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The agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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In early October, King Salman of Saudi Arabia – with 1,500 members of his private entourage and 459 tons of luggage – landed at the Vnukovo airport for the first official visit of a Saudi king to the Kremlin. At military level, Saudi Arabia has already bought from Russia the S-400 Triumph anti-missile system (NATO reporting name: SA-12 Growler), already fully operational in China, which can intercept aircraft and missiles at a speed up to 4.8 kilometers per second (17,000 kilometers per hour) and has the ability of intercepting up to 36 targets at the same time.

 In addition, the Saudi purchase of the anti-tank missile Kornet and other advanced weapon systems is already in an advanced phase of negotiations between the two countries.This is a deal worth 3 billion US dollars, but the sale of weapons is a fundamental strategic priority for Russia.

 According to the 2016 data, the Russian Federation produces over one fifth of the weapons sold in the world while, also thanks to Russia, India and China have now almost reached technological and military self-sufficiency.

 Hence Russia is looking for other markets to sell its weapons, with the consequent and immediate strategic and economic influences and constraints.

 Currently everything works thanks to the unquestionable success achieved so far in Syria.

 Hence Russia is looking for new markets in the Middle East, an excellent area for selling weapons.

 At military level, however, the commercial relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia had already begun in 2012, when the latter had bought a C-300 missile system, with the tacit agreement that said supply would not be sent to Iran.

 The C-300 is one of the most powerful anti-missile systems currently available.

 In my opinion, Saudi Arabia is reemerging from the long phase of more or less explicit support to the jihad in the great arc of crisis stretching from Afghanistan to Syria.

 In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia is moving away from the well-known support for the Taliban, backed with the largest amount of funds.

 On August 7 last, Mishari al-Harbi, the most prominent Saudi diplomat in Afghanistan, defined the Taliban as “armed terrorists,” while the Saudi Kingdom is seeking in all ways to block the private donations of its citizens to the Afghan “students”.

 There is a fully rational reason underlying this new policy line: Saudi Arabia can no longer see a political advantage in arming and supporting the Taliban, but above all it wants to put a spoke in the wheels of the mediation, organized by Qatar, between the Kabul government and the above-mentioned “students” trained in the Pakistani Qur’anic schools.

  At the beginning of jihad in Afghanistan, the United States and the other countries present there interpreted the Pakistani and Saudi support  as a way to contain the Iranian designs in the Western part of the country, but now King Salman is radically changing the Saudi foreign policy.

 Whatever happens, Afghanistan will have wide regional autonomy – hence the jihad to keep Iran and its regional allies out has no longer much reason to exist.

 From this viewpoint the radical change, which has long been experienced in the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, is significant.

 The meaning of this unusual manoeuvre is obvious, namely to join  forces against Iran and its old and new proxies.

 Nevertheless, as recalled by one of the leaders of the Afghani Mujahidin, before 2013 Saudi Arabia had strongly supported Qatar’s efforts to “open up” to the Taliban. But now that the relations of the “Afghan students” with Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have weakened, Saudi Arabia is revising its preferential relations with the old supporters of the Afghan jihad (Turkey, the Arab Emirates and Egypt) and, above all, it is isolating Qatar, the only support left to the jihadist “students”.

 It is a fact that the Taliban still collaborate with Iran and Qatar.

Hezb’ollah was born as a movement of Islamic resistance, without any preconceived idea vis-à-vis the various traditional factions of Islam.

  However, can the support of these two countries replace the relationship with the Saudi private individuals and their Kingdom? Probably so.

 In all likelihood, the Saudi efforts to separate the United States from Qatar – hosting its CENTCOM – could push the United States directly into Saudi hands, while Qatar is putting pressures on the US forces for a quick transfer of their Command, which could possiblybe moved to the Al Dhafra base in Abu Dhabi.

 Reverting to King Salman’s State visit to Russia, he has understood that Russia – and no longer the United States – is now distributing cards in Syria and hence he acts accordingly.

 In all likelihood, the now old King Salman is also promoting the Russian support for his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is expected to inherit his throne.

 An agreement to increase the oil price, which is essential for both countries, has been still discussed, but nothing leaks out of the Kremlin, while Putin has argued for the need to further use the Saudi sovereign funds in the Russian economy.

 Out of the 10 billion US dollars promised by Saudi Arabia to Russia in 2015, only one has been provided so far.

 The King’s visit to Russia had been promised in a phone call with Putin as early as March 2015, but it had been postponed many times.

 Ironically, however, the USSR was the first to recognize the independence of the Kingdom created by King Abdulaziz.

 The official relations between Russia and the Kingdom of Hejzah and Nejid – the official name of the Al-Sauds’ Kingdom until 1936 – started as early as 1926.

 The strategic reason is obvious and is similar to the one which led Stalin to be the first to recognize the State of Israel, namely to be a thorn in the flesh in a region dominated by the British Empire, by favouring both the “quasi-friends” (Israel) and the “future enemies” (Saudi Arabia).

 In 1938, however, following the “elimination” – during the Stalinist purges – of the Russian envoy to Saudi Arabia, Karim Kharimov, who was a personal friend of the King, the relations between the two countries were broken off.

 Bilateral relations were resumed only in 1991.

   An “Indian Spring”, the distance between Russia and Saudi Arabia, an extraordinary stroke of luck for the US strategic and economic interests in the Middle East – a stroke of luck that today, with the meeting between Putin and King Salman, is virtually over.

 King Faisal, assassinated by his nephew Faisal bin Musaid in 1975, when he was Saudi Foreign Minister, visited Russia only in 1933, but it was a visit having scarce bilateral importance.

 It is worth recalling that, after discarding the other three previous candidates, last mid-July Russia had provided to Saudi Arabia its agreement on the appointment of Ahmed al Wahishi as Yemen’s Ambassador to Russia.

 Russia is interested in not making the conflict in Yemen turn into a war against Iran.

 While for Iran the primary strategic interest of the Houthi insurgency in Yemen is to create an expensive, unpredictable, lasting and dangerous engagement for Saudi Arabia.

  Well before the meeting between Putin and King Salman, an agreement had been signed between the two countries to further reduce the oil output, thus making the crude oil price increase.

 After a long struggle to become China’s first supplier – won by Russia  against Saudi Arabia in 2014 with the signature of a 30-year contract with China worth 400 billion US dollars only for natural gas – last year King Salman signed contracts to the tune of 13 billion dollars with Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In October 2016, however, the Russian Federation purchased – through Rosnet – a 49% shareholding of Essar Oil, the first private Indian oil company having a 50% stake in Kenya Petroleum Refineries Ltd, which is fully owned by Essar.

  India is the primary market where, in the future, Russia and Saudi Arabia will clash for their oil and gas.

  Currently Saudi Arabia and Russia together produce a quarter of all the oil used in the world. Obviously, the agreement between the two countries to limit the extraction of crude oil is related to the new extraction of oil and gas in the United States, which is already a danger to all the old OPEC countries or the autonomous countries such as Russia (or Norway).

 Reducing the crude oil price means potentially driving the US shale oil and shale gas out of business – and this is the first strategic goal uniting the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia.

 The Russia-OPEC agreement on the reduction of crude oil price has finally been postponed until March 2018, but said agreement will be probably extended at least until the end of 2018.

 Saudi Arabia, however, still wants a closer relationship with the Trump’s US administration, which can provide technology to put an end to Saudi Arabia’s economic dependence on oil by the end of 2030, according to King Salman’s plans.

 This is key to the current relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia: the latter agrees with the winner in Syria, namely Vladimir Putin, to reduce the crude oil price and put the United States in trouble. Nevertheless the latter remains the primary market for transforming the Saudi economy – by force, taking the fast track, as was the case with the Soviet “five-year plans”.

 Moreover, it is the same plan of the current Russian leadership that can achieve it only by signing effective agreements with all OPEC countries.

 The magnitude of Saudi investment in the United States is still extraordinary and unique: last May Saudi Aramco signed a 50 billion dollar contract with the US oil companies, while Minister Khalid al Falih has finalized a further 200 billion US dollar contract to produce in Saudi Arabia goods and equipment that were previously imported from the United States.

 King Salman’s plan, however, is to limit Saudi Arabia’s oil dependence and, in the meantime, to turn his country into an active trading platform for the Greater Middle East.

 Hence no more trouble spots in Saudi Arabia’s neighbouring countries.

 With the exception of Iran and its allies, at least for the time being.

 They are the only oil, political and religious competitors capable of attracting and pushing the many Shiite minorities throughout the Sunni Middle East to rebellion – including the Saudi largest oil extraction region.

 Another bilateral economic system, which was certainly not disrupted – at least for a short time – was that of military supplies between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

 While, according to 2016 data, Saudi Arabia currently absorbs 35 billion US products and services, it is worth noting that the Saudi  Kingdom is the fifth largest arms buyer in the world.

 In 2017 the Saudi military spending alone has accounted for 61 billion US dollars, namely 21% of the country’s current budget.

 As is well-known, the United States is currently the largest exporter of weapons in the world.

 Hence it is by no mere coincidence that the first meeting between King Salman and Putin has been held precisely for the purchase of a Russian weapon system that the United States has not at such an advanced level and that could block its missiles.

 Therefore Saudi Arabia fears the possible reactions of Middle East countries which have US-made missiles available.

 A goal that defines Saudi Arabia’s utmost strategic autonomy from the United States.

Not to mention a globally important project – certainly designed by the Saudi leaders to “make money”, namely Aramco’s new presence on the stock market.

 Next year Saudi Arabia is expected to start selling a 5% shareholding of Aramco on the market – the largest takeover bid in the stock market history.

 The competition between the New York and the London Stock Exchange to obtain this transaction is already fierce, but – at this juncture – nothing prevents the Russian Federation from acquiring oil companies of the Saudi network.

 Yet another level of contrast between the two old bilateral competitors, namely the old United States and the old Soviet Union, in the new guises prepared for celebrating globalization.

King Salman, however, does not want to put all his eggs in one basket.

 In fact, last May the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, already visited Russia to discuss the Syrian and oil issues.

 As far as Syria is concerned, Saudi Arabia recognizes the de facto victory of the Russian-led coalition and accepts the possible construction of the South Pars gas pipeline from the sea between Qatar and Iran across the Syrian territory- probably in exchange for a financial compensation.

 In all likelihood, Jordan – a traditional ally of Saudi Arabia – will play a special role in the new gas pipeline.

 Later Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation signed a 3.5 billion US dollar military cooperation agreement, preceding the one previously mentioned, envisaging technology transfers that are extremely important for the new Saudi local industry.

 With specific reference to Syria, it is worth recalling that, only thanks to Saudi Arabia, Russia could have a platform for the negotiations – through Egypt – between the Russian forces and the Syrian opposition for Ghouta East and Rastan – an agreement that would have never been possible without the Saudi mediation.

 In short, King Salman does no longer want clashes around his country. He only wants a peaceful route for the new future trade that will characterize the Saudi non-oil-dependent economy.

 Moreover, the rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia is viewed favourably by Israel, which – as many people say – is Russia’s “silent ally” in the Greater Middle East.

 It is worth recalling that Iran is using the clash in Yemen to push Saudi Arabia into a very long, expensive and unpredictable war.

 Russia has no reason to support Iran in the Houthi insurgency against the Yemeni Sunnis. Russia does not need many clashes around its immediate strategic interests in the Middle East oil fields.

 Not even in Syria, Russia and Iran shall have the same goals in the future.

 Iran wants an allied and dependent Syria, while Russia does not want only Westerners near its military ports in the Mediterranean exercising hegemony over  a traditionally friendly country like Syria.

 Neither does it want Syria and any other Middle East country to be too closely dependent each other, because this would deprive the Russian Federation of its autonomous line of communication with its Mediterranean ports.

 Not to mention the control of jihad – a contagion that could spread to Chechnya – and the creation of a rampart towards the Arabian peninsula.

 Another Russian essential goal in Syria.

 Obviously while Russia is particularly interested in a new relationship with Saudi Arabia from the oil, economic and strategic viewpoints, it has no reason to disregard Iran.

 The common interests between Russia and Iran are decisive and inevitable in Afghanistan, Iraq and also in Syria.

 Russia cannot certainly lose these strategic axes only to rush to embrace Saudi Arabia.

Hence the Russian Federation will maintain its ties with the Shiite Republic. It will accept some Saudi interests in the Middle East region, between Jordan and the Lebanon, but it will support Iran in the Central Asian system, which Russia cannot certainly neglect.

  Nevertheless it will not even disregard the new oil and military system,  established in the new agreements with Saudi Arabia, which could also be a stabilizer of Russian interests in the Middle East and an economic partner to be taken away from the United States.

  If all goes well, Russia could create a strategy based on two options between Saudi Arabia and Iran, without either of them being in a position to threaten – too closely – the Russian interests stretching from the Greater Middle East to Central Asia.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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The importance of the first Russia-Africa Summit

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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After several years of high-level consultations, Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally hinted that Russia would organize its first Russia-Africa Summit of African leaders and Ministers to roll out a comprehensive strategic road map outlining concrete economic sectors for investment, issues relating to trade and culture for Africa.

Addressing a group of invited African leaders at 2018 BRICS Summit on July 27 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Putin told the gathering “I would like to inform you that we are studying the idea of holding a Russia-Africa summit with the participation of Heads of African states. This could be preceded by meetings of prominent businessmen, policy experts and public figures. And I intend to discuss this with representatives of African countries.”

He did not provide specific dates or any further details about the proposed summit, but strongly acknowledged that Russia has always given priority to the development of relations with African countries, based on long-standing traditions of friendship and mutual assistance, and Africa has now emerged as the world’s most rapidly developing regions.

The leaders of African countries who attended his special meeting came from Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Gabon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has earlier said in interview with the Hommes d’Afrique magazine that At present, Russia’s relations with African countries were progressing both on a bilateral basis and along the line of African regional organisations, primarily the African Union and the Southern African Development Community.

He noted Russia has maintained an intensive political dialogue with African countries on one hand and on other side, representatives from African countries are active participants in international forums hosted by Russia.

“Our African friends note the need for Russia’s active presence in the region, and more frequently express their interest in holding a Russia-Africa summit. Such a meeting would undoubtedly help deepen our cooperation on the full range of issues,” he explained.

“However, it is necessary to bear in mind that arranging an event of such a scale with the participation of over fifty heads of state and government requires most careful preparation, including in terms of its substantive content,” Lavrov further argued.

As such, specific Russian participants in bilateral or multilateral cooperation should be identified, which are not only committed to long-term cooperation but are also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with account of possible risks and high competition. Equally important is African businesspeople who are looking to work on the Russian market, the Foreign Minister elaborated in his discussion.

Definitely, time was needed to solve all those issues, Lavrov said and suggested, both Russia and Africa could start with experts’ meetings, for example, within the framework of the St Petersburg Economic Forum or the Valdai forum and other economic cum business related events where business leaders participate.

He assertively promised that Russia would do its best to raise trade and economic ties to a high level of political cooperation. Currently, Russia’s trade with Sub-Saharan countries amounted to $3.6 billion in 2017, compared to $3.3 billion in 2016 and $2.2 billion in 2015.

Maxim Chereshnev, the Chairman of the Board of the Council for the Development of Foreign Trade and International Economic Relations also noted that Russia and African states have a long story of relations. But, what is very important today is the fact that new opportunities are arising for medium size enterprises for collaboration in Russia and Africa.

According to him, nowadays perspectives of business contacts between Russian and African business are actually underestimated, however, there are a huge number of opportunities. For instance, agricultural, high-tech, medicine, energy-saving technologies, logistics and infrastructure projects are really perspective for strengthening Russia-African economic cooperation.

The Russia-Africa summit, would therefore, highlight favorable conditions for active business interaction, participating Russians and Africans establish closer contacts and continue cooperating in key sectors of the economy of both regions. Hence the significance of the proposed summit.

As Professor David Shinn, an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), wrote in an email to GNA, Russian government’s weakness for investing or boosting economic cooperation compared to many foreign countries has been primarily the question of project financing in Africa.

As authorities have always explained Russia has its own priorities, and Africa is a priority for Russia but it’s Russia’s own priority to determine the pace and how to raise economic presence in Africa, he argued, and finally added “it neatly makes the argument that the relationship continues to be a low priority. It is difficult to affirm or change policy when key people are not present to make decisions.”

As already publicly known, all previous summits held by many foreign countries with Africa, there were concrete financial packages earmarked towards infrastructure development and concrete ways to improve bilateral trade with African countries.

From Russia’s perspective, there are undeniably important geopolitical implications working with Africa. Nevertheless, Russia’s efforts in the region have been limited thus far which many experts and researchers have attributed to lack of a system of financing policy projects.

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Russia–Turkey Relations Need a Stronger Foundation

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Relations between Russia and Turkey have always been and will always be a controversial subject. Even over the last couple of years, this relationship experienced dramatic ups and downs, sudden U-turns from cooperation to confrontation and back to cooperation.

First, relations between Moscow and Ankara will remain important for both sides. Russia and Turkey are neighbors with extensive and diverse bilateral ties — including trade and investments, energy and construction, as well as a vibrant social, humanitarian and cultural interaction.

Second, there will always be a mixture of common, parallel, overlapping and colliding interests driving Moscow and Ankara in dealing with each other.

Third, various external players — both global powers (the European Union, NATO, and the United States) and regional actors (Iran, Gulf States, and Israel) will continue to have a profound impact on Russia–Turkey relations.

Both sides should be interested in more stable, more predictable and less adversarial Russia–Turkey relations. Let’s face it: there will be no real trust between Russia and Turkey until we deal together with the most sensitive, the most divisive, and the most unpleasant issues dividing us.

As the recent history demonstrated, the “agree to disagree” approach is not good enough to move the relationship ahead. Thinking strategically, one can even imagine a more important role for Turkey as a country that might be best suited to facilitate a renewal of the currently nearly dormant NATO-Russian Council.

Russia is not an alternative to Turkey’s cooperation with the European Union; neither Turkey is a substitute for Russia working harder to resolve its problems with the United States and Europe. We need Russia–Turkey relationship to acquire a strategic depth of its own.

Relations between Russia and Turkey have always been and will always be a controversial subject. For both countries, this is a very special relationship; it contains a lot of emotions, mythology, prejudices, uneasy legacies of the past, and sometimes unrealistic hopes for the future. The glass remains half-full or half-empty, depending on how you look at it and on whether you are trying to fill it or to drain it.

Even over the last couple of years, this relationship experienced dramatic ups and downs, sudden U-turns from cooperation to confrontation and back to cooperation. The 2015 — 2016 crisis, albeit a short one, demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of this unique set of connections linking the two countries. No doubt, in years to come we will see more of surprising developments in Russia–Turkey relations that we cannot possibly predict today. Still, there are a number of features of this relationship, which are likely to remain constant in the foreseeable future.

First, relations between Moscow and Ankara will remain important for both sides. Russia and Turkey are neighbors with extensive and diverse bilateral ties — including trade and investments, energy and construction, as well as a vibrant social, humanitarian and cultural interaction. Moreover, they share vast common neighborhood; for both countries, this neighborhood presents tempting opportunities and serious challenges at the same time. Both countries claim a special Eurasian status in world politics that puts them in a league of their own, distinguishing Russia and Turkey from other purely European or Asian states. Therefore, it is hard to imagine the two powers drifting too far away from each other and losing interest in the bilateral relationship.

Second, there will always be a mixture of common, parallel, overlapping, and colliding interests driving Moscow and Ankara in dealing with each other. Elements of cooperation and competition (hopefully, not direct confrontation) will be blended by politicians into a single sweet and sour cocktail and offered to the Russian and Turkish public. We will continue to live with numerous paradoxes. For instance, Turkey is a NATO member, but it plans to purchase the most advanced Russian air defense systems (S-400). The two countries actively cooperate on the ground in Syria, but they have very different attitudes to the current Syrian leadership in Damascus. Russians and Turks are equally interested in stability in the South Caucasus but quite often, unfortunately, they find themselves on the opposite sides of the barricades in the region.

Third, various external players — both global powers (the European Union, NATO, and the United States) and regional actors (Iran, Gulf States, and Israel) will continue to have a profound impact on Russia–Turkey relations. External players can push Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, but they can also push Russians and Turks apart by offering either of them alternative options for strategic, political and economic cooperation. The Russia–Turkey cooperation will also rely on such independent variables as the rise of international terrorism, fluctuations of energy prices, volatility of the global economic and financial system and, more generally, on the fundamentals of the emerging world order.

Both sides should be interested in more stable, more predictable and less adversarial Russia–Turkey relations. It is particularly important today, when the international system at large is becoming less stable and less predictable. Besides, both Russia and Turkey face enormous challenges of economic, social and political modernization in a less than perfect external environment; it would be stupid to add to existing lists of their foreign policy problems a new round of Russia–Turkey confrontation.

So, is it possible to prevent colliding interests from curbing joint work on common problems? What can we do to reduce the risks of potential future crises between Moscow and Ankara? How can we mitigate negative impacts of external factors on our bilateral cooperation?

The immediate answer to these questions is clear — above all, we need to enhance our lines of communication. This is not about preparing the next Erdogan-Putin meeting, nor about generating new technical proposals for the Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission. This is not about mil-to-mil contacts on the ground in Syria. The enhancement of communication should bring it far beyond serving operational needs of political leaders. Let’s face it: there will be no real trust between Russia and Turkey until we deal together with the most sensitive, the most divisive, and the most unpleasant issues dividing us. These issues include mutual historical grievances, existing suspicions about one side allegedly supporting subversive and even terrorist groups on the territory of the other side, concerns that the partner country might abruptly reconsider its commitments to cooperation, should it get a better deal from a third party, and so on. If they cannot discuss these issues at the official level today, one should start with a track two format providing for informal expert dialogues.

Even more important would be not to limit such dialogues to articulating existing disagreements and conflicting narratives, but to identify ways, in which disagreements can be bridged, and narratives reconciled. As the recent history demonstrated, the “agree to disagree” approach is not good enough to move the relationship ahead. If resolving difficult problems does not seem possible now, let us at least try to stabilize areas of potential conflict. For instance, Russia and Turkey will continue to disagree on the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nevertheless, they can exercise their respective influence on both sides of the conflict in order to prevent another outbreak of military hostilities and further losses of human lives. Likewise, Moscow and Ankara are not likely to come to a common stance on Crimea. However, Turkey can play an important positive role in preventing any further cultural and civic alienation of the Crimean Tatar population in the peninsula.

Sometimes, what we routinely perceive as a part of the problem might become a part of the solution. For example, the Turkey’s membership in NATO is commonly regarded in Russia as an obstacle on the way to more productive security cooperation with Ankara. Counterintuitively, it is exactly the Turkish membership, which can help to reduce risks of dangerous incidents in the Black Sea. These risks started growing in 2014, when both Russia and NATO significantly increased their naval presence here and engaged themselves into ever more frequent naval exercises. Why doesn’t Ankara take an initiative in promoting more confidence-building measures between Russia and NATO in the Black Sea? Thinking strategically, one can even imagine a more important role for Turkey as a country that might be best suited to facilitate a renewal of the currently nearly dormant NATO-Russian Council.

It is also important to make sure that cooperation between Russia and Turkey is not regarded by either side as the “second best option” when the “first best option” is not available for this or that reason. Russia is not an alternative to Turkey’s cooperation with the European Union; neither Turkey is a substitute for Russia working harder to resolve its problems with the United States and Europe. Situational alliances based on shared frustrations and common complexes of inferiority usually do not last. We need Russia–Turkey relationship to acquire a strategic depth of its own. To quote Saint Augustine, “the higher our structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation”.

First published in our partner RIAC

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“Russian Propaganda”: On Social Networks, in Eastern Europe, and Soon Everywhere

Oleg Shakirov

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“Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign,” reads the fairly straightforward beginning of RAND Corporation’s report on Russia’s influence on East European countries via social media. The document, compiled by eight authors with support from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, looks into the nature and effectiveness of this influence and aims to identify possible countermeasures to it. The report is the latest in a series of publications by the research centre, which has close ties to the Pentagon, on how to counteract Russia. In particular, it complements the widely cited 2006 report “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” which talked about the threat that Russia allegedly posed to the Baltic States and possible ways to deter it by conventional means. The new report extrapolates this logic to the digital space. Titled “Russian Social Media Influence,” it is a continuation of the collection of U.S. projects on Russia’s informational impact, which, in the light of the scandal concerning “Russian interference” in the 2016 presidential election, has turned into a new “major threat” for political circles in Washington.

The dispute involving key American think tanks, including RAND Corporation, extends to more general questions about the role of information in international relations. However, it poses a very practical question to Russia at the same time: what should Russia do about “Russian propaganda”?

What is Propaganda…

The main idea that runs throughout the second chapter of the new report is consonant with a quotation from a recent article in Vanity Fair on the “Russian threat” to the U.S. 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential election. “So what exactly is Russia planning for the upcoming election?” the author muses. “The correct question, a half dozen security experts and former and current government officials have told me, is what are they not planning?” To draw an analogy, the RAND report raises the question of what Russia does not influence.

The authors sound quite dramatic: “Moscow blends attributed, affiliated, and nonattributed elements and exploits new realities of online and social media to conduct information warfare at a perhaps unprecedented scale and level of complexity” (pp. 7–8). “The Russian government’s sphere of influence is global” (p. 9). “The Kremlin has built a complex production and dissemination apparatus that integrates actors at varying levels of attribution to enable large-scale and complex information operations” (p. 11).

These conclusions are based on a compilation of approaches and cases taken from English-language materials, most of them published after 2014. The authors do not question the results presented in the sources they cite; they give examples to illustrate their main thesis about the Russian information threat. The report achieves its primary goal of setting the context and leading the reader to the conclusion that “Russia is engaged in an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed at multiple different national audiences to include its near-abroad neighbors on its western border” (p. 25).

The main problem with this chapter and the report in general is that the authors do not even attempt to give a clear definition of what Russian propaganda is. On the contrary, the characteristics they mention – the complex, global and multilevel nature – render “Russian propaganda” potentially unlimited, and they can be arbitrarily attributed to any phenomenon whatsoever. The problem with such a comprehensive approach is that, if we bring it to its ultimate logical end, any information coming from Russia, or even any information about Russia with which the observer disagrees, may be viewed as propaganda. In this situation, the entire world is split into “us” and “them.” And this logic of confrontation is reflected in the report’s recommendations.

… How it can be detected…

The authors propose monitoring social networks as a method for counteracting “Russian propaganda.” In the third and fourth chapters of the report, they offer their own approach to analysing Twitter communities and the dissemination of pro-Russian information. The document uses Twitter data to identify pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian communities and the most influential actors within them. The authors also determined the language signature of pro-Russian users and attempt to assess the impact of “Russian propaganda” on Twitter users in Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia.

This approach is interesting in terms of its methodology, but it has a number of significant flaws; the authors acknowledge some of these but disregard others. For example, one of the reasons they give for their choice of Twitter for analysis is that tweets are easily accessible. However, Twitter is not the most popular social network in the region: only 14 per cent of internet users in Ukraine, and 2 per cent of internet users in Estonia have a Twitter account (p. 27). The report suggests that opinion leaders on Twitter can also lead opinions on other offline and online channels, but this assumption does not appear to be convincing enough, as it is not supported by additional evidence.

A more serious flaw, one which the authors omit, is the geographical filter. One of the criteria used for the selection of tweets is the account’s location. The authors obtain the location data along with the rest of the data available through subscription to GNIP (this company, which aggregates data from social networks, was acquired by Twitter in 2014). According to GNIP, an account’s location is determined based on the information entered by the user themselves in the relevant box. If no such information is specified, GNIP does not attempt to determine the account’s coordinates in any other way. If several different cities, or even a made-up city, are entered, the GNIP algorithm will try to establish the location, but its guess will not necessarily be accurate. And those researchers who only use the data available from Twitter have no way of running a mass verification to establish the actual whereabouts of each user, even if the user in question provided accurate information about themselves.

No less controversial are the authors’ attempts to link pro-Russian Twitter activists with the Russian government. In the third chapter, they arrive at the conclusion that “many pro-Russia activists espousing a pro-Kremlin viewpoint hail from Russia and actively spread Russian propaganda on Twitter.” (p. 43) The authors acknowledge that the jury is out on whether or not the Russian government provides support to such users; nevertheless, “one can envision [italics added by me] Russia supporting these accounts either by creating nonattributed Twitter accounts that can serve as part of its bot and troll campaign or by supporting like-minded activists situated throughout the region adjacent to Russia” (p. 43). Yet further in the report the authors repeat several times that it is difficult to immediately distinguish authentic discussions from troll and bot activity.

The authors cite the opinions of regional experts to support their proposal to use this approach for monitoring the growth and geographic expansion of the pro-Russian Twitter community, since “such changes might presage pro-Russia influence and operations in the region that are more malign” (p. 59). However, given the aforementioned shortcomings of RAND’s approach, and its other flaws, it cannot be viewed as a reliable monitoring tool.

… And how to fight it

The report leaves the impression that it is very difficult for the West to tackle “Russian propaganda” in Eastern Europe: the United States, NATO and the European Union are not coordinated, and their awkward attempts at anti-Russian information operations in the region may well have the opposite effect – local Russian-speaking citizens are sceptical towards media which are openly sponsored by the West. The popularity of Russian media in the Baltic States presents the biggest threat, since it is difficult to compete with them for viewers. Worse still, due to their common past with Russia and the continuing infringement of their civil rights, Russian speakers in the region are more susceptible to information from Russia. This trend is additionally exacerbated by the discriminatory policy adopted by the regional authorities towards the Russian language. The differences between the region’s countries make the task of producing a single media product that would suit all audiences very difficult: on the one hand, “No one in Estonia wants to watch Latvian television” (p. 69); on the other hand, Ukraine’s approach, which involves the stringent censorship of information originating from Russia, is not that easy to replicate in the other countries in the region.

The authors suggest that these difficulties could be overcome by way of detecting, condemning and blocking propaganda on social networks. They propose using the experience gained as part of the Redirect Method programme developed by one of Google subsidiary companies aimed at countering Islamic State propaganda. The reports recommends that greater efforts be spent on promoting the United States, NATO and the European Union among Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Europe, as well as facilitating the creation of local content in Russian. In the latter instance, the authors recommend providing support to Russian-language influencers who have a “pan-European identity.” Contacts with NATO or the European Union are capable of undermining the reputation of such influencers, so the advice is for them to be supported by the local governments. However, this should be done with caution and, if possible, through local NGOs. Whether consciously or not, the authors’ proposal with regard to influencers brings them close to nonattributed Twitter activists, precisely those the report suggests the West should fight.

One of the recommendations in the report is potentially universal. Speaking about the need to increase immunity to propaganda among at-risk groups of the population, the authors effectively mean an increase in media literacy: developing people’s ability to process information and apply critical thinking. In a more benign political climate, raising media literacy could become a joint project of Russia and the West aimed at overcoming mutual misunderstanding and debunking mutual misconceptions. But the current situation is different; in keeping with the logic of informational confrontation, the RAND report does not contain proposals that could be implemented jointly with Russia.

Russian influence is the new black

In a broader context, “Russian Social Media Influence” reflects the interest of the U.S. research community in information influence, and in Russian information influence in particular. This interest has increased dramatically over the past few years. The authors of the report cite extensively from Clint Watts’s Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News. Watts, a former FBI operative, described the recent changes to the Washington ecosystem in a recent podcast interview. According to him, prior to the 2016 presidential election, Washington’s main fad was cybersecurity, which had replaced counterterrorism, the fad of the 2000s. After the election, the U.S. capital focused on disinformation: “[W]e have these big booms in D.C. where everybody starts up a project around whatever the big threat is. And so, there is a lot of discussion, but the big difference today [from counterterrorism in the past] is the government isn’t leading it, it’s coming from like think tanks, and the academic community, and social media companies […].”

Watts’s words are corroborated by a review of the projects carried out by leading analytical centres in the United States over the past two years. Since 2016, nearly all of the centres engaged in foreign policy research on the University of Pennsylvania Top 15 ranking have either released reports on the influence of Russian information or mentioned the topic in their reports on Russia or U.S.–Russian relations (see the table). The only leading centres that have not launched projects on propaganda are the Cato Institute and Kennan Institute. In the latter case, however, it is only a matter of time: Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute, is working on a project entitled “How the West Can Learn from Eastern EU’s Experience Battling Russian Disinformation.”

Think tank Report or project addressing Russian information influence (2016–2018)
Brookings Institution The Future of Political Warfare: Russia, the West, and the Coming Age of Global Digital Competition
Center for Strategic and International Studies The Kremlin Playbook Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe

Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Russian Election Interference: Europe’s Counter to Fake News and Cyber Attacks

The Return of Global Russia Project

Heritage Foundation U.S. Comprehensive Strategy Toward Russia <
RAND Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe

The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It

Center for American Progress (CAP) Special website https://themoscowproject.org/

Russia’s 5th Column

War by Other Means: Russian Active Measures and the Weaponization of Information

Acts of an Adversary: Russia’s Ongoing Hostilities Toward the United States and Its Allies

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media

Containing Russia: How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge

Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab Program

Special website https://disinfoportal.org/

Democratic Defense Against Disinformation

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2

Strategy of “Constrainment:” Countering Russia’s Challenge to the Democratic Order

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) Populism in Europe and Its Russian Love Affair
Center for New American Security (CNAS) The Future of U.S.-Russia Relations

Together, these projects indicate that the significant portion of the U.S. political elite agree that there is an informational threat emanating from Russia, and there is demand for such studies on the part of their sponsors. The reports offer a variety of proposals, which can be notionally graded from “modest,” including improvements to information exchange between the United States and its allies and the regulation of social networks, to really massive-scale proposals, such as covert measures by U.S. special operations forces “to combat Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe with truthful information about U.S. and allied activities and intentions” (Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia, p. 156) or setting up a “Counter-Disinformation Coalition” (Democratic Defense Against Disinformation, pp. 13–14).

These numerous recommendations make no mention of the possibility to engage Russia itself in order to remove the West’s concerns about the information threat. The closest anyone comes is the following passage from the Council on Foreign Relations report: “The United States should make clear that it will continue to support free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia, as it does all around the world. But it will respect Russia’s sovereign right to hold those elections free of outside manipulation with illicit means – just as it expects Russia to respect the United States’ right to do the same” (p. 22). This idea could be evolved into a dialogue on how both sides perceive information and political threats, if not into a mutual obligation to not intervene in each other’s internal affairs.

 “Russian Propaganda” and Russia

“Russian propaganda” is being touted as one of the main problems for the West, but it understandably worries Russia itself. The comprehensive approach of the RAND report and other similar projects on information influence makes it possible to detect a Russian trace virtually everywhere, and to level accusations at Russia irrespective of whether or not the country is actually involved.

At the official level, Russia (just like the West) considers itself under an aggressive information attack. Just like the West is sceptical of Russia’s concerns about information threats, the Russian leadership does not believe, or is unwilling to believe, in the sincerity of the revived fears in the West about Russia’s information influence.

Ironically, the growing focus of the United States on information influence leads to a convergence of the U.S. and Russian approaches to international information security. For years, the fundamental difference between the two sides was that the United States viewed cybersecurity in the strict sense of network security, software security and information protection, whereas Russia was additionally concerned with how information being disseminated could influence public perception. However, the convergence of approaches is not enough to reach an agreement in this field: as demonstrated by the recommendations put forward by the leading U.S. analytical centres, the possibility of negotiating with Russia remains an unpopular option.

For an individual, information warfare may not appear particularly terrible or even entirely realistic: it can be “switched off” by merely pressing a button on your TV set or smartphone and returning to whatever you were doing. However, at the level of societies and states, in which information plays a key role, this strategy does not work and avoiding confrontation is not at all easy. In Russia’s relations with the West, both sides are attempting to question or discredit each other’s information, which exacerbates mutual distrust.

One possible way to revert this trend would be for both sides to agree to a “disarmament” of their rhetoric or information campaigns. This idea was voiced in 2017 by EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer and Russian member of parliament Irina Yarovaya. Public diplomacy researcher Nicholas J. Cull recalls that Soviet and U.S. diplomats were discussing mutual stereotypes in the late 1980s. In practice, an “information disarmament” could include more substantive discussions on issues related to “incidents” in the information space and mutual accusations; coordinated measures such as a joint fight against common information threats; and also unilateral concessions such as opting for less belligerent rhetoric. The main objective of such information disarmament should be the restoration of mutual understanding between countries, but building trust between state and society is of no less importance. One way or another, this way could prove more effective than the promotion of “pan-European identity” by brand ambassadors on the backs of special operations forces.

First published in our partner RIAC

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