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Arctic: Back to “Normalcy”

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When a year draws to a close, tradition dictates that we take stock of the past 12 months and plan for the future. What developments has 2018 seen in the Arctic and, to paraphrase Pushkin, “what fate is our next year brewing”?

2018 did not bring with it any unexpected solutions or, conversely, any dramatic events prompting a sharp exacerbation in the region. For instance, the President of Finland’s “breakthrough idea” of an “Arctic summit” did not materialize. Finland will continue to chair the Arctic Council until the spring of 2019, and such a summit would sound a powerful chord at the end of the country’s northern “work.” However, Donald Trump’s sceptical attitude to such events, where he would be wary of attempts to talk him into going back to the 2015 Paris Agreement and convince him to conclude some new multilateral agreements on the Arctic, truly put the notion to bed.

On the other hand, the grim predictions of some Western analysts to the effect that the Ukrainian and Syrian crises would produce a negative effect on other regions, including the Arctic, where various powers would step up their struggle for control over natural resources, and that the military confrontation between NATO and Russia would expand, did not come true either. The forecasts of China’s expansion in the Arctic under the slogan of developing the “Polar Silk Road” initiative, part of the larger “One Belt One Road,” also came to naught. Beijing was quite constructive and demonstrated in every possible way its respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic nations.

As for Moscow, it continued the consistent implementation of its socioeconomic development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) programme in 2018. The Yamal LNG plant reached its design capacity. Seven out of fifteen icebreaker-class LNG carriers capable of delivering freight to customers all year round already sail the Northern Sea Route (NSR), transporting gas from the Port of Sabetta. Novatek plans to build another LNG plant (Arctic LNG-3) at the Salmanovskoye (Utrenneye) oil and gas field in the north of the Gydan Peninsula. In summer 2018, Novatek discovered the large Severo-Obsk field in the Gulf of Ob that might require building a third LNG plant.

Russia’s bilateral relations with individual states involved in Arctic affairs developed in a satisfactory manner. Joint steps are being taken with Norway to protect the marine biological resources of the Barents Sea, prevent poaching and improve collaboration in search and rescue operations for persons suffering distress in the Barents Sea.

In 2018, Russia and the United States achieved an agreement on approving routes for vessels travelling through the Bering Strait and in the Bering Sea. Information on the agreement was submitted to the International Maritime Organization. The parties agreed to establish six bilateral lanes and six areas to be avoided for safe navigation in the Bering Sea and the strait between two oceans. The map of the lanes will allow countries to avoid the many shallows, reefs and islands beyond the lanes and reduce the risk of environmental disasters.

On the whole, the situation that has shaped up in the Arctic in 2018 can be generally described with the English saying “back to normalcy.”

When a year draws to a close, tradition dictates that we take stock of the past 12 months and plan for the future. What developments has 2018 seen in the Arctic and, to paraphrase Pushkin, “what fate is our next year brewing”?

2018 did not bring with it any unexpected solutions or, conversely, any dramatic events prompting a sharp exacerbation in the region. For instance, the President of Finland’s “breakthrough idea” of an “Arctic summit” did not materialize. Finland will continue to chair the Arctic Council until the spring of 2019, and such a summit would sound a powerful chord at the end of the country’s northern “work.” However, Donald Trump’s sceptical attitude to such events, where he would be wary of attempts to talk him into going back to the 2015 Paris Agreement and convince him to conclude some new multilateral agreements on the Arctic, truly put the notion to bed.

On the other hand, the grim predictions of some Western analysts to the effect that the Ukrainian and Syrian crises would produce a negative effect on other regions, including the Arctic, where various powers would step up their struggle for control over natural resources, and that the military confrontation between NATO and Russia would expand, did not come true either. The forecasts of China’s expansion in the Arctic under the slogan of developing the “Polar Silk Road” initiative, part of the larger “One Belt One Road,” also came to naught. Beijing was quite constructive and demonstrated in every possible way its respect for the sovereignty of the Arctic nations.

On the whole, the situation that has shaped up in the Arctic in 2018 can be generally described with the English saying “back to normalcy.”

As for Moscow, it continued the consistent implementation of its socioeconomic development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) programme in 2018. The Yamal LNG plant reached its design capacity. Seven out of fifteen icebreaker-class LNG carriers capable of delivering freight to customers all year round already sail the Northern Sea Route (NSR), transporting gas from the Port of Sabetta. Novatek plans to build another LNG plant (Arctic LNG-3) at the Salmanovskoye (Utrenneye) oil and gas field in the north of the Gydan Peninsula. In summer 2018, Novatek discovered the large Severo-Obsk field in the Gulf of Ob that might require building a third LNG plant.

LNG is mostly shipped to countries in East and Southeast Asia, but some LNG shipments go to European customers, which prompted a sharp reaction from the United States, which intends to sell its own LNG to Europe; thus far, however, the United States is behind Russia in shipment volumes and cannot compete with Russia pricewise. In November 2018, the U.S. Department of State expressed concern over Europe purchasing Russia’s LNG, believing that it increases Europe’s dependence on Russia and in the final analysis allegedly undercuts Europe’s energy security.

Solving its own energy problems in the remote regions of the AZRF, Russia intends to site a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) in Pevek (Chukotka). Currently, nuclear fuel is being loaded on the FNPP in Murmansk, and in 2019, it will be transported to Pevek. The FNPP is intended to replace the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant and the Chaunskaya Thermal Power Plant in Pevek, which have nearly exhausted their lifespan.

Moscow continues its course to actively develop the Northern Sea Route as both a national maritime route and an international transportation route. There has been a significant increase in the activity of ports connected with energy commodities supplies: Sabetta (Novatek), Novy Port (Gazpromneft) and Varandei (LUKOIL). Compared to 2017, the volume of freight carried over the Northern Sea Route has grown by 80 per cent. The Northern Sea Route infrastructure is gradually being upgraded. This includes ports and infrastructure needed for search and rescue, navigation, meteorology, etc. Novatek has decided on a site for an LNG transhipment terminal in Kamchatka. The terminal will be built in the Bechevinskaya Bay, where Arctic LNG will be transhipped to customers’ vessels and subsequently delivered to East and Southeast Asia. This is profitable for both the company, whose ice class LNG carriers will not have to sail warm seas, and for Asia Pacific customers, who will be able to use ships without ice strengthening.

Of course, international transit shipments along the Northern Sea Route are not developing as fast as had been hoped, but certain progress has been made in this area.

To prevent and relieve emergencies along the Northern Sea Route and in the Arctic as a whole, the Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies, and Disaster Relief of the Russian Federation formed a unit that entails building 11 comprehensive Arctic rescue and emergency centres Currently, five centres are in operation in the Northwestern Federal District (Naryan-Mar, Arkhangelsk, Vorkuta and Murmansk) and one is in operation in Dudinka in the Siberian Federal District. They are on standby to provide immediate response to emergencies in the Arctic.

The Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief of the Russian Federation in collaboration with Roscosmos established joint centres in Murmansk, Dudinka and Anadyr for receiving and processing space information.  In October 2015, the first Arctic Centre for Remote Earth Sensing was established at the Murmansk Region Main Office of Russia’s Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief together with Roscosmos, and is functioning successfully. The Centre makes it possible to provide prompt information on all risks significant for the region: deteriorating ice, forest fires, flood situations, emergencies stemming from oil and oil product spills in marine basins.

The Northern Sea Route management system has undergone major changes. In 2018, the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation and Rosatom agreed to divide their powers on the management of the Northern Sea Route. The Ministry will retain its powers with regard to: the legal regulation of navigation on the Northern Sea Route; Russia’s compliance with its international obligations; supervising and monitoring functions, including the approval of navigation safety standards and requirements, etc. Meanwhile, Rosatom will have the powers of the principal operator of the Northern Sea Route, the manager of budgetary allocations, and the head administrator of budget revenues and the public procurement authority for state programmes to develop the Northern Sea Route, sustainable operations and the Northern Sea Route port infrastructure. Rosatom will also be vested with the power to ensure year-round navigation and piloting along the Northern Sea Route. Rosatom has established a Northern Sea Route directorate. A draft law on the management of the Northern Sea Route is currently under consideration in the State Duma.

New land infrastructure is also being established alongside the maritime infrastructure to service the AZRF. In May 2018, construction started on a bridge over the Ob River between the cities of Salekhard and Labytnangi, the key part of the so-called Northern Latitudinal Railway. The new railway in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District will be 707 kilometres long, running along the Obskaya – Salekhard – Nadym – Novy Urengoi – Korotchayevo route and linking the Severnaya (Northern) and Sverdlovskaya railways.

Another project involves building a new Belkomur (White, or Beloye, Sea – Komi – the Urals) railway along the Arkhangelsk – Syktyvkar – Solikamsk route. The railway will be 1161 kilometres long and will cut the delivery distance for freight from the Urals and Siberia down to 850 kilometres. It will have a capacity of up to 35 million tonnes of freight annually. Thus far, the project is searching for investors. It is worth noting here that foreign investors have already shown interest in the project. For instance, China’s Poly International Holding is ready to invest $5.5 billion.

Russian regions interested in developing the AZRF are stepping up collaboration. For instance, in May 2018, Governor of St. Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko concluded a bilateral cooperation agreement with several AZRF regions: Yakutia, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Komi Republic and the Murmansk Region. The decision was made to establish a Committee on Arctic Affairs at the St. Petersburg city administration, which will become fully functional in 2019.

The State Committee on Arctic Development has been reshuffled. Former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Rogozin will be replaced as the head of the Committee by Yuri Trutnev, a new Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the development of the Far East and Siberia.

New and impressive plans for exploring the Arctic were unveiled at a recent governmental meeting in Sabetta on the development of the Arctic, which was chaired by Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev. In the period 2019–2024, Moscow intends to attract 5.5 trillion roubles in public and private investment for the purpose. This amount will reach 13.5 trillion roubles by 2050. Following these developments, the voices of “Arctic sceptics” on the state’s waning interest in the region and the inevitable decline of the AZRF have been far less noticeable.

Along with the socioeconomic development AZRF, Moscow has continued to bolster Russia’s defence capabilities in the region. For instance, the military infrastructure of the Russian Arctic is being improved by reconstructing several polar airfields and military bases that will be used as dual-purpose facilities (for both military and civil purposes). In all, 13 airfields, a ground aeronautical range, and ten radar locations and air direction centres will be built in the AZRF.

The army and navy are being rearmed with new weapons. For instance, rocket artillery units of the Northern Fleet are being rearmed with new Bastion and Bal coastal defence missile systems to protect the Arctic coast. In 2018, the Russian military received new Tor-M2DT mobile systems capable of operating in low temperatures (as low as −50 degrees Celsius). The first military icebreaker – Ilya Muromets, which is now part of the Northern Fleet – completed its ice testing programme, and on its return to home port piloted the strategic missile cruiser Yuri Dolgoruky through the ice fields of the White Sea. The Border Service of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation are set to receive new Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star) ice class vessels.

In 2019, a new naval base will open in Tiksi on the coast of the Laptev Sea. In 2019, the Knyaz Vladimir Borei class strategic submarine and the Kazan multipurpose nuclear submarine will join the fleet.

As for the international situation in the Arctic in 2018, it was characterized by rather contradictory trends.

On the one hand, NATO stepped up its activities in the region in 2018. The alliance continued to build up and strengthen its military activities in the Arctic by preparing forward airfields, modernizing sea ports and creating a system of prepositioned stockpiling. Provocative military activity was recorded close to Russian borders.

NATO started holding regularly military exercises in the Arctic. In 2018, the alliance held its largest ever drill in the north. 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 large surface ships from 31 states participated. The drill failed to have an intimidating and provocative effect, though. Moscow reacted rather calmly and did not respond in kind, for instance, by holding an exercise on a similar scale.

The new U.S. administration did not act in a manner that is conducive to increasing Arctic cooperation. Soon after moving into the White House, the new President announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on the grounds that it went against the national interests of the United States by holding back the development of American industries. In his national security strategy published in December 2017, Donald Trump announced his intention to conduct a policy of “energy dominance” (in contrast to Barack Obama’s energy safety policy). An integral part of the policy is to produce oil and gas in those parts of Alaska where production had been virtually prohibited before, that is, in the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the Alaska shelf and in the basins of the Chukotka and Beaufort seas.

Donald Trump has also repeatedly voiced his criticisms and claims he was “not satisfied with the outcomes of international bodies it engages with” in the Arctic. Although the new administration did not block the agreements on expanding scientific cooperation in the Arctic (May 2017) and prohibiting unregulated fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean (November 2017) developed with the participation of Obama’s “team,” it was made clear the United States was not going to actively promote their implementation. It is no accident that polar research financing was cut by a total of 10.3 per cent in 2018 compared to the 2016 fiscal year. Arctic research financing fell by 18.1 per cent over the same period. The changes in the Arctic policies of the President of the United States resulted in major personnel reshuffling in the Trump administration. Over 2017–2018, virtually all key officials of the Department of State in charge of the U.S. Arctic policy resigned, as they had advocated the active participation of the United States in Arctic cooperation programmes. The United States has noticeably reduced its activities in the Arctic Council, the principal regional institution. Washington’s partners in the Arctic dialogue do not yet have a clear idea of the contents and priorities of the Trump administration’s Arctic Strategy.

At the same time, these negative trends were partially offset by a series of positive developments in international Artic cooperation.

The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation between Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States that was concluded in 2017 entered into force in May 2018.

In October 2018, an agreement prohibiting commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean was officially signed. The principal parameters of the agreement were approved by the Arctic “five” (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States), Iceland, China, South Korea, Japan and the European Union back in November 2017, but it took time to fine-tune some technical details.

Russia’s bilateral relations with individual states involved in Arctic affairs developed in a satisfactory manner. Joint steps are being taken with Norway to protect the marine biological resources of the Barents Sea, prevent poaching and improve collaboration in search and rescue operations for persons suffering distress in the Barents Sea. The United States Coast Guard and the Kamchatka Territory Border Guard Department of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation have accumulated significant experience in the joint maritime and air patrolling of the Chukotka Sea basin and monitoring the navigational situation on the Bering Strait. In March 2018, officials of the coast guard services of eight countries agreed on holding the second live exercise of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (established in 2015) in Finnish waters in early 2019.

In 2018, Russia and the United States achieved an agreement on approving routes for vessels travelling through the Bering Strait and in the Bering Sea. Information on the agreement was submitted to the International Maritime Organization. The parties agreed to establish six bilateral lanes and six areas to be avoided for safe navigation in the Bering Sea and the strait between two oceans. The map of the lanes will allow countries to avoid the many shallows, reefs and islands beyond the lanes and reduce the risk of environmental disasters.

South Korea continued to implement an ambitious project to build 15 ice class LNG carriers for Russia.

The development of Russia’s relations with China was particularly dynamic. Back in 2017, Beijing proposed the Polar Silk Road initiative, part of China’s larger “Belt and Road” initiative (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road). In January 2018, China published its White Paper on the Arctic, offering the first explanation of its strategy in the North. Much attention here is given to cooperation with Russia.

On the whole, 2018 laid some good groundwork for the future both in ensuring the sustainable development of the AZRF and in bolstering international cooperation in this strategically important region.

First published in our partner RIAC

Russia

Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Lebanon’s Crisis: Great Denial in the Deliberate Depression

The scale and scope of Lebanon’s deliberate depression are leading to the disintegration of key pillars of Lebanon’s post-civil war...

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