencies? Is it about the size of your territory or about the natural resources that the territory contains? Is it rather about you GNP or about GNP per capita that defines your power in international relations? Probably not. If you happen to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the jungle, this does not necessarily make you the strongest beast around. A lot depends on how functional these eight hundred pounds are. It may be pure muscle tissue, but it may also be accumulated belly fat.

There is another, more functional definition of power in world politics. Power is defined as ability of states or non-state actors to make other actors do certain things or abstain from doing some things in the interests of those exercising power. To put it in a broader context, you can define power as ability of actors to meet the goals they set for themselves in international relations.

From this vantage point, Russia has recently demonstrated that it is a powerful state, capable of using its power in an efficient way. No matter how we assess the Russian role in the contemporary international system — as a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative, — we should agree that Russia constantly punches above its weight, having more impact on the system that it theoretically should have according to its ‘objective’ economic, technological or demographic potential.

If I were to compare Russia to a large investment fund, I would venture to say that the price of its stocks today is significantly higher than the true value of its assets. Look, for instance, at the recent Russia’s posture in the Middle East region. In my view, we can label it as an exceptionally successful political start-up: with rather modest price paid in blood in treasure, Moscow has been able to turn itself from a marginal player in the region into the arguably most important external power broker.

This apparent gap between the operational power and its material foundation needs an explanation. To say that Vladimir Putin has been simply lucky, making full use of indecisiveness and inconsistencies of the West and exploiting many vacuums of power around the globe is to say nothing. There should be something here about the ability of the Kremlin to make fast and resolute decisions, about its capacity to promptly mobilize Russia’s political and military forces, about the quality of the Russian diplomacy and so on.

Russia’s highly centralized political system, impressive domestic and international state propaganda machinery, its consistency in supporting Moscow’s allies and partners — all these features of the ‘Putin’s style’ foreign policy puts Russia in a league of its own in world politics. It does not have many important features of a truly great power (above all, it lacks a solid and diverse economic foundation), but so far it has been able to capitalize exactly on what distinguishes it from a ‘standard’ Western democracy or a typical non-Western autocracy. In other words, Russia is powerful because Russia is different.

Nevertheless, the Russian way of maximizing its international power contains a number of risks that should not be underestimated. First, the set of instruments, which the Kremlin can use in international relations to advance its goals, is quite limited. Russia is a nuclear superpower, is has military power projection capabilities second only to the United States. It is a global leader in cyber warfare and in a number of futuristic weapons. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power, which it never hesitates to use. It is a member of other international groupings — ranging from G20 and APEC to SCO and BRICS. It is a global supplier of hydrocarbons, many other commodities, as well as of food stock. It is the largest country in the world with eleven time zones.

However, is this set enough for Russia to maintain its status in global politics for all of the XXI century? Until 2050? Until 2030? Probably, not. If so, in the rapidly changing international environment the Kremlin has to consider seriously a significant diversification of its foreign policy instruments with a special emphasis on soft power components (culture, education, social practices, technological edge, science and so on). The sooner we start moving in this direction, the more secure the country’s role is likely to be in the long-term future.

Second, many of current Russia’s foreign policy investments are high-risk investments bordering political speculations. Should Russia continue betting of leftist political regimens in Venezuela or in Nicaragua? Should it bet on Euro-sceptics and right wing populists in the European Union? Should it invest into failing autocracies in Africa? This opportunistic globalism is distracting Moscow from what is truly important for Russia: from resolving multiple crises on the territory of the former Soviet Union, from building stable partnerships with its immediate neighbors, from gradually restoring the troubled relationship with the West.

As for targets of opportunity overseas, any political engagement should be preceded, not followed by a careful consideration of exit strategy options. History teaches us repeatedly: countries that can win wars, quite often lose peace. If you take the ongoing conflict in Syria, it will not last forever. When the name of the game is no longer military operations, but a post-conflict reconstruction, new players will come to the stage, no matter who is charge in Damascus. External powers with deeper pockets than those that Russia has will claim a central role in the post-war Syria. The Kremlin should try very hard to convert its current military successes into less explicit, but a more lasting and a more stable political presence in the country.

Finally, neither Russia, not any other nation should forget that the real foreign policy power comes from the inside. Foreign policy victories might look great and they definitely appeal to the public, but they never become an adequate substitute for victories at home. In the end of the day, the ability to balance economic growth and social equity, preserving national identity and integration into the global community, political representation and efficient governance constitute the only reliable foundation for power in international relations. All other foundations turn out to be quite shaky and fragile.

I have no doubts that Russia has all needed ingredients to stay as a great power, no a global spoiler. It has the potential that makes it capable of being not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution for the international system of the XXI century.

However, the future of Russia’s power and that of Russia’s role will depend on the overall evolution of the system. In a popular American fantasy television series “The Game of Thrones”, characters from time to time remind each other — “Winter is coming”. By “Winter” (with a capital “W”) they mean something really bad, big and unavoidable looming on the horizon. They cannot prevent the Winter, so they have to learn who to survive in this extremely hostile and dangerous environment.

Today, there are many indicators that “Winter” might be the future of the world politics in years to come, that what we observe today is not a bad weather, but a profound climate change. The implosion of the state system in parts of the Middle East, the rise of right populism and nationalism in Europe, Brexit in UK the election of Trump in US, the coming collapse of the US — Russian strategic arms control, a renewed arms race in Asia — there are multiple symptoms of hard times ahead of us.

If the name of the game in the global politics is likely to be security, not development, if the prime goal of nations is going to be survival rather than prosperity, why should Russia change its current understanding of power in international relations? In a way, the Kremlin is better prepared to face the global Winter than most of its competitors and opponents are. To create incentives for the Russian foreign policy to reinvent itself, one has to prove that the global Winter is not the only option. Otherwise the world might face a self-fulfilling prophesy. As they say, “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.”

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia and Comoro Islands Cooperate To Enhance Bilateral Relations

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On November 8-10, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Comoro Islands, El-Amine Souef, paid his first official working visit to Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with him on November 9.

After the talks, Lavrov told the media conference that they had confirmed to continue promoting bilateral cooperation in many spheres and work together towards using the existing potential in both countries.

There is considerable potential for cooperation in fishing, renewable energy, the provision of fresh water and agriculture.

“We have agreed to help our business communities establish direct ties and we also exchanged opinions on international issues, reaffirming the identity or similarity of our views,” Lavrov said.

They exchanged of views on international and regional issues of mutual interest with an emphasis on preventing and defusing crises in Africa and the Middle East, struggling against piracy in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean and countering terrorism and extremism.

Lavrov reminded that Moscow firmly supports the principle formulated by the African countries, that is “African solutions to African problems” and urged Africans to find ways of settling conflicts while the international community provides the necessary assistance through the African Union and sub-regional African organisations with the coordinating role of the UN.

Under a memorandum signed by the ministers, Russia will be training law enforcement personnel for the Comoro Islands.

Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, observes that foreign assistance is very essential to transform the economy and improve living standards of the population on the Comoro Islands.

Thus, Russia’s economic engagement is needed at this time, most importantly, to maintain stability and turn around the opportunities into an attractive place. With a relatively small investment, Russia could achieve important results for the Islands, so the first step should be genuine commitment, he told me in an emailed interview from Johannesburg.

One of the world’s poorest and smallest economies, the Islands are hampered by inadequate transportation links. It has a rapidly increasing population and few natural resources.

The low educational level of the labour force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. France, the colonial power, still remains a key trading partner and bilateral donor.

Russia established diplomatic relations with the Comoro Islands after it gained independence from France on 6 July 1975. In mid-2017, Comoros joined the Southern African Development Community with 15 other regional member states.

The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Arabic are also widely spoken. About 57% of the population is literate. The Islands, with a population of about 1.2 million, situated off the southeast coast of Africa, to the east is Mozambique and northwest is Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

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Russia’s Growing Clout in Asia Pacific Region

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In their strategic calculus, the Asia Pacific major powers as well as other countries do not consider Russia a major military power for the region. Although these Asia Pacific countries understand Russia’s military clout in Europe and Middle East, they somehow fail to see how overall Russian military might have an impact in the Asia Pacific region too.

Accordingly, the growing influence of Russia in the region finds less attention on the regional media outlets, the regional discussion platforms and the think tank papers produced across the region. This is a total contrast to Russian involvement in Europe and Middle East, something which receives huge coverage. Despite the low coverage of its engagement in the Asia Pacific, Russia’s geopolitical presence is increasing in the region.

Although its military and economic involvements in the Asia Pacific reduced significantly after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has over the last decade improved and enhanced its military might significantly, making its military a potent power in the region.

Russia has been selling weapons and other advanced military technology to the Asia-Pacific countries in order to bring these countries into its geopolitical orbit. Besides its close military relations with both China and India, Russia is increasingly building good relations with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Furthermore, Russia is on a spree of building certain infrastructures in several Asia Pacific countries which would make those countries dependent on Russia for the proper functionality of those infrastructures. Take Bangladesh’s nuclear plant for example. Russia is setting up a nuclear-powered power plant in Bangladesh, and this infrastructure would certainly make Bangladesh dependent on Russia for the technological aspects of the project. Bangladesh has also been purchasing heavy weapons and military vehicles from Russia.

Recently this year, many regional countries were alarmed by Russia’s large scale war games. The fact that the war games was conducted in the eastern part of Russia – which forms part of the Asia Pacific region, unlike Russia’s western part that forms part of Europe – makes it an alarming development for the Asia Pacific region.

According to an Australian news website, the war games, namely Vostok-2018 or East-2018, involved more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1000 aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and support vessels.

More alarming was the inclusion of the Chinese military into the war games alongside the Russians. Around 3500 Chinese troops were said to have taken part in the Russian war games. Troops from Mongolia too joined the drills.

Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, boasted about the drills saying, “Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.”

Condemning the drills, NATO said the war games “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.

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