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The Nexus Religion/Nationalism in Today’s Russia: Are the Roots Buried in Dostoevsky’s Novels?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Only one nation is ‘god-bearing,’ that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin, he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!”   -Shatov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]’d like to begin this reflection on the nexus between religion and nationalism in a rather prosaic mode, so to speak, with the empirical facts, as announced by Pew researchers on the subject: roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has been resurrected in Russia, as well as 17 other countries formerly under its fist.

Overall, 86 percent of 25,000 respondents interviewed between June 2015 and July 2016 said they believe in God; 59 percent believe in a heaven and 54 percent believe in hell. Just 14 percent fall within the atheists or agnostics category.

In many countries formerly under Soviet rule, religion and national identity are inextricably tied. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is heavily favored, while Polish believers are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Overall, 70 percent of poll respondents in those countries where Orthodoxy is predominant said their national identity was tied to their faith; for Roman Catholics, the percentage was 57.

However, identification with faith does not necessarily translate to strong church attendance. Few respondents to this poll regularly attend worship services; 25 percent of Roman Catholics said they attend weekly Mass, while only 10 percent of Orthodox adherents attend worship at least once a week.

Those statistics strongly imply that three-quarters of a century of official state atheism in the former Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellite nations (from 1917 till 1989) has all but evaporated in a sudden resurgence of faith since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, until 1991, when the USSR crumbled, religious faith — though technically constitutionally protected — was treated with ambivalence and often persecuted as incompatible with Marxist ideology.

In various ways, the state oppressed religion, Christian and non-Christian alike. Believers often found themselves dismissed from their jobs, clergy imprisoned and sometimes executed or doomed to gulags for perceived disloyalty. This persecution encouraged the emergence of new officially atheistic generations which replaced the believers of old.

This may at first look like a positive development, at least for freedom of religion. But on further analysis one discovers that there is a problem in this rosy social scenario: the entanglement between nationalism as expressed by the State with the official state religion seems to have become all but inextricable. What the US founding fathers dubbed “the separation of Church and State” is also evaporating fast.

Perhaps ironically, Orthodox Christians today see Russia as playing a role in protecting — rather than persecuting — their faith. And most former East bloc, predominantly Orthodox nations agree that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” So, it appears that religion (Russian Orthodoxy, in particular) has become a political tool in the hands of Putin’s strategy of “divide and conquer,” another tool, like cyber-war and disinformation, by which to oppose the West alleged to be greedy and corrupt, devoid of moral underpinnings.

In Russia, the same above mentioned poll shows, 85 percent support the idea of their nation being a buffer against the immorality of the West, with that opinion echoed to varying degrees elsewhere in former Iron Curtain countries — from 52 percent in Romania and Georgia to 80 percent and 83 percent in Armenia and Serbia, respectively. The sole exception, as might be expected given current strained relations with Russia, is Ukraine with just 22 percent support for the concept of Orthodoxy as a defense against a corrupt West.

But, staying within the parameters of religion/nationalism, another conundrum surfaces: the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, has also brought on the stage increasing resistance to faiths imported from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin — under the official impetus of cracking down on terrorism — has approved tight restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism by other non-Orthodox faiths. In other words, he does not consider Christianity a universal religion practiced by different denominations and different cultures. In that respect he is violating (like Trump in America) the constitutional violation of equal treatment of all religions.

Hit particularly hard are Pentecostals and evangelical Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, believers who consider themselves Christians and who often have been forced to conduct low-key meetings in homes. Mormon missionaries are now called “volunteers” in order to better downplay their proselytizing motives. Persecution is the air. It is a selective kind of Christianity that is propagandized by the State.

What is conveniently forgotten by this pseudo-religious posture, which amounts to a stealthy cover-up, is that the essential political struggle between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance in the West may have little to do with the struggle between atheism and religion, or between morality and corruption, or secularism against the sacred, but rather between democracy and tyranny.

I’ve already written extensively on this topic of the democratic deficit which may eventually doom both political blocks, with or without religion. What I’d like to do here is to explore the roots of the kernel of truth that exists in the concept that Russia is a substantially different from the corrupt West; that is not invented by Putin’s propaganda machine. Indeed, iIf those roots exist, one will not uncover them by merely listening and following Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric, but by reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, particularly two from which I will quote extensively in this article: The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamozov.

As an intriguing aside, one wonders how many people noticed that while the London Olympics opened up with an image of a train coming down the rail, spewing pollution into the atmosphere to glorify the industrial revolution and the British Empire of old nostalgically resurrected, while Shakespeare was not even mentioned, the Moscow Olympics did not neglect to prominently mention and display Dostoevsky’s picture, as well as that of Tolstoy, as glories of Russia.

Be that as it may, let us begin with an extensive quote from The Possessed. When I first read the novel in college in the 60s it was translated as The Devils. We shall see further down why that translation also makes eminent sense. The quote is the following:

Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time.[underlining mine]. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death. It’s the spirit of life, as the Scriptures call it, “the river of living water,” the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. It’s the aesthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, the ethical principle with which they identify it, “the seeking of God,” as I call it more simply. The object of every national movement, in every people and at every period of its existence is only the seeking for its god, who must be its own god, and the faith in Him as the only true god. God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end….

You reduce God to a simple attribute of nationality…

I reduce God to the attribute of nationality? cried Shatov. On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably…. Such from the beginning of time has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity…. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations… If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people…. But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single out of the nations can have the true God, even though other nations may have great gods of their own. Only one nation is “god-bearing,” that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin,’ he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!

Is Dostoevsky saying, via the conversation between Shatov and Stavrogin that for man to be saved and fulfill his final destiny he needs to believe in a Russian God? This line of thinking may appear preposterous to the “enlightened” secular intelligence of Western Europe, but notice please that, from the outset, science and reason are declared a secondary and subordinate part of the life of nations. In other words, the rational preoccupations of the age of Enlightenment are not the focus here; they are subordinate to a more encompassing idea; the idea of the search for the ultimate destiny of man.

As Rebecca West has aptly expressed, this is “the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.” Which is to say, the task may be less theological, of linking with a Greek Orthodox Church (from which derives the Russian Orthodox Church) and more philosophical and literary. And yet, Dostoevsky has that Church in mind, a church that had indeed preserved the kindness of the early church but can also be a calculating institution as many religious institutions indeed are. Just take a good look at the photograph below the title of this article.

As the title of the book The Possessed more than adequately suggests, the near-obsession with the theme of the meaning and final destiny of man’s life, was stimulated by some of the events going on at the time at the hands of the so called Nihilists. Who were the Nihilists in 19th century Russia? They were the likes of Stravogin and Shatov in the Possessed. They do not believe in the God who lives within the shining frames of the Greek icons, or the Orthodox liturgy intoned in a dialect spoken a thousand years ago in a remote corner of Macedonia. There is a strange faith, a difficult faith. At one point of the narration this exchange occurs: “I want to ask you,” asked Stavrogin coldly, “do you believe in God, yourself?” “I believe in Russia,” muttered Shatov frantically, “I believe in her orthodoxy…. I believe in the body of Christ…. I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia…. I believe…” “And in God?” pressed Stavrogin, “in God?” “I… I will believe in God….”

One is tempted to ask: has Dostoevsky too joined in spirit those disordered minds of the time called Nihilists or “disordered saints of the mind”? Those who reasserted with Schopenhauer, that there is a will-to-live which universally guides humanity with a blind sort of genius, and then with Nietzsche doctrine of egotism preached that not only men but entire collectives, entire nations could be strong, super-nations, so to speak, sinless like the angels. Those types called the possessed had become intimately involved in the eternal struggle between the proud and the humble, the original genius and the academic protocol that loves tradition, the militarist nations organized for war and obedience and the pacifist nations which leave themselves open to chaos for the sake of freedom.

Another tempting question: had Dostoevsky allied himself with the proud? The question is prompted by his book The Brothers Karamazov which relates how Christ came to Seville and is condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor lest he should restore free will to humankind. That would explain his hatred of everything Catholic, a church which preached salvation by the subjection of the will to ecclesiastical authority, what he calls, not unlike Nietzsche, a communion of cowards rather than a communion of saints.

Again, to quote Rebecca West once again: “Dostoevsky hated the materialism of his age, which declared, in the phrase that jangles like a cracked bell through The Possessed, that “the rattle of the carts bringing bread to humanity is more important than the Sistine Madonna,” because it understated the magnificent greeds and appetites of the human animal. He loved Christianity because the willingness for sacrifice is brave, and in the words, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit,” rings such a call to adventure as no other religion has dared to take upon its lips. It behooved a man to be so proud of life that he would honor its young strength in little children; that he would welcome any deed that would make it sweeter, even if it were performed by the clumsy hands of an old man; that he would rejoice at every word that made its meaning clearer, even though it were hiccupped by a drunken convict. It behooved a man to remember that he was part of a nation crowned with the destiny of saving mankind, and to bear himself proudly and busily as one of its ambassadors. So he might be saved.”

And so we arrive at Dostoevsky’s nationalism, which some have misunderstood and confused with that of Putin and his ilk. It has nothing to do with the repression of intelligence and liberty, with the aggressive nationalism of a modern Italy or Germany, or aggressiveness and arrogance in international affairs, or the Machiavellian principles that “might makes right” or “the end justifies the means.”

Then what exactly is Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism? It might be nothing more than the ancient Greek’s advice to create a society that aims at common good and creates an environment that is suited to the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of perfection. If mother Russia wanted to be an example to the rest of the world it had to create those conditions.

Dostoevsky seems to imply in The Possessed that tradition is the enemy of science, or vice versa; but all he might be saying is that if one deprives an individual of his heritage and tradition the end result will be the deprivation of the total of human relationships wherein he may learn love, which strengthens the will to live. He will be in effect be robbed of that network which is necessary to remain human and above the restrictions of mere ethnicity or worse, tribal loyalty or exclusion of the other.

The problem is that in The Possessed and in The Brothers Karamazov this nationalism seems to come across as an angry kind of nationalism, one that suggests xenophobia and seems to support the nefarious attacks of the state bureaucracy against its own people. Perhaps Dostoevsky was too obsessed with his hunger for salvation and could not reflect more serenely on this crucial issue. As Rebecca West renders it “it’s like standing in the darkness outside a lighted house to which one has no key. If Dostoevsky sometimes lost himself in rage as he beat on the doors, it was because he had in his heart such a wonderful dream of the light.” Be that as it may, the path to the fulfillment of that dream will not be found in the advice of those who are pursuing another nefarious Machiavellian path and covering it up with the appearance of piety. Those people are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their core belief is “knowledge is power.” That slogan, come to think of it, was proffered by one of the fathers of the Western Enlightenment: Francis Bacon. Perhaps it needs a revisiting.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Short Letter vs. Long Telegram: US Ambassador Huntsman Departs Moscow

Ivan Timofeev

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The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The context of Huntsman’s ambassadorship was highly contradictory. While there was a durable inter-party consensus in the United States on the need to deter and put pressure on Russia, the orders from US President Donald Trump have been to get along with Russia. The president’s wish is hardly a carefully considered strategy. It’s more like a political slogan that was not even vetted by experts or relevant government agencies first. On the contrary, anti-Russian sentiment is rife in the expert and political class in Washington, with the only disagreement coming over how precisely to push back against Moscow. Trump has also tried to avoid sparring with Congress and officials in his own government over Russia by supporting the key anti-Russia policies. In some cases, he was an ardent supporter, especially when they concerned business issues, which he is more comfortable with. One such issue was competition with Russia over the European gas market, which has become even more politicized during Trump’s presidency.

Naturally, any attempt at a “reset or restart” would have been doomed to fail in these circumstances. Diplomats simply lacked any areas that were ripe for a reset. Both US and Russian diplomats have done a great job at preparing the one-on-one meetings between the two presidents. However, the results of the most significant meeting, the summit in Helsinki, were torpedoed by the US establishment, and our bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate since. Mutual expulsions of diplomats, the closure of consular offices, and the scandal over Russia’s diplomatic property in the United States marked a major setback for bilateral relations. This decline in relations is embodied in the scrapping of the INF Treaty and the prospect of further loss of arms control mechanisms. And yet, Russia and the United States have avoided drawing the iron curtain. The most important issues continue to be discussed at the expert level. Businesses have suffered from sanctions and economic difficulties in Russia, but there has not been a precipitous decline in commercial relations. Direct personal interaction between Russians and Americans remains robust, although it was affected by a shortage of personnel in consular services.

Jon Huntsman succinctly described the reality of US-Russian relations in his letter of resignation to President Trump. Many media outlets characterized that letter almost as an anti-Russia manifesto. In fact, it is a pragmatic and balanced, if unpleasant, description of the state of our relations. True, he described the situation from the perspective of US interests, but these are not the words of a crusader. The ambassador admitted that a “reset or restart” was not possible, while at the same time pointing to the importance of understanding “our interests and values.” He said it is critical to work in areas of common interest. The traditional mention of human rights issues, although important, still appears to be standard fare in US foreign policy rhetoric. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a letter that articulates the irreconcilable differences along with the common interests between the countries – no more, no less.

The current spirit animating American policy towards Russia has some parallels with George Kennan’s 1946 Long Telegram, which essentially laid down the doctrinal foundations of US foreign policy on the Soviet challenge and shaped the contours of the Cold War. It appears that many of those concepts are on the verge of a revival. From Kennan’s perspective, Russia was an authoritarian police state, and its aggression was fundamentally not aligned with the views of its peace-loving people. Moreover, this aggression was a sign of weakness in the regime, which harbored illusions about the modern world instead of seeking an objective understanding of it. Kennan’s warnings about Russia’s desire to divide the Western community of nations and intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries dovetail perfectly with modern rhetoric – with the covert doings of Communists replaced by new scares over hackers, trolls and spies. Finally, containment rooted in force was deemed a key tool in relations with Russia. Russians respect force and recoil in the face of a credible threat of its use. Kennan identified the transfer of power as a serious problem for Russia, and to be sure, his thoughts on the transfer of power after Lenin and later Stalin are frequently echoed in discussions of the “problem of 2024” and “Russia after Putin.” Overall, the Long Telegram’s reincarnation is in the spirit of the times, and its key ideas fit seamlessly with mainstream thought in the West.

The only problem is that a strategy – no matter how elegant, logical and time-tested – does not always reflect reality. It would be naive to try to prove to ourselves and our Western partners that Russia is a Western-type liberal democracy pursuing global peace. It is equally futile to indulge in the blame game and whataboutism. Russia is a more complex society and state and differs significantly from its historical predecessors, as well as from its neighbors. Moreover, it is a society that appears to be in the process of a lengthy transition. The current events in Russia are just one episode in long-term dynamics that cannot be reduced to familiar models.

The departing ambassador certainly deserves credit for offering a pragmatic take on the current situation without inventing any binding doctrines – whether this was his intention or not. But Huntsman, unlike Kennan, operated in a different reality. In 1946, the Soviet Union’s prestige in the United States was still quite high. Kennan’s telegram can be seen as an attempt to open his government’s eyes. Huntsman’s tenure, on the contrary, began during a period of peak antagonism and was understood to involve dealing with an openly hostile state. In addition, unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia hardly poses an ideological threat to the United States. And since there is no normative or political/philosophical threat, there is no need for a proportionate response.

Nevertheless, there are two points in Kennan’s telegram that can be of interest and of use to both Americans and Russians today. Americans need to take more seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policy in their analysis. Kennan rightly noted the heightened sense of vulnerability and lack of security inherent in Russian political culture. In my opinion, this is what leads to a policy that, while seen as offensive in the West, is essentially defensive in nature. A policy of containment and force will only exacerbate Russia’s sense of vulnerability. Consequently, the risk of a conflict in which there can be no winners will also increase.

As for Russians, they should consider this passage of the telegram: “Much depends on health and vigor of our own society… This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meets… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory … worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.” Kennan naturally means American society and victory over Moscow, yet this recommendation applies equally to Russia. For us, victory would mean the consistent and independent development of our country, releasing our people’s creative energy, gradually striking our own balance between order and freedom, and protecting the security interests that are vital to any country.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club website.

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Battle for the Arctic: Friends and foes

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According to Western media, the “struggle for the Arctic” is becoming ever more fierce. Moreover, this confrontation is unfolding much faster than expected.

In its recent publication the Swedish Aftonbladet wrote that since  “climate change” has made the Arctic “more accessible, countries taking advantage of it to produce more fossil fuels.” Der Spiegel cites American experts as saying that “temperatures [in the Arctic region] are rising twice as fast compared to average statistics”, while permafrost melting in some regions began “70 years earlier” than predicted. Meanwhile, the US Geological Service estimates the Arctic energy reserves at more than 400 billion barrels of the oil equivalent. The Arctic is home to at least 10% of the world’s yet-to-be-discovered oil reserves, “and as much as 25% of gas,” Aftonbladet reports. In addition, in the medium and long-term perspective, the melting of polar ice makes routes through the Northwest Passage and the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR) more attractive for commercial navigation, as these routes are , in some cases, are 1.5 – 2 times shorter than the currently used ones. As the number of mineral exploration and development projects grows, along with prospects for increasing shipping volumes, there is a need to strengthen security in the region. Therefore, many observers predict a further “militarization of the Arctic”. “The Arctic is a region whose significance is changing the geoeconomic and geopolitical situation in the whole world,”  -Bloomberg reports.

The current strategic situation in the region is determined by three main trends. The “return” of Russia, the “re-evaluation” of strategy by the United States and the growing interest in China. In the opinion of some Western commentators, the natural from the geographic point of view dependence of the Arctic region on Russia is a geopolitical problem for Europe, Canada and the United States. Nearly half of the coast and the coastal zone of the Arctic belong to the territory of the Russian Federation and its special economic zone, which yields the country up to 15 percent of GDP. In March 2018, Vladimir Putin described the NSR as “key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East.” Given that the Russian leadership is fully aware of  the challenges associated with such an agenda, Russia’s Decree of May 2018 sets realistic goals: to increase the cargo flow through the NSR by 2024 to 80 million tons. At present, traffic through the Northern Sea Route is considerably less intensive than that through the Suez Canal.

What western commentators are particularly worried about is (quite natural and geographically justified) Russia’s efforts to strengthen its northern borders. Restoration of military infrastructure in the region is being presented as a “return to the Cold War practices.” Moreover, there are open warnings that can be interpreted as threats. The June report of Chatham House says that  “Russia should not assume that it can continue to freely develop the Arctic …. At present, Russia is determining the future of military activity in the Arctic. However, it’s time for the West and NATO to secure parity of potential in this region.” “We should not allow Moscow to continue to consider its military activity on the vast expanses of the region decisive”.

In May, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Russia “was already far ahead” of other countries not only in the military, but also in the economic development of the Arctic. Nevertheless, the West believes that the current sanctions that restrict Russian access to oil exploration and production technologies in the severe conditions of the North force Russia to partially change its priorities and focus on developing LNG projects and transport corridors instead. And Russia has been successful at that, they say: the Russian icebreaking fleet is the world’s most numerous and most powerful. Three new ships have already been put into operation, “capable of breaking ice up to three meters thick.” Such icebreakers will allow Russia to redirect part of the world’s transport routes to the NSR in the foreseeable future. And by using ice-class LNG tankers, which are currently under construction, Russia gets the opportunity to “deliver gas to customers around the world”, without being dependent on the existing pipeline systems, Stern writes.

The United States is also showing interest in the economic opportunities which spring up as the polar ice melts. The incumbent administration has reversed Obama’s decision, banning the drilling of test wells off the coast of Alaska.  Donald Trump “pays a lot of attention to the Arctic in words but take little action to this effect,” Bloomberg says, describing the Bering Strait as “a potential Persian Gulf of the future.” Meanwhile, the US practical potential in the Arctic is still limited: it has 1-2 icebreakers, while Russia has 14. So far, there is no program for the development of the region: recently, Trump gave up on his initial plans to build new icebreakers. 

In the meantime, many American experts believe that security remains Washington’s top priority in the Arctic. The Arctic joins together North America, Asia and Europe. Through this region, military experts fear, lies the shortest route for potential missile and air strikes against America from the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, Washington plans to strengthen missile defense and aviation forces. And this is not a new strategy. Back in January 2007, the United States adopted Directive No. 66 on National Security, which declared the presence of “broad and fundamental” interests in the Arctic region. It signals readiness “to act either independently or jointly with other states in order to protect these interests.” In 2012, the US Secretary of State described her country as “a leading state in the high latitudes of the planet,” and Norway, a NATO ally, as “the capital of the Arctic”. Last October, Norway hosted the largest NATO military exercises since the end of the Cold War, called Trident Juncture, with the participation of up to 40 thousand servicemen from all countries of the alliance, as well as military personnel from two northern countries that are not members of NATO – Sweden and Finland. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently described the Arctic as an “arena of rivalry between world powers.” Pompeo did not forget to blame Russia for planning to “use force”, and China – for demonstrating a “model of aggressive behavior.” All this dispels any doubts that for NATO, the Arctic is becoming a strategic scene of military activity.

In addition to the United States, NATO maintains its presence in the Arctic region through its two other members, Canada and Norway. The latter owns the strategically important Svalbard archipelago. At the same time, there is mutual understanding among countries that are members of the Arctic Council regarding the importance of resolving security issues “solely between them.” Nevertheless, “Russia in Global Politics” remarks, the presence of an extensive and well-developed legal framework for regulating the Arctic does not prevent “an increasing number of countries” from trying to provide cooperation in the region with a wide “international dimension”.

In particular, the European Union has not been giving up on attempts to obtain the status of observer with the Arctic Council. While doing so, the EU has consistently cast doubt on the legal status of the NSR as a Russian national transport artery. The EU is also advocating an exceptional priority of norms of international law in the Arctic, primarily the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, while “deliberately forgetting” about the country level of regulation. In contrast to Russia, the EU is pursuing ambitious plans for the development of a transport hub in Kirkenes, which is seen as an alternative to the ports of the Russian NSR. In 2018, the Norwegian city became the terminating point of a railway route from Europe to the Arctic. According to the Arctic Corridor Project, the route is to be built from the northern coast of Norway to the planned tunnel under the Gulf of Finland to Estonia, and then across Europe to Berlin. By connecting the Arctic Corridor with a transit route through the NSR, the EU hopes to transform Kirkenes into a major logistics hub for Chinese goods which are planned to be transported to Europe as part of the Polar Silk Road Project. But critics of this project rightfully fear that if the EU becomes an observer of the Arctic Council, it could provoke similar claims on the part of NATO.

China declared its interests in the Arctic in 2013, when it joined the Arctic Council as an observer. Such a move sent the West into  bewilderment. According to the Pentagon, Beijing artificially “appropriated” the status of an “Arctic state”. However, China has already opened research stations in Iceland and Svalbard with a view to explore the Arctic. In January 2018, Beijing unveiled the White Paper titled China’s Arctic Policy. An analysis of the text gives grounds to consider Beijing’s approach a multi-faceted one. On the one hand, the document contains passages that suggest China’s readiness to recognize the legal priority of the Arctic countries, their national level of regulation in the Arctic. However, some passages echo the point of view of the United States.

At present, China is promoting the above mentioned  concept of the “Polar Silk Road”, which aims to provide it with natural resources and alternative shipping routes for export purposes. According to estimates by the Chinese Institute for Polar Research, Arctic routes will account for 5 to 15 percent of China’s foreign trade by 2020. Western experts are keeping a close eye on the progressive development of cooperation between China and Russia. Investors from China own shares in a number of large-scale  industrial and infrastructure projects implemented by Russia beyond the Arctic Circle. One of such projects is Yamal-LNG, the gas reserves of which are estimated in the West higher than at “all US gasfields.”  According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “China’s ambitions in the region do not seem to disturb Moscow yet.” Moreover, Russia is counting on Chinese investment in the NSR.

The main “battles” around the status of the Arctic are unravelling in the legal sphere. The debate is centered on two issues: the external borders of the continental shelf and its delimitation in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, and freedom of navigation. The legal position of the Russian Federation, backed by geography, gives a “broad” definition of the boundaries of the NSR, explaining that this route follows more than one way and is not fixed. Russia’s main foes on this issue are the United States and the EU. They do not recognize the priority rights of the Arctic states, primarily Russia and Canada, to regulate shipping in Arctic waters. Moscow’s decisions to introduce a permit procedure for the passage of foreign ships and, in particular, warships, as well as a mandatory use of Russian icebreaking and piloted convoys, are considered as a loose interpretation of Art. 234 of the 1982 Convention.

In general, despite the fact that Russia and the United States have potentially common interests related to the desire of the polar countries to avoid “internationalization” of regional regulation issues, the Arctic is becoming another point of discord in a series of geopolitical differences around the globe. In May this year, the Arctic Council “for the first time in its history” failed to agree on a declaration on the results of its meeting. According to one report, the US opposed the clause on “the need to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement”. According to other reports, this was because the US accused China of promoting its economic and military interests in the region in an “inappropriate way”.

Moscow is fully aware of the gains from the development of the Arctic at a qualitatively new level. The Russian leadership is also aware of the fact that this will require multibillion investments over many years. Not to mention efforts that will be required for the protection of national interests in one of the least developed regions of the planet. Russia’s consistent position on this issue will undoubtedly yield economic fruit over time, but this fruit will have to be fought for.

From our partner International Affairs

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Towards the First All-African Conference in Sochi

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As Russia prepares to strengthen its overall corporate economic profile during the African leaders’ summit, policy experts are questioning bilateral agreements that were signed, many of them largely remained unimplemented, at least, for the past decade with various African countries.

Experts, such as Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, have argued that Russia needs to be more strategic in aligning its interests, and be more proactive with instruments and mechanisms in promoting economic cooperation in order to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged partnership.

“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics.

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into previously will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have to be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations have to be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

In his opinion, Professor Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, reiterated: “Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments of Russian culture, the economy, science and technology in order to form a positive perception of Russia abroad and a friendly attitude towards it as stated by the new Concept of the Foreign Policy.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Research Director at the Valdai International Discussion Club and Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertize on Russian foreign policy and global developments – has acknowledged that Chinese strategy in Africa is about to get access to resources, vitally important for Chinese development. To achieve this, Beijing use all leverage, including soft power, technical and economic assistance, political support to leaders of African countries (be it Zimbabwe’s Mugabe or Sudan’s Bashir).

“Russia has not similar need to gain African resources, so there is no motivation to develop such a comprehensive approach. We can identify many aspects of Chinese experience which would be useful to learn, but looking realistically I don’t think Russia will ever do it,” Lukyanov wrote in an emailed interview.

The media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well, he suggested and added that “soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era.”

London based Business Consultant and Director, Irina Awote, explained in an emailed interview that increasingly, the African continent is witnessing a surge in the number of infrastructure and investment deals requiring a combination of both internal and external financing, increased capital for expansion. And indeed, she says Russia has to demonstrate its preparedness for all these.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia primarily focused on building and strengthening its internal economy, she explained.  Awote, however, added “today, the Russian economy and Russian industries have come a long way since the Soviet collapse – the Russian economy is a lot stronger than in the first two decades following the Soviet collapse, at the same time many Russian enterprises have since evolved and developed, many through partnerships with international organizations.”

As such, there has been, for a long time, interest from Russia to revive its old economic ties with Africa. Russia and Russian enterprises are in a much stronger position to capitalize on this opportunity than a few decades ago. At the same time, not ignoring the fact that the continued economic sanctions imposed by the West, has made Russia reinforce its strategic partnerships with other regions, and especially Africa where they have had good historical ties from the Soviet era, according Irina Awote.

Late July, Bogdanov held talks with the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and further discussed about military-technical cooperation while meeting with the Minister of National Defense and Veteran Affairs, Moumina Sheriff Sy, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Burkina Faso, Alpha Barry, and Vice-President of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, K. Traore.

Reports indicated that Moscow and Ouagadougou had agreed to further develop the entire range of relations including deepening the political dialogue, expanding trade and economic cooperation, promoting promising mutually beneficial projects, strengthening partnerships in the areas of developing mineral resources, energy, transport and agriculture.

Working with Sierra Leone has been on the table for years. Quite recently, Bogdanov and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Republic of Sierra Leone Solomon Jamiru also held diplomatic talks, rounded up the discussion on fishing ventures, military-technical cooperation and the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit.

On Aug 1, while attending the official inauguration of the new leader in Mauritania, Bogdanov used the opportunity to discuss about current relations with President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The President of Mauritania elected on June 22, 2019. Both agreed on possible ways for strengthening aspects the existing relations. An official report says the common interest of Moscow and Nouakchott is giving additional dynamics to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields, primarily in the field of marine fishing and the development of natural resources, as well as the personnel training in Russia.

Over the past two to three months, Bogdanov has met with nearly all African ambassadors accredited in the Russian Federation. The key issue here is to explore opportunities for expected stronger collaboration and dialogue them on African leaders’ and business people’s participation in the upcoming Sochi Summit.

According to the official information posted to the ministry’s website, Minister Bogdanov during these high-level meetings described 2019 as a momentous year for Russian-African relations, and the culmination of all activities would see the first full-format Summit and Economic Forum, on the sidelines of which a number of new bilateral and multilateral agreements are expected to be signed.

About 35 leaders of African countries have officially confirmed their participation in the Russia-Africa Summit, according to Bogdanov. “Almost all of them want to come. About 35 leaders have officially confirmed their participation. I believe at least 40 leaders will come. We do feel our partners’ commitment and their keen interest.”

Since his appointment in 2004, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has distinctively done a lot for Africa. Speaking in an exclusive interview as far back on October 21, 2011, (simultaneously with the Voice of Russia, the Echo of Moscow and the Radio of Russia) Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov informed listeners that “the main thing is to develop mutual economic ties, something that is yet to be implemented as far as our relations with African nations are concerned.”

Now, the situation is gradually changing. The Russia-Africa summit will be the first in a series of activities under the aegis and direction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Ministry of Energy, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, as well as legislative bodies and public organizations. During the past decades, a number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held such gatherings in that format.

This first Russia-Africa summit is expected to enhance mutual multifaceted ties, reshape diplomatic relationships and significantly rollout ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa. The idea to hold a Russia-Africa forum first initiated by President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in July 2018.

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