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Trump and Putin to meet in Germany

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US President Donald Trump is set to meet with his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin at next week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany amid investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the country’s officials.

Both the Kremlin and the White House announced that the pair will meet on the sidelines of the July 7-8 summit of G20 nations in Hamburg. However, the US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters that no agenda had yet been set for the meeting, which is fraught with difficulties for Trump.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told reporters that Putin and Donald Trump will meet on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty summit in Hamburg next week, but no separate meeting is planned, “They will meet in any case there, on the sidelines of this summit, but no separate meeting is planned at the moment,” Peskov said.  Peskov said that as far as a possible meeting was concerned, “the protocol side of it is secondary.” He let on little about Moscow’s awareness of Washington’s ambivalence toward the scale of the meeting but said that “in any case there will be a chance to meet.”

President Trump has frequently called for better ties with Russia but lawmakers in his own Republican Party are urging him to be wary of Moscow.  “As the president has made clear, he’d like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia but he has also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior,” McMaster said, obviously pointing to Ukraine and Syria.

The two governments had not yet ironed out further details about a meeting. When asked whether the president would bring up Russia’s interference in the election with Putin at their meeting, McMaster said there is “no specific agenda” yet, and that Trump will address what he chooses.

Due to ongoing allegations by the US intelligence community of Russian interference in the US election and a scandal about possible collusion within Trump’s team, not everyone in the White House thinks such a meeting is prudent. State Department and National Security Council officials have asked Trump to consider a more low-profile introduction to the Russian president and perhaps avoid an extended conversation altogether. Among the recommendations are a brief and informal “pull-aside” on the summit’s sidelines, and a meeting of US and Russian delegations for “strategic stability talks”—a format which may or may not involve heads of state.

The two governments had not yet ironed out further details about a meeting. When asked whether the president would bring up Russia’s interference in the election with Putin at their meeting, McMaster said there is “no specific agenda” yet, and that Trump will address what he chooses.

Some US officials argue the meeting should be a brief and informal “pull-aside” at the two-day summit, which starts next Friday in Hamburg, in view of the fact that Trump is under multi-pronged investigations into his campaign’s relationship with Moscow. The skeptics also argue there has been no let-up in Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which was the trigger for the bulk of the sanctions.

Excitement

President Donald Trump is said to be excited to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin, though US government officials are trying to curb Trump’s enthusiasm about meeting Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 summit in Germany.

Trump has not met his “favorite” Russian strongman Putin since being elected last year, despite his claim that he could meet the Russian leader even before being inaugurated. Now he is apparently keen to hold a full bilateral meeting at the time of the summit on July 7-8, two White House officials, one current and one former, told AP. Such a meeting would involve agreeing on a designated space for it, allowing media access and other diplomatic protocols involved in meetings between two heads of state. However, there is no official confirmation on Moscow’s or Washington’s side that a meeting in any form has been agreed upon, but Putin and Trump will both attend the summit.

Trump has been positive about his policy for Russia. Like Obama, Trump has said he would stabilize and reinvigorate the bilateral ties with the Kremlin. When he took the job under Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backed moves to improve relations with Moscow and arranged for Lavrov to meet Trump in the Oval Office. But the former oil executive felt “burned” by that incident, of which the Russian government published photographs without the US government’s permission, and where Trump disclosed classified information about counter-terrorist operations. Tillerson has since become more adamant in his opposition to the relaxation of sanctions without substantial changes to Russian behavior.

Tensions

US-Russia relations have been dotted with tensions since the days of the so-called Cold War- in fact even before that.  Existence of NATO as a global terror police force to attack any weak nation has been resented by Moscow which ass Washington o do away with the Cold War symbols. 

Russia and the USA are at odds over many issues, namely on Ukraine, NATO expansion and the civil war in Syria where Moscow supports President Bashar al-Assad. The USA backs rebel groups trying to overthrow Assad, and Washington angered Russia by launching missile strikes against a Syrian government air base in April in response to what the USA says was a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians.

President Putin, who has served as both Russian president and prime minister, has outlasted the previous two US presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Officials from those governments say American officials initially overestimated their potential areas of cooperation with the Russian leader. Then, through a combination of overconfidence, inattention and occasional clumsiness, Washington contributed to a deep spiral in relations with Moscow, they say. Those relations reached a post-Cold War low under Trump’s predecessor, Obama. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking US political groups in the 2016 election.

US officals and intelligence say Russia interfered with US presidency poll, engineering a vote in favor of Trump. Russia denies all US allegations and Trump says his team did not collude with Moscow. Several congressional committees as well as the FBI are investigating Russia’s role in the election and any alleged collusion by Trump’s campaign.  Further, allegations that Russia interfered in the US presidential election last year and colluded with the Republican’s campaign have overshadowed the businessman’s unexpected victory and dogged his first five months in office. Russia has vociferously denied involved in the US election and a visibly irate Putin accused US journalists of “hysteria” on the subject earlier this month.

In November 2013, Trump said on MSNBC that he did have “a relationship” with Putin, whom he claimed sent him “a present” when he attended the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, that he “got to know Putin very well” when they both appeared — in separate segments — on an episode of “60 Minutes” and that they had communicated “directly and indirectly.”  Trump later walked back the idea of a relationship with Putin in a 2016 interview with ABC News’: “I have no relationship to — with him,” said Trump, later continuing, “He said something nice about me. This has been going on. We did 60 Minutes together. By the way, not together-together, meaning he was probably shot in Moscow… and I was shot in New York.” “I have never spoken to him on the phone,” added Trump. The president raised eyebrows for heaping praise on Putin during the campaign, but denied having a “relationship” with the Russian leader.

Since Trump’s inauguration, he and Putin have shared three phone calls. There have never been any real a rapport between the two.

Sanctions as economic terrorism

Russia continues to face sanctions from USA and its western allies. USA keeps extending the sanctions just hoping to weaken Russian economy. However, Russian economy is strong and is able to withstand all impacts of western sanctions.

A proposed new package of sanctions on Russia in the US Congress might complicate Trump’s desire for warmer relations with Moscow. The US Senate reached an agreement to resolve a technical issue stalling the sanctions, although the measure’s fate in the House of Representatives is uncertain. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro in July and August in an attempt to reassure US allies that are neighbors of Russia

Apparently, Trump made significant efforts to lift sanctions on Russia in his first weeks in office but was thwarted by resistance from allies as well as from former Obama officials and state department staffers.

When Theresa May visited the White House a week after Trump’s inauguration, one of her priorities was to dissuade the new president from relaxing sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and covert military intervention in eastern Ukraine. “The Brits did push for that, but it’s hard to say how much difference their intervention made,” said a former official, who was working at the state department at the time.  Two outgoing state officials, Daniel Fried and Tom Malinowski, lobbied Congress to pass legislation to codify the sanctions and lock them in place.

On 14 June the US Senate passed a bill, with a 98-2 vote, that would strengthen sanctions on Russia. The bill has since been stalled in the House over technicalities amid reports that Trump’s allies are seeking to water it down. “If the bill is passed it would mean that in one important respect, Russian active measures will have failed,” Malinowski, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, said. He also pointed to the Treasury’s move last week to broaden existing restrictions on Russia as an indication “the sanctions machinery is working normally and on schedule”

The US defense department for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said the closure of the Russian compounds and the expulsion of suspected spies were intended to be only the first step in the punitive measures against Moscow for its election meddling. If President Trump starts to undo any of those measures, including giving back the facilities in Maryland and New York then the Russian government will believe … they got away with what they did to US strategists.

One possible gesture under consideration is the restoration of access to two diplomatic compounds, in Maryland and New York, from which Russian officials were ejected by the Obama government in December as part of a package of punitive measures for Russian hacking of the 2016 elections. Obama said the compounds were “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes”. He also expelled 35 Russian officials he described as “intelligence operatives”.

The Trump government was contemplating handing back the compounds in early May, initially in exchange for the Russian government lifting a freeze on construction of a new US consulate in St Petersburg, according to the Washington Post. That link was reportedly dropped a few days later when the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Washington on 10 May.

So far, however, no agreements have been reached on the fate of the compounds, which Russian diplomats have made a priority in their discussions with the government. The NSC spokesman, Michael Anton, said the meeting between the two leaders “is not set in any format yet”, but he did not respond to a question about the request to NSC staff to propose potential bargaining chips for the meeting. “They have been asked for deliverables, but there is resistance to offering anything up without anything back in return,” said one former official familiar with the debate inside the White House.

Syria

Syria is now the battle field for the former Cold war foes to showcase their individual military capability.

It is no secret that USA and Russia have been fighting to control the world but the former has maintained upper hand.  In doing so, Moscow pursues a confrontational collaborative approach with USA in regional crises. In recent times, Syria vividly showcases this essentially cooperative policy of Russia and both seem to advance their global and regional interests. 

President Donald Trump’s openness to Putin has been the foreign policy thing that most separated him from the rest of Republicans. But Russia and the USA are on opposite sides of so many issues that the White House would certainly have to come to terms with it. The vocal dispute between Russia and the US over Syria complicates what has

It’s a relationship both Putin and Trump found valuable during the presidential campaign, when both wanted to see Clinton defeated.

It was seeing pictures of Syrian children devastated by what officials suspect is sarin gas that led Trump, as President, to do an unabashed about-face on Syria. He had opposed military action there when chemical weapons were used during the Obama administration and criticized former President Barack Obama for making that a “red line.” Just before the air strikes, Trump said the pictures he saw crossed much more than a red line for him. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”

Putin was quick to condemn Trump’s missile strike response, calling it “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.”

The USA and Russia are squaring off on the issue in the UN Security Council, where Russia, which has veto power, has stood in the way of international action against Syria.

Syria dispute is virtually guaranteed to break up the Trump-Putin bromance. The vocal dispute between Russia and the US over Syria complicates what has been a feature event; US political drama for months has been about Russian meddling in US elections and the blowback from Trump. The ties between Trump staffers to Russia, was aided by Trump’s willingness to start fresh with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he defended in the US media.

On April 17 Vladimir Putin has said Russia’s relationship with the US has badly deteriorated since Donald Trump became president. The Russian leader – who had a frosty relationship with Obama – said the relationship has “degraded” When asked about relations since Trump became president, Putin said: “One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated.”  When asked about relations since Trump became president, Putin said: “One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated.”

Putin claimed Damascus had given up its chemical weapons stocks and offered two main explanations for the horrific incident. One was that Syrian government air strikes had hit rebel chemical weapons stocks, releasing poisonous gas, or that the incident was a set-up designed to discredit the Syrian government.

 Putin sensationally claimed the US is preparing airstrikes on the Syrian capital – and will pin the blame on Bashar-al Assad’s forces. The Russian leader made the astonishing claim – that the US is planning to FAKE chemicals weapons attacks – during a joint press conference with the Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Putin insisted Russia would tolerate Western criticism of its role in Syria but hoped that attitudes would eventually soften. His claims Russia has information strikes are being planned by the USA on the southern Damascus region – the aim of which is to blame the resulting devastation on the subsequently discredited Syrian government – will not go down well in the White House. When asked whether he expected more US missile strikes on Syria, Putin said: “We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared… in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using (chemical weapons).”

Trump raised Russian hackles when the White House said it appeared the Syrian military was preparing to conduct a chemical weapons attack and warned that Assad and his forces would “pay a heavy price” if it did so. Meanwhile, the White House warned Syrian President Bashar al Assad that he and his military would “pay a heavy price” if it conducted a chemical weapons attack and said the USA had reason to believe such preparations were underway. The Syrian government said a US warning to Damascus not to carry out a new chemical weapons strike were baseless and a ploy to justify a new attack on the country.   State television quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Washington’s allegations about an intended attack were not only misleading but also “devoid of any truth and not based on any facts.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia said will respond with dignity and proportionately if the USA takes pre-emptive measures against Syrian government forces to stop what Washington says could be a planned chemical attack. Lavrov added that it would “probably not be right” if Putin and Trump did not talk at the G20 summit of world economic powers. Speaking at a news conference with his German counterpart, Lavrov said he hoped that the USA was not preparing to use its intelligence assessments about the Syrian government’s intentions as a pretext to mount a “provocation” in Syria.

The Russian foreign ministry said “retaliatory measures” were being prepared for closure of the compounds, but did not describe the measures. The Russian Kommersant newspaper has reported that the Kremlin could seize US diplomatic property in Russia or impose restrictions on an Anglo-American school there.

Observation

It is becoming clear now that the US President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week at the G20 summit in Germany that brings two world leaders whose political fortunes have become intertwined face-to-face for the first time.

As the G20 summit in Germany is fast approaching, President Trump is reportedly pressing for a meeting with President Putin. But the President’s advisers are not big into the idea of a highly publicized meeting between the two leaders. Some are suggesting instead a pull-aside” meeting on the sidelines of the summit to avoid a high-profile meeting, involving press and other diplomatic formalities.

Donald Trump has told White House aides to come up with possible concessions to offer as bargaining chips in his planned meeting next week with Vladimir Putin, according to two former officials familiar with the preparations. National Security Council staff has been tasked with proposing “deliverables” for the first Trump-Putin encounter, including the return of two diplomatic compounds Russians were ordered to vacate by the Obama administration in response to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, the former officials said. It is not clear what Putin would be asked to give in return.

The Kremlin said that Russia was ready to attend a full-scale meeting — the first since Trump has taken office — in addition to any interactions the pair would have at the summit. The meeting comes amid heightened tensions between the USA and Russia over the situations in Ukraine and Syria, and with Trump casting new scrutiny on his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for not doing enough to counter Russian election meddling.

The US intelligence, according to Moscow, wants to maintain a rift in the relationship between Trump and Putin. US intelligence agencies say Russia hacked and leaked emails of Democratic Party political groups to help Trump win the 2016 US presidential election against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

With US Congress and most of his government set against concessions to Russia, Trump has been hemmed in so far in his overtures to Moscow. His encounter with Putin next week, however, will offer him the opportunity to remake policy on the spot. “The big wild card in all this is the person holding the position of president of the United States,” Malinowski said. “We don’t know what he will say when he meets the master-manipulator from the Kremlin.” Asked about a Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg, Lavrov told journalists: “We assume that contact will take place, as the two presidents will at the same time be in one town, in one building, in one room.”

There is strong resistance in the state department to one-sided concessions aimed simply at improving the tone of US-Russian relations. There is also opposition within the government to Trump’s preference for a formal bilateral meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Germany.

All eyes are now on the two top world leaders in neat suits looking for any possible breakthroughs in bilateral ties between the two superpowers that would in turn help reduce global and regional tensions. 

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Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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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.

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Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver

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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.

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The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions

Emil Avdaliani

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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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