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It Is Time to Revise Russia–Turkey Relations for a More Stable Future

Timur Akhmetov

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With ongoing debates on Russian-made S-400 deliveries to Turkey, fate of continuing cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria and future of Ankara’s relations with the European Union and NATO, it is high time to make an honest review of Russian-Turkish relations, define weaknesses of bilateral cooperation and try to sketch a framework for a better future. Inspection of historical legacy and nature of current ties may be of big value for those who want to grasp contours of common future. Analysis of existing political constellations in both countries, study of actors who shape or strive to shape bilateral relations and investigation of today’s cases of regional cooperation between Turkey and Russia may further contribute to explaining trajectory of bilateral relations.

Historical background

During the first years of the Russia–Turkey relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union were defined by views of leaderships that were formed during the Cold war era. In the aftermath of the Independence War, Kemalist regime viewed its ties with the Soviet Union as a political alternative for Ankara’s relations with the European countries. The balanced approach in cooperation with the Soviets was gradually complicated by Moscow’s insistence upon Ataturk to redesign Turkey’s political regime according to the socialist principles. Left-leaning members of the Kemalist establishment came to support this idea.

Relations with Moscow were further marred after 1945 with the USSR threatening to reconsider the Straits regime and change Turkey’s eastern borders. Later, Soviet officials in later did confirm that Stalin’s insistence was a primary reason for Turkey’s decision to ally itself with Western powers. The Soviet Union interpreted Turkish participation in the Marshall plan, membership in the NATO under the Eisenhower Doctrine were as a further step to get security guarantees in face of the Soviet threats. On the other hand, it also prompted Moscow to consider Turkey’s foreign policy as being to a large extent defined by the NATO strategic plans rather than national interests.

The crisis in Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies over the Cyprus issue in 1964 and later in 1974 showed the Soviets that Turkey was increasingly diverging from the western line. The Soviets saw this situation as an opportunity to relaunch contacts with Ankara. From the mid 1970-s, the relations between the USSR and Turkey started gaining their own logic and that was largely expressed in trade, gas, and technology exchange cooperation. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Moscow’s support for the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, on the other hand, didn’t allow these improvements to gain larger potency.

Gradual transformation from competition to cooperation

It is against this background that bilateral relations were developing in the 1990s. Political elites in both countries were still thinking in terms of bipolar confrontation and felt a lot of distrust towards each other. On the other hand, both countries were experiencing profound difficulty in finding their places in a new world defined by instability around their borders and lack of acceptable set of rules of global political engagement.

Areas that Russian elites viewed as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence were witnessing increased involvement of Western and global players. Growing instability in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans did not allow both countries to reshape their perception of each other and find a common ground. Relations were further complicated by the fact that Russia perceived Turkey as a tool in the hands of Western powers to minimize Russian presence.

With regard to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey had very good potential to become a driver of positive political and economic changes. With the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of bipolar competition Turkey lost its strategic importance in the Western eyes and this fact made Turkish elites look for areas where Turkey could be again an important ally.

By the 1990s it was evident that the countries’ elites were gradually moving from confrontation and competition, concentrating on areas that were mutually benefiting. Two points should be stressed here: this decision was a result of political will and had non-partisan character meaning that this approach enjoyed legitimacy among broader groups of political elites. Secondly, problematic areas in bilateral relations were not resolved or given increased attention but rather mitigated and pushed from the agenda.

Since the later years of the Cold war, certain areas have been pushing both countries to more cooperation and trust. These areas became relevant in the Russia–Turkey relations as well. Trade agreements on gas were a primary area where both countries had a chance to prove themselves as reliable partners. For Turkey, it was important to get stable contracts on gas deliveries for its growing economy during 1990s. For Russia, it was important to have Turkey as a reliable transit partner for its gas supplies to the European markets.

Economic cooperation and increasing mutual interdependence stimulated contacts in other areas, including construction. Turkish companies became especially famous in Russia for their road building technologies, and Russian companies were welcomed in Turkey due to their know-hows in building of large infrastructure objects like factories, dams, channels, or nuclear plants. Further areas included production and manufacture facilities in Russia, especially in culturally affiliated republics like Tatarstan.

Political leadership

It is important to note that since 2000s cooperation in these areas didn’t lead to increasing influence or effectiveness of lobbying among economic groups. Many experts point to the considerable control of formal politics over the business in both countries: with exemption big economic projects like Akkuyu NPP or TurkStream gas pipeline, economic and business ties don’t define political agenda between Turkey and Russia, commercial activity heavily dependent on political decisions and rapport. Although, this is less relevant for Turkish case since in Turkish export to Russia dominate goods and products produced by a large number of smaller local producers.

Predominance of political leadership in channelling of the bilateral relations is another dimension. Heads of state in Turkey and Russia are viewed as key actors who define bilateral relations. This also suggests that relations lack deeper institutionalization despite rich scope of agreements signed in the last 15 years: Moscow and Ankara are struggling to bring bilateral relations onto more stable and rigid foundation, which makes relations susceptible to situational politics. The establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council in 2010, i.e. 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, shows how slow the progress in this direction really is.

The lack of stable institutional base is coupled with the lack of unity in ideological views on a series of issues dealing with global and regional agendas. Turkey’s foreign policy is defined by personal interests of the country’s leadership, who has been trying to consolidate power within close circle of people loyal to Erdogan. Foreign policy decision-making process in both countries is very personalized: even though bilateral relations are not driven by common values and norms, as in the Turkey–NATO relations in their best years, both Moscow and Ankara may pursue personal political gains.

Nevertheless, it is important to underline that principle shift towards more cooperation may have deeper roots than solely the will of political leadership: rapprochement between Turkey and Russia started in 1997–1998, i.e. before Putin and Erdogan came to power. This observation is further confirmed by the fact that during these years both Ankara and Moscow decided to give up on using Chechen and Kurdish issues to pressure each other in other political questions.

Eurasianism and other groups of influence in Russia–Turkey ties

One of the ideological premises that many observers attribute to bilateral cooperation is the idea of Eurasianism. The concept is widely used in discussions on current state and the future of bilateral relations. The analysis of how elites understand Eurasianism in both countries reveals that there are both commonalities and differences. Russian and Turkish elites tend to view Eurasianism as a suitable ideological semantic tool to express their common desire to put their relations on ideational base. Further commonality includes the idea that Eurasian powers are destined to unite in order to challenge the West or at least to resist the pressure from the Western liberal democracies.

At the same time, there are considerable differences in what the elites understand under Eurasianism. In Russian case, Eurasianism was an ideological tool to protect Russian traditional sphere of influence by bringing local societies together under Russia’s guidance. For Turkish elites, primarily among left-leaning anti-imperialist politicians, Eurasianism is a way to challenge Turkey’s overly serious dependence from the West and to seek support from non-Western powers in resolving existing problems. Eurasianism is also popular among some of pan-Turanists and pan-Turkists, who channel their attention to the geographical regions covered by Eurasian ideology.

It can be said that Eurasianism is supported by small part of political elites in Turkey: after the 1990s, Turkey realized that it has a very limited scope of influence in the core of Eurasia, Central Asia and Russia, meaning that Turkey can be a part of Eurasia, but not its leading power.

Another aspect that defines bilateral relations is the attitudes to power and ability to influence regional politics is also. Both Turkey and Russia can be considered as rising powers who want to redefine rules of game of global and regional politics, established after the Cold war largely without much involvement and contribution of the latter two. These rising power demand recognition as rightful players in global politics. With consolidation of political regimes in Turkey and Russia, elites in both countries are becoming increasingly allergic to Western pressure and criticism and, therefore, tend to counter-balance these challenges by improving their own international stance and by developing closer ties with other rising powers.

Still, it is important to emphasize several crucial points. Eurasianists include very different political groups with different understanding of this ideology itself. In Turkey, the label Eurasianist may unite anti-Western and pro-Russian groups. However, this does not imply that being anti-Western automatically refers to being pro-Russian. On the other hand, the group is attractive for left-leaning activists, even though there are aspects of right ideology of pan-Turanism and pan-Turkism in it.

Another important point is a scope of real influence of the Eurasianists. For decades, the group around Perinçek has managed to consolidate around its political platform many influential former military officers and wage successful media campaigns, their influence and, most importantly, access to the decision-making process remains, however, very limited. The fact that this group failed to prevent escalation between Turkey and Russian right after the jet crisis in November 2015 despite all its mediation efforts and alleged contacts with Russian side may indicate their limited influence on politics in Turkey. The influence of this political group may depend on current reforms of the Armed Forces where Turkish government is trying to establish new rules of the game making it harder for the officers to exert their political influence.

Thirdly, it is important to understand why Perinçek group in Turkey is popular today and enjoys benevolence of the ruling party despite its criticism of the current Turkish foreign policy and domestic policies of the AKP. One way to answer this question is to consider assumption that AKP doesn’t attach to ties with Russia strategic importance, using it merely as an instrument, implying that today’s rapprochement is driven by current international conditions where Turkey is experiencing lack of dialogue with its Western partners and, thus, feels increasingly isolated. On the other hand, it is fair to say as well, that Erdogan may be allowing the Perinçek group as much freedom mainly to communicate to the Russians red lines of cooperation that Turkey may have in many areas of mutual interests like Kurdish issue in Syria.

It is important to mention the role that other groups are playing in formation of bilateral official dialogue, be it negative or positive. Business circles represent the most potent forces that can in theory exert a level of influence. A number of Turkish construction companies like Ant Yapi, Renaissance Construstion, Enka, Limak, Costa Group are working and successfully expand its presence in the Russian market: in 1972–2016 Turkish companies participated in 8755 projects around the world with total value of USD 325 billion among them 1939 projects worth $64.8 billion in the Russian Federation. Naturally, Turkish companies operating in Russia have gained experience in handling with local political establishment and bureaucracy, sometimes engaging in non-transparent business schemes. This laid a foundation for further ties and connections with politicians on federal level.

But still, even if Turkish companies have limited influence in Russia, they are unlikely to have a say in strategic decision-making process, especially on security related issues. This could be seen from their participation in construction of very profitable objects. Russian business circles, with exception of energy and automobile giants like Gazprom, Rosatom, Gaz, is very poorly represented in Turkey and has very limited experience in dealing with Turkish clients with their own cultural specifics.

Another group that can influence bilateral relations are ethnic minorities. Historically, Turkey hosted refugees and emigrants from Russian Empire, Soviet Union and later Russian Federation. Today, groups like Crimean Tatars, Circassians, North Caucasian diasporas influence public opinion on Russia in Turkey, though their activity is limited due do strict Turkish nationalism and firm grip of current ruling party on media and public demonstrations. These groups may find themselves in the center of new frictions between Russia and Turkey, especially considering the ongoing migration of foreign fighters from Syria back to Turkey and Western Ukraine. Religious groups like South Caucasian Salafist networks still can pose a danger to Russian national security from Turkey thought its presence in Georgia and western Ukraine. Existence of sympathizers to the groups’ cause among Turkish bureaucracy may further complicate Russian-Turkish rapprochement and attempts to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation.

The role of the West and third countries in dynamics of bilateral relations

Russia and Turkey perceive bilateral cooperation over gas supplies and Akkuyu nuclear plant as almost an ideal platform to improve their negotiating positions vis-à-vis the European Union. For Turkey, better terms for gas deliveries from Russia and Russian assistance in building of the nuclear facilities have direct implications for the long-term economic development plans, as Turkish government is expecting a rise in energy demands. On the other hand, Russia gets stable revenues from its exports to Turkey, a good asset for its budget stability in times of Western sanctions and pressures on domestic economic plans. All of this indicates that economic cooperation contributes to advancement of their negotiating positions via-a-vis Europe and the US.

By the same token, Russia has been using Turkey’s support on multiple issues as a very effective asset in its own competition against the NATO. For Russian elites, Turkey’s independence from the Western alliance is very important. A number of Turkish experts emphasized the fact that Turkey didn’t join Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014.

While both leading actors want to gain more influence in the global politics, this transformation, however, will not come without problems for bilateral relations. Turkish elites seem to have accepted the fact that without considerable Western backing Turkey has very limited room for action in the Central Asia. This approach is further nuanced by claims that Turkey is aware that its relations with Russia are uneven, especially in military and diplomatic terms, therefore, when and where possible, Ankara would like to counteract Russian dominance through soft-balancing, expanding discussions of NATO–Turkey cooperation, for example, in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Russian military build-up in the Black Sea is also causing concerns in Turkey. This claim can be related to the ongoing efforts of the Turkish government to increase navy capacities in territorial waters.

Another interesting point in terms of influence of the third parties in the bilateral relations is the role of the Central Asian leaders in this process. These leaders are forced to mediate between the two because of their political reliance on Russia and cultural affinity to Turkey. There are, however, tendencies in Russian policies to minimize Turkic solidarity with Turkey among Russian Turkic communities.

Informal dimension of bilateral relations

Despite political elites’ vocal support for and visible official efforts to strengthen non-official bilateral ties, connections between private parties, NGOs, and academia exert limited influence on official relations between Russia and Turkey. Primary reason behind this lies in systemic position of civil society in decision-making process in each country. According to experts, scholars, who make research on bilateral relations, often lack necessary linguistic skills. There is still ideological bias in many academic circles, both in Russia and Turkey as well. For example, sometimes, scholars, who write on bilateral relations, do it in a form to confirm their personal, professional, political loyalty to institutions or movements, meaning that the scope and tone of analysis may eventually change according to the agenda. That is why many Turkish or Russian speaking scholar prefer engaging in history and culture studies rather than doing research on current political affairs. There are problems of insufficient funding and institutionalization between academia in Turkey and Russia as well.

Civil war in Syria

Nowadays, Russia seems to be rediscovering itself as a global power again. Russian elites are eagerly engaged in the Middle East, and state-supported energy and military companies increase their impact in the regional political landscape. On the other hand, Middle East became by the matter of choice an area of foreign policy activism of Turkish elites.The AKP government has been increasing gaining self-confidence in dealing with regional issues, possibly, hoping that cultural and geographical proximity to local population may be translated into real life political and economic gains for Turkey.

Syria was possibly the prime example of recent regional activism of Turkey, but civil war changed this approach with rising instability threatening Turkish security and coming of many new global and regional players in the conflict. The problem for the Russian-Turkish relations is that Syria turned out to be an area where Russian and Turkish interests clashed. But eventually increasing number of challenges transformed foreign policy dynamics in Turkey, and securitization of the process led to re-evalutation of priorities, where closer contacts with Russia became to be seen as one of the channels to enhance security situation on Turkish borders. Moscow positively reacted to Turkish concerns over the PKK/Kurdish issues, seeing them as a legitimate topic of discussions with Turkey.

As far as we can see today, Turkish elites are trying to adapt to new realities by getting used to Russian presence. Watching NATO allies increasingly abandon Ankara, Turkish elites are trying to become more active in broadening areas of cooperation with Russia and Iran. Judging by the lessons from the past, Turkey and Russia are able to find a common solution and acknowledge their corresponding legitimate interests and concerns. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is a tactical phenomenon that was caused by Western partners’ inability to show solidarity on many occasions and to act against Russia.

Differences over political issues like the fate of Assad’s regime or scope of rights for Kurds may be pushed from the agenda in the mid-term, allowing bilateral cooperation on Syria to be focused on economic matters like reconstruction, trade, energy projects. These are the areas that are important for Russian plans to rebuild Syria and that Turkey can be interested in as well. Still, Turkey would like to keep supporting opposition, because, otherwise it would have to deal with Assad through Russian mediation therefore falling into more dependence on Moscow.

Conclusion

Even though one may witness rapid development of political ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years, relations are not immune to unforeseeable shocks. Heavy accent on political dialogue, political connections and consultations between the governments may be of great importance in general, but at times reveal that it is insufficient for development of full-fledged relations. Today’s cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in Syria serves as a good platform for both to test their political trust and to learn to listen to each other’s concerns, which so far have been largely ignored or pushed out of the agenda. Despite current existing moods in Europe and the United States on Turkey planning to leave the NATO, analysis of historical legacy and present situation in the world suggest that Turkey neither would prefer nor would afford to leave the Western security and political structures. On the other hand, Turkey’s rapprochement with the West would not be necessarily against interests of Russia. Interconnectedness of Turkey with Europe and USA may be of good utility for Russian global foreign policy. Current positive dialogue, however, should be used to include non-state non-official players and give them space to direct and shape bilateral relations. Their presence and contribution would be a best guarantee against political fluctuations which we will definitely witness in the future.

First published in our partner RIAC

Timur Akhmetov is a Turkey-based Russian researcher and freelance journalist specializing in Turkish-Russian relations. He is a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and has previously interned at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara.

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Analysing the Russia Report: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Ernest A. Reid

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The long-awaited Russia Report has finally been released by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. However, whether it has lived up to all of its anticipants’ expectations is rather a matter of debate. While countless media pundits and pseudo-experts on both sides are already caught up in a frenzy of harvesting it for out-of-context quotes to aid them in their battles against Russia or Britain, Conservatives or Labour, Putin, Johnson or Corbyn, political scientists and security analysts are more likely to find the Report lacking in objectivity and rather revealing Britain’s political plans than making any significant contribution to the existing knowledge on Russia.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that the Report is not an impartial piece of analysis but rather a biased text that seems to use a number of framing techniques in order to promote certain agenda. It begins with an outline of a fairly one-sided “Us vs Them” narrative, in the spirit of Teun van Dijk’s “ideological square,” of selfless Britain extending the helping hand to malicious Russia just for Vladimir Putin to fool the West over and over again. While mentioning the death of former double agent Alexander Litvinenko in late 2006 (allegedly organised by the Russian state) as the moment of Russia’s metamorphosis into an “established threat,” the distinguished authors seem to omit the “Spy Rock” scandal which had revealed Britain’s less-than-friendly spy activity in Russia earlier that year. In the same fashion, it is Moscow (rather than Washington) that believes in the “might is right” world order, “flouting the Rules Based International Order” is a privilege that cannot be bestowed upon non-Western democracies and the zero-sum game concept is, apparently, exclusive to the foreign policy decision-making of the Kremlin, which seems to be intent on “damaging the West” because it’s “good for Russia.” Moreover, the authors attribute Russia’s view of NATO and EU having “a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality” to “paranoia” rather than the military build-up along their borders with Russia, regular military exercises in the region and the economic sanctions.

Hence, with the aid of rather primitive framing tools the introduction sets a very subjective tone for the rest of the Report and has more in common with an average article in The Economist than with a serious government document. However, this is hardly surprising taking into account the line-up of “witnesses” among whom are an American journalist who has indeed worked for The Economist and Washington Times and has been a staunch critic of Russia, a British writer whose books may well be mistaken for pulp fiction with titles such as Spies, Lies and How Russia dupes the West, leaving little to the imagination, and an American-British businessman who has been convicted on charges of tax evasion in Russia and has been one of the initiators of the infamous Magnitsky Act, as well as two essentially more respectable gentlemen who nevertheless are not particularly known for a neutral stance on Russia either. Unfortunately, the quality of sources also varies significantly across the Report, ranging from the undisputedly reputable GCHQ to the likes of BuzzFeed and vague references. All of the above means that one must apply a strong discursive filter when reading the Report in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In spite of its ontologically anti-Russian angle embedded within the introduction, the Report does nevertheless make a number of correct (albeit obvious) observations. Among them are the “inheritances from the USSR and its status as a victor of the Second World War” in the form of the nuclear weapons and permanent seat on the UN Security Council as some of Russia’s primary strengths. The report also notes how Russia’s “large and powerful” armed forces and heavily-resourced intelligence services, as well as “lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business” (i.e. centralised power) allow it to “leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time,” which gives Moscow a significant strategic (i.e. speed) advantage over Britain with its less centralised and more cumbersome bureaucracy. The Report also identifies some of Russia’s weaknesses, such as its relatively small population, weak economy and “lack of reliable partners or cultural influence outside of the former USSR.” The Report also does a good job at defining Russia’s “relatively limited” aims in terms of playing the dominant role in its traditional sphere of influence (former USSR) and keeping its current leadership intact.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that a substantial part of the Report is dedicated to recycling the mainstream media’s standard anti-Russian propaganda schemata and regurgitating the already-voiced UK government positions on Russia’s alleged complicity in Litvinenko’s assassination, Salisbury incident, 2016 US elections outcome, failed Montenegro coup, Brexit and even the Scottish referendum. However, the Report does also introduce some new information, such as GCHQ reports of GRU actors “orchestrating phishing attempts” against a number of Government departments and “indiscriminate and reckless cyber-attacks targeting public institutions, businesses, media and sport,” as well as apparent “links between serious and organised crime groups and Russian state activity,” which certainly are points of concern that must be addressed by Her Majesty’s Government.

Unfortunately, the findings such as the aforementioned revelations are rather scarce, as much of the new information provided to the Committee by GCHQ and other Agencies has been redacted. For instance, when assessing the potential connection between “bots and trolls” and the alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum the Committee had apparently contacted MI5, requesting evidence, and the Agency’s response, as documented in the Report, was as follows: “MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies.” In the same fashion, the section discussing instrumentalisation of GCHQ and SIS for open source research ends with “However, we have found *** which suggests that ***. ***.” While such heavy redaction may well be necessary for security reasons, they nevertheless obfuscate the essence of the Report and reduce its potential utility as a credible source.

Apart from the section on cyber security there are also sections on “Disinformation and Influence campaigns,” which reinforces the idea that any narrative contrary to that of the Western media is “disinformation” (e.g. RT and Sputnik), and on “Russian expatriates,” which gives relatively accurate description of the “Londongrad” phenomenon whereby the UK’s lax financial regulations of the previous decades have resulted in Britain becoming a “laundromat” for illicit finances of various Russian businessmen who have come to be “well integrated into the UK business and social scene” by co-opting a variety of people — from PR specialists and lawyers to members of the House of Lords — into their schemes.

However, what is of greater interest are a number of initiatives that seem to be explicitly and implicitly promoted in this document, as they may well be implemented in due course. First of all, one can observe a series of statements about the GCHQ, SIS, MI5, MI6 and NCA being under-resourced, both financially and personnel-wise, especially in regard to their Russia desks. Also, a notion of the Agencies seemingly avoiding taking the lead and feeling somewhat secondary in terms of the responsibility for “the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes” seems to be implied several times throughout the Report. These recurring themes suggest that one of the Report’s key goals is to secure more funding for the Agencies, so that they are able to launch new recruitment campaigns and expand their Russia-related operations, and to potentially give the Agencies more powers. Another recurring theme is the cumbersome bureaucracy, which seems to impede Britain’s capacity for rapid response, and the need for “greater cohesion,” which suggests that another aim of the Report may well be to initiate a process of de-bureaucratisation (in respect of the Intelligence sector) and maybe even centralisation of power to some degree.

The Report is also apparently promoting tighter control in regards to social media companies (requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5) and firmer grip on the UK business community and even the Lords (e.g. potential introduction of an equivalent of US Foreign Agents Registration Act is mentioned rather unequivocally), not to mention highlighting the issue of Russian media outlets in the UK (RT in particular). We may therefore expect to see a McCarthyist-style witch hunt that would target anyone with “Russian connections,” potential “Kremlin agents” — from the usual suspects such as RT and wealthy Russians to British politicians, lawyers and businesspersons of all sorts. Most important of all, the Report seems to advocate for a more aggressive/offensive strategy towards Russia — from development of stronger Cyber Offensive capabilities and curbing of the Russian influence in the former USSR to pressuring countries with moderate and friendly stances towards Russia to review their foreign policy programs (e.g. France is mentioned several times throughout the Report and is portrayed as a victim of Russia unwilling to confront its alleged aggressor) and “leading international action” against Russia’s influence elsewhere in the world alongside the US, with the post-Salisbury purge of Russian diplomats portrayed as somewhat of a benchmark and a diplomatic success.

Finally, as far as dialogue is concerned, there is an acknowledgement of the need for “limited channels of communication with the Russian government,” “direct conversations” as means of reducing “the risk of miscommunication and escalation of hostilities” and utilising “opportunities to de-conflict military activities in areas where both the UK and Russia have active military presences.” However, the Report rules out “any public move towards a more allied relationship with Russia at present.” Furthermore, with Whitehall’s long-term strategy to develop “a Russia that chooses to co-operate, rather than challenge or confront” being mentioned more than once makes one wonder if a gradual regime change strategy is not completely off the table.

All in all, the Russia Report has not revealed anything new in terms of the official UK stance on Russia and has rather reinforced the previously voiced positions of HMG. However, it has revealed a number of initiatives, which, if implemented, may not only decrease any influence Moscow may currently have within the UK, but may well mean a new hybrid offensive against Russia, which is highly likely to lead to overstraining of resources on both sides and further deterioration of Russo-British relations.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia’s Troubles with Its “String of Pearls”

Emil Avdaliani

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An important part of Russia’s grand strategy in terms of foreign policy is its purposeful creation and management of conflict zones across the post-Soviet space. This has to do with the battle Russia is fighting with the West over the borderlands—i.e., the regions that adjoin Russia from the west and south.

Maintaining the 11 buffer states around Russia (excluding the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) is a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. The Russians knew that because of their country’s low economic attractiveness, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same was likely to occur with Moldova and Ukraine on Russia’s western frontier, as their geographical proximity to and historical interconnections with Europe render them particularly susceptible to the West’s economic and military potential.

To prevent Western economic and military penetration, the Kremlin has deliberately fomented various separatist conflicts. This policy has been successful so far, as the EU and NATO have refrained from extending membership to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

However, Russia now faces a different problem: its long-term vision for the separatist regions is becoming increasingly unrealistic. While in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts only in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, Moscow’s responsibilities had increased significantly by the late 2010s.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Donetsk and Luhansk became part of Russia’s “separatist empire.” One could also add Syria to the list. The latter’s inclusion might be surprising, but considering the level of Russian influence there and the stripping away of many of Damascus’s international contacts, the war-torn country is essentially now fully dependent on Russia.

With Syria and Donbas on the roster, the Kremlin now has to manage a range of territories that rely almost entirely, in both the military and the economic senses, on Russia—but that are also geographically dispersed, economically disadvantageous, and geopolitically vulnerable. Even the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh, in which Russia is not militarily involved, is under the geopolitical influence of the Kremlin.

This means that at a time when economic problems resulting from the pandemic, Western sanctions, and the lack of reforms are looming large on the Russian home front, Moscow has to pour yet more money into multiple separatist actors spread across the former Soviet space, as well as Syria. Moscow’s broader strategy of managing separatist conflicts is therefore under increasing stress.

It is more and more difficult for the Kremlin to maneuver across so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, participants have tried to play their own game independently from Moscow. Kyiv and Chisinau, for example, have considered constraining the breakaway territory of Transnistria, and Moscow—which has no direct land or air route (Kyiv would likely block the latter)—can do little about it. In Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces stand by and watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil—an indication that despite Russia’s military presence, the West is continuing to expand its military support for Georgia.

Geopolitical trends indicate that Russia’s long-term “separatist” strategy to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is losing its effectiveness. While it is true that Moscow stopped its neighbors from joining the EU and NATO, its gamble that those breakaway regions would undermine the pro-Western resolve of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has largely failed. Although Russia remains militarily predominant, Western expansion via the powerful weapon of economic influence is proving to be more efficient.

Nor can the Russian leadership solve the problem of its failure to entice states around the world to recognize the independence of breakaway states. For instance, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have extended them recognition—not a prominent set of states from a geopolitical point of view. This trend is not likely to change anytime soon. Moscow simply does not have sufficient resources—and in any case, US laws withholding financial aid from states that recognize the independence of separatist territories throughout the former Soviet space remain a major disincentive.

Nor does Russia have any long-term economic vision for the breakaway states. Dire economic straits have inevitably caused populations to flee toward abundant medical, trade, and educational possibilities. Usually these are territories from which the separatists initially tried to break away. The Kremlin has failed to transform those entities into secure and economically stable lands. Crime levels have been on an upward trajectory, too, as high-level corruption and active black markets have undermined the effectiveness of Moscow’s spending.

Over the past several years, there have been hints in the media about rising discontent within the Russian political elite on how the breakaway territories (plus Syria) are being run. Questions have been raised about how Russian money is being spent and about the increasingly predatory nature of the separatist (plus Syrian) political elites, which are focused on extracting as much economic benefit as they can from Moscow.

This situation is similar to the state of affairs in the late 1980s, just prior to the Soviet collapse. At that time, members of the Soviet elite started to realize that Moscow had become little more than a supplier to Soviet republics that had grown more and more predatory as corruption skyrocketed and production levels sank. The result was the Soviet dissolution.

The Soviet level of endowment to the republics was far higher than it is now, but a similar pattern is emerging. Moscow has to cope with domestic economic troubles, “disobedience” from separatist leaders, and problematic relations with the West. These challenges make it increasingly difficult for Moscow to pull the strings in multiple separatist regions at once. Even in Syria, the Kremlin’s spending is occasionally questioned by Russian analysts and politicians. The Russian elite has grown less willing to provide direct economic benefit to the separatists, as the return is too marginal to warrant the expense.

Author’s note: First published in BESA Center

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Russia marks 15 years of its membership in OIC

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On June 30, 2020, the Russian Federation marked the 15th anniversary of its joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference (presently the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), as an observer.

Russian and foreign politicians, as well as the leadership of the OIC, took part in a videoconference organized on the occasion by the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The participants discussed a range of important issues, including the development of political dialogue and across-the-board cooperation between Russia and the countries of the Islamic world. They also underscored the significance of Russia’s joining the OIC in 2005 as an observer.

However, the extensive preparatory work, carried out over several years ensuring the success of the Russian bid to join the organization as an observer has been largely ignored.

One aspect of that preparatory work was the need to ease tensions and explain the real meaning of the events in the North Caucasus, where the Russian Federation had to deal with a large-scale conspiracy by international terrorist organizations and a maze of anti-Russian forces supporting those organizations.

The February 2004 visit to Saudi Arabia by the first president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmat Kadyrov, who led a delegation of public and religious figures representing Russia’s North Caucasus republics, was a significant part of that preparatory work. 

The prospect of such a visit was discussed by President Vladimir Putin and the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdullah on September 3, 2003.

However, the whole idea faced serious hurdles due, among other things, to the presence in Saudi Arabia of opponents of our rapprochement, who were influenced by anti-Russian forces and criticized Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal Al-Saud, told me, as Russia’s Ambassador to the Kingdom, that “the fate of the visit is in the hands of Crown Prince  Abdullah,” who was then the de facto leader of the country (King Fahd was seriously ill and was virtually incapacitated).

After a tense, over two-hour-long discussion of the issue with the Crown Prince, he gave the visit the go-ahead, adding that all members of the delegation and accompanying persons would, without exception, be treated as “personal guests of the King of Saudi Arabia” and placed in the official government residence.

Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia, Akhmat Kadyrov met with top members of the Saudi government, including the foreign minister and ministers of the economic bloc, the leadership of the OIC, the President of the Islamic Development Bank, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, and local public and religious leaders.

Akhmat Kadyrov’s excellent knowledge of the Arabic language and the intricacies of Islamic culture and his frankness eventually broke the ice of mistrust and contributed to the success of negotiations on Russia’s accession to the OIC.

Morocco’s ex-Foreign Minister Abdul Waheed Belkaziz, who served as the OIC Secretary General between 2000 and 2005, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Saud, who organized a meeting in Jeddah of representatives of OIC member countries to present weighty arguments in favor of the importance of Russia’s joining the alliance, played a major role in establishing a new climate of friendship between Russia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. During the meeting we agreed to amend the IOC Charter so that it would allow Russia to join the organization as an observer.

Today, our cooperation is many-sided and productive. It is really imperative for us to bear in mind our previous experience of friendly interaction and to give credit to our partners, including the Saudis, who played such an important role in opening up new opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the Arab, Islamic world.

From our partner International Affairs

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