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G20 Summit: Looking for Compromise

Natalia Eremina

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The G20 is an important international forum, a meeting place for representatives of the world’s largest economies. Now, we can say that the division into the so-called “developed” and “developing” economies is irrelevant within this forum. Additionally, the G20 generally does, indeed, represent the interests of the global population, since its countries account for over 80 percent of the gross world product and two thirds of the entire population of the planet. It is also important to remember that such venues are very convenient for privately owned businesses, which, through the support of governmental agencies, can get favourable opportunities to hold talks with their foreign partners. Additionally, a rather large number of meetings and talks at G20 summits remains outside the spotlight, but their results confirm the significance of the many unofficial meetings, informal negotiations and talks on the side-lines of the summits. These meetings, which take place in a variety of formats, are vital for understanding the issues that are most important for leading international participants and whether there is consensus among them on the approaches required to resolve these issues. Moreover, as we consider meetings and agreements concluded on the side-lines of G20 summits, we can, to a degree, draw conclusions on the current configuration or re-configuration of international relations.

From the outset, we will note that the importance of G20 summits is gradually growing, even though they started out as meetings of ministers of finance and their initial goal was to formulate a joint response to global financial issues. Today, the summit has transformed into an international venue for discussing issues of global financial and economic policies and other pressing matters of the day. However, economic and financial issues remain significant for G20 discussions.

The summit is also important for the expert and political communities of various countries that assess the prospects of inter-country interactions. Apparently, at the Argentina summit, the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin attracted the greatest interest, but it never happened, since the U.S. President cancelled it at the eleventh hour, which certainly demonstrates the growing tensions in U.S.–Russia relations.

At the same time, the summit is useful, since its function is not to settle bilateral relations, but to develop common approaches that satisfy different states with different economic indicators and representing different political regimes.

G20 summits are convened to discuss several pressing issues proposed by the presiding state.

The summit held in Argentina was devoted to building a consensus for fair and stable development. Face-to-face meetings between heads of state are particularly important for handling the task. The goal of the summit indicates that the global community is aware of the current tectonic shifts in the global economy and in world politics. For a full-scale scale discussion of the problem, four issues were put on the agenda: the future of work and new professions, infrastructure for development, sustainable food future and gender mainstreaming.

Clearly, the G20 is not just a venue for discussing issues that have been defined as key; it is also an opportunity to “compare notes” via different formats “inside” the summit. For instance, we can say that France, Germany, Austria and Italy did not represent themselves or their interests alone, but were also united by their common tasks as EU countries. In addition, as one of the world’s largest economies, the European Union is a member of G20 as a single body. At the present summit, the European Union was represented by the heads of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Similarly, BRICS countries use G20 to discuss issues of their own.

G20 in Implementing Russia’s Strategic Tasks

Russia’s current strategic priority is to take part in the establishment of the concept of a multipolar world and in elaborating new principles of interaction within integration processes in Eurasia. Therefore, special emphasis will invariably be placed on the possibilities for implementing the idea of “integrating integrations” at G20 summits, and this summit was no exception. In particular, special attention was paid to mechanisms for connecting the development of the EAEU with the “One Road – One Belt” strategy. In addition, issues of stepping up cooperation within BRICS are also addressed, and there is an ongoing search for parties interested in bolstering global political and economic stability through the instruments of “integrating integrations,” which entails Russia paying attention to China, India and other Asian partners, as well as the gradual stable growth of Russia’s interests in Latin America.

As for meetings that have the greatest significance for Russia, the key talks for understanding the development of Russia’s foreign policy are the now traditional sessions held with BRICS countries. In addition, a meeting was also held between the heads of state of Russia, India and China (in the RIC format). Objectively, this format could be the most efficient, since interaction between Eurasia’s three largest states is of principal significance for both regional and global security. The dialogue on security issues and collaboration in all areas will be continued at the second Belt and Road Summit in April 2019 that Xi Jinping invited Vladimir Putin to attend.

The President of the Russian Federation was probably one of the most active figures at the present summit. Naturally, he had a meeting with representatives of Argentina. It is all the more important today since the EAEU and MERCOSUR are building up their cooperation potential, and a Memorandum on Cooperation is being prepared. What is more, Russia and Argentina concluded an agreement on nuclear power generation that will allow Russia to start construction of Russian-designed nuclear power plants in Argentina.

The main topic of discussion at the meeting between Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin was the Syrian agenda. Indeed, an exchange of opinions on this question now, when various formats of building up the peace process are being discussed, is of particular importance. In addition, the President of the Russian Federation discussed the current situation in Syria with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also confirmed the significance of the Turkish Stream for the stable and secure development of the economy of Turkey and other states.

The meeting between the President of the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on energy issues, with the two parties agreeing to extend the agreement on cutting oil production.

Vladimir Putin also met with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, with the Japanese side raising the issue of concluding a peace agreement. For Russia, the issue is not particularly relevant anymore, and at the meeting, the two heads of state agreed to continue active cooperation to increase the level of mutual trust between the two sides.

Of course, a great number of people were interested in the informal conversation between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who only had time to exchange opinions on the “Kerch Strait incident.” Trump’s refusal to meet with the President of the Russian Federation means a further loss of confidence between the two countries.

On the whole, meetings between heads of state were of particular importance at the summit, since, for instance, the meeting at the level of ministers of foreign affairs was downsized due to the absence of Russian and French ministers of foreign affairs, the U.S. Secretary of State and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

G20: The International Agenda

The so-called Iran nuclear deal has become one of the most crucial problems in international relations. Russia and the European Union have adopted the same stance on this issue.

In addition to economic matters, G20 also tackled the climate change problem and proposed complete and utter compliance with the decisions of the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, significant progress is unlikely after the withdrawal of the United States from the accord.

No less important were the discussions on the problem of terrorism. The G20 countries agreed that their Leaders’ Hamburg Statement on Countering Terrorism needed to be implemented. Incidentally, that statement declared the need to fight terrorism internationally in all its forms and manifestations. However, the current situation is extremely complicated, and discussions concerning Syria confirm this fact.

The influence of the European Union and the United Kingdom on the international security agenda and their claim that Russia is the main disrupting force are just as worrying. The European Union, in the person of Donald Tusk, sought to expand the summit’s agenda with a discussion of Russia’s so-called aggression against Ukraine, which he likened to the problem of trade wars. However, despite the suggestion put forward by both Tusk and the United Kingdom that the G20 discuss Russia’s allegedly impermissible conduct and use some instruments against it, the proposal failed to gain traction. It say a lot that the “Kerch Strait incident” did not overshadow any of the meetings held by the President of the Russian Federation at the G20 Summit.

The attention of international actors was also focused on the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, who failed to achieve a consensus on economic interaction, but agreed to a 90-day moratorium on introducing increased tariffs. Accordingly, special hopes are pinned on this interim measure. Clearly, China will not make the unilateral concessions that the United States is calling upon it to do, appealing instead to the idea of a compromise.

Results of the G20 Summit

While the summit’s final declaration does not contain specific figures and objectives for the most sensitive issues on the agenda, it does offer mechanisms for their resolution. In this respect, the summit did not turn out to be a breakthrough in resolving pressing issues. However, it demonstrated that no issue will ever be resolved if the parties abandon dialogue and compromise.

The results of Russia’s efforts at the summit include the signing of a large set of bilateral agreements between public and private bodies. The summit also demonstrated that Russia is actively and successfully stepping up cooperation with Latin American countries and enhancing its multi-format collaboration with the BRICS nations, particularly with China and India.

It is both curious and telling that the media was most interested in the meetings held by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump. However, we should mention the different approaches of these heads of state. For example, the President of the United States demonstrated that his country was not especially interested in following the established rules and was far more concerned about retaining the right to develop new rules of the game independently of other participants in international relations. Meanwhile, China’s and Russia’s leaders spoke about cooperation and compromise both in their joint meetings held in various formats and in their conversations with other heads of state. Additionally, the fact that the world is changing rapidly was recognized at the summit, meaning that the rules of the game can and should be changed and that new rules need to be formulated, but only through collaboration and compromise.

The heads of state also appealed to the IMF and the World Bank to work towards improving the economic situation in various countries and increasing the transparency of their work in interacting with states. This should help reduce sovereign debt and ensure that the recommendations offered by international financial institutions in individual states are implemented more effectively.

In addition, the leaders of the G20 countries concluded that responses need to be developed to current and future challenges in the development of the WTO and attempts should be made to avoid excessive contradictions, sanctions and tariff restrictions. The parties also agreed that the WTO needs to be reformed for it to work more efficiently. This aspect will be considered at the next summit in Japan.

Interestingly, virtually all countries supported multi-laterality, confirmed their commitment to the rules of international trade and agreed that efforts to overcome crisis trends in the global economy should be stepped up in order to avoid a repetition of the 2008 global crisis. The final declaration states that the global economic growth is increasingly less synchronized between countries, which entails risks to economic security, particularly given geopolitical tensions and financial unpredictability. To overcome this problem, it is important to step up interaction and increase trust among all parties in international relations.

The G20 states also announced that it was necessary to continue joint work on studying the impact that the digitalization of economy has on the global tax system, which needs to be adapted to current conditions by 2019 (final decisions on the matter will be elaborated and published in 2020).

Thus, the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires once again demonstrated the significance of the mechanisms of dialogue and achieving compromise based on constant information exchange between countries. The compromise-based approach was officially adopted as the foundation of all agreements, and was the leitmotif of the event. Given the circumstances, an increasing number of states recognize their significance as participants in international relations and, with each passing year, they strive to more forcefully state their stance on the most sensitive issues. Clearly, the Russian Federation wholeheartedly welcomes this trend.

Therefore, it should be noted that the recent summit in Argentina demonstrated that the G20 is just that – a group of countries – and not a political club. This fact increases its significance as an organization exhibiting a multilateral, multi-format and pluralistic nature of today’s international relations. Active discussions in such a format confirm the relevancy of multipolarity and the current processes of reconfiguring the world. In such circumstances, Russia can most fully implement its interests and convey its vision of international matters. An analysis of the volume of news reports in the European media is quite telling in that it proves that EU journalists were primarily interested not so much in meetings of heads of EU states, but in meetings with the participation of the leaders of Russia, China and the United States, meaning that EU representatives were running second in the newsfeeds of many news agencies. Thus, the results of the summit allow us to state that there has been a significant increase in the international community’s attention on Russia.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Senior Lecturer, School of International Relations, Saint Petersburg State University

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Standing for Everything Evil against Everything Good: Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe

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In late January, researchers from the renowned U.S. research centre RAND Corporation made their contribution to maintaining anti-Russian sentiments by publishing an analytical paper entitled “Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe: Understanding the Threat.” The report was sponsored by the U.S. Army, and it is to the U.S. Army that its conclusion is formally addressed, offering recommendations on counteracting Russia’s hostile measures in European countries.

This is not the first time that the RAND Corporation has prepared research analytical reports for the U.S. Armed Forces on various topics in international interaction. For instance, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s study “Networks and Netwars. The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy” published in 2001 and commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, is one of the first works on cyber warfare and it is already considered a classic. There are, however, reasons to believe that the rather opportunistic report on Russia’s hostile measures in Europe will have a somewhat different future.

“J’Accuse…!”

Before making accusations against Russia, the authors of the report make a series of important qualifications in their introduction that significantly reduce its academic value:

  1. First, the researchers from the very outset acknowledge that proving or disproving Russia’s malicious influence in Europe is virtually impossible and they do not even try to do so.
  2. Second, unlike historical studies, their report is instead geared towards prognostication, that is, this paper is by default “debatable, based on individual observations and dependent on circumstances.”
  3. Third, the authors acknowledge that the current problems and disagreements in European countries are not the result of the malicious actions of Moscow.

Nevertheless, Russia has tried and will apparently continue to try in the future to use European disagreements to achieve its five principal foreign political objectives:

  1. pursuing security and survival of the regime;
  2. developing and maintaining great-power status;
  3. exerting influence within the near abroad in order to pull these countries into its sphere of influence;
  4. increasing cooperation and trade with Western Europe;
  5. undermining enlargement of the European Union and NATO into the post-Soviet space.

It is assumed that Moscow will use “measures short of war” as a tactic. This term was introduced by George Kennan in the late 1940s to denote the hostile actions of the USSR and spanning a broad range of political, economic, diplomatic, intelligence and military steps.

Russia is most likely to put pressure on individual European countries in order to create a crisis and a subsequent window of opportunities to boost its own influence.

At the same time, several groups of countries are within Moscow’s orbit: the Baltic states and the states of Southeast and Western Europe. In each region, Russia has its interests and leverage that it can use to achieve its above-state foreign political objectives.

Europe in Russia’s Cross-Hairs

RAND Corporation researchers believe Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are most vulnerable to Russia’s negative influence due to five basic reasons:

  1. They are the most vulnerable NATO and EU countries due to their geographical location (common land border with Russia).
  2. They pose a threat for the regime in Russia as successful democratic societies and full-fledged members of the western community.
  3. Using hostile measures in the Baltic countries could have a positive impact on the Kremlin’s ratings, since many Russian citizens view these countries as hostile.
  4. Moscow can exert significant influence on the foreign and domestic policies of those countries given their common Soviet past, the feeling of nostalgia that can also be used.
  5. Moscow’s support for Russian-speaking communities in those countries.

On the whole, the authors of the paper agree that the greatest danger for the Baltic countries stems from Russia’s support for the Russian-speaking diaspora that could become a sort of “fifth column” in the states and a conduit for Russia’s interests. They also note that the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia still faces certain discrimination, particularly when it comes to finding employment, which Russia can use to its advantage. The possibility of military intervention using “little green men” should not be discounted either, but the probability of this happening is much lower, since the Baltic countries have long since joined NATO and have essentially delegated their security to those EU and western European countries that have significant military capacities.

The situation in the countries of Southeast Europe is somewhat different, where poverty is the main problem that opens a window of opportunity for Russian influence. Indeed, Bulgaria and Romania have the lowest per capita GDP among EU member states. As a result, Moscow may be able to influence the politics and policies of these countries through investments by Russia’s largest foreign economic actors, primarily from the energy sector. For instance, Bulgaria’s only oil refinery in the port city of Burgas is owned by Russia’s Lukoil, and the paper’s authors believe the refinery was significantly undervalued when the Russian corporation bought it. Therefore, in the countries of southeast Europe, the Kremlin will use primarily economic measures including bribery and blackmail to destabilize the situation.

However, the most desirable outcome for Moscow is to foster pro-Russian sentiments in the countries of Western Europe, as it is here that Europe’s wealthiest and most influential countries – the closest allies of the United States – are located. RAND Corporation researchers believe that the Kremlin will see even the slightest signal of a potential split in the transatlantic partnership as a major foreign political victory.

Western European countries are currently faced with a knot of complex problems that Russia can successfully use for its own purposes: dissatisfaction with the economic situation (unemployment and economic stagnation), the crisis of traditional political parties, illegal migration and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

It is these difficulties in Europe’s development that will give Russia a chance to sow discord between NATO member states and further its great-power status. Although none of the manifestations of the crisis mentioned above stem from Russia’s politics, they all afford strategic opportunities that Russia can use to drive a wedge between the EU countries and undermine transatlantic partnership.

Europe’s problems in the economy, immigration policy and the fight against terrorism have become a breeding ground for various radical parties that pursue nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-European and generally more stringent security policies, which, the report claims, plays into the Kremlin’s hand. At the same time, RAND Corporation researchers note that the assistance that Moscow has provided to these parties has not played a decisive role in increasing their influence, since they have always had their voting base. Another matter is that, in times of difficulty, the number of dissatisfied people increases, and their electoral base increases accordingly.

At the same time, even though the authors of the report are convinced that the unfavourable economic situation and security threats stemming from the countries of the Middle East will make Europe more vulnerable to Russia’s hostile measures in the coming years, Russia will fail to exert significant influence on the policies and politics of western European countries and deflect attention from the situation in the east of Ukraine and from the annexed Crimea.

Therefore, in regard to western European countries, Moscow will continue its tactics of assisting radical Eurosceptic parties, using energy as a means of putting pressure (so-called “energy weapons”), using close ties with and support for individual influential pro-Russian politicians, including former state figures (in particular, Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi and Miloš Zeman, who actively support Moscow), expanding its information and propaganda campaigns (for instance, through RT, although its audience in the EU countries is relatively small), and utilizing subversive measures through various non-profit organizations (for instance, the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation).

What the United States as a Whole, and its Military in Particular, Should Do to Counteract Russia

In response to these methods for putting pressure on European countries, the authors of the report propose countermeasures that are rather general and have been suggested several times:

  1. Building the rule of law in Europe and offering aid in fighting corruption.
  2. Provide assistance (both administrative and material) on the part of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute to political parties.
  3. Ensuring the Robust engagement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in order to counteract Russia’s propaganda machine led by RT.

Suggestions for the U.S. military are not strikingly new either, and some of them are simply not easily implementable:

  1. Deploying the military in closer proximity to Russia’s borders, for instance, in the Baltic countries, on condition, however, that an escalation of tensions with Russia is avoided (this is not very likely today).
  2. Developing opportunities for blocking Russia’s hostile measures, primarily through intelligence and counter-intelligence.
  3. The U.S. military taking more active steps to prevent crises in European countries that Russia could use to implement its foreign political objectives.
  4. The U.S. government taking timely and decisive steps in crisis situations in Europe. The United States should be ready to intervene in a broad range of conflicts in Europe to minimize side effects that Russia could use to advance its own interests.

On the whole, the report appears to be perfunctory in nature and gives the impression that the United States does not consider Russia to be a major rival in Europe, at least for the time being. More likely, Washington views Moscow as a sort of irritant, but not as a player in European affairs. What is also interesting is the authors’ conclusion that there is a reverse relation between Russia’s opportunities for interference and its abilities to achieve its objectives: where Moscow has influence over certain actors, it does not have the opportunity to exert major influence on policies and politics. Only time will tell whether they are right or whether this is wishful thinking.

Conclusions for Russia

Against the general background of the massive anti-Russian hysteria that has recently swept the United States, the RAND Corporation report has several reasonable and balanced ideas. First, Russia is not to blame for all the crises that have befallen European countries of late. Second, the authors of the study acknowledge the fact that Russia has its objective interests in Europe, which Russia will try to promote by influencing the policies of European countries. But why should this influence be solely hostile and malicious? Why is Russia seen as a sort of enfant terrible of the European subcontinent that is, by default, blamed for all of Europe’s problems?

European countries experience two principal emotions here: disappointment and anger. Disappointment stems from Moscow’s failure to join the western world, the full allure of which was shown to Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. The list of reasons for this development can be very long, but the essence of changes in Russia today is clear: the western model will not be accepted to the detriment of the Russian values. This causes anger on the part of Europe and the United States: How can a country that until recently was receiving humanitarian aid from us and living from one IMF loan to the next so recklessly reject such a successful model of economic and public modernization?

The current crisis in relations with European countries is a natural and expected response on the part of Moscow to the refusal of Europe’s ruling parties to accept Russia’s worldview and values and the reluctance to understand its motives and principal concerns. The global situation has changed radically, while this mentality has persisted. This explains the desire to punish Russia in economy, politics and sports, to depict it as a lying state incapable of reaching and maintaining agreements. Clearly, this is a dead-end road.

To develop successfully, Russia needs to have close ties with Europe that would be advantageous for both sides, while European countries cannot do without their eastern neighbour. It is a great shame that the second half of the 2010s may go down in history as a time when, instead of engaging in a much-needed and useful dialogue, the parties competed in demonizing each other.

During his latest State of the Union Address, Donald Trump stressed that his administration will “will never apologize for advancing America’s interests.” Russia should adhere to a similarly strong and open position in regard to its foreign political interests. Its actions should be consistent and well-founded, but do not necessarily need to be met with general approval. Sooner or later, this will result in the reformatting of relations both with the United States and with Europe, which will be based primarily on mutual interests, instead of mutual grievances.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia, Ukraine And The Disputed Crimean Peninsula

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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In this exclusive video for In Homeland Security, American Military University’s Dr. Matthew Crosston, Doctoral Programs, School of Security and Global Studies, discusses the tumultuous relationship between Russia and Ukraine since the 2014 ‘Maidan Revolution’ and how each nation, the United States, and NATO all view the disputed peninsula of Crimea. There is a transcript of the video below.

Transcript of Dr. Crosston’s Analysis:

If we’re looking at the Russian Ukrainian conflict, sort of en mass, going back to its beginning foundation, for Russia at least it starts with the Maidan Revolution – or even the precursors to what created the Maidan Revolution. And, that’s something that we get a little bit of a debate or a discussion in the West about. The Russians feel that the West sort of made some sneaky promises behind the scenes to Ukraine – the people who would ultimately lead this revolution and cause the sitting president to flee to Russia and have a new president come in and take his place who was much more EU-friendly much more-NATO friendly much less Russian friendly. The Russians always saw some subterfuge in that action. They never saw it as a natural organic revolution. They always saw it as an example of Western interference, and they – therefore – felt justified to say well if you can interfere, we’re going to interfere because if you’re just playing out your interests on the ground in Ukraine why can’t we play out our interests on the ground in Ukraine?

Besides, we also think Ukraine is a better partner to us and should be a bigger compatriot of our interest because we have religious, cultural, historical ties. No matter how you try to play it in the West, Ukraine and Russia should not be at odds against each other, Ukraine and Russia should not be enemies. They are the more natural allies. And in the end since you’re making false promises we’re going to find out how much you really mean it when you tell Ukraine secretly whisper-whisper behind our backs [saying] don’t listen to Russia don’t do anything about Russia. Come to us instead. Ukraine really believed in that the people who led the Maidan Revolution believe that would happen. So then what we call the annexation of Crimea (but yet in Russia they call the secession of Crimea into the Russian Federation because the people in Crimea held a referendum saying we want to be part of Russia) – we don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore. We portray that as being Russia forced that on Crimea. The Russians say the Crimeans voiced their political will, and we back them up – which is what you guys in the West didn’t do for Ukraine when we did it.

The Kerch Strait

What’s above the Kerch Strait – which never gets played in Western media – is this massive eight-lane superhighway that actually the Russians built and had actually in place as a as an agreement and was already begun to be built before the Maidan Revolution and is now complete. What it does is it connects as a land bridge – it connects from Rostov in Russia and over into Crimea. So that you don’t have to go through Ukraine at all to get into Crimea. That’s where those naval vessels were;  that’s where the Russians they were getting near the bridge – without any knowledge or any announcement of anything preordained.

So, the Russians said ‘what are you doing here?’ Ukrainians don’t answer. And, the Russians start playing with it, and they said ‘well we’ll see how tough you really are … you really going to use these naval ships? Are you really going to do an action here? That’s why the Russians call it a provocation. And, in the West – we say the Russians are just making up the word ‘provocation’ because these vessels weren’t doing anything. But, we are ignoring how the perspective of the Russians – near this massive land bridge (that literally now connects Russia to Crimea), how would they interpret the presence of military vessels unannounced with no declared plan of action – just this sort of mysterious presence? They did what most countries probably would do, but what they did goes against our interests, so therefore we have a problem with Russia’s actions.

No World War 3 Imminent

Russia has seen – really, quite frankly – since the 90s (with Clinton) this sort of slow very gradual encroachment where more and more members of what they used to consider their sphere of influence or their regional neighborhood (the Russian regional neighborhood) more and more people become part of NATO. But the one part they’ve always laid out is like the parts that have always sort of been Russian, and you can’t underestimate what Ukraine means to Russians in their memory as far as their historical cultural and even religious memory – that area Ukraine and Russia has always been tied together. So that might be the red line (no pun intended) for the Russians drawn in the sand – Ukraine will not go to NATO – will stand up against that. And, I think maybe the possibility was that NATO thought ‘well let’s test that a little bit because maybe they’re saying it of course we understand why you say we need machismo on that, you need some bravado on that, but let’s see if you really mean it.’ And, as it turns out, the Russians said ‘yeah, we do really mean it. Now do you really mean it? Are you really going to come to bat for Ukraine if we step up?’ They stepped up, we stepped back. That sounds bad but it’s not World War 3, and won’t be World War 3 because it means the two big sides – the two big players (Russia and the United States) – are declaring: Ukraine is enough for us to get into [inconsequential] fights over, [but] it’s not enough for us to get into a real war with each other over. And, that’s the part that’s going unsaid in the West that we should emphasize more.

Author’s note: This video first appeared at Homeland Security

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The Death of the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ Project?

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Russian relations with Europe are part of a complicated story rooted in military, economic and often ideological realms. Both entities have for centuries tried to find a modus vivendi, but have so far failed. One compromise suggested for Europe and Russia was an economic space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok – the space characterized by a unified economy, political understanding and even deep military cooperation.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for years advocated the idea, making speeches about the case. To be clear, Putin was not the first to propound it, but was merely reflecting on similar ideological arguments of the past. A transcontinental union spanning the Atlantic to the Pacific is a geopolitical concept that pops back up from time to time and is linked to neo-Eurasianism, before which the geopolitical space was made up by the triangle of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan.

One space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which one might also call “Greater Eurasia”, would make Russia pivot to the West. This was an attractive idea for the European and Russians. Indeed, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said that she hopes “Russia would increasingly develop ties with the European economic area, finally resulting in a common economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

How would such cooperation look? Perhaps it would imply at least a free trade agreement (FTA), whose core features might involve the cutting of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Business interests in the EU as well as Russia are likely to be supportive of such a proposition. Putin stated that “in future, we could even consider a free trade zone or even more advanced forms of economic integration. The result would be a unified continental market with a capacity worth trillions of Euros”.

Surely when we talk about Russia in this context, we need to understand this space as including neighboring post-Soviet states. Russia launched its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project back in 2015.

One would think that for the EU, an FTA with the EAEU would be an advantageous proposition from an economic standpoint, since it would give preferential access to an important market. But one would expect the pre-conditions posed by the EU for the opening of negotiations to be many and quite stringent.

For Moscow, this positioning might be more economically advantageous, as the EEU could be a bridge for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect with the European market. On the map, all appears logical and attractive, but in reality, China’s BRI, although not against being cooperative with other blocks, still aims at pulling major Eurasian resources towards itself. Russia’s EEU, weaker in dimension than the BRI, will inevitably be drawn to Beijing with growing grievances on the Russian side.

Back to the unified Russia-Europe economic space, there remains the fundamental question as to whether or not Russia would consider an FTA with the EU to be in its interests. Is the ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ idea serious? In Russia, many would fear that an FTA with the EU would be too imbalanced, or asymmetric in favor of the EU. Indeed, most Russian exports to the EU, such as oil and gas, are already being traded without tariffs. Also, the challenge for any petro-economy to sustain a substantial and competitive industrial sector would be a tough task to pull off.

So far, we have given a pretty rosy picture of the two stood regarding the project just several years ago, in the period before the Ukraine crisis.

When discussing Russian geopolitical moves, one needs to remember how important Ukraine is and how the latter has been a driving factor in Russia’s calculus. Ukraine has always been the main point of any of Russia’s grand projects of the past and present. The modern EEU, an ambitious project that goes well beyond the simple removal of borders between the five ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia), is weak economically and geographically without Ukraine. Many believe that even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia-Europe relations were strained and a crisis was inevitable, but it should not be forgotten that it is still Ukraine which made the differences insurmountable. It could even be argued that the Ukraine crisis put an end to any grand strategic view between Russia and Europe. The “Lisbon-Vladivostok” vision, it could be argued, is now dead.

Beyond the Ukrainian issue are also other important issues which are likely to stop any furtherance of the Greater Eurasia project. Europe and Russia are not just two competing economic blocs, but two blocs with opposing values and political systems. A compromise between the two has not been seen in the history of the past several centuries, except for short periods of time when Russian military power was needed in settling inter-European problems.

Moreover, put in the longer-term perspective, we see that the abandoning of the grand Lisbon-Vladivostok vision follows what is taking place across the entire Eurasian continent, where pragmatism and a reliance on real state interests and capabilities are back in fashion following the hopeful post-Cold War years.

Over the past several years, Russia has also leant towards the East. And while it is often put to question just how deep the Russian pivot to the East is, certain geopolitical tendencies lead us to support the idea as fact. Moscow portrays this policy as its own choosing, but the reality is that from three grand avenues (Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia) of projection of Russian geopolitical influence, it is only in Central Asia that Moscow does not meet important pushback from any Western power, while Chinese influence is only seen in economics. This simple vector of projection of Russian power is quite telling at a time when Moscow is more drawn to the East rather than the West, spelling a death note to once grand plans of an economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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