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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

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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