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The “Russian Card” in the International Game

Igor Ivanov

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In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors.

In recent years, Russia has unfailingly found itself the focus of the international community’s attention: Russia makes newspaper headlines, appears in TV reports and is the topic of heated public debates throughout the world. It would seem that such popularity is reason to rejoice. However, this attention is becoming rather unhealthy: various political forces actively use the “Russian card” to achieve their domestic and foreign political goals, which are sometimes rather self-serving.

While doing so, they sacrifice the interests of Russia and the interests of international stability and truth, and even neglect basic logic and common sense. Let us list but a few recent examples.

In Washington, amidst almost completely suspended Russia–U.S. relations, Republicans and Democrats routinely use the “Russian card” as an instrument in their power struggle. The parties are so taken with introducing various acts and bills and making other decisions intended to hurt the Russian leadership as much as possible that they are becoming oblivious to the interests of their own country, including its immediate security concerns.

In Kiev, the “Russian card” is nearly the principal trump card for national self-assertion, the key argument justifying the inability of the current Ukrainian leaders to make any kind of progress in resolving pressing socioeconomic problems. Therefore, it is vital for Kiev that the high level of tensions in their relations with Moscow is maintained. And we see over and over again that when it comes to achieving this goal, anything goes.

London, still haunted by the ghost of its former power, attempts to find a new place for Britain in the changing global power configuration. Who would be a good opponent for London? Brexit did major damage to Britain’s relations with many European countries. Placing itself in the lead of an anti-Russian coalition and calling upon partners to show solidarity with the “victim of Russian meddling,” London can divert attention away from the painful and thus far not entirely successful “divorce from Europe.”

In many European countries, populist parties actively use the “Russian card,” profiteering, in particular, from the costs of the anti-Russian sanctions to their countries. At the same time, however, they do not offer a well-thought-out, long-term vision of the development of their countries’ relations with Russia. If they do come to power, they become less interested in the matter or use it as a trump card in their bargaining with Brussels on other issues that are of greater importance for them.

In Ankara, the “Russian card” emerges from the sleeve each time Turkey has a problem with the United States and its other NATO allies. A possible strategic partnership with Moscow is put forward as a possible alternative to Turkey’s Atlantic orientation. However, there are no reasons to expect Ankara to make a strategic turn towards Moscow right now.

The list of countries and political forces that include the “Russian card” in their diplomatic arsenal can go on and, unfortunately, it is becoming longer. And the “Russian card” is being played not only along the Russian borders, but even in more faraway regions.

Why is the “Russian card” so popular today? We should bear in mind the fact that, in the coming years and maybe even decades, the shaping of a new stable world order will be incomplete, and international relations will be in a state of permanent turbulence. Such a state is fertile ground for politicians who are ready to use any means to achieve profits here and now.

The foreign policy of the current U.S. administration is the starkest example of this state of affairs. Violating international law and treaties, imposing unilateral sanctions, introducing protectionist measures and intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries has just about become the norm of U.S. international conduct. If playing the “Russian card” becomes a norm, too, it will do progressively greater damage to Russia’s standing in the international community and will limit Russia’s options in conducting an active foreign policy.

What about Russia? What should our response to the various games played by political card sharps be?

First, Russia needs to be clearly aware of the fact that they are indeed sharps, unconscionable and mostly unprincipled politicians attempting to make their play using the current political situation. These politicians are ready to paint themselves as either the enemies or best friends of Moscow; they can proclaim right-wing or left-wing slogans, appeal to the future or capitalize on the past. In any case, for them, Russia is nothing more than a convenient instrument for manipulating public sentiments at home or a lever to exert pressure on other global political actors. Therefore, it would be a big mistake to bet on those powers and count on long-term strategic collaboration with them.

Second, the best way to knock the “Russian card” out of the hands of political profiteers is to implement a well-balanced, long-term and consistent strategy of Russia’s relations with a specific state or groups of states. The most instructive case is Russia–China relations. There have been and there will be many attempts to sow doubts or mutual suspicions, to resurrect old grievances and contradictions, but they all come to naught because of a solid edifice of bilateral relations that has been consistently constructed in recent years and which possesses clearly defined strategic benchmarks.

As far as Russia’s relations with the European Union are concerned, attempts to force political manipulators to cease and desist have thus far been unsuccessful. In the early 2000s, Russia and Europe built their relations with the common goal of achieving strategic partnership. Over the course of several years, the parties created a solid legal framework for their relations, increased their trade turnover, reached a new level of mutually beneficial cooperation and expanded educational, academic and public contacts. As these positive trends shrank and the clear benchmarks in Russia–EU relations were lost, the temptation to exploit the topic of Russia began to rear its head. It is a known fact that fishing in troubled waters is a favourite pursuit of many, and this is what we are seeing today in various European countries.

The only way to pull the rug from under the feet of these political profiteers is to develop a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Brussels, define clear and unequivocally exactly what Russia’s interests in Europe are, and abandon unconditionally all attempts to achieve tactical victories by playing on the contradictions between individual EU member countries. Such a principled approach is applicable in other areas of Russia’s foreign policy as well.

Third, we see that all kinds of provocations are one of the main instruments used by those who attempt to play the “Russian card.” These provocations include unilateral sanctions and illegal actions against Russian citizens, Russian businesses, and Russia’s property, spreading false information, etc. The intent here is simple: to draw Russia into a fruitless discussion and an endless “exchange of blows,” forcing it to divert significant political and material resources from resolving truly important problems in the country’s internal development and promoting Russia’s interests on the international arena.

How should Russia react to these provocations? We should remember here that a provocation is only successful when people take the bait. Once again, we could look at China here, whose resolve is also tested on a regular basis. In every instance, China does not react in an emotional manner; rather, its responses are always weighed and thought out thoroughly. In some cases, China will retaliate in kind (as with the United States unilaterally increasing tariffs). In other cases, when such a response is justified, China offers a token display of power. Sometimes, Beijing pretends not to pay any attention to the attacks, but the response may be forthcoming at an opportune moment.

Fourth, much in counteracting anti-Russian attacks depends on the reactions to those attacks in the Russian media. Sometimes, one gets the impression that certain printed media and TV channels are waiting for such provocations to engage in lengthy and aggressive discussions on the subject, provoke an international scandal and to call upon the Russian leadership to respond in the harshest possible manner. Such behaviour, on the one hand, instils the false impression in the public consciousness that Russia is surrounded by enemies and needs to brace itself for the worst and, on the other, it objectively prompts the authorities to take sometimes emotional and hasty actions. Of course, a response is necessary. However, this response should not consist of screaming wildly. It should instead consist of dignified and convincing arguments based on Russia’s long-term interests. Haste in such matters is inappropriate at the very least.

Of course, there are no universal recipes that work in every situation. Every day, we are greeted by a new surprise. But it is important to be guided in every specific case by the key principle: nothing must be done today that could create even greater problems for Russia tomorrow. And let those who love using the “Russian card” passionately build their political houses of cards. Historical experience shows that those houses are unlikely to last.

First published in our partner RIAC

President of the Russian International Affairs Council. Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RF MFA). Russian Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.

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The Results of the Azerbaijan- Russia Industrial Cooperation Forum

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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.

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Eurasia’s Great Game and the Future of the China-Russia Alliance

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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.

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.”

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Russians Need to Question their Foreign Policy

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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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