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 .
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.
 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
Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?
Russia-China relations have been steadily improving since at least 2013, when the leaders of both countries presented a joint statement calling for deepening bilateral relations of “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This formula has been modified with an addition of the “new era,” signifying both countries recognising new global challenges and the changing geopolitical environment. COVID-19 has largely contributed to the intensification of certain trends, including antagonism with the U.S. and the pursuit of more robust bilateral ties.
If before both countries would challenge and combat U.S. hostility (economic sanctions, political pressure, adversary rhetoric, etc.) mainly on their own, they are now more inclined to align and coordinate actions to elaborate more coherent voices towards the West. In late July, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the U.S. could not drive a wedge between Russia and China by expecting Moscow to join its anti-China alliance. Rather, Russia views further improvement of relations with China as a major factor that will contribute to stability in global politics.
In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, amid the virus outbreak, bilateral support between Russia and China became a safe fortress for “political viruses.” During a telephone conversation in July, Putin and Xi stressed that the agenda for the strategic partnership in Russia-China relations was materialised during the pandemic in the form of mutual help provided at a critical moment.
China and Russia have recently demonstrated the historical legacy of their close relations through the publication of a co-authored report by Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. The report unambiguously states that all countries must combine their efforts to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, terrorism, world pandemics, economic downturns, etc. These concerns are all focal points in which Russia and China have achieved mutual understanding.
Notably, even during the very vague political gridlock of the Belarusian leadership in the aftermath of the August presidential elections, China and Russia immediately demonstrated their support to the re-elected president Lukashenko. While President Putin congratulated the Belarusian president with a telegram, President Xi-Jinping opted for a personal phone call, during which he reassured Mr Lukashenko of China’s strong commitment to “push forward Chinese-Belarusian comprehensive strategic partnership.” Such profound political signals did not go unnoticed in Minsk, which has expressed gratitude to Russia and China for their support during these challenging times. China’s position on Belarus is important for Russia, as Moscow regards Belarus as its closest and most faithful ally. Belarus is now moving towards a higher level of political and economic integration with Russia, becoming a “Union State.”
As a signal of recognition and respect for Chinese core interests, Russia extended its support to China over Hong Kong, which came under the global spotlight following the introduction of the National Security Law in June. In a very crucial moment for China, when it received widespread criticism from all other major powers, Russia bluntly stressed that “the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China,” thus fending off all speculation on the city’s juridical status.
China and Russia have recently vowed to strengthen their coordination on international platforms, which was seen in early July in the UN during their opposition to the extension of cross-border aid in Syria. The opposition to the U.S. initiative in June within the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran following the break-up of the 2015 nuclear deal was another display of harmonised action. Multiple international issues were touched upon during the meeting between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on September 11. Both countries reaffirmed the “closeness of their views on effective solutions to them,” and stressed that “the destructive character of Washington’s actions undermines global strategic stability.” Overall, the meeting once again confirmed the shared views of Russia and China in both the multilateral and bilateral dimensions.
The Russia-India-China format has made significant progress after a period of relatively little activity. The latest gathering of the RIC group took place in June. At that time, Moscow highlighted that India-China border conflicts were to be solved based on bilateral agreements only. Recently, Moscow has initiated negotiations between the defence ministers of India and China in order to find conflict mitigation solutions. As a result, Chinese and Indian officials met for the first time since the border dispute in May.
By organising peace talks involving China and India, Russia is playing a critical role in regional affairs. The upcoming meeting of the respective ministers of foreign affairs reinforces this statement. Meanwhile, the U.S. has repeatedly pitched its own candidacy as an intermediary, with the most recent attempt in early September. Russian media positioned the Moscow-hosted China-India meeting on September 10 as a rare foreign policy success. During their “frank and constructive” discussion in Moscow, India and China reached an important agreement to deescalate border tensions which are not in “the interest of either side.”
Economically, Sino-Russian cooperation experienced a COVID-19 blow, with trade volume falling by 5,6 per cent in June, amounting to USD 50 billion. Although it may have a tangible impact on the annual statistics, moving the 2019-set milestone for 2024 away from the predicted USD 200 billion in trade follows the global trend of economic contraction, with consumer demand in free fall. For example, the overall volume of Chinese foreign trade from January to June dropped by 6,6 per cent. However, this trade contraction reflects more about global trade dynamics at the moment than changes in Russia-China relations.
As a recent sign of combined efforts to contain U.S. global ambitions, Russia and China were able to decrease U.S. dollar transaction for trade to its historical minimum – from 51 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent in 2020. The same trend for intensified bilateral cooperation can also be seen in the energy sphere. Following the successful launch of “Power of Siberia” last December, the Russian state energy giant “Gazprom” is embracing a new audacious initiative, the “Power of Siberia-2” gas pipeline. The project will connect Russia, China and Mongolia. On behalf of the President of Russia, Gazprom started the design and survey work on the project in May.
Energy cooperation remains a crucial element of bilateral relations. Fresh statistics show that in July, Russia once again secured its position as the largest importer of oil to China, with a 30 per cent spike. This amounted to 7.38 million tons (compared to 2019). In April, Russia took over Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier, delivering 7.2 million tons. This is 18 per cent more than in 2019.
Russia-China relations represent a “strategic partnership,” which means that the two countries view themselves as partners on strategic issues. Indeed, on a majority of topics, be it global governance, world economic structure, geopolitics or security, Russia and China are on the same page. Many of them are of strategic significance pertaining to both sides. Both countries enjoy fruitful cooperation on multilateral platforms such as BRICS, SCO and the UN.
Nevertheless, despite their flawless facade, Russia-China relations have a weak spot – their difference in strategic and national interests. This is normal for global powers. For example, Beijing can never compromise its core national interests such as the South China Sea (SCS), Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, even to please its tried and tested partner, Moscow. This explains why China has repeatedly pressured Vietnam to halt all oil extraction activities in the SCS over the last two years. This has resulted in Vietnam suspending business cooperation in the SCS with the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft. On the other hand, Russia will never put its core interests at risk (especially concerning territorial integrity), irrespective of Beijing’s rhetoric concerning Russian Far East territories.
As long as Russia and China base their partnership on coinciding strategic interests and avoid any ubiquitous and provocative moves – their relations are likely to remain in the current burgeoning state or under the best circumstances can even be elevated to a higher level. Overall, during the first half of the year, relations between China and Russia were challenged several times. Despite some small cracks, like decreasing trade and frictions regarding energy projects in the South China Sea, their flawless mutual propaganda remains untarnished. As long as they can maintain a close and mutually beneficial bilateral tie, they should be able to endure any future challenges with ease.
From our partner RIAC
Legitimate soft power or malign influence?
The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.
There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.
For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.
The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.
In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.
From state to people
I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.
Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?
Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.
Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).
Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.
Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.
From digital to physical
In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.
A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.
Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.
Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.
Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?
Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.
A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.
In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.
Good image can be threatening
Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).
In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.
Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.
Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.
Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77
Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363
Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160
Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471
Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus
The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.
First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.
Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.
Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.
And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.
Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.
Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.
Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.
There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.
The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.
Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.
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