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Working Under the Radar: The Stealth Alternative in Russia’s Foreign Policy

Ivan Timofeev

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The new cold war between Russia and the West is characterized by the absence of a clear ideological confrontation. This constitutes its fundamental difference from the era of bipolarity, when the Soviet Union and the United States were irreconcilable ideological enemies.

Both sides offered universal ideological doctrines to the world. Ideology served as an important source of foreign policy legitimacy and formed the basis for consolidating allies and spreading influence.

Today, the situation has changed. The West continues to rely on the liberal political theory. The ideological component remains strong in terms of pressuring Russia, although it is fairly outdated and needs major adaptations. Russia, however, is unable to come up with ideological alternatives comparable to the Soviet ones. All of this creates an illusion of postmodern rivalry with a mixture of pragmatism and populist simulation of meanings in the foreground. However, the real situation is different. The ideology of the new cold war is taking shape and will make itself felt. For Russia, much will depend on its choice of ideological strategy.

The sharp ideological division in relations between Russia and the West is the legacy of the “short 20th century.” It was then that Soviet Russia (and later the Soviet Union) began to define itself in opposition to the Western bourgeois environment, the source of an alien ideology and way of life, which must be contained and, ideally, converted into another faith. This never was the case in the imperial period. Russia competed with individual Western countries or coalitions. But, at the same time, it led other coalitions, was part of them or sought the neutrality of some to free its hands in war efforts with others. For several centuries, Russia skillfully avoided confrontation with the collective and consolidated West, while being part of the ideological divisions inside it. After the French Revolution and throughout the revolutionary 19th century, St. Petersburg acted as a consistent supporter and even leader of conservative policy. For Europe, Russia was a significant other, but managed to remain an integral part of European politics and diplomacy.

The situation changed dramatically following the 1917 October Revolution. As the only major power in which left radicals succeeded in seizing and subsequently concentrating power, Russia confidently claimed leadership of the international left. Its authority and soft power were extremely strong. This was facilitated by the fact that throughout the 20th century, Marxism remained the most powerful and one of the most influential political theories in the West and the world in general. However, European socialism evolved as capitalism adapted to the demands of the left, took on milder forms, and was eventually co-opted by the liberal-democratic model. The success of such co-optation in the post-war period dealt a heavy blow to the universalist ambitions of the Soviet Union, which was unlikely to follow the path of European socialism. The latter threatened the foundations of the Soviet regime as it suggested a genuine alternative, regular change of leaders and democracy. The end of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and Brezhnev’s conservative reversal clearly illuminated this trend. The Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring undermined the authority of the Soviet Union and its leadership position among the left. In Asia, the Soviet Union ran into a major opponent in the person of Communist China. Mao came up with an alternative interpretation of Marxism, accused the USSR of imperialism and demonstrated a determination to use force. In 1969, the Soviet army defeated Chinese troops on Damansky Island. However, China exposed the ideological unity of the international left on the world arena as ephemeral, and this was a much harder blow to the Soviet Union. On the ideological level, the falling out with China and the loss of authority in Eastern Europe did more damage to the Soviet Union than the US efforts to promote liberal values. Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet socialism started experiencing prolonged death throes, which intensified as economic administration deteriorated, the development gap widened and the exhausting arms race took its toll. Trust in socialism among the Soviet elite was shaken as well. Inside the country, ideology was increasingly becoming an imitation of itself, resulting in an explosive mixture of cynicism and frustration.

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to alter this disastrous trajectory. He tried to end the confrontation with the West, substantially modernize the Soviet socialist project and bring it closer to European socialism, achieve convergence with Western Europe within the framework of the common European home concept, and, thus, create space to tackle the most pressing internal issues. By 1988, Gorbachev had managed to achieve some key goals, such as exiting the Cold War without suffering defeat, ending the arms race, maintaining equality in relations with the West, launching the modernization of the socialist system and gaining immense moral authority. However, already in 1989 all these necessary but belated measures let off a cumulative mass of contradictions that had built up over years. The collapse of the socialist bloc and the USSR itself was a totally unexpected disaster, which was swift and irreversible. It is not surprising that the West won a convincing victory. But the victory was over the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, not the socialist project or the left idea as such.

Following the Cold War, Russia spent a long time flailing in search of a new identity and ideology. Interestingly, the positions of the liberals were fairly weak both in Russia and all the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Nationalism was consistently gaining ground across the vast post-communist space. In Central and Eastern Europe, it fit well with the new democratic institutions and the common course toward integration with the EU and NATO. However, in the post-Soviet space, it took on a starkly ethnic nature and was accompanied by the degradation of institutions. In many cases, Russia was portrayed as part of a “dark chapter” in national histories, and Russophobia became a convenient tool for national consolidation.

Developments in Russia followed the nationalist trend in general. Liberalism was quickly defeated here. It was torpedoed by a weak social base, unsuccessful reforms, severe economic crisis and an overall disappointment in ideological prescriptions as such. On the contrary, nationalism proved to be a convenient alternative for unifying a frustrated and disparate society. It relied on patriotism, consolidation around common threats to security, emphasis on continuity with both the Soviet and imperial history, an end to denying the Soviet past, and an independent foreign policy. The leadership of Vladimir Putin, who personified the new political course, played an important role. The lost sense of dignity returned to Russian society. It began to acquire a new national identity.

Seemingly, all this brought Russia back into the tradition of the imperial era, when the country played an independent role, but always was a systemic “Western” player. This logic also seemed to underlie Russia’s massive support for the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the pushback (along with Germany and France) against the US invasion of Iraq. Russia regained its space for foreign policy maneuvering and was no longer constrained by a universalist ideology.

However, unlike the imperial era, the West itself retained both military-political and ideological consolidation. As soon as Moscow’s foreign policy activities crossed the “red lines,” all the power of Western ideology concentrated on Russia once again. Only this time around, there is no global alternative on our side. We are forced to play the West no longer on the global field, but our own one, contrasting liberal universalism with our own nationalism. This is an extremely risky game, because the nationalism of a single country will never become global. It can succeed in beating liberalism on its own field, but this will only reduce the game to a draw and provide no guarantees against a new game at the worst time for the country at that. Russia entered a new cold war with the ambitions of the USSR, but without its power, ideology, or authority it enjoyed in its better years.

What are the alternatives? The first is to return to the status quo of the conventional pre-Munich period. The problem is that a tactical retreat here may well turn into a landslide loss of ground as it happened in the early 1990s. Especially if such a maneuver coincides with the aggravation of domestic problems.

The second alternative is an attempt to build one’s own global alternative. It is also an undesirable option given the obvious inability at this stage to back up a global ideology with an effective economy, appealing way of life or other important elements. The attempt to play on the same field with Western liberalism will lead to an even greater depletion of resources.

Finally, there is the third alternative which I would call the “stealth alternative.” By this I mean Russia gradually disappearing from the Western radars as a threat, while it accumulates resources, builds regional integration projects in Eurasia, expands its participation in international organizations and increases its role in resolving global issues. This approach implies preserving and strengthening foreign policy positions along with a qualitative change in the language of communication with the West and the outside world in general. The language and the narrative of our foreign policy will play the key role. It is time for us to quit constantly complaining about the treachery of the West, and stop dwelling on who cheated us and how in the 1990s. The West is unlikely to have any compunctions. However, such rhetoric creates a depressive impression outside the Western world. Threats must be countered, but one should not obsess over them. We need a language of opportunities that we see for ourselves in the world, and which we want to offer the world. Fortunately, Russia has something to work with in this area.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver

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With economies experiencing contractions across the globe and with governments in the third world most vulnerable, discussions of debt relief have been revived. Yet, forgiving old debts is nothing new to the Kremlin. For the Russian government, it has been just one part of a wider diplomatic toolkit to rekindle ties that have faltered since the end of the Cold War.

Once the primary backer of numerous states over large swathes of the globe, Moscow largely retreated from the non-Soviet space during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and it continued to not be a primary concern during Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as head of state. However, Russia’s resurgence on the international arena over the past few years has not only made the country more willing to re-engage with the region but also more capable.

International media has primarily viewed this through the lens of military strength. Whether it is sending trainers and advisors to the Central African Republic, allegedly supporting rebels in Libya, or deploying Wagner Group forces to fight an Islamic State-offshoot in Mozambique, the focus has primarily been conflict-oriented. However, less explored is the quieter and more economic measures that the Russian government has taken in order to win hearts and minds outside of the West.

As part of a debt-for-development programme, Russia has forgiven approximately $20 billion worth of debt to various African governments that was accrued during the Soviet period. Beneficiaries include the Commonwealth nation of Tanzania and Francophonie member Madagascar, along with others. In forgiving these loans, the Kremlin has acknowledged a reality that many countries continue to deny: such debts are unpayable. At the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, Putin stated explicitly that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”

These measures have yielded concrete benefits for the previously indebted countries. For example, the decision to forgive Mozambique’s $40 million debt was done in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Programme, with the money that was intended for debt repayment instead being used to provide free school meals for 150,000 children over the course of five years.

While Russia will potentially be losing some money in the short term, debt forgiveness is likely to open new doors moving forward. Many of the countries that have seen their debts written off have significant economic and geopolitical potential. With improved political relations as a consequence, it is hoped that Russian companies will get preferential treatment should contracts be offered to international firms. This could help explain the Kremlin’s decision to forgive 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt despite the latter’s weak position. Russia has been eager to develop a trans-Korean gas pipeline that would transport fuel to South Korea. While the likelihood of this being realised remains slim, in the context of Pyongyang’s inability to repay the debt in any case, it is a reasonable gamble to make on the part of the Russian government.

This is somewhat similar to China’s efforts over the past few years, albeit in an inverse form. With Beijing less cash-strapped than Moscow, it is able to invest directly whereas Russia is using debt forgiveness to redirect cash payments away from servicing old debts and instead towards domestic reinvestments. Free projects, such as the Chinese-funded and constructed headquarters of the African Union, have been followed by ever-growing economic and political relations.

Russia’s debt policy has been used to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. While not all Soviet-era allies have retained close ties to Moscow, many have done so continuously since the Cold War. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian debt forgiveness has been Cuba. In July 2014, ahead of a visit to the island nation by Putin, the Russian government wrote off 90% of Cuban debt. Though Russia was not only the country that showed willingness to restructure Cuba’s debt obligations at the time, it was by far the most generous. China restructured approximately $6 billion while Japan and Mexico forgave $1.4 billion and $478 million, respectively; Russia forgave $32 billion.

The decision did reaffirm the close relations between Moscow and Havana. Cuba has repeatedly voted in support of the Russian Federation at the United Nations on sensitive topics, such as Crimea, and Russian firms have received multiple drilling and mining contracts from the Caribbean country.

However, this strategy has its limitations. The overwhelming majority of these debts date back to the Soviet era and are therefore limited in scope. Some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia (which saw most of their debts forgiven in the 1990’s), were primarily recipients of military support during civil wars so their debts were not as vast as other heavily indebted countries with other creditors. Since then, despite respite from Moscow, such countries have continued to become increasingly burdened by growing debts. While Ethiopia is often heralded as an example of rapid economic growth, its debt, both in total but also has a percentage of GDP, has grown considerably during the post-Soviet era.

While debt relief is undeniably beneficial to the third world, the fact that Russian-owned debts constitute a mere fraction of all foreign-owned debts in most cases means that the act of writing debts off cannot achieve much in of themselves. Consequently, in several countries, the gesture is mostly a PR move. In the case of Afghanistan, where Russia was the largest creditor due to loans handed out during the 1980’s, Kabul had for decades refused to recognise the debt. The decision to forgive the debt was therefore more of a signal of a desire to improve relations than any hope to achieve instantaneously tangible rewards.

The largest stumbling block for the Kremlin’s efforts remain structural issues afflicting the indebted nations, the nature of which vary considerably from country to country. For example, while Russia has forgiven a majority of Iraq’s debt to the country, which in turn helped revive talks over potential oil contracts, the continued instability in the Middle Eastern nation makes it difficult to reap many benefits. Though it is true that Baghdad has continued to purchase Russian T-90 tanks and attack helicopters, this is more of a sign that Russia has partially managed to pivot Iraq away from the United States’ sphere of influence as opposed to gaining economically.

With the onset of coronavirus, however, Russia might not be the leading debt forgiver for very long. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where economies are expected to continue shrinking while deficits are set to grow, other creditors could potentially step in and likewise forgive debts. In April of this year, G20 leaders agreed to extend debt relief in the form of a moratorium on debt repayment yet this can only serve as a short term solution. With many governments already increasing their borrowing, creditor nations are well positioned to leverage their position in order to improve geopolitical relationships as well as set the stage for favourable contracts for their firms. If more countries follow Moscow’s path, then the significance of what the Kremlin has done will only recede and lose much of its relevance.

Debt forgiveness can win friends but can only go so far. For Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers to stick, they will need to continue complementing it with other efforts, such as improving trade and boosting security partnerships, in order to truly make the most of its financial generosity.

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The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions

Emil Avdaliani

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For Russia, the crisis in Belarus caused by the August presidential election result is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run.

Whatever the arguments propounded by world analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into serious geopolitical game.

For Moscow, the Belarus problem has been about geopolitics from the very beginning, though it was only on August 27 of this year that Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”

The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas similar to those created in Ukraine before 2014. The Russians further grasp that in Ukraine, the situation was out of control even before the Maidan Revolution. Moscow’s influence was not sufficient to stop Ukraine’s gradual shift toward closer ties with the collective West.

For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary” fervor that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. What is troubling is whether or not the Russians see this process as an expression of the popular will that is largely independent of the West. Several indicators point to an ingrained belief within the Russian political elite that in fact the West has orchestrated the popular upheaval in Belarus.

Russian history might be of help here. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought the spread of European revolutionary thought along and inside its borders. It built alliances to confront it and fought wars to forestall its progress. But in the end, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent policies of the Communist Party were largely based on European thought, though many western ideas were changed or entirely refashioned.

Similar developments took place during the late Soviet period. By the 1980s, popular disapproval of the Soviet system had grown exponentially. A revolutionary fervor for independence ran amok in the Baltic states, Ukraine, and elsewhere. True reforms would have served as a cure, but half-hearted economic and social measures only deepened the crisis. Military power was used in a number of capitals of Soviet republics, but again only half-heartedly. Thus was the entire Soviet edifice brought down.

Modern Russian leadership should see that there is essentially no cure for popular grievances and mass movements along its borders. Russian history gives multiple examples of how military intervention against revolutionary fervor can bring immediate results but leave long-term prospects bleak. The defeat of revolutionary passions can only take place by minimizing those economic, social, and state-system problems that usually generate popular upheaval. This is the dilemma now facing modern Russia. The revolutions that occurred over the past 20 years, and the situation today in Belarus, all fit into this pattern.

For the moment, Lukashenko has won this round of strife with the protesters, and his rule is highly likely to continue. But what is equally certain is that the protests gave birth to a massive popular movement in a country that was once famous for the quiescence of its population.

Russia fears that eventually, this revolutionary tide will close in on Russian society. Lukashenko has stressed this idea, saying in an interview that mass disturbances will one day reach Moscow. Many rightly believed this was a ploy by Lukashenko to scare the Russians into supporting him—after all, Belarus is far smaller than Russia and much less important than Ukraine. Still, Lukashenko was right insofar as he pinpointed possible long-term problems Russia could face as it moves closer to 2036.

Much depends on the West as well. It faces a dilemma in which it ought to pursue a policy of vocal condemnation and perhaps even impose heavy sanctions—but from a balance of power perspective, moves like those would distance Minsk and push it closer to the Russian orbit. This dilemma of morality versus geopolitical calculus will haunt the West in the years to come.

Belarus exports 10.5 million tons of oil products per year, including about six million tons through the ports of the Baltic states to world markets and another 3–3.5 million tons to Ukraine. Redirecting flows from the Baltic ports to Russian ones has been discussed, but this option is less attractive to Minsk because of the longer distances involved. This comes at a time when the Baltic states imposed sanctions on high-ranking Belarussian officials and the EU is pondering serious measures.

With each such move from the West, Russia gets another opportunity. Russia has professed interest in encouraging Belarus to redirect its oil exports to Russian ports and has agreed to refinance a $1 billion debt to Russia.

A broader picture might help put the events in Belarus in context. In the South Caucasus, the Russians appear to have reached the limit of their influence. They more or less firmly control the overall geopolitical picture, but have nevertheless failed to derail Western resolve to compete in this region. In Central Asia, Russia has more secure positions, but the region in general is less important to the Kremlin than the western borderlands.

It is thus the western front—Belarus and Ukraine—that is a major theater for Moscow. Since 2015, many have believed that Syria is Russia’s top geopolitical theater, but this assumption is based simply on the intensity of the immediate processes that are transpiring in the Middle East. With or without Syria, Moscow’s global standing will not be fundamentally damaged. Belarus is a different matter entirely. Changes there, and by extension a potentially anti-Russian state, would constitute a direct threat to Moscow.

For Russia, Belarus is the last safe buffer zone on its western border. Ukraine is lost, as is Moldova, and the Baltic states have long been under NATO protection. Only Belarus serves as a bridge for Russia to move militarily into the heart of Europe. To lose it would be tantamount to a complete “encirclement” of Russia by the West, as argued by Russian politicians.

This geopolitical reality also means that Belarus is the country that will remain most susceptible to Russian geopolitical influence. No wonder Russia is pushing to station its air base on Belarussian soil, reinvigorate the Union state, and intensify Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. As was the case with Ukraine, the upheaval in Belarus is about regional geopolitics.

Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org

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The Navalny case: Violent maintenance of the Cold War

Slavisha Batko Milacic

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We are currently witnessing the rise of the Cold War, through the media, after the case “poisoning” of Alexei Navalny. The case was used to raise tensions between Moscow and the European Union to the maximum.

Apparently, Alexei Navalny became a victim of poisoning. Yet none of this we can know for sure. However, after the mentioned event, an avalanche of statements “about the orderers of poisoning” was initiated by prominent European and American representatives. Without any critical review, avalanches began to fall in the direction of Moscow and President Vladimir Putin as the main culprit.

One of the first countries from which the avalanche of accusations started was France. Francois Croquet, France’s ambassador for human rights, said: “We know who is to blame.” A very undiplomatic statement for a diplomat, which went beyond the official framework of communication. Francois Crockett joined the wave of accusations against Russia with his statements before any investigation.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that in his opinion, “she (Russia) should have conducted an investigation, and when the culprits are found, they should be tried, to learn a lesson, because this is not the first case of poisoning.” ». The statement, very fierce, but outside the position held by the person in question. The statements of prominent diplomats call into question the international authority of France’s voice in the world.

These statements are aggressively joined by many politicians in Eastern Europe, especially those who feel revanchism towards Russia because of the Eastern Bloc, and further project of Russophobia, which are in line with the great energy battle over the construction of Nord Stream 2, which involved the case of Alexei Navalny.

What do we know so far about Navalny and his treatment. Navalny was initially treated in Russian hospitals, by doctors who did not detect any presence of poison, and then he was transferred to Germany, where it was determined that he was intentionally poisoned. His transport was organized by the “Cinema in the Name of Peace” organization, which was responsible for “rescuing” the group “PussyRiot”, which considered the act of imitation of abortion in the church to be an expression of artistic performance.

In the light of the situation with Russian opposition member Alexey Navalny admitted to the “Charite” hospital in Berlin with the symptoms of poisoning European and particularly German politicians and journalists opened yet another page of blatant Russophobia. Many of them push forward the theory of poisoning creating a classic image of the bloody Russian state trying to get rid of another enemy as in their vision it happened with Sergey Skripal. Even though no proofs are available and the statements of German doctors are scarce of details, this case is claimed to deepen the crisis in German-Russian relations. Some Bundestag members even call to cancel Nord Stream-2 as a punishment for the Russian government.

Despite the media hysteria encouraged by many politicians from the West, there are those who did not succumb to the first wave of Russophobia, and looked more soberly at the event related to Alexei Navalny and asked for additional evidence. For example the Vice President of the Flemish Parliament Filip Dewinter:

“Until now there is no real proof that Navalny was poisoned. I have the impression that countries like Germany are building up the pressure against Russia. The Navalny-issue is once again a perfect excuse to compromise the Russian authorities with violence and oppression against the ‘opposition’ … An objective and neutral investigation will tell“ stated Mr. Filip Dewinter.

His statements are not alone

Chairman of the “Prussian Society Berlin-Brandenburg” Volker Tschapke stated:

“Facing constant anti-Russian propaganda on different levels, I am not surprised with such an attitude, yet I can’t accept it. One of the key principles of any democratic society is the benefit of the doubt: nobody can be declared guilty until the proper investigation is conducted. Too bad, looks like this principle doesn’t work in Europe anymore. I’d like to wish Mr. Navalny to recover very soon and to call German politicians to stick to democratic values and stop pointing fingers at the Russian government without any substantial evidence base.“ said Mr. Tschapke.

Doubts about the case are also expressed by Member of the Parliament of Italy Paolo Grimoldi:

“I don’t trust the “institutional attack” to Navalny in Russia. He has many enemies, especially outside politics, in his life. In my opinion, it doesn’t look like an attempt to eliminate a political opponent. If any Russian top institutional level ever wanted to strike Navalny they would act more efficiently so let’s be serious and stop attacking Russia for nothing, stated Mr. Grimoldi.  

Divided statements regarding Navalny’s case tell us that, unlike in 2014, American power is declining and that European politicians do not make synergistic statements against Russia, but many of them view things with common sense and seek additional evidence for accusations against Russia. More and more Europeans are asking the questions: How is Russia threatening us? What will happen terribly for Europe if Nord Stream 2 is built? Most understand that the conflict in which America is pushing Europe with Russia has nothing to do with European interests, but with American ones.

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