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No time to rest: Why Putin can’t afford to retire now?

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Though the official campaign for the 2018 Russian presidential election has not yet started, many experts say that current president Vladimir Putin has started his campaign. For example, last August Russia’s federal channels showed Putin shirtless on his vacation in Siberia spearfishing for nearly two hours.

This was probably intended to show voters and international audiences that the president is still in his best shape and any rumors about his health issues are untrue. Later, on September 1, 2017, Putin delivered a speech to students across the country with the slogan “The future of Russia.” And at the end of the month, the Kremlin stated that Putin will not attend the U.N. General Assembly due to his busy schedule. On the day of the General Assembly, Putin visited the Yandex Company (the Russian equivalent of Google), had a government meeting with the business class, and attended a music concert – nothing out of ordinary.

Putin is on a tight schedule, traveling across the country, but still has not officially announced if he is running in the next presidential election. But, one may ask: Does Putin really have any choice at this point?  Can he retire and leave the country to the next generation of leaders? Or he is the prisoner of his own system and must maintain leadership in order to protect that system and himself? While there is evidence to support either claim, the second option seems more convincing.

Domestic Challenges

The present domestic and international situation reveals why Putin will run in the 2018 presidential election.  Russia’s economy is not at its best and social unrest seems to be growing. The recent antigovernment/anti-corruption demonstrations in March and June proved that. As the one who created the situation, Putin cannot afford to lose control over it. The general dissatisfaction with the Kremlin is far more extensive than we saw with the recent protests. However, the Russian government is pressuring its citizens to avoid protesting. The Kremlin has launched a disinformation campaign on the federal channels to discourage protestors and hide demonstrations.

In Russia, any minor protest can quickly became a major one like Bolotnaya Square in 2012, where protesters clashed with police. The Kremlin is well aware of the danger. Now, more than ever, the Kremlin must keep a tight control over the antigovernment protesters. Tactics include strong disinformation campaigns to dissuade antigovernment protests; infiltration of messaging apps like Telegram; forcing phone operators to disclose personal communications and location data; and intimidation of opposition leaders, bloggers, and anyone else with the ability to organize against the government. In this circumstances Putin has to stay in power because he is the only one who has a majority of the population who still sees him as the only leader to run the country which is able to outshine the rest of the anti-government mood of country.

Friends and Oligarchs

 The U.S. sanctions have also affected Putin’s friends and members of his oligarchy. Many of them enjoy unlimited government contracts and freedom to travel and own property in the West. Sanctions would weaken the economy and tighten government spending, neither of which would be good for them. Clashes between the elites are becoming more intense. The trial of the former finance minister Uliucaev proves that. In these circumstances, any loosening of control from Putin can lead to a major disruption. While the scenario is unlikely, it is still widely discussed among experts in Russia.

Sanctions/Syria/Ukraine

In the international arena, Putin has three main areas where he needs to maintain at least the illusion of control: Ukraine, Syria, and US/EU Sanctions.

Officially, Putin decided to go to Syria in order to defeat ISIS, but his actions show the move was more an attempt to keep Bashar al Assad in power. At this point, Putin is Bashar’s main ally and Syria is Russia’s only military base outside the country. As the events in Syria develop quickly, Putin is the only one who can guarantee Bashar’s future. If Putin remains president for the next 6 years, he can ensure that the Bashar al Assad continues to rely on him. But back home as the Russian presence in Syria is using millions of dollars from education, medicine, and social services, not many possible future candidates would be willing to continue such a high spending to keep Bashar al Assad in power.

Putin’s presidency is also linked to issues with Ukraine. While most presidential candidates avoid discussing Crimea and the option of returning the area to Ukraine, the Donbass situation is a bit different.  A Kremlin without Putin can’t guarantee that Donbass will receive the same support from Russia. And with the United States’ recent approval of military aid to Ukraine, Putin is growing anxious. His re-election is the only way to keep the situation under his control.

A Missed Opportunity

But Putin is motivated by more than just high political stakes. Any analysis has to account for personal motivations, too.  Arguably, Putin’s greatest incentive to run again is his ambition to make himself the center of Russian history for years to come. From 1999 to 2009, Russia witnessed a great economic raise. From the poverty of the late 1990s, Russia’s economy improved dramatically in the first decade of 2000. Average income more than doubled. Russians started to travel more and could afford to vacation abroad, state companies like Gazprom became globalized, and Putin’s poll numbers reached new heights. Other politicians might see this as the ideal scenario in which to retire, cementing their image as the president that reformed the economy and improved people’s lives. But, after being prime-minister for 4 years, he decided to run again in the 2012 presidential election.

The 2014 winter Olympic Games in Sochi helped Putin and Russia to improve the nation’s image globally.  But immediately after the games, the Ukrainian crisis began and Putin started to act based on emotion rather than strategy. This led to a series of mistakes such as intervening in Ukraine, supporting the separatist movements in Donbass, and the annexation of Crimea. These actions ruined his image abroad again. Sanctions increased and gas prices lowered, shifting Russia’s economy back on to how it was in the early 2000s. This worsened his image domestically, too.

With such severe damage to his reputation, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to regain his positive image as a reformer. And in such circumstances, it will be equally difficult to get Russia’s economy back to where it was in 2013. If Putin leaves office now, the blame for the country’s economic collapse, the failing war in Ukraine, and growing spending in Syria’s war will be placed squarely on his shoulders. He must stay to defend his creations, both the Russia’s political path and his own image.

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On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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On November 11–12, 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted the fifth annual expert meeting within the strategic dialog organized by Emirates Policy Center with the support of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally the event gathers a large number of specialists in international relations, regional security, and Middle Eastern issues. Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, made a speech at the session devoted to the role of Russia in the modern world, including in the Middle East.

Talking about Russia’s power in the Middle East or in a broader global context, we should probably start with defining what power in the contemporary world politics really means. Is it about material resources that a nation can mobilize to shoulder its foreign policy aspirations — the total throw-weight of strategic missiles, the number of aircraft carriers and combined budgets of national assistance agencies? Is it about the size of your territory or about the natural resources that the territory contains? Is it rather about you GNP or about GNP per capita that defines your power in international relations? Probably not. If you happen to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the jungle, this does not necessarily make you the strongest beast around. A lot depends on how functional these eight hundred pounds are. It may be pure muscle tissue, but it may also be accumulated belly fat.

There is another, more functional definition of power in world politics. Power is defined as ability of states or non-state actors to make other actors do certain things or abstain from doing some things in the interests of those exercising power. To put it in a broader context, you can define power as ability of actors to meet the goals they set for themselves in international relations.

From this vantage point, Russia has recently demonstrated that it is a powerful state, capable of using its power in an efficient way. No matter how we assess the Russian role in the contemporary international system — as a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative, — we should agree that Russia constantly punches above its weight, having more impact on the system that it theoretically should have according to its ‘objective’ economic, technological or demographic potential.

If I were to compare Russia to a large investment fund, I would venture to say that the price of its stocks today is significantly higher than the true value of its assets. Look, for instance, at the recent Russia’s posture in the Middle East region. In my view, we can label it as an exceptionally successful political start-up: with rather modest price paid in blood in treasure, Moscow has been able to turn itself from a marginal player in the region into the arguably most important external power broker.

This apparent gap between the operational power and its material foundation needs an explanation. To say that Vladimir Putin has been simply lucky, making full use of indecisiveness and inconsistencies of the West and exploiting many vacuums of power around the globe is to say nothing. There should be something here about the ability of the Kremlin to make fast and resolute decisions, about its capacity to promptly mobilize Russia’s political and military forces, about the quality of the Russian diplomacy and so on.

Russia’s highly centralized political system, impressive domestic and international state propaganda machinery, its consistency in supporting Moscow’s allies and partners — all these features of the ‘Putin’s style’ foreign policy puts Russia in a league of its own in world politics. It does not have many important features of a truly great power (above all, it lacks a solid and diverse economic foundation), but so far it has been able to capitalize exactly on what distinguishes it from a ‘standard’ Western democracy or a typical non-Western autocracy. In other words, Russia is powerful because Russia is different.

Nevertheless, the Russian way of maximizing its international power contains a number of risks that should not be underestimated. First, the set of instruments, which the Kremlin can use in international relations to advance its goals, is quite limited. Russia is a nuclear superpower, is has military power projection capabilities second only to the United States. It is a global leader in cyber warfare and in a number of futuristic weapons. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power, which it never hesitates to use. It is a member of other international groupings — ranging from G20 and APEC to SCO and BRICS. It is a global supplier of hydrocarbons, many other commodities, as well as of food stock. It is the largest country in the world with eleven time zones.

However, is this set enough for Russia to maintain its status in global politics for all of the XXI century? Until 2050? Until 2030? Probably, not. If so, in the rapidly changing international environment the Kremlin has to consider seriously a significant diversification of its foreign policy instruments with a special emphasis on soft power components (culture, education, social practices, technological edge, science and so on). The sooner we start moving in this direction, the more secure the country’s role is likely to be in the long-term future.

Second, many of current Russia’s foreign policy investments are high-risk investments bordering political speculations. Should Russia continue betting of leftist political regimens in Venezuela or in Nicaragua? Should it bet on Euro-sceptics and right wing populists in the European Union? Should it invest into failing autocracies in Africa? This opportunistic globalism is distracting Moscow from what is truly important for Russia: from resolving multiple crises on the territory of the former Soviet Union, from building stable partnerships with its immediate neighbors, from gradually restoring the troubled relationship with the West.

As for targets of opportunity overseas, any political engagement should be preceded, not followed by a careful consideration of exit strategy options. History teaches us repeatedly: countries that can win wars, quite often lose peace. If you take the ongoing conflict in Syria, it will not last forever. When the name of the game is no longer military operations, but a post-conflict reconstruction, new players will come to the stage, no matter who is charge in Damascus. External powers with deeper pockets than those that Russia has will claim a central role in the post-war Syria. The Kremlin should try very hard to convert its current military successes into less explicit, but a more lasting and a more stable political presence in the country.

Finally, neither Russia, not any other nation should forget that the real foreign policy power comes from the inside. Foreign policy victories might look great and they definitely appeal to the public, but they never become an adequate substitute for victories at home. In the end of the day, the ability to balance economic growth and social equity, preserving national identity and integration into the global community, political representation and efficient governance constitute the only reliable foundation for power in international relations. All other foundations turn out to be quite shaky and fragile.

I have no doubts that Russia has all needed ingredients to stay as a great power, no a global spoiler. It has the potential that makes it capable of being not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution for the international system of the XXI century.

However, the future of Russia’s power and that of Russia’s role will depend on the overall evolution of the system. In a popular American fantasy television series “The Game of Thrones”, characters from time to time remind each other — “Winter is coming”. By “Winter” (with a capital “W”) they mean something really bad, big and unavoidable looming on the horizon. They cannot prevent the Winter, so they have to learn who to survive in this extremely hostile and dangerous environment.

Today, there are many indicators that “Winter” might be the future of the world politics in years to come, that what we observe today is not a bad weather, but a profound climate change. The implosion of the state system in parts of the Middle East, the rise of right populism and nationalism in Europe, Brexit in UK the election of Trump in US, the coming collapse of the US — Russian strategic arms control, a renewed arms race in Asia — there are multiple symptoms of hard times ahead of us.

If the name of the game in the global politics is likely to be security, not development, if the prime goal of nations is going to be survival rather than prosperity, why should Russia change its current understanding of power in international relations? In a way, the Kremlin is better prepared to face the global Winter than most of its competitors and opponents are. To create incentives for the Russian foreign policy to reinvent itself, one has to prove that the global Winter is not the only option. Otherwise the world might face a self-fulfilling prophesy. As they say, “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.”

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia and Comoro Islands Cooperate To Enhance Bilateral Relations

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On November 8-10, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Comoro Islands, El-Amine Souef, paid his first official working visit to Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with him on November 9.

After the talks, Lavrov told the media conference that they had confirmed to continue promoting bilateral cooperation in many spheres and work together towards using the existing potential in both countries.

There is considerable potential for cooperation in fishing, renewable energy, the provision of fresh water and agriculture.

“We have agreed to help our business communities establish direct ties and we also exchanged opinions on international issues, reaffirming the identity or similarity of our views,” Lavrov said.

They exchanged of views on international and regional issues of mutual interest with an emphasis on preventing and defusing crises in Africa and the Middle East, struggling against piracy in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean and countering terrorism and extremism.

Lavrov reminded that Moscow firmly supports the principle formulated by the African countries, that is “African solutions to African problems” and urged Africans to find ways of settling conflicts while the international community provides the necessary assistance through the African Union and sub-regional African organisations with the coordinating role of the UN.

Under a memorandum signed by the ministers, Russia will be training law enforcement personnel for the Comoro Islands.

Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, observes that foreign assistance is very essential to transform the economy and improve living standards of the population on the Comoro Islands.

Thus, Russia’s economic engagement is needed at this time, most importantly, to maintain stability and turn around the opportunities into an attractive place. With a relatively small investment, Russia could achieve important results for the Islands, so the first step should be genuine commitment, he told me in an emailed interview from Johannesburg.

One of the world’s poorest and smallest economies, the Islands are hampered by inadequate transportation links. It has a rapidly increasing population and few natural resources.

The low educational level of the labour force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. France, the colonial power, still remains a key trading partner and bilateral donor.

Russia established diplomatic relations with the Comoro Islands after it gained independence from France on 6 July 1975. In mid-2017, Comoros joined the Southern African Development Community with 15 other regional member states.

The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Arabic are also widely spoken. About 57% of the population is literate. The Islands, with a population of about 1.2 million, situated off the southeast coast of Africa, to the east is Mozambique and northwest is Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

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Russia’s Growing Clout in Asia Pacific Region

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In their strategic calculus, the Asia Pacific major powers as well as other countries do not consider Russia a major military power for the region. Although these Asia Pacific countries understand Russia’s military clout in Europe and Middle East, they somehow fail to see how overall Russian military might have an impact in the Asia Pacific region too.

Accordingly, the growing influence of Russia in the region finds less attention on the regional media outlets, the regional discussion platforms and the think tank papers produced across the region. This is a total contrast to Russian involvement in Europe and Middle East, something which receives huge coverage. Despite the low coverage of its engagement in the Asia Pacific, Russia’s geopolitical presence is increasing in the region.

Although its military and economic involvements in the Asia Pacific reduced significantly after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has over the last decade improved and enhanced its military might significantly, making its military a potent power in the region.

Russia has been selling weapons and other advanced military technology to the Asia-Pacific countries in order to bring these countries into its geopolitical orbit. Besides its close military relations with both China and India, Russia is increasingly building good relations with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.

Furthermore, Russia is on a spree of building certain infrastructures in several Asia Pacific countries which would make those countries dependent on Russia for the proper functionality of those infrastructures. Take Bangladesh’s nuclear plant for example. Russia is setting up a nuclear-powered power plant in Bangladesh, and this infrastructure would certainly make Bangladesh dependent on Russia for the technological aspects of the project. Bangladesh has also been purchasing heavy weapons and military vehicles from Russia.

Recently this year, many regional countries were alarmed by Russia’s large scale war games. The fact that the war games was conducted in the eastern part of Russia – which forms part of the Asia Pacific region, unlike Russia’s western part that forms part of Europe – makes it an alarming development for the Asia Pacific region.

According to an Australian news website, the war games, namely Vostok-2018 or East-2018, involved more than 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, 1000 aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and support vessels.

More alarming was the inclusion of the Chinese military into the war games alongside the Russians. Around 3500 Chinese troops were said to have taken part in the Russian war games. Troops from Mongolia too joined the drills.

Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister, boasted about the drills saying, “Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles – and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.”

Condemning the drills, NATO said the war games “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.

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