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Russia vs the West: A War Scenario and a New Logic of Confrontation

Ivan Timofeev

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The aggravation of rivalry between Russia and the West in the past few months is raising the urgent question of a possible further escalation of tensions and its forms and consequences. Political relations between Moscow and Western capitals have gone beyond the critical point. The threadbare thesis about the lack of trust can be confidently discarded. Things are much worse. The sides do not want to and cannot listen to each other. Official positions and signals are perceived as provocations and trolling. Any opinion is described from the very start as manipulation, propaganda or diversion. Pragmatic voices are sinking in the growing flow of populism. The small islands of dialogue on common issues are rapidly narrowing or disappearing altogether. Hysteria in the media, hostility and vulgarity of rhetoric far exceed Cold War levels. We have entered a new and much more dangerous stage of the conflict, a stage that did not exist several weeks ago.

The current situation is fundamentally different from what existed since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and up to the Skripals case. The former logic of relations was obviously confrontational. The sides had sharp differences on major issues. But they continued political dialogue that was generally rational and relatively predictable. Any hostile actions against one another had a specific and more or less verifiable pretext. The exchange of sanctions was based on understandable reasons. Various incidents were thoroughly and repeatedly verified and taken with much caution. We might dislike Ukraine-related EU sanctions but Brussels carefully avoided any escalation of sanctions for “promoting propaganda and undermining democracy,” an accusation that is hard to verify but easy to turn into a conflict-prone and provocative form. We might dislike Robert Mueller’s investigation and the very pretext for it but it was at least systematic and relatively transparent. It was hard to suspect the EU and the US of encouraging Russia’s restrictions on their food exports but, albeit unpleasant, Russian counter- sanctions had a transparent and understandable logic. Both sides were concerned over potential incidents at sea or in the air but the military actively cooperated with each other to prevent them, despite deep political differences. Apparently, in the current confrontational conditions “stable deterrence,” a scenario that seemed to be the least harmful, is receding into the past.

At least three events have triggered the new logic of confrontation: the Skripal case, Washington’s new sanctions and the chemical incident in Syria. The Skripal case stands out because the collective West went for a sharp escalation without having authentic and transparent facts indicating Russia’s involvement in the incident. Not a single fact meeting these requirements has been presented to the public at large so far. The theory of Russia’s involvement is based on verbal lace, references to its “bad reputation” and some “secret information” whose value as evidence equals zero unless it is openly presented to the public. At the same time, more and more questions and discrepancies are arising, starting with the nature and origin of the toxic chemical and ending with the methods of its use. Symptomatically, the case of the recovering Skripals has become the subject of a growing number of jokes. However, the grotesque does not reduce the danger of it being a precedent. What if a similar provocation is staged tomorrow? What if several provocations are staged at the same time? What will our Western partners do and how will Russia react to this? Expel the remaining diplomats, including security officers and chefs? Or adopt some tougher measures?

The second event is Washington’s new sanctions against Russian companies, politicians and entrepreneurs. It would seem that everyone has already got used to sanctions. However, politically today they are like a nervous cowboy from a Western comedy, who is firing his two six-shooters, whether he has to or not. Previously, new sanctions were based on a specific pretext, whereas today they are becoming similar in nature to daily carpet bombings. No doubt, they are doing harm to Russia’s economy, business and citizens. But this version of sanction policy can only anger Moscow and perplex observers by the absence of any clear-cut strategy. Sanctions are losing their value as a tool of diplomacy and becoming an implement of war. Such an approach to sanctions is good for the domestic audience. Probably, it would have been rational in its own way were it not applied to a nuclear power that should hardly be overrated but certainly should not be underrated.

The third event is yet another chemical attack in Syria. This event was expected but is no less dangerous for that reason. Any objective investigation is highly unlikely under the circumstances. The sides will consider any version of events as fake, with the threat of force emerging as the only argument. And this is where the main danger lies. Today, Syria is the place where there is the greatest danger of the confrontation between Russia and the West turning into an open armed conflict. Such a scenario is easy to visualize.

Suppose another “chemical” or some other incident takes place in Syria. The “chemical” trigger looks most likely. This theme is well-covered by the media and is a serious pretext. Suppose Washington decides to use force, not just a cosmetic strike with ten or twenty Tomahawks, but a massive attack on the remaining military and civilian infrastructure of the Syrian Government. This is the scenario’s first bifurcation, or the matter of Russia’s involvement. Its bases can remain intact. But if Moscow uses its forces (as its military promised) a strike will be delivered at Khmeimim and Tartus. Technically it is possible to launch such a strike and destroy both bases and their military personnel, especially if US troops die during an attack on Bashar al-Assad.

This course of events could be unintentional but it could also be planned. The Russian group in Syria has done an excellent job fighting terrorists but it would be vulnerable in the event of a clash with the Americans. The TO is remotely located and it is difficult to deliver supplies. The Americans have an advantage as far as the concentration and support of their attack force is concerned. Stakes may be made on an utterly tough, hard-hitting and humiliating defeat of Russia as the result of a lightning strike. This could be like a new 19th-century Crimean war, albeit extremely compressed in time and space.

This scenario may seem extremely risky (if not crazy) but upon closer analysis it has logic of its own. And here comes the next bifurcation. What will Moscow do, if this happens? The first option (that would be the most desirable for Washington): Russia would have to bite the dust and admit defeat. Yes, Russia is a nuclear power but will it mount a nuclear strike because of a clash with the Americans in Syria, knowing that its strike will result in retaliation? In other words, the stakes here are on the hope that Moscow will not press the button because this would mean suicide. In this scenario, victory would be on Washington’s side without reservation. It will show that it is possible and necessary to cut down to size an opponent that has crossed the line. This will be a powerful signal to all the rest while America and Trump personally will gain the reputation of an uncompromising and tough player.

But there is also a second option. It is difficult to analyze it on the basis of the theory of rational choice. It may simply not work within Russia’s strategic culture and tradition. The Russians may press the button. Moscow is not confined to the option of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It can also offer a limited, albeit very painful, response. Technically this is also possible and dangerous in its own way. If, say, an aircraft carrier or a big warship is demonstratively sunk, it is Washington that risks biting the dust. But this is not in the US tradition, either. As a result, tensions will escalate, considerably increasing the risk of MAD.

This scenario may seem excessively alarmist. The consciousness of people, who lived amid the stability of the Cold War and the subsequent 30 peaceful years, naturally rejects it as unrealistic. However, history shows that disasters happen contrary to usual patterns and are merciless to their makers.

It is possible to avoid the disaster in two ways: either by starting negotiations and finding a compromise or by strengthening alliances and maintaining a balance of power. The current realities are making the second option more likely. In all probability, Moscow will continue its course towards a rapprochement with China and other players and a new model of bipolarity will take shape in the world. However, making forecasts in international relations is a thankless task. History will follow its own path, a path it alone can fathom.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

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

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Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.

“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.

The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.

As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.

The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.

In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.

BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

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Russia vs China

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Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.

The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.

We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.

Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.

Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.

Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.

Notable characteristics:

Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;

Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;

All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;

The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;

Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;

Total control over public life.

Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.

Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.

The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.

However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.

Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.

History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.

It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.

In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.

The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.

The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.

It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.

If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.

“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.

Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.

What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.

Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.

This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.

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COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.

Opportunities

Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World

Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.

The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities

The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.

The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”

Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.

Threats

Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating

The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.

The Rise of Isolationism in Russia

Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.

The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.

P.S.

“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.

From our partner RIAC

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