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The geopolitics of sanctions against Russia

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The US and EU sanctions currently operating against the Russian Federation were imposed following the Russian support for the “separatists” of the Eastern areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, Ukraine, namely ethnically Russian areas, which wanted to separate – or more likely to become autonomous – from the rest of the country.

It is hard to say whether the Ukrainian conflict was started   at first by the Euromaidan‘s pro-Western militants or if either one or the former used violent ways and means  because, as usual, the issue of sanctions is mainly political: to force – with mandatory commercial limitations extra omnes or, in any case, for the countries adhering to the primary international organizations – to reduce the political, economic, financial and hence military potential of a target country.

With four executive orders, the United States has imposed a sequence of sanctions against Russia, while it is still unclear whether the sanction regime always fully hits the target country or if it manages to direct its negative repercussions only to the geopolitical sector to be targeted.

In the long history of sanctions the excess of punishments towards the target country has always been a classic strategy, which later succeeds inadvertently to create mass support for the “bad” leader or the “dangerous” party, regardless of its being populist, sovereignist, “racist” or otherwise.

Today the old ideologies of Evil do not apply any longer – hence we need to invent a new labelling for global defamation, well beyond the usual totalitarianism. Or we need to artfully create many media opportunities that often –  if photographed – have no actual relationship with the crimes perpetrated by the target State.

In a way, sanctions are essentially the planned exclusion of the target country from the world market: in the case of Russia, the US sanctions are aimed at restricting the Russian access to the international financial services, to the US energy industry and obviously to the military industry.

These goals purpose are attainable both by reporting and blocking the personal and financial movements of specific personalities, such as entrepreneurs, financiers and managers of the target State placed in specific lists, now often public.

Or goods and capital are blocked.

Or again, always according to the American operating tradition, the potential for debt of an enterprise of the enemy State may be reduced significantly, but only on the international market. Or there may be the prohibition of making certain goods, services and technologies available to the “target country”.

In essence, for the Russian Federation this still regards the extraction and refining of natural gas and oil.

Furthermore, the US sanctions against Russia are aimed at restricting the export of Russian military products and, in any case, imposing the block for spare parts or the construction of weapon systems that can ultimately be used in Russia as well.

In the United States the economic sanctions are administered by OFAC and export controls are managed by the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, in addition to the US Department of State, Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.

Without further complicating the framework, Directive No. 1 of OFAC regards the financial and service sectors of the Russian economy.

It prohibits any transaction longer than thirty days with all the subjects included in the lists regarding people of Russian origin or, in any case, operating in favour of the Russian government.

Directive No. 2 prevents any type of economic or financial transaction for individuals and entities dealing with, offering or carrying out transactions, on behalf of the Russian system, relating to natural gas and oil coming from the Russian territory.

Following the same procedure of the above mentioned transactions, Directive No. 3 deals with control and exclusion of the Russian Federation from the global market of military technologies.

Finally, Directive No. 4 regards the ban on normal commercial relations with Russia regarding the oil and gas from the Arctic and the unspecified “neighbouring areas”.

In 2014, by imposing measures “against the Russian industrial sector”,   the above mentioned Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) implemented and improved the sanctions imposing a specific license on Russia for some commercial products, especially if the exporters “know whether what they sell to Russia can be used, directly or indirectly, for gas and oil extraction or whether these exports can be used for deepwater exploration in Russia or anyway in the Arctic.

Furthermore, the aforementioned BIS blocks any export of products that may anyway contain parts which can be used in the current weapon systems.

After the “events” occurred in Crimea, the EU sanctions against Russia are quite different from the US ones, although they may often overlap.

This is the sign of a political and strategic overlapping that cannot takes us a long way and that, indeed, many military elites, including NATO’s, consider obsolete.

This is certainly not due to anti-Americanism, but to a complex assessment of the EU and US strategic and commercial goals.

Overlapping of new areas of influence or their natural future divergence? Naturally different interests between the EU and the United States in Africa and the Middle East or not?

The issue is complex and not well-defined yet.

Europe, however, has imposed more traditional sanctions  against the Russian Federation, regarding individuals and implying travel bans or freezing of funds.

Furthermore, measures are envisaged in the EU limiting the access to financial capital for specific Russian financial and defence institutions.

There are also restrictions on the export of dual-use goods and technologies that may somehow refer to war operations, as well as other restrictions relating to the technologies included in the Common Military List, and obviously other restrictions on oil technologies.

There are many differences between the two sanction regimes.

The United States scrutinizes both oil and those working in this industry, while Europe only oil.

With specific reference to the EU sanctions, however, the Duma proposes to block the “commercial paper” issued by GAZPROM, which would imply that the European oil companies could be sanctioned if they bought GAZPROM payment notes which, however, are extraterritorial.

For the EU, currently the companies Rosneft, Transneft and Gazpromneft are the only ones that have been sanctioned.

None of the two sanction regimes, however, makes explicit references to “natural gas” – only oil is always mentioned.

Moreover the EU legislation is not extraterritorial while, in case of suspicious dollar “transactions” through American  banks, the US legislation can manage these transactions as if they were made on its national territory.

Has the United States probably built the complex web of anti-Russian sanctions since 2004 with a view to weakening the European competition?

As we will see later on, this is another possible hypothesis.

Besides seriously harming the European economy, which some important media sources estimate at over 100 billion euro for the whole EU, as well as two million jobs lost, we must consider that the effects are even more complex for the United States.

For the Russian Federation, however, the sanction effects are quite complex, even though it is a simple “target country”.

In 2009 the Russian economy shrank immediately by 2.8%, following the classic rule whereby the economies subjected to sanctions are more sensitive to the asymmetric shocks coming from outside.

The following year, however, Russia grew by 4.5%, thus showing signs of recovery indicating a centralized and planned reaction to both the global crisis and the economic war operations, namely the sanctions against it.

Foreign investment in Russia is still falling and, according to the latest data of the Bank for International Settlements, loans from abroad have fallen from 225 to 103 billion euro.

Hence not many dangerous effects, except for the magnification of the negative fluctuations on international markets.

So far Russia has reacted to the closure of some Western markets with a brilliant and unexpected geopolitical move for the United States, namely the rapprochement with China.

In this regard, the effects are clear: the rapprochement has favoured the block of the Ukrainian crisis, which becomes secondary in the Kremlin scenario. It has also facilitated the entry – even informally – of a large mass of Chinese capital into Russia and has finally added strategic value to the economic relationship between Russia and China.

The rapprochement has favoured not only the commercial flows between the two countries, which had been falling since 2015, but has mainly given rise to old and new bilateral projects: a pipeline, other infrastructural networks and cross-border free trade areas.

Furthermore, Russia and China, which are alien and even opposed to the logic of sanctions, are creating financial and commercial institutions according to their autonomous criteria, which will certainly be immune from US and EU sanctions.

As Putin knows all too well, the problem is that the relationship with China is fully asymmetric and runs the risk of generating Russian dependence on China.

Furthermore Russia is not interested in the tension between China and the United States and does not want to be “involved” in the bilateral trade competition between China and the United States.

The positive aspects for Russia are the following: Russian weapons are particularly suitable for the Chinese market and the plans for the Siberian pipeline between Russia and China are still in place; Shanghai and Hong Kong will soon become the financial bases for many Russian companies; the vast commercial area thus created between South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan already establishes a small Asian “EU system” that can act as an important stimulus for reviving the Russian economy.

On the other hand, China has never appreciated the Russian move on Crimea, even though it has never officially pronounced itself in this regard.

Never “make a sound in the East, then strike in the West”. Currently there are not the conditions for China to require – at  military and strategic levels – what the “Western devils” can already provide at economic level.

Moreover, the strategic suicide of the West is already fine as it is.

And again, the US and EU sanctions have enabled China to prevent its worst-case scenario in the Heartland, namely the final economic and political integration between Russia and Eastern Europe in the EU.

Moreover, this expansion east of the Russian Federation corresponds to a series of counter-sanctions  culminating, for Russia, in the ban on European fruit and vegetables. The agricultural sector has been systematically brought to its knees by the Russian policies, which have created farmers’ strong political pressure to lift the sanctions against the Russian Federation.

Political use of an economic choice, namely counter-sanctions where the European “enemy” is weaker,  that is in the protected and subsidized economy of the European agribusiness sector.

The Russian response has been the expansion of domestic production, with the strong help of Belarus supporting the “missing share” of the new “internal production”.

The countermeasures of Russian consumers are as follows: certainly prices have risen, but they buy less and even fish consumption is falling.

Nevertheless, if we go back to the general architecture of  sanctions against the Russian Federation, we can note many other facts.

For example, we can note that – apart from the weak traditional and media justification, with many “violent acts” artfully caused by militants of uncertain nature – the oil sanctions are designed to reach one single purpose, namely to make Europeans – who for too long have not “resorted to” the US producers – buy the shale oil and gas they are finally able to produce, indeed already in a situation of almost full energy self-sufficiency.

Hence sanctions decided in the United States to compete with the North Stream 2 between Russia and Germany, crossing the Baltic and cutting the cost of natural gas to such levels that only dumping from the United States can be  carried out to impose its gas against the one which can be found closer to our countries.

Dumping is useless: we can build an integrated economy between the United States, the EU and Russia, with new geopolitical “rules of engagement”.

Hence the US sanctions are sanctions against Europe to rebuild manu militari the transatlantic market that could not be put back together elsewhere, not even in the agri-food sector where, in fact, the laws  are already so differentiated between the United States and the EU to make any exchange impossible.

Economic war through rules and regulations.

However, while the dollar has risen to 76% against the ruble since the beginning of sanctions in 2014, it remains anyway excluded from the Russian domestic market – hence it is a Pyrrhic victory.

In short, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is right when he says that “sanctions are used to impose a regime change in Russia”.

Between 2014 and 2017, some studies ascertained that there was a fall in the Russian GDP and some damage to its economy worth at least 170 billion US dollars.

Italy alone lost at least 1.25 billion euros, especially in the agri-food and small craft sectors.

However, let us revert to Lavrov: he is the right mediator and broker to gradually and reasonably put an end to the sanction regime imposed by the United States and the EU against the Russian Federation, of which he has been the Minister for Foreign Affairs since 2004.

Lavrov, who knows that “there are no alternatives to dialogue”, also knows that Russia has not well clarified the situation of Crimea – beyond the objective truth which is hard to verify.

In this case it is not a matter of discussing the right of the Russian-speaking populations in the region to join the motherland. The issue lies in finding how to create a united Ukraine, really respectful of its minorities and, above all, as autonomous from Russia as from the European and NATO designs.

A trilateral treaty between the EU, the United States and  Russia could be a good starting point.

Lavrov has the mediation skills and long experience needed for the job.

At strategic level, it must be clear that NATO no longer expands itself towards the Donbass area and the Ukrainian-Georgian region, while the Russian influence operations – either covert or not – on those countries’ governments will be prohibited.

Obviously old wounds and new appetites return: Poland’s  desire to regain Ukraine it misses; the US and NATO passion for encircling the Russian Federation which, however, has already emerged from this encirclement with a clear victory in Syria, which proves its great strategic wisdom.

The encirclement of Russia with the NATO and US autonomous power is fully irrational.

The US bases encircle also Iran, another Russian inevitable ally: but what is the US strategic logic?

Hence a mediation will be needed, implying to reassure the United States that in Ukraine and Georgia there will never be “anti-Western” regimes, but Russia must be sure that all EU, Polish, US and other countries’ operations will not be such as to try to convince Ukrainians and Georgians to let  Russia down in the region.

Moreover Russia shall make it clear that – after years of disastrous legacy of the “Cold War” – its policy is trying to let the United States enter again new and old regions. These regions, however, must not be thought as no longer being in a situation of equilibrium – as we could reason at the time of the “Cold War” and of the unfortunate post-Cold War period – since said equilibrium does no longer rely on strategic thinking, but on small territorial or positional conquests.

Furthermore, the United States could de-escalate tension with China through its new relations with Russia, which would act as an effective mediator and broker just because Russia has not – and will never have – common strategic and geopolitical interests with China.

If we begin to think in multipolar terms – where the United States has often developed its longest and most brilliant  geopolitical projects – everything gets clearer.

This could be Lavrov’s new job to be performed along with his US counterpart Tillerson.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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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