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The agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation

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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 “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. 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 “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Russian Foreign Ministry sees elements of show in “Navalny poisoning”

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Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova has yet again dwelled with her usual sarcasm on last year’s reports about “Russia’s top opposition leader” and “the deadly Novichok”. Zakharova made the comments with her hallmark sense of humour over her Telegram channel following newly released reports on the results of an inquiry into the “poisoning of Navalny”, which appeared in the course of the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in July.

On August 20 last year, Russia’s public activist and campaigner Alexei Navalny had to be taken off his flight at Omsk and was delivered to hospital in a grave condition. Well before the final diagnosis he was flown to a Berlin hospital and there he was diagnosed with Novichok poisoning. Later on, he revealed the results of his own investigation which established the involvement in the poisoning of a group of FSB agents. The story has become the butt of a joke in Russia. Russians want to know why Novichok has not killed anyone so far and why Russian special services are unable to carry out a simple elimination operation.

Giving rise to more jokes was the publication of “an inquiry into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny” which the Russian side obtained from a report on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in implementation of its core document – the 2020-2021 Convention. Part 1.41 of the report, which was published after the session, says that “on August 20, 2020, at the request of Germany, the Secretariat dispatched a group of experts who were to render technical assistance in connection with reports about the poisoning of the Russian activist”. But August 20 was the very day of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who suddenly felt ill on board of the plane and who told the passengers about the poisoning himself. At about 6 a.m. (4.00 CET) Moscow time the plane with Navalny on board made an emergency landing at Omsk. The news got into the media by midday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were in meeting at the time. At 18.30 CET they give a press conference signaling the need to conduct an inquiry. On the same day the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received a request from Germany and reacted. However, for an international organization that adheres to specific procedures a reaction that quick is impossible for technical reasons. Unless all this has been planned before, which is what Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova points out.

Russian representatives prepared for the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons far better than the Germans. That’s why when asked why the draft report contains the date August 20 the German side first said that it was a misprint and then “recalled” that on that day chancellor Merkel turned to the Organization with a request. In any case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must secure a preliminary approval from its Secretariat before it can send any experts for conducting an inquiry. Interestingly, the Organization could not explain the confusion over the dates and procedures.  

This situation enabled the Russian Foreign Ministry to ‘’strike a new blow’’, accusing the United States, Britain and a number of European countries of regularly breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention. Simultaneously, many Russian media reminded their subscribers that Navalny was hospitalized after two days of noisy parties and visits to the sauna. The lifestyle of “Russia’s top opposition campaigner” causes a lot of criticism, as the anti-corruption activist lives a lavish life, which is unaffordable to most Russians and alienates potential supporters.

Zakharova’s harsh and sarcastic statements, made via her Telegram channel and picked up by the Russian media, de facto demonstrate that Moscow views the entire “poisoning” story as poorly fabricated and will not accept whatever results the West’s inquiry may present. We can see that the “Navalny case” does have a lot of flaws and that the Kremlin had clearly pointed them out. Even the ardent opponents to the Russian government refrain from mentioning “poisoning”, saying that “Alexei” went over the line and that the  story about “the Novichok-soaked underpants” sounds implausible.

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Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?

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The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.

Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.

In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.

The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.

Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.

Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.

The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.

In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.

Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.

Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.

The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.

Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.

In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.

Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.

In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.

Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.

Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.

Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.

Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement

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image source:syria.mil.ru

(This is the second and final part of the author’s article series on this topic. The first one can be read here, and it is recommended to review it before the present piece).

Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, or its post-2014 comprehensive engagement with the many Muslim-majority countries along its southern periphery and beyond, comprises one of the most important pillars of its contemporary grand strategic balancing act between East and West. The Southern vector of its diplomacy prevents any zero-sum choice between East and West by presenting the Eurasian Great Power with a much-needed third option, which in turn can be leveraged to improve its negotiating potential with those aforementioned two regions of Eurasia. The first part of the article series elaborated on the geostrategic situation in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, while the present piece is more focused on Russia’s opportunities in these regions and narrative engagement with them. Although they can be read separately, it is recommended that they are reviewed together in order to obtain a better understanding of everything.

Russian Interests

North Africa: Becoming the Libyan Power Broker

In North Africa, Libya is the scene of intense competition between Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France on the other. Russia must therefore seek a compromise solution that prevents either side from becoming dominant, with Russia playing the kingmaker role if possible (perhaps through a mix of creative diplomacy, energy partnerships and PMCs). The victory of either side over the other might unbalance the region, creating more opportunities for American or other meddling with unpredictable consequences. Libya is also the gateway to parts of West and Central Africa, so whoever fully controls it could expand more confidently into Africa with time, thus complicating Russian interests there too (which are beyond the scope of the present analysis despite some of the countries being Muslim-majority ones). If pressed to choose, Russia should side more with Egypt and the UAE, especially since the latter can open doors for Russia in other regions if their partnership reaches the strategic level through cooperation here and elsewhere.

Levant: Resolving the War in Syria

Russia must somehow resolve the Syrian dilemma, ideally by pairing an Iranian withdrawal with the nuclear deal, sanctions relief for Syria, and some form of decentralization that is acceptable to Damascus. Moscow must also ensure that Turkish influence is balanced by Emirati influence and that the Muslim Brotherhood is contained. In addition, comprehensively strengthening ties with Israel is a must, but Russia has to articulate the reasons behind this balanced policy to Arab civil society to avoid losing soft power by having its rivals (i.e. America) exploit the narrative void to portray Russia as “pro-Zionist”, etc. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has to maintain balanced influence there which does not infringe on its neighbors, all the while expanding its role over that region via its springboard of energy diplomacy. The Kurdish card can also help Russia balance those same countries, but it must be played very carefully to avoid possibly irreparable blowback to Russian interests.

The Gulf: Investing in Vision 2030 & Engaging with (South) Yemen

Unlike the other “Ummah Pivot” regions, Russia has no serious risks in the Gulf, but plenty of opportunities. It should continue its military and energy diplomacy with all partners to expand its influence over their elite. This can help open up real-sector economic opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 model of socio-economic development for example. Still, the UAE should be Russia’s priority partner because it is obviously more influential than Saudi Arabia is right now even if Riyadh commands more power over the global energy markets than Abu Dhabi does. Russia should seriously consider diplomatically involving itself more in resolving the long-running and highly disastrous war in Yemen by attempting to replicate its regrettably unsuccessful but nevertheless principled approach to the Syrian one by encouraging decentralization. This necessitates closer ties with the UAE and its South Yemeni partners, but must not be pursued too enthusiastically lest Saudi Arabia and Iran grow suspicious of Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.

South Caucasus: Managing the New Regional Reality

Russia’s interests here are three-fold and interlinked: it must manage Turkey’s growing influence over Azerbaijan, ensure Armenia’s compliance with last year’s ceasefire agreement mandating the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, and effectively utilize the aforementioned to bring about tangible economic dividends related to improving trade with all concerned countries (most importantly Turkey and Iran). This requires a tricky diplomatic balancing act, but there are still certain reasons to be optimistic about its success. Azerbaijan seems increasingly conscious of Turkey’s creeping influence over it and might move closer to Russia in order to balance this. Armenia, while more nationalistic than ever, can’t realistically refuse to unblock the corridors in perpetuity, so eventually it’ll be compelled to comply. As for trade, Russian companies are already active in the South Caucasus and can expand their businesses into Turkey and Iran with time.

Iran: Bolstering the Islamic Republic’s Balancing Act

With or without resolving their strategic dilemma in Syria that was earlier explained, the future of the Russian-Iranian relations seems bright, but it mustn’t be overhyped due to the difficulties that Moscow might face in making significant economic inroads in the real-sector of Tehran’s economy given Beijing’s newfound role. Russia should work more closely with India by reviving the NSTC as soon as possible, though New Delhi might not be too interested unless Washington’s sanctions are eased or removed. This severely limits Russia’s economic diplomacy but does not outright exclude its possible effectiveness. Russia should seek to expand upon its existing strategic economic partnerships to reach new commercial and other ones, taking advantage of its closer location to Iran vis-a-vis China and realizing that it might take time for China to optimize its overland trade routes to the Islamic Republic via Central Asia and W-CPEC+.

Central Asia: Retaining Strategic Influence

Russia risks losing the most out of this portion of its “Ummah Pivot” given growing Chinese, Turkish, and perhaps soon even American influence through a variety of spheres as was previously explained. The most effective solution rests in more confidently engaging civil society to retain the appeal of Russian soft power, continue cultivating regional elite including through MGIMO’s new Tashkent branch campus, and relying upon military diplomacy related to countering Afghan-emanating threats to secure privileged economic partnerships in exchange. Cynically speaking, while Russia in no way supports growing Sinophobic sentiments in the region, this terrible trend helps keep Chinese influence in check to Russia’s benefit, though China’s said influence might then just as easily be replaced by Turkey’s, especially considering some locals’ recently revived interest in the brand of political Islam that Ankara unofficially exports. Russia might not be able to stop some loss of its influence, nor the gradual establishment of a larger Muslim bloc like was earlier discussed, but it can still manage this process if it better understands exactly what is happening and why.

South Asia: Containing Afghan Threats & Pioneering Trans-Regional Connectivity

The post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is the greatest uncertainty in this region, as is the strategic significance of N-CPEC+/CEC, the latter of which can either strengthen Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) vision and/or serve as an entry point for American balancing influence in Central Asia. Moscow must see to it that Afghanistan does not fester with ISIS threats that can subsequently spread throughout the broader region in parallel with maintaining a pragmatic balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. With the latter in mind, Russia should seek utilize its historic partnership with India to draw New Delhi further away from the Quad and therefore stabilize the strategic situation with all five related nuclear powers, though without compromising on its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan. Ideally, Russia will restore stability in this highly strategic space and tangibly profit from it through economic means, including new trade routes like N-CPEC+/CEC and the VCMC.

Narrative Engagement

North Africa: Keeping the Spotlight on Turkish Activity

Russia should emphasize the need for a pragmatic compromise to the Libyan Civil War, while also highlighting the trends of Arab unity and growing Turkish influence through political Islam. Egypt’s role should be afforded particular attention in order to improve Russia’s appeal in its society by showing its people that Moscow deeply respects their country’s regional power status. As for the Turkish dimension, it should be critical, but fair, though not propagandistic and overly anti-Turkish in order to avoid worsening very sensitive ties with Ankara. Another idea is to also talk about the UAE’s growing power as well, focusing on its extra-regional engagements in North Africa so as to provide positive informational support which enhances bilateral relations.

Levant: Articulating Russia’s Complex Balancing Act

Russia must urgently articulate the driving forces behind its multi-sided balancing act, especially with Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, in order to dispel suspicions about its grand strategic intentions due to the visible narrative void that’s characterized the past few years as a result of lackluster efforts in this respect. When it comes to Syria, Russia must begin floating pragmatic compromise solutions to provoke wider discussion about them in order to discover whether they are acceptable for all stakeholders. As for Turkey, Russia did indeed unofficially legitimize its sphere of influence in Syria, but should begin talking more about how destabilizing it is become and how counterproductive Ankara’s unrealistically recalcitrant stance on compromising on President Assad’s political future is for the peace process. Concerning Iran, Russia should applaud its anti-terrorist contributions but consider highlighting its regionally destabilizing role vis-a-vis Israel, though in a sensitive and fair manner. Finally, the Kurdish card must be played very carefully because the risks might easily and far outweigh the rewards, but this outpost of Russian influence should not be forgotten either and should receive more attention when it comes to the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Gulf: Encouraging the Region’s Socio-Economic Transformation

While appreciating the UAE’s aspiring regional hegemon status, Russia should be careful not to offend Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities. It should concentrate on multilateral security solutions, such as its existing Gulf one while pioneering a decentralized compromise solution to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Russia should applaud MBS’ socio-economic reforms and begin engaging more closely with the country’s youthful society. Turkey’s military base in Qatar can largely be ignored for the time being since it does not do much, but if it becomes troublesome, Russia has to consider how to respond to it in the narrative sense, though once again without risking a worsening of very sensitive Russian-Turkish ties. Generally speaking, the Gulf should not present too many narrative challenges for Russia as the opportunities far outweigh the risks.

South Caucasus: Promoting Regional Reconciliation

Russia has to balance its sympathy for Armenia’s reactive nationalist outcry to losing last year’s war with its newfound partnership with victorious Azerbaijan. It also must gently encourage Armenia to abide by last year’s ceasefire agreement when it comes to unblocking all regional economic and transport corridors. The key challenge is how to respectfully respond to Turkish influence, especially if it becomes visibly pernicious. As a rule of thumb, being softer is better than being harder because of the sensitivities at play. More than that, Azerbaijan seems to naturally realize the risks of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Russian media possibly drawing attention to this too conspicuously might elicit a negative reaction though and make many suspect Moscow’s motives, though this might still be possible to strike a fair balance and/or employ other means to this end.

Iran: Recalibrating Russia’s Balancing Act

First and foremost, the strategic dilemma with Iran in Syria must be publicly clarified at the elite and civil society levels. Secondly, Russia has to re-engage Iran more enthusiastically than ever before, with or without the removal of U.S. sanctions. It also must bring India on board as well, taking advantage of recently troubled U.S.-Indian relations. Without India, Russia’s outreaches with Iran will remain limited, and Moscow will become a junior partner to Beijing. Speaking of which, the People’s Republic should not be criticized, but Russia can still gently and very generally speak about the risks of disproportionate dependence on any single partner. Iran must come to realize that Russia is an irreplaceable balancing partner for it, one which can fulfill a very strategic role, but it must also carry tangible economic and political benefits too.

Central Asia: Cultivating Regional Elite & Promote Secularism

More elite cultivation and media engagement is needed otherwise Russia will lose out to other powers in its own “backyard”. Russia should not ever support Sinophobia, but it could draw attention to some objective economic consequences of reportedly lopsided deals and their impact on the locals, though perhaps via indirect means to avoid angering China. Secularism must also be supported to counteract rising Islamist tendencies which could lay the seeds for non-state threats, especially via Western/U.S. and ISIS ideological infiltration of those societies. Those threats can be emphasized quite a lot to remind everyone of Russia’s stabilizing military role, which could in turn justify the privileged economic deals that it receives unlike some of those other countries’ partners in exchange for its indispensable security services.

South Asia: Pragmatically Engaging with the Taliban & Constructing a New Regional Paradigm

Engagement with Afghan society is extremely limited so Russia should concentrate on retaining cordial relations with Kabul while expanding pragmatic ties with the resurgent Taliban. It needs to formulate a narrative means through which the entrance of Russian mineral extraction companies won’t cause the same level of controversy as any of its competitors, especially Western and Chinese ones. It also needs to focus on the socio-economic benefits of N-CPEC+/CEC, especially with respect to how more Russian trade and investment can help the Afghan people. It could also, however, warn about the U.S. using N-CPEC+ as a Trojan Horse for slyly expanding influence there and beyond to reduce its appeal among the populace and preemptively thwart a prospective economic diplomacy plot. The historic partnership with India must be celebrated at every opportunity to continue courting it back to Russia’s side after recent years of allying with America. Russian experts can also take the lead in discussing pragmatic balancing solutions for the region’s nuclear powers, including Pakistan, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s legitimate interests so as to continue strengthening their ongoing rapprochement, perhaps by drawing more attention the strategic balancing motives behind their country’s CPEC+ vision.

From our partner RIAC

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