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Russia-Turkey: The Interdependent Relationship Shaped by Energy or a Deeper Friendship?

Nargiz Hajiyeva

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Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the deepening relationship between Russia and Turkey showed itself in the first agreement designed to enhance their economic relations. The agreement was signed on March 15, 1977, between them, which mainly embraced the cooperation in the promotion of the industrial development and energy affairs. Meanwhile, the parties also inked an agreement concerning the scientific and technical cooperations.

Therefore, energy had been a significant issue amid the negotiations processes between Russia and Turkey since that time. Although the relations many times have been strained between them with regard to the different geopolitical issues. However, the two parties have always seen each other more than an economic partner. In February 1986, according to an  Intergovernmental Agreement traced back to September 18, 1984, a contract was signed with Turkey’s BOTAŞ company for delivering roughly 6 Bcm of gas per year for over 25 years between the period of 1987 and 2011.

The gas flows between Russia and Turkey via Blue Stream and Western Line during the period of between 2012 and 2016. Source: Okan Yardimci, April 2016, Energy specialist in Turkey.

By the signing of the agreement, the first shipment of natural gas to Turkey from the territory of the Soviet Union commenced in June 1987, via Romania and Bulgaria using the Trans-Balkan pipeline. The agreement, in fact, opened a new door in Russian-Turkish energy relations for the foreseeable future. Currently, in the light of bilaterally multi-dimensional relations, both parties currently, are eager to boost up their energy collaboration in a growing number of fields, including nuclear power. The increasing bilateral relations between them have always raised the specific questions regarding what are the key factors or elements of these relations. According to the policy analysts and interlocutors, Turkish-Russian relations are based on a pragmatic approach meaning an effective way of maximizing their mutual advantages. Another element of the relations stems from the political identity and the civil society (domestic and foreign policy links). The political identity within Turkey and Russia has recently changed the way that affected their foreign policy strategies and in particular, their bilateral relations. In Turkey, since the adoption of the National Security Strategy of 1997,  Russia has not been considered as a threat to the security of the country, instead, the separatist groups and Kurds have been seen as major threats to Turkey.

The political shift toward a more “Eurasianist” orientation in Turkey was not only related to the rapprochement with Russia, however, even within Russia itself, a similar approach has been taken into account as a pivotal conception. Generally, pro-Western attitudes and stances of Russia have continued till the early 1996, after that time, the appointment of Primakov as the Foreign Minister leaded to a significant alteration towards the Eurasianism conception. This orientation had been expressed again and strengthened amid the presidency of Vladimir Putin since the adoption of the 2000 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation.  Currently, as one of the main priorities of the Russian Foreign Policy, Eurasianist orientation rather than Europeanistone has taken a dominant role in Russia considering that it needs to improve its relations ina Eurasian arena with its increasingly major partners like China, India, Iran, Turkey, and etc. In this cooperation, Russia sees Turkey as an important regional counterpart, due to their recent convergent interests in some political issues. Turkey is the second major importer of Russian gas. From the standpoints of some analysts, and policymakers, the relations in economic, especially in energy sphere will last long and it is impossible to break down their relations easily due to the mutual interdependencebetween these countries.

Having seen from the practice within the political arena, currently, the relations of two parties with the EU is a bit complicated, and also strained many times due to the different political tensions, and perplexing situations. At the same time, the Eurasianist attitudes of both Russia and Turkey once again show that they have convergent interests in any field rather than divergent ones that ignite even today, the geopolitical intrigue with its European partners. Therefore, it seems necessary to comprehend and then analyze their relations emerging from convergent interests. Take a simple example of the Syrian crisis, during the crisis, two parties have been opposed to each other concerning the Assad’s regime in the region. However, the changing political roles and attitudes give a much more place to scrutinize their relations.

As a result of these political changes in their positions towards Syrian crisis, leaded to the brokering the ceasefire agreement on 28 December 2016, and in fact, the West, mainly the Obama Administration were marginalized on this issue and were not given a free place for the Administration to take its chief position on this ceasefire agreement. It is very plausible that Russia, Turkey, and Iran brokered a ceasefire in the region, and undertook the major duties to fight against terrorism. However, in face of many death and casualties, Obama Administration did not do “any significant thing” to reach a deal on a ceasefire in Syria. In fact, Russia and Turkey did well what the Obama Administration didn’t do. Thus, although they demonstrated the different positions in Middle East problems, especially in the Syrian crisis, and even this crisis caused strained relations between them for some time.

However, both Russia and Turkey found a common ground in this issue also, and their collaboration remains supported by the significant economic and energy factors. The reliable relations between them once again revealed that it is possible to reach a deal in common ground and deal with the opposing standpoints and other problems, which showed itself in the example of the Syrian crisis. On the contrary, Turkey and Russia are not able to find out their convergent interests with the EU. The relations between the EU and two parties have soured due to the accession process of Turkeythe Western sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and etc. (Take an example of coup d’état happened on 15 July, 2016, during military coup attempt, the EU does not give any hand to Turkey to cope with this crisis, instead, Russia was the first country who supported Turkey amid the bloody occasion, in this context it can be said that friend is known only on rainy days or in trouble.)

Despite the souring relations due to the downing of Russian S-24 warplane between Syrian-Turkish border on 24 November 2015, the two counterparts again found a common ground to deal with the problem. Having strained relations of Turkey with the EU, forced Turkey to take a constructive approach toward Russia.

Upon the airplane incident, in June 2016, Erdogan called Putin and expressed “deep regret” over last year’s shooting down of a Russian warplane which violated Turkey’s airspace. During the phone talking, Erdogan added that he was eager to return the pre-crisis level of bilateral relations. Turkish spokesman Ibrahim Kalin highlighted that Erdogan used the communication to call for Russia to take decisive steps and joint efforts to solve regional crises and fight against anti-terrorist cooperation. He also added that both parties had agreed to take significant steps to enhance relations at a multi-track level.

After the bloody coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan did his first visit to Russia. Amid the meeting near St. Petersburg on 9 August 2016, they reached an agreement on lifting the sanctions gradually imposed by Russia after it downed a Russian fighter jet in last November. The two also agreed to prompt-start huge energy projects, including a gas pipeline and a nuclear power plant. (It is needed to mention that the negotiations between Russia and Turkey on Turkish Stream also was suspended after the jet incident and St. Petersburg meeting paved a way to renegotiate on the energy project). During the joint press conference following the meeting, Vladimir Putin in his answer concerning the future relations mentioned: ”Do we want a full-spectrum restoration of relations? Yes, and we will achieve that… Life changes quickly” he also added. ”Moscow-Ankara axis will again be a line of trust and friendship,” Erdogan also said.

The Petersburg meeting opened a new door towardsRussian-Turkish relations both in economic and energy field. Major steps were taken concerning the reigniting tourism cooperation and two major energy projects which are important for the development of both countries. Key factors among the plans is a Turkish Stream pipeline connecting the two countries and a nuclear power plant that Russia has to build in Turkey that is priced at 18 billion euro altogether. The Peterburg meeting became the initial step toward the future Russian-Turkish relations not only in the economic but also in the energy sector. As a result of this significant meeting, they reached a deal on medium-term agreement from the period of 2016 to 2019. Furthermore, the enhancement of the capacity of bilateral relations from $30 million up to $1 billion was considered one of the key ambitions. At the same time, taking the requests of Turkish and Russian traders and businessmen, Turkey and Russia will do the exchange of Russian ruble and Turkish lira in their trade relations and will be able to use easily rubles and lira in the next phase of their economic cooperation. Within the course of the meeting, they also agreed on several significant issues by signing the agreement composed of 12 key articles. The energy issue is the most significant part of the rapprochement between them. The main goals of 12 Articles are classified below.

Figure 7. showing the key priorities of Petersburg rapprochement based on 12 Articles for coming years.

The revival of Senior Joint Cooperation Council 7. Acceleration of Akkuyu nuclear energy project.
2. Commencement of Charter Flights 8. Establishment of Russia-Turkey Joint Investment Fund (Council) estimated at $1 billion to strengthen economic collaboration
3. Removal of prohibitions that restrict bilateral trade, including agricultural products 9. Enhancement of cooperation in the defense industry
4. Thelifting of the ban on Turkish entrepreneurs 10. Installment of Turkey-Russia-Azerbaijan tripartite summit mechanism
5. Taking steps in common in order to achieve fully regeneration of visa-free regime 11. A line of friendship and trust between Ankara and Moscow
6. Giving Akkuyu strategic investment status. 12. Acceleration of Turkish Stream project

Upon the Petersburg rapprochement, the next significant meeting took place in Istanbul during the 23rd World Energy Congress between 9 and 14 October 2016. It was the Russian leaders’ first visit to Turkey since his attendance at the Group of 20 Summit in Antalya. On 10 October, two parties came together to sign an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on the construction of Turkish Stream Pipeline. The Russian and Turkish leaders have voiced support for the construction of Turkish Stream pipeline which was suspended in the course of the tensions between the two countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined that they want to accelerate the implementation of the natural gas project as much as they can. Even on 10 March 2017, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow concerning the development of further bilateral relations in some issues in particular, in Turkish Stream project. The Moscow meeting was largely hailed as a big success both in the Russian and Turkish Governments. According to the Moscow meeting, Turkey will set up an infrastructure to allow Russian National Payment system to be available in Turkey. As a result, Turkish Stream pipeline project will be implemented through the Turkish Deniz Bank. Besides, they reached an agreement on several issues, including the removal of trade sanctions gradually, the construction of the $20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant, cross-culturalism, and tourism.

The Turkish Stream pipeline would carry Russian natural gas to Turkey under the Black Sea and then on to European Union countries. The two leaders also agreed on the affordable gas prices in the first initiative of the pipeline project and Russia promised to reduce natural gas prices at the next delivery of gas supplies via the Turkish Stream. This delivery will not be direct, but via Turkey as an energy transit country, natural gas will be shipped to Europe. During the World Energy Congress, Putin in his speech highlighted that Russia has been providing energy for the EU for the past 50 years and again would supply via new gas projects including Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream pipeline projects in a more secure and a convenient way.

He also added that his country was ready to decrease the oil production and support OPEC’s initiative to cut production as a way to increase oil prices. In general, what does really Turkish Stream promise both Russia and Turkey for the coming years? What will be the consequences and future perspectives of Turkish Stream for these two countries? In order to answer these questions, first and foremost, it is necessarily needed to analyze the energy relations after the Istanbul Agreement took place on 10 October 2016. First of all, according to the IGA between Russia and Turkey, the construction of two lines of Turkish Stream accounting for 15,75 Bcm each from Russia across the Black Sea has to be started by the end of 2017 and be completed up to 2019. The first line is expected to supply gas to Turkey, while the other would connect the transit routes between Turkey and the EU to provide the EU with natural gas. The cost of the project is estimated to be $6 billion. Both lines will have to be completed by December 2019. Pursuant to the agreement, Turkey will provide special tax exemptions for the marine section of pipeline including the import of vehicles, equipment, and other necessary materials are released from the payment duties in Russia and Turkey. The Turkish side also removed the tax revenues on gas transportation. According to the Energy Minister Alexander Novak, Gazprom will construct and possess the offshore section of the pipeline. Turkey will build and own the first line of the land section for the delivery of gas to its territory. The second line via which the direction will be towards Turkey-Greece border for carrying gas to Europe will be owned by joint actions by Gazprom and BOTAŞ. As Russia mentioned before, Turkey has come to an agreement on the second line of the pipeline in exchange for a discount for gas prices promised by Russia. At the first phase of Turkish Stream project, Russia will finance the two strings of the pipeline. Reportedly, the total cost of Turkish Stream including its four strings will make up for €11.4 billion which is the half cost of South Stream estimated at €23.5 billion. The first line of the project estimated approximately €5 to 6 billion.

If Gazprom goes forward with the construction of the third and fourth lines of the project, beyond the Turkey-Greece border, the company will face the same regulatory obstacles as well as financial obstacles. Gazprom has already fulfilled the environmental impact assessment for the offshore and landline sections of Turkish Stream pipeline. In terms of challenges and perspectives of Turkish Stream, it can be said that the project will encounter several challenges due to falling oil prices, the economic sanctions imposed by the West, which have an impact on Russian companies and banks, financial constraints, and also the cost of the project. Those obstacles make it difficult to find financing for the gas pipeline. It shows itself in the example of South Stream project, in which Russia faced both financial constraints and at the same time, misperceptions with the EU and Bulgarian government caused the suspension of the project.

Regardless all these challenges mentioned above, Russia somehow will finance and complete the Turkish Stream pipeline because it wants to diversify its transit route bypassing Ukraine. Therefore, unlike South Stream, Turkish Stream’s credentials are convincing for both Russia and Turkey. For the future perspective, it seems that Russia is not inclined to politicize the Turkish Stream pipeline in the face of its economic and energy counterpart, Turkey. Both of them would get benefits from the project if they opt for the “flexible energy diplomacy” inclining to the EU. The Ukraine crisis re-emphasized the role of Turkey as an energy interconnector not only for the EU but also for. Russia well understands that via Turkish territory, it will be able to carry gas supplies to Europe and sees Turkish Stream as a potentially successful project in this way.

For the EU, the diversification of energy sources is one of the key priorities and it seeks for newly secure supply countries and considers Turkey as a potential energy hub and a transit country in order to attain the natural gas resources via secure pipelines namely TANAP, TAP constituting for the backbone of Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). Regarding the Turkish Stream pipeline, there are also possibly positive approaches and perspectives which mainly depend on the future relations between the EU and Russia and the EU and Turkey. In fact, the relations between them have been soured for the current time. Turkey is going to do negotiations with the EU concerning the future perspectives of relations after the results of 16 April Referendum, Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan added in his speech. Basically, the Russian-Turkish relations are based on “win-win position” or “positive sum strategy”, while it cannot be said the same for the EU because of current tensions between them.

For the future perspective, the Turkish natural gas appetite will increase significantly, and it will need to provide its natural gas demands in an effective way. In terms of energy relations, Turkish Stream is a good deal between Moscow and Ankara. However, Turkey also has to take a new energy policy to use its effective and generous geothermal energy resources at a domestic level. Before everything else, Turkey has to regulate its natural gas markets and adopt the energy saving program based on energy efficiency rather than supplying its increasing gas demands in the near future.  In 2017, its growing gas needs are expected to increase up to 46.6 Bcm out of total 50 Bcm gas consumption.

The steadily growing natural gas consumption of Turkey between from 1987 to 2017 according to March 2017. Source: Okan Yardimci, Energy specialist in Turkey.

On the other hand, if Turkey decreases its natural gas consumption in future decades, what will be the benefits of Turkish Stream?- Turkish Stream will be the significant project between the EU, Russia, and Turkey. Turkey will be the third energy party to supply gas from Russian territory along with the Black Sea on to the European countries. In this context, however, the EU side wants Turkey to regulate its gas markets based on the EU prerequisites and eliminate the monopoly on gas prices while delivering to the EU. From Turkey’s perspective, it is not a difficult deal, whereas, it will take a bit time to regulate and adopt the energy frameworks and rules requested from Europe. Regarding the EU, it has to change its way of stances and perceptions toward Turkey and Russia and should have to more elaborate on engagement with both Russia and Turkey.

If the EU wants either Turkey or Russia to undertake responsibilities coming from the EU energy rules, in turn, the EU has to give a room (place) for both countries for the sake of effective energy partnership. In terms of Russia, in the future, Russia will not politicize the Turkish Stream that it has in Ukraine because Turkish is both Russian real counterpart as well as an economic partner in Eurasia and will not restrict the improving role of Turkey in Eurasia.

Since the 1970s, bilaterally energy relations between Russia and Turkey have been developing to date.(See Annex 25 below) Russia at least for its economic development and energy revenues will provide the EU with its gas in the future. For the present time, there is not a potential alternative for the EU to meet its increasing natural gas demands. It is the overt fact that the Southern and Central European countries have over dependency on Russian gas from 60% to nearly 98%. Some of the European countries (Norway and etc.) produce energy resources for the EU countries, but it is not enough for Europe to meet its energy demands in coming years. When it comes to the revaluation of the EU stances, it should have to change its way of “non-engagement” with Russia.

Annex 25. The main energy deals and export volumes between Turkey and Russia between the period of 1970 and 2014. Source: Okan Yardimci, Energy specialist in Turkey.

At least, the EU comprehends well that at the present time it has sell-purchase issues in the energy sphere. Hence, regarding the dynamics of energy relations between Turkey and Russia, it can be said that the successful deal will be continued in the coming decades. Both of them need each other in tourism, trade, economy, and energy fields. In order to pave the way for the future collaboration between Turkey and Russia, they also evaluate the role of the EU and involve it in their projects. The involvement of the EU in Turkish Stream will gain benefits for all parties, if they choose the policy of comprehensive energy diplomacy taking into consideration the interests of each party. Therefore, the energy relations between Turkey and Russia in the foreseeable future are convincing. What will happen in the near future depends mainly on the progress of the relations with its European partners…

When it is needed to take a general view on Russian-Turkish relations, it is clear that their relationship was established on behalf of reaching their specific interests and purposes. Certainly, the relations between them can be considered both convincing and stable, because of the fact that the relationship between states based on ensuring of any kind of interests is more influential than other simple relations without any purposes. In Russian-Turkish energy relations, it is important to mention a key factor called “appropriate balancing” emphasized by Gideon Rose.  The appropriate balancing as a key element of neo-classical realism can be applied better in Russian-Turkish energy relations. “Appropriate balancing” arises when a state correctly comprehends another state’s intentions, interests and balances properly. If the appropriate balancing would be applied in the Russian-Turkish energy relations, it can be said that both of them are aware of their purposes and interests toward each other.

This relationship is a kind of preserving the balance of power, ensuring their internal and external security in the region. So that, their relationship can be called purposeful or intentional relations (In Turkish language, it called çıkarlı ilişkiler or çıkarlar) which envisage the serving of both sides’specific purposes and interests. As Russian President Vladimir Putin stated: “States do not have constant friendship relations; states have constant interests and ambitions.” Over the historical period, their relations have had a competitive character more than cooperation in the region. However, on behalf of ensuring their interests,(Turkish growing demands for gas resources, ambition of being an energy hub and energy transit country between East and West, and Russian ambition of taking huge dominance over Eurasian and European regional energy bazaar) domestic incentives and other external factors, the current situation forces them to take a constructive approach in their relations compared to the previous relations of that they had.

At least, if the pragmatic side of relations between Russia and Turkey is taken into consideration, in this case, the development of their relations both in energy and other fields is unavoidable. One of the most important strengths of neo-classical realism is its attention to systemic and unit factors as well as historical clarification simultaneously. This kind of strength makes the theory more relevant and applicable to the chosen research than any other version of the realism theory. In neo-classical realist theory, there are interconnected relations with enticements, motives, perceptions, and the foreign policy of states which make states attempt for maximizing their domestic security issue. (Turkey is eager to maximize its energy security in the region within a domestic policy through collaborating with Russia in the energy field, in turn, Russian interest of maximizing its security issue in the example of diversification of its transit routes bypassing Ukraine) Thus, by taking into consideration specific interests, purposes and security issues (mainly, domestic security which related to the energy security),it is apparent that Russia and Turkey could be strategic, an economic and particularly, energy partner more than so-called “a friendly colleague” within an international system.

Ms. Nargiz Hajiyeva is an independent researcher from Azerbaijan. She is an honored graduate student of Vytautas Magnus University and Institute D'etudes de Politique de Grenoble, Sciences PO. She got a Bachelor degree with the distinction diploma at Baku State University from International Relations and Diplomacy programme. Her main research fields concern on international security and foreign policy issues, energy security, cultural and political history, global political economy and international public law. She worked as an independent researcher at Corvinus University of Budapest, Cold War History Research Center. She is a successful participator of International Student Essay Contest, Stimson Institute, titled “how to prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons”, held by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School and an honored alumnus of European Academy of Diplomacy in Warsaw Poland. Between 2014 and 2015, she worked as a Chief Adviser and First Responsible Chairman in International and Legal Affairs at the Executive Power of Ganja. At that time, she was defined to the position of Chief Economist at the Heydar Aliyev Center. In 2017, Ms. Hajiyeva has worked as an independent diplomatic researcher at International Relations Institute of Prague under the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Czech Republic. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral studies in Political Sciences and International Relations programme in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Why Economic Sanctions Mean Little to Moscow

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Realpolitik, a German term for politics based on day-to-day calculations regarding the military and economic balance of power among major states, should be used and discussed more often in the modern world, though we often discuss Russia and the ways to influence its actions over the long-term especially in its immediate neighborhood.

Economic sanctions are a common tool for the West, and many, particularly in the former Soviet space, believed that western measures would cripple Russia and make Moscow change its foreign policy with regards to Ukraine and perhaps Georgia. Others thought the economic sanctions would do no more than influence some aspects of Russian policies, though in such a way as to limit to a certain degree Russia’s projection of power.

But Russian politicians giving in to European pressure would be humiliating from a nationalistic point of view.

Instead of (or on top of) those sanctions, what the West lacks is a quiet military and economic build up along the Russian borders so that Moscow starts seeing the changing geopolitical landscape. Again, those western actions would not be based on loud bombastic statements such as “we’ll change if you do,” but on a real shift in the balance of power. This is what is happening now when Europe demands Russian concessions on Ukraine in exchange for lifting financial restrictions. But for the Russian leadership, it will be self-destructive to radically abandon its current policy on Ukraine and Georgia.

That there is a larger western economic and military presence in the Russian neighborhood is what matters to the Russians. For Vladimir Putin, a master practitioner of realpolitik, western notions of the democratic development of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and thus Russia’s non-interference, is a flagrant misconception. The leadership in Moscow does not genuinely believe that the West is so interested in Ukraine and Georgia. From the Russian perspective, the spread of democracy cannot be a viable explanation and the West’s purely geopolitical calculations should be considered.

Putin, like his predecessors from the Soviet era or even the Romanov dynasty, believes that any Western moves in the Russian neighborhood are anti-Russian per se. He is not to blame; there is simply a different civilizational approach to foreign relations in Moscow compared to Western countries. In studies on geopolitics, this factor is often missed, but it is deeply important.

There is also a distinct way in which the Russian leadership responds to foreign threats. In Europe, governments of countries facing problems can easily resign, while in Russia, bending to foreign pressure is tantamount to an unravelling of the state apparatus, leading to elite infighting and even possibly something close to troubles on the periphery of the state. This is a product of Russian geography, ethnic composition and culture.

On the contrary, faced with direct pressure, the Russians usually make moves which better show off their military strength. Consider what happened in Ukraine. Facing a total loss of Ukrainian territory in 2014, a distinctively Russian reaction to this coming disaster was taking the pieces which Moscow could still take.

To counter Russian moves, a larger US and European presence in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia could arguably be the only viable solution to the problems with Russia in the former Soviet space. Moscow will have to consider more acutely the changing geopolitical landscape, while it will serve as a good further pointer to various Russian elites that the state’s foreign policy for the past 20 years has been counterproductive.

This will be a good representation of realpolitik towards Russia. In a way, the time is ripe for reinvigoration of this 19th century German foreign policy concept. The US recently reformulated its foreign policy, while its latest national strategy document clearly outlined the rise of power competition in Eurasia. To strengthen its positions across the continent, Washington ideally would need to work in Japan, South Korea and other traditional US allies. In this atmosphere, direct US support for Georgia and Ukraine might be logical and could be more practical than time-consuming NATO procedures.

It will be costly, but still not as much as the US is spending on its larger allies. In the era of the Cold War and later in the 1990s, when notions of world democratic world order were a driving motor of the US foreign policy, in a world based on realpolitik there will more avenues for direct, bolder and balance-changing moves.

This brings us back to Russia and how the economic sanctions have had only a limited impact on Moscow. Imposition of sanctions alone failed to produce viable results: instead, they should have been propped up by other actions, such as changing the economic and military landscape of Georgia and Ukraine.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Russia and Italy: No Breakthroughs

Elena Alekseenkova

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The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Italy on July 4, 2019, the first in the past four years, became yet another confirmation of the “special relationship” between Rome and Moscow, but did not, however, signal a breakthrough. For Italy, the meeting came as another attempt to restore its role of a “protagonist” on the international scene, a role the country has been dreaming of playing for over two decades. It was not by chance that Guiseppe Conte, during his recent visit to Moscow, “rebuked” Vladimir Putin for not paying sufficient attention to the Italian people. In Italy, this lack of attention is seen as a sign that the country is not coping well with its role of a “protagonist” and a “bridge” between the West and the East. For Russia, a dialogue with Italy is more than just a conversation with a partner who is willing to listen and establish relations based on mutual trust — it is an opportunity to convey Russian opinions on key issues related to cooperation between Russia and countries of the Euro-Atlantic bloc.

The visit of Guiseppe Conte to Moscow in October 2018, and now Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome, the “friendly” meetings of Guiseppe Conte and Donald Trump in July 2018 during a period of acute tension in the Euro-Atlantic bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s visit to Washington in June 2019, and the signing of a memorandum of cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative reached with Xi Jinping all testify to Rome’s ambitions for a more independent and autonomous foreign policy. Italy, under the leadership of the new “government of change,” is trying to play its own foreign policy game, guided by the principles of national sovereignty and national interests. However, at the moment, the hands of the yellow-green coalition are tied by the threat of sanctions from the European Commission for non-compliance with financial discipline. Naturally, this imposes significant restrictions on the potential of Italian foreign policy. In addition, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 and the subsequent distribution of top posts in the EU testify to Italy losing a significant share of its say in relations between Russia and the EU. In this context, the visit served as a confirmation of the two parties’ intentions but did not produce any practical solutions to problems of mutual concern.

Bilateral political dialogue: dreams and reality

Improving relations with Russia is a separate clause of the “government contract” concluded between the two parties that form the governing coalition in Italy. This is the first time that such an agenda is set at such a high level. Generally speaking, this is evidence of the consistency of Italian foreign policy which was formed in the post-war years,the purpose of which is to fulfill the role of a “bridge” between the North and the South, the West and the East. Perhaps, the historical peak of this strategy occurred when Italy carried out active mediation to establish the Russia-NATO Council in 2002. Nevertheless, the Italian foreign policy is still following this strategy.

According to experts, the status of “privileged partnership”, which was repeatedly voiced at the level of heads of state and by official representatives of Russia and Italy, does not match the real level of relations. A more realistic description of relations between Russia and Italy is “the best among the worst” compared to other partners in the EU, or a pragmatic cooperation that is still a problem to implement at the European level. This time, the leaders of the two states, speaking of existing relations, used such epithets as “excellent”, “constructive” and “businesslike”, and several times addressed each other using the word “friends”.

Meanwhile, we can be confident that a political dialogue between Russia and Italy is gradually regaining strength after the crisis of 2014–2015, particularly following the arrival of the yellow-green coalition in Italy. In October 2018, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Moscow. On the eve of his visit, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, arrived in Moscow too to meet with representatives of Italian businesses working in Russia. In 2019, Vladimir Putin and Giuseppe Conte met at the “One Belt – One Road” forum, and also at the G20 summit in Osaka. Bilateral contacts are gradually being restored between the defense and interior ministries, consultations are under way on international information security, and an inter-parliamentary dialogue is back on track too.

Even though Moscow highly values Russian-Italian relations, Russian leaders regularly emphasize that Italy could do more in the EU to improve relations with Russia. In a report on Russian-Italian relations, which was recently released by the Russian International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Italy is systematically criticized for following the general course of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, be it NATO’s bombings in Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. operation and coalition in Iraq in 2003, the bombing of Libya in 2011, or the adoption of anti-Russian resolutions on Crimea. In all these cases, the report says, Italy, even though it is not completely in agreement with the United States and other European leaders, did not come out actively against them. Similarly, in 2015, Italy did not protest against the lowering of the status of Russia-EU relations, which had previously been known as a “strategic partnership”. In addition, Italy, whose political leaders often publicly speak in favor of the lifting of sanctions, has never used its right of veto when voting in the EU to extend sanctions.

In particular, Russia points out that, having burned its fingers on the situation in Libya in 2011 and still paying for hasty decisions back then, Italy has been acting more carefully in Middle Eastern conflicts. It refused to participate in ground operations in Syria. Instead, it opted for providing humanitarian and logistical support. In Libya, Rome is actively trying to establish a dialogue between key warring parties, including with the help of Russia. In November 2018, Italy invited Russia to a conference on Libya in Naples, hoping to win the support of the Russian leadership, who at that time had better negotiating positions with Marshal Haftar than their Italian counterparts. On the issue of refugees, the Italian leadership took a number of independent measures and decisions to restrict migrants’ access to the territory of Italy (“porti chiusi”, or closed ports), and adopted a security law changing the rules for granting refugee status. This triggered criticism not only in Brussels, but also in the UN. Italy refused to recognize self-proclaimed Juan Guaido as the new president of Venezuela, thereby making it difficult for the EU to strike a common approach on this issue. On March 23, 2019, during Xi Jinping’s visit, Italy and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of cooperation within the One Belt One Road Initiative, despite the numerous warnings against the move from Brussels. Such “independence” of the Italian leadership in foreign policy shows that Italy is at the epicenter of the conflict of national and supranational sovereignty in the EU, articulating this conflict as clearly and consistently as possible.

Italy-EU-Russia: not a love triangle

Such independence on the part of Italian leadership and their desire to assume some of the decision-making has triggered controversy domestically in Italy. On the one hand, these moves contribute to the status of Italy, both within the EU and on the international scene. On the other hand, some Italian experts say there is the risk of the country becoming isolated within the EU. Brussels, Paris and Berlin tend to view Rome’s moves in a negative way – as detrimental to European solidarity and hindering the development of further supranational integration.

The EU systematically criticizes Russia for prioritizing bilateral relations above dialogue with Brussels. As for Italy, the situation is aggravated by the fact that, from the point of view of Brussels, the “anti-system” forces have developed a special liking for the Russian leader, while Russia, in turn, uses them as agents of influence in the EU. In February 2019 the leader of the “League” Matteo Salvini was reported to have received 3 million euros from the Kremlin for running the election campaign in the European Parliament. Therefore, on the eve of his visit, Vladimir Putin said in an interview with Italian news agency Corriere della Sera that Russia is ready for dialogue with any political forces that come to power by legitimate means, “regardless of their political affiliations.” However, after Vladimir Putin’s interview with The Financial Times, one cannot but notice that the Russian president’s criticism of liberalism, being addressed, above all, to U.S. president Donald Trump, echoes the rhetoric of the Italian “government of change”. Both in matters of migration management and in terms of governments’ ability to respond to people’s needs, the views of the Russian and Italian leadership are fairly close. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy should certainly be considered not only as a bilateral dialogue, but also as an attempt to get across to leaders of the Western world the need to establish a dialogue with those political forces that express a different point of view on further socio-political and economic development in Europe and the United States.

The recent developments in the EU show, however, that the political mainstream is not prepared to heed alternative political groups. After the May 26, 2019 elections, Matteo Salvini, together with representatives of the “sovereignists” of Poland, France and a number of other countries, succeeded in building the largest coalition of “populists” in the entire history of the European Parliament – 73 deputies. This, however, did not provide them with enough say to affect the choice of candidates for key posts in the EU. The results of the EU summit on July 2, 2019, in which appointments to senior positions were made, testifies to Rome losing its influence in the EU. Unlike before, when representatives of Italy had occupied three key posts in the EU (Antonio Tajani – President of the European Parliament, Mario Draghi – Chairman of the ECB, Federica Mogherini – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), now only one Italian – a representative of the opposition Democratic Party Divid Sassol – is part of the EU top management, having been given the position of President of the European Parliament. This yet again demonstrates that Paris, Berlin and Brussels are not ready for a serious dialogue with representatives of the yellow-green coalition of “sovereignists” and continue to rely on center-leftists.

In addition, the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Defense with extensive experience in foreign policy and defense, as President of the European Commission is likely to lead to attempts at greater EU integration in the sphere of foreign policy, which may narrow the window of opportunity for more independent foreign policy initiatives of EU countries, including Italy.

What also restricts Italy in its efforts is the looming threat of EU sanctions for breaching fiscal discipline and exceeding the budget deficit. After the EU summit on June 2, Giuseppe Conte said that he had reached an agreement that sanctions would not be applied if Italy cut down the previously planned budget expenditures. However, the threat of sanctions is still there, and this is likely to be one of the most effective instruments of influence from Brussels on the country’s position on many issues, including relations with Russia. Any harsh statements during the visit of Vladimir Putin or any so-called “big deals” would certainly cause even more irritation in Brussels, which means they could lead to a tougher policy towards Italy. Therefore, Vladimir Putin’s visit was, of course, an important confirmation of Italy’s proactive foreign policy but was not a breakthrough, since Italy is connected with the EU not only by the historical bonds of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, but also by tangible economic mechanisms that allow the EU to impose sanctions against the Italian economy.

The economy depends on politics

The economic dialogue between Russia and Italy does not correspond to the declared high level of bilateral relations. In 2017, after a three-year decline (from 2014 to 2016), bilateral trade regained momentum but is still far from the pre-crisis level ($ 27 billion in 2018 against 54 billion in 2013). Russia maintains a clear lead in Italian exports, being the fifth among top importers. The Italian presence is felt in almost all sectors of the Russian economy. About 500 Italian companies operate in Russia, which, however, holds no candle to Germany (4.7 thousand). Even though about 100 Russian-Italian joint ventures were set up during the period of sanctions as part of a program to move Italian production to Russia (“made with Italy”), this figure does not yet correspond to the existing potential. As for an economic dialogue, Italy is considerably behind Germany and France. While in Germany and France there have been functioning “Petersburg Dialogue” and “Trianon Dialogue” respectively, and the Sochi Dialogue has recently been launched with Austria, the Russian-Italian economic dialogue has yet to acquire an appropriate status. The Council for Economic, Industrial, Monetary and Financial Cooperation, which last gathered in Rome in December 2018, is still little known to both countries’ general public. The “Russian-Italian Forum-Dialogue on Civil Society”, which Vladimir Putin and Guiseppe Conte attended in course of the visit, has not received support from the Italian authorities since 2014. Only now is it approaching a new level of development. In addition, during the visit, the two parties agreed that the Russian Export Center and Vnesheconombank (VEB) would set up a bureau to support Russian exporters in Italy. Thus, the economic dialogue, which for a long time needed a new impetus, has finally received it following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome. It is worth noting that the Italian leadership is acutely concerned about competition with Germany and France in two vast markets – Russia and China.

Russia, however, is waiting for more decisive steps from Italy to secure the lifting of the sanctions. However, according to Pasquale Terraciano, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to Russia, “Italy has never considered sanctions a smart decision, but Italy is part of the Western bloc and cannot stand against it alone.”[1]. Italy’s agenda, he said, is to change the EU’s opinion through the use of consistent steps. At the same time, as a practical measure aimed at expanding economic cooperation, Italy proposes to unfreeze the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises at the level of the EBRD and the European Investment Bank. As he addressed a press conference after the meeting, Giuseppe Conte pointed out that Italy is ready to assume the role of a consistent promoter of the idea of ​​lifting the sanctions but the conditions for this lifting had to be “ripe”.

Energy is a major area of ​​cooperation between Italy and Russia. Russia is the fourth most important supplier of oil and the first of natural gas to Italy. Supplies from Moscow account for more than 40% of the total gas consumption. However, as Italian experts remark, Italy expects an increase in prices in connection with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Germany the number one transit country for Russian gas in Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Therefore, negotiations on the development of southern transportation routes are more than relevant for Italy. The meeting, however, yielded no breakthroughs on this issue either.

Regional cooperation: identifying problems, lack of solutions

Italy, just like Russia, sees a great potential for dialogue not only on issues related to bilateral cooperation, but also on those of the regional and global agenda. The priority for Italy is the Mediterranean, which produces the greatest number of challenges and threats to the country’s national security. Simultaneously, Italy is fully aware of the fact that the country will not be able to cope with these challenges alone, although it is taking independent measures, in particular, in matters of migration. Quite recently, Matteo Salvini held talks with the Libyan leadership in Tripoli to curtail illegal migration. However, Rome knows only too well that the solution to the problem lies not so much in reaching agreements with specific countries as in assisting the development of countries the migrants come from and in settling regional conflicts. Italy greatly appreciates the role of Russia as a non-regional player whose influence has increased significantly in recent years. During a press conference following the elections, Vladimir Putin, however, said that Russia is not ready to plunge head-on into resolving the Libyan crisis, and that forces that destroyed Libya’s statehood during the armed operation in 2011 should be involved;that is, NATO and the EU coalition. In solidarity with the Russian president, the Italian Prime Minister emphasized that Italy had warned from the very beginning that a military solution would not lead to peace. Under current conditions, the parties have indicated their readiness to participate in fostering a dialogue between all political forces in Libya.

As for Ukraine, Italy’s official position should be in line with the EU policy providing for no new opportunities to change the situation. In an interview before Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy, Giuseppe Conte directly linked the issue of lifting of the sanctions with the observance of the Minsk agreements, implicitly suggesting that Russia is a party to the conflict and urging both sides to demonstrate more understanding. In an interview with Corriere della Sera, and during a press conference following the meeting, President Putin reiterated that the new leadership of Ukraine should fulfill its election promises and enter a direct dialogue with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Guiseppe Conte repeatedly pointed out that, although Italy is not part of the Normandy format (a negotiation apparatus designed to resolve the Ukrainian conflict), it is nevertheless ready to play a role in resolving the conflict if necessary, which once again confirms the country’s willingness to play a greater role on the international scene.

The Russian president and the Italian prime minister also hold similar views on the situation in Venezuela, expressing concerns over foreign interference, which in their opinions will only aggravate the situation inside the country.

On the whole, it is essential to emphasize that Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy did not bring any breakthroughs, either in bilateral relations or in formulating common positions on issues of regional and global concern. Although the parties demonstrated identical views on the causes and nature of some of the issues on the international agenda, they proved unprepared to suggest concrete practical solutions. For Italy, the meeting provided yet another opportunity to identify its own national interests in promoting relations with Russia and to demonstrate its readiness to act as a “bridge” in the development of a dialogue between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic bloc. At the same time, it has revealed limitations in Italian foreign policy, linked to the economic situation in the country and the weak positions of the current leadership in the renewed European institutions.

1. Speech by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to the Russian Federation Pasquale Terracciano at the conference, at the Institute of Europe RAS, June 19, 2019

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Putin: Russia Ready to Work with Legitimate Leaders

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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President Vladimir Putin accepted the credentials of 18 newly appointed foreign ambassadors, among them seven from Africa, in a traditional ceremony in the St. Alexander Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace on July 3, and tasked them to facilitate the development of multifaceted relations between their individual states and Russia.

He reiterated that “Russia is open to mutually beneficial cooperation with all states without exception based on equality and respect for each other’s interests, non-interference in internal affairs and strict compliance with international law.”

Putin used the opportunity to outline upcoming key events as follows:

In the near future, Russia will host a series of major international events. In June, Russia assumed the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and will also preside on BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) from early 2020. Russia is steering towards a joint-partnership, and aims to advance common priorities in such areas as politics, security, economy, finance, culture and humanitarian ties.

In September 2019, Vladivostok will host a regular Eastern Economic Forum. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe will be the guests of honor.

Russia is planning to review cooperation prospects and the implementation of major joint investment projects in the Asia-Pacific region and to exchange opinions on ways of merging various integration processes so as to create a major Eurasian partnership.

In early October, Moscow will host Russian Energy Week, whose participants will discuss ensuring global energy security, providing all-round energy access and reducing volatile prices on global energy markets.

Russia is preparing actively for the first Russia-Africa Summit late October in Sochi and will be preceded by the Russian-African Economic Forum. President of Egypt and incumbent Chairman of the African Union, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will co-chair the Sochi forum together with Putin.

Accordingly, invitations have been sent to all heads of the African states, as well as the leaders of major sub-regional unions and organizations. It is, however, expected that this summit to propel a dialogue between Russia and Africa to a qualitatively new level, help ensure peace and security in the region, as well as a stable development on the African continent.

Further in his address, Putin told Ambassador Denis Kalume Numbi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, that Russia was interested in further developing cooperation with the Democratic Republic of the Congo in politics, trade, and international affairs, and would continue assisting Congolese partners in improving the socioeconomic situation in their country.

He noted that Russia’s relations with Sierra Leone has been based on the traditions of friendship and mutual understanding, and Russia hoped for joint work in such sectors as mining, agriculture and fishing. Sierra Leonean Ambassador is now Mohamed Yongawo.

At the ceremony was Alemayehu Tegenu Aargau from the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Putin expressed satisfaction on the level of cooperation with Ethiopia.

Last year, Russia and Ethiopia marked the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Over the years, bilateral dialogue has covered a range of important political, economic, research and education topics. Besides, Russia and Ethiopia continue to strengthen cooperation in international and regional affairs.

Russia satisfied with cooperation with Namibia. “Cooperation with Namibia is successfully developing in such sectors as mineral resource development and uranium mining, as well as in the energy, fisheries, agriculture, tourism, military-technical and cultural areas,” Putin told Clemens Handuukeme Kashuupulwa from the Republic of Namibia.

Namibia pursues a balanced policy in international affairs and plays an active role in peace-making efforts of the Southern African Development Community. Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries, which constitute the Southern African Development Community.

“We work together with Mauritania in marine fishing and hydrocarbon production. Our Mauritanian partners make a significant contribution to the fight against terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel zone,” the Russian leader said while receiving Ambassador Hamid Hamouni.

Louis Sylvestre Radegonde (Republic of Seychelles) and Ms. Chandapiwa Nteta (Republic of Botswana) presented their credentials. Russia maintains friendly relations with the Republic of Seychelles. It counts on further joint work to expand cooperation including tourism.

Relations with Botswana encompass the trade, economic and humanitarian spheres; the intergovernmental agreement on military-technical cooperation is currently in force. Last year, Russia and Botswana signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in defence.

Russian authorities have pledged to help and offer necessary assistance to the foreign envoys in pursuit of their official assignments in the Russian Federation. Present at the ceremony were Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia and Yury Ushakov, Aide to President Vladimir Putin.

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