[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he end of the Cold War era in 1989 brought during the first coming years a kind of international optimism that the idea of the „end of history“ really can be realized as it was a belief in no reason for the geopolitical struggles between the most powerful states. The New World Order, spoken out firstly by M. Gorbachev in his address to the UN on December 7th, 1988 was originally seen as the order of equal partnership in the world politics reflecting, radically different international circumstances after the Cold War“.
Unfortunately, the Cold War era finished without the „end of history“ as the US continue the same policy from the time of the Cold War against Moscow – now not against the USSR but against its successor Russia. Therefore, for the Pentagon, the Cold War era in fact never ended as the fundamental political task to eliminate Russia from the world politics still is not accomplished. Regardless the fact that in 1989 Communism collapsed in the East Europe, followed by the end of the USSR in 1991, that brought a real possibility for creation of a new international system and global security, the eastward enlargement of the NATO from March 1999 (the Fourth enlargement) onward is a clear proof of the continuation of the US Cold War time policy toward Moscow which actually creates uncertainty about the future of the global security. After the end of the USSR and the Cold War, there were many Western public workers and academicians who questioned firstly why the NATO has to exist at all and secondly why this officially defensive military alliance is enlarging its membership when the more comprehensive Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE, today the OSCE) could provide the necessary framework for security cooperation in Europe including and Russia. However, the NATO was not dissolved, but quite contrary, adopted the same policy of the further (eastward) enlargement likewise the EU. The Kosovo crisis in 1998−1999 became a formal excuse for the enlargement of both these US client organizations for the „better security of Europe“. The EU Commission President, Romano Prodi, in his speech before the EU Parliament on October 13th, 1999 was quite clear in this matter. However, if we know that the Kosovo crisis followed by the NATO military intervention (aggression) against Serbia and Montenegro was fully fueled exactly by the US administration, it is not far from the truth that the Kosovo crisis was provoked and maintained by Washington, among other purposes, for the sake to give a formal excuse for the further eastward enlargement of both the EU and the NATO.
A dismissal of the USSR by M. Gorbachev in 1989−1991 produced a huge power vacuum in the Central and East Europe that was in the coming years filled by the NATO and the EU. The eastward enlargement of both the NATO and the EU emerged in due time as a prime instrument by Washington to gradually acquire control over the ex-Communist territories around Russia. A standard Western academic clishé when writing on the eastward enlargement of the EU is that those ex-Communist East European states:
„… wanted to join a club of secure, prosperous, democratic, and relatively well-governed countries. They saw themselves as naturally belonging to Europe, but deprived of the opportunity to enjoy democracy and the free market by Soviet hegemony and Western European acquiescence to that state of affairs. With the fall of Communism this historical injustice had to be remedied, and accession to the EU was to make their return to Europe complete“.
However, it is not clear why seven West European states currently out of the EU are not able to see all mentioned advantages of the EU membership. Even one of the member states (the UK) decided in 2016 to leave the club (Brexit) and one of the chief reasons for this decision was exactly the eastward enlargement as the critical idea of all East European states to join the EU is to live on the West EU member states’ financial support. Nevertheless, from the geopolitical perspective, the new EU member states coming from the East Europe (from 2004 enlargement onward) are the US Trojan Horse in the club, who are openly supporting the American foreign policy of the imperial design, but with their prime duty as the members of both the EU and the NATO to take an active participation in the coming Western military crusade against Russia in the form of the WWIII. However, these East European nations are going to be the first to experience direct consequences of the war as being a critical part of the Western front line combat zone against Russia.
Surely, one of the most fundamental anti-Russian actions in Europe at the post-Soviet era was the US decision to expend the NATO eastward by offering full membership to three ex-Warsaw Pact members: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Therefore, Reagan-Gorbachev agreement from Reykjavik in 1988 was unilaterally and brazenly violated by Washington under the formal excuse of a combination of events−V. Zhirinovsky’s showing in the 1993 elections in Russia, domestic pressure upon B. Clinton from his Republican opponents at the Congress, and what the US administration saw as the abject failure of the EU to provide an answer to a European problem of the Yugoslav civil war (1991−1999). Washington quickly accused the Europeans to be unable to deal with the Yugoslav crisis that was a major test which the EU failed to pass, but honestly speaking, all the EU peace-making efforts dealing with the Yugoslav crisis really failed for the very reason as they were directly sabotaged by the US diplomacy. Nevertheless, the first new action by the enlarged NATO, only two weeks after its Fourth enlargement, was a savaged bombing of Serbia for the sake to put her Kosovo province under the NATO occupation. This action finally forced V. Putin to compel the „Western clown“ B. Yeltsin to resign on December 31st, 1999.
It has to be recognized that the Cold War bipolarity after 1989 was, at least up to 2008, superseded by the US-led unipolarity – a hegemonic configuration of the US accumulated hyper power in global politics that presented quite new challenges to the international relations. However, after the event of 9/11, the US administration started to act on the accelerating achievement after the Cold War of supreme political and military power in the globe for the sake to complete a mission of a global hegemon. The US administration, however, purposely presented the 9/11 attack as the work of (only) a network of Al Qaeda, a Islamic terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden who was a Saudi millionaire’s son but as well as „who learned his terrorist trade, with U.S. assistance, fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s“ The US administration of the President George W. Bush responded very quickly and by the end of 2001 a Taliban regime in Afghanistan, that was a radical Islamic regime which was providing a base of operations for Al Qaeda, became demolished and the biggest part of the country occupied or controlled in a coalition with the US satellite states. That was the beginning of the announced „War on Terrorism“ that actually had to serve as a good excuse to further strengthen the US position as the global policeman followed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Therefore, a policy of a global unipolarity – a condition of a global politics in which a system of international relations is dictated by a single dominant power-hegemon that is quite capable of dominating all other states, became an order of the day for both the Pentagon and the White House.
With the US military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 the US stood alone (with the military support by the UK as the fundamental American client state after 1989) at the summit of the hierarchy of the international relations and global politics up to 2008 when Russia finally decided to protect its own geopolitical and historical interests in some part of the world – in this particular case at the Caucasus. The US, in the other words, became in the years 1989−2008 the sole state in the world with the military and political capability to be a decisive factor in the global politics at any corner of the world. In these years, the US military expenditures exceeded all other states combined – a clear sign of a hegemonic global policy of Washington. It seemed to be that the US had an extraordinary historical ability to dictate the future of the world according to its wishes and design as America became a single world hyperpower as the universal empire stronger than Roman or British empires.
By definition, the empire is an universal state having a preponderant power and being in a real ability to act independently without any restraint. Therefore, the empire is working alone rather than in concert with other states, or at least with those whom we can call as the Great Powers – a fundamental mistake and sin which finally provokes an apocalyptic animosity and clash with the rest of the world. This animosity, from historical perspective, after certain time provokes a blowback by the others that exactly, in the case of the US empire, came from Russia in 2008. The Central Caucasus, the East Ukraine and the West Middle East today became the regions of direct clash of geopolitical interests on the global chessboard between declining US empire and the rising economic, political, financial and military power of Russia. The US even from 1990 (the First Gulf War) crossed the moral boundaries in abusing its hyper power through defiant and brutal unilateralism, becoming, as all other universal states (empires), hated and feared rogue civilization („rogue gangster state“ according to Stephen Lendman). The universal state is acting as an international outlaw by its own rules, values, norms and requirements like the US and its NATO satellites in the case of barbaric bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999.
According to Noam Chomsky, in fall 2002 the most powerful state ever existed in history declared the basic principle of its imperial grand strategy as a self-intention to keep its global hegemony by the threat to use or by use of its own super-powerfully equipped military arsenal that is the most critical US dimension of power in which Washington reigns supreme in the world. It was clearly confirmed by the White House on September 17th, 2002 as a part of the US national security strategy that was going to be no longer bound by the UN Charter’s rules governing the use of force:
„Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States“.
The hawks of the US hegemonic world order after 1989 openly emphasize the necessity of America’s self-serving pre-eminent role in the world politics, as Hillary Clinton, for instance, put it at her confirmation hearing as the US Secretary of State in 2009:
„So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must, and will lead in this new century… The world looks to us because America has the reach and resolve to mobilize the shared effort needed to solve problems on a global scale – in defense of our own interests, but also as a force for progress. In this we have no rival“.
However, those H. Clinton’s words were ungrounded as the US empire already was in the process of declination. The gradual decline and probably ultimate demise of the US empire, as any other empire in history, can not be understood without previous knowledge on the nature and driving forces of the imperial system. After 1991 the USA remained to function as a „military society“ as there were, for instance, the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Sultanate. That is to say more precisely, the driving force behind the US empire left to be an „external objective“ – the perceived needs to reconstruct the world according to its own values and norms. However, such very ambitious project requires a very systematic policy of overall mobilization of the whole society, economy and politics. As such mobilization all the time implies sacrificing a particular sector of domestic economy for the sake to realize the expansionist aims, the system’s functioning is basically reinforced by the need to replenish resources used up at the previous stage – the need which the US simply could not accomplish successfully.
The US, as a matter of fact, already found itself very costly to maintain its own military dominance in the world. The American soldiers are deployed in almost 80 countries from the Balkans to the Caucasus and from the Gulf of Arden to the Korean Peninsula and Haiti. The US administration is today constantly trapped by the Imperial Overstretch Effect – the gap between the resources and ambitions especially in the foreign (imperialistic) policy which is formally wrapped into the phrase of „domestic security“ needs or international „humanitarian mission“. Undoubtedly, the US costly imperial pursuits and particularly military spending weakened the American economy in relation to its main rivals – China and Russia.
There are a number of scholars (N. Chomsky, M. Chossudovsky, etc.) and public workers (like P. K. Roberts) who predict that after the Pax Americana a multipolar system of international relations will emerge. The fact is that multipolarity, as a global system with more than two dominant power centers, is clearly advocated by V. Putin’s administration in Kremlin instead of both a bipolarity or unipolarity. This concept of multipolarity in international relations has to include alongside the US and the BRICS countries, Japan and the EU. As a multipolar system includes several comparatively equal Great Powers, it is by the nature complex system and hopefully more prosperous for maintaining the global security. The world is in fact from 2008 at the process of power transition that is surely the dangerous period as a hyper power of the USA is directly challenged by the rise of its rivals – Russia and China. Subsequently, the current Ukrainian and Syrian crisis are the consequences (a global „collateral damage“) of such period of power transition which already marked the beginning of a new Cold War that can be soon transformed into the Hot Peace era. Nevertheless, the US administration is not anymore in position to run with the Bush Doctrine that is the unilateral grand strategy of the George W. Bush’s administration in order to preserve a unipolar world under the US hegemony by keeping America’s military capacity beyond any challenge by any other state in the world as, certainly, the US hegemony is already challenged by both Russia and China. Those two countries are currently in the process of making their own alliance bloc advocating multilateralism as cooperative approach to managing shared global problems and keeping a collective security by collective and coordinated actions (a groupthinking) by the Great Powers.
The fundamental task of the US foreign policy after 1989 is to protect its own concept and practice of the unipolar geopolitical order in the world, while Russia with the other BRICS countries is trying to create a multilateral global geopolitical order. The BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are clearly expressing the global phenomena of the „Rise of the Rest“ against the US unipolar hegemony. The rise of the BRICS marks a decisive shift in the global counter-balance of power toward the final end of America’s hegemony. A significance of these four fast-growing economies and their global geopolitical power is already visible and recognized with the predictions that up to 2021 the BRICS countries can exceed the combined strength of the G-7 countries. Therefore, here we are dealing with two diametrically opposite geopolitical concepts of the world order in the 21st century. The current Ukrainian and Syrian crises are just practical expression of it. From the very general point of view, the US administration is not opposing the Russian geopolitical projects because of the fear of the reconstruction of the USSR, but rather for the sake of realization of its own global geopolitical projects according to which Russia has to be a political and economic colony of the West like all the former Yugoslav republics are today but just formally existing as the „independent“ states. The most immediate US task in dealing with Russia after 2000 is to prevent Moscow to create an Eurasian geopolitical and economic block by (mis)using the EU and NATO policy of the eastward enlargement in the East Europe and the Balkans. Ukraine in this matter plays one of the fundamental roles as, according to notorious US Russophobe of the Polish origin Z. Brzezinski, Ukraine is a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard as a geopolitical pivot for the reason that its very existence as an independent country helps to halt Russia to become an Eurasian empire what means a center of world power. Therefore, the US policy in the East Europe has to be concentrated on turning all regional countries against Russia, but primarily Ukraine which has to play the crucial role of stabbing the knife to Russia’s backbone.
The Huntington’s thesis about the unavoidable clash of the antagonistic cultures at the post-Soviet time basically served as academic verification of the continuation of America’s hegemonic global policy after 1989. The author himself „was part leading academic and part policy adviser to several US administrations−and had occupied this influential space since the late 1950s“ what means that Huntington directly was participating in directing the US foreign policy during the Cold War. However, as the USSR together with its Communist satellites finally lost the war, but the US policy of the Pax Americana had to be continued and after the Cold War, Huntington actually by his article and later the book on the clash of antagonistic civilizations, as their value systems are profoundly different, paved the academic ground to the Pentagon to invent, a new and useful enemies that would give the US a new role and provide a new justification for America’s continued hegemony in a post-Soviet world. One of these enemies became a post-Yeltsin’s Russia as a country which decided to resist a global hegemony by anyone.
A new Russia’s foreign policy in the 21st century is especially oriented and directed toward refutation of predicting that the new century of the new millennium is going to be more „American“ than the previous one. It means that the US-Russian relations after 2000 are going from the US-led „New World Order“ to the multipolar „Resetting Relations“. The last military success of the Pax Americana’s geopolitical project was the Second Gulf War (the Iraq War) in 2003 launched by the US Neocon President George W. Bush not only to kick out the „Vietnam Syndrome“, but more important to answer to all those experts who previously had been predicting an erosion of the US influence in the global politics. The architects of a post-Yeltsin’s Russia’s geopolitics, followed by all critics of the Pax Americana, are emphasizing a dangerous effect of an American soft power in the shape of popular culture, styles of dress, fast food, music, etc., as the products of a primitive sub-culture and a quasi-civilization. Therefore, the global duty of the civilizations at the time of the clash of civilizations is to fight against a quasi-civilization which degenerates a human face around the world. That is one of the critical tasks of Russia in world policy after 2000 as one of the escalating Great Powers. A rising power of the post-Yeltsin’s Russia as one of the leading countries which are challenging the US unipolar hegemony can be seen from the facts that only up to 2008 Russia succeeded to double its GDP, to triple wages in real terms and to reduce the unemployment and poverty.
Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response
As expected, Alexei Navalny’s case is seriously tearing apart relationship between European Union and Russian Federation. The alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on August 20 in Tomsk (Siberia), has similarities to the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and that of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury, England. Russia’s political history is dotted with that well-colored inerasable image.
Navalny is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. As a citizen, he has the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to associate with social and political groups. But his activities has angered the officialdom and becomes most hated politician. He has been detained several times by Russian authorities.
Now Navalny, who was “allegedly poisoned” in August, stands a determining factor shaping the relationship between Western world and European Union and Russia. Sanctions are the punitive measures against Russia. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital in Omsk, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.
Specialist labs in France and Sweden have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government Spokesman Steffen Seibert said mid-Sept, and confirmed that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had also received samples and was taking steps to have those tested at its reference laboratories.
According to Seibert, the European Union’s summit, set to take place on September 24-25. The world would be looking for what measures be collectively adopted with regard to Navalny and against Russia.
On Sept 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the local media that there were another series of anti-Russian sanctions being initiated by the West amid the situation involving Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, all these designed to deliver a blow to relations between Russia and the European Union.
“The main goal today, at least it appears to be this way, is to deliver a blow to the relations between our countries and the European Union, and countries that are part of the union. Everything is going in this framework,” Zakharova said in the 60 Minutes show on the Rossiya 1 (VGTRK) television channel.
On Sept 15, during its session the European Union planned to create a global regime sanctioning human rights violations around the world and the intention to name it after Alexey Navalny. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that will erode the basic principles of international law and undermines the prerogatives of the UN Security Council through endless illegitimate unilateral sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington.
As for whether it would be advisable to name this sanctions regime after Alexei Navalny, it viewed “this exclusively as an undisguised attempt to give a manifestly anti-Russia tonality to the new EU restrictions. At the same time, Berlin persists in brushing off proposals to work together in order to get to the bottom of what happened, using clearly far-fetched pretexts. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and our partners will renounce the arbitrary practice of assigning blame and in the future will draw conclusions based on real and confirmed facts.”
That however Moscow readies to hit back on EU sanctions. Local daily newspaper Izvestia also wrote that Russia vows to retaliate against potential European Union sanctions. Even though the European Union is trying to elbow Russia out of the gas market, it is unlikely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will be abandoned over the incident with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, quoting sources in the Russian Federation Council (Upper House of Parliament).
The resolution approved by the European Parliament (EP) stresses the need for an international investigation into the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok-type toxic agent. European MPs called for suspending Nord Stream 2 and slapping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is urging Berlin to cooperate in the investigation of what happened to Navalny. If the EU levies sanctions on Russia, Moscow can provide a tit-for-tat response, Russian MPs told the paper.
“I don’t think this option will come to life, because it is difficult to connect the situation with Navalny to the construction of Nord Stream 2. This is just an excuse to push Russia out of the gas market. We need to react calmly and not be dragged into those discussions,” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov told Izvestia, commenting on the resolution.
Similarly, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Chepa explained to Izvestia that in the event of any real anti-Russian sanctions, Russia could provide a tit-for-tat response. For example, if the European Union approves personal restrictions and a sanctions list, Moscow will do the same.
“Of course, we will respond. However, this will impact both our economy and the economy of Germany and the European Union. No one wins here. However, there may be a tit-for-tat blacklist that would include, for example, the MPs that called for anti-Russian sanctions or for the suspension of Nord Stream 2,” the MP said, stressing that Moscow will only retaliate if the European Union introduces real sanctions against Russia.
Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that European Union to loosen legal mechanism for new sanctions against Russia. It said that the European Commission is working on broadening its legal instruments that would enable the introduction of personal sanctions against human rights violators in different countries, counting Russia among them. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced plans to adopt Europe’s version of the Magnitsky Act and suggested adjusting the mechanism for approving sanctions in such a way that does not require the support of all European Union member states.
According to Kommersant, this amendment, if adopted, will no longer allow Moscow to count on friendly European countries that have called on European Union allies not to impose tough sanctions on Russia. According to von der Leyen, the proposals for a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ will be ready soon. She explained the European Union should be able to respond clearly and quickly to what is happening anywhere, whether in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk.
The German Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that the European Union will be able to agree on an extensive package of sanctions against Russia soon. Rather, an agreement on a blacklist similar to the ‘Magnitsky list’ could be expected. According to experts, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany and the European Union would rather allow the project be implemented in full, and then introduce some measures to restrict or prohibit transportation of gas through the pipeline.
“With the crises around Navalny and Lukashenko unfolding, the freezing of Nord Stream 2 seems to be in the cards. Nevertheless, we are not talking about a complete breakdown of relations. Even during the Cold War, economic ties between the USSR and the West were not completely severed,” Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),Nadezhda Arbatova, told Kommersant newspaper. “Today’s confrontation between Russia and the West is a struggle of ideology and real politics. Minimal interaction will be maintained, but this will not change the quality of relations between Russia and the EU,” she predicted.
European Union and Russia have strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 but that was later challenged following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Russia has five member states: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland share its border. The relations are determined by European Union member on bilateral basis, but all the members adopt common or collective policies toward the Russian Federation.
Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver
With economies experiencing contractions across the globe and with governments in the third world most vulnerable, discussions of debt relief have been revived. Yet, forgiving old debts is nothing new to the Kremlin. For the Russian government, it has been just one part of a wider diplomatic toolkit to rekindle ties that have faltered since the end of the Cold War.
Once the primary backer of numerous states over large swathes of the globe, Moscow largely retreated from the non-Soviet space during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and it continued to not be a primary concern during Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as head of state. However, Russia’s resurgence on the international arena over the past few years has not only made the country more willing to re-engage with the region but also more capable.
International media has primarily viewed this through the lens of military strength. Whether it is sending trainers and advisors to the Central African Republic, allegedly supporting rebels in Libya, or deploying Wagner Group forces to fight an Islamic State-offshoot in Mozambique, the focus has primarily been conflict-oriented. However, less explored is the quieter and more economic measures that the Russian government has taken in order to win hearts and minds outside of the West.
As part of a debt-for-development programme, Russia has forgiven approximately $20 billion worth of debt to various African governments that was accrued during the Soviet period. Beneficiaries include the Commonwealth nation of Tanzania and Francophonie member Madagascar, along with others. In forgiving these loans, the Kremlin has acknowledged a reality that many countries continue to deny: such debts are unpayable. At the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, Putin stated explicitly that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”
These measures have yielded concrete benefits for the previously indebted countries. For example, the decision to forgive Mozambique’s $40 million debt was done in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Programme, with the money that was intended for debt repayment instead being used to provide free school meals for 150,000 children over the course of five years.
While Russia will potentially be losing some money in the short term, debt forgiveness is likely to open new doors moving forward. Many of the countries that have seen their debts written off have significant economic and geopolitical potential. With improved political relations as a consequence, it is hoped that Russian companies will get preferential treatment should contracts be offered to international firms. This could help explain the Kremlin’s decision to forgive 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt despite the latter’s weak position. Russia has been eager to develop a trans-Korean gas pipeline that would transport fuel to South Korea. While the likelihood of this being realised remains slim, in the context of Pyongyang’s inability to repay the debt in any case, it is a reasonable gamble to make on the part of the Russian government.
This is somewhat similar to China’s efforts over the past few years, albeit in an inverse form. With Beijing less cash-strapped than Moscow, it is able to invest directly whereas Russia is using debt forgiveness to redirect cash payments away from servicing old debts and instead towards domestic reinvestments. Free projects, such as the Chinese-funded and constructed headquarters of the African Union, have been followed by ever-growing economic and political relations.
Russia’s debt policy has been used to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. While not all Soviet-era allies have retained close ties to Moscow, many have done so continuously since the Cold War. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian debt forgiveness has been Cuba. In July 2014, ahead of a visit to the island nation by Putin, the Russian government wrote off 90% of Cuban debt. Though Russia was not only the country that showed willingness to restructure Cuba’s debt obligations at the time, it was by far the most generous. China restructured approximately $6 billion while Japan and Mexico forgave $1.4 billion and $478 million, respectively; Russia forgave $32 billion.
The decision did reaffirm the close relations between Moscow and Havana. Cuba has repeatedly voted in support of the Russian Federation at the United Nations on sensitive topics, such as Crimea, and Russian firms have received multiple drilling and mining contracts from the Caribbean country.
However, this strategy has its limitations. The overwhelming majority of these debts date back to the Soviet era and are therefore limited in scope. Some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia (which saw most of their debts forgiven in the 1990’s), were primarily recipients of military support during civil wars so their debts were not as vast as other heavily indebted countries with other creditors. Since then, despite respite from Moscow, such countries have continued to become increasingly burdened by growing debts. While Ethiopia is often heralded as an example of rapid economic growth, its debt, both in total but also has a percentage of GDP, has grown considerably during the post-Soviet era.
While debt relief is undeniably beneficial to the third world, the fact that Russian-owned debts constitute a mere fraction of all foreign-owned debts in most cases means that the act of writing debts off cannot achieve much in of themselves. Consequently, in several countries, the gesture is mostly a PR move. In the case of Afghanistan, where Russia was the largest creditor due to loans handed out during the 1980’s, Kabul had for decades refused to recognise the debt. The decision to forgive the debt was therefore more of a signal of a desire to improve relations than any hope to achieve instantaneously tangible rewards.
The largest stumbling block for the Kremlin’s efforts remain structural issues afflicting the indebted nations, the nature of which vary considerably from country to country. For example, while Russia has forgiven a majority of Iraq’s debt to the country, which in turn helped revive talks over potential oil contracts, the continued instability in the Middle Eastern nation makes it difficult to reap many benefits. Though it is true that Baghdad has continued to purchase Russian T-90 tanks and attack helicopters, this is more of a sign that Russia has partially managed to pivot Iraq away from the United States’ sphere of influence as opposed to gaining economically.
With the onset of coronavirus, however, Russia might not be the leading debt forgiver for very long. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where economies are expected to continue shrinking while deficits are set to grow, other creditors could potentially step in and likewise forgive debts. In April of this year, G20 leaders agreed to extend debt relief in the form of a moratorium on debt repayment yet this can only serve as a short term solution. With many governments already increasing their borrowing, creditor nations are well positioned to leverage their position in order to improve geopolitical relationships as well as set the stage for favourable contracts for their firms. If more countries follow Moscow’s path, then the significance of what the Kremlin has done will only recede and lose much of its relevance.
Debt forgiveness can win friends but can only go so far. For Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers to stick, they will need to continue complementing it with other efforts, such as improving trade and boosting security partnerships, in order to truly make the most of its financial generosity.
The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions
For Russia, the crisis in Belarus caused by the August presidential election result is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run.
Whatever the arguments propounded by world analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into serious geopolitical game.
For Moscow, the Belarus problem has been about geopolitics from the very beginning, though it was only on August 27 of this year that Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”
The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas similar to those created in Ukraine before 2014. The Russians further grasp that in Ukraine, the situation was out of control even before the Maidan Revolution. Moscow’s influence was not sufficient to stop Ukraine’s gradual shift toward closer ties with the collective West.
For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary” fervor that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. What is troubling is whether or not the Russians see this process as an expression of the popular will that is largely independent of the West. Several indicators point to an ingrained belief within the Russian political elite that in fact the West has orchestrated the popular upheaval in Belarus.
Russian history might be of help here. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought the spread of European revolutionary thought along and inside its borders. It built alliances to confront it and fought wars to forestall its progress. But in the end, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent policies of the Communist Party were largely based on European thought, though many western ideas were changed or entirely refashioned.
Similar developments took place during the late Soviet period. By the 1980s, popular disapproval of the Soviet system had grown exponentially. A revolutionary fervor for independence ran amok in the Baltic states, Ukraine, and elsewhere. True reforms would have served as a cure, but half-hearted economic and social measures only deepened the crisis. Military power was used in a number of capitals of Soviet republics, but again only half-heartedly. Thus was the entire Soviet edifice brought down.
Modern Russian leadership should see that there is essentially no cure for popular grievances and mass movements along its borders. Russian history gives multiple examples of how military intervention against revolutionary fervor can bring immediate results but leave long-term prospects bleak. The defeat of revolutionary passions can only take place by minimizing those economic, social, and state-system problems that usually generate popular upheaval. This is the dilemma now facing modern Russia. The revolutions that occurred over the past 20 years, and the situation today in Belarus, all fit into this pattern.
For the moment, Lukashenko has won this round of strife with the protesters, and his rule is highly likely to continue. But what is equally certain is that the protests gave birth to a massive popular movement in a country that was once famous for the quiescence of its population.
Russia fears that eventually, this revolutionary tide will close in on Russian society. Lukashenko has stressed this idea, saying in an interview that mass disturbances will one day reach Moscow. Many rightly believed this was a ploy by Lukashenko to scare the Russians into supporting him—after all, Belarus is far smaller than Russia and much less important than Ukraine. Still, Lukashenko was right insofar as he pinpointed possible long-term problems Russia could face as it moves closer to 2036.
Much depends on the West as well. It faces a dilemma in which it ought to pursue a policy of vocal condemnation and perhaps even impose heavy sanctions—but from a balance of power perspective, moves like those would distance Minsk and push it closer to the Russian orbit. This dilemma of morality versus geopolitical calculus will haunt the West in the years to come.
Belarus exports 10.5 million tons of oil products per year, including about six million tons through the ports of the Baltic states to world markets and another 3–3.5 million tons to Ukraine. Redirecting flows from the Baltic ports to Russian ones has been discussed, but this option is less attractive to Minsk because of the longer distances involved. This comes at a time when the Baltic states imposed sanctions on high-ranking Belarussian officials and the EU is pondering serious measures.
With each such move from the West, Russia gets another opportunity. Russia has professed interest in encouraging Belarus to redirect its oil exports to Russian ports and has agreed to refinance a $1 billion debt to Russia.
A broader picture might help put the events in Belarus in context. In the South Caucasus, the Russians appear to have reached the limit of their influence. They more or less firmly control the overall geopolitical picture, but have nevertheless failed to derail Western resolve to compete in this region. In Central Asia, Russia has more secure positions, but the region in general is less important to the Kremlin than the western borderlands.
It is thus the western front—Belarus and Ukraine—that is a major theater for Moscow. Since 2015, many have believed that Syria is Russia’s top geopolitical theater, but this assumption is based simply on the intensity of the immediate processes that are transpiring in the Middle East. With or without Syria, Moscow’s global standing will not be fundamentally damaged. Belarus is a different matter entirely. Changes there, and by extension a potentially anti-Russian state, would constitute a direct threat to Moscow.
For Russia, Belarus is the last safe buffer zone on its western border. Ukraine is lost, as is Moldova, and the Baltic states have long been under NATO protection. Only Belarus serves as a bridge for Russia to move militarily into the heart of Europe. To lose it would be tantamount to a complete “encirclement” of Russia by the West, as argued by Russian politicians.
This geopolitical reality also means that Belarus is the country that will remain most susceptible to Russian geopolitical influence. No wonder Russia is pushing to station its air base on Belarussian soil, reinvigorate the Union state, and intensify Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. As was the case with Ukraine, the upheaval in Belarus is about regional geopolitics.
Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org
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