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On Russia’s Power: is Winter Coming?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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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

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Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.

“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.

The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.

As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.

The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.

In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.

BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

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Russia vs China

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Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.

The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.

We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.

Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.

Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.

Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.

Notable characteristics:

Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;

Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;

All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;

The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;

Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;

Total control over public life.

Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.

Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.

The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.

However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.

Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.

History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.

It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.

In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.

The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.

The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.

It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.

If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.

“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.

Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.

What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.

Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.

This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.

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COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.

Opportunities

Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World

Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.

The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities

The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.

The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”

Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.

Threats

Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating

The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.

The Rise of Isolationism in Russia

Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.

The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.

P.S.

“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.

From our partner RIAC

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