[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] few days ago the press reported that dozens of Russian military “contractors”, supplied by the RSB Group, were already operating in Eastern Libya to remove mines from the areas around Benghazi, in a region recently freed from jihadists by the armed forces of Khalifa Haftar, who ever more seems to be the pivot of Russian geopolitics in Libya. These reports run by the press are of great strategic relevance.
After all Russia does not want to commit the primary mistake made by the United Nations and Western countries, that is to choose – from the outset – their “horse” in the person of the weak Fajez al-Sarraj.
In fact Tripoli’s leader was invited to Russia in early March 2017. On that occasion Vladimir Putin clearly told him that Russia was present in Libya to remedy the UN and NATO “barbaric aggression” of 2011 and that it wanted to help all parties – namely al-Sarraj’s GNA, as well as Khalifa al-Ghawil’s government and the other non-jihadist factions – to “rebuild the Libyan State.”
Russia does not want to bring imaginative “democracies”, but it wants to rebuild the Libyan State against the jihad and establish a positive economic and strategic relationship with the Russian Federation.
Certainly Russia does not want a “Western protectorate” in all or part of Libya.
Moreover, from the US viewpoint, it should be noted that Daesh-Isis has not yet been defeated either in Libya or elsewhere, considering that the US or the other allies’ air strikes have certainly “reduced” – but not fully eliminated – the Caliphate’s offensive potential in the Sirte region. It should also be noted that, in the near future, Daesh-Isis will certainly join forces with the Al-Qaeda network, thus recreating its military bases and activities by means of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Qaedist networks of Sudan and sub-Saharan Africa.
A strategic and territorial continuity stretching from the Sirte region up to the Boko Haram’s networks in Nigeria.
Furthermore, both the United States and its allies have put in place – in Libya and against Isis – a strategy which is bound to fail: Westerners have supported their allied Libyan factions on the ground and have only tried to eliminate the leaders of the terrorist organization with targeted actions.
Leaders come and go, while the great organizational and military networks of the jihad must be definitely broken and not just “contained”.
The guerrilla warfare or jihad are not based on the number of their militants, but on the quality of their actions.
A “containment” logic which cannot work in the presence of autonomous regional systems and global allies, such as the other NATO countries.
Everyone has its own project: Italians want the ENI oil, which is theirs, and they want to avoid mass migration originating from the Libyan coast. The French people want the Italian oil and the Mediterranean military network of the old Gaddafi’s Libya. The Germans are not very interested in the issue. However, what about the Americans? We do not know yet exactly what they want.
In any case, proxies, namely the small regional allies, must not be used to fight our wars and secure our interests.
In the case of Libya, finally the issue lies in avoiding it becoming the reference point of the whole jihad, a few nautical miles from Italy and, hence, from Europe and from the Atlantic Alliance’s military bases.
Therefore it is enough for Isis to stand still – while the Libyan non-jihadist factions fight each other and the United States decides to help one group or the other fighting also Isis – and then rise again undisturbed when the American aid ceases and the local militias go away or are too weak to react and fight back.
Meanwhile, the Russian Federation – through Rosneft – has signed an oil deal with the Libyan NOC, considering that Russia is well aware of the fact that – even after the completion of the current de-globalization phase – oil will be the key asset, the “absolute commodity” – just to put it in Karl Marx’s words – also in the future.
In other words, Russia is operating in Libya more or less in the way in which it has succeeded in entering the great Syrian game, that is mainly by means of the evident big mistakes made by Western powers.
In Syria, the United States, at first, and then all its allies, ever less able to implement a real foreign policy or to think strategically, have supported “moderate Islamists” – always assuming that this expression has a meaning – only to overthrow Bashar al-Assad and recreate, also in Syria, the silly chaos following the “Arab springs”.
The idea that it is enough to send a “tyrant” away – possibly with a few artfully manipulated demonstrations – to solve everything, is frankly ridiculous.
It is geopolitics typical of 1968-inspired activists who aged badly.
If you had permanently destabilized Syria, Iran would have intervened immediately – as, indeed, it did later jointly with Russians and the Alawites of Assad’ Syrian Arab Army – not to mention what would have happened in the Lebanon and, hence, in Israel.
Therefore Russia immediately sensed the Westerners’ silly naivety and came into play, thus winning the game.
The same is happening also in Libya: NATO and the United Nations strenuously defend the GNA of al-Sarraj, who just rules in the palace where his government is established and pays a high price for the support of some militias (indeed, a price we pay).
Conversely Russia will be the welcome and credible broker, the mediator who will put an end to the tension between al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, by interacting with both of them and thus rebuilding a stable central area for the future reconstruction of the Libyan State.
Meanwhile, an ally of the Russian Federation, namely Egypt, is managing an agreement among all Libyan factions, which envisages general elections to be held in February 2018.
If Russia supports the project, the chances of going to the polls are very high.
Maybe Haftar himself will play the Russian card also to have credible support from the new US President, but probably the Head of “Operation Dignity” does not want to reach a deal with al-Sarraj, but only wait for the leader, who is too much loved by Westerners and the United States, to weaken further.
In fact, the meeting between Haftar and Fajez al-Sarraj, scheduled in Cairo on February 14, did not take place, precisely due to Haftar’s refusal to meet with the GNA leader.
Therefore we can say that the Russian and Egyptian support to Haftar is inevitable, considering the GNA government’s increasing weakness and evident factionalism, but it also enables the Head of “Operation Dignity” to believe in a victory on the battlefield, which would make the current political negotiations useless.
Nobody is interested in giving Libya to another Rais.
The operation that freed the city of Sirte from ISIS, known as “Al Bunyan Al Marsous” finally saw many factions – particularly from Misrata and even some Salafists opposed to the Caliphate – operating on the ground.
The United States and its Western allies supported the “Al Bunyan Al Marsous” operation mainly with air bombings. In fact the Americans made at least 300 strikes with their Air Force, while Great Britain trained and supported Misrata forces and Italy built a field hospital for the wounded in action.
In that case, however, the Westerners’ goal was not so much to fight against Isis, which is considered a too strong and localized power, but rather to support al-Sarraj by securing for him control over an important city such as Misrata.
In other words, the West must stop playing with only one Libyan ally, but it must rather combine – as much as possible – the military activities and operations of all Libyan factions, as well as support some local leaders’ efforts in building a united, but decentralized, State so as to avoid counting – in the future – the losers and the winners of the long war between factions. The West must also support the new State financially, possibly with aid and with particularly friendly oil deals, and finally avoid the future recurrence of the asymmetry between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, with the East believing – rightly or wrongly – to be marginalized.
Meanwhile, Russia will have its military bases in Cyrenaica, which will serve to marginalize NATO and control the North African hinterland.
Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date
The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.
“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.
The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.
As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.
The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.
In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.
BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.
Russia vs China
Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.
The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.
We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.
Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.
Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.
Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.
Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.
Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;
Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;
All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;
The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;
Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;
Total control over public life.
Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.
Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.
The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.
However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.
Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.
History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.
It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.
According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.
In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.
The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.
The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.
It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.
If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.
“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.
Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.
What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.
Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.
This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.
COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy
Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.
Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World
Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.
The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities
The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.
The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”
Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating
The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.
The Rise of Isolationism in Russia
Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.
The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World
The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.
“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.
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