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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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Putin, United Russia and the Message

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On Dec. 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the plenary meeting of the 18th United Russia party congress, reiterated the key challenges, problems and accomplishments for the nation. The congress delegates identified the challenges and priorities in the party’s work for the coming year.

Putin acknowledged the party’s support during his presidential election campaign, saying it was “a momentous thing shaping the top institution of power” in Russia. This concerns the president, the government, the region – any level, down to the local or municipal one.

Putin further referred to an action plan that was presented in a condensed form in the Executive Order in May 2018 and that set out in national projects drafted by the Government (the majority in the Government are United Russia members) and was supported by legislators (United Russia holds the majority in the State Duma). He pointed to the fact that there would not be any success without United Russia’s backing at the regional and municipal level.

“The United Russia party plays a special role. For a number of years the party has been showing its competence, its ability to make responsible decisions, explain these decisions to the people,” Putin told the party delegates during his address, while acknowledging frankly that there have been pitfalls and problems in the political leadership.

Leadership means making responsible decisions the country needs. This leadership is an enormous resource to achieve dynamic and substantive change that can ensure a radical improvement in the quality of life and greater well-being of the population.

Putin reminded the party meeting that the entire world going through a dramatic situation. In his words: “the world is undergoing a transformation, a very powerful and dynamically evolving transformation, and if we do not get our bearings, if we do not understand what we need to do and how, we may fall behind for good.”

He suggested that United Russia with its tremendous legislative, organisational and human resource potential must fully utilise it and consolidate all of society, in solving development issues, in implementing the nationwide agenda.

Putin told the party delegates never allow any sort of rudeness, arrogance, insolence towards people at any level – at the top level and the lowest, municipal level. This is important because it does the country a disservice, it is unfair to the people and it denigrates the party to the lowest of the low. The public demands fairness, honesty and openness.

What is “society” after all? It is the people. Thus, one key factor here is that people’s opinions and attitudes must necessarily be taken into account. There must be commitment to implementing people’s initiatives, and their initiatives must be used in attaining common goals, especially at the municipal level, according to the Russian leader.

The most crucial thing for a political party is a steady standing of its representatives and that United Russia does not have to fear change but rather work strategically towards making a change for the better.

Putin further asked the delegates to work relentlessly for a free democratic country, development of nationwide tasks, realisation of new ideas and approaches. Discussions and competition, including within the party itself are very efficient tools for solving problems in the interests of the nation. United Russia has to do everything needed to instil both inside the party in particular and in society in general this political culture, an atmosphere of dialogue, trust and cooperation with all political forces of Russia.

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G20 Summit: Looking for Compromise

Natalia Eremina

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The G20 is an important international forum, a meeting place for representatives of the world’s largest economies. Now, we can say that the division into the so-called “developed” and “developing” economies is irrelevant within this forum. Additionally, the G20 generally does, indeed, represent the interests of the global population, since its countries account for over 80 percent of the gross world product and two thirds of the entire population of the planet. It is also important to remember that such venues are very convenient for privately owned businesses, which, through the support of governmental agencies, can get favourable opportunities to hold talks with their foreign partners. Additionally, a rather large number of meetings and talks at G20 summits remains outside the spotlight, but their results confirm the significance of the many unofficial meetings, informal negotiations and talks on the side-lines of the summits. These meetings, which take place in a variety of formats, are vital for understanding the issues that are most important for leading international participants and whether there is consensus among them on the approaches required to resolve these issues. Moreover, as we consider meetings and agreements concluded on the side-lines of G20 summits, we can, to a degree, draw conclusions on the current configuration or re-configuration of international relations.

From the outset, we will note that the importance of G20 summits is gradually growing, even though they started out as meetings of ministers of finance and their initial goal was to formulate a joint response to global financial issues. Today, the summit has transformed into an international venue for discussing issues of global financial and economic policies and other pressing matters of the day. However, economic and financial issues remain significant for G20 discussions.

The summit is also important for the expert and political communities of various countries that assess the prospects of inter-country interactions. Apparently, at the Argentina summit, the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin attracted the greatest interest, but it never happened, since the U.S. President cancelled it at the eleventh hour, which certainly demonstrates the growing tensions in U.S.–Russia relations.

At the same time, the summit is useful, since its function is not to settle bilateral relations, but to develop common approaches that satisfy different states with different economic indicators and representing different political regimes.

G20 summits are convened to discuss several pressing issues proposed by the presiding state.

The summit held in Argentina was devoted to building a consensus for fair and stable development. Face-to-face meetings between heads of state are particularly important for handling the task. The goal of the summit indicates that the global community is aware of the current tectonic shifts in the global economy and in world politics. For a full-scale scale discussion of the problem, four issues were put on the agenda: the future of work and new professions, infrastructure for development, sustainable food future and gender mainstreaming.

Clearly, the G20 is not just a venue for discussing issues that have been defined as key; it is also an opportunity to “compare notes” via different formats “inside” the summit. For instance, we can say that France, Germany, Austria and Italy did not represent themselves or their interests alone, but were also united by their common tasks as EU countries. In addition, as one of the world’s largest economies, the European Union is a member of G20 as a single body. At the present summit, the European Union was represented by the heads of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Similarly, BRICS countries use G20 to discuss issues of their own.

G20 in Implementing Russia’s Strategic Tasks

Russia’s current strategic priority is to take part in the establishment of the concept of a multipolar world and in elaborating new principles of interaction within integration processes in Eurasia. Therefore, special emphasis will invariably be placed on the possibilities for implementing the idea of “integrating integrations” at G20 summits, and this summit was no exception. In particular, special attention was paid to mechanisms for connecting the development of the EAEU with the “One Road – One Belt” strategy. In addition, issues of stepping up cooperation within BRICS are also addressed, and there is an ongoing search for parties interested in bolstering global political and economic stability through the instruments of “integrating integrations,” which entails Russia paying attention to China, India and other Asian partners, as well as the gradual stable growth of Russia’s interests in Latin America.

As for meetings that have the greatest significance for Russia, the key talks for understanding the development of Russia’s foreign policy are the now traditional sessions held with BRICS countries. In addition, a meeting was also held between the heads of state of Russia, India and China (in the RIC format). Objectively, this format could be the most efficient, since interaction between Eurasia’s three largest states is of principal significance for both regional and global security. The dialogue on security issues and collaboration in all areas will be continued at the second Belt and Road Summit in April 2019 that Xi Jinping invited Vladimir Putin to attend.

The President of the Russian Federation was probably one of the most active figures at the present summit. Naturally, he had a meeting with representatives of Argentina. It is all the more important today since the EAEU and MERCOSUR are building up their cooperation potential, and a Memorandum on Cooperation is being prepared. What is more, Russia and Argentina concluded an agreement on nuclear power generation that will allow Russia to start construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Argentina.

The main topic of discussion at the meeting between Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin was the Syrian agenda. Indeed, an exchange of opinions on this question now, when various formats of building up the peace process are being discussed, is of particular importance. In addition, the President of the Russian Federation discussed the current situation in Syria with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also confirmed the significance of the Turkish Stream for the stable and secure development of the economy of Turkey and other states.

The meeting between the President of the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on energy issues, with the two parties agreeing to extend the agreement on cutting oil production.

Vladimir Putin also met with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, with the Japanese side raising the issue of concluding a peace agreement. For Russia, the issue is not particularly relevant anymore, and at the meeting, the two heads of state agreed to continue active cooperation to increase the level of mutual trust between the two sides.

Of course, a great number of people were interested in the informal conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who only had time to exchange opinions on the “Kerch Strait incident.” Trump’s refusal to meet with the President of the Russian Federation means a further loss of confidence between the two countries.

On the whole, meetings between heads of state were of particular importance at the summit, since, for instance, the meeting at the level of ministers of foreign affairs was downsized due to the absence of Russian and French ministers of foreign affairs, the U.S. Secretary of State and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

G20: The International Agenda

The so-called Iran nuclear deal has become one of the most crucial problems in international relations. Russia and the European Union have adopted the same stance on this issue.

In addition to economic matters, G20 also tackled the climate change problem and proposed complete and utter compliance with the decisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, significant progress is unlikely after the withdrawal of the United States from the accord.

No less important were the discussions on the problem of terrorism. The G20 countries agreed that their Leaders’ Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism needed to be implemented. Incidentally, that statement declared the need to fight terrorism internationally in all its forms and manifestations. However, the current situation is extremely complicated, and discussions concerning Syria confirm this fact.

The influence of the European Union and the United Kingdom on the international security agenda and their claim that Russia is the main disrupting force are just as worrying. The European Union, in the person of Donald Tusk, sought to expand the summit’s agenda with a discussion of Russia’s so-called aggression against Ukraine, which he likened to the problem of trade wars. However, despite the suggestion put forward by both Tusk and the United Kingdom that the G20 discuss Russia’s allegedly impermissible conduct and use some instruments against it, the proposal failed to gain traction. It say a lot that the “Kerch Strait incident” did not overshadow any of the meetings held by the President of the Russian Federation at the G20 Summit.

The attention of international actors was also focused on the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, who failed to achieve a consensus on economic interaction, but agreed to a 90-day moratorium on introducing increased tariffs. Accordingly, special hopes are pinned on this interim measure. Clearly, China will not make the unilateral concessions that the United States is calling upon it to do, appealing instead to the idea of a compromise.

Results of the G20 Summit

While the summit’s final declaration does not contain specific figures and objectives for the most sensitive issues on the agenda, it does offer mechanisms for their resolution. In this respect, the summit did not turn out to be a breakthrough in resolving pressing issues. However, it demonstrated that no issue will ever be resolved if the parties abandon dialogue and compromise.

The results of Russia’s efforts at the summit include the signing of a large set of bilateral agreements between public and private bodies. The summit also demonstrated that Russia is actively and successfully stepping up cooperation with Latin American countries and enhancing its multi-format collaboration with the BRICS nations, particularly with China and India.

It is both curious and telling that the media was most interested in the meetings held by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump. However, we should mention the different approaches of these heads of state. For example, the President of the United States demonstrated that his country was not especially interested in following the established rules and was far more concerned about retaining the right to develop new rules of the game independently of other participants in international relations. Meanwhile, China’s and Russia’s leaders spoke about cooperation and compromise both in their joint meetings held in various formats and in their conversations with other heads of state. Additionally, the fact that the world is changing rapidly was recognized at the summit, meaning that the rules of the game can and should be changed and that new rules need to be formulated, but only through collaboration and compromise.

The heads of state also appealed to the IMF and the World Bank to work towards improving the economic situation in various countries and increasing the transparency of their work in interacting with states. This should help reduce sovereign debt and ensure that the recommendations offered by international financial institutions in individual states are implemented more effectively.

In addition, the leaders of the G20 countries concluded that responses need to be developed to current and future challenges in the development of the WTO and attempts should be made to avoid excessive contradictions, sanctions and tariff restrictions. The parties also agreed that the WTO needs to be reformed for it to work more efficiently. This aspect will be considered at the next summit in Japan.

Interestingly, virtually all countries supported multi-laterality, confirmed their commitment to the rules of international trade and agreed that efforts to overcome crisis trends in the global economy should be stepped up in order to avoid a repetition of the 2008 global crisis. The final declaration states that the global economic growth is increasingly less synchronized between countries, which entails risks to economic security, particularly given geopolitical tensions and financial unpredictability. To overcome this problem, it is important to step up interaction and increase trust among all parties in international relations.

The G20 states also announced that it was necessary to continue joint work on studying the impact that the digitalization of economy has on the global tax system, which needs to be adapted to current conditions by 2019 (final decisions on the matter will be elaborated and published in 2020).

Thus, the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires once again demonstrated the significance of the mechanisms of dialogue and achieving compromise based on constant information exchange between countries. The compromise-based approach was officially adopted as the foundation of all agreements, and was the leitmotif of the event. Given the circumstances, an increasing number of states recognize their significance as participants in international relations and, with each passing year, they strive to more forcefully state their stance on the most sensitive issues. Clearly, the Russian Federation wholeheartedly welcomes this trend.

Therefore, it should be noted that the recent summit in Argentina demonstrated that the G20 is just that – a group of countries – and not a political club. This fact increases its significance as an organization exhibiting a multilateral, multi-format and pluralistic nature of today’s international relations. Active discussions in such a format confirm the relevancy of multipolarity and the current processes of reconfiguring the world. In such circumstances, Russia can most fully implement its interests and convey its vision of international matters. An analysis of the volume of news reports in the European media is quite telling in that it proves that EU journalists were primarily interested not so much in meetings of heads of EU states, but in meetings with the participation of the leaders of Russia, China and the United States, meaning that EU representatives were running second in the newsfeeds of many news agencies. Thus, the results of the summit allow us to state that there has been a significant increase in the international community’s attention on Russia.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia Calling the Shots: Extrapolating from the Kerch Strait

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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The quasi-standoff this past week between Russia and Ukraine over the Kerch Strait has been painted in the West with a decidedly anti-Russian brush. After Russia fired near three Ukrainian naval ships attempting to enter the strait (which sits as a small maritime passageway between the eastern edge of Crimea and the western tip of the Krasnodar region of the Russian Federation, allowing ships to move between the Black and Azov Seas) and ultimately resulted in their seizure by Russian border guards, political actors all across the West have been quick to snap judgment against ‘Russian aggression:’ the EU has debated whether it needs to enact new sanctions against Moscow; Ukraine invited NATO to send a heavier naval presence into the Black Sea; even the Trump administration has at least temporarily canceled a future visit that was scheduled between the American president and Vladimir Putin, although it is not entirely certain that this is perfectly aligned with the Kerch Strait incident.

As has been the standard media and political play when it comes to Russian-American relations over the past several years, no one seems to be attempting to analyze what the Russian position is, other than derisively dismissing the Russian accusation of the entire incident being a Ukrainian ‘provocation.’ Regardless of the strong desire to put the black cowboy hat on to Putin (and to be fair, Putin sometimes seems to actually enjoy donning it, if at least to thumb his nose at the West), the Russian position, if taken more seriously, does give Western leaders important information about how Russia views not just its immediate region but also its political mentality on the global stage. America would do well to pay attention to this at least for the insights it can give into the Russian mindset.

First, Russia clearly still harbors irritation and resentment over what it considers to be continued interference from the West in Ukraine, ostensibly giving Ukraine a false sense of being able to ignore Russia as the true regional power and harbor false dreams of closer military ties to the European Union and NATO. This gives Russia the marked perception that the West is thereby purposely fomenting dissension between Russia and Ukraine. Second, Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, has a unique talent for enflaming this Russian perception to near hysterical heights, what with his penchant for making nearly continuous claims about Russia intending to ‘steal his entire country’ and installing ‘partial martial law’ over part of his own country when it comes to access to Crimea. Third, the consequences of the first two problems create Russian exasperation with what the Kremlin considers a ‘foreign policy double standard’ that favors the United States, causes its neighbors to act ‘irrationally’ (at least irrational according to Russian national security interests) and which will simply never be accepted by Russia.

The Crimean referendum, which led to Russia accepting Crimea back into the regional fold of the Russian Federation formally, was the first obvious (to Russia) example that false promises were being made to Ukraine. After all, it was the Russian military that came into Crimea after the referendum and literally dared NATO or the EU to come forward and try to expel it from the peninsula. It was calling out the NATO promise – made to the leaders of the Maidan revolution in Kiev – that it would not allow Russia to make ‘any incursions’ into Ukraine, and proving it to be nothing but a bluff. Russia marched. Kiev called. NATO didn’t pick up. Even now, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, recently expressed disappointment with NATO over the Kerch Strait incident, declaring how the ‘good relations’ between Ukraine and the Western defense organization have not materialized into ‘stronger military communication.’

This has been the foundation of Russia’s tough love approach to Ukraine and its misplaced Slavic shuffle: stop thinking you have a bigger or more powerful ally than the one that has always been on your Eastern border and has deep historical, religious, and cultural ties to you. The EU and NATO will never stand up to Russia in favor of Ukraine when the issue is relatively small on the global conflict scale. And despite what current Russophobes may think, Crimea and the Kerch Strait, since they have not escalated into something bigger or more violent, apparently do not pass the Western intervention sniff test. Thus, with the Kerch Strait today (which not coincidentally is the maritime pass over which Russia built a massive superhighway, literally connecting the Russian mainland directly to Crimea and which, understandably, the Kremlin is a bit sensitive about when it comes to any appearance of military maneuvers near it by another nation), Russia is challenging what seems to be a second NATO bluff. Instead of hoping for NATO to draw a red line, Ukraine might be better off paying attention to the Russian red line.

In the end, this is not Russia trying to escalate violence or war with Ukraine. It is not Russia attempting to bring Western powers deeper into what it considers its own sphere of neighborhood influence (based on very simple, classical realist power considerations). Rather, it is Russia attempting to ‘educate’ Ukraine about who its real allies should be and who its false friends are. Perhaps more than anything, it is Russia somewhat condescendingly telling the West that no matter how much nonsense it fills in the heads controlling Kiev (consider Putin just announcing that Kiev would get away with ‘eating babies’ as long as it would make things more difficult for Russia, all major decisions in this region of the globe are going to remain firmly in Russian hands. The West may not like it, but so far in the game of Ukrainian Bluff, it is Russia 2, the West 0.

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