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Russia raises diplomatic profile with Syrian intervention

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Russia has been looking for right opportunities to regain its lost status as super power by resorting o all sorts of combinations and permutations with some success. President Putin could not make much of his open support for the USA over Sept 11. Later, Russian actions in Crimea further complicated its relations with USA wanting to control entire Europe as the winner of World war and Cold war.

Syrian war has now provided Moscow with the much needed edge and prestige plus the anticipated advantage to Russian foreign policy as it supported the ruler Assad by selling terror goods and guidance.

Russia hopes the position it has assumed now would help increase its diplomatic profile in Mideast and elsewhere. But whether or not USA and Russia plays a joint war in Syria is not very clear as yet

For years since the collapse of mighty Soviet Union, Russia has been trying to stay an equal power to US super power and made policies to appease US capitalist system without much success in coming closer to Washington, except a few “adjustments” with regard to attack on Muslim nations like Syria. Nothing could help Moscow to come to the close position it sought because USA denies that comfort zone not only to the Kremlin but, for that matter, to any nation, including its closest ally UK. Once it became apparent that It cannot be an equal power to equally “share” profits globally, Moscow adopted confrontational cum cooperative policy towards USA but even that could not make Americans trust Russians.

Apparently, Russo-US relations are strained, presumably, forever. USA remembers the Cold war more than Russia for its negative consequences as Russia boldly threatened the US supremacy and dominance.

However, the mindset of Cold war animosity in which they almost “missed” a nuke-missile war, is too strong for both to completely get away from that “proxy” mindset.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted a “fresh” start in bilateral ties when secret “terrorists” attacked New York as per the preplanned Sept-11 agenda, but supporting the so-called War in Terror” but which in fact means a permanent war on Islam until perhaps the religion of God (Prophet Muhammad’s Islam) is gone – factually many Muslim nations also lend support to the anti-Islamic war. That only reveals the faith deficit among global Muslim rulers and leaders, mainly in Arab world.

When Russian strongman Vladimir Putin met US President Barack Obama in 2015 at the World Climate Change Conference in France the temperature between the two was less than warm. Mutual suspicion and hatred is rampant. Later, on the sidelines of a recent conference in Brussels, media asked a Russian diplomat to explain their strategy in Libya, where Moscow has been cozying up to a former Qaddafi-era general with strongman ambitions who opposes an UN-backed unity government. His response was Kremlin boilerplate, claiming a “balanced” policy dovetailing with national interests and national defense. For Moscow national defense means playing very tactfully with US-NATO moves to contain the Kremlin and breach the Russian borders at some points with the help of their allies. This is a standard line trotted out by Russian officials when it comes to foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

As USA, owing mainly to Israeli problem, is fast losing its traditional influence world over, Russia is trying to occupy the spaces left over by Washington maybe in order to stabilize the war torn zones. President Putin’s way of dealing with the world has jangled nerves in many quarters as he seeks to tip regional balances of power in Europe, the Middle East and beyond to Moscow’s advantage.

Putin is in his third term and likely to have fourth term as well as president of an aspiring super power in Eurasia – by far the longest-serving leader in the G20 – and Putin’s confrontational approach to diplomacy – accompanied by a military iron fist in Ukraine and Syria – have won him fans at home while causing alarm abroad, particularly in Europe and the USA.

Russians seek to revive the old Soviet or Russian Empire and Putin fits the Russian bill for a strong presidency to challenge the USA and EU. In an address to Russia’s parliament in 2005, Putin famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “major geopolitical disaster” and it is this notion – regret for what was lost and frustration over what he and his compatriots see as the subsequent loss of international standing for Moscow – that drives his thinking on foreign policy.

Russians are indeed proud of their president. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its war in the Donbas region of Ukraine, etc have resurrected security anxieties in Europe not seen since the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s but Russians feel safe and secured and equally proud of their president because nobody can even think of attacking Russia. In that sense Russia is a super power in its own security rights, though its economy has been wrecked by the western sanctions. Since it is rich nation traditionally, Russia is able to withstand all pressure tactics of NATO-USA.

Moscow’s military intervention in Syria – including devastating air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo which have killed many civilians – shifted the momentum in favour of its long-standing ally in Damascus Bashar al-Assad who considers his own presidency the most important factor and would see Syria in ashes in order to stay in power. Though his regime is still mired in a vicious, multi-faceted five-year-old war Assad doesn’t think he should step aside and save Syria and its people. His own life more precious than thousands of Syrians who have been slaughtered by his military, USA, Russia and other anti-Islamic forces.

In Egypt, where USA and Arab allies successfully planned to oust an elected government of Mohammad Mursi representing Muslim Brotherhood, the military replaced the first ever elected government. Now the general Sisi regime has been increasingly at odds with allies like the USA, Moscow has stepped in offering military cooperation.

Kremlin officials announced this month that Russia is hoping to re-open its Cold War-era naval base on the Mediterranean coastline near the border with Libya. Some European diplomats believe Russia’s meddling next door in Libya – where it has discussed weapons supplies with forces opposed to a unity government despite the UN arms embargo – is aimed at maintaining enough instability there to ensure the country remains enough of a headache for Europe to the north.

Putin was personally incensed by the NATO-led intervention that helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011.

It is no coincidence that the growing challenge of Russia’s muscular policies overseas is happening at a time when the US-led post-Cold War order has weakened, with the undermining of institutions that have helped underpin it, like the EU and NATO. It is no surprise that, according to US sources, Moscow has funded populist anti-EU political parties and movements across Europe, including the National Front in France, which is experiencing a surge in support.

Putin’s geopolitical adventures have proved popular with Russians still smarting over the shrinking of Moscow’s global clout along with the demise of the Soviet Union. Since the Crimea takeover, public support for Putin and his foreign policy has remained high. One poll shows Putin’s approval rating has hovered between 80 to 90pc since 2014. Another survey found almost two out of five Russians believe the government’s primary foreign policy goal should be to bring back the superpower status it had during the Soviet era.

Moscow oversees an economy that is struggling because the existing model is considered by many to be no longer fit for purpose. Without a more robust economic foundation, the gap between what Russia aspires to and what is capable of being – both domestically and internationally – will grow. Others argue that Putin’s style of hard-headed diplomacy mixed with military clout, while bringing him some successes in the short-term, may prove more difficult to pursue in the long-term in a multi-polar world shaped by more fluid and unpredictable dynamics than in the past.

Putin’s presidential term extends until 2018 and many observers argue that if he is to maintain his momentum on the international stage – outmaneuvering Western rivals on certain issues to applause back in Russia – and consolidate recent gains, it must be bolstered by better economic strategy at home. The fact Putin is expected to be re-elected in two years’ time says much about his ability to play the domestic scene. Whether he can continue to do so on the world stage is another question.

Vladimir Putin’s power play in the wider Middle East region – not just limited to Syria – has upended Western calculations and prompted concerns in Washington and Brussels. Moscow may have got a map ready to recapture all those Muslim nations that have been destabilized by USA and NATO- starting with Afghanistan all over again.

USA and Russia are fighting for military domination worldwide that began when Soviet Russia occupied Afghanistan and USA used all powers it could muster to oust the Red Army from Afghanistan which it later occupied on some false pretexts following the Sept-11, meticulously engineered by anti-Islamic elements.

The research showed that respondents believed the biggest obstacle to Russia becoming an even more powerful global player was resistance from the USA and EU, a claim repeatedly echoed in Russian state media. The obstacles to Russian strive for bigger status than USA would remains in place may be not be easy because of counter measures by the USA, EU and NATO.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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