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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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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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