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Towards Russo-Saudi Arabia rapprochement: Saudi King’s historic visit to Moscow

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As a part of the fresh bilateral efforts to further strengthen the bilateral ties,  Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will make a historic visit to Russia on October 4-7. The very first visit of a Saudi King (Salman Al Saud) to Russia will be historic, since, as Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir said, that would demonstrate the scale of the dialogue between the two states.

The Minister stressed that the Russian and Saudi leaders have focused over the last few years on deepening and strengthening relations in numerous areas.

The visit to Russia will symbolize the extent of the relationship and consultations that take place between the two countries. “Our two countries are much more closely allied than some of the analysts…..try to portray it. We are both oil producers, we have an interest in a stable oil market. We have enhanced Russian investments in Saudi Arabia, Saudi investments in Russia. We have cultural, educational, scientific relations that we are developing. We are also working very closely in the area of security to counter extremism, to counter terrorism,” the Minister Al-Jubeir said, adding that the two countries had the same stance on the situation in the region and moving towards having a identical views on Syria as well.

The Saudi monarch’s groundbreaking trip to Moscow comes after Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, flew into Saudi Arabia for talks on September 10. Lavrov met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi heir to the throne who oversees energy and defence policy. After the talks, Lavrov said the Saudis had expressed support for so-called “de-escalation zones” in Syria, which were announced in May after a meeting between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Top Russian diplomat Lavrov and his Saudi counterpart Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir discussed bilateral relations in a phone call. “The foreign ministers of Russia and Saudi Arabia discussed topical issues of further development of mutually beneficial bilateral relations, including the schedule of respective contacts at various levels,” a statement said. Lavrov and al-Jubeir stressed that the promotion of bilateral relations would help ensure peace and stability at both regional and international arenas, according to the statement.

Russia has been requesting the king to make a trip to Moscow for cementing the relationships. At the end of September 2017, it was confirmed that King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will pay a visit to Russia in early October 2017. The visit is to become the first time a Saudi monarch has ever travelled to Moscow in an official capacity.

In April, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir confirmed that King Salman had accepted an invitation to come to Moscow, and the terms of his visit were being discussed. On June 21, Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said the sides had not agreed on the date of the visit as of yet. Earlier in September, an informed source said that the Saudi king would visit Moscow on October 4-7 to sign a number of documents. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on September 21 that the preparation for the visit was underway.

Eerier, the Russian government hoped that Saudi Arabia would determine the date of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to Russia soon in the light of escalation of diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbor states, a source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said.  Earlier in the day, Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed situation regarding Qatar with the Saudi King in a telephone conversation as the crisis around Doha does not promote the consolidation of efforts on the Syrian reconciliation and the fight against terrorism.

In an interview with media, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir spoke about the forthcoming visit of Saudi King Salman Al Saud to Russia. An informed source said that the Saudi King would visit Moscow on October 4-7 for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the preparation for the visit was underway. “The ministers agreed to continue meaningful dialogue on the ways of resolving continuing Middle Eastern crises,” the Russian Foreign Ministry added.

Meanwhile, Russia is preparing for the maiden visit of Saudi King Salman Al Saud who will arrive in Moscow on October 4 to discuss the deepening cooperation between the two countries. The visit of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Russia is currently being prepared, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Diplomatic relations

The first country to establish full diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd (the name of the Saudi state until 1932) was the Soviet Union. However, relations cooled later on, with Saudi Arabia closing their legation in Moscow in 1938 and refusing to reestablish relations.

Diplomatic relations began in 1926 but did not take off as Riyadh was not inclined to be an ally of Communist Russia. Moreover, due to regular interference from Washington, relations cooled later on, with Saudi Arabia closing their legation in Moscow in 1938 and refusing to reestablish relations. Diplomatic relations were only reestablished after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of the Russian Federation. (Despite a lack of relations, about 20 Soviet Muslims were allowed to annually make the Hajj from 1946 until 1990 when liberalization allowed thousands of Soviet Muslims to attend)  Relations were strained in the 1980s by Saudi support for the Mujahideen as a part of US led coalition during the Soviet occupational war in Afghanistan and the close alliance with the USA did not  the relations to grow.

Despite a lack of relations, about 20 Soviet Muslims were allowed to annually make the Hajj from 1946 until 1990 when liberalization allowed thousands of Soviet Muslims to attend. Relations were strained in the 1980s by Saudi support for the Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the close alliance with the USA.

King Abdullah’s visit to Russia in 2003, as Crown Prince, was an opening in high level contacts between the countries which did not have diplomatic ties from 1938 until 1990. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin made sincere efforts to establish good relations with Riyadh and he met King Abdullah in Riyadh during a high level delegation visit on February 11–12, 2007. It was the first official visit for a Russian leader to the Kingdom. The visit was an opportunity for Moscow to improve its relations with Riyadh regarding various areas, including regional security issues, energy, trade, transportation, scientific cooperation and exchanges.

After the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis, King Abdullah said that he had the full understanding of the Russian side on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but Saudi Arabia did not recognize the two regions yet.

In recent times, relations between the two countries became strained during the Syrian Civil War launched by the USA and its allies in the Syrian opposition as part of Arab Spring, in which Russia, a military ally of Iran, also supports Syria′s president Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia along with Qatar and Turkey supports the Syrian rebels.

USA remains a problem for Saudi and other Arab nations to forge economic ties with Russia. The Middle Eastern kingdom has enjoyed a longstanding and broadly cooperative relationship with the USA, dating back to the start of oil exploration within Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. The latest cast of key characters, headed by US President Donald Trump and Saudi’s King Salman, has established a warmer rapport than seen during the final years of former President Barack Obama’s presidency when tensions developed over Saudi Arabia’s stance on Iran and Yemen. Yet cooperative links are now flourishing between the kingdom and Russia – the USA’s longstanding foe.

Controlled by USA, relations between the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia were so frosty during the Cold War that the two countries did not even have diplomatic missions in each other’s country. Ties were also strained by Riyadh’s support for fighters who battled the Red Army occupation of Afghanistan.

Rapprochement

The Middle Eastern kingdom has enjoyed a longstanding and broadly cooperative relationship with the USA, dating back to the start of oil exploration within Saudi Arabia in the 1930s.

Relations between the two countries were strained during the Syrian Civil War in which Russia supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia along with Qatar and Turkey supported the Syrian rebels. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that if Saudi Arabia along with Turkey went forth with their invasion plans and invaded Syria, the conflict could result in a Third World War.

The latest cast of key characters, headed by US President Donald Trump and Saudi’s King Salman, has established a warmer rapport than seen during the final years of former President Barack Obama’s presidency when tensions developed over Saudi Arabia’s stance on Iran and Yemen.

Cooperative links are now flourishing between the kingdom and Russia – the USA’s longstanding foe. A blossoming friendship between Saudi Arabia and Russia is being reflected in a recent spate of deals, and signals yet another sea change in the ever-evolving global order.

The rapprochement is in the mechanisms of solving the Syrian conflict, while Moscow and Riyadh are the leading players in this process. “Russians are different from others as they keep their promises, and Saudi Arabia believes that Russia’s presence is important for achieving balance of power in the region,” the lawmaker added. “I expect the rapprochement and big mutual understanding… I suppose that the Syrian issue will be the most important topic of the discussion of the two leaders,” Harisi said. Harisi said that he expects the two countries to sign agreements in many areas besides the defense sector. Earlier in September, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Jubeir called the upcoming visit of King Salman to Russia a historic one and demonstrating the scale of bilateral dialogue.

In May 2017 Saudi Arabia and Russia put their weight behind a new agreement to curb oil production; analysts say it should drive up crude prices but also underscores a growing alliance between the two countries. The oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and Russia said they would consult other nations on an agreement to extend the current production deal between OPEC and non-OPEC producers by nine months, about three months longer than the market expected.

The deal to keep 1.8 million barrels of crude from the market is likely to embolden US shale producers to ramp up their production, but it is also a deal that both Russia and Saudi Arabia would see as politically expedient and critical to their domestic finances. The deal could also include deeper cuts than the 1.8 million barrels a day already agreed to late last year.

King Abdullah’s visit to Russia in 2003, as Crown Prince, was an opening in high level contacts between the countries which did not have diplomatic ties from 1938 until 1990.  Russian President  Putin met King Abdullah in Riyadh during a high level delegation visit on February 11–12, 2007. It was the first official visit for a Russian leader to the Kingdom.

The visit was an opportunity for Moscow to improve its relations with Riyadh regarding various areas, including regional security issues, energy, trade, transportation, scientific cooperation and exchanges. After the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis, King Abdullah said that he had the full understanding of the Russian side on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, Saudi Arabia did not recognize the two regions yet.

In February 2016, Saudi Arabia offered for the first time to send ground troops to Syria; a Saudi official confirmed that Riyadh had sent warplanes to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, a move considered as preparation for an incursion into Syria and seen as inimical to Russia′s as well as Iran′s interests.  Russia reacted to the reports with public sarcasm alluding to the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen.

Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, and Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Saudi Aramco announced that they will look into joint investments in the kingdom with another Russian gas giant Lukoil also revealing that it will consider marketing oil alongside Saudi Aramco. That same morning, Saudi Arabia confirmed it would evaluate the possibility of joining Russia’s arctic liquid natural gas (LNG) project. These developments followed Trump’s decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris climate change agreement with many commentators questioning the broader and longer-term implications of the USA stepping back from its leadership role in this pivotal international agreement.

The decision does not just reflect a retreat from leadership but a more widespread inability and unwillingness of countries to compromise. This strengthens the rise in power of Eastern countries alongside a decline in the West’s strength and accelerates the shifting of economic engines towards East, towards Asia.

Russia in Arab world

Until Moscow proved itself a militarily-capable player in the region, the Saudis had a negative, disdainful attitude towards Russia. But now the Saudis are beginning to view Russia differently…

Russia may not have the ability to mount a direct challenge to the USA in the Middle East, but Putin’s hardheaded approach to the Syria crisis has restored some of its Soviet-era influence in the region.  Putin’s support for Al Assad in the face of international condemnation has proved he is willing to stick by his allies in the Middle East, a trait that will have been duly noted by leaders across the Middle East.

President Vladimir Putin sent Russia’s military into Syria in September 2015 to prop up Syria’s leader, Bashar Al Assad, while the Saudis have been aligned with anti-Assad rebels. But since Russia’s military intervention appears to have assured Al Assad’s survival by altering the balance of power in Syria, Saudi Arabia is pushing for talks with opposition groups. “This isn’t the first time that Russia and Saudi Arabia have tried to agree on things in recent years,” Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defence, a Kremlin advisory group aid. “..Now the situation has changed because Saudi Arabia realizes that Russia is a much more serious player in the region than it was three or four years ago.

Although the Kremlin’s Syria strategy has proved to be a foreign policy success for Putin and boosted Moscow’s standing in the Middle East, ordinary Russians have little enthusiasm for the war. The ISIL announced it had captured two Russian soldiers in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province. If true, this would be the first time ISIL has taken Russian servicemen hostage. A Russian military spokesman denied the claim.

Moscow’s revived focus on the Middle East has also taken the Russian foreign minister to the Gulf region amid the continuing stand-off between Qatar and other Gulf states. In August, Lavrov met with the leaders of Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. Russian state media claimed his trip proved Russia was now “the chief negotiator in the Middle East”.

Qatar recently boosted ties with Russia via a $3 billion deal to purchase a stake in Russia’s Rosneft oil company. However, Russia is keen not to be seen as favoring any of the parties to the dispute. Putin reportedly called off visits to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait this summer over fears that such a trip would be interpreted as taking sides.

Russia has also been staking out a position in Iraq, where it was the only major power not to oppose last week’s Kurdish referendum on independence. Russian state oil giant Rosneft recently announced a deal, thought to be worth more than $1 billion, to help Iraqi Kurdistan develop its natural gas industry. Rosneft is believed to have secured deals worth some $4 billion in total since it began doing business in Kurdistan in December.

Saudi support for the zones, which Putin says are vital to ending the war, was previously in doubt because the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition rejected any role for Iran as guarantor in any peace deal. The reality of the military situation on the ground in Syria has also seen western countries taking a more pragmatic position on the conflict, muting their previous demands that Al Assad must go before any peace deal can be reached.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, presumably  on instruction from USA,  cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar, expelled all Qataris and banned flights to and from the country, while other Arab states later joined their actions. The dispute centered on Qatar’s public support for the so-called “Islamist terror groups” such as Hamas – real victim of Zionist fascism.  Doha denied the accusations and said that no retaliatory measures would be taken.

The Kremlin is eager to unite Arab world and keep USA out of the region once for all. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, saying that Moscow calls for direct talks between Qatar and other Arab states to overcome the diplomatic crisis and confirmed its readiness to continue dialogue with Doha in all spheres.

Moscow wants a united front with Arab world against USA in Syria but Arab leaders support USA in ousting or killing Assad. Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt support the idea of conducting the second meeting between the Syrian opposition. Talks between the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Cairo and Moscow groups of Syrian opposition took place in Riyadh. The HNC said that the meeting was not successful due to the Moscow group’s refusal to adopt any document demanding the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Economics

The flagship symbol of Russo-Saudi cooperation is the oil output cut agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members, originally brokered and recently extended thanks largely to the determined efforts of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

As a close economic and strategic ally of USA, Saudi Arabia and Russia do not have much in terms of trade, except in military deals. However, a blossoming friendship between Saudi Arabia and Russia is being reflected in a recent spate of deals, and signals yet another sea change in the ever-evolving global order. 

The relations between the two countries are currently strong in military and technical cooperation. Russian consultations with Saudi Arabia in the area of military and technical cooperation are ongoing, the US-Saudi deal is not an obstacle for that.

In May, the USA and Saudi Arabia agreed on a deal worth $110 billion concerning the supply of US military equipment and arms. Russia continues consultations with the Saudi Arabia’s authorities in area of military and technical cooperation. The deal between this country and the USA on acquiring US arms should not and would not serve as an obstacle for our further dialogue,” Vorobyeva said during Paris Air Show — 2017 at the Le Bourget airport.

In September Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation CEO Alexei Likhachev has held a meeting with representatives of Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the 61st General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. They discussed the possible construction of a big and powerful plant also capable of desalinating water, to projects concerning floating nuclear power plants.

The flagship symbol of cooperation is the oil output cut agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members, originally brokered and recently extended thanks largely to the determined efforts of Saudi Arabian and Russian representatives.

OPEC President Mohammed Barkindo told CNBC from St. Petersburg that there was no doubt the “turning point” for the deal was when both countries decided to come together in China last year to sign a statement of cooperation that was “widely acclaimed”.  “For them to decide to come together to address the challenges of the market … I think it is a welcome development by all producing countries,” he asserted, adding that both sides had reiterated their joint determination to work together to ensure that the oil market’s volatility is tackled.

In other signs of tightening relations, Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, and Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Saudi Aramco announce that they will look into joint investments in the kingdom with another Russian gas giant Lukoil also revealing that it will consider marketing oil alongside Saudi Aramco. That same morning, Saudi Arabia confirmed it would evaluate the possibility of joining Russia’s arctic liquid natural gas (LNG) project.

These developments followed Trump decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris climate change agreement with many commentators questioning the broader and longer-term implications of the USA stepping back from its leadership role in this pivotal international agreement.

The decision does not just reflect a retreat from leadership but a more widespread inability and unwillingness of countries to compromise, according to Vladimir Yakunin, former Russian Railways president and current chairman of the DOC Research Institute, a German think tank. Speaking to CNBC from St. Petersburg, Yakunin said he expects a turmoil-ridden time ahead for world economies and also predicted that trends showing the rise in power of Eastern countries alongside a decline in the West’s strength would persist, as data continue to show the rapid relative economic growth in Asia.  “At the G-20 for example, reputable experts, they are talking about values, they are talking about the shifting of economic engines towards East, towards Asia.

The oil revenues are a big part of the government budget in Russia and Saudi Arabia. For Russia, higher oil prices have helped its economy.  Low prices could really create enormous stress for the Saudis. The extension of the production deal was also announced just days before President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip

Saudi Arabia had felt the pinch of lower prices for oil, though several weeks ago it reversed a move to withhold some pay and benefits to government workers, move analysts saw as a possible effort to ward off unrest. Saudi Arabia also needs a high oil price to help its plan to diversify its economy away from crude, under its Vision 2030 plan.

Saudi Arabia has borne the lion’s share of the production cuts, announced in December and effective in January

Agenda

Like Saudi economy, Russia’s economy is also massively dependent on oil revenues: Putin needs higher global oil prices to allow him to stem rising unhappiness that has been triggered in part by falling living standards.

Despite “deep distrust” between Russia and Saudi Arabia, co-operation by the world’s two largest oil exporters, along with other OPEC member states, has been successful in driving up the price of oil.

King Salman’s visit to Moscow is the first time a Saudi monarch has ever travelled to Moscow in an official capacity. The historic visit by Saudi Arabia’s king to Russia is timed to highlight the Kremlin’s growing political and military clout in the Middle East.

Apart from Syrian solution, both would discuss arms deal as well as nuclear energy deals. Russia is gradually overtaking USA in  supplying terror goods to Arab world at cheap rates. 

The main topic of talks in Moscow would be Syria, where Russia and the Saudis are backing different sides in the six-year-long conflict. The bilateral royal talks will touch Syria and further rapprochement between the two countries on this issue is possible.

The Kremlin’s hand has also been strengthened by uncertainty over US president Donald Trump’s Middle East policies. The Saudis see the writing on the wall. They are hedging their bets, unsure whether the USA is committed fully to the region’s security, according to a Russian foreign policy analyst. “But Russia is not replacing the United States in the region, the resources committed are incomparable, it is trying to be a second choice.”

Observation

Moscow considers that a regular exchange of opinions between the two countries is a factor of stability in the region and political settlement,  with ongoing uncompromising fight against terrorism in all of its manifestations..

The forthcoming visit of Saudi King Salman Al Saud to Russia for the first time in almost hundred years of Saudi-Russian relations and the upcoming talks of Salman and Putin is regarded to be historic. Both sides hope to strengthen bilateral relations and achieve progress on Syrian settlement – burning issue of modern international politics.

Moscow is confident that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud‘s visit to Russia will give a strong impetus to the development of bilateral relations.  “Coordination between the two countries’ foreign ministries is getting closer. Two weeks ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Jeddah.” Lavrov praises Saudi Arabian policy towards Syria. Major attention is being paid to business cooperation, we plan to further develop cooperation in the agricultural sector. The intergovernmental commission, which is scheduled to meet in late October or early November in Riyadh, is called to make its contribution to it” Saudi Ambassador to Russia Abdulrahman Al Rassi, in turn, noted that relations between his country and Russia are entering a qualitatively new level of development.

Moscow has been effectively filling the gap as the USA has been pulling back from Iraq.  Although Russia did not speak out against the Kurdish referendum, it has also been careful not to damage ties with Baghdad, calling this week for “a unified Iraqi state”, and urging the Kurds to achieve statehood through negotiations, rather than a unilateral declaration of independence. It’s a subtle juggling act, but one that sums up Russia’s increasing skill at promoting its interests in the Middle East.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have more reasons to extend deal than just oil.  Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have grown closer as they cooperate on oil prices. A deal to extend production cuts for nine months should support a higher level of oil prices as the market rebalances. It’s not surprising Russia and Saudi Arabia are moving closer together to solve their common problem of low oil prices. They have common interests in increasing their revenues.

It’s not an accident that the two countries [Russia and Saudi Arabia] were moving together at a time when maybe the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was problematic. Bin Salman is also behind the Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy away from oil. Thousands of Russians protested last weekend about a plan by the city of Moscow to tear down Soviet-era housing. The timing of the OPEC production extension coincides with the Russian presidential election next March, another reason Russia may have been keen to strike a new deal.

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Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?

Danil Bochkov

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image credit: kremlin.ru

Russia-China relations have been steadily improving since at least 2013, when the leaders of both countries presented a joint statement calling for deepening bilateral relations of “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This formula has been modified with an addition of the “new era,” signifying both countries recognising new global challenges and the changing geopolitical environment. COVID-19 has largely contributed to the intensification of certain trends, including antagonism with the U.S. and the pursuit of more robust bilateral ties.

If before both countries would challenge and combat U.S. hostility (economic sanctions, political pressure, adversary rhetoric, etc.) mainly on their own, they are now more inclined to align and coordinate actions to elaborate more coherent voices towards the West. In late July, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the U.S. could not drive a wedge between Russia and China by expecting Moscow to join its anti-China alliance. Rather, Russia views further improvement of relations with China as a major factor that will contribute to stability in global politics.

In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, amid the virus outbreak, bilateral support between Russia and China became a safe fortress for “political viruses.” During a telephone conversation in July, Putin and Xi stressed that the agenda for the strategic partnership in Russia-China relations was materialised during the pandemic in the form of mutual help provided at a critical moment.

China and Russia have recently demonstrated the historical legacy of their close relations through the publication of a co-authored report by Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. The report unambiguously states that all countries must combine their efforts to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, terrorism, world pandemics, economic downturns, etc. These concerns are all focal points in which Russia and China have achieved mutual understanding.

Notably, even during the very vague political gridlock of the Belarusian leadership in the aftermath of the August presidential elections, China and Russia immediately demonstrated their support to the re-elected president Lukashenko. While President Putin congratulated the Belarusian president with a telegram, President Xi-Jinping opted for a personal phone call, during which he reassured Mr Lukashenko of China’s strong commitment to “push forward Chinese-Belarusian comprehensive strategic partnership.” Such profound political signals did not go unnoticed in Minsk, which has expressed gratitude to Russia and China for their support during these challenging times. China’s position on Belarus is important for Russia, as Moscow regards Belarus as its closest and most faithful ally. Belarus is now moving towards a higher level of political and economic integration with Russia, becoming a “Union State.”

As a signal of recognition and respect for Chinese core interests, Russia extended its support to China over Hong Kong, which came under the global spotlight following the introduction of the National Security Law in June. In a very crucial moment for China, when it received widespread criticism from all other major powers, Russia bluntly stressed that “the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China,” thus fending off all speculation on the city’s juridical status.

China and Russia have recently vowed to strengthen their coordination on international platforms, which was seen in early July in the UN during their opposition to the extension of cross-border aid in Syria. The opposition to the U.S. initiative in June within the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran following the break-up of the 2015 nuclear deal was another display of harmonised action. Multiple international issues were touched upon during the meeting between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on September 11. Both countries reaffirmed the “closeness of their views on effective solutions to them,” and stressed that “the destructive character of Washington’s actions undermines global strategic stability.” Overall, the meeting once again confirmed the shared views of Russia and China in both the multilateral and bilateral dimensions.

The Russia-India-China format has made significant progress after a period of relatively little activity. The latest gathering of the RIC group took place in June. At that time, Moscow highlighted that India-China border conflicts were to be solved based on bilateral agreements only. Recently, Moscow has initiated negotiations between the defence ministers of India and China in order to find conflict mitigation solutions. As a result, Chinese and Indian officials met for the first time since the border dispute in May.

By organising peace talks involving China and India, Russia is playing a critical role in regional affairs. The upcoming meeting of the respective ministers of foreign affairs reinforces this statement. Meanwhile, the U.S. has repeatedly pitched its own candidacy as an intermediary, with the most recent attempt in early September. Russian media positioned the Moscow-hosted China-India meeting on September 10 as a rare foreign policy success. During their “frank and constructive” discussion in Moscow, India and China reached an important agreement to deescalate border tensions which are not in “the interest of either side.”

Economically, Sino-Russian cooperation experienced a COVID-19 blow, with trade volume falling by 5,6 per cent in June, amounting to USD 50 billion. Although it may have a tangible impact on the annual statistics, moving the 2019-set milestone for 2024 away from the predicted USD 200 billion in trade follows the global trend of economic contraction, with consumer demand in free fall. For example, the overall volume of Chinese foreign trade from January to June dropped by 6,6 per cent. However, this trade contraction reflects more about global trade dynamics at the moment than changes in Russia-China relations.

As a recent sign of combined efforts to contain U.S. global ambitions, Russia and China were able to decrease U.S. dollar transaction for trade to its historical minimum – from 51 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent in 2020. The same trend for intensified bilateral cooperation can also be seen in the energy sphere. Following the successful launch of “Power of Siberia” last December, the Russian state energy giant “Gazprom” is embracing a new audacious initiative, the “Power of Siberia-2” gas pipeline. The project will connect Russia, China and Mongolia. On behalf of the President of Russia, Gazprom started the design and survey work on the project in May.

Energy cooperation remains a crucial element of bilateral relations. Fresh statistics show that in July, Russia once again secured its position as the largest importer of oil to China, with a 30 per cent spike. This amounted to 7.38 million tons (compared to 2019). In April, Russia took over Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier, delivering 7.2 million tons. This is 18 per cent more than in 2019.

Russia-China relations represent a “strategic partnership,” which means that the two countries view themselves as partners on strategic issues. Indeed, on a majority of topics, be it global governance, world economic structure, geopolitics or security, Russia and China are on the same page. Many of them are of strategic significance pertaining to both sides. Both countries enjoy fruitful cooperation on multilateral platforms such as BRICS, SCO and the UN.

Nevertheless, despite their flawless facade, Russia-China relations have a weak spot – their difference in strategic and national interests. This is normal for global powers. For example, Beijing can never compromise its core national interests such as the South China Sea (SCS), Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, even to please its tried and tested partner, Moscow. This explains why China has repeatedly pressured Vietnam to halt all oil extraction activities in the SCS over the last two years. This has resulted in Vietnam suspending business cooperation in the SCS with the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft. On the other hand, Russia will never put its core interests at risk (especially concerning territorial integrity), irrespective of Beijing’s rhetoric concerning Russian Far East territories.

As long as Russia and China base their partnership on coinciding strategic interests and avoid any ubiquitous and provocative moves – their relations are likely to remain in the current burgeoning state or under the best circumstances can even be elevated to a higher level. Overall, during the first half of the year, relations between China and Russia were challenged several times. Despite some small cracks, like decreasing trade and frictions regarding energy projects in the South China Sea, their flawless mutual propaganda remains untarnished. As long as they can maintain a close and mutually beneficial bilateral tie, they should be able to endure any future challenges with ease.

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Legitimate soft power or malign influence?

Celine Emma la Cour

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The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.

There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.

For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.

The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.

In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.

From state to people

I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.

Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?

Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.

Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).

Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.

Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.

From digital to physical

In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.

A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.

Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.

Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.

Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?

Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.

A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.

In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.

Good image can be threatening

Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).

In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.

Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.

Litterature:

Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.

Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77

Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363

Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160

Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471

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Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus

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The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.

First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.

Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.

Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.

And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.

Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.

Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.

Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.

There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.

The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.

Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.

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