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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 “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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Analysing the Russia Report: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Ernest A. Reid

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The long-awaited Russia Report has finally been released by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. However, whether it has lived up to all of its anticipants’ expectations is rather a matter of debate. While countless media pundits and pseudo-experts on both sides are already caught up in a frenzy of harvesting it for out-of-context quotes to aid them in their battles against Russia or Britain, Conservatives or Labour, Putin, Johnson or Corbyn, political scientists and security analysts are more likely to find the Report lacking in objectivity and rather revealing Britain’s political plans than making any significant contribution to the existing knowledge on Russia.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that the Report is not an impartial piece of analysis but rather a biased text that seems to use a number of framing techniques in order to promote certain agenda. It begins with an outline of a fairly one-sided “Us vs Them” narrative, in the spirit of Teun van Dijk’s “ideological square,” of selfless Britain extending the helping hand to malicious Russia just for Vladimir Putin to fool the West over and over again. While mentioning the death of former double agent Alexander Litvinenko in late 2006 (allegedly organised by the Russian state) as the moment of Russia’s metamorphosis into an “established threat,” the distinguished authors seem to omit the “Spy Rock” scandal which had revealed Britain’s less-than-friendly spy activity in Russia earlier that year. In the same fashion, it is Moscow (rather than Washington) that believes in the “might is right” world order, “flouting the Rules Based International Order” is a privilege that cannot be bestowed upon non-Western democracies and the zero-sum game concept is, apparently, exclusive to the foreign policy decision-making of the Kremlin, which seems to be intent on “damaging the West” because it’s “good for Russia.” Moreover, the authors attribute Russia’s view of NATO and EU having “a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality” to “paranoia” rather than the military build-up along their borders with Russia, regular military exercises in the region and the economic sanctions.

Hence, with the aid of rather primitive framing tools the introduction sets a very subjective tone for the rest of the Report and has more in common with an average article in The Economist than with a serious government document. However, this is hardly surprising taking into account the line-up of “witnesses” among whom are an American journalist who has indeed worked for The Economist and Washington Times and has been a staunch critic of Russia, a British writer whose books may well be mistaken for pulp fiction with titles such as Spies, Lies and How Russia dupes the West, leaving little to the imagination, and an American-British businessman who has been convicted on charges of tax evasion in Russia and has been one of the initiators of the infamous Magnitsky Act, as well as two essentially more respectable gentlemen who nevertheless are not particularly known for a neutral stance on Russia either. Unfortunately, the quality of sources also varies significantly across the Report, ranging from the undisputedly reputable GCHQ to the likes of BuzzFeed and vague references. All of the above means that one must apply a strong discursive filter when reading the Report in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In spite of its ontologically anti-Russian angle embedded within the introduction, the Report does nevertheless make a number of correct (albeit obvious) observations. Among them are the “inheritances from the USSR and its status as a victor of the Second World War” in the form of the nuclear weapons and permanent seat on the UN Security Council as some of Russia’s primary strengths. The report also notes how Russia’s “large and powerful” armed forces and heavily-resourced intelligence services, as well as “lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business” (i.e. centralised power) allow it to “leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time,” which gives Moscow a significant strategic (i.e. speed) advantage over Britain with its less centralised and more cumbersome bureaucracy. The Report also identifies some of Russia’s weaknesses, such as its relatively small population, weak economy and “lack of reliable partners or cultural influence outside of the former USSR.” The Report also does a good job at defining Russia’s “relatively limited” aims in terms of playing the dominant role in its traditional sphere of influence (former USSR) and keeping its current leadership intact.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that a substantial part of the Report is dedicated to recycling the mainstream media’s standard anti-Russian propaganda schemata and regurgitating the already-voiced UK government positions on Russia’s alleged complicity in Litvinenko’s assassination, Salisbury incident, 2016 US elections outcome, failed Montenegro coup, Brexit and even the Scottish referendum. However, the Report does also introduce some new information, such as GCHQ reports of GRU actors “orchestrating phishing attempts” against a number of Government departments and “indiscriminate and reckless cyber-attacks targeting public institutions, businesses, media and sport,” as well as apparent “links between serious and organised crime groups and Russian state activity,” which certainly are points of concern that must be addressed by Her Majesty’s Government.

Unfortunately, the findings such as the aforementioned revelations are rather scarce, as much of the new information provided to the Committee by GCHQ and other Agencies has been redacted. For instance, when assessing the potential connection between “bots and trolls” and the alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum the Committee had apparently contacted MI5, requesting evidence, and the Agency’s response, as documented in the Report, was as follows: “MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies.” In the same fashion, the section discussing instrumentalisation of GCHQ and SIS for open source research ends with “However, we have found *** which suggests that ***. ***.” While such heavy redaction may well be necessary for security reasons, they nevertheless obfuscate the essence of the Report and reduce its potential utility as a credible source.

Apart from the section on cyber security there are also sections on “Disinformation and Influence campaigns,” which reinforces the idea that any narrative contrary to that of the Western media is “disinformation” (e.g. RT and Sputnik), and on “Russian expatriates,” which gives relatively accurate description of the “Londongrad” phenomenon whereby the UK’s lax financial regulations of the previous decades have resulted in Britain becoming a “laundromat” for illicit finances of various Russian businessmen who have come to be “well integrated into the UK business and social scene” by co-opting a variety of people — from PR specialists and lawyers to members of the House of Lords — into their schemes.

However, what is of greater interest are a number of initiatives that seem to be explicitly and implicitly promoted in this document, as they may well be implemented in due course. First of all, one can observe a series of statements about the GCHQ, SIS, MI5, MI6 and NCA being under-resourced, both financially and personnel-wise, especially in regard to their Russia desks. Also, a notion of the Agencies seemingly avoiding taking the lead and feeling somewhat secondary in terms of the responsibility for “the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes” seems to be implied several times throughout the Report. These recurring themes suggest that one of the Report’s key goals is to secure more funding for the Agencies, so that they are able to launch new recruitment campaigns and expand their Russia-related operations, and to potentially give the Agencies more powers. Another recurring theme is the cumbersome bureaucracy, which seems to impede Britain’s capacity for rapid response, and the need for “greater cohesion,” which suggests that another aim of the Report may well be to initiate a process of de-bureaucratisation (in respect of the Intelligence sector) and maybe even centralisation of power to some degree.

The Report is also apparently promoting tighter control in regards to social media companies (requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5) and firmer grip on the UK business community and even the Lords (e.g. potential introduction of an equivalent of US Foreign Agents Registration Act is mentioned rather unequivocally), not to mention highlighting the issue of Russian media outlets in the UK (RT in particular). We may therefore expect to see a McCarthyist-style witch hunt that would target anyone with “Russian connections,” potential “Kremlin agents” — from the usual suspects such as RT and wealthy Russians to British politicians, lawyers and businesspersons of all sorts. Most important of all, the Report seems to advocate for a more aggressive/offensive strategy towards Russia — from development of stronger Cyber Offensive capabilities and curbing of the Russian influence in the former USSR to pressuring countries with moderate and friendly stances towards Russia to review their foreign policy programs (e.g. France is mentioned several times throughout the Report and is portrayed as a victim of Russia unwilling to confront its alleged aggressor) and “leading international action” against Russia’s influence elsewhere in the world alongside the US, with the post-Salisbury purge of Russian diplomats portrayed as somewhat of a benchmark and a diplomatic success.

Finally, as far as dialogue is concerned, there is an acknowledgement of the need for “limited channels of communication with the Russian government,” “direct conversations” as means of reducing “the risk of miscommunication and escalation of hostilities” and utilising “opportunities to de-conflict military activities in areas where both the UK and Russia have active military presences.” However, the Report rules out “any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present.” Furthermore, with Whitehall’s long-term strategy to develop “a Russia that chooses to co-operate, rather than challenge or confront” being mentioned more than once makes one wonder if a gradual regime change strategy is not completely off the table.

All in all, the Russia Report has not revealed anything new in terms of the official UK stance on Russia and has rather reinforced the previously voiced positions of HMG. However, it has revealed a number of initiatives, which, if implemented, may not only decrease any influence Moscow may currently have within the UK, but may well mean a new hybrid offensive against Russia, which is highly likely to lead to overstraining of resources on both sides and further deterioration of Russo-British relations.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia’s Troubles with Its “String of Pearls”

Emil Avdaliani

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An important part of Russia’s grand strategy in terms of foreign policy is its purposeful creation and management of conflict zones across the post-Soviet space. This has to do with the battle Russia is fighting with the West over the borderlands—i.e., the regions that adjoin Russia from the west and south.

Maintaining the 11 buffer states around Russia (excluding the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) is a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. The Russians knew that because of their country’s low economic attractiveness, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same was likely to occur with Moldova and Ukraine on Russia’s western frontier, as their geographical proximity to and historical interconnections with Europe render them particularly susceptible to the West’s economic and military potential.

To prevent Western economic and military penetration, the Kremlin has deliberately fomented various separatist conflicts. This policy has been successful so far, as the EU and NATO have refrained from extending membership to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

However, Russia now faces a different problem: its long-term vision for the separatist regions is becoming increasingly unrealistic. While in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts only in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, Moscow’s responsibilities had increased significantly by the late 2010s.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Donetsk and Luhansk became part of Russia’s “separatist empire.” One could also add Syria to the list. The latter’s inclusion might be surprising, but considering the level of Russian influence there and the stripping away of many of Damascus’s international contacts, the war-torn country is essentially now fully dependent on Russia.

With Syria and Donbas on the roster, the Kremlin now has to manage a range of territories that rely almost entirely, in both the military and the economic senses, on Russia—but that are also geographically dispersed, economically disadvantageous, and geopolitically vulnerable. Even the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh, in which Russia is not militarily involved, is under the geopolitical influence of the Kremlin.

This means that at a time when economic problems resulting from the pandemic, Western sanctions, and the lack of reforms are looming large on the Russian home front, Moscow has to pour yet more money into multiple separatist actors spread across the former Soviet space, as well as Syria. Moscow’s broader strategy of managing separatist conflicts is therefore under increasing stress.

It is more and more difficult for the Kremlin to maneuver across so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, participants have tried to play their own game independently from Moscow. Kyiv and Chisinau, for example, have considered constraining the breakaway territory of Transnistria, and Moscow—which has no direct land or air route (Kyiv would likely block the latter)—can do little about it. In Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces stand by and watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil—an indication that despite Russia’s military presence, the West is continuing to expand its military support for Georgia.

Geopolitical trends indicate that Russia’s long-term “separatist” strategy to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is losing its effectiveness. While it is true that Moscow stopped its neighbors from joining the EU and NATO, its gamble that those breakaway regions would undermine the pro-Western resolve of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has largely failed. Although Russia remains militarily predominant, Western expansion via the powerful weapon of economic influence is proving to be more efficient.

Nor can the Russian leadership solve the problem of its failure to entice states around the world to recognize the independence of breakaway states. For instance, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have extended them recognition—not a prominent set of states from a geopolitical point of view. This trend is not likely to change anytime soon. Moscow simply does not have sufficient resources—and in any case, US laws withholding financial aid from states that recognize the independence of separatist territories throughout the former Soviet space remain a major disincentive.

Nor does Russia have any long-term economic vision for the breakaway states. Dire economic straits have inevitably caused populations to flee toward abundant medical, trade, and educational possibilities. Usually these are territories from which the separatists initially tried to break away. The Kremlin has failed to transform those entities into secure and economically stable lands. Crime levels have been on an upward trajectory, too, as high-level corruption and active black markets have undermined the effectiveness of Moscow’s spending.

Over the past several years, there have been hints in the media about rising discontent within the Russian political elite on how the breakaway territories (plus Syria) are being run. Questions have been raised about how Russian money is being spent and about the increasingly predatory nature of the separatist (plus Syrian) political elites, which are focused on extracting as much economic benefit as they can from Moscow.

This situation is similar to the state of affairs in the late 1980s, just prior to the Soviet collapse. At that time, members of the Soviet elite started to realize that Moscow had become little more than a supplier to Soviet republics that had grown more and more predatory as corruption skyrocketed and production levels sank. The result was the Soviet dissolution.

The Soviet level of endowment to the republics was far higher than it is now, but a similar pattern is emerging. Moscow has to cope with domestic economic troubles, “disobedience” from separatist leaders, and problematic relations with the West. These challenges make it increasingly difficult for Moscow to pull the strings in multiple separatist regions at once. Even in Syria, the Kremlin’s spending is occasionally questioned by Russian analysts and politicians. The Russian elite has grown less willing to provide direct economic benefit to the separatists, as the return is too marginal to warrant the expense.

Author’s note: First published in BESA Center

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Russia marks 15 years of its membership in OIC

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On June 30, 2020, the Russian Federation marked the 15th anniversary of its joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference (presently the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), as an observer.

Russian and foreign politicians, as well as the leadership of the OIC, took part in a videoconference organized on the occasion by the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The participants discussed a range of important issues, including the development of political dialogue and across-the-board cooperation between Russia and the countries of the Islamic world. They also underscored the significance of Russia’s joining the OIC in 2005 as an observer.

However, the extensive preparatory work, carried out over several years ensuring the success of the Russian bid to join the organization as an observer has been largely ignored.

One aspect of that preparatory work was the need to ease tensions and explain the real meaning of the events in the North Caucasus, where the Russian Federation had to deal with a large-scale conspiracy by international terrorist organizations and a maze of anti-Russian forces supporting those organizations.

The February 2004 visit to Saudi Arabia by the first president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmat Kadyrov, who led a delegation of public and religious figures representing Russia’s North Caucasus republics, was a significant part of that preparatory work. 

The prospect of such a visit was discussed by President Vladimir Putin and the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdullah on September 3, 2003.

However, the whole idea faced serious hurdles due, among other things, to the presence in Saudi Arabia of opponents of our rapprochement, who were influenced by anti-Russian forces and criticized Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal Al-Saud, told me, as Russia’s Ambassador to the Kingdom, that “the fate of the visit is in the hands of Crown Prince  Abdullah,” who was then the de facto leader of the country (King Fahd was seriously ill and was virtually incapacitated).

After a tense, over two-hour-long discussion of the issue with the Crown Prince, he gave the visit the go-ahead, adding that all members of the delegation and accompanying persons would, without exception, be treated as “personal guests of the King of Saudi Arabia” and placed in the official government residence.

Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia, Akhmat Kadyrov met with top members of the Saudi government, including the foreign minister and ministers of the economic bloc, the leadership of the OIC, the President of the Islamic Development Bank, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, and local public and religious leaders.

Akhmat Kadyrov’s excellent knowledge of the Arabic language and the intricacies of Islamic culture and his frankness eventually broke the ice of mistrust and contributed to the success of negotiations on Russia’s accession to the OIC.

Morocco’s ex-Foreign Minister Abdul Waheed Belkaziz, who served as the OIC Secretary General between 2000 and 2005, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Saud, who organized a meeting in Jeddah of representatives of OIC member countries to present weighty arguments in favor of the importance of Russia’s joining the alliance, played a major role in establishing a new climate of friendship between Russia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. During the meeting we agreed to amend the IOC Charter so that it would allow Russia to join the organization as an observer.

Today, our cooperation is many-sided and productive. It is really imperative for us to bear in mind our previous experience of friendly interaction and to give credit to our partners, including the Saudis, who played such an important role in opening up new opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the Arab, Islamic world.

From our partner International Affairs

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