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
Why Economic Sanctions Mean Little to Moscow
Realpolitik, a German term for politics based on day-to-day calculations regarding the military and economic balance of power among major states, should be used and discussed more often in the modern world, though we often discuss Russia and the ways to influence its actions over the long-term especially in its immediate neighborhood.
Economic sanctions are a common tool for the West, and many, particularly in the former Soviet space, believed that western measures would cripple Russia and make Moscow change its foreign policy with regards to Ukraine and perhaps Georgia. Others thought the economic sanctions would do no more than influence some aspects of Russian policies, though in such a way as to limit to a certain degree Russia’s projection of power.
But Russian politicians giving in to European pressure would be humiliating from a nationalistic point of view.
Instead of (or on top of) those sanctions, what the West lacks is a quiet military and economic build up along the Russian borders so that Moscow starts seeing the changing geopolitical landscape. Again, those western actions would not be based on loud bombastic statements such as “we’ll change if you do,” but on a real shift in the balance of power. This is what is happening now when Europe demands Russian concessions on Ukraine in exchange for lifting financial restrictions. But for the Russian leadership, it will be self-destructive to radically abandon its current policy on Ukraine and Georgia.
That there is a larger western economic and military presence in the Russian neighborhood is what matters to the Russians. For Vladimir Putin, a master practitioner of realpolitik, western notions of the democratic development of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and thus Russia’s non-interference, is a flagrant misconception. The leadership in Moscow does not genuinely believe that the West is so interested in Ukraine and Georgia. From the Russian perspective, the spread of democracy cannot be a viable explanation and the West’s purely geopolitical calculations should be considered.
Putin, like his predecessors from the Soviet era or even the Romanov dynasty, believes that any Western moves in the Russian neighborhood are anti-Russian per se. He is not to blame; there is simply a different civilizational approach to foreign relations in Moscow compared to Western countries. In studies on geopolitics, this factor is often missed, but it is deeply important.
There is also a distinct way in which the Russian leadership responds to foreign threats. In Europe, governments of countries facing problems can easily resign, while in Russia, bending to foreign pressure is tantamount to an unravelling of the state apparatus, leading to elite infighting and even possibly something close to troubles on the periphery of the state. This is a product of Russian geography, ethnic composition and culture.
On the contrary, faced with direct pressure, the Russians usually make moves which better show off their military strength. Consider what happened in Ukraine. Facing a total loss of Ukrainian territory in 2014, a distinctively Russian reaction to this coming disaster was taking the pieces which Moscow could still take.
To counter Russian moves, a larger US and European presence in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia could arguably be the only viable solution to the problems with Russia in the former Soviet space. Moscow will have to consider more acutely the changing geopolitical landscape, while it will serve as a good further pointer to various Russian elites that the state’s foreign policy for the past 20 years has been counterproductive.
This will be a good representation of realpolitik towards Russia. In a way, the time is ripe for reinvigoration of this 19th century German foreign policy concept. The US recently reformulated its foreign policy, while its latest national strategy document clearly outlined the rise of power competition in Eurasia. To strengthen its positions across the continent, Washington ideally would need to work in Japan, South Korea and other traditional US allies. In this atmosphere, direct US support for Georgia and Ukraine might be logical and could be more practical than time-consuming NATO procedures.
It will be costly, but still not as much as the US is spending on its larger allies. In the era of the Cold War and later in the 1990s, when notions of world democratic world order were a driving motor of the US foreign policy, in a world based on realpolitik there will more avenues for direct, bolder and balance-changing moves.
This brings us back to Russia and how the economic sanctions have had only a limited impact on Moscow. Imposition of sanctions alone failed to produce viable results: instead, they should have been propped up by other actions, such as changing the economic and military landscape of Georgia and Ukraine.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Russia and Italy: No Breakthroughs
The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Italy on July 4, 2019, the first in the past four years, became yet another confirmation of the “special relationship” between Rome and Moscow, but did not, however, signal a breakthrough. For Italy, the meeting came as another attempt to restore its role of a “protagonist” on the international scene, a role the country has been dreaming of playing for over two decades. It was not by chance that Guiseppe Conte, during his recent visit to Moscow, “rebuked” Vladimir Putin for not paying sufficient attention to the Italian people. In Italy, this lack of attention is seen as a sign that the country is not coping well with its role of a “protagonist” and a “bridge” between the West and the East. For Russia, a dialogue with Italy is more than just a conversation with a partner who is willing to listen and establish relations based on mutual trust — it is an opportunity to convey Russian opinions on key issues related to cooperation between Russia and countries of the Euro-Atlantic bloc.
The visit of Guiseppe Conte to Moscow in October 2018, and now Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome, the “friendly” meetings of Guiseppe Conte and Donald Trump in July 2018 during a period of acute tension in the Euro-Atlantic bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s visit to Washington in June 2019, and the signing of a memorandum of cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative reached with Xi Jinping all testify to Rome’s ambitions for a more independent and autonomous foreign policy. Italy, under the leadership of the new “government of change,” is trying to play its own foreign policy game, guided by the principles of national sovereignty and national interests. However, at the moment, the hands of the yellow-green coalition are tied by the threat of sanctions from the European Commission for non-compliance with financial discipline. Naturally, this imposes significant restrictions on the potential of Italian foreign policy. In addition, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 and the subsequent distribution of top posts in the EU testify to Italy losing a significant share of its say in relations between Russia and the EU. In this context, the visit served as a confirmation of the two parties’ intentions but did not produce any practical solutions to problems of mutual concern.
Bilateral political dialogue: dreams and reality
Improving relations with Russia is a separate clause of the “government contract” concluded between the two parties that form the governing coalition in Italy. This is the first time that such an agenda is set at such a high level. Generally speaking, this is evidence of the consistency of Italian foreign policy which was formed in the post-war years,the purpose of which is to fulfill the role of a “bridge” between the North and the South, the West and the East. Perhaps, the historical peak of this strategy occurred when Italy carried out active mediation to establish the Russia-NATO Council in 2002. Nevertheless, the Italian foreign policy is still following this strategy.
According to experts, the status of “privileged partnership”, which was repeatedly voiced at the level of heads of state and by official representatives of Russia and Italy, does not match the real level of relations. A more realistic description of relations between Russia and Italy is “the best among the worst” compared to other partners in the EU, or a pragmatic cooperation that is still a problem to implement at the European level. This time, the leaders of the two states, speaking of existing relations, used such epithets as “excellent”, “constructive” and “businesslike”, and several times addressed each other using the word “friends”.
Meanwhile, we can be confident that a political dialogue between Russia and Italy is gradually regaining strength after the crisis of 2014–2015, particularly following the arrival of the yellow-green coalition in Italy. In October 2018, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Moscow. On the eve of his visit, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, arrived in Moscow too to meet with representatives of Italian businesses working in Russia. In 2019, Vladimir Putin and Giuseppe Conte met at the “One Belt – One Road” forum, and also at the G20 summit in Osaka. Bilateral contacts are gradually being restored between the defense and interior ministries, consultations are under way on international information security, and an inter-parliamentary dialogue is back on track too.
Even though Moscow highly values Russian-Italian relations, Russian leaders regularly emphasize that Italy could do more in the EU to improve relations with Russia. In a report on Russian-Italian relations, which was recently released by the Russian International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Italy is systematically criticized for following the general course of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, be it NATO’s bombings in Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. operation and coalition in Iraq in 2003, the bombing of Libya in 2011, or the adoption of anti-Russian resolutions on Crimea. In all these cases, the report says, Italy, even though it is not completely in agreement with the United States and other European leaders, did not come out actively against them. Similarly, in 2015, Italy did not protest against the lowering of the status of Russia-EU relations, which had previously been known as a “strategic partnership”. In addition, Italy, whose political leaders often publicly speak in favor of the lifting of sanctions, has never used its right of veto when voting in the EU to extend sanctions.
In particular, Russia points out that, having burned its fingers on the situation in Libya in 2011 and still paying for hasty decisions back then, Italy has been acting more carefully in Middle Eastern conflicts. It refused to participate in ground operations in Syria. Instead, it opted for providing humanitarian and logistical support. In Libya, Rome is actively trying to establish a dialogue between key warring parties, including with the help of Russia. In November 2018, Italy invited Russia to a conference on Libya in Naples, hoping to win the support of the Russian leadership, who at that time had better negotiating positions with Marshal Haftar than their Italian counterparts. On the issue of refugees, the Italian leadership took a number of independent measures and decisions to restrict migrants’ access to the territory of Italy (“porti chiusi”, or closed ports), and adopted a security law changing the rules for granting refugee status. This triggered criticism not only in Brussels, but also in the UN. Italy refused to recognize self-proclaimed Juan Guaido as the new president of Venezuela, thereby making it difficult for the EU to strike a common approach on this issue. On March 23, 2019, during Xi Jinping’s visit, Italy and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of cooperation within the One Belt One Road Initiative, despite the numerous warnings against the move from Brussels. Such “independence” of the Italian leadership in foreign policy shows that Italy is at the epicenter of the conflict of national and supranational sovereignty in the EU, articulating this conflict as clearly and consistently as possible.
Italy-EU-Russia: not a love triangle
Such independence on the part of Italian leadership and their desire to assume some of the decision-making has triggered controversy domestically in Italy. On the one hand, these moves contribute to the status of Italy, both within the EU and on the international scene. On the other hand, some Italian experts say there is the risk of the country becoming isolated within the EU. Brussels, Paris and Berlin tend to view Rome’s moves in a negative way – as detrimental to European solidarity and hindering the development of further supranational integration.
The EU systematically criticizes Russia for prioritizing bilateral relations above dialogue with Brussels. As for Italy, the situation is aggravated by the fact that, from the point of view of Brussels, the “anti-system” forces have developed a special liking for the Russian leader, while Russia, in turn, uses them as agents of influence in the EU. In February 2019 the leader of the “League” Matteo Salvini was reported to have received 3 million euros from the Kremlin for running the election campaign in the European Parliament. Therefore, on the eve of his visit, Vladimir Putin said in an interview with Italian news agency Corriere della Sera that Russia is ready for dialogue with any political forces that come to power by legitimate means, “regardless of their political affiliations.” However, after Vladimir Putin’s interview with The Financial Times, one cannot but notice that the Russian president’s criticism of liberalism, being addressed, above all, to U.S. president Donald Trump, echoes the rhetoric of the Italian “government of change”. Both in matters of migration management and in terms of governments’ ability to respond to people’s needs, the views of the Russian and Italian leadership are fairly close. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy should certainly be considered not only as a bilateral dialogue, but also as an attempt to get across to leaders of the Western world the need to establish a dialogue with those political forces that express a different point of view on further socio-political and economic development in Europe and the United States.
The recent developments in the EU show, however, that the political mainstream is not prepared to heed alternative political groups. After the May 26, 2019 elections, Matteo Salvini, together with representatives of the “sovereignists” of Poland, France and a number of other countries, succeeded in building the largest coalition of “populists” in the entire history of the European Parliament – 73 deputies. This, however, did not provide them with enough say to affect the choice of candidates for key posts in the EU. The results of the EU summit on July 2, 2019, in which appointments to senior positions were made, testifies to Rome losing its influence in the EU. Unlike before, when representatives of Italy had occupied three key posts in the EU (Antonio Tajani – President of the European Parliament, Mario Draghi – Chairman of the ECB, Federica Mogherini – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), now only one Italian – a representative of the opposition Democratic Party Divid Sassol – is part of the EU top management, having been given the position of President of the European Parliament. This yet again demonstrates that Paris, Berlin and Brussels are not ready for a serious dialogue with representatives of the yellow-green coalition of “sovereignists” and continue to rely on center-leftists.
In addition, the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Defense with extensive experience in foreign policy and defense, as President of the European Commission is likely to lead to attempts at greater EU integration in the sphere of foreign policy, which may narrow the window of opportunity for more independent foreign policy initiatives of EU countries, including Italy.
What also restricts Italy in its efforts is the looming threat of EU sanctions for breaching fiscal discipline and exceeding the budget deficit. After the EU summit on June 2, Giuseppe Conte said that he had reached an agreement that sanctions would not be applied if Italy cut down the previously planned budget expenditures. However, the threat of sanctions is still there, and this is likely to be one of the most effective instruments of influence from Brussels on the country’s position on many issues, including relations with Russia. Any harsh statements during the visit of Vladimir Putin or any so-called “big deals” would certainly cause even more irritation in Brussels, which means they could lead to a tougher policy towards Italy. Therefore, Vladimir Putin’s visit was, of course, an important confirmation of Italy’s proactive foreign policy but was not a breakthrough, since Italy is connected with the EU not only by the historical bonds of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, but also by tangible economic mechanisms that allow the EU to impose sanctions against the Italian economy.
The economy depends on politics
The economic dialogue between Russia and Italy does not correspond to the declared high level of bilateral relations. In 2017, after a three-year decline (from 2014 to 2016), bilateral trade regained momentum but is still far from the pre-crisis level ($ 27 billion in 2018 against 54 billion in 2013). Russia maintains a clear lead in Italian exports, being the fifth among top importers. The Italian presence is felt in almost all sectors of the Russian economy. About 500 Italian companies operate in Russia, which, however, holds no candle to Germany (4.7 thousand). Even though about 100 Russian-Italian joint ventures were set up during the period of sanctions as part of a program to move Italian production to Russia (“made with Italy”), this figure does not yet correspond to the existing potential. As for an economic dialogue, Italy is considerably behind Germany and France. While in Germany and France there have been functioning “Petersburg Dialogue” and “Trianon Dialogue” respectively, and the Sochi Dialogue has recently been launched with Austria, the Russian-Italian economic dialogue has yet to acquire an appropriate status. The Council for Economic, Industrial, Monetary and Financial Cooperation, which last gathered in Rome in December 2018, is still little known to both countries’ general public. The “Russian-Italian Forum-Dialogue on Civil Society”, which Vladimir Putin and Guiseppe Conte attended in course of the visit, has not received support from the Italian authorities since 2014. Only now is it approaching a new level of development. In addition, during the visit, the two parties agreed that the Russian Export Center and Vnesheconombank (VEB) would set up a bureau to support Russian exporters in Italy. Thus, the economic dialogue, which for a long time needed a new impetus, has finally received it following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome. It is worth noting that the Italian leadership is acutely concerned about competition with Germany and France in two vast markets – Russia and China.
Russia, however, is waiting for more decisive steps from Italy to secure the lifting of the sanctions. However, according to Pasquale Terraciano, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to Russia, “Italy has never considered sanctions a smart decision, but Italy is part of the Western bloc and cannot stand against it alone.”. Italy’s agenda, he said, is to change the EU’s opinion through the use of consistent steps. At the same time, as a practical measure aimed at expanding economic cooperation, Italy proposes to unfreeze the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises at the level of the EBRD and the European Investment Bank. As he addressed a press conference after the meeting, Giuseppe Conte pointed out that Italy is ready to assume the role of a consistent promoter of the idea of lifting the sanctions but the conditions for this lifting had to be “ripe”.
Energy is a major area of cooperation between Italy and Russia. Russia is the fourth most important supplier of oil and the first of natural gas to Italy. Supplies from Moscow account for more than 40% of the total gas consumption. However, as Italian experts remark, Italy expects an increase in prices in connection with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Germany the number one transit country for Russian gas in Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Therefore, negotiations on the development of southern transportation routes are more than relevant for Italy. The meeting, however, yielded no breakthroughs on this issue either.
Regional cooperation: identifying problems, lack of solutions
Italy, just like Russia, sees a great potential for dialogue not only on issues related to bilateral cooperation, but also on those of the regional and global agenda. The priority for Italy is the Mediterranean, which produces the greatest number of challenges and threats to the country’s national security. Simultaneously, Italy is fully aware of the fact that the country will not be able to cope with these challenges alone, although it is taking independent measures, in particular, in matters of migration. Quite recently, Matteo Salvini held talks with the Libyan leadership in Tripoli to curtail illegal migration. However, Rome knows only too well that the solution to the problem lies not so much in reaching agreements with specific countries as in assisting the development of countries the migrants come from and in settling regional conflicts. Italy greatly appreciates the role of Russia as a non-regional player whose influence has increased significantly in recent years. During a press conference following the elections, Vladimir Putin, however, said that Russia is not ready to plunge head-on into resolving the Libyan crisis, and that forces that destroyed Libya’s statehood during the armed operation in 2011 should be involved;that is, NATO and the EU coalition. In solidarity with the Russian president, the Italian Prime Minister emphasized that Italy had warned from the very beginning that a military solution would not lead to peace. Under current conditions, the parties have indicated their readiness to participate in fostering a dialogue between all political forces in Libya.
As for Ukraine, Italy’s official position should be in line with the EU policy providing for no new opportunities to change the situation. In an interview before Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy, Giuseppe Conte directly linked the issue of lifting of the sanctions with the observance of the Minsk agreements, implicitly suggesting that Russia is a party to the conflict and urging both sides to demonstrate more understanding. In an interview with Corriere della Sera, and during a press conference following the meeting, President Putin reiterated that the new leadership of Ukraine should fulfill its election promises and enter a direct dialogue with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Guiseppe Conte repeatedly pointed out that, although Italy is not part of the Normandy format (a negotiation apparatus designed to resolve the Ukrainian conflict), it is nevertheless ready to play a role in resolving the conflict if necessary, which once again confirms the country’s willingness to play a greater role on the international scene.
The Russian president and the Italian prime minister also hold similar views on the situation in Venezuela, expressing concerns over foreign interference, which in their opinions will only aggravate the situation inside the country.
On the whole, it is essential to emphasize that Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy did not bring any breakthroughs, either in bilateral relations or in formulating common positions on issues of regional and global concern. Although the parties demonstrated identical views on the causes and nature of some of the issues on the international agenda, they proved unprepared to suggest concrete practical solutions. For Italy, the meeting provided yet another opportunity to identify its own national interests in promoting relations with Russia and to demonstrate its readiness to act as a “bridge” in the development of a dialogue between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic bloc. At the same time, it has revealed limitations in Italian foreign policy, linked to the economic situation in the country and the weak positions of the current leadership in the renewed European institutions.
1. Speech by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to the Russian Federation Pasquale Terracciano at the conference, at the Institute of Europe RAS, June 19, 2019
From our partner RIAC
Putin: Russia Ready to Work with Legitimate Leaders
President Vladimir Putin accepted the credentials of 18 newly appointed foreign ambassadors, among them seven from Africa, in a traditional ceremony in the St. Alexander Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace on July 3, and tasked them to facilitate the development of multifaceted relations between their individual states and Russia.
He reiterated that “Russia is open to mutually beneficial cooperation with all states without exception based on equality and respect for each other’s interests, non-interference in internal affairs and strict compliance with international law.”
Putin used the opportunity to outline upcoming key events as follows:
In the near future, Russia will host a series of major international events. In June, Russia assumed the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and will also preside on BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) from early 2020. Russia is steering towards a joint-partnership, and aims to advance common priorities in such areas as politics, security, economy, finance, culture and humanitarian ties.
In September 2019, Vladivostok will host a regular Eastern Economic Forum. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe will be the guests of honor.
Russia is planning to review cooperation prospects and the implementation of major joint investment projects in the Asia-Pacific region and to exchange opinions on ways of merging various integration processes so as to create a major Eurasian partnership.
In early October, Moscow will host Russian Energy Week, whose participants will discuss ensuring global energy security, providing all-round energy access and reducing volatile prices on global energy markets.
Russia is preparing actively for the first Russia-Africa Summit late October in Sochi and will be preceded by the Russian-African Economic Forum. President of Egypt and incumbent Chairman of the African Union, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will co-chair the Sochi forum together with Putin.
Accordingly, invitations have been sent to all heads of the African states, as well as the leaders of major sub-regional unions and organizations. It is, however, expected that this summit to propel a dialogue between Russia and Africa to a qualitatively new level, help ensure peace and security in the region, as well as a stable development on the African continent.
Further in his address, Putin told Ambassador Denis Kalume Numbi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, that Russia was interested in further developing cooperation with the Democratic Republic of the Congo in politics, trade, and international affairs, and would continue assisting Congolese partners in improving the socioeconomic situation in their country.
He noted that Russia’s relations with Sierra Leone has been based on the traditions of friendship and mutual understanding, and Russia hoped for joint work in such sectors as mining, agriculture and fishing. Sierra Leonean Ambassador is now Mohamed Yongawo.
At the ceremony was Alemayehu Tegenu Aargau from the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Putin expressed satisfaction on the level of cooperation with Ethiopia.
Last year, Russia and Ethiopia marked the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Over the years, bilateral dialogue has covered a range of important political, economic, research and education topics. Besides, Russia and Ethiopia continue to strengthen cooperation in international and regional affairs.
Russia satisfied with cooperation with Namibia. “Cooperation with Namibia is successfully developing in such sectors as mineral resource development and uranium mining, as well as in the energy, fisheries, agriculture, tourism, military-technical and cultural areas,” Putin told Clemens Handuukeme Kashuupulwa from the Republic of Namibia.
Namibia pursues a balanced policy in international affairs and plays an active role in peace-making efforts of the Southern African Development Community. Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries, which constitute the Southern African Development Community.
“We work together with Mauritania in marine fishing and hydrocarbon production. Our Mauritanian partners make a significant contribution to the fight against terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel zone,” the Russian leader said while receiving Ambassador Hamid Hamouni.
Louis Sylvestre Radegonde (Republic of Seychelles) and Ms. Chandapiwa Nteta (Republic of Botswana) presented their credentials. Russia maintains friendly relations with the Republic of Seychelles. It counts on further joint work to expand cooperation including tourism.
Relations with Botswana encompass the trade, economic and humanitarian spheres; the intergovernmental agreement on military-technical cooperation is currently in force. Last year, Russia and Botswana signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in defence.
Russian authorities have pledged to help and offer necessary assistance to the foreign envoys in pursuit of their official assignments in the Russian Federation. Present at the ceremony were Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia and Yury Ushakov, Aide to President Vladimir Putin.
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