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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. 

Russia

Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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

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

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

Bad, but Still a Strategy

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

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

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

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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