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Russia and Multilateral Diplomacy in East Asia

Anton Tsvetov

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When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August 2018 it was revealed that President Vladimir Putin was planning to take part in the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS) in Singapore this November. This will mark the first time that the Russian leader has attended the event since the country became full member of the EAS. Putin will also pay a state visit to Singapore and take part in the Fourth ASEAN–Russia Summit [1].

The President’s participation in the EAS has been a long time coming and his attendance will demonstrate that Russia is taking multilateral diplomacy in Asia seriously and that it cares about the EAS as the main ASEAN-centred security mechanism. Does Vladimir Putin’s upcoming trip to Singapore indicate that Russia is pushing a new agenda in its Asian policy?

A List at the End of a List

Just like there seems to be no country whose geographic position is not strategically advantageous, it would seem that there is no area of Russia’s foreign policy that is not a priority of some sort. In the official discourse, it is not customary to talk about Russia’s own pivot to the East, because formally there was no change in the priorities and East Asia has always been one. But speaking realistically, it can also be said the priories remain unchanged in the sense that Asia is still a secondary focus for Russia’s foreign policy efforts compared to other areas that are of priority concern mostly because they are prone with conflict.

At the same time, while Russia and the West seem unable to resolve their protracted conflict, Asia remains an important source of good news for Russia, an area where constructive forms of international relations still prevail over various forms of geopolitical competition. The Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok in early September, which was attended by the heads of state or government of China, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, is a good example of such positivity.

Perhaps it is image of relative harmony that makes the topic of Asian multilateral institutions less interesting for observers and relegates it to the bottom of the list of the priority areas of Russian policy in Asia. When Russian official speak of the country’s Asia policy, they usually start with Russia’s bilateral relations with regional leaders – China, Japan, South Korea and India – before turning to the Korean nuclear problem. Only then do they list the various multilateral diplomacy institutions around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): the ASEAN–Russia Dialogue Partnership; the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting with Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus); the East Asia Summit; the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), among others.

Meanwhile, multilateral diplomacy in Asia is an agenda item that checks several crucial boxes for Russian foreign policy ideology.

First, the region is home to rising powers which, according to the official Russian theory, will build the new ‘polycentric world’ and these players include both individual countries such as China, India or Indonesia and organizations like the SCO and ASEAN itself. Second, the principle of non-alignment, multilateralism and inclusivity in the form of ASEAN-centric organizations is still in vogue here, that is, there is ‘Asian NATO’, but instead a dense network of inclusive dialogue platforms (even North Korea takes part in ARF meetings). Third, ASEAN and larger formats around it continue to take the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states very seriously and avoid discussing each other’s domestic workings, which is also in the set of values that Russia is promoting on the international arena.

At the same time, all of this ideological affinity is not easily converted into practical cooperation. Every year, dozens of events are held within the framework of the ADMM, ADMM-Plus, ARF and EAS platforms, which are attended by the ASEAN dialogue partners. Diplomats from the partner countries are well aware of how difficult it is to maintain meaningful participation in all of them. It was only last year the Russia – last of the dialog partners – opened a full representation to ASEAN and given the limited international competencies of most Russian ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the relevant subdivisions of the Ministry of Economic Development remain disproportionately burdened with maintaining Russia’s participation in these formats.

In practical terms, the most visible step taken by Russia in multilateral institutions in Asia was the 2010 initiative to launch a “dialogue on issues of forming a new security and cooperation architecture in the region” within the EAS format. The set of characteristics that make up this system changes from speech to speech, but is usually said to be based on principles of collectiveness, multilateralism, equality, inclusiveness, openness, non-alignment and indivisibility. In the real world, Russia’s initiative is embodied in a series of working-level workshops on the regional security architecture. Six such workshops have been held and are usually attended at the level of division chiefs. There are also plans for a format where EAS ambassadors in Jakarta are to discuss the topic.

An initiative of this kind clearly appeals to ASEAN as an organization in the very centre of multilateral diplomacy in Asia, all the more so because the selection of principles proposed by Russia is recognized, at least vocally, by almost every single member of the United Nations. But even this seemingly win-win ideological construct runs into harsh geopolitical realities. In private conversations, ASEAN diplomats have in recent years expressed scepticism about Russia’s ideological leadership in this initiative: they say that it is not Russia’s place to talk about the indivisibility of security and then conduct joint military exercises with China, which the smaller countries in Southeast Asia evidently fear.

However, the main difficulty for the Russian initiative is different – as with many other processes in ASEAN-centric formats, it is not entirely clear whether an initiative on the creation of a new security architecture will come to life beyond workshops and statements. There is reportedly a collective document that could, following discussions, form the basis for a set of rules of conduct in the Asia-Pacific Region that could then be converted into another document that may even turn out to be legally binding.

Russia’s participation in ASEAN-centred multilateral mechanisms is not limited to the initiative. For example, Russia along with Laos is co-chair of the ADMM-Plus Expert Working Group on Humanitarian Mine Action. In 2014–2017, it co-headed (with Thailand) a similar group on military medicine. In 2019–2020, Russia will, alongside Indonesia, co-chair the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Counter Terrorism and Trans National Crime.

The (Not) New Sheriff In Town

Multilateral diplomacy in East Asia has traditionally enjoyed the support of all the key players in the region. However, this is mainly due to its openness and inclusivity. Unfortunately, this inclusivity proceeds from avoiding any kind of hard position or going against the consensus. Serious security issues are discussed on these multilateral Asian platforms that first seek to not offend anyone be uncontroversial and only then to be effective or even meaningful. What is more, the major powers support the ASEAN centrality because they know that ASEAN is in no condition to enforce any decision. This means that the United States and China can act pretty much as they please without feeling any kind of restrictions on the part of the regional community.

None of this means, however, that the numerous dialogue mechanisms that exist in the Asia-Pacific region are purely imitative and decorative in nature. They perform an important function – namely, socialization and the creation of an information flow among states. This mutual awareness of each other’s intentions, interests and positions should in theory build trust among all players or at least remind them that when crisis strikes there is a platform where they can talk before taking up arms. In other words, the multilateral security system in Asia works, although it does not meet the grand expectations of observers who want to see it as a safeguard of international security in Asia. On the other hand, recent experience of Europe demonstrates that we relying too much on collective security systems.

When faced with any serious security challenge, the countries in the Asia Pacific rarely rely on multilateral institutions for protection or mediation. And the fact that they turn to more traditional foreign policy instruments underscores the inability of multilateral mechanisms to fulfil their stated functions. The new concepts and strategies that have emerged in Asia and are designed to counterbalance China will be seen by many smaller countries in the region as an opportunity to gain real protection from Chinese assertiveness, at least to the extent possible.

In the coming years, these alternative formats will likely revolve around all sorts of ‘Indo-Pacific’ initiatives and platforms. The revived U.S.–Japan–Australia–India quadrilateral dialogue – no doubt aimed at new and better containment of China – will also extend its cooperation formats to a wider audience of partners in Asia. The key partners here will most likely be Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Another example is America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision announced recently as the economic leg of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ strategy. The long-awaited trilateral partnership for Indo-Pacific infrastructure investment has also arrived. While these initiatives do not seem to be as ambitious as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, they do already have an advantage over it – they are not Chinese. In today’s climate of growing fears of debt trapping and Chinese ‘sharp power’ this gives a measure of hope to U.S. and Japanese infrastructural investors aiming at Southeast Asian and Eurasian markets.

All this creates challenges for the relevance of multilateral institutions in Asia. When the Quad re-emerged November 2017, the news caused concern in Southeast Asian countries: what will this mean for ASEAN centrality? This concern was addressed by a diplomatic appeasement campaign, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong went on an extensive tour of Asia to calm the waters. An important result of this work was the joint statements made by the Quad foreign ministries following the second meeting on June 7, 2018, with all four texts essentially boiling down to a reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality.

Even without these new plurilateral formats, ASEAN-centred mechanisms were a target for criticism. For example, every time the situation on the South China Sea flares up, ASEAN is criticized for not being able to adopt a unified position. The ten member states of ASEAN are to varying degrees willing – or, rather, unwilling – to upset China. This is why they prefer to adopt a position with the lowest common denominator. ASEAN and China have been developing a Code of Conduct for the parties in the South China Sea for several years now. The document should be an important milestone in the settlement of the conflict, or at the very least reduce tensions in the region. A Single Draft was only agreed upon this year, and it is nothing more than a set of asks from all parties – even the most glaring contradictions have not been removed.

What Russia Brings to the Table

The problems of ASEAN-centred mechanisms are not unique to multilateral diplomacy and, of course, do not diminish the significance of the EAS for Russia. First of all, Vladimir Putin’s participation in the East Asia Summit is not as important for the EAS as such as it is for Russia–ASEAN relations. The East Asia Summit is important as a vanity project for ASEAN, a living embodiment of the principle of ASEAN centrality, when all the great powers in the Asia-Pacific Region come together under ASEAN convening power to discuss regional issues. The declaration following the Third ASEAN–Russia Summit in Sochi noted, in typical ASEAN-speak, that more attention on the part of Russia towards the EAS would serve as an important step on the way to upgrading the status of the dialogue partnership between Russia and the ASEAN to ‘strategic dialogue.’

In this sense, the President’s trip to Singapore in November can only be a success. Russia will remind everyone of its status as a major player in the region and share a vision of the regional security system that will be difficult not to support. President Putin will talk about the Greater Eurasian Partnership – Russia’s idea of a vast space with unified rules of the game in trade an investment, stretching all the way from the European Union to ASEAN. Commentators will point to Russia’s significant potential to play the role of a third force, whose appeal will only grow as the competition between China and the United States intensifies.

The ‘third force’ idea has long existed in the Russian discourse on Asian politics but requires critical assessment. There are two key weaknesses in the argument.

First, Russia does not enjoy a high level of influence in Southeast Asia, and its objective ability to bring attractive proposals to the region is also limited. While the countries in the Indo-Pacific currently account for a third of Russia’s foreign trade, for none of these countries does Russia itself exceed 3 per cent. Russia has unique products and services in several strategically important sectors – arms trade, information security, minerals and energy. However, this proposal has existed for several decades now, while the results (with the exception of Vietnam) have been spotty. The same goes for the Russian military presence in the Western Pacific; this presence is reasonably limited, which, on the one hand, reduces the risk of Russia being drawn into regional conflicts. On the other hand, it prevents Russia from playing in the same league as the United States and China.

autonomy in Asian affairs. Thanks to the coverage by international media and experts, Russia is increasingly seen as a country whose deteriorating relations with the United States are making it more and more dependent on China. The nuances of Russia’s balanced stance on the South China Sea, for example, are no longer seen as such behind the smokescreen of joint military exercises with China and the support of Beijing’s refusal to recognize the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016.

In this context, Russia may find it difficult to portray itself as a third force in Asia. It may be more worthwhile to invest more in maintaining the existing mechanisms of multilateral diplomacy. For Russia, which does not have the resources of China or the US, a sensible long-term strategy would be to strengthen the institutional framework, especially if it works at the same time to increase trust in Russia as a country that adheres to the rules of international cooperation. Building practical cooperation and developing new initiatives in multilateral mechanisms in Asia to match its rhetoric could have a positive reputational effect for Russia and its influence in Southeast Asia at a relatively low cost, even if it is old-fashioned and naïve to talk earnestly about collective security these days.

Such a strategy would no doubt require more serious investments in the bureaucratic, intellectual and organizational support of Russia’s work in multilateral mechanisms in Asia. It is necessary to gain the understanding and support of all stakeholders throughout the executive branch in order for Russia to step up its participation in the dozens of issue-specific dialogues under the ASEAN banner.

[1] At the time of publication, there is no official confirmation that the ASEAN–Russia Summit will take place; however, recent statements made by Deputy Minister of Economic Development of the Russian Federation Sergey Gorkov during his visit to Singapore imply that it will. See: http://economy.gov.ru/minec/about/structure/depasiapacific/201802091

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia’s geopolitics and strategy in the future

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Russia’s military doctrine is clearly closely related to European security – which is obvious even after the Cold War– and is in any case completely independent of the internal political configuration of the Russian regime.

 Therefore, studying the evolution of Russia’s military doctrine means predicting, a contrario, much of the strategic future of Europe and obviously of NATO as well.

 A strategic future that is still tied to the USA’s – and not only within the Atlantic Alliance – but which experiences situations that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War: the destabilization of the Mediterranean; the jihad; the Iranian-Saudi tension; the new role played by Israel; the more or less artificial “Arab springs”, the new immigration from sub-Saharan Africa and, finally, China’s New Silk Road.

All possible sub-military threats – obviously except for Israel’s role – which, however, multiply the hotbeds of tension, while NATO is focusing again on the East-West confrontation, thus providing to the East a wide range of possible instruments which are automatically taken away from the West.

 The last complete Russian military doctrine, however, was made public on December 25, 2015.

Before Russia’s participation in the war in Syria and hence even before the new projection of Russian power onto the Mediterranean, partly resulting from Russia’s relative success in Syria. In essence, Russia’s last doctrine was conceived in a very different phase of the East-West confrontation.

We should not even forget – as happened in the West in 2018 and afterwards – the Russian development of advanced medium-long range weapons, capable – at least according to the Russian technical experts – of hitting the Atlantic Alliance and the United States with the maximum speed and effectiveness without warning and without triggering nuclear-type equilibria.

In this case, we are talking about as many as seven strategic weapons programmes, most of which are already known.

Furthermore the United States have put the INF aside, as well as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The new Strategic Reduction Treaty (START) is currently far from being defined and the rhetoric of the clash between the two former military empires seems to have reached its apex, now placed between rhetoric and reality.

 Two cycles of sanctions for Syria and Ukraine have already been decided by Trump’s Administration, both in relation to the poisoning of the former FSB agent Skripal, occurred in Great Britain in 2018, and to the use of the nerve agent  Novichok, also in other situations.

We are obviously not in a position to ascertain whether these accusations are grounded, but it is interesting to note how these two sanction phases have been originated by a probable or alleged attack by the Russian Intelligence Services (not Armed Forces) against some of their former agents.

 In any case, 2020 is always an end point for Russian military planners. Many things will be decided in the relations between East and West, based on the military doctrine developed this year.

 Previously, with the start of the Serdyukov-Makarov military reform, 1.35 million military had as many as 52,000 elements dealing only with command and control activities, albeit of the traditional and bureaucratic type.

However, the real power and quantity of truly combat-ready Russian forces did not exceed 100,000 units.

Hence, on average, only 13% of the forces were combat-ready. In the Army the average rate was 17%, while it was 7% in the Air Force and 70% in the Navy.

 In the Space and Strategic Missile Forces, however, 100% of units were combat-ready.

However, 55% of weapons were obsolete, at various levels. After that reform, however, Russia’s geopolitical and strategic ideas are still the same: NATO’s containment can be achieved only with the deterrence ensured by nuclear weapons; the doctrineis evolving towards the US-style network-centric warfare and finally the future of the Russian Forces will be based on their specialization in the counter-guerrilla warfare and the technological and operational organization of small units.

Moreover, the operations of the future are not designed to eliminate the enemy only physically, but also psychologically, culturally and in its stable relations with the civilian population. This is a typically “hybrid” factor.

According to Russia’s current planners, in the hierarchy of threats there arethe clashes in the Post-Soviet Space.

Furthermore, Russia is particularly interested in the stability of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian planners also imagine a “Falklands scenario” for the Kuril Islands, put in place by Japan.

Not to mention even an explicit “containment” of China which, obviously, cannot be achieved by connecting it to a nuclear threat.

 The two external scenarios of primary interest for the Russian military planners are the Democratic Republic of Korea and the tension in Iran.

These are two possible points of entry into a narrow Russian strategic area, in which Russia’s response would be immediate, probably even nuclear and direct.

Still today, other potential threats are operations such as those which were carried out by NATO in the two Balkan wars, as well as the French-Italian-British presence in Libya, and some Western direct operations towards Belarus and the Russian borders, especially in the old area between NATO and the Russian terrestrial area.

 Despite this historical tension, which is now well-known, Russia does not believe there is any acceptable probability of clash between NATO and the Russian Federation, since Russia still thinks that nuclear deterrence is more than sufficient in this case.

 Therefore, the other strategic goals of the reform started in 2008 were the reduction of the available Forces to only 1 million military; the elimination of the low usable Forces; the reduction in the number of officers and a new command and control chain.

Certainly there were also the goals of reaching a 100% rate of combat ready forces, as well as increasing the outsourcing of materials and non-essential activities to civilian structures, and defining a new weapons program for 2020 designed to update 70% of material. Now we are already in 2020.

It should be clearly underlined that- to a large extent – these reforms implemented since 2008 have been successful.

 Therefore, also some non-negligible aspects of the Russian strategic doctrine are changing.

In particular, Russia thinks that the U.S. and NATO attitude has radicalized.

Above all with the “enhanced” use of sanctions, as well as with the spreading of the so-called “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet area -which the Kremlin interprets just as if it were the “hybrid warfare” of the Westerners – and finally the increase of inter-State conflicts in the disputed areas between Central Asia and the borders of Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus.

 In fact, some military groups, especially in the United States, have explicitly stated they want to “intimidate” the Russian Federation again, and later contain it according to the tradition of the Cold War and of the old “Telegram” sent by “X”, alias George Kennan, in 1947.

 Russian distrust towards the West which, however, Russia has already widely shown both in the military doctrines of 2015 (the year of its engagement in Syria) and in the subsequent “Concept of Foreign Policy” of 2006.

Here the small changes in terminology and doctrine are always decisive.

As early as 2015, the above stated General Gerasimov’s doctrine underlined that “the use of non-military measures for the whole range of new conflicts is increasing”.

 That was, in fact, the mechanism used by Russia in Syria, at first, then in the Ukraine and, probably, also in Venezuela and in other countries of the world.

 Hence, an “integrated defence” strategy, which combines political and not directly military actions with conventional operations or even visible or invisible advanced psywar or commando actions.

General Gerasimov defined it “a strategy which proactively weakens and defuses the threats to State security”.

Hence we find here a strengthening of territorial defence, besides the coordination of the actions made by various State agencies, halfway between intelligence services and the organizations of the so-called “civil society”.

 In this sense, it was also referred to as the “strategy of restrained action”.

It is a term that was originally used to define precisely the Russian operations in Syria. It means to wage and fight a war always with limited goals, using only a part of the military potential and only certain groups of the Armed Forces, as well as selectively hitting only some enemy’s targets and groups which, however, are not necessarily military ones.

These are always joint operations, also with the use of nuclear weapons, which must be employed at such a level as not to trigger the enemy’s equalizing countermove.

Moreover, the Russian doctrine of 2014 mentioned, for the first time, also private military companies, generically defined as “a characteristic of modern conflicts”.

As General Gerasimov always maintain, private companies will be “a component of the increasing number of military players on the field”.

 Like the guerrilla groups, the “quasi-States”, the various countries’ Armed Forces. All operators on the battlefield at the same level as the “classic” ones.

In this context, Russia will increasingly use private military companies, which enable the Kremlin’s planners to avoid being directly responsible for the operations and particularly to have the possibility of attributing important tactical operations to the sole willingness of their private “collaborators”.

For Russia, the primary point between propaganda and strategy is the U.S. abandonment of the INF Treaty.

 With the next doctrine, Russia will reaffirm its interest in resuming a complete START-type Treaty with the United States. With specific reference to the nuclear issue, however, the criterion is the classic one: “the launch, immediately after an attack,” of a nuclear strike or of a conventional operation putting the Russian State in crisis.

Here the role played by the new weapons will be decisive anyway. Russia has the new Khinzal missile available, i.e. a ballistic air-to-ground or air-to-air, self-propelled, hypersonic and high-precision missile.

Russia has also the Avangard, previously known as Objekt 42020, available, i.e. a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be carried by continental ballistic missiles. The Burevestnik, previously known as Novator 9M730, a nuclear-powered surface-to-surface missile, is still operational, but there are some other weapons in advanced testing phase.

 There are also significant evolutions in military robotics, in supercomputers and in semi-automated decision-making systems. This is another face of the future war, i.e. the use of “high-precision weapons and robotic instruments” – just to quote again General Gerasimov.

 It is the technological face of hybrid warfare.

 On the other side, in a mix of old and new theories, the U.S. strategists argue that “whoever controls Russia, rules the world” – a new version of Mackinder’s old formula of power.

In the next Russian doctrine there will probably be no reference to NATO or the United States as “military threats on Russian borders”, but both Western strategic entities will be regarded as mere “dangers”.

The next Russian military doctrine will also deal with non-military instruments, which will probably be coordinated by an ad hoc structure combining traditional military commands and intelligence, as well as – most likely – an integrated command for psyops operations of a political nature.

In particular, the new hypersonic and high-technology weapons will be used for “sub-optimal” threats towards the enemies, without having to resort to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or small or large nuclear weapons, and to change not only the military and strategic space, but above all the political complexion of the enemy forces on the ground.

 We will have a theory of the strategic threat and political hegemony of the military spectrum, which will imply a set of instruments, organizations, and operations that is currently even hard to imagine.

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The Russian constitutional referendum of July 1, 2020

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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With specific reference to the health situation, Russia is still in a severe situation with over 350,000 Covid-19 cases.

 Brazil, however, has replaced the Russian Federation as the hardest hit country in the world, while the United States is now firmly at the top of the ranking. Nevertheless, what really frightens the Russian decision-makers are the medium and long-term economic consequences of the health crisis.

 Russia’s GDP had already recorded a 1.6% increase in the first quarter of 2020, but all Russian economists expect GDP to fall by at least 16% in the second quarter.

 Two-thirds of this GDP contraction, however, can still be attributed to the lockdown, but only one-third to the related fall in oil prices.

 With specific reference to the quarantine management, Prime Minister Mishustin thinks that 27 regions can now reduce quarantine restrictions, while the leaders of Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Consumer Protection Agency, have asked the Governors of the Sverdlovsk and Smolensk regions to restore or even tighten quarantine requirements.

 The national average growth rate of viral infections in Russia is currently 3.9%, but a “Plan 2” for the definitive recovery of the Russian economy is already supposed to be in place.

 However, there will be three recovery phases: in the third quarter of 2020, the government will ensure that recession does not spread to the sectors which are still scarcely affected and will then refinance, one by one, the hardest hit economic sectors.

 The real Phase 2 – hence the real recovery – will take place from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021, with Russia trying to recover the pre-Covid 19 standards of living for the entire population. In the Phase 3, which will begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, the economy is even expected to start growing again.

 Pursuant to Russia’s current regulations, all proceeds from oil and gas exports are directly deposited into the National Welfare Fund (NWF).

 This Russian Sovereign Fund currently holds 11% of the whole Federation’s GDP. When the oil barrel prices are below 42 U.S. dollars, the Fund directly covers the difference by depositing what is needed directly into the federal budget. Above the threshold of 42 U.S. dollars, everything goes smoothly.

 Regardless of the constitutional referendum, the central government is likely to decide to take the necessary funds for the new economic expansion directly from the NWF.

 In a new crisis situation, the federal budget would directly receive all the oil revenues, which shall be allocated to the reconstruction of the Russian welfare and economy.

 Again with reference to oil, unlike other countries, Russia needs a basic oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars to “recover its costs”.

 Furthermore, the high prices reached after the various recent production restrictions within OPEC+ have enabled Russia to increase its reserves, which now stand at approximately 400 billion U.S. dollars.

 The Russian Federation’s current resources, however, would still enable the country to sustain even an oil barrel price of 25 U.S. dollars for ten years.

 Moreover, unlike Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ countries, Russia depends on oil and gas exports only for approximately two thirds of its revenues, while the rest is made up of raw materials such as uranium, coal, other metals and minerals, and especially the sale of arms abroad, a sector for which the Russian Federation is second only to the United States.

 It is precisely in this geo-economic situation that the forthcoming referendum scheduled for July 1 in Russia will take place.

 As you may remember, the announcement of the constitutional referendum made on January 16, 2020, enabled the then Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, to resign on that day and then take on the role of Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, which is obviously chaired by Vladimir Putin.

 Medvedev was replaced by Michail Mishustin, who is not a “man of force”, i.e. a former director of the Intelligence Services turned politician, but comes from the Federal Tax Service. When Mishustin himself fell ill with Covid-19, from April 30 to May 19 he was replaced by the economist Andrey Belousov.

 Hence what does President Putin want to achieve with his constitutional reform? Not just his mere stay in power, which the leader deems necessary, since he has not yet found his true heir apparent.

 It is a particularly effective sign that the second reading of the constitutional reform, adopted by the State Duma at the beginning of March 2020, was dominated by the presence of Valentina Tereskova, the first cosmonaut, now an 83-year-old member of Parliament.

 In that vote there were 382 in favour, 44 abstained and 0 MPs against.

 Therefore, if approved in the referendum, the current reform will be the real constitutional definition of Putin’s “vertical of power”.

 It should be recalled it is a mechanism made up of centre-periphery relations, but also of now stable electoral systems: the prohibition of presenting “independent” candidates; the registration of regular candidates by parties that are officially recognized and have at least 50,000 members in different regions of the country; the 7% hurdle, whereby the votes of those who do not reach said threshold shall always be distributed among all the other parties that have exceeded it.

 Certainly the Russian Federation cannot be a democracy. If it were so, it would no longer exist as such.

 A great empire, with a surface sixty times the size of Italy, but with a population just below the sum of Italians and Germans, as well as with empty Siberia on the border with the very overpopulated China.

 In an “empty country” – as Baron De Custine defined it at the beginning of the 19th century – the fear of foreigners always recurs: Putin’s old video, in the 2012 election rounds, showed the Chinese arriving in Khabarovsk; NATO taking Kaliningrad; the Islamists raiding in the Caucasus and finally the skinheads – an evident symbol of Western stupidity – moving freely around St. Petersburg.

 The Russian Constitutional Court, however, has already made it clear that Putin’s reform is legal.

 Hence what does Putin want? Firstly, a stronger system of central State controls over the federal and peripheral governments, so as to create the constitutional legislation of the “vertical of power” which is currently based only on Putin’s personal energy.

 Secondly the considerable strengthening of the status and role of the Russian Federation’s State Council, which is at present only an advisory body, not prescribed in the Constitution. It shall also be given the powers of orienting domestic and foreign policies, as well as identifying the main areas of future development in the country.

 Thirdly, Vladimir Putin’s proposal would mean that the regional Governors could automatically be members of the State Council, obviously after having established a pact with the Kremlin.

 Fourthly, the statute of the State Council shall be fully incorporated into the Constitution. The vast “nationalisation of elites” will be strengthened, since those who hold important positions for ensuring the country’ security, such as President, Ministers, members of the State Duma, regional Governors, judges or any other high-ranking State official, shall not have foreign citizenship or even a residence permit in other countries, either at the time of their work in office or, in the case of the President, at any time before.

 A presidential candidate, however, must prove he or she has been permanently living in Russia for at least 25 years (currently 10 years) and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Ex post, of course.

 The Constitution shall take precedence over international law and over the provisions of international treaties. Here the Russian concept of “sovereign democracy” is reaffirmed, which sometimes departs from the Western mythology of “human” and hence “universal” rights and states its clear opposition to dealing with the internal affairs of any other country.

 In the proposed constitutional reform, there is also the clear prohibition to transfer and alienate part of the Russian Federation’s territories.

 The Federation Council (the Upper House of Parliament), which now becomes the primary government body, shall also have the right to propose to the President to dismiss federal judges by providing a reasoned assessment and motivated opinion on their activity; in some cases, upon the proposal of the President, the Federation Council shall have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts.

 The State Duma (the Lower House of Parliament) shall have the right to approve the Prime Minister’s candidacy (currently it only gives consent to his/her appointment). The State Duma shall also approve the candidates of Deputy-Prime Minister and Federal Ministries; the President cannot refuse their appointment, but in some cases he/she will be able to remove them from office 

Hence the two directives of “United Russia”, Putin’s traditional party, become constitutional rule, i.ederžavnost’ – the ‘great power’ – and gosudarstvenničestvo, the ‘strong State’.

 Moreover, as always happens in current political propaganda, there is the issue of family relations.

 The new Constitution proposed by the President defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman – and even the TV propaganda of the referendum underlines this aspect.[

 Furthermore, the State has the explicit duty to “preserve and honour the memory of the Defenders of the Fatherland, as well as honour the pan-Russian cultural identity and show faith in God” as a value sacredly received by ancestors.

Sobianin, the mayor of Moscow, the city which is still the epicentre of the COVID-19 infection, wanted to hold the referendum in September, but Putin wants it now.

 Why? Because Vladimir Putin is aware of the political and personal tensions within the apparata.

 In the Secret Services and in the Armed Forces – which, over the last few months, have been the origin of indirect and veiled attacks on him. A series of events has also revealed how the Military Secret Service (GRU) is no longer entirely in Putin’s hands, as was previously the case.

 Certainly, now that the Covid-19 is in a phase of controlled expansion, Putin has anyway regained popularity.

 Still today, 63% of the Russian population shows strong support for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin. In the referendum case, however, the voter turnout is estimated at 65%, which is always too little to ensure a real and definitive success to the President. Nevertheless, by paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, it should be recalled that democratic elections have ways “of which reason and the heart know nothing”.

 About 47% of Russians, however, states to be in favour of the reforms proposed by Putin to the Constitution.

 Too few? We shall see what the future has in store. Only 53% of young people is expected to vote, while 77% of elderly people is expected to go to the polls.

 Nevertheless, 41% of young people will always vote against Putin’s amendments to the Russian Constitution, with 45% of them living in Moscow.

 It is currently foreseen that 35% of voters will not go to the polls.

 Is Putin in danger? We do not believe so, considering that – if this happens because of his poor electoral performance – the President will find a way to recover. However, we do not think this will be the case. 

 Hence centralization of true power in Putin’s hands, up to two terms and even beyond but, on the other hand, distribution regulated by the central power to the regional governments.

 A new configuration of power in Russia, until Putin finds his true heir apparent.

 If he ever finds him, of course.

 The State is “a work of art”, as an old and valuable book by Jakob Burkhardt, “The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”, reads.

 Therefore, every State does not reproduce as a photocopy, but only through the Author, the Artist.

 If voted and adopted, the amendments to the Russian Constitution will enable Putin to be regularly re-elected for over two consecutive terms, but, with the current changes, we can think of additional 12 years and more in power, but only for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin.

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Russia

As US-China Competition Unfolds, Russia Watches Closely

Emil Avdaliani

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Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point in two decades. Similar patterns of warming and cooling have taken place intermittently ever since Russia emerged as a major Eurasian power in the early 18th century. Each crisis with the West alternated with rapprochement and at times full military and security cooperation.

An unchangeable trait of those relations was that Russia had scarcely any foreign policy alternatives with which to balance its West-oriented geopolitical worldview. For Moscow, the West remained a major source of technological, economic, and political progress even as it remained an existential threat, as various military invasions by western Europeans into the Russian heartland proved.

This changed in the early 2000s, when China’s rise gave Russia a new card to play. Today’s Russian political elites advocate a more balanced foreign policy in which the Kremlin’s interests lie in every major Eurasian region. According to that vision, Russia’s foreign policy is no longer attached to any specific region but is evenly spread in an era of “Global Russia.”

From the Russian perspective, the competition between the US and China is a geopolitical development that could offer Moscow many opportunities. The US, which once focused on containing Russia through broader support for vulnerable territories from Scandinavia to the Black Sea, is now focused on Syria and other Middle East trouble spots and is shifting its attention far from Russia’s borders to the Indo-Pacific.

There is, indeed, an urgent need for this shift in American focus, as China’s power far outstrips Russia’s. But for the Russians, the shift in the American worldview means US power will be depleted even more than it was in the 2000s. Over the century’s first two decades, the US entered Afghanistan and Iraq and later got involved in Syria, spending trillions overall.

This means that Russia’s pivot to the east, rebalancing the West with China, has much deeper geopolitical significance than many believe. Russia-China cooperation goes far beyond the “partnership of convenience” propounded by many analysts.

As the US-China competition persists (as it is likely to do for decades), it will grow easier for Russia to maneuver and attain at least some geopolitical aims in its immediate neighborhood. For Moscow, the longer the competition between the two economic and military powers goes on the better, as it will help Russia position itself as a separate pole of geopolitical gravitation.

We often forget that to the Russians, China and the US are long-term geopolitical rivals of very much the same caliber. The Kremlin does not trust either one of them, and their competition redounds to Russia’s benefit. A similar situation existed before WWII, when Stalin and the Bolsheviks perceived all Western powers as hostile. To gain geopolitical advantage it was necessary to foster disagreements between the Nazis and France and Great Britain.

While that strategy worked then, this is a different era. First and foremost is the grand scale of the struggle between the Chinese and Americans. Still, the inherent geopolitical worldview of the Russians remains the same: abstain from directly engaging in the US-China competition and try to leverage it to gain geopolitical points. The ultimate object is to have both the US and China approach Russia for geopolitical support.

Time will tell if this strategy will work. The US is increasing pressure on allies and partners across the world to desist from security and military cooperation with the Chinese. A clearly defined US-led techno-economic bloc is emerging. For the moment, Russia is closer to China through burgeoning economic and military ties—but the Russians fear that a powerful China could strategically challenge Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Ideally, Washington would prefer that Moscow come closer to the US than turn toward China. Perhaps serious effort will be made to salvage its broken relations with the Kremlin. The problem will be how many concessions the US and the EU can make. The focal points will be Ukraine first of all, and then Moldova and Georgia. Some concessions might be offered, but it is unlikely that the collective West will abandon its decades-long economic and military efforts in the former Soviet space.

Similarly, Russia will try to score points in the Middle East. The West might be more conciliatory there, but not to the point of abandoning the region altogether.

This leads to another scenario in which the West does not try to pull Russia closer, but rather leaves it to be drawn into China’s orbit. Many believe the collective West would be unable to match Russia’s and China’s combined resources. This might not be entirely true. After all, the US managed to contain the Soviets and the Chinese when they were close in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when their satellites controlled most of the Eurasian landmass. This US tradition could serve as the basis for a more pronounced confrontation with the non-democratic powers.

This would mean that Russian hopes for geopolitical gains through grand geopolitical trade-offs with the West might not materialize. The country might be further pulled into the Chinese sphere of technological, military, and security influence.

The possession of a large nuclear arsenal would not be a point of leverage for Moscow. Chinese influence would expand in every non-nuclear sphere. With Russia essentially cut off from the West, it would be unable to contain China’s economic and military power in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Either of these scenarios could unfold. Russia might try to play the difficult game of balancing the West and China to gain concessions from both. However, the Kremlin’s long-term hopes could be dashed if the US comes to regard Russia and China as strategically linked in the enemy camp. With China dominant and Europe hesitant to help, there would be very little room for cooperation.

Author’s note: first published in BESA

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