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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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Why We Should Not Expect Russia to be Welcomed Back into the G7

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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The history of relations between Russia and the G7 can be compared to a multi-act play with a convoluted storyline, magnificent scenery, a number of vivid characters and unexpected plot twists.

Objectively, such a play more looks like an epic tragedy or, at worst, a sentimental melodrama. But, personally, I liken the misadventures of the “Group of Seven,” which has not become a full-fledged “Group of Eight,” to Moliere’s famous comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.

This comedy tells the story of a French “bourgeois” of the 17th century, Monsieur Jourdain, who dreams passionately of being accepted into noble society. Everybody who can take advantage of this obsessive idea of the naïve Jourdain, including toadies from among the impoverished aristocrats, numerous tutors of how to act correctly in “high society” and even his closest relatives do just that. In the end, Monsieur Jourdain’s dream almost comes true: during a pompous and fanciful ceremony, he is awarded an imaginary Turkish high rank of Mamamouchi. The initiation ceremony, of course, turns out to be a complete deception and a swindle.

I will dare state that, like Monsieur Jourdain, who never turned into a real nobleman, Russia, even after formally joining the G7 in 1998, never became a full member of this group. Some of the issues – especially those related to economics and finance – were still discussed in the G7 format, and the annual G8 summits turned Russia into an object of criticism and mentoring edifications more often than any other member of this club. Mutual grievances, frustrations and claims had been accumulating for many years, and the sad reality of 2014 was either a historical inevitability or at least a completely predictable ending to a protracted play.

When President Yeltsin first submitted an application for Russia’s membership in the G7 back in 1992, there were simply no other alternative associations in the world where Moscow could try to squeeze in. Structures such as the G20, BRICS or SCO did not exist at the time, and Russia’s membership in NATO and the European Union seemed unrealistic even then. Therefore, joining the “Group of Seven” not only pursued situational tasks (access to financial and technical assistance from the West, restructuring Soviet debts, combating discrimination of Russian goods), but also had symbolic political significance (a kind of compensation for Moscow’s loss of its “superpower” status).

The Western “Group of Seven” also set quite specific situational goals: the accelerated military drawdown of Moscow in Central Europe and the Baltic states; the prevention of leaks of Soviet nuclear technologies; and the consolidation of the results of economic reforms of the early 1990s. However, political considerations played an important role both for Western heads of state and for the Russian leadership. Russia’s integration was to confirm the global aspirations of the G7 and the universalism of Western values. It is curious that the task of including China or even India as the “largest democracy in the world” had never been posed to the G7 members in practical terms – Russia was clearly seen as the preferred, if not the only, candidate for accession.

Despite all the difficulties, awkwardness and inconvenience associated with the integration of the not quite stable, not quite democratic and not quite “western” Russia of the 1990s into the “Group of Seven,” this process was stimulating for the group as a whole. The participation of a new non-standard partner contributed to the emergence of new ideas, strengthening the discipline of the old members, and enhancing the overall tone and ambitions of the group. Appointing a rude and awkward rough man as a new gym teacher to a female high school teaching team that had refined their working partnerships and become a close-knit group after many years of joint work has a similar stimulating effect.

But such idyll lasts only until the gym teacher begins to actively meddle in the work of the teachers’ council and cast doubt on the wisdom of the school principal. And this is exactly what happened in the G8 at the beginning of the century. Whereas for Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s membership in a privileged western club remained mainly a matter of the country’s symbolic status in the world, Vladimir Putin considered the G8 primarily as a tool for the practical realignment of the world order, in both the security and development spheres. Moscow has challenged Washington’s previously unquestioned hegemony in the G8 by raising the issue of American-led intervention in Iraq. Moscow insisted on including non-traditional challenges and security threats in the agenda of the G8 summits. Moscow called on partners to strengthen G8 institutions by increasing the number of regular meetings of ministers of natural resources, science, health, and agriculture.

The increased activity of the Russian neophyte faced growing resistance on the part of the G8 veterans. The new initiatives of the “high school gym teacher” no longer moved, but rather irritated the conservative teachers’ council, not to mention the authoritarian American principal. After the triumphant G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006, an ever more obvious sabotage of the Russian agenda began: the G8 took the annoying gym teacher down a peg. It turned out that no G8 declarations on global energy security had been perceived by EU officials as a guide to action. The G8’s common positions on international terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation do nothing to dampen the desire of United States for the further expansion of NATO eastwards. And recognizing Russia as a member of the “Western Club” does not signify that the West refuses to try to weaken Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.

The catalyst for the decline of interest in the G8 format from the Russian leadership was, of course, the creation of the G20. A significant part of the issues of global governance that were of great interest for Moscow moved to this platform. Russia felt more comfortable in the G20 compared to the G8: in a more representative association, Russia had new partners and additional opportunities to form tactical coalitions and advance its interests. It is no coincidence that since the expulsion of Moscow from the G8 in the spring of 2014, the Russian leadership has been constantly emphasizing the obvious defects in this structure compared to the G20.

Is Moscow’s return to the “Group of Seven” realistic in the foreseeable future? This question has been raised more than once over the past five years by certain Western leaders, including Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. Common sense suggests that this return will never take place. The play was performed, the curtain fell, the audience whistled and applauded, and the critics are scribbling their comments and reviews.

There will be no return, if only for the reason that there is still no unity regarding the conditions for this return among the “Group of Seven.” While the current German position connects the reconstruction of the G8 with the progress in implementing the Minsk agreements on Donbass, Canada is ready to welcome Russia to the updated G8 only if it comes there without Crimea. Historically, the G7 never had any formal procedures and mechanisms for accepting new members, but most likely, a decision on such an important issue will be taken by consensus. And reaching a consensus at the moment seems impossible.

The G7 itself is in the process of deep transformation and a thus-far not very successful search for a new identity. Donald Trump confronts the rest of the club in a harsh manner, being quite provocative at times in that confrontation. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has many fundamental disagreements with French President Emmanuel Macron, and with the leadership of the European Union as a whole. Italy in its current state is hardly capable of taking on any serious international obligations. As a result, the G7 looks like a suitcase without a handle – one can neither carry it nor leave it behind.

Does this mean that Russia should not deal with the G7 at all? Absolutely not. The history of the “Group of Seven” knows many countries, non-permanent members of the club, who participate in the work of the Group. The recent summit in Biarritz, France, was attended, among others, by the leaders of India, Egypt, Australia and even Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had come under personal sanctions from the United States literally the day before the meeting.

Returning to the “G7+1” formula may be a better solution for Russia than restoring the G8. Provided, of course, that the Russian side will not find itself in the position of a suspended gym teacher invited to the teachers’ council only to get another portion of reprimands from stiff colleagues.

It is clear that the leaders of the “Group of Seven” are most interested in discussing current issues of international security with Russia, including the situation surrounding Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and Venezuela, as well as arms control and strategic stability. But most of these issues are already being discussed at other time-tested platforms. However, joining the G7 discussion on the problems of digital economy, international tax reform, fighting trade protectionism and eliminating global inequality would certainly be nice.

The stakes in this game are not as high for Russia as they were a quarter of a century ago. The G7 is no longer a unique or even the main laboratory where the components of the new world order are being developed and piloted. And the repertoire of Russia’s foreign policy is not limited to the part of the self-confident, but at the same time diffident and arrogant Monsieur Jourdain from Moliere’s comedy.

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Troubled Partners: What Russia and Turkey are Dividing Up in Syria

Ruslan Mamedov

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“Turkey is our close partner, our ally,” said Presidential Spokesperson and Turkologist Dmitry Peskov on the eve of the meeting in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. On August 27, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, where they held a working meeting on the bilateral agenda. Regardless of all their differences, the two countries still need each other greatly.

Although relations between Moscow and Ankara are developing in many areas, the focus was naturally on the further actions of the parties in the crisis-affected Syria. Will Turkey conduct another operation in Syria? And what is Moscow’s opinion?

Several events of importance for Russia–Turkey relations took place a week before the presidents met. On August 21, the first creditor was selected for the company building the Akkuyu NPP strategic facility. On August 27, deliveries started on the second S-400 battalion to Mürted Air Base in Ankara. As the United States removed Turkey from the F35 project following the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, analysts believe that Turkey might look at Russia’s Su-35 or Su-57. These are the aircraft the Turkish President saw at the MAKS Salon.

But the meeting took place against the backdrop of the escalation of the situation in the Syrian Idlib province and the announcement of the establishment of a Joint U.S.–Turkey Operation Centre.

And it was the desire to overcome contradictions over Syria and prevent a crisis in the bilateral relations that led the presidents to hold an unplanned meeting in Zhukovsky following an urgent telephone conversation on August 23.

At the press conference held after the meeting, Vladimir Putin noted two key elements in Russia’s approach to the Syrian settlement: the priority of working within the Astana format and the launch of the the Syrian Constitutional Committee “that, as we hope, will be able to start its activities in Geneva in the very near future.”

Ankara had previously expressed its discontent with the Syrian government forces taking control of towns in the north of Hama Governorate and in the south of Idlib Governorate, including the town of Khan Shaykhun. Approximately 200 Turkish soldiers are still surrounded in the town of Murak, which makes the situation extremely uncomfortable for Ankara. This Turkish contingent served as an observation post established under the Turkey–Russia Memorandum on Idlib signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018 as part of de-escalation in the Idlib zone.

The situation deteriorated following reports that the Syrian Air Force had carried out an aerial strike on a Turkish convoy. After a telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan, reports started to surface that a Russian military police force had inserted itself between the Syrian military and the Turkish observation post. Turkey might find a way out of the situation by withdrawing its observation post from Murak and launching a new operation in the north of Syria against the U.S.-supported Kurds. Given the situation, it is desirable for Russia to find a way of advancing the dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds.

While Ankara supported the Syrian opposition, it undertook under the Sochi agreements to fight terrorism in Idlib and facilitate the opening of the М5 and М4 highways leading from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus via Idlib, and from Aleppo to Latakia via Idlib. Most likely, implementing this provision is the key objective for Moscow. Once М5 and М4 are secured, the logistics infrastructure might have been put into operation once again and pathways opened for restoring economic ties between Syria’s regions. This never happened.

With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian military continued intermittent hostilities in the Idlib Governorate for approximately six months. Following another round of talks in Nur-Sultan on August 1–2, Damascus announced an armistice. The ceasefire failed, however, due to attacks perpetrated by the militants in Idlib. Subsequently, the government forces and their Russian allies significantly intensified their activity. Offensives were mostly undertaken at night. By mid-August, the Tiger Forces equipped with Russian-made night-vision devices and Т90А tanks with thermal imagers succeeded in breaching the defence of the terrorists and groups that oppose Damascus in the north of the Hama Governorate.

The Idlib Governorate and its eponymous capital are largely controlled by the forces of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (outlawed in Russia), which has managed since January to expand its power by subsuming other groups, largely labelled pro-Turkish.

Back then, Turkey succeeded in stabilizing the situation, yet failed to radically change it in favour of Turkey-friendly forces such as al-Jabha al-Wataniya Li-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front), which is in opposition to the government. Russian and Turkish analysts already appeal to the Sochi agreements, yet each party accuses the other of undermining their implementation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov openly stated that the actions of the Syrian government forces in Idlib are legitimate and do not violate the Turkey–Russia Memorandum. The terrorists in the area now controlled by the Syrian military had posited a threat to Syrian territory and the Russian military base in Khmeimim. Turkey faces a difficult predicament with regard to its domestic audience, and the processes in Syria could result in escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara.

However, the ties developed over the recent years, as well as the strategically important joint projects and Erdogan’s commitment to increasing mutual trade turnover from USD 25–30 billion today to USD 100 billion (which he again confirmed at the MAKS opening ceremony) demonstrate both desire of both parties to avoid a crisis similar to the freeze put on the relations in 2016.

Erdogan informed Putin about the plans to launch an operation against the Kurds in the northeast of Syria. One might surmise that Turkey sees the solution in shifting the emphases in its “Syrian” policies and in concentrating on the Kurdish threat, since Turkey’s current policy in Syria is conducted in two areas: Idlib and the Trans-Euphrates region. Unwilling to be tied solely to the Astana format, Turkey is also building an appearance of collaboration with the United States. The operation in the Trans-Euphrates region today is the key point for Ankara. This operation will be the result of the pressure Turkey puts on the United States, an ally of the Kurds.

Ankara’s main goal is ostensibly to create a buffer zone in the north of Syria to prevent the Kurds from implementing a project there.

This will allow Ankara to cut ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey and bring Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs, back to settle in the new “safe zone.” The United States has even convinced even the Kurds that the “safe zone” is necessary. The question, however, is how deep the Turkish military will go into the territory. They want to go more than 30 kilometres into the territory currently controlled by the allies of the United States from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Judging by the leaked reports, the United States has proposed only five kilometres. That certainly will not be enough for Turkey.

Answering a question about the Trans-Euphrates region at the press conference after the meeting of August 27, Vladimir Putin said, “We understand Turkey’s concern related to ensuring the safety and security of its southern border, and we believe these are legitimate interests of the Republic of Turkey… We proceed from the premise that establishing a safe zone for the Republic of Turkey at its southern borders will be a good condition for ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria itself.”

Turkey believes that the threat to its security comes from the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlling the northeast of Syria. Ankara identifies them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It should be noted here that Moscow occasionally reminds Turkey of the 1998 Adana Agreement concluded between Ankara and Damascus to resolve the “Kurdish question.” Back then, Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. This agreement regulates the provision of security in border areas.

In recent months, the President of Turkey has repeatedly stated that Turkey had made an earnest decision to launch a new offensive, the third operation in Syria following Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Turkey has been transmitting these sentiments for some time now to both the U.S. and the Russian militaries. However, in order to conduct an operation in the north of Syria, Ankara needs to ensure that certain conditions are in place. Each element, particularly air support for the offensive and the involvement of the Syrian opposition forces, is linked to Ankara reaching a consensus, even if a silent consensus, with Washington and Moscow.

An agreement with Moscow is important for Ankara in order to at least temporarily suspend hostilities in Idlib, as it would allow at least some Syrian opposition forces to be moved to the area of Turkey’s new operation in the northeast of Syria.

As regards Idlib, Moscow and Ankara could agree on Damascus taking control of the М4 and М5 highways, while Turkey’s safe area in the northeast would be greenlit. The question hinges solely on consent to the launch of the operation. How the parties will conduct their operations and whether they would succeed will be up to them.

Currently, the question remains open as to how much the United States is willing to concede to Turkey. However, as Turkey launches its operation, Russia has an opening to interact with Kurds. If the United States allows Turkey to go too far, Kurds will realize the former cannot ensure their safety.

For the Kurds, this setup is fraught with the risk of possible loss of all their achievements (and territories). Moscow could work through the question of resuming serious talks between the Kurds and Damascus, thereby allowing the Kurds to avoid clashes with Turkey.

… A summit of the Astana process guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be held in mid-September. The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is expected to be announced at the summit. Recent developments in the war bolster Damascus’ bargaining positions, yet at the same time they endanger the continuation of the political dialogue. The Russia–Turkey context is important as well, as the two countries strive to move beyond cooperation in Syria, understanding how complicated it is to achieve agreements.

Should Turkey launch an operation against Syrian Kurds, it will allow Ankara to “save face” concerning its Idlib losses. It will also allow Moscow to act as an intermediary and lead the Kurds and Damascus to an agreement. Much, however, will depend on the capacity in which the United States will continue its presence in Syria in and on whether the Kurds and Damascus will be able to move away from their maximalist counter-claims.

Moscow and Ankara understand that their partnership is difficult, but mutually necessary. Such partners can create quite a lot of trouble, but they are valuable because they steer an independent course and understand and recognize each other’s national interests, as well as the need for coordinating their stances.

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Russia Accelerates Construction of a New Black Sea Port

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Taman Port. Image source: portnews.ru

Economic and technological competition between China and the US has become an obvious fact for world politicians as well as analysts. However, as everyone pays attention to the ongoing trade war between the two giants and steady military build-up in the South China Sea, interesting developments are taking place in the Black Sea basin. Behind this global trend, Russia is slowly building up its economic position in the region by accelerating the construction of a new deep-sea port which will endanger Anaklia’s future.

For quite some time Beijing and Washington have been working to increase their economic and technological competition in or around the Black Sea. The Anaklia Deep Sea port is a primary example. China has traditionally been careful in its statements about its views on Anaklia, but the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Georgia a few months ago was an indication of Beijing’s interests in the port. Interestingly enough, the visit coincided with financial problems centered around the Anaklia Consortium.

Currently, as the problems deepen with the withdrawal of the US’ Conti Group, it is likely and quite logical that China might actually increase its efforts to get involved in the Anaklia port construction.

Within the light of numerous uncertainties surrounding the US’ position worldwide, Washington will find it harder to counter potential Chinese initiatives in and around Georgia. Many in Georgia, particularly in the analytical community, suspect that the US is experiencing troubles in its policy towards Georgia and that had not it been so, the current Anaklia issues would not be happening.

American interest in the Anaklia port is to deny the Chinese use of the place for their economic activities within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, the US calculus might also be that the port, apart from economic benefits, could potentially be used for military purposes.

Considering this geo-strategic thinking, Washington would not allow any third party to dominate the Anaklia port project. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement comes to mind- when he questioned how honest Beijing and Moscow are being in trying to be Tbilisi’s “true allies.” He also emphasized that the Anaklia port will be built.

The third power, which has more military power in place in the Black Sea region, is obviously Russia. Its recent moves in the economic realm, though, could seriously undermine Anaklia’s future business environment even if the port is successfully built.

It was reported that Russia has recently sped up solidifying its grip on the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea. The RMP (RosMorPort) Taman Consortium which is expected to include five companies, RosMorPort, KuzbassRazrezUgol, MetaloInvest, Russian Railways (RZD) and SUEK, is set to build the ‘Taman Port,’ which is strategically located on the Russian side of the Kerch Strait that connects the Black and Azov seas.

Alongside this quiet battle, the US and China are in purely technological competition. It has been reported that US National Security Advisor John Bolton wants to undermine the pending Chinese acquisition of an important Ukrainian aerospace company. Washington fears that the acquisition will give Beijing vital defense technology as the Ukrainian military tech giant has for decades been producing vital parts for the Russian aerospace industry. The Ukrainian-Russian crisis, a result of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, has, for the time being, put a hold on Ukrainian sales.

Thus, these various seemingly unrelated events could well be set to complicate Anaklia’s fate. Among them, Russia’s persistence in building a deep sea port at Taman is less problematic: of more serious importance is the unstable nature of the Georgian government and the US’ still-evolving perspective on its position worldwide and particularly in the Black Sea basin.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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