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Russian trade: Strategies and challenges – Interview with Peter Fradkov

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Export Center (REC) is created as a state specialized institute to support Russian export to foreign markets. It has a group of companies that provides comprehensive financial and non-financial support to Russian export-oriented companies and industries in the single window format.

One of the key tasks is to interact with relevant ministries and departments in the sphere of improving and developing foreign trade of the Russian Federation to Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

In this interview, Peter Fradkov, General Director of the Russian Export Center (REC), discusses some aspects of Russian trade operations, strategies and challenges as well as future plans in the direction of Africa during a recent meeting with Kester Kenn Klomegah, an independent researcher and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union.

Could you please tell us about the Russian Export Center and why it was established as a subsidiary of Vnesheconombank in 2015?

In recent years, Russia has been making every effort to avoid the “raw-materials” export model and focus on developing export-oriented industries. The launch of the Russian Export Center was a key step towards the development of a full-fledged national export support system. Previously, the exporter had to apply to various authorities on different issues. In the course of time it became clear that it was necessary to create a “one-stop-shop” for exporters to receive a full range of services and support their products in foreign markets.

The reason behind creating a Russian Export Center within Vnesheconombank, based on the mandate of Vnesheconombank as a development institution, was the need to unite the Center, the EXIAR insurance agency and Roseximbank in one group in order to offer our customers a full range of financial and non-financial services, to provide Russian exporters with ample tools for entering foreign markets.

With a focus on South Africa, is there any possibility for it to be used as a gateway to reach the market of southern African region? Do you also plan to develop or localize production centers and cooperate or compete with other foreign producers there?

Let me address the last question first. It is unlikely that upon entering the South African market, Russian companies will pursue any competition objectives. On the other hand, they are not afraid of competition, as Russian industrial products, primarily machinery, are quite competitive and can occupy positions not only in the market of South Africa, but also in other African countries. Russian manufacturers have a number of specific competitive advantages. Let’s take, for example, agricultural machinery. The main advantage of Russian products as compared to the counterparts by major foreign manufacturers is a lower price and almost the same level of capacity, quality and useful life. Moreover, the cost of operation, including maintenance, repairs, etc. is often lower than that of the foreign competitors worldwide. Considering the fact that Africa has 60% of the world’s resources of untreated but agriculturally suitable land, we recognize remarkable opportunities for supplies of agricultural machinery, fertilizers, plant protection products and other solutions to improve the efficiency of agricultural activities in African countries. 

Besides, a number of Russian companies operating in South Africa, such as Rosatom, Rostselmash, and Renova are implementing educational programs to train local specialists for the subsequent operation and maintenance of equipment, facilities or plants built with Russian support. This is an important contribution to the social development of the African country.

As for the plan to establish production there, it is a very interesting form of cooperation, which the Russian companies are now considering. And what matters here is that a reliable partner has to be chosen. In this context, cooperation with local and foreign producers in South Africa looks very promising The Russian Export Center takes an active part in the development of state support measures to create a service and repair infrastructure for Russian companies operating abroad, the launch of which is scheduled for the next year. The Republic of South Africa offers good conditions for the creation of joint manufacturing facilities and opportunities for them to enter the markets of the South African Customs Union (SACU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries in the future.  

Do you also think there is a lot of potential in terms of raising trade and economic cooperation between the African continent and Russia? Doing business in Africa is not easy but what kind of approach do you envisage to adopt?

Today, African countries are taking an increasingly active part in the global political and economic space. The Soviet Union made a significant contribution to the social and economic development of African countries by building large industrial and infrastructure facilities and helping to establish national education and health care systems. However, in the 1990s the Russian-African relations came virtually to a standstill. At present, Russia’s foreign trade turnover with Africa is about 12 billion US dollars, which is a rather modest achievement. Nevertheless, the African continent remains a rather promising market for Russian industrial goods.

When working with exporters, we are witnessing increasing understanding that Africa is a new global market with a population of more than 1 billion people, with great potential for economic growth and, accordingly, consumption.

On the other hand, I can’t recall of any special difficulties, inherent to the Russian-African business partnership. Perhaps, I should point out a still insufficient awareness of the real economic opportunities, market conditions and specific counterparts in African markets by Russian businesses and, accordingly, poor awareness of capabilities of Russian partners incumbents by Africans.

As I already said, what really matters for Russian companies is to find potential partners and distributors. Many companies do not possess competencies for searching foreign partners. Any successful project which came to exist had very often a spontaneous nature and was forged due to some historical experience, exhibitions or some other events. And we haven’t undertaken any focused effort based on modelling of business processes to find dealers and distributors. Russian Export Center actively engages in tackling this issue in order to reconcile consistently supply and demand with each other.       

What are your key focus, products and services? Would you also focus on big companies and who are your potential clients? And what about medium-size enterprises?

Customers of the Russian Export Center include representatives of very different industries: machine building, agro-industrial complex, IT, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and many others. Our customers cooperate with countries in Asia, CIS, Africa, South America and Europe. The important thing is Russian Export Center deals with both major businesses and small and medium-sized exporters. Of course, the goals and opportunities of these companies vary. The medium- and small-sized exporters e.g. submit inquiries relating to non-financial support, search for partners, analysis of foreign markets, educational services in the field of exports. The major players are more interested in financial and insurance support. Russia is a big country, so we pay special attention to working with regions. According to data for 2016, a significant proportion of REC customers (about 70%) accrued exactly to the regional companies. And it comes without surprise since the vast majority of manufacturing companies are located in the regions. We are pleased to witness a higher interest shown by the regional companies in entering African markets, most of these companies represent small and medium businesses.

So, what are the key challenges here with regard to the latest economic developments which are faced by other foreign players on the African continent now?

Currently, lots of countries worldwide are intensifying efforts to get a foothold in Africa. Russia has traditionally and historically built very good, trust-based relations with the African continent. At the same, I should notice that trade and economic relations with many countries do not meet the achieved level of political relations. Trade turnover could be much more sizable in terms of both quality and numbers and both sides could experience such growth.

Reinforcement of positions of Russian exporters in Africa requires creation of certain conditions. The main one of them is penetration into the market. We are often faced with discriminatory barriers, which are there not because we are from Russia, but because we have just not thought about how to remove these barriers. For example, in some African countries we deal with the fact that European or American companies have to pay really low customs dues or do not have to pay them at all, while we often have to pay away 20-40 % custom duties, for example, for cars or cement. The government authorities, both intergovernmental commissions and the Russian Export Center, are primarily concerned with removing barriers for Russian exporters and opening up foreign markets for them.

What do you hope to achieve over the long term in the market in Africa? Describe the African market and say your final words to your potential clients who are located in different countries and regions in Africa?

Global goal of the Russian Export Center is to create favorable conditions for the growth of Russian exports. Being a key state institution for export support, the Government of Russia has set important tasks before us. This year we are to involve more than 6.5 thousand new companies in export activities and also support export deliveries worth at least $ 20 billion.

The world of today has gone global, and without the integration of world trade into the processes business scaling would be impossible. Our primary task is to gradually change the thinking of Russian entrepreneurs, who are often skceptical about entering foreign markets, including African ones. Secondly, we strive to promote the image of Russia as a producer of diverse and high-quality products. For this purpose, the Russian Export Center has launched a program to promote Russian goods and services under a single country brand “Made in Russia”. And in this context, Africa is a very important partner for us, though not an easy one.

Currently, the REC Group which includes EXIAR and Roseximbank has developed a comprehensive line of financial and non-financial instruments for the support of Russian companies in foreign markets operating or going to enter the African markets. In my opinion, the key products are financing of goods supplies (including, credits to the buyer or the buyer’s bank), insurance of export contracts and international investments, issuance of guarantees. The potential customers in Africa should be aware that the beneficiaries and consumers of these governments support measures are not just our exporters since we additionally arrange financing for supply of products and take other special support measures which are in fact assumed by the Russian state. Thus, the Russian Export Center aims to reach a mutually beneficial, long-term cooperation with our African partners.

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Standing for Everything Evil against Everything Good: Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe

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In late January, researchers from the renowned U.S. research centre RAND Corporation made their contribution to maintaining anti-Russian sentiments by publishing an analytical paper entitled “Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe: Understanding the Threat.” The report was sponsored by the U.S. Army, and it is to the U.S. Army that its conclusion is formally addressed, offering recommendations on counteracting Russia’s hostile measures in European countries.

This is not the first time that the RAND Corporation has prepared research analytical reports for the U.S. Armed Forces on various topics in international interaction. For instance, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s study “Networks and Netwars. The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy” published in 2001 and commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, is one of the first works on cyber warfare and it is already considered a classic. There are, however, reasons to believe that the rather opportunistic report on Russia’s hostile measures in Europe will have a somewhat different future.

“J’Accuse…!”

Before making accusations against Russia, the authors of the report make a series of important qualifications in their introduction that significantly reduce its academic value:

  1. First, the researchers from the very outset acknowledge that proving or disproving Russia’s malicious influence in Europe is virtually impossible and they do not even try to do so.
  2. Second, unlike historical studies, their report is instead geared towards prognostication, that is, this paper is by default “debatable, based on individual observations and dependent on circumstances.”
  3. Third, the authors acknowledge that the current problems and disagreements in European countries are not the result of the malicious actions of Moscow.

Nevertheless, Russia has tried and will apparently continue to try in the future to use European disagreements to achieve its five principal foreign political objectives:

  1. pursuing security and survival of the regime;
  2. developing and maintaining great-power status;
  3. exerting influence within the near abroad in order to pull these countries into its sphere of influence;
  4. increasing cooperation and trade with Western Europe;
  5. undermining enlargement of the European Union and NATO into the post-Soviet space.

It is assumed that Moscow will use “measures short of war” as a tactic. This term was introduced by George Kennan in the late 1940s to denote the hostile actions of the USSR and spanning a broad range of political, economic, diplomatic, intelligence and military steps.

Russia is most likely to put pressure on individual European countries in order to create a crisis and a subsequent window of opportunities to boost its own influence.

At the same time, several groups of countries are within Moscow’s orbit: the Baltic states and the states of Southeast and Western Europe. In each region, Russia has its interests and leverage that it can use to achieve its above-state foreign political objectives.

Europe in Russia’s Cross-Hairs

RAND Corporation researchers believe Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are most vulnerable to Russia’s negative influence due to five basic reasons:

  1. They are the most vulnerable NATO and EU countries due to their geographical location (common land border with Russia).
  2. They pose a threat for the regime in Russia as successful democratic societies and full-fledged members of the western community.
  3. Using hostile measures in the Baltic countries could have a positive impact on the Kremlin’s ratings, since many Russian citizens view these countries as hostile.
  4. Moscow can exert significant influence on the foreign and domestic policies of those countries given their common Soviet past, the feeling of nostalgia that can also be used.
  5. Moscow’s support for Russian-speaking communities in those countries.

On the whole, the authors of the paper agree that the greatest danger for the Baltic countries stems from Russia’s support for the Russian-speaking diaspora that could become a sort of “fifth column” in the states and a conduit for Russia’s interests. They also note that the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia still faces certain discrimination, particularly when it comes to finding employment, which Russia can use to its advantage. The possibility of military intervention using “little green men” should not be discounted either, but the probability of this happening is much lower, since the Baltic countries have long since joined NATO and have essentially delegated their security to those EU and western European countries that have significant military capacities.

The situation in the countries of Southeast Europe is somewhat different, where poverty is the main problem that opens a window of opportunity for Russian influence. Indeed, Bulgaria and Romania have the lowest per capita GDP among EU member states. As a result, Moscow may be able to influence the politics and policies of these countries through investments by Russia’s largest foreign economic actors, primarily from the energy sector. For instance, Bulgaria’s only oil refinery in the port city of Burgas is owned by Russia’s Lukoil, and the paper’s authors believe the refinery was significantly undervalued when the Russian corporation bought it. Therefore, in the countries of southeast Europe, the Kremlin will use primarily economic measures including bribery and blackmail to destabilize the situation.

However, the most desirable outcome for Moscow is to foster pro-Russian sentiments in the countries of Western Europe, as it is here that Europe’s wealthiest and most influential countries – the closest allies of the United States – are located. RAND Corporation researchers believe that the Kremlin will see even the slightest signal of a potential split in the transatlantic partnership as a major foreign political victory.

Western European countries are currently faced with a knot of complex problems that Russia can successfully use for its own purposes: dissatisfaction with the economic situation (unemployment and economic stagnation), the crisis of traditional political parties, illegal migration and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

It is these difficulties in Europe’s development that will give Russia a chance to sow discord between NATO member states and further its great-power status. Although none of the manifestations of the crisis mentioned above stem from Russia’s politics, they all afford strategic opportunities that Russia can use to drive a wedge between the EU countries and undermine transatlantic partnership.

Europe’s problems in the economy, immigration policy and the fight against terrorism have become a breeding ground for various radical parties that pursue nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-European and generally more stringent security policies, which, the report claims, plays into the Kremlin’s hand. At the same time, RAND Corporation researchers note that the assistance that Moscow has provided to these parties has not played a decisive role in increasing their influence, since they have always had their voting base. Another matter is that, in times of difficulty, the number of dissatisfied people increases, and their electoral base increases accordingly.

At the same time, even though the authors of the report are convinced that the unfavourable economic situation and security threats stemming from the countries of the Middle East will make Europe more vulnerable to Russia’s hostile measures in the coming years, Russia will fail to exert significant influence on the policies and politics of western European countries and deflect attention from the situation in the east of Ukraine and from the annexed Crimea.

Therefore, in regard to western European countries, Moscow will continue its tactics of assisting radical Eurosceptic parties, using energy as a means of putting pressure (so-called “energy weapons”), using close ties with and support for individual influential pro-Russian politicians, including former state figures (in particular, Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi and Miloš Zeman, who actively support Moscow), expanding its information and propaganda campaigns (for instance, through RT, although its audience in the EU countries is relatively small), and utilizing subversive measures through various non-profit organizations (for instance, the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation).

What the United States as a Whole, and its Military in Particular, Should Do to Counteract Russia

In response to these methods for putting pressure on European countries, the authors of the report propose countermeasures that are rather general and have been suggested several times:

  1. Building the rule of law in Europe and offering aid in fighting corruption.
  2. Provide assistance (both administrative and material) on the part of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute to political parties.
  3. Ensuring the Robust engagement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in order to counteract Russia’s propaganda machine led by RT.

Suggestions for the U.S. military are not strikingly new either, and some of them are simply not easily implementable:

  1. Deploying the military in closer proximity to Russia’s borders, for instance, in the Baltic countries, on condition, however, that an escalation of tensions with Russia is avoided (this is not very likely today).
  2. Developing opportunities for blocking Russia’s hostile measures, primarily through intelligence and counter-intelligence.
  3. The U.S. military taking more active steps to prevent crises in European countries that Russia could use to implement its foreign political objectives.
  4. The U.S. government taking timely and decisive steps in crisis situations in Europe. The United States should be ready to intervene in a broad range of conflicts in Europe to minimize side effects that Russia could use to advance its own interests.

On the whole, the report appears to be perfunctory in nature and gives the impression that the United States does not consider Russia to be a major rival in Europe, at least for the time being. More likely, Washington views Moscow as a sort of irritant, but not as a player in European affairs. What is also interesting is the authors’ conclusion that there is a reverse relation between Russia’s opportunities for interference and its abilities to achieve its objectives: where Moscow has influence over certain actors, it does not have the opportunity to exert major influence on policies and politics. Only time will tell whether they are right or whether this is wishful thinking.

Conclusions for Russia

Against the general background of the massive anti-Russian hysteria that has recently swept the United States, the RAND Corporation report has several reasonable and balanced ideas. First, Russia is not to blame for all the crises that have befallen European countries of late. Second, the authors of the study acknowledge the fact that Russia has its objective interests in Europe, which Russia will try to promote by influencing the policies of European countries. But why should this influence be solely hostile and malicious? Why is Russia seen as a sort of enfant terrible of the European subcontinent that is, by default, blamed for all of Europe’s problems?

European countries experience two principal emotions here: disappointment and anger. Disappointment stems from Moscow’s failure to join the western world, the full allure of which was shown to Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. The list of reasons for this development can be very long, but the essence of changes in Russia today is clear: the western model will not be accepted to the detriment of the Russian values. This causes anger on the part of Europe and the United States: How can a country that until recently was receiving humanitarian aid from us and living from one IMF loan to the next so recklessly reject such a successful model of economic and public modernization?

The current crisis in relations with European countries is a natural and expected response on the part of Moscow to the refusal of Europe’s ruling parties to accept Russia’s worldview and values and the reluctance to understand its motives and principal concerns. The global situation has changed radically, while this mentality has persisted. This explains the desire to punish Russia in economy, politics and sports, to depict it as a lying state incapable of reaching and maintaining agreements. Clearly, this is a dead-end road.

To develop successfully, Russia needs to have close ties with Europe that would be advantageous for both sides, while European countries cannot do without their eastern neighbour. It is a great shame that the second half of the 2010s may go down in history as a time when, instead of engaging in a much-needed and useful dialogue, the parties competed in demonizing each other.

During his latest State of the Union Address, Donald Trump stressed that his administration will “will never apologize for advancing America’s interests.” Russia should adhere to a similarly strong and open position in regard to its foreign political interests. Its actions should be consistent and well-founded, but do not necessarily need to be met with general approval. Sooner or later, this will result in the reformatting of relations both with the United States and with Europe, which will be based primarily on mutual interests, instead of mutual grievances.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia, Ukraine And The Disputed Crimean Peninsula

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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In this exclusive video for In Homeland Security, American Military University’s Dr. Matthew Crosston, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, discusses the tumultuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine since the 2014 ‘Maidan Revolution’ and how each nation, the United States, and NATO all view the disputed peninsula of Crimea. There is a transcript of the video below.

Transcript of Dr. Crosston’s Analysis:

If we’re looking at the Russian Ukrainian conflict, sort of en mass, going back to its beginning foundation, for Russia at least it starts with the Maidan Revolution – or even the precursors to what created the Maidan Revolution. And, that’s something that we get a little bit of a debate or a discussion in the West about. The Russians feel that the West sort of made some sneaky promises behind the scenes to Ukraine – the people who would ultimately lead this revolution and cause the sitting president to flee to Russia and have a new president come in and take his place who was much more EU-friendly much more-NATO friendly much less Russian friendly. The Russians always saw some subterfuge in that action. They never saw it as a natural organic revolution. They always saw it as an example of Western interference, and they – therefore – felt justified to say well if you can interfere, we’re going to interfere because if you’re just playing out your interests on the ground in Ukraine why can’t we play out our interests on the ground in Ukraine?

Besides, we also think Ukraine is a better partner to us and should be a bigger compatriot of our interest because we have religious, cultural, historical ties. No matter how you try to play it in the West, Ukraine and Russia should not be at odds against each other, Ukraine and Russia should not be enemies. They are the more natural allies. And in the end since you’re making false promises we’re going to find out how much you really mean it when you tell Ukraine secretly whisper-whisper behind our backs [saying] don’t listen to Russia don’t do anything about Russia. Come to us instead. Ukraine really believed in that the people who led the Maidan Revolution believe that would happen. So then what we call the annexation of Crimea (but yet in Russia they call the secession of Crimea into the Russian Federation because the people in Crimea held a referendum saying we want to be part of Russia) – we don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore. We portray that as being Russia forced that on Crimea. The Russians say the Crimeans voiced their political will, and we back them up – which is what you guys in the West didn’t do for Ukraine when we did it.

The Kerch Strait

What’s above the Kerch Strait – which never gets played in Western media – is this massive eight-lane superhighway that actually the Russians built and had actually in place as a as an agreement and was already begun to be built before the Maidan Revolution and is now complete. What it does is it connects as a land bridge – it connects from Rostov in Russia and over into Crimea. So that you don’t have to go through Ukraine at all to get into Crimea. That’s where those naval vessels were;  that’s where the Russians they were getting near the bridge – without any knowledge or any announcement of anything preordained.

So, the Russians said ‘what are you doing here?’ Ukrainians don’t answer. And, the Russians start playing with it, and they said ‘well we’ll see how tough you really are … you really going to use these naval ships? Are you really going to do an action here? That’s why the Russians call it a provocation. And, in the West – we say the Russians are just making up the word ‘provocation’ because these vessels weren’t doing anything. But, we are ignoring how the perspective of the Russians – near this massive land bridge (that literally now connects Russia to Crimea), how would they interpret the presence of military vessels unannounced with no declared plan of action – just this sort of mysterious presence? They did what most countries probably would do, but what they did goes against our interests, so therefore we have a problem with Russia’s actions.

No World War 3 Imminent

Russia has seen – really, quite frankly – since the 90s (with Clinton) this sort of slow very gradual encroachment where more and more members of what they used to consider their sphere of influence or their regional neighborhood (the Russian regional neighborhood) more and more people become part of NATO. But the one part they’ve always laid out is like the parts that have always sort of been Russian, and you can’t underestimate what Ukraine means to Russians in their memory as far as their historical cultural and even religious memory – that area Ukraine and Russia has always been tied together. So that might be the red line (no pun intended) for the Russians drawn in the sand – Ukraine will not go to NATO – will stand up against that. And, I think maybe the possibility was that NATO thought ‘well let’s test that a little bit because maybe they’re saying it of course we understand why you say we need machismo on that, you need some bravado on that, but let’s see if you really mean it.’ And, as it turns out, the Russians said ‘yeah, we do really mean it. Now do you really mean it? Are you really going to come to bat for Ukraine if we step up?’ They stepped up, we stepped back. That sounds bad but it’s not World War 3, and won’t be World War 3 because it means the two big sides – the two big players (Russia and the United States) – are declaring: Ukraine is enough for us to get into [inconsequential] fights over, [but] it’s not enough for us to get into a real war with each other over. And, that’s the part that’s going unsaid in the West that we should emphasize more.

Author’s note: This video first appeared at Homeland Security

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The Death of the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ Project?

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Russian relations with Europe are part of a complicated story rooted in military, economic and often ideological realms. Both entities have for centuries tried to find a modus vivendi, but have so far failed. One compromise suggested for Europe and Russia was an economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok – the space characterized by a unified economy, political understanding and even deep military cooperation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for years advocated the idea, making speeches about the case. To be clear, Putin was not the first to propound it, but was merely reflecting on similar ideological arguments of the past. A transcontinental union spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific is a geopolitical concept that pops back up from time to time and is linked to neo-Eurasianism, before which the geopolitical space was made up by the triangle of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan.

One space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which one might also call “Greater Eurasia”, would make Russia pivot to the West. This was an attractive idea for the European and Russians. Indeed, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said that she hopes “Russia would increasingly develop ties with the European economic area, finally resulting in a common economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

How would such cooperation look? Perhaps it would imply at least a free trade agreement (FTA), whose core features might involve the cutting of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Business interests in the EU as well as Russia are likely to be supportive of such a proposition. Putin stated that “in future, we could even consider a free trade zone or even more advanced forms of economic integration. The result would be a unified continental market with a capacity worth trillions of Euros”.

Surely when we talk about Russia in this context, we need to understand this space as including neighboring post-Soviet states. Russia launched its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project back in 2015.

One would think that for the EU, an FTA with the EAEU would be an advantageous proposition from an economic standpoint, since it would give preferential access to an important market. But one would expect the pre-conditions posed by the EU for the opening of negotiations to be many and quite stringent.

For Moscow, this positioning might be more economically advantageous, as the EEU could be a bridge for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with the European market. On the map, all appears logical and attractive, but in reality, China’s BRI, although not against being cooperative with other blocks, still aims at pulling major Eurasian resources towards itself. Russia’s EEU, weaker in dimension than the BRI, will inevitably be drawn to Beijing with growing grievances on the Russian side.

Back to the unified Russia-Europe economic space, there remains the fundamental question as to whether or not Russia would consider an FTA with the EU to be in its interests. Is the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ idea serious? In Russia, many would fear that an FTA with the EU would be too imbalanced, or asymmetric in favor of the EU. Indeed, most Russian exports to the EU, such as oil and gas, are already being traded without tariffs. Also, the challenge for any petro-economy to sustain a substantial and competitive industrial sector would be a tough task to pull off.

So far, we have given a pretty rosy picture of the two stood regarding the project just several years ago, in the period before the Ukraine crisis.

When discussing Russian geopolitical moves, one needs to remember how important Ukraine is and how the latter has been a driving factor in Russia’s calculus. Ukraine has always been the main point of any of Russia’s grand projects of the past and present. The modern EEU, an ambitious project that goes well beyond the simple removal of borders between the five ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia), is weak economically and geographically without Ukraine. Many believe that even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia-Europe relations were strained and a crisis was inevitable, but it should not be forgotten that it is still Ukraine which made the differences insurmountable. It could even be argued that the Ukraine crisis put an end to any grand strategic view between Russia and Europe. The “Lisbon-Vladivostok” vision, it could be argued, is now dead.

Beyond the Ukrainian issue are also other important issues which are likely to stop any furtherance of the Greater Eurasia project. Europe and Russia are not just two competing economic blocs, but two blocs with opposing values and political systems. A compromise between the two has not been seen in the history of the past several centuries, except for short periods of time when Russian military power was needed in settling inter-European problems.

Moreover, put in the longer-term perspective, we see that the abandoning of the grand Lisbon-Vladivostok vision follows what is taking place across the entire Eurasian continent, where pragmatism and a reliance on real state interests and capabilities are back in fashion following the hopeful post-Cold War years.

Over the past several years, Russia has also leant towards the East. And while it is often put to question just how deep the Russian pivot to the East is, certain geopolitical tendencies lead us to support the idea as fact. Moscow portrays this policy as its own choosing, but the reality is that from three grand avenues (Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia) of projection of Russian geopolitical influence, it is only in Central Asia that Moscow does not meet important pushback from any Western power, while Chinese influence is only seen in economics. This simple vector of projection of Russian power is quite telling at a time when Moscow is more drawn to the East rather than the West, spelling a death note to once grand plans of an economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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