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ASEAN, EAS and APEC: What Russia Achieved in 2018

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It has been an eventful year for Russian foreign policy as far as the multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific are concerned. On November 13–15, 2018, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin made a state visit to Singapore and attended the 13 th East Asia Summit (EAS). It was the first such visit since Russia was made a member in 2010. At the same time, President Putin represented Russia at the 3 rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership. Two days later, in Port Moresby, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that had previously enjoyed priority attention of the President of the Russian Federation compared to other regional mechanisms.

Russia has stepped up its participation in multilateral mechanisms in the Asia Pacific at a time when contradictions between the United States and China in the region have exacerbated, competition has once again intensified between the macro-regional projects proposed by these players in Asia, and emotions are running high around American trade protectionism. On the one hand, this situation is not conducive to bolstering these multilateral institutions themselves. It does, however, create a window of opportunity for Russia to offer the regional countries a more cooperative agenda, even if it is not on the same scale as U.S. or Chinese projects.

Strategic Partnership with ASEAN

The dialogue-based partnership that Russia and ASEAN enjoy was established in 1996, at a time when post-Soviet Russia was moving towards a more diversified foreign policy that did not focus exclusively on the West. Gradually, Russia joined all the principal multilateral formats clustered “around” ASEAN. In 2010, Russia became a member of both the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) and the EAS, bringing together the ASEAN countries and their eight dialogue partners (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the United States and Russia). The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus, involving the ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners) was launched that same year, with Russia a participant. The ADMM-Plus was intended to make the discussions of security matters more practicable, since it was stalling within the ASEAN Regional Forum (the ARF).

Twenty-two years after the Russia–ASEAN dialogue was created, Russia is again becoming more active in multilateral cooperation formats in Asia Pacific in order to demonstrate to the West that it has places to turn to politically and economically. The strategic partnership with ASEAN is apparently intended to be a symbol of such a turn, with a joint statement on the partnership being adopted at the 3rd ASEAN–Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership in Singapore in November 2018.

Progress towards the strategic partnership was far from smooth. From the outset, Russia was different from ASEAN’s other dialogue partners (Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, etc.), as it was less economically involved in the region’s affairs. Rather, Russia was considered an additional partner that, to use an expression coined by the famous Russian international relations expert Aleksey Bogaturov, would “condense” the regional space. That is, Russia was more of a “background” participant in regional processes, whose presence, as far as the ASEAN countries were concerned, should, to a certain degree contain the growing regional ambitions of major powers, primarily the strategic military ones.

Russia partially fulfilled this function by maintaining a high level of military technical cooperation with Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia and eventually becoming an alternative (to the United States and China) partner for political and military-technical cooperation for such Southeast Asian countries as Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar, when their domestic problems complicated their international political position. Such was the case with Thailand following the military coup of 2014. It was also the case with the Philippines, which, after President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, attempted to move away from its unilateral orientation to a military political alliance with the United States. When the terrorist threat exacerbated in May 2017, President Duterte was forced to appeal directly to President Putin concerning the purchase cutting-edge weapons from Russia. However, Russia has preferred to take a neutral position on the key conflict for Southeast Asian countries – namely, the conflict with China over the disputed islands in the South China Sea – striving not to exacerbate relations with either party to the confrontation.

The economic component in Russia–ASEAN relations traditionally lagged behind the dynamics of political and military political collaboration. When the dialogue partnership was established with ASEAN, Russia lagged seriously behind the ASEAN’s other external partners in terms of the scale of trade and investment cooperation. Moreover, increasing Russia’s role in the economies of Southeast Asian countries was and still is hampered by serious structural restrictions. De facto, Russia was not part of the regional integration processes that were based on specialization and cooperation within the production chains established by transnational corporations in Southeast Asia. Unlike Japan and China, Russia could not offer the region large-scale investment or building infrastructure projects. And unlike the United States, it could not offer access to the world’s largest market. Unfortunately, such regional projects failed to appear in Russia following the successful 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok. Nor did they materialize after 2014, when the pressure of sanctions imposed by the West forced Russia’s political and economic elite to take a closer look at the economic processes in Asia. Rosatom’s flagship project of building a nuclear power plant in Vietnam, which was announced in 2010, was frozen only six years later. The official reason was that it was due to economic considerations, although it was most likely for political reasons.

Previous Russia–ASEAN summits were held in 2005 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), 2010 (Hanoi, Vietnam) and 2016 (Sochi, Russia). The Sochi summit was not held in an ASEAN country, so was thus described as “commemorative” and did not officially count towards the general “team score.” On the whole, the dynamics of summits was formally behind the rhythm of ASEAN’s collaboration with China, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Nonetheless, over the previous period, Russia and ASEAN did achieve mutual understanding on both parties being geared towards building a strategic partnership. Let us attempt to delineate the logic that made moving toward this partnership possible.

Strategically, as actors with a collaborative, rather than an offensive, agenda in Asia Pacific, Russia and ASEAN are united in their common desire for a multi-centric regional order based on mutually acceptable rules of the game. From ASEAN’s point of view, such an agenda would be advanced by the continuing role of the Association as the central venue for macro-regional dialogue and consensus-based decision-making that takes ASEAN’s opinion into account on key regional affairs (something that is missing from the U.S. concept of the Indo-Pacific). In Russia’s opinion, this agenda could be advanced by a discussion of the general principles of the security architecture in the region, a discussion that can and should be held in an ASEAN-cantered format of the East Asia Summit (more on that summit below).

Both Russia and ASEAN advocate a discussion of regional initiatives being connective instead of mutually exclusive or mutually restrictive. Thailand plans to focus on searching for a mechanism that would connect various broadly understood infrastructure and integration projects (connecting the connectivities) when it chairs ASEAN in 2019.

Russia is primarily interested in developing the principles of collaboration between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and ASEAN. Two separate items in the joint statement of the ASEAN–Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership focus on this matter. However, if Russia and ASEAN do succeed in advancing collaboration between integration unions in the near future, it will be an institutional novelty of a significance that goes far beyond EAEU–ASEAN relations.

Economically, despite the structural limitations mentioned earlier, Russia and ASEAN have still managed to gradually increase trade and economic cooperation, demonstrating that the 2015–2016 drop was a temporary phenomenon rather than the start of Russia’s long-term economic weakening in the region. Speaking at the plenary session of the 3rd ASEAN-Russian Federation Summit on Strategic Partnership, Vladimir Putin noted that trade turnover grew by 35 per cent in 2017, and mutual accumulated investment exceeded USD 25 billion. Even though the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union had some consequences for Russia’s relations with the countries of Southeast Asia (in banking in particular), the fundamental approach of ASEAN countries was that pressure through sanctions cannot be an effective means of resolving international problems.

On the whole, we may state that the Russia–ASEAN dialogue is gradually evolving its own unique agenda that includes cybersecurity, food security, the fight against terrorism, military medicine and emergency response. The parties have indeed stepped up cooperation in many areas, including a separate track of collaboration between the defence ministers of Russia and ASEAN countries as part of the Moscow Conference on International Security, as well as a business dialogue, cooperation in education and research via university forums held on the side-lines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia–ASEAN youth summits and the Network of ASEAN-Russia Think Tanks (NARTT).

The EAS: President Vladimir Putin’s Debut

Compared to the successes Russia achieved in developing its relations with ASEAN, the recent East Asia Summit appears to have been a less productive event. The reason, however, lies not so much in the fact that the much-anticipated participation of the President of the Russian Federation was delayed by eight years, but in the format of the summit itself.

The East Asia Summit was created in 2005 and included ASEAN and six of its dialog partners (China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India). Initially, it was conceived as a regional format that could bring together all the principal regional actors, but would not be as multipartite as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). By the that time, of all the regional institutions, the ARF had the broadest span (27 participants, including the European Union and North Korea); however, this also became a burden, since the wide range of opinions did not allow its participants to arrive at a consensus on matters of any significance for regional security. The ASEAN+6 format (especially given expected participation of heads of state) was expected to provide for quicker and more effective discussion of those issues.

However, the EAS developed in a different vein. Just five years after the EAS was established, China’s rapid economic rise resulted in ASEAN countries becoming concerned that this format would become an arena of China’s domination. Involving Russia and the United States in the EAS was a way to address those concerns. Their involvement, however, resulted in competing and even opposite summit agendas shaping up. While China stressed connectedness of the infrastructure and strove at all costs to avoid discussing the South China Sea problem in a multilateral format, the United States, on the contrary, emphasized the issues of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and discussions of “hard-line” security. Against this background, Russia’s desire to view the EAS as the most suitable platform for a broad discussion of general principles and a “new architecture of security and cooperation” encountered covert opposition and was relegated to the periphery of the growing U.S.–China contradictions in the region and within the EAS.

Ultimately, the EAS that had originally been conceived as an inclusive venue for effective dialog was reduced to discussing important, yet still secondary issues that would not result in revising the structure of regional security that is still characterized by U.S.-centred alliances that exclude China and Russia. A cursory glance at the agenda of all past meetings, and of the latest EAS summit in particular, confirms this fact. For instance, the past East Asian Summit discussed such matters as counteracting the threat of foreign terrorist militants and returnees, urbanization and the creation of “smart cities,” cooperation in information and communications technology (ICT) and the digital economy, the safe storage of nuclear and other radioactive waste and fighting plastic waste in the ocean.

In this context, the participation of the President of the Russian Federation in the latest summit needs to be assessed from the point of view of symbolic gestures and reputational matters. On the part of Russia, it is a long-awaited gesture of attention to its partners in Asia; for ASEAN, it is a signal that Russia is indeed prepared to support regional institutions marginalized by the competition of the macro-regional projects proposed by China and the United States, namely, China’s Belt and Road Initiative that has been under way since 2013, and the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that the Trump Administration adopted in 2017. Moreover, a few years ago, Russia’s more active stance in multilateral mechanisms caused concerns in the region countries due to the rapid deterioration of U.S.–Russia relations and its possible negative impact on regional institutions. Today, Russia’s actions are not at all perceived as potentially capable of polarizing these alliances.

APEC as a Reflection of Regional Contradictions

While the ASEAN and EAS summits this year have gone as planned, the APEC Forum, on the contrary, became a visible reflection of the above-mentioned contradictions between China and the United States. For the first time since the inception of the APEC Summit inception in 1993, the meeting concluded without a full-fledged joint declaration. This fact demonstrated serious contradictions between the countries in the region concerning the future of trade and economic liberalization in the Asia Pacific. Even in calmer times, the Bogor Goals, which entailed complete trade and investment liberalization in APEC’s developed economies by 2010 and in developing economies by 2020, appeared to be a difficult task. Now their implementation has been significantly slowed down due to the trade wars launched by the United States, primarily against China, but which have also had major consequences for other export-oriented economies in the region. Let us not forget that one of Donald Trump’s first steps as president was to open an investigation into those Asian countries that had a surplus in their trade with the United States.

Ultimately, the 2018 APEC summit concluded with an abridged version of the declaration that did not contain articles related to the World Trade Organization and the issues of the Bogor Goals. Previously, a similar situation occurred in ASEAN in 2012, when the summit concluded without a communique due to differences on the issue of the South China Sea.

The central event of the latest APEC Summit was the openly “duelling speeches” of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and President of the People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping concerning the actions of China and the United States in the Asia Pacific. In particular, Mike Pence accused China of enslaving those countries that, through their large debt to China, are forced to compromise their sovereignty. China, in its turn, argues that it is the United States that hampers trade and economic liberalization in Asia today, while all APEC participants were initially oriented toward achieving such liberalization.

Thus, the multilateral institutions in the Asia Pacific have not proven capable of reducing the U.S.–China disputes on the most acute regional problems to a common denominator and have once again demonstrated their functional dependence on the stance of large actors. Against this background of the latest APEC Forum, Russia had quite a favourable opportunity to be an observer of the unfolding disputes.

Instead of a Conclusion

The series of ASEAN, EAS and APEC summits was interesting not only from the point of view of assessing Russia’s achievements within those multilateral formats, but also in terms of the interesting dynamics of bilateral meetings held on the side-lines of the forums. For instance, President Putin’s visit to Singapore was marked by a series of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Russia and Singapore. Both countries noted significant progress in economic cooperation that translated into the trade turnover nearly quadrupling over the last 10 years (from USD 1.9 billion in 2007 to USD 7.4 billion in 2017) and a general increase in mutual economic activity (690 Russian companies operate in Singapore, and 20 Singaporean companies operate in Russia).

On the side-lines of the ASEAN and EAS summits, meetings were held with the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea, the Premier of the State Council of China and the prime ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. The latter meeting was noteworthy in that it continued the discussion started by Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe in September at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok and further fuelled expectations concerning a solution to the peace treaty problem.

At the same time, the fundamental question for Russia today remains open: will the dynamics of cooperation with multilateral institutions and a broad range of regional countries be taken further? Or will 2018 be followed by another period of “political neutrality,” to use politically correct terms, in multilateral formats and of selective cooperation with individual key partners?

First published in our partner RIAC

Ph.D. (Political Science), Associate Professor, Asian and African Studies Department at MGIMO, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry

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Russian Foreign Ministry sees elements of show in “Navalny poisoning”

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Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova has yet again dwelled with her usual sarcasm on last year’s reports about “Russia’s top opposition leader” and “the deadly Novichok”. Zakharova made the comments with her hallmark sense of humour over her Telegram channel following newly released reports on the results of an inquiry into the “poisoning of Navalny”, which appeared in the course of the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in July.

On August 20 last year, Russia’s public activist and campaigner Alexei Navalny had to be taken off his flight at Omsk and was delivered to hospital in a grave condition. Well before the final diagnosis he was flown to a Berlin hospital and there he was diagnosed with Novichok poisoning. Later on, he revealed the results of his own investigation which established the involvement in the poisoning of a group of FSB agents. The story has become the butt of a joke in Russia. Russians want to know why Novichok has not killed anyone so far and why Russian special services are unable to carry out a simple elimination operation.

Giving rise to more jokes was the publication of “an inquiry into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny” which the Russian side obtained from a report on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in implementation of its core document – the 2020-2021 Convention. Part 1.41 of the report, which was published after the session, says that “on August 20, 2020, at the request of Germany, the Secretariat dispatched a group of experts who were to render technical assistance in connection with reports about the poisoning of the Russian activist”. But August 20 was the very day of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who suddenly felt ill on board of the plane and who told the passengers about the poisoning himself. At about 6 a.m. (4.00 CET) Moscow time the plane with Navalny on board made an emergency landing at Omsk. The news got into the media by midday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were in meeting at the time. At 18.30 CET they give a press conference signaling the need to conduct an inquiry. On the same day the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received a request from Germany and reacted. However, for an international organization that adheres to specific procedures a reaction that quick is impossible for technical reasons. Unless all this has been planned before, which is what Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova points out.

Russian representatives prepared for the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons far better than the Germans. That’s why when asked why the draft report contains the date August 20 the German side first said that it was a misprint and then “recalled” that on that day chancellor Merkel turned to the Organization with a request. In any case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must secure a preliminary approval from its Secretariat before it can send any experts for conducting an inquiry. Interestingly, the Organization could not explain the confusion over the dates and procedures.  

This situation enabled the Russian Foreign Ministry to ‘’strike a new blow’’, accusing the United States, Britain and a number of European countries of regularly breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention. Simultaneously, many Russian media reminded their subscribers that Navalny was hospitalized after two days of noisy parties and visits to the sauna. The lifestyle of “Russia’s top opposition campaigner” causes a lot of criticism, as the anti-corruption activist lives a lavish life, which is unaffordable to most Russians and alienates potential supporters.

Zakharova’s harsh and sarcastic statements, made via her Telegram channel and picked up by the Russian media, de facto demonstrate that Moscow views the entire “poisoning” story as poorly fabricated and will not accept whatever results the West’s inquiry may present. We can see that the “Navalny case” does have a lot of flaws and that the Kremlin had clearly pointed them out. Even the ardent opponents to the Russian government refrain from mentioning “poisoning”, saying that “Alexei” went over the line and that the  story about “the Novichok-soaked underpants” sounds implausible.

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Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?

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The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.

Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.

In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.

The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.

Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.

Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.

The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.

In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.

Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.

Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.

The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.

Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.

In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.

Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.

In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.

Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.

Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.

Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.

Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement

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image source:syria.mil.ru

(This is the second and final part of the author’s article series on this topic. The first one can be read here, and it is recommended to review it before the present piece).

Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, or its post-2014 comprehensive engagement with the many Muslim-majority countries along its southern periphery and beyond, comprises one of the most important pillars of its contemporary grand strategic balancing act between East and West. The Southern vector of its diplomacy prevents any zero-sum choice between East and West by presenting the Eurasian Great Power with a much-needed third option, which in turn can be leveraged to improve its negotiating potential with those aforementioned two regions of Eurasia. The first part of the article series elaborated on the geostrategic situation in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, while the present piece is more focused on Russia’s opportunities in these regions and narrative engagement with them. Although they can be read separately, it is recommended that they are reviewed together in order to obtain a better understanding of everything.

Russian Interests

North Africa: Becoming the Libyan Power Broker

In North Africa, Libya is the scene of intense competition between Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France on the other. Russia must therefore seek a compromise solution that prevents either side from becoming dominant, with Russia playing the kingmaker role if possible (perhaps through a mix of creative diplomacy, energy partnerships and PMCs). The victory of either side over the other might unbalance the region, creating more opportunities for American or other meddling with unpredictable consequences. Libya is also the gateway to parts of West and Central Africa, so whoever fully controls it could expand more confidently into Africa with time, thus complicating Russian interests there too (which are beyond the scope of the present analysis despite some of the countries being Muslim-majority ones). If pressed to choose, Russia should side more with Egypt and the UAE, especially since the latter can open doors for Russia in other regions if their partnership reaches the strategic level through cooperation here and elsewhere.

Levant: Resolving the War in Syria

Russia must somehow resolve the Syrian dilemma, ideally by pairing an Iranian withdrawal with the nuclear deal, sanctions relief for Syria, and some form of decentralization that is acceptable to Damascus. Moscow must also ensure that Turkish influence is balanced by Emirati influence and that the Muslim Brotherhood is contained. In addition, comprehensively strengthening ties with Israel is a must, but Russia has to articulate the reasons behind this balanced policy to Arab civil society to avoid losing soft power by having its rivals (i.e. America) exploit the narrative void to portray Russia as “pro-Zionist”, etc. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has to maintain balanced influence there which does not infringe on its neighbors, all the while expanding its role over that region via its springboard of energy diplomacy. The Kurdish card can also help Russia balance those same countries, but it must be played very carefully to avoid possibly irreparable blowback to Russian interests.

The Gulf: Investing in Vision 2030 & Engaging with (South) Yemen

Unlike the other “Ummah Pivot” regions, Russia has no serious risks in the Gulf, but plenty of opportunities. It should continue its military and energy diplomacy with all partners to expand its influence over their elite. This can help open up real-sector economic opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 model of socio-economic development for example. Still, the UAE should be Russia’s priority partner because it is obviously more influential than Saudi Arabia is right now even if Riyadh commands more power over the global energy markets than Abu Dhabi does. Russia should seriously consider diplomatically involving itself more in resolving the long-running and highly disastrous war in Yemen by attempting to replicate its regrettably unsuccessful but nevertheless principled approach to the Syrian one by encouraging decentralization. This necessitates closer ties with the UAE and its South Yemeni partners, but must not be pursued too enthusiastically lest Saudi Arabia and Iran grow suspicious of Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.

South Caucasus: Managing the New Regional Reality

Russia’s interests here are three-fold and interlinked: it must manage Turkey’s growing influence over Azerbaijan, ensure Armenia’s compliance with last year’s ceasefire agreement mandating the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, and effectively utilize the aforementioned to bring about tangible economic dividends related to improving trade with all concerned countries (most importantly Turkey and Iran). This requires a tricky diplomatic balancing act, but there are still certain reasons to be optimistic about its success. Azerbaijan seems increasingly conscious of Turkey’s creeping influence over it and might move closer to Russia in order to balance this. Armenia, while more nationalistic than ever, can’t realistically refuse to unblock the corridors in perpetuity, so eventually it’ll be compelled to comply. As for trade, Russian companies are already active in the South Caucasus and can expand their businesses into Turkey and Iran with time.

Iran: Bolstering the Islamic Republic’s Balancing Act

With or without resolving their strategic dilemma in Syria that was earlier explained, the future of the Russian-Iranian relations seems bright, but it mustn’t be overhyped due to the difficulties that Moscow might face in making significant economic inroads in the real-sector of Tehran’s economy given Beijing’s newfound role. Russia should work more closely with India by reviving the NSTC as soon as possible, though New Delhi might not be too interested unless Washington’s sanctions are eased or removed. This severely limits Russia’s economic diplomacy but does not outright exclude its possible effectiveness. Russia should seek to expand upon its existing strategic economic partnerships to reach new commercial and other ones, taking advantage of its closer location to Iran vis-a-vis China and realizing that it might take time for China to optimize its overland trade routes to the Islamic Republic via Central Asia and W-CPEC+.

Central Asia: Retaining Strategic Influence

Russia risks losing the most out of this portion of its “Ummah Pivot” given growing Chinese, Turkish, and perhaps soon even American influence through a variety of spheres as was previously explained. The most effective solution rests in more confidently engaging civil society to retain the appeal of Russian soft power, continue cultivating regional elite including through MGIMO’s new Tashkent branch campus, and relying upon military diplomacy related to countering Afghan-emanating threats to secure privileged economic partnerships in exchange. Cynically speaking, while Russia in no way supports growing Sinophobic sentiments in the region, this terrible trend helps keep Chinese influence in check to Russia’s benefit, though China’s said influence might then just as easily be replaced by Turkey’s, especially considering some locals’ recently revived interest in the brand of political Islam that Ankara unofficially exports. Russia might not be able to stop some loss of its influence, nor the gradual establishment of a larger Muslim bloc like was earlier discussed, but it can still manage this process if it better understands exactly what is happening and why.

South Asia: Containing Afghan Threats & Pioneering Trans-Regional Connectivity

The post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is the greatest uncertainty in this region, as is the strategic significance of N-CPEC+/CEC, the latter of which can either strengthen Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) vision and/or serve as an entry point for American balancing influence in Central Asia. Moscow must see to it that Afghanistan does not fester with ISIS threats that can subsequently spread throughout the broader region in parallel with maintaining a pragmatic balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. With the latter in mind, Russia should seek utilize its historic partnership with India to draw New Delhi further away from the Quad and therefore stabilize the strategic situation with all five related nuclear powers, though without compromising on its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan. Ideally, Russia will restore stability in this highly strategic space and tangibly profit from it through economic means, including new trade routes like N-CPEC+/CEC and the VCMC.

Narrative Engagement

North Africa: Keeping the Spotlight on Turkish Activity

Russia should emphasize the need for a pragmatic compromise to the Libyan Civil War, while also highlighting the trends of Arab unity and growing Turkish influence through political Islam. Egypt’s role should be afforded particular attention in order to improve Russia’s appeal in its society by showing its people that Moscow deeply respects their country’s regional power status. As for the Turkish dimension, it should be critical, but fair, though not propagandistic and overly anti-Turkish in order to avoid worsening very sensitive ties with Ankara. Another idea is to also talk about the UAE’s growing power as well, focusing on its extra-regional engagements in North Africa so as to provide positive informational support which enhances bilateral relations.

Levant: Articulating Russia’s Complex Balancing Act

Russia must urgently articulate the driving forces behind its multi-sided balancing act, especially with Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, in order to dispel suspicions about its grand strategic intentions due to the visible narrative void that’s characterized the past few years as a result of lackluster efforts in this respect. When it comes to Syria, Russia must begin floating pragmatic compromise solutions to provoke wider discussion about them in order to discover whether they are acceptable for all stakeholders. As for Turkey, Russia did indeed unofficially legitimize its sphere of influence in Syria, but should begin talking more about how destabilizing it is become and how counterproductive Ankara’s unrealistically recalcitrant stance on compromising on President Assad’s political future is for the peace process. Concerning Iran, Russia should applaud its anti-terrorist contributions but consider highlighting its regionally destabilizing role vis-a-vis Israel, though in a sensitive and fair manner. Finally, the Kurdish card must be played very carefully because the risks might easily and far outweigh the rewards, but this outpost of Russian influence should not be forgotten either and should receive more attention when it comes to the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Gulf: Encouraging the Region’s Socio-Economic Transformation

While appreciating the UAE’s aspiring regional hegemon status, Russia should be careful not to offend Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities. It should concentrate on multilateral security solutions, such as its existing Gulf one while pioneering a decentralized compromise solution to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Russia should applaud MBS’ socio-economic reforms and begin engaging more closely with the country’s youthful society. Turkey’s military base in Qatar can largely be ignored for the time being since it does not do much, but if it becomes troublesome, Russia has to consider how to respond to it in the narrative sense, though once again without risking a worsening of very sensitive Russian-Turkish ties. Generally speaking, the Gulf should not present too many narrative challenges for Russia as the opportunities far outweigh the risks.

South Caucasus: Promoting Regional Reconciliation

Russia has to balance its sympathy for Armenia’s reactive nationalist outcry to losing last year’s war with its newfound partnership with victorious Azerbaijan. It also must gently encourage Armenia to abide by last year’s ceasefire agreement when it comes to unblocking all regional economic and transport corridors. The key challenge is how to respectfully respond to Turkish influence, especially if it becomes visibly pernicious. As a rule of thumb, being softer is better than being harder because of the sensitivities at play. More than that, Azerbaijan seems to naturally realize the risks of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Russian media possibly drawing attention to this too conspicuously might elicit a negative reaction though and make many suspect Moscow’s motives, though this might still be possible to strike a fair balance and/or employ other means to this end.

Iran: Recalibrating Russia’s Balancing Act

First and foremost, the strategic dilemma with Iran in Syria must be publicly clarified at the elite and civil society levels. Secondly, Russia has to re-engage Iran more enthusiastically than ever before, with or without the removal of U.S. sanctions. It also must bring India on board as well, taking advantage of recently troubled U.S.-Indian relations. Without India, Russia’s outreaches with Iran will remain limited, and Moscow will become a junior partner to Beijing. Speaking of which, the People’s Republic should not be criticized, but Russia can still gently and very generally speak about the risks of disproportionate dependence on any single partner. Iran must come to realize that Russia is an irreplaceable balancing partner for it, one which can fulfill a very strategic role, but it must also carry tangible economic and political benefits too.

Central Asia: Cultivating Regional Elite & Promote Secularism

More elite cultivation and media engagement is needed otherwise Russia will lose out to other powers in its own “backyard”. Russia should not ever support Sinophobia, but it could draw attention to some objective economic consequences of reportedly lopsided deals and their impact on the locals, though perhaps via indirect means to avoid angering China. Secularism must also be supported to counteract rising Islamist tendencies which could lay the seeds for non-state threats, especially via Western/U.S. and ISIS ideological infiltration of those societies. Those threats can be emphasized quite a lot to remind everyone of Russia’s stabilizing military role, which could in turn justify the privileged economic deals that it receives unlike some of those other countries’ partners in exchange for its indispensable security services.

South Asia: Pragmatically Engaging with the Taliban & Constructing a New Regional Paradigm

Engagement with Afghan society is extremely limited so Russia should concentrate on retaining cordial relations with Kabul while expanding pragmatic ties with the resurgent Taliban. It needs to formulate a narrative means through which the entrance of Russian mineral extraction companies won’t cause the same level of controversy as any of its competitors, especially Western and Chinese ones. It also needs to focus on the socio-economic benefits of N-CPEC+/CEC, especially with respect to how more Russian trade and investment can help the Afghan people. It could also, however, warn about the U.S. using N-CPEC+ as a Trojan Horse for slyly expanding influence there and beyond to reduce its appeal among the populace and preemptively thwart a prospective economic diplomacy plot. The historic partnership with India must be celebrated at every opportunity to continue courting it back to Russia’s side after recent years of allying with America. Russian experts can also take the lead in discussing pragmatic balancing solutions for the region’s nuclear powers, including Pakistan, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s legitimate interests so as to continue strengthening their ongoing rapprochement, perhaps by drawing more attention the strategic balancing motives behind their country’s CPEC+ vision.

From our partner RIAC

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