Many African countries this year participated in the International Military-Technical forum dubbed «ARMY-2018» organised by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in Kubinka, located approximately 280 km from Moscow.
The «ARMY-2018» received about 120 official delegations from foreign countries and featured nearly 150 events as part of its scientific business programme. The annual games allow the different world forces to improve their efficiency, knowledge and friendship. The army extravaganza, billed the Olympics of the Military World, now in its fourth year.
There were more than 26,000 exhibits on display especially the latest weapons aimed at attracting more foreign customers. The show featured Russia’s latest fighter jet, the Su-57, the Kinzhal hypersonic weapon and the Armata battle tank among other new weapons. It also had robotic systems and flyovers by the air force’s aerobatic squadrons.
President Vladimir Putin said in an address to the «ARMY-2018» that it reflected the huge potential of Russian military industries and would serve as a platform for military cooperation with interested foreign countries.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu emphasised that most new weapons at the show have proven their worth during the Syrian campaign. “They demonstrate the latest achievements of our industries and science,” he asserted.
During the event, General Director of ROE, Alexander Mikheev noted: “By tradition, it gives the RosOboronExport maximum monetisation of all exhibition events in the world. It gathers the largest number of foreign delegations in Moscow.”
He noted the increasing special demand from African countries. “We will see a real African breakthrough. In addition to our traditional partners from North Africa, we are waiting for representatives from 16 countries of the sub-Saharan continent at our booth and meeting rooms,” Mikheev said.
For example, as gathered at the forum, it became clear that Niger was interested in buying Russian helicopters and small arms, including grenade launchers. Several agreements reviewed and signed with a number of participating African countries including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic.
“Today (at the Army-2018 forum), we signed an intergovernmental agreement on military cooperation, the implementation of which will contribute to strengthening ties in the defense sector in a number of African countries,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during talks with the Minister of National Defense of Central African Republic, Marie Noel Coyara.
The Ministry reported on its website that “Deputy Defense Minister Col. Gen. Alexander Fomin met with Ivory Coast Defense Minister, Hamed Bakayoko on the sidelines of the forum. During the meeting, the sides discussed military and military-technical cooperation projects and exchanged opinions on key regional security issues facing the African continent.”
The parties reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening friendly relations between the armed forces of the two countries further, it said. According to Fomin, there were many interested foreign customers including Asian and African countries, which works well for the Kremlin.
“The Soviet Union poured resources into the African continent for ideological reasons. Putin will not do such thing. We know that the African continent has a great potential and it can be market-oriented and based on mutual interest,” he finally stressed.
Still, the Kremlin’s larger aims are political and geostrategic. Putin’s overall military moves in the Middle East but also North Africa limit the West’s ability to maneuver.
North African countries on the Mediterranean’s southern coast can potentially gain Russia, a traditional land power, access to additional warm water ports – something Russian leaders coveted since Peter the Great. Such access would allow Russia to project military power into Europe, Middle East and North Africa.
On top priority are Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Angola. East and Southern African countries are also Russia’s market focus while recently concluded agreements with Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Rwanda, Burundi and Chad.
Algeria has long been in Moscow’s camp and remained a top buyer of Russian arms throughout the 2000s. But in 2014, the two countries signed a $1 billion arms deal which a Russian military expert in business-oriented Vedomosti financial newspaper described as “possibly the largest export contract for main battle tanks in the world.”
“Several financial arrangements were also made to ensure financing of developments and production of modern military equipment samples. Firm orders from countries in Asia and Africa, and the CIS became part of Rostec’s portfolio of orders,” according to the document released August 26.
Over recent years, Russia has considerably expanded its arms sales, both in terms of the number of African countries involved in the deals and the types of weapons and military equipment being sold, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
By estimation, Russia shipped US$357.1 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2017. This included African countries. Africa accounted for 13% of Russian arms sales over the last five years.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided huge quantities of arms to a number of African governments such as Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique. But, now ideology is not a significant factor, according to analysis by both foreign and local policy experts.
As Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explicitly observes that military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with a number of African countries.
“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” she also acknowledges in her discussion for this news report.
Dmitri Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the African Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told me: “With African countries, the primary aim now for Russian business is to regain a competitive edge in the global arms trade, and what’s interesting is that the approach is not ideological but very pragmatic – you pay, we ship. It’s simply business and nothing more.”
Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), founded in 1997 as a leading Russian defense industry and arms trade think tank, explained to me that Russia has revived contacts with African comrades that used to be traditional buyers of Soviet weaponry.
He pointed out that although much has changed in the sense, “Russia is using military diplomacy in order to gain stature and influence in Africa.”
Nikolai Shcherbakov, an Analyst at the Center for African Studies of the Institute of General History, indicated that Moscow is steadily seeking to strengthen its position as a major arms supplier to the African continent, and further explained that “Russia’s military technology was top-notch while the weapons were priced very good to be competitive on the market.”
In his assessment, Dr Richard Connolly, Associate Fellow at Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, noted that Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the US, and is seeking to strengthen its position in new markets.
“Asia is the most important foreign market for Russian arms producers, accounting for 70 per cent of their exports since 2000. The Middle East and North Africa is the second-most important market, but competition from other suppliers is much more intense there. Latin America and Africa are of relatively modest importance,” he concluded.
The Results of the Azerbaijan- Russia Industrial Cooperation Forum
On April 4, the Azerbaijan-Russia Industrial Cooperation Forum was held in Baku with the participation of representatives of relevant government agencies and entrepreneurs. Speaking at the forum, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Economy Shahin Mustafayev noted that the political will and joint efforts of the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia laid a solid foundation for expanding economic cooperation between two countries. The relations between Azerbaijan and Russia, which are developing in all areas, are at a strategic level.
Within the framework of the forum, three Russian companies – Rostselmash, Transmashholding and Service Invest – signed the cooperation agreements with Azerbaijani partners. State Duma Deputy Dmitry Savelyev, commenting on the results of the event, noted that Russia and Azerbaijan had obviously moved from the initial steps in building economic partnership to a normal working process.
The result is visible to the naked eye: last year’s trade turnover amounted to $ 2.5 billion, exceeding the figure for 2017 by 19%. It shows the great interest of companies in joint projects.
According to the parliamentarian the countries have long-term successful experience in opening joint ventures in the industrial sector, and not only in the oil and gas sector. Industrial cooperation is developing at full speed.
The real examples of mutual investment were the SOCAR Polymer project, the construction of a pharmaceutical enterprise in the Pirallahi industrial park, and the cooperation of the Ganja car plant with the Russian enterprises KamAZ and Ural. A service center that would make maintenance and repair of Mi helicopters in Azerbaijan is supposed to be opened.
Moreover, at this stage of cooperation we can talk about readiness for cooperation in the international arena. The Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia and the Russian Export Center (REC) are launching the Unified Export Support System. Regional hubs will be formed in 19 countries (including China, Turkey, Germany, Vietnam, Uzbekistan and Singapore).
Moreover, the creation of joint assembly plants considers promising point of economic growth. Such a joint project will expand the market for engineering represented by Middle East and Southeast Asia countries. An important role in this regard should be played by agreements at the level of state corporations.
“This year, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree establishing the Azercelli company. This company will be engaged in the development of the non-oil sector, the production of defense and import-substituting industrial products. In cooperation with Rostec that is among the ten largest industrial corporations in the world in terms of revenues Azercelli can begin its expansion into the huge markets in Africa and the Middle East.”
The long-term friendly relations of two states, based on good-neighborliness and taking into account the national interests of a partner, the Russian parliamentarian considers the main trump card in the joint entry into international markets. “If there is a conflict of interests in some areas of activity, then in order to pass events like the Russian-Azerbaijani forum of industrial cooperation, where both parties can always sit at the negotiating table and find mutually acceptable solutions, as was done throughout the history of the relations.
Eurasia’s Great Game and the Future of the China-Russia Alliance
Addressing last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, then US defense secretary Jim Mattis dismissed fears first voiced in 1997 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of America’s greatest 20th century strategists who advised US presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, that long-term US interests would be most threatened by a “grand coalition” of China and Russia “united not by ideology but by complimentary grievances.”
On the contrary, Mr. Mattis suggested. China and Russia have a “natural non-convergence of interests” despite the fact that both countries have defined their relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” Mr. Mattis argued.
“There may be short-term convergence in the event they want to contradict international tribunals or try muscling their way into certain circumstances but my view — I would not be wasting my time going to Beijing…if I really thought that’s the only option between us and China. What would be the point of it? I’ve got more important things to do,” Mr. Mattis argued.
Mr, Mattis predicted that in the longer term “China has more in common with Pacific Ocean nations and the United States and India than they have in common with Russia.”
Mr. Mattis’ prediction of a US-China-India entente may seem even further away today than it did in Singapore a year ago, but his doubts about the sustainability of the Chinese-Russian alliance are being echoed by Chinese and Russian analysts and developments on the ground.
Shi Ze, a former Chinese diplomat in Moscow who is now a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank affiliated with the country’s foreign ministry, noted that “China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order. Russia thinks it is the victim of the current international system, in which its economy and its society do not develop. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not to break it.”
Russian scholar Dmitry Zhelobov recently suggested that there was little confidence to cement the Chinese-Russian alliance. Mr. Zhelobov warned that China was gradually establishing military bases in Central Asia to ensure that neither Russia nor the United States would be able to disrupt Chinese trade with the Middle East and Europe across the Eurasian heartland.
Add to that the fact that Chinese dependence on Russian military technology appears to be diminishing, potentially threatening a key Russian export market.
China in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia’s SU-57E.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to signal greater awareness of potentially shifting sands in Central Asia by signing an agreement in March during a visit to Kyrgyzstan to expand by 60 hectares the Kant Air Base 20 kilometres east of the capital Bishkek that is used by the Russian Air Force. Mr. Putin also agreed to pay a higher rent for the base.
He further lavished his Kyrgyz hosts with US$6 billion in deals ranging from power, mineral resources and hydrocarbons to industry and agriculture.
Mr. Putin moreover allocated US$200 million for the upgrading of customs infrastructure and border equipment to put an end to the back-up of dozens of trucks on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because Kyrgyzstan has so far been unable to comply with the technical requirements of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Potential rivalry in Central Asia is not the only thing gnawing at the fundaments of a Chinese-Russian alliance. So is anti-Chinese sentiment and Russian public suspicion of Chinese intentions and commercial and social practices, already pervasive in the region’s former Soviet republics.
Increasingly, Russian leaders are facing mounting public anger in the Lake Baikal region and the country’s Far East at their alleged connivance in perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources, including water.
A petition by prominent Russian show business personalities opposing Chinese plans to build a water bottling plant on the shores of Lake Baikal attracted more than 800,000 signatures, signalling the depth of popular resentment and pitfalls of the Russian alliance with China.
Protests have further erupted in multiple Russian cities against Chinese logging in the country’s Far East that residents and environmentalists charge has spoilt Russian watersheds and is destroying the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard. The protesters, who denounced construction of housing for Chinese workers, are demanding a ban on Russian timber exports to China.
Russian fears of Chinese encroachment on its Far East go back to the mid-1800s and prompted Joseph Stalin to deport the region’s Korean and Chinese populations. When Russia and China finally settled a border dispute in 2008 with a transfer of land to China, Russian media raised the spectre of millions of Chinese migrants colonizing Siberia and the Far East.
Popular Russian fears diverge from official thinking that in recent years has discounted the threat of Chinese encroachment given that the trend is for Russians to seek opportunity in China where wages are high rather than the other way round.
The official Russian assessment would counter Mr. Mattis’ thesis and support Mr. Brzezinski’s fears that continue to have a significant following in Washington.
“China and Russia will present a wide variety of economic, political, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic challenges to the United States and its allies. We anticipate that they will collaborate to counter US objectives, taking advantage of rising doubts in some places about the liberal democratic model,” said Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats in the intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The report went on to say that China and Russia were “expanding cooperation with each other and through international bodies to shape global rules and standards to their benefit and present a counterweight to the United States and other Western countries.”
The truth is that the jury is out. There is no shortage of evidence that China and Russia are joining forces in multiple theatres across the globe as well as in multilateral organizations like the United Nations and in Russian and Chinese efforts to drive wedges among Western allies and undermine public confidence in democratic institutions.
The question is how disruptive Chinese-Russian rivalry in Central Asia and mounting Russian public unease with Chinese advances will be and whether that could alter US perceptions of Russia as an enemy rather than an ally.
The odds may well be that China and Russia will prove to be long-term US rivals. However, it may just as well be that their alliance will prove to be more tactical than strategic with the China-Russia relationship resembling US-Chinese ties: cooperation in an environment of divergence rather than convergence.
Said strategist Robert D. Kaplan: The “future has arrived, and it is nothing less than a new cold war.”
Russians Need to Question their Foreign Policy
Open, public discussion on Russian official foreign policy has been rarely seen in Russian history, due largely to the common perception that the government correctly understands all Russian state interests.
In the Soviet period, foreign policy rarely came into the public spotlight. So was it under the Romanov dynasty, albeit with much more freedom and flexibility (and there were cases when public discussions were in fact instigated by the authorities). Overall though, public discussion was under much scrutiny and control from the imperial and Soviet authorities. This does not mean big debates were not taking place within Russian government, however- debates questioning the existing foreign policy initiatives, the country’s overall strategic trajectory and its position in the Eurasian landmass.
In the years before Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Russian Tsar Alexander I was criticised for his policies towards the French Emperor, leading to fears that one day he might be ousted. In the Soviet epoch, Nikita Khrushchev’s downfall was largely caused by unpredictable behavior on the world stage. And the list goes on, with plenty of examples how the Russians internally debated and reconsidered the country’s foreign policy, while on the surface all was static as if no change was forthcoming.
The Russian public today is prevented from questioning Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy over the past 19 years. This does not mean that the Russians do not write about Russia’s foreign affairs, but it seems that the dose of questioning and possible reconsideration in those discussions is slim.
Yet, there are plenty of reasons why the current Russian foreign policy should be questioned. Over the 19 years of Putin’s rule, the Russian influence has seen major setbacks. In 2014, when the Euromaidan took place and Russia grabbed Crimea and supported separatists in Donbass, Kiev became unequivocally pro-western in its foreign policy course. In the same year, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia all signed EU association agreements and stepped up military cooperation with NATO members and other western states.
Moscow has also experienced problems with breakaway territories across the former Soviet space. Russia once used the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria to curtail the ability of the countries those regions were in to enter the EU and/or NATO, but Moscow is having more and more difficulty maneuvering in so many diverse conflicts. Various actors are trying to play their own games, at times independently of Moscow, while anti-Russian sentiment will always be present among local populations. Geography also complicates Moscow’s ability to act decisively. For instance, the Transnistria region, where it has approximately 1,500 troops as peacekeepers, was essentially cut off from Russia once Ukraine closed transit routes through its territory.
To make matters worse, Russian foreign policy setbacks are not limited to the western borderlands or the South Caucasus. Russian influence in the strategically important Central Asia region is also receding. It is true that Moscow remains a predominant military power with military bases in Tajikistan (although China too its own base there) and Kyrgyzstan, but on the economic front, China has strengthened its positions.
There are even unpleasant developments on the cultural level. As the number of Russian speakers decreases around the world, Kazakhstan recently rid itself of the Cyrillic alphabet and replaced it with the Latin one.
On a broader geopolitical level, Russia is feeling pressure from the US and the EU. It is unlikely that the sanctions imposed on Russia will be lifted any time soon.
This gives plenty of reasons why Russia’s basic foreign policy assumptions should be reconsidered. The Russian foreign policy is probably still too Eurocentric, and there are now signs that Moscow is becoming Asia-centric. Indeed, Russia should neither position itself as leaning towards Europe nor to the economically vibrant Asia-Pacific region. The Russians should in fact be cooperating equally with all the economic centers across Eurasia.
Russia’s geographic position is unique if one considers how many world economic centers it borders on: EU, the Middle East and China, Japan, etc. This potentially allows Moscow to become an economic powerhouse of its own. True, Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet space are important to the country, but it is also true that Moscow spends too many resources on unnecessary separatist conflicts and the ‘prospective’ NATO onslaught.
The Russians should also question the most difficult notion: the pursuit of imperial grandeur. However trivial that might sound, the concept of turning Russia into a superpower (derzhava in Russian) should not be a primary goal of any successive government. There should be a clear understanding that a perennial Russian quest for military modernization sucks up most of the revenues and other resources. Instead, the Russians should develop a clear strategy, even grand strategy, based on the fact that first powerful economic incentives should be given to internal economic activity.
This would allow the Russians to be competitive and return to the Eurasian arena as a major global power. No isolation from the outside world is necessary to develop internally; on the contrary, cooperation with Europeans and Americans should not be stopped. However, Russia should take time to rethink its position on the global stage. It should leave what seems impossible to do for many in nowadays Russia (battle for Ukraine, Georgia, etc.) to perhaps return to the same lands as a different, economically and technologically vibrant power in a couple of decades or so.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
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