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
Beijing and Kremlin unite to tempt fate and agitate US
For several weeks now, one of the most discussed international events in Latvia has been Russia’s amassing of troops near the borders of Ukraine. However, not a lot of attention has been paid to similar displays of military force carried out by China. Although East Asia is far away from us, this can still be considered a test of the US’ ability to react in two sides of Eurasia simultaneously. And if Moscow and Beijing have indeed coordinated their efforts, this will be a rigorous test of the US’ response capabilities.
In the last few weeks, China has several times rushed to hold naval exercises, officially announcing them only one or two days before they take place. On 28-29 March, drills took place in the South China Sea near the EEZ of Philippines – this happened after Philippines accused China of engaging in unsanctioned activities in its EEZ. On 4 April, the Chinese aircraft carrier LIAONING with a battle group approached the territory of Japan, i.e. the Okinawa Islands where US forces are also stationed. Additionally, there was an increasing number of cases when aircraft of the Chinese Air Force violated Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, reaching a record number of 25 cases on 12 April.
Along with its military activities, China has also ramped up its political rhetoric against the US and Taiwan. On 26 March, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the US of using its intelligence services and the army to incite the Uighurs to break away from China (the US accuses China of carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Uighurs that live in China’s western region of Xinjiang). Since late March, China has also been regularly accusing the US of violating the “One China policy”. This is due to the US possibly planning to partially legalize official contacts with Taiwan, which goes against the Communist Party’s interpretation of the “One China policy”. On 13 April, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held a video conference with 20 heads of US companies, essentially urging them to ignore the US political leadership and further cooperation with Chinese businesses.
The US response came rather swiftly: on 4 April, the aircraft carrier USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT with a strike group arrived in the South China Sea and on 10 April was joined by a group of US landing ships. On 11 April, both ship groups engaged in joint military drills in the South China Sea near the Chinese-made artificial islands – some of which also house China’s military bases. All this took place a week before US ships responded the same way to Russia’s activities and sent its ships to the Aegean Sea.
The military and political escalations in East Asia have reached or even surpassed the level of the nineties. Even though the situation in the region worsened after Joe Biden’s inauguration, which was seen as a “reaction test” of the new US administration (which in diplomacy is nothing unusual), the current escalations began immediately after the unsuccessful talks between Chinese Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Yang Jiechi and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi and the US secretary of state and national security advisor. After both Chinese officials returned to Beijing, they met with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. If China and Russia are coordinating their actions, it will be ae challenge to Biden’s administration, whose response will determine how Moscow and Beijing treat the US in the next four (or eight) years.
Putin’s state-of-the-nation address to focus on changing relations with foreign countries
On April 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the Federal Assembly, a combined gathering of members of the Federation Council (Senators), the State Duma (Parliamentarians), Cabinet Ministers, Regional Governors, representatives of selected State Departments, Agencies and the Media.
Almost 450 journalists have been accredited to cover Putin’s his state-of-the-nation address, information relating to the media representatives uploaded on Kremlin website. The address will be broadcast live on Rossiya-1, Rossiya-24 and Channel-1 television channels.
Social distancing and wearing masks will be compulsory throughout the event, according to reports from the Kremlin.
It was also reported that, in line with requirements from the Russian sanitary watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, the accredited journalists will be allowed to attend the event only if they have three negative coronavirus tests – four to five days before the event (April 16-17), two days before the address (April 19), and the third test made on April 20.
During a special consultative meeting ahead of the state-of-nation address, Putin pointed out that the speech document would traditionally outline strategic guidelines for the country’s socioeconomic development, and priority tasks that may require a concerted effort on the part of federal government bodies and regional and local governance teams.
He underlined the fact that “it is the systemic approach and consistency of our goals that are important, along with continuous fine-tuning of the mechanisms and tools which are at our disposal and which we create together for the joint work.”
On social issues, he reminded them of social questions about such important and significant initiatives such as support for Russian families, including new benefits for children under the age of three and under seven, and increasing the affordability of housing through special mortgage programmes for families with children.
Furthermore, his address will focus on new decisions that were also made on the digitalization of healthcare, on the provision of subsidized medicines (this highly sensitive and painful topic makes its way onto agenda from year to year); an instruction was given to connect Russian schools to high-speed internet and to provide free access to domestic electronic services.
Putin promised to discuss measures that have been proposed to stimulate business and investment activities, reform of the control and supervision activities, and initiative to clear the Russian legislation from outdated norms and requirements in many sectors.
He further pointed out at the meeting that there was the need to assess qualitative changes in people’s lives, efforts taken on the development of regions, cities, and districts, and for the economy and the social sphere.
Putin stressed the importance of always analyzing the reasons behind mishaps and even failures to prevent them in the future both in planning and in resolving tasks.
“We must acknowledge honestly and bluntly what we have failed to achieve so far, where our efforts are still stalled and where we continue to face difficulties. Taking into account the objective picture, we must adjust the actions that are not effective enough or suggest a different, more effective solution to a problem. This is exactly what our people, citizens of Russia expect from us,” he told the meeting.
In summary, Putin’s address will primarily focus on current achievements, will outline future domestic social and economic development plans and strategies, will offer insight into key foreign policy objectives and will bring out the challenges and some possible steps in resolving both internal and external setbacks.
Russia in the Middle East: 10 Years After the Arab Spring
Large-scale changes in the domestic and international political configuration of the Middle East, dubbed the “Arab Spring” in popular culture, coincided with the return of Russia to world politics. In this regard, Moscow’s intervention in the conflict over Syria has played a much larger role in strengthening its global position than its reaction to the coup in Ukraine or to Georgia’s aggression in South Ossetia in 2008. In these two cases, Russia responded to the hostile actions of the Western countries and fought what were in fact defensive battles within the near abroad, adjacent to its sovereign territory. In the Middle East, in Syria and later Libya, Russia has demonstrated its ability to project its national interests and values far beyond the modest zone of influence it retained after the end of the Cold War.
The immediate reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria is well-known — in the event of the fall of the legitimate government, the territory of the country would have become a zone controlled by religious extremist organisations. Most of these groups are banned in Russia, and by the nature of their ideology, would have provoked instability throughout the countries of the Middle East and its neighbours for many years. The distance between the region and Russia’s borders is, in reality, insignificant. A victory for the radicals in Syria would become a reliable instrument in the hands of the United States to keep in suspense not only Washington’s allies in Europe, Israel and the Gulf countries, but also to destabilise Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The secular regimes of all countries in this region neighbouring Russia would be under threat. It’s well-known that a significant number of extremist recruits from Central Asia participated in radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Thus, Russia has once again fulfilled its mission as the main supplier of security for the states of the southern part of the former USSR and, indirectly, China. Despite the fact that for Moscow, such a mission was difficult and costly, it was also inevitable due to the geographical proximity of these countries to the industrial centres of Russia in Siberia. Moreover, helping the Central Asian countries counter external challenges is a tool Russia uses to avoid the temptation to return to direct control over them, in the interests of Russia’s security.
We must understand that for the United States, instability and military conflicts in the Middle East and its environs do not pose any threat to national security at all: the United States is separated from the most problematic region in the world by thousands of kilometres.
Unlike Russia, China or Europe, the Americans can look at regional processes from the point of view of a diplomatic game, rather than taking steps to ensure their own security. Therefore, for Russia, preventing such a development of events by the mid-2010s was an important task in the framework of the competition between the great powers and the prevention of a hostile influence on its periphery.
Moreover, by this time Russia had acquired the military and diplomatic resources to implement such a policy. The events around Ukraine in 2014 demonstrated the readiness of the armed forces to carry out complex operations; the technical equipping of the army with modern weapons was actively promoted. The operation in Syria helped Russia better understand the real tasks of the naval forces for such a continental power as Russia, given the latest advances in military technology.
Russia’s forceful intervention in the Middle East made it possible to significantly improve relations with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. These states are quite archaic in terms of mentality and their ideas about the balance of power and cooperation in international affairs.
As the diplomatic practice of recent years confirms, Russia’s ability to exert military influence far beyond its borders provided a convincing argument for the policy of the Gulf monarchies to be more prudent.
The situation in the Middle East itself has gradually returned to a state of new normality. Only one country in the region — Tunisia — is moving, albeit very uncertainly, towards more stable institutions of state power, based on the principle of democracy. Other states that found themselves at the centre of the “Arab Spring” returned to those forms of statehood that were historically characteristic of the Middle East. The game of big and medium external powers is gradually returning as the most important factor in the development of the region.
In this game, Russia’s partners are not only the West, but also regional forces such as Iran and Turkey. The national interests of these countries may not coincide with Russian ideas and even come into conflict with them. This, however, is not an obstacle to building a working relationship with them. The most important factor is that Iran is not, and Turkey is less a part of the collective institutions and community of the West, which has set the goal of undermining Russia’s existing political system. The more Turkey becomes involved in regional security issues and plays an independent role in them, the better it is for Russia’s interests.
Preventing a threat to Russia was not its only task in returning to the Middle East and, therefore, to big international politics. Moscow’s active participation in regional affairs is an indispensable attribute of a great power capable of defending its idea of justice on a global scale. At the centre of these ideas is the moral imperative of preserving state sovereignty as the only factor guaranteeing stability and cooperation in international politics. Despite its scale and military power, Russia has traditionally taken a conservative, value-based approach to international affairs. Therefore, the stake on sovereign states as participants in international cooperation is natural for Moscow. Syria, thanks to Russian politics, is the only modern example of the preservation of such a state, despite the pronounced intentions to destroy it, which have at one point emanated from a significant group of great and middle powers.
In fact, in the Middle East the strategies of Russia and the West clashed over the most important issue for the modern world — the right to violate the formal principle of the sovereign equality of states within the UN system. After the Cold War, the United States and its allies have arrogated the privilege of dictating the interpretation of this principle in their selfish interests. This privilege became, in fact, their main acquisition, much more important than territorial conquests in Eastern Europe, or presence in the territory of the former USSR.
In 2011, the United States and Europe were able to act at their own discretion for the last time: when they achieved the overthrow of the Libyan government by military means. Syria and the Russian intervention there on the side of the legitimate government put an end to the history of the unipolar world.
Russian involvement in the affairs of the Middle East has solved this problem of international politics inherited from the short era of Western domination. Now any sovereign state, when assessing the possibilities of its survival, can assume that there is not one, but several sources of power in the world on which to rely. China has not yet demonstrated a convincing ability to act similarly to Russia. However, its economic ties can potentially become an alternative source of development funds for countries that are not ready to rely on the mercy of the United States and Europe.
The results of the “Arab Spring” were positive for Russia and were able to compensate to a certain extent for the damage suffered from the diplomatic defeat in Ukraine in 2014. Following its success in Syria, Moscow has been more confident in its response to the crisis in Belarus in the summer and autumn of 2020, which could theoretically lead to a dramatic outcome for European security. Unlike Russian policy in Asia, where a presence must be backed by years of economic gains, in the Middle East, Russia shows its best side in terms of diplomatic skill and military resolve. The current situation in the region inspires optimism — these properties will remain in the foreseeable future; they are the most important for achieving results.
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