On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?
On November 11–12, 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted the fifth annual expert meeting within the strategic dialog organized by Emirates Policy Center with the support of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Traditionally the event gathers a large number of specialists in international relations, regional security, and Middle Eastern issues. Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, made a speech at the session devoted to the role of Russia in the modern world, including in the Middle East.
Talking about Russia’s power in the Middle East or in a broader global context, we should probably start with defining what power in the contemporary world politics really means. Is it about material resources that a nation can mobilize to shoulder its foreign policy aspirations — the total throw-weight of strategic missiles, the number of aircraft carriers and combined budgets of national assistance agencies? Is it about the size of your territory or about the natural resources that the territory contains? Is it rather about you GNP or about GNP per capita that defines your power in international relations? Probably not. If you happen to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the jungle, this does not necessarily make you the strongest beast around. A lot depends on how functional these eight hundred pounds are. It may be pure muscle tissue, but it may also be accumulated belly fat.
There is another, more functional definition of power in world politics. Power is defined as ability of states or non-state actors to make other actors do certain things or abstain from doing some things in the interests of those exercising power. To put it in a broader context, you can define power as ability of actors to meet the goals they set for themselves in international relations.
From this vantage point, Russia has recently demonstrated that it is a powerful state, capable of using its power in an efficient way. No matter how we assess the Russian role in the contemporary international system — as a predominantly positive or a predominantly negative, — we should agree that Russia constantly punches above its weight, having more impact on the system that it theoretically should have according to its ‘objective’ economic, technological or demographic potential.
If I were to compare Russia to a large investment fund, I would venture to say that the price of its stocks today is significantly higher than the true value of its assets. Look, for instance, at the recent Russia’s posture in the Middle East region. In my view, we can label it as an exceptionally successful political start-up: with rather modest price paid in blood in treasure, Moscow has been able to turn itself from a marginal player in the region into the arguably most important external power broker.
This apparent gap between the operational power and its material foundation needs an explanation. To say that Vladimir Putin has been simply lucky, making full use of indecisiveness and inconsistencies of the West and exploiting many vacuums of power around the globe is to say nothing. There should be something here about the ability of the Kremlin to make fast and resolute decisions, about its capacity to promptly mobilize Russia’s political and military forces, about the quality of the Russian diplomacy and so on.
Russia’s highly centralized political system, impressive domestic and international state propaganda machinery, its consistency in supporting Moscow’s allies and partners — all these features of the ‘Putin’s style’ foreign policy puts Russia in a league of its own in world politics. It does not have many important features of a truly great power (above all, it lacks a solid and diverse economic foundation), but so far it has been able to capitalize exactly on what distinguishes it from a ‘standard’ Western democracy or a typical non-Western autocracy. In other words, Russia is powerful because Russia is different.
Nevertheless, the Russian way of maximizing its international power contains a number of risks that should not be underestimated. First, the set of instruments, which the Kremlin can use in international relations to advance its goals, is quite limited. Russia is a nuclear superpower, is has military power projection capabilities second only to the United States. It is a global leader in cyber warfare and in a number of futuristic weapons. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto power, which it never hesitates to use. It is a member of other international groupings — ranging from G20 and APEC to SCO and BRICS. It is a global supplier of hydrocarbons, many other commodities, as well as of food stock. It is the largest country in the world with eleven time zones.
However, is this set enough for Russia to maintain its status in global politics for all of the XXI century? Until 2050? Until 2030? Probably, not. If so, in the rapidly changing international environment the Kremlin has to consider seriously a significant diversification of its foreign policy instruments with a special emphasis on soft power components (culture, education, social practices, technological edge, science and so on). The sooner we start moving in this direction, the more secure the country’s role is likely to be in the long-term future.
Second, many of current Russia’s foreign policy investments are high-risk investments bordering political speculations. Should Russia continue betting of leftist political regimens in Venezuela or in Nicaragua? Should it bet on Euro-sceptics and right wing populists in the European Union? Should it invest into failing autocracies in Africa? This opportunistic globalism is distracting Moscow from what is truly important for Russia: from resolving multiple crises on the territory of the former Soviet Union, from building stable partnerships with its immediate neighbors, from gradually restoring the troubled relationship with the West.
As for targets of opportunity overseas, any political engagement should be preceded, not followed by a careful consideration of exit strategy options. History teaches us repeatedly: countries that can win wars, quite often lose peace. If you take the ongoing conflict in Syria, it will not last forever. When the name of the game is no longer military operations, but a post-conflict reconstruction, new players will come to the stage, no matter who is charge in Damascus. External powers with deeper pockets than those that Russia has will claim a central role in the post-war Syria. The Kremlin should try very hard to convert its current military successes into less explicit, but a more lasting and a more stable political presence in the country.
Finally, neither Russia, not any other nation should forget that the real foreign policy power comes from the inside. Foreign policy victories might look great and they definitely appeal to the public, but they never become an adequate substitute for victories at home. In the end of the day, the ability to balance economic growth and social equity, preserving national identity and integration into the global community, political representation and efficient governance constitute the only reliable foundation for power in international relations. All other foundations turn out to be quite shaky and fragile.
I have no doubts that Russia has all needed ingredients to stay as a great power, no a global spoiler. It has the potential that makes it capable of being not a part of the problem, but a part of the solution for the international system of the XXI century.
However, the future of Russia’s power and that of Russia’s role will depend on the overall evolution of the system. In a popular American fantasy television series “The Game of Thrones”, characters from time to time remind each other — “Winter is coming”. By “Winter” (with a capital “W”) they mean something really bad, big and unavoidable looming on the horizon. They cannot prevent the Winter, so they have to learn who to survive in this extremely hostile and dangerous environment.
Today, there are many indicators that “Winter” might be the future of the world politics in years to come, that what we observe today is not a bad weather, but a profound climate change. The implosion of the state system in parts of the Middle East, the rise of right populism and nationalism in Europe, Brexit in UK the election of Trump in US, the coming collapse of the US — Russian strategic arms control, a renewed arms race in Asia — there are multiple symptoms of hard times ahead of us.
If the name of the game in the global politics is likely to be security, not development, if the prime goal of nations is going to be survival rather than prosperity, why should Russia change its current understanding of power in international relations? In a way, the Kremlin is better prepared to face the global Winter than most of its competitors and opponents are. To create incentives for the Russian foreign policy to reinvent itself, one has to prove that the global Winter is not the only option. Otherwise the world might face a self-fulfilling prophesy. As they say, “fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention.”
First published in our partner RIAC
Don’t listen to the naysayers, the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin is a game changer
The International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin is a game changer. The wheels of justice are turning, and not in Putin’s favour.
This comes as the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Putin last week, accusing him of responsibility for illegally transferring Ukrainian children to Russia, which is a war crime. A warrant was also issued for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights.
The Ukrainian government welcomed the decision. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted to the warrant by stating that the “wheels of Justice are turning: I applaud the ICC decision to issue arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova” and that “international criminals will be held accountable for stealing children and other international crimes.”
Both Putin and Lvova-Belova have been accused of forcefully transferring thousands of Ukrainian children across the border to Russia.
The Ukrainian government claims 16,226 children – ranging from infants to teenagers – have been deported to Russia, while others estimate a figure closer to 400,000.
It’s reported this is part of a large-scale, systematic attempt at adopting and ‘re-educating’ thousands of Ukrainian children in at least 40 camps throughout Russia.
Kubela has labelled Russia’s actions as “probably the largest forced deportation in modern history” and a “genocidal crime”.
Russian officials have been surprisingly open about the transfer of children, unapologetically claiming it is part of a humanitarian project designed to re-home orphaned Ukrainian children.
The ICC investigators clearly disagree.
Commentators and legal experts have pointed out that the court has no powers to enforce its own warrants and that – because Russia is not a party to the court – it is also incredibly unlikely Putin will find himself in The Hague.
While these observations are probably correct, they ignore the broader implications of the court’s decision.
Putin is the first world leader to have a warrant issued for his arrest since former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir was issued a warrant by the court in 2009.
Like Al-Bashir, Putin is unlikely to be arrested outside of Russia.
But symbolism is important. It signals to despots around the world that they cannot commit heinous crimes with impunity.
It’s also important for Ukrainians, validating their suffering by having their abuser named and shamed.
The warrant also sets the scene for a larger investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine by Putin’s regime.
Yesterday, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Kostin Andriy signed an agreement with the court to establish an ICC country office in Ukraine.
This is a signal that the court intends to investigate other alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed Russia has committed over 400 war crimes in the Kherson region alone.
Mass graves have also been discovered outside the towns of Bucha and Izium, with 400 and 450 bodies found respectively. Russia has been accused of murdering and murdering these people.
There have also been several documented attacks on civilian infrastructure by Russian forces, including the now infamous airstrikes on a theatre and maternity hospital in Mariupol.
Greater collaboration between Ukrainian war crimes investigators and the court will likely result in more crimes being documented and more charges laid against Putin and his officials.
The decision by the ICC also isolates Putin at a time when he is searching for allies around the world.
Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went on a diplomatic spree across Africa to build support for the invasion in the region. This includes trips to Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.
Russia has also leant heavily on ‘BRICS’ countries, an informal bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The problem for Putin is that any country that has signed up to the 1998 Rome Statute of the ICC must arrest him if he enters their country.
In what is a case of sublime timing, Putin is scheduled to meet with his BRICS counterparts in South Africa – which is a signatory to the statute – in August.
A spokesman for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted the government faces a dilemma, stating that “we are, as the government, cognisant of our legal obligation”.
The government of Brazil echoed similar sentiments. This week, the Minister of Foreign Affars Mauro Vieira said that Putin could be arrested if he entered the country. Another unnamed government official warned that “anyone who goes to a country that is a member of the ICC can have problems, I have no doubt about that.”
Even if South Africa falls foul of its legal obligations – like it did by not arresting Al-Bashir in 2015 – it still represents a two-fold problem for Putin. He will be hesitant to travel abroad for fear of arrest, and his so-called allies will be hesitant to visit Russia to avoid associating themselves with a wanted war criminal.
The seriousness of the situation for Putin’s regime can be seen in their response.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded to the arrest warrant threatening any attempt to arrest Putin would be a “declaration of war” and suggested Russia could fire missiles at the ICC headquarters in The Hague.
The Speaker of the Russian Duma Vyacheslav Volodin claimed the arrest warrant was more evidence of western “hysteria” and that “we regard any attacks on the President of the Russian Federation as aggression against our country.”
The bluster coming out of Moscow suggests the regime was surprised by the decision.
It is an acknowledgement that – overnight – the situation changed for Putin, and not for the better.
If Putin wasn’t a global pariah before, he certainly is now.
There are 123 countries he will fear travelling to and his regime – whether found guilty or not – will be forever tainted with the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
With both Ukraine and the European Union planning to establish tribunals to prosecute Russian war crimes, the pressure will only continue to build on Putin’s regime.
Will Putin ever find himself in The Hague? It is unlikely. History shows it is hard to arrest and convict heads of state.
But – just like the late Slobodan Milošević – leaders can often find themselves in places they least expect.
How Russia Can Build Relations With Friendly Countries
A year into the conflict between Russia and the West turning into a proxy military confrontation, the most important lesson learned in terms of the international consequences of these developments is that such a large and powerful country really cannot be isolated in terms of foreign policy. It is difficult to say with certainty how much this is connected with the merits and activity of the Russian state itself, and what simply turned out to be an inevitable consequence of the changing world over the past three-four decades.
Much more important is the result: a year after the United States and its allies announced their determination to seriously limit Moscow’s opportunities for international communication, the vast majority of countries maintain stable working relations with Russia; they trade and cooperate in various sectors. In most cases, new contacts are limited not even by Western pressure on third countries, but by Russia’s own unpreparedness to follow through on so many suddenly-open opportunities. This has become so obvious over the past few months that it is recognised even by the opponents of Russia, for whom any concession to conventional common sense is a deep and tragic experience.
We cannot now say with certainty to what extent Russia itself is capable of fully realising the new features of its international position or its true causes. The understanding of this, apparently, exists among the top Russian leadership and has become one of the reasons for its confidence that it is right, along with the conviction that a new stage in relations with the West is not only inevitable, but also necessary in the context of the development of Russia’s political civilisation. However, at the level of the implementation of a specific policy by the state apparatus, the activities of the business sector, the reflections of the expert community or the practical activities of NGOs, we still have to work on developing a number of important habits and come to an understanding of the nature of relations between Russia and the outside world.
First of all, it is necessary to understand that the new quality of relations with the outside world cannot be considered in the context of the conflict between Russia and the West. The military-political confrontation with the United States and its allies is central to ensuring national security. However, the specific causes of the conflict are the result of how Russian-Western relations developed after the Cold War and are very indirectly related to the fate, interests and aspirations of the rest of the world. The way most states behaved towards Russia is a consequence of their own development and interests. These two factors are much more stable and long-term than the current clash between Russia and the West, so it would be erroneous, even at the theoretical level, to link the conflict in one direction and cooperation in the other. Moreover, this may turn out to be a mistake, since it can create confidence that the development of relations with non-Western states is a temporary measure, a necessity that will disappear or decrease after the acute phase of the conflict with the West ends.
Second, the behaviour of those states that do not now oppose Russia and even cooperate with it (which has become commonplace) is not a sign that they are allies of Moscow or are slated to become allies under certain circumstances. There are, of course, exceptions, and even very large ones. China, for example, associates its security and ability to realize foreign policy interests with Russia. A similar position is held by Iran, for which the inability of Russia and China to limit the assertiveness of the West may pose a serious threat in the future. In addition, there is a group of countries already associated with Moscow much more significantly than with its adversaries or third powers. However, in general, the so-called World Majority is not a group of states united by common interests, but an indicator of the democratic state of international politics.
Third, a significant number of states are friendly to Russia precisely because, in principle, they do not need allies or patrons, and rely only on their diplomatic skills. In other words, what brings them closer to Russia’s interests now is at the same time an obstacle to establishing a more solid or formalised relationship, not to mention listening to Russia’s opinions on value issues or even the way things are done in the world. One of the reasons why the United States is growing weaker in its ability to convince others that it is right is precisely that many countries are quite capable of formulating their own ideas about a fair domestic and international order. It would be a little naïve to think that there are those seeking to replace one external adviser with another.
In this regard, Russia may need to take a more careful and prudent approach to the question of the reasons for the sympathies that exist throughout the world in relation to it. In fact, dissatisfaction with oppression from the US and Europe is only one aspect of the motives that determine the desire of many states for greater independence. Perhaps this is even a little more important than the desire to benefit from relations with Russia amid conditions where it has turned to the rest of the world and connects with it many of the issues related to its economic stability. But value issues, also play a significant role. In this respect, Russia really has something to be proud of without trying at the same time to offer more comprehensive plans and objectives. Here we are talking about what makes the modern Russian state attractive to others.
The so-called “soft power”, i.e. the ability to influence the decisions of other countries in ways other than forceful pressure and bribery, is not a product of a nation’s diplomatic activity, but the degree of closeness of the internal structure to abstract ideals that exist in the minds of others. It would be a mistake to think that the state can increase its attractiveness only by investing in the expansion of culture, science or education. Moreover, exaggerated attention to these areas of activity can provoke opposition from the elites of partner countries, for which control over the minds and hearts of citizens is an essential part of strengthening their own power. Even more so, it is impossible to become attractive by organizing the direct bribery of journalists or those who are commonly called leaders of public opinion. First of all, because opponents will always be able to offer a higher price and, furthermore, a more quiet shelter.
However, much more effective than investing in self-advertising abroad can be an increase in openness to the outside world. Modern Russia for most countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East is truly a unique society that combines visible signs of European culture and traditions, on the one hand, and a tolerance for other religions and ethnic diversity that is completely uncharacteristic of the West. Already now one can hear from diplomats from Islamic countries that among all the states of the global North, Russia is the most comfortable for Muslims to live.
The same applies to smaller religious communities. Unlike European states, Russia preserves and cultivates ethnic diversity. All these are the real advantages of Russia in the eyes of humanity, with which we will have to live and cooperate in the coming decades, if not longer. The sooner we understand that the basis of “soft power” is internal, and not in the activities of Russia’s representatives abroad, the sooner we will be able to benefit from our own objective advantages.
from our partner RIAC
Amid Ukraine Crisis, Russia Deepens Strategic Cooperation With China
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have concluded their three-day diplomatic deliberations, most importantly questions focused on raising economic cooperation and finding strategic peaceful solutions to the Ukraine crisis which started since February 2022, amid the geo-political tensions and re-configuration of the world.
While aspects of the Putin-Jinping diplomatic talks and results were awash in the local and foreign media, the academic researchers’ community and policy experts were upbeat with divergent views, detailed analysis and interpretations, and future political predictions. In the present circumstances, any forecast or outlook made previously, may have changed largely due to the developments emerging from Putin-Jinping meetings.
But our monitoring shows that Putin and Jinping, their large delegations from both sides, discussed a wide range of issues on the modern world agenda, with a particular emphasis on the prospects for cooperation. At the far end, Putin and Xi signed a lengthy statement on deepening their nine-point comprehensive partnership, as well as a separate statement on an economic cooperation plan through 2030.
The parties signed two documents – the Joint Statement on Deepening the Russian-Chinese Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation for a New Era, as well as the Joint Statement by the President of Russia and the President of China on the Plan to Promote the Key Elements of Russian-Chinese Economic Cooperation until 2030.
The latter consists of eight major areas, including increasing the scale of trade, developing the logistics system, increasing the level of financial cooperation and agricultural cooperation, partnership in the energy sector, as well as promoting exchanges and qualitatively expanding cooperation in the fields of technology and innovation.
The leaders revealed the details of the talks to the media – Putin noted that Russia and China’s positions on most international issues are similar or heavily coincide. According to Xi Jinping, the parties will uphold the fundamental norms of international relations. He believes that the sphere of cooperation between Russia and China, as well as political mutual trust, is constantly expanding.
In terms of the economic agenda, trade turnover is expected to surpass the $200 billon target. The parties also discussed their intensive energy cooperation and agreed on the main parameters of the construction of the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline. Meanwhile, the total volume of gas supplies by 2030 will be at least 98 bln cubic meters and 100 mln tons of LNG, the Russian leader specified.
In-person meetings may continue in the near future. Chinese President stated that he invited Vladimir Putin to visit China during an informal conversation. Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is also expected to pay a reciprocal working visit to China. Beijing, in particular, is eager to resume regular meetings between the two countries’ heads of government.
Reading through the local media, Financial and Business Vedomosti reported that Russia was ready to take Chinese peace plan for Ukraine, not for resolution of the ongoing crisis, but as a basis for future work on Ukraine. Russia has carefully reviewed China’s plan for a peaceful settlement in Ukraine and believes it can be used for future talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 21. Russia, however, sees no readiness for peace talks from the West or Kiev, according to Putin.
Experts interviewed by Vedomosti believe that China’s initiative could be used as a basis for talks, but any progress would require long and difficult negotiations. For his part, Xi Jinping said that China supports a conflict resolution based on the UN Charter, encourages reconciliation and the resumption of negotiations, and is always committed to peace and dialogue.
China’s 12-point plan for resolving the Ukrainian crisis includes respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries as well as the norms of international law; abandoning the Cold War mentality; initiating peace talks; resolving the humanitarian crisis; protecting civilians and prisoners of war; supporting the safety of nuclear power plants; reducing strategic risks; and preventing the use of nuclear weapons.
The document described the talks as “the only way to resolve the crisis in Ukraine” and called on all sides to support Moscow and Kiev in “moving toward each other” and promptly resuming a direct dialogue. It urged the global community to create conditions and provide a platform for the resumption of talks.
Experts, however, said that China’s initiative could benefit Russia because it involves a ceasefire and the lifting of sanctions, followed by negotiations to reach a political agreement. At the same time, such negotiations will have no chance of success unless Ukraine accepts and recognizes Russian control over the new regions and Crimea, as required by the Russian Constitution.
At the same time, there is noticeable distinction between the Russian-Chinese position and that of Western countries and their allies. Meanwhile, United States, the West and Ukraine have openly rejected China’s position that there needed to be a ceasefire.
Before Xi Jinping landed in Moscow, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in February published a document laying out its position on a political settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. On March 20, Jinping held a one-on-one meeting with Putin that lasted about 4 1/2 hours, according to reports from the Kremlin. On March 22, he spent about six hours at talks in the Kremlin in various formats. The parties signed two statements outlining what was accomplished during the visit and called it successful. Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a three-day working visit, March 20-22 in Moscow, Russian Federation.
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