While Russia’s vision of a Greater Eurasia has proven useful in addressing certain foreign policy dilemmas, it is still in need of further conceptual development. The paradigm of “orders within orders” could expand and complement the idea of a Greater Eurasian partnership, while also advancing and securing Russia’s long-term interests by reformulating its relations with the EU and China in key ways.
As Moscow’s relations with Western capitals gradually frayed over the course of the post-Cold War period, the Eurasian vector in Russian foreign policy has increased in importance, rising to the point where it now supplies one of the guiding paradigms of the country’s international vision — the Greater Eurasian partnership. Born in the post-Maidan environment, this concept has helped provide additional — albeit still limited — substance to Russia’s vision of a more pluralistic and polycentric world, transforming the world’s normative landscape and potentially reconfiguring the global geopolitical chessboard.
However, the idea of Greater Eurasia was born out of — and continues to be rooted in — contradictory impulses. These should encourage the Russian elite not to revisit the paradigm in its entirety, but rather to rethink its conceptual foundations so as to alter how it expresses itself in the real world, with the aim of strengthening the multi-vectored nature of Russia’s foreign policy.
On the one hand, Moscow’s “Pivot to the East” was designed, in part, to buttress the foundations of Russia’s independent great power status and strengthen the Kremlin’s hand toward Europe by deepening ties with dynamic Asian markets. The launch of this “pivot” predates the onset of the Ukraine crisis and was thus built for a world in which Russia’s ties with the EU were troubled but not overwhelmingly hostile. On the other hand, Russia’s failure in 2013 to convince Ukraine to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) not only resulted in a full-blown crisis of relations with the West, but also implied that Moscow would have to look beyond the post-Soviet space to secure a long-term place for itself in the global top tier.
Some analysts contend that EU-Russia relations will naturally improve over the long term. Nonetheless, in the meantime, Moscow finds itself situated between a European Union whose sanctions against Russia are one of the few signs of unity among member states, and a strategic partnership with China that rests on mixed foundations.
The Kremlin is keen to play up its agreement with Beijing on normative issues, such as their shared skepticism toward regime change and their commitment to the principle of non-interference in states’ internal affairs. However, this is often a case of Moscow using China instrumentally as a power multiplier in its normative dispute with the West, even though there does exist a genuine commitment to constructing a Eurasian order based on shared principles. But Russia’s Chinese dilemma runs deeper than this.
As long as relations with the West remain in the doldrums, Moscow has no choice but to make its strategic partnership with Beijing the lynchpin of its plans to maintain great power status. Russia is but a secondary actor in Asia’s regional order, which casts significant doubt on the ability of the EAEU minus Ukraine to become major pole at the global level on its own. But at the same time, failure to mend ties with the West will result in growing dependence on China, thus undermining the very aim that Russia seeks to achieve — preserving its status as an independent great power.
Reimagining great power status
Those adopting a critical view contend that the Kremlin’s great power discourse largely serves a psychological and political purpose, compensating for the loss of the Soviet Union and helping to legitimate the regime’s hold on power. This ignores the fact that it is also an eminently reasonable strategic aim: It makes sense for a declining power to attempt to secure a position at the table, where it will be able to play a role in writing the rules of the game. The question is how best to maximize Russia’s chances of earning a long-term spot at that table, and how to do so in a way that will enhance Moscow’s ability to shape the international order to reflect its interests. Great power status is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
In preparation for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, the Communist leadership in Beijing advanced the concept of “one country, two systems”. The aim was to solve two problems simultaneously, developing a workable model for Hong Kong while also suggesting a template for Taiwan’s eventual reunification with the mainland. Similarly, a conceptual innovation within the Greater Eurasia paradigm could help Russia to kill two birds with one stone as well, shifting the terms of its relationship with Europe while reframing the role of Central Asia in the context of the Sino-Russian partnership. We can call this concept “orders within orders.”
Visions for a Greater Eurasian partnership were framed in response to frustrations resulting from the failure of the EU and Russia to construct a single Greater European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. As such, the tone it sets vis-à-vis Europe is largely defensive and rejectionist: Brussels cannot continue to treat Russia as a junior partner expected to conform to the EU acquis; rather, Russia must be viewed as an equal, and the EU is only welcome to join the Greater Eurasian community if it accepts its pluralistic principles. To a great extent, the result is a seeming binary rivalry between the Sino-Russian Heartland and the American-allied Rimland, limiting the benefits for many players that could flow from greater strategic promiscuity.
The paradigm of “orders within orders”, by contrast, would conceptualize EU-Russia relations as forming a regional international order within the broader Greater Eurasian order, operating according to its own principles and initiating its own separate bilateral dialogue on global ordering practices. This is very much consistent with Russia’s desire for a pluralistic Eurasia — indeed, it would even enhance Eurasia’s pluralism and deepen our understanding of its substance. What is more, it would also help to imbue ties between Brussels and Moscow with a more positive language and inclusive dynamic, while strengthening the place of the Eurasian supercontinent on the global chessboard.
Russia would thus be able to benefit from engaging in order-generating dialogue with both China and the EU without compromising on its strategic partnership with Beijing, in the process emphasizing its centrality in international affairs, enhancing the chances of it securing a long-term place at the great power table, and demonstrating that its contribution to shaping the future of international order goes beyond mere creative destruction, as critics often contend. Moscow’s current rivalry with the West and its deepening ties with China have placed it at the epicenter of several — now interconnected — flashpoints where great power interests clash, ranging from Ukraine to Syria to North Korea. Russia is therefore uniquely placed to transform the international climate and reap disproportionate benefits.
Transforming Russia’s key relationships
Some scholars have begun to suggest that the future of global politics will be determined by interactions not between powers but blocs, resulting in multiple overlapping international orders. The EU itself is a sub-regional order within Europe. Its decision-making processes, as well as the limits imposed by its institutional structure on its conduct of foreign policy, are becoming increasingly apparent. A key debate going forward will concern how it chooses to deploy its power as it consolidates its hegemonic position on the European Peninsula. Russia should seek to influence this process constructively, in order to guide it in a direction that reflects its long-term interests and entrench a logic of positive-sum cooperation in relations between Brussels and Moscow.
The current stalemate between the EU and Russia is partly the result of both sides refusing to revisit key principles underpinning the conduct of their foreign policies. Brussels will never acquiesce to a Yalta-style European order featuring spheres of influence, citing the Paris Charter’s provision that all European countries should have the right to choose their orientation. Moscow, for its part, believes that unilateral concessions on its part throughout the post-Cold War period were not reciprocated by the EU, which chose to embark on a project of constructing a Brussels-centric European order that relegated Russia to second-tier status.
To be successful, then, the paradigm of “orders within orders” needs to be billed not as a return to unilateral concessions, but rather as a reframing of the Greater Eurasian partnership designed to maximize the number of partners with which Russia can develop constructive relations. The EU could reciprocate by reinterpreting its signal concept of “resilience” that features so prominently in its 2016 Global Strategy, altering its focus from emphasizing the endurance of EU institutions and the broader liberal international order to stressing the elements of continued stability and cooperation across the wider European space (including Russia).
The paradigm could also help to delineate the contours of Moscow’s relationship with Beijing in Central Asia. Although the narrative that Russia fears losing its Central Asian sphere of influence to a rising China is often overblown, considering the region as representing a separate order within Greater Eurasia could help Moscow to entrench a certain set of principles and practices that ensure the preservation of cooperation and trust between all parties, even as geopolitical configurations and the balance of power evolve across the Eurasian supercontinent over the coming years and decades.
Whether the Russian elite chose to make this new paradigm explicit or merely use it as an implicit conceptual guide, it can complement the foreign policy community’s mental map in important ways. The community is often accused of being reactive, putting forward an abstract idea of an integrated Greater Eurasian space to stall for time in the face of a rising China, even as they claim that Russia had no choice but to react forcefully regarding Ukraine in response to Washington and Brussels’ continued refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of its interests. An attempt to infuse the Greater Eurasia vision with additional content will not only help Moscow to engage with other major powers more on its own terms, but also ensure that Russia can maximize its impact on the future shape of world order by consolidating existing normative frameworks and increasing the number of its dialogue partners.
Moreover, for a country charting a new strategy and identity at the northern tip of Eurasia following a quarter-century of frustrating attempts to find a place for itself in Europe, working to erect multiple complementary Eurasian orders would help integrate Russia’s various regions into their respective adjacent neighborhoods across the supercontinent. This would help to secure both the foundations of Russia’s multi-vectored foreign policy and its capacity to influence dynamics in multiple theatres, both of which are key to maintaining great power status over the long term.
First published in our partner RIAC
Eurasia’s Great Game: India, Japan and Europe play to Putin’s needs
Eurasia’s Great Game is anything but simple and straightforward.
A burgeoning alliance between China and Russia that at least for now is relegating potential differences between the two powers to the sidelines has sparked a complex geopolitical dance of its own.
With India, Japan and Europe seeking to drive a wedge between the two Asian powers, Central Asian states, where anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, are quietly rooting that Asian rivalries will grant them greater manoeuvrability.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Russia this month during which he attended the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, established to attract Asian investment in the country’s Far East, announced a US$1 billion credit line to fund development of the region.
Mr. Modi and Russian president Vladimir Putin also agreed to establish a maritime link between the Far East’s capital, Vladivostok, and Chennai that would reduce transport time from 40 to 24 days.
The connection potentially could serve as an extension of the Indian Ocean Corridor that links India to Japan and the Pacific and competes with China’s pearl of strings, a series of ports across Asia in which China has invested heavily.
In contrast to Mr. Modi, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has attended the forum since its inception in 2015, did not announce any major deals in response to Mr. Putin’s insistence that “the development of the Russian Far East, strengthening its economic and innovation potential, and raising the living standards of its residents among others, is our key priority and fundamental national goal.”
With the trans-Atlantic alliance fraying at the edges, Markus Ederer, the European Union’s ambassador to Russia and one of the EU’s top diplomats, appeared to recognize Mr. Putin’s priorities when he urged the bloc, to engage on a massive scale with Russia on some of the most tricky political and security aspects in their relationship despite differences over Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, human rights and alleged Russian interference in various European elections.
In a memorandum to senior bureaucrats, Mr. Ederer suggested that 5G mobile communications, personal data protection, the Artic, regional infrastructure and the development of joint policies on matters such as customs and standards by the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland, should be topics on the EU-Russian agenda.
Mr. Ederer said that these were areas “where leaving a clear field to our competitors by not engaging would be most detrimental to EU interests.”
He argued that a “pragmatic” move towards “enhanced co-ordination” with Russia was needed to combat “Eurasian competition” as China’s influence grows.
The EU “would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia. Engaging not only with China but (also) with Russia…is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage,” Mr. Ederer asserted.
Messrs. Modi, Abe and Ederer see opportunity in what Thomas Graham, a former U.S. diplomat and managing director of Kissinger Associates, describes as Russia’s need for “diversity of strategic partners in the (Far East) to maintain its strategic autonomy (from China) going forward.”
The EU, India and Japan hope to capitalize not only on Russia’s requirement for diversified investment but also Mr. Putin’s need to counter widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the Far East that has turned against his government at a time that protest in Russia is accelerating and after Mr. Putin’s party this month lost a third of its seats in the Moscow district council.
Public sentiment east of the Urals is critical of perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources including water, particularly in the Trans-Baikal region.
A petition initiated earlier this year by prominent Russian show business personalities opposing Chinese plans to build a water bottling plant on the shores of Lake Baikal attracted more than 800,000 signatures, signalling the depth of popular resentment and pitfalls of the Russian alliance with China.
Protests further erupted earlier this year in multiple Russian cities against Chinese logging in the Far East that residents and environmentalists charge has spoilt Russian watersheds and is destroying the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard.
The protesters, who also denounced construction of housing for Chinese workers, are demanding a ban on Russian timber exports to China.
Underlying the anti-Chinese protests is the lopsided nature of economic relations that Russia scholar Leo Aaron says fits Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s definition of colonial trade, in which one country becomes a raw material appendage of another.
“China is Russia’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU) and Russia’s largest individual partner in both exports and imports. For China, the Russian market is at best second-rate. Russia ranks tenth in Chinese exports and does not make it into the top ten in either imports or total trade,” Mr. Aaron said.
He noted that three-quarters of Russia’s exports to China were raw materials and resources as opposed to consumer goods, electronics and machinery that account for the bulk of Chinese sales to Russia.
European, Indian and Japanese efforts to capitalize on anti-Chinese sentiment taps into a deeply embedded vein.
Writing under the pen name P. Ukhtubuzhsky, Russian author Nikolai Dmitrievich Obleukhov warned already in 1911 that “Russians are being displaced by the yellow races who seize commerce, industry, wages, and so on… God guides people. Those nations who protect Good and Truth will be victorious. If Russia, carrying the light of Orthodoxy, faces in Asia the yellow races wallowing in the darkness of paganism, there cannot be any doubt as to the outcome of this struggle.”
Mr. Putin, presiding over a country in economic trouble, can’t create the margins of manoeuvrability that he needs on his own. He hopes that India, Japan and Europe will come to his aid.
Why We Should Not Expect Russia to be Welcomed Back into the G7
The history of relations between Russia and the G7 can be compared to a multi-act play with a convoluted storyline, magnificent scenery, a number of vivid characters and unexpected plot twists.
Objectively, such a play more looks like an epic tragedy or, at worst, a sentimental melodrama. But, personally, I liken the misadventures of the “Group of Seven,” which has not become a full-fledged “Group of Eight,” to Moliere’s famous comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.
This comedy tells the story of a French “bourgeois” of the 17th century, Monsieur Jourdain, who dreams passionately of being accepted into noble society. Everybody who can take advantage of this obsessive idea of the naïve Jourdain, including toadies from among the impoverished aristocrats, numerous tutors of how to act correctly in “high society” and even his closest relatives do just that. In the end, Monsieur Jourdain’s dream almost comes true: during a pompous and fanciful ceremony, he is awarded an imaginary Turkish high rank of Mamamouchi. The initiation ceremony, of course, turns out to be a complete deception and a swindle.
I will dare state that, like Monsieur Jourdain, who never turned into a real nobleman, Russia, even after formally joining the G7 in 1998, never became a full member of this group. Some of the issues – especially those related to economics and finance – were still discussed in the G7 format, and the annual G8 summits turned Russia into an object of criticism and mentoring edifications more often than any other member of this club. Mutual grievances, frustrations and claims had been accumulating for many years, and the sad reality of 2014 was either a historical inevitability or at least a completely predictable ending to a protracted play.
When President Yeltsin first submitted an application for Russia’s membership in the G7 back in 1992, there were simply no other alternative associations in the world where Moscow could try to squeeze in. Structures such as the G20, BRICS or SCO did not exist at the time, and Russia’s membership in NATO and the European Union seemed unrealistic even then. Therefore, joining the “Group of Seven” not only pursued situational tasks (access to financial and technical assistance from the West, restructuring Soviet debts, combating discrimination of Russian goods), but also had symbolic political significance (a kind of compensation for Moscow’s loss of its “superpower” status).
The Western “Group of Seven” also set quite specific situational goals: the accelerated military drawdown of Moscow in Central Europe and the Baltic states; the prevention of leaks of Soviet nuclear technologies; and the consolidation of the results of economic reforms of the early 1990s. However, political considerations played an important role both for Western heads of state and for the Russian leadership. Russia’s integration was to confirm the global aspirations of the G7 and the universalism of Western values. It is curious that the task of including China or even India as the “largest democracy in the world” had never been posed to the G7 members in practical terms – Russia was clearly seen as the preferred, if not the only, candidate for accession.
Despite all the difficulties, awkwardness and inconvenience associated with the integration of the not quite stable, not quite democratic and not quite “western” Russia of the 1990s into the “Group of Seven,” this process was stimulating for the group as a whole. The participation of a new non-standard partner contributed to the emergence of new ideas, strengthening the discipline of the old members, and enhancing the overall tone and ambitions of the group. Appointing a rude and awkward rough man as a new gym teacher to a female high school teaching team that had refined their working partnerships and become a close-knit group after many years of joint work has a similar stimulating effect.
But such idyll lasts only until the gym teacher begins to actively meddle in the work of the teachers’ council and cast doubt on the wisdom of the school principal. And this is exactly what happened in the G8 at the beginning of the century. Whereas for Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s membership in a privileged western club remained mainly a matter of the country’s symbolic status in the world, Vladimir Putin considered the G8 primarily as a tool for the practical realignment of the world order, in both the security and development spheres. Moscow has challenged Washington’s previously unquestioned hegemony in the G8 by raising the issue of American-led intervention in Iraq. Moscow insisted on including non-traditional challenges and security threats in the agenda of the G8 summits. Moscow called on partners to strengthen G8 institutions by increasing the number of regular meetings of ministers of natural resources, science, health, and agriculture.
The increased activity of the Russian neophyte faced growing resistance on the part of the G8 veterans. The new initiatives of the “high school gym teacher” no longer moved, but rather irritated the conservative teachers’ council, not to mention the authoritarian American principal. After the triumphant G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006, an ever more obvious sabotage of the Russian agenda began: the G8 took the annoying gym teacher down a peg. It turned out that no G8 declarations on global energy security had been perceived by EU officials as a guide to action. The G8’s common positions on international terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation do nothing to dampen the desire of United States for the further expansion of NATO eastwards. And recognizing Russia as a member of the “Western Club” does not signify that the West refuses to try to weaken Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
The catalyst for the decline of interest in the G8 format from the Russian leadership was, of course, the creation of the G20. A significant part of the issues of global governance that were of great interest for Moscow moved to this platform. Russia felt more comfortable in the G20 compared to the G8: in a more representative association, Russia had new partners and additional opportunities to form tactical coalitions and advance its interests. It is no coincidence that since the expulsion of Moscow from the G8 in the spring of 2014, the Russian leadership has been constantly emphasizing the obvious defects in this structure compared to the G20.
Is Moscow’s return to the “Group of Seven” realistic in the foreseeable future? This question has been raised more than once over the past five years by certain Western leaders, including Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. Common sense suggests that this return will never take place. The play was performed, the curtain fell, the audience whistled and applauded, and the critics are scribbling their comments and reviews.
There will be no return, if only for the reason that there is still no unity regarding the conditions for this return among the “Group of Seven.” While the current German position connects the reconstruction of the G8 with the progress in implementing the Minsk agreements on Donbass, Canada is ready to welcome Russia to the updated G8 only if it comes there without Crimea. Historically, the G7 never had any formal procedures and mechanisms for accepting new members, but most likely, a decision on such an important issue will be taken by consensus. And reaching a consensus at the moment seems impossible.
The G7 itself is in the process of deep transformation and a thus-far not very successful search for a new identity. Donald Trump confronts the rest of the club in a harsh manner, being quite provocative at times in that confrontation. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has many fundamental disagreements with French President Emmanuel Macron, and with the leadership of the European Union as a whole. Italy in its current state is hardly capable of taking on any serious international obligations. As a result, the G7 looks like a suitcase without a handle – one can neither carry it nor leave it behind.
Does this mean that Russia should not deal with the G7 at all? Absolutely not. The history of the “Group of Seven” knows many countries, non-permanent members of the club, who participate in the work of the Group. The recent summit in Biarritz, France, was attended, among others, by the leaders of India, Egypt, Australia and even Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had come under personal sanctions from the United States literally the day before the meeting.
Returning to the “G7+1” formula may be a better solution for Russia than restoring the G8. Provided, of course, that the Russian side will not find itself in the position of a suspended gym teacher invited to the teachers’ council only to get another portion of reprimands from stiff colleagues.
It is clear that the leaders of the “Group of Seven” are most interested in discussing current issues of international security with Russia, including the situation surrounding Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and Venezuela, as well as arms control and strategic stability. But most of these issues are already being discussed at other time-tested platforms. However, joining the G7 discussion on the problems of digital economy, international tax reform, fighting trade protectionism and eliminating global inequality would certainly be nice.
The stakes in this game are not as high for Russia as they were a quarter of a century ago. The G7 is no longer a unique or even the main laboratory where the components of the new world order are being developed and piloted. And the repertoire of Russia’s foreign policy is not limited to the part of the self-confident, but at the same time diffident and arrogant Monsieur Jourdain from Moliere’s comedy.
From our partner RIAC
Troubled Partners: What Russia and Turkey are Dividing Up in Syria
“Turkey is our close partner, our ally,” said Presidential Spokesperson and Turkologist Dmitry Peskov on the eve of the meeting in the town of Zhukovsky near Moscow. On August 27, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, where they held a working meeting on the bilateral agenda. Regardless of all their differences, the two countries still need each other greatly.
Although relations between Moscow and Ankara are developing in many areas, the focus was naturally on the further actions of the parties in the crisis-affected Syria. Will Turkey conduct another operation in Syria? And what is Moscow’s opinion?
Several events of importance for Russia–Turkey relations took place a week before the presidents met. On August 21, the first creditor was selected for the company building the Akkuyu NPP strategic facility. On August 27, deliveries started on the second S-400 battalion to Mürted Air Base in Ankara. As the United States removed Turkey from the F35 project following the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, analysts believe that Turkey might look at Russia’s Su-35 or Su-57. These are the aircraft the Turkish President saw at the MAKS Salon.
But the meeting took place against the backdrop of the escalation of the situation in the Syrian Idlib province and the announcement of the establishment of a Joint U.S.–Turkey Operation Centre.
And it was the desire to overcome contradictions over Syria and prevent a crisis in the bilateral relations that led the presidents to hold an unplanned meeting in Zhukovsky following an urgent telephone conversation on August 23.
At the press conference held after the meeting, Vladimir Putin noted two key elements in Russia’s approach to the Syrian settlement: the priority of working within the Astana format and the launch of the the Syrian Constitutional Committee “that, as we hope, will be able to start its activities in Geneva in the very near future.”
Ankara had previously expressed its discontent with the Syrian government forces taking control of towns in the north of Hama Governorate and in the south of Idlib Governorate, including the town of Khan Shaykhun. Approximately 200 Turkish soldiers are still surrounded in the town of Murak, which makes the situation extremely uncomfortable for Ankara. This Turkish contingent served as an observation post established under the Turkey–Russia Memorandum on Idlib signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018 as part of de-escalation in the Idlib zone.
The situation deteriorated following reports that the Syrian Air Force had carried out an aerial strike on a Turkish convoy. After a telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan, reports started to surface that a Russian military police force had inserted itself between the Syrian military and the Turkish observation post. Turkey might find a way out of the situation by withdrawing its observation post from Murak and launching a new operation in the north of Syria against the U.S.-supported Kurds. Given the situation, it is desirable for Russia to find a way of advancing the dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds.
While Ankara supported the Syrian opposition, it undertook under the Sochi agreements to fight terrorism in Idlib and facilitate the opening of the М5 and М4 highways leading from Aleppo to Hama and Damascus via Idlib, and from Aleppo to Latakia via Idlib. Most likely, implementing this provision is the key objective for Moscow. Once М5 and М4 are secured, the logistics infrastructure might have been put into operation once again and pathways opened for restoring economic ties between Syria’s regions. This never happened.
With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian military continued intermittent hostilities in the Idlib Governorate for approximately six months. Following another round of talks in Nur-Sultan on August 1–2, Damascus announced an armistice. The ceasefire failed, however, due to attacks perpetrated by the militants in Idlib. Subsequently, the government forces and their Russian allies significantly intensified their activity. Offensives were mostly undertaken at night. By mid-August, the Tiger Forces equipped with Russian-made night-vision devices and Т90А tanks with thermal imagers succeeded in breaching the defence of the terrorists and groups that oppose Damascus in the north of the Hama Governorate.
The Idlib Governorate and its eponymous capital are largely controlled by the forces of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (outlawed in Russia), which has managed since January to expand its power by subsuming other groups, largely labelled pro-Turkish.
Back then, Turkey succeeded in stabilizing the situation, yet failed to radically change it in favour of Turkey-friendly forces such as al-Jabha al-Wataniya Li-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front), which is in opposition to the government. Russian and Turkish analysts already appeal to the Sochi agreements, yet each party accuses the other of undermining their implementation.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov openly stated that the actions of the Syrian government forces in Idlib are legitimate and do not violate the Turkey–Russia Memorandum. The terrorists in the area now controlled by the Syrian military had posited a threat to Syrian territory and the Russian military base in Khmeimim. Turkey faces a difficult predicament with regard to its domestic audience, and the processes in Syria could result in escalating tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
However, the ties developed over the recent years, as well as the strategically important joint projects and Erdogan’s commitment to increasing mutual trade turnover from USD 25–30 billion today to USD 100 billion (which he again confirmed at the MAKS opening ceremony) demonstrate both desire of both parties to avoid a crisis similar to the freeze put on the relations in 2016.
Erdogan informed Putin about the plans to launch an operation against the Kurds in the northeast of Syria. One might surmise that Turkey sees the solution in shifting the emphases in its “Syrian” policies and in concentrating on the Kurdish threat, since Turkey’s current policy in Syria is conducted in two areas: Idlib and the Trans-Euphrates region. Unwilling to be tied solely to the Astana format, Turkey is also building an appearance of collaboration with the United States. The operation in the Trans-Euphrates region today is the key point for Ankara. This operation will be the result of the pressure Turkey puts on the United States, an ally of the Kurds.
Ankara’s main goal is ostensibly to create a buffer zone in the north of Syria to prevent the Kurds from implementing a project there.
This will allow Ankara to cut ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey and bring Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs, back to settle in the new “safe zone.” The United States has even convinced even the Kurds that the “safe zone” is necessary. The question, however, is how deep the Turkish military will go into the territory. They want to go more than 30 kilometres into the territory currently controlled by the allies of the United States from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Judging by the leaked reports, the United States has proposed only five kilometres. That certainly will not be enough for Turkey.
Answering a question about the Trans-Euphrates region at the press conference after the meeting of August 27, Vladimir Putin said, “We understand Turkey’s concern related to ensuring the safety and security of its southern border, and we believe these are legitimate interests of the Republic of Turkey… We proceed from the premise that establishing a safe zone for the Republic of Turkey at its southern borders will be a good condition for ensuring the territorial integrity of Syria itself.”
Turkey believes that the threat to its security comes from the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlling the northeast of Syria. Ankara identifies them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It should be noted here that Moscow occasionally reminds Turkey of the 1998 Adana Agreement concluded between Ankara and Damascus to resolve the “Kurdish question.” Back then, Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. This agreement regulates the provision of security in border areas.
In recent months, the President of Turkey has repeatedly stated that Turkey had made an earnest decision to launch a new offensive, the third operation in Syria following Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Turkey has been transmitting these sentiments for some time now to both the U.S. and the Russian militaries. However, in order to conduct an operation in the north of Syria, Ankara needs to ensure that certain conditions are in place. Each element, particularly air support for the offensive and the involvement of the Syrian opposition forces, is linked to Ankara reaching a consensus, even if a silent consensus, with Washington and Moscow.
An agreement with Moscow is important for Ankara in order to at least temporarily suspend hostilities in Idlib, as it would allow at least some Syrian opposition forces to be moved to the area of Turkey’s new operation in the northeast of Syria.
As regards Idlib, Moscow and Ankara could agree on Damascus taking control of the М4 and М5 highways, while Turkey’s safe area in the northeast would be greenlit. The question hinges solely on consent to the launch of the operation. How the parties will conduct their operations and whether they would succeed will be up to them.
Currently, the question remains open as to how much the United States is willing to concede to Turkey. However, as Turkey launches its operation, Russia has an opening to interact with Kurds. If the United States allows Turkey to go too far, Kurds will realize the former cannot ensure their safety.
For the Kurds, this setup is fraught with the risk of possible loss of all their achievements (and territories). Moscow could work through the question of resuming serious talks between the Kurds and Damascus, thereby allowing the Kurds to avoid clashes with Turkey.
… A summit of the Astana process guarantor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be held in mid-September. The launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is expected to be announced at the summit. Recent developments in the war bolster Damascus’ bargaining positions, yet at the same time they endanger the continuation of the political dialogue. The Russia–Turkey context is important as well, as the two countries strive to move beyond cooperation in Syria, understanding how complicated it is to achieve agreements.
Should Turkey launch an operation against Syrian Kurds, it will allow Ankara to “save face” concerning its Idlib losses. It will also allow Moscow to act as an intermediary and lead the Kurds and Damascus to an agreement. Much, however, will depend on the capacity in which the United States will continue its presence in Syria in and on whether the Kurds and Damascus will be able to move away from their maximalist counter-claims.
Moscow and Ankara understand that their partnership is difficult, but mutually necessary. Such partners can create quite a lot of trouble, but they are valuable because they steer an independent course and understand and recognize each other’s national interests, as well as the need for coordinating their stances.
From our partner RIAC
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Palestinian Authority (PA) faces a financing gap that could exceed US$1.8 billion for 2019 driven by declining aid flows and...
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Biased algorithms and noninclusive data sets are contributing to a growing ‘techlash’ around the world. Today, the World Economic Forum,...
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Emerging East Asia’s local currency bond market expanded steadily in the second quarter of 2019 despite downside risks stemming from...
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