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Russia and Italy: No Breakthroughs

Elena Alekseenkova

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The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Italy on July 4, 2019, the first in the past four years, became yet another confirmation of the “special relationship” between Rome and Moscow, but did not, however, signal a breakthrough. For Italy, the meeting came as another attempt to restore its role of a “protagonist” on the international scene, a role the country has been dreaming of playing for over two decades. It was not by chance that Guiseppe Conte, during his recent visit to Moscow, “rebuked” Vladimir Putin for not paying sufficient attention to the Italian people. In Italy, this lack of attention is seen as a sign that the country is not coping well with its role of a “protagonist” and a “bridge” between the West and the East. For Russia, a dialogue with Italy is more than just a conversation with a partner who is willing to listen and establish relations based on mutual trust — it is an opportunity to convey Russian opinions on key issues related to cooperation between Russia and countries of the Euro-Atlantic bloc.

The visit of Guiseppe Conte to Moscow in October 2018, and now Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome, the “friendly” meetings of Guiseppe Conte and Donald Trump in July 2018 during a period of acute tension in the Euro-Atlantic bloc, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s visit to Washington in June 2019, and the signing of a memorandum of cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative reached with Xi Jinping all testify to Rome’s ambitions for a more independent and autonomous foreign policy. Italy, under the leadership of the new “government of change,” is trying to play its own foreign policy game, guided by the principles of national sovereignty and national interests. However, at the moment, the hands of the yellow-green coalition are tied by the threat of sanctions from the European Commission for non-compliance with financial discipline. Naturally, this imposes significant restrictions on the potential of Italian foreign policy. In addition, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 and the subsequent distribution of top posts in the EU testify to Italy losing a significant share of its say in relations between Russia and the EU. In this context, the visit served as a confirmation of the two parties’ intentions but did not produce any practical solutions to problems of mutual concern.

Bilateral political dialogue: dreams and reality

Improving relations with Russia is a separate clause of the “government contract” concluded between the two parties that form the governing coalition in Italy. This is the first time that such an agenda is set at such a high level. Generally speaking, this is evidence of the consistency of Italian foreign policy which was formed in the post-war years,the purpose of which is to fulfill the role of a “bridge” between the North and the South, the West and the East. Perhaps, the historical peak of this strategy occurred when Italy carried out active mediation to establish the Russia-NATO Council in 2002. Nevertheless, the Italian foreign policy is still following this strategy.

According to experts, the status of “privileged partnership”, which was repeatedly voiced at the level of heads of state and by official representatives of Russia and Italy, does not match the real level of relations. A more realistic description of relations between Russia and Italy is “the best among the worst” compared to other partners in the EU, or a pragmatic cooperation that is still a problem to implement at the European level. This time, the leaders of the two states, speaking of existing relations, used such epithets as “excellent”, “constructive” and “businesslike”, and several times addressed each other using the word “friends”.

Meanwhile, we can be confident that a political dialogue between Russia and Italy is gradually regaining strength after the crisis of 2014–2015, particularly following the arrival of the yellow-green coalition in Italy. In October 2018, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Moscow. On the eve of his visit, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League Party, Matteo Salvini, arrived in Moscow too to meet with representatives of Italian businesses working in Russia. In 2019, Vladimir Putin and Giuseppe Conte met at the “One Belt – One Road” forum, and also at the G20 summit in Osaka. Bilateral contacts are gradually being restored between the defense and interior ministries, consultations are under way on international information security, and an inter-parliamentary dialogue is back on track too.

Even though Moscow highly values Russian-Italian relations, Russian leaders regularly emphasize that Italy could do more in the EU to improve relations with Russia. In a report on Russian-Italian relations, which was recently released by the Russian International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Italy is systematically criticized for following the general course of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, be it NATO’s bombings in Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. operation and coalition in Iraq in 2003, the bombing of Libya in 2011, or the adoption of anti-Russian resolutions on Crimea. In all these cases, the report says, Italy, even though it is not completely in agreement with the United States and other European leaders, did not come out actively against them. Similarly, in 2015, Italy did not protest against the lowering of the status of Russia-EU relations, which had previously been known as a “strategic partnership”. In addition, Italy, whose political leaders often publicly speak in favor of the lifting of sanctions, has never used its right of veto when voting in the EU to extend sanctions.

In particular, Russia points out that, having burned its fingers on the situation in Libya in 2011 and still paying for hasty decisions back then, Italy has been acting more carefully in Middle Eastern conflicts. It refused to participate in ground operations in Syria. Instead, it opted for providing humanitarian and logistical support. In Libya, Rome is actively trying to establish a dialogue between key warring parties, including with the help of Russia. In November 2018, Italy invited Russia to a conference on Libya in Naples, hoping to win the support of the Russian leadership, who at that time had better negotiating positions with Marshal Haftar than their Italian counterparts. On the issue of refugees, the Italian leadership took a number of independent measures and decisions to restrict migrants’ access to the territory of Italy (“porti chiusi”, or closed ports), and adopted a security law changing the rules for granting refugee status. This triggered criticism not only in Brussels, but also in the UN. Italy refused to recognize self-proclaimed Juan Guaido as the new president of Venezuela, thereby making it difficult for the EU to strike a common approach on this issue. On March 23, 2019, during Xi Jinping’s visit, Italy and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of cooperation within the One Belt One Road Initiative, despite the numerous warnings against the move from Brussels. Such “independence” of the Italian leadership in foreign policy shows that Italy is at the epicenter of the conflict of national and supranational sovereignty in the EU, articulating this conflict as clearly and consistently as possible.

Italy-EU-Russia: not a love triangle

Such independence on the part of Italian leadership and their desire to assume some of the decision-making has triggered controversy domestically in Italy. On the one hand, these moves contribute to the status of Italy, both within the EU and on the international scene. On the other hand, some Italian experts say there is the risk of the country becoming isolated within the EU. Brussels, Paris and Berlin tend to view Rome’s moves in a negative way – as detrimental to European solidarity and hindering the development of further supranational integration.

The EU systematically criticizes Russia for prioritizing bilateral relations above dialogue with Brussels. As for Italy, the situation is aggravated by the fact that, from the point of view of Brussels, the “anti-system” forces have developed a special liking for the Russian leader, while Russia, in turn, uses them as agents of influence in the EU. In February 2019 the leader of the “League” Matteo Salvini was reported to have received 3 million euros from the Kremlin for running the election campaign in the European Parliament. Therefore, on the eve of his visit, Vladimir Putin said in an interview with Italian news agency Corriere della Sera that Russia is ready for dialogue with any political forces that come to power by legitimate means, “regardless of their political affiliations.” However, after Vladimir Putin’s interview with The Financial Times, one cannot but notice that the Russian president’s criticism of liberalism, being addressed, above all, to U.S. president Donald Trump, echoes the rhetoric of the Italian “government of change”. Both in matters of migration management and in terms of governments’ ability to respond to people’s needs, the views of the Russian and Italian leadership are fairly close. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy should certainly be considered not only as a bilateral dialogue, but also as an attempt to get across to leaders of the Western world the need to establish a dialogue with those political forces that express a different point of view on further socio-political and economic development in Europe and the United States.

The recent developments in the EU show, however, that the political mainstream is not prepared to heed alternative political groups. After the May 26, 2019 elections, Matteo Salvini, together with representatives of the “sovereignists” of Poland, France and a number of other countries, succeeded in building the largest coalition of “populists” in the entire history of the European Parliament – 73 deputies. This, however, did not provide them with enough say to affect the choice of candidates for key posts in the EU. The results of the EU summit on July 2, 2019, in which appointments to senior positions were made, testifies to Rome losing its influence in the EU. Unlike before, when representatives of Italy had occupied three key posts in the EU (Antonio Tajani – President of the European Parliament, Mario Draghi – Chairman of the ECB, Federica Mogherini – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), now only one Italian – a representative of the opposition Democratic Party Divid Sassol – is part of the EU top management, having been given the position of President of the European Parliament. This yet again demonstrates that Paris, Berlin and Brussels are not ready for a serious dialogue with representatives of the yellow-green coalition of “sovereignists” and continue to rely on center-leftists.

In addition, the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Defense with extensive experience in foreign policy and defense, as President of the European Commission is likely to lead to attempts at greater EU integration in the sphere of foreign policy, which may narrow the window of opportunity for more independent foreign policy initiatives of EU countries, including Italy.

What also restricts Italy in its efforts is the looming threat of EU sanctions for breaching fiscal discipline and exceeding the budget deficit. After the EU summit on June 2, Giuseppe Conte said that he had reached an agreement that sanctions would not be applied if Italy cut down the previously planned budget expenditures. However, the threat of sanctions is still there, and this is likely to be one of the most effective instruments of influence from Brussels on the country’s position on many issues, including relations with Russia. Any harsh statements during the visit of Vladimir Putin or any so-called “big deals” would certainly cause even more irritation in Brussels, which means they could lead to a tougher policy towards Italy. Therefore, Vladimir Putin’s visit was, of course, an important confirmation of Italy’s proactive foreign policy but was not a breakthrough, since Italy is connected with the EU not only by the historical bonds of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, but also by tangible economic mechanisms that allow the EU to impose sanctions against the Italian economy.

The economy depends on politics

The economic dialogue between Russia and Italy does not correspond to the declared high level of bilateral relations. In 2017, after a three-year decline (from 2014 to 2016), bilateral trade regained momentum but is still far from the pre-crisis level ($ 27 billion in 2018 against 54 billion in 2013). Russia maintains a clear lead in Italian exports, being the fifth among top importers. The Italian presence is felt in almost all sectors of the Russian economy. About 500 Italian companies operate in Russia, which, however, holds no candle to Germany (4.7 thousand). Even though about 100 Russian-Italian joint ventures were set up during the period of sanctions as part of a program to move Italian production to Russia (“made with Italy”), this figure does not yet correspond to the existing potential. As for an economic dialogue, Italy is considerably behind Germany and France. While in Germany and France there have been functioning “Petersburg Dialogue” and “Trianon Dialogue” respectively, and the Sochi Dialogue has recently been launched with Austria, the Russian-Italian economic dialogue has yet to acquire an appropriate status. The Council for Economic, Industrial, Monetary and Financial Cooperation, which last gathered in Rome in December 2018, is still little known to both countries’ general public. The “Russian-Italian Forum-Dialogue on Civil Society”, which Vladimir Putin and Guiseppe Conte attended in course of the visit, has not received support from the Italian authorities since 2014. Only now is it approaching a new level of development. In addition, during the visit, the two parties agreed that the Russian Export Center and Vnesheconombank (VEB) would set up a bureau to support Russian exporters in Italy. Thus, the economic dialogue, which for a long time needed a new impetus, has finally received it following Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome. It is worth noting that the Italian leadership is acutely concerned about competition with Germany and France in two vast markets – Russia and China.

Russia, however, is waiting for more decisive steps from Italy to secure the lifting of the sanctions. However, according to Pasquale Terraciano, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to Russia, “Italy has never considered sanctions a smart decision, but Italy is part of the Western bloc and cannot stand against it alone.”[1]. Italy’s agenda, he said, is to change the EU’s opinion through the use of consistent steps. At the same time, as a practical measure aimed at expanding economic cooperation, Italy proposes to unfreeze the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises at the level of the EBRD and the European Investment Bank. As he addressed a press conference after the meeting, Giuseppe Conte pointed out that Italy is ready to assume the role of a consistent promoter of the idea of ​​lifting the sanctions but the conditions for this lifting had to be “ripe”.

Energy is a major area of ​​cooperation between Italy and Russia. Russia is the fourth most important supplier of oil and the first of natural gas to Italy. Supplies from Moscow account for more than 40% of the total gas consumption. However, as Italian experts remark, Italy expects an increase in prices in connection with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Germany the number one transit country for Russian gas in Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Therefore, negotiations on the development of southern transportation routes are more than relevant for Italy. The meeting, however, yielded no breakthroughs on this issue either.

Regional cooperation: identifying problems, lack of solutions

Italy, just like Russia, sees a great potential for dialogue not only on issues related to bilateral cooperation, but also on those of the regional and global agenda. The priority for Italy is the Mediterranean, which produces the greatest number of challenges and threats to the country’s national security. Simultaneously, Italy is fully aware of the fact that the country will not be able to cope with these challenges alone, although it is taking independent measures, in particular, in matters of migration. Quite recently, Matteo Salvini held talks with the Libyan leadership in Tripoli to curtail illegal migration. However, Rome knows only too well that the solution to the problem lies not so much in reaching agreements with specific countries as in assisting the development of countries the migrants come from and in settling regional conflicts. Italy greatly appreciates the role of Russia as a non-regional player whose influence has increased significantly in recent years. During a press conference following the elections, Vladimir Putin, however, said that Russia is not ready to plunge head-on into resolving the Libyan crisis, and that forces that destroyed Libya’s statehood during the armed operation in 2011 should be involved;that is, NATO and the EU coalition. In solidarity with the Russian president, the Italian Prime Minister emphasized that Italy had warned from the very beginning that a military solution would not lead to peace. Under current conditions, the parties have indicated their readiness to participate in fostering a dialogue between all political forces in Libya.

As for Ukraine, Italy’s official position should be in line with the EU policy providing for no new opportunities to change the situation. In an interview before Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy, Giuseppe Conte directly linked the issue of lifting of the sanctions with the observance of the Minsk agreements, implicitly suggesting that Russia is a party to the conflict and urging both sides to demonstrate more understanding. In an interview with Corriere della Sera, and during a press conference following the meeting, President Putin reiterated that the new leadership of Ukraine should fulfill its election promises and enter a direct dialogue with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Guiseppe Conte repeatedly pointed out that, although Italy is not part of the Normandy format (a negotiation apparatus designed to resolve the Ukrainian conflict), it is nevertheless ready to play a role in resolving the conflict if necessary, which once again confirms the country’s willingness to play a greater role on the international scene.

The Russian president and the Italian prime minister also hold similar views on the situation in Venezuela, expressing concerns over foreign interference, which in their opinions will only aggravate the situation inside the country.

On the whole, it is essential to emphasize that Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy did not bring any breakthroughs, either in bilateral relations or in formulating common positions on issues of regional and global concern. Although the parties demonstrated identical views on the causes and nature of some of the issues on the international agenda, they proved unprepared to suggest concrete practical solutions. For Italy, the meeting provided yet another opportunity to identify its own national interests in promoting relations with Russia and to demonstrate its readiness to act as a “bridge” in the development of a dialogue between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic bloc. At the same time, it has revealed limitations in Italian foreign policy, linked to the economic situation in the country and the weak positions of the current leadership in the renewed European institutions.

1. Speech by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to the Russian Federation Pasquale Terracciano at the conference, at the Institute of Europe RAS, June 19, 2019

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

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Short Letter vs. Long Telegram: US Ambassador Huntsman Departs Moscow

Ivan Timofeev

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The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.

The context of Huntsman’s ambassadorship was highly contradictory. While there was a durable inter-party consensus in the United States on the need to deter and put pressure on Russia, the orders from US President Donald Trump have been to get along with Russia. The president’s wish is hardly a carefully considered strategy. It’s more like a political slogan that was not even vetted by experts or relevant government agencies first. On the contrary, anti-Russian sentiment is rife in the expert and political class in Washington, with the only disagreement coming over how precisely to push back against Moscow. Trump has also tried to avoid sparring with Congress and officials in his own government over Russia by supporting the key anti-Russia policies. In some cases, he was an ardent supporter, especially when they concerned business issues, which he is more comfortable with. One such issue was competition with Russia over the European gas market, which has become even more politicized during Trump’s presidency.

Naturally, any attempt at a “reset or restart” would have been doomed to fail in these circumstances. Diplomats simply lacked any areas that were ripe for a reset. Both US and Russian diplomats have done a great job at preparing the one-on-one meetings between the two presidents. However, the results of the most significant meeting, the summit in Helsinki, were torpedoed by the US establishment, and our bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate since. Mutual expulsions of diplomats, the closure of consular offices, and the scandal over Russia’s diplomatic property in the United States marked a major setback for bilateral relations. This decline in relations is embodied in the scrapping of the INF Treaty and the prospect of further loss of arms control mechanisms. And yet, Russia and the United States have avoided drawing the iron curtain. The most important issues continue to be discussed at the expert level. Businesses have suffered from sanctions and economic difficulties in Russia, but there has not been a precipitous decline in commercial relations. Direct personal interaction between Russians and Americans remains robust, although it was affected by a shortage of personnel in consular services.

Jon Huntsman succinctly described the reality of US-Russian relations in his letter of resignation to President Trump. Many media outlets characterized that letter almost as an anti-Russia manifesto. In fact, it is a pragmatic and balanced, if unpleasant, description of the state of our relations. True, he described the situation from the perspective of US interests, but these are not the words of a crusader. The ambassador admitted that a “reset or restart” was not possible, while at the same time pointing to the importance of understanding “our interests and values.” He said it is critical to work in areas of common interest. The traditional mention of human rights issues, although important, still appears to be standard fare in US foreign policy rhetoric. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a letter that articulates the irreconcilable differences along with the common interests between the countries – no more, no less.

The current spirit animating American policy towards Russia has some parallels with George Kennan’s 1946 Long Telegram, which essentially laid down the doctrinal foundations of US foreign policy on the Soviet challenge and shaped the contours of the Cold War. It appears that many of those concepts are on the verge of a revival. From Kennan’s perspective, Russia was an authoritarian police state, and its aggression was fundamentally not aligned with the views of its peace-loving people. Moreover, this aggression was a sign of weakness in the regime, which harbored illusions about the modern world instead of seeking an objective understanding of it. Kennan’s warnings about Russia’s desire to divide the Western community of nations and intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries dovetail perfectly with modern rhetoric – with the covert doings of Communists replaced by new scares over hackers, trolls and spies. Finally, containment rooted in force was deemed a key tool in relations with Russia. Russians respect force and recoil in the face of a credible threat of its use. Kennan identified the transfer of power as a serious problem for Russia, and to be sure, his thoughts on the transfer of power after Lenin and later Stalin are frequently echoed in discussions of the “problem of 2024” and “Russia after Putin.” Overall, the Long Telegram’s reincarnation is in the spirit of the times, and its key ideas fit seamlessly with mainstream thought in the West.

The only problem is that a strategy – no matter how elegant, logical and time-tested – does not always reflect reality. It would be naive to try to prove to ourselves and our Western partners that Russia is a Western-type liberal democracy pursuing global peace. It is equally futile to indulge in the blame game and whataboutism. Russia is a more complex society and state and differs significantly from its historical predecessors, as well as from its neighbors. Moreover, it is a society that appears to be in the process of a lengthy transition. The current events in Russia are just one episode in long-term dynamics that cannot be reduced to familiar models.

The departing ambassador certainly deserves credit for offering a pragmatic take on the current situation without inventing any binding doctrines – whether this was his intention or not. But Huntsman, unlike Kennan, operated in a different reality. In 1946, the Soviet Union’s prestige in the United States was still quite high. Kennan’s telegram can be seen as an attempt to open his government’s eyes. Huntsman’s tenure, on the contrary, began during a period of peak antagonism and was understood to involve dealing with an openly hostile state. In addition, unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia hardly poses an ideological threat to the United States. And since there is no normative or political/philosophical threat, there is no need for a proportionate response.

Nevertheless, there are two points in Kennan’s telegram that can be of interest and of use to both Americans and Russians today. Americans need to take more seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policy in their analysis. Kennan rightly noted the heightened sense of vulnerability and lack of security inherent in Russian political culture. In my opinion, this is what leads to a policy that, while seen as offensive in the West, is essentially defensive in nature. A policy of containment and force will only exacerbate Russia’s sense of vulnerability. Consequently, the risk of a conflict in which there can be no winners will also increase.

As for Russians, they should consider this passage of the telegram: “Much depends on health and vigor of our own society… This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meets… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory … worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.” Kennan naturally means American society and victory over Moscow, yet this recommendation applies equally to Russia. For us, victory would mean the consistent and independent development of our country, releasing our people’s creative energy, gradually striking our own balance between order and freedom, and protecting the security interests that are vital to any country.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club website.

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Battle for the Arctic: Friends and foes

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According to Western media, the “struggle for the Arctic” is becoming ever more fierce. Moreover, this confrontation is unfolding much faster than expected.

In its recent publication the Swedish Aftonbladet wrote that since  “climate change” has made the Arctic “more accessible, countries taking advantage of it to produce more fossil fuels.” Der Spiegel cites American experts as saying that “temperatures [in the Arctic region] are rising twice as fast compared to average statistics”, while permafrost melting in some regions began “70 years earlier” than predicted. Meanwhile, the US Geological Service estimates the Arctic energy reserves at more than 400 billion barrels of the oil equivalent. The Arctic is home to at least 10% of the world’s yet-to-be-discovered oil reserves, “and as much as 25% of gas,” Aftonbladet reports. In addition, in the medium and long-term perspective, the melting of polar ice makes routes through the Northwest Passage and the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR) more attractive for commercial navigation, as these routes are , in some cases, are 1.5 – 2 times shorter than the currently used ones. As the number of mineral exploration and development projects grows, along with prospects for increasing shipping volumes, there is a need to strengthen security in the region. Therefore, many observers predict a further “militarization of the Arctic”. “The Arctic is a region whose significance is changing the geoeconomic and geopolitical situation in the whole world,”  -Bloomberg reports.

The current strategic situation in the region is determined by three main trends. The “return” of Russia, the “re-evaluation” of strategy by the United States and the growing interest in China. In the opinion of some Western commentators, the natural from the geographic point of view dependence of the Arctic region on Russia is a geopolitical problem for Europe, Canada and the United States. Nearly half of the coast and the coastal zone of the Arctic belong to the territory of the Russian Federation and its special economic zone, which yields the country up to 15 percent of GDP. In March 2018, Vladimir Putin described the NSR as “key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East.” Given that the Russian leadership is fully aware of  the challenges associated with such an agenda, Russia’s Decree of May 2018 sets realistic goals: to increase the cargo flow through the NSR by 2024 to 80 million tons. At present, traffic through the Northern Sea Route is considerably less intensive than that through the Suez Canal.

What western commentators are particularly worried about is (quite natural and geographically justified) Russia’s efforts to strengthen its northern borders. Restoration of military infrastructure in the region is being presented as a “return to the Cold War practices.” Moreover, there are open warnings that can be interpreted as threats. The June report of Chatham House says that  “Russia should not assume that it can continue to freely develop the Arctic …. At present, Russia is determining the future of military activity in the Arctic. However, it’s time for the West and NATO to secure parity of potential in this region.” “We should not allow Moscow to continue to consider its military activity on the vast expanses of the region decisive”.

In May, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Russia “was already far ahead” of other countries not only in the military, but also in the economic development of the Arctic. Nevertheless, the West believes that the current sanctions that restrict Russian access to oil exploration and production technologies in the severe conditions of the North force Russia to partially change its priorities and focus on developing LNG projects and transport corridors instead. And Russia has been successful at that, they say: the Russian icebreaking fleet is the world’s most numerous and most powerful. Three new ships have already been put into operation, “capable of breaking ice up to three meters thick.” Such icebreakers will allow Russia to redirect part of the world’s transport routes to the NSR in the foreseeable future. And by using ice-class LNG tankers, which are currently under construction, Russia gets the opportunity to “deliver gas to customers around the world”, without being dependent on the existing pipeline systems, Stern writes.

The United States is also showing interest in the economic opportunities which spring up as the polar ice melts. The incumbent administration has reversed Obama’s decision, banning the drilling of test wells off the coast of Alaska.  Donald Trump “pays a lot of attention to the Arctic in words but take little action to this effect,” Bloomberg says, describing the Bering Strait as “a potential Persian Gulf of the future.” Meanwhile, the US practical potential in the Arctic is still limited: it has 1-2 icebreakers, while Russia has 14. So far, there is no program for the development of the region: recently, Trump gave up on his initial plans to build new icebreakers. 

In the meantime, many American experts believe that security remains Washington’s top priority in the Arctic. The Arctic joins together North America, Asia and Europe. Through this region, military experts fear, lies the shortest route for potential missile and air strikes against America from the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, Washington plans to strengthen missile defense and aviation forces. And this is not a new strategy. Back in January 2007, the United States adopted Directive No. 66 on National Security, which declared the presence of “broad and fundamental” interests in the Arctic region. It signals readiness “to act either independently or jointly with other states in order to protect these interests.” In 2012, the US Secretary of State described her country as “a leading state in the high latitudes of the planet,” and Norway, a NATO ally, as “the capital of the Arctic”. Last October, Norway hosted the largest NATO military exercises since the end of the Cold War, called Trident Juncture, with the participation of up to 40 thousand servicemen from all countries of the alliance, as well as military personnel from two northern countries that are not members of NATO – Sweden and Finland. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently described the Arctic as an “arena of rivalry between world powers.” Pompeo did not forget to blame Russia for planning to “use force”, and China – for demonstrating a “model of aggressive behavior.” All this dispels any doubts that for NATO, the Arctic is becoming a strategic scene of military activity.

In addition to the United States, NATO maintains its presence in the Arctic region through its two other members, Canada and Norway. The latter owns the strategically important Svalbard archipelago. At the same time, there is mutual understanding among countries that are members of the Arctic Council regarding the importance of resolving security issues “solely between them.” Nevertheless, “Russia in Global Politics” remarks, the presence of an extensive and well-developed legal framework for regulating the Arctic does not prevent “an increasing number of countries” from trying to provide cooperation in the region with a wide “international dimension”.

In particular, the European Union has not been giving up on attempts to obtain the status of observer with the Arctic Council. While doing so, the EU has consistently cast doubt on the legal status of the NSR as a Russian national transport artery. The EU is also advocating an exceptional priority of norms of international law in the Arctic, primarily the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, while “deliberately forgetting” about the country level of regulation. In contrast to Russia, the EU is pursuing ambitious plans for the development of a transport hub in Kirkenes, which is seen as an alternative to the ports of the Russian NSR. In 2018, the Norwegian city became the terminating point of a railway route from Europe to the Arctic. According to the Arctic Corridor Project, the route is to be built from the northern coast of Norway to the planned tunnel under the Gulf of Finland to Estonia, and then across Europe to Berlin. By connecting the Arctic Corridor with a transit route through the NSR, the EU hopes to transform Kirkenes into a major logistics hub for Chinese goods which are planned to be transported to Europe as part of the Polar Silk Road Project. But critics of this project rightfully fear that if the EU becomes an observer of the Arctic Council, it could provoke similar claims on the part of NATO.

China declared its interests in the Arctic in 2013, when it joined the Arctic Council as an observer. Such a move sent the West into  bewilderment. According to the Pentagon, Beijing artificially “appropriated” the status of an “Arctic state”. However, China has already opened research stations in Iceland and Svalbard with a view to explore the Arctic. In January 2018, Beijing unveiled the White Paper titled China’s Arctic Policy. An analysis of the text gives grounds to consider Beijing’s approach a multi-faceted one. On the one hand, the document contains passages that suggest China’s readiness to recognize the legal priority of the Arctic countries, their national level of regulation in the Arctic. However, some passages echo the point of view of the United States.

At present, China is promoting the above mentioned  concept of the “Polar Silk Road”, which aims to provide it with natural resources and alternative shipping routes for export purposes. According to estimates by the Chinese Institute for Polar Research, Arctic routes will account for 5 to 15 percent of China’s foreign trade by 2020. Western experts are keeping a close eye on the progressive development of cooperation between China and Russia. Investors from China own shares in a number of large-scale  industrial and infrastructure projects implemented by Russia beyond the Arctic Circle. One of such projects is Yamal-LNG, the gas reserves of which are estimated in the West higher than at “all US gasfields.”  According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “China’s ambitions in the region do not seem to disturb Moscow yet.” Moreover, Russia is counting on Chinese investment in the NSR.

The main “battles” around the status of the Arctic are unravelling in the legal sphere. The debate is centered on two issues: the external borders of the continental shelf and its delimitation in the central part of the Arctic Ocean, and freedom of navigation. The legal position of the Russian Federation, backed by geography, gives a “broad” definition of the boundaries of the NSR, explaining that this route follows more than one way and is not fixed. Russia’s main foes on this issue are the United States and the EU. They do not recognize the priority rights of the Arctic states, primarily Russia and Canada, to regulate shipping in Arctic waters. Moscow’s decisions to introduce a permit procedure for the passage of foreign ships and, in particular, warships, as well as a mandatory use of Russian icebreaking and piloted convoys, are considered as a loose interpretation of Art. 234 of the 1982 Convention.

In general, despite the fact that Russia and the United States have potentially common interests related to the desire of the polar countries to avoid “internationalization” of regional regulation issues, the Arctic is becoming another point of discord in a series of geopolitical differences around the globe. In May this year, the Arctic Council “for the first time in its history” failed to agree on a declaration on the results of its meeting. According to one report, the US opposed the clause on “the need to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement”. According to other reports, this was because the US accused China of promoting its economic and military interests in the region in an “inappropriate way”.

Moscow is fully aware of the gains from the development of the Arctic at a qualitatively new level. The Russian leadership is also aware of the fact that this will require multibillion investments over many years. Not to mention efforts that will be required for the protection of national interests in one of the least developed regions of the planet. Russia’s consistent position on this issue will undoubtedly yield economic fruit over time, but this fruit will have to be fought for.

From our partner International Affairs

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Russia

Towards the First All-African Conference in Sochi

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As Russia prepares to strengthen its overall corporate economic profile during the African leaders’ summit, policy experts are questioning bilateral agreements that were signed, many of them largely remained unimplemented, at least, for the past decade with various African countries.

Experts, such as Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, have argued that Russia needs to be more strategic in aligning its interests, and be more proactive with instruments and mechanisms in promoting economic cooperation in order to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged partnership.

“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that really reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya, who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics.

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into previously will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.

The revival of Russia-African relations have to be enhanced in all fields. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations have to be addressed more vigorously. These include, in particular, the lack of knowledge or information in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.

In his opinion, Professor Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, reiterated: “Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments of Russian culture, the economy, science and technology in order to form a positive perception of Russia abroad and a friendly attitude towards it as stated by the new Concept of the Foreign Policy.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Research Director at the Valdai International Discussion Club and Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertize on Russian foreign policy and global developments – has acknowledged that Chinese strategy in Africa is about to get access to resources, vitally important for Chinese development. To achieve this, Beijing use all leverage, including soft power, technical and economic assistance, political support to leaders of African countries (be it Zimbabwe’s Mugabe or Sudan’s Bashir).

“Russia has not similar need to gain African resources, so there is no motivation to develop such a comprehensive approach. We can identify many aspects of Chinese experience which would be useful to learn, but looking realistically I don’t think Russia will ever do it,” Lukyanov wrote in an emailed interview.

The media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well, he suggested and added that “soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era.”

London based Business Consultant and Director, Irina Awote, explained in an emailed interview that increasingly, the African continent is witnessing a surge in the number of infrastructure and investment deals requiring a combination of both internal and external financing, increased capital for expansion. And indeed, she says Russia has to demonstrate its preparedness for all these.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia primarily focused on building and strengthening its internal economy, she explained.  Awote, however, added “today, the Russian economy and Russian industries have come a long way since the Soviet collapse – the Russian economy is a lot stronger than in the first two decades following the Soviet collapse, at the same time many Russian enterprises have since evolved and developed, many through partnerships with international organizations.”

As such, there has been, for a long time, interest from Russia to revive its old economic ties with Africa. Russia and Russian enterprises are in a much stronger position to capitalize on this opportunity than a few decades ago. At the same time, not ignoring the fact that the continued economic sanctions imposed by the West, has made Russia reinforce its strategic partnerships with other regions, and especially Africa where they have had good historical ties from the Soviet era, according Irina Awote.

Late July, Bogdanov held talks with the President of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and further discussed about military-technical cooperation while meeting with the Minister of National Defense and Veteran Affairs, Moumina Sheriff Sy, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Burkina Faso, Alpha Barry, and Vice-President of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, K. Traore.

Reports indicated that Moscow and Ouagadougou had agreed to further develop the entire range of relations including deepening the political dialogue, expanding trade and economic cooperation, promoting promising mutually beneficial projects, strengthening partnerships in the areas of developing mineral resources, energy, transport and agriculture.

Working with Sierra Leone has been on the table for years. Quite recently, Bogdanov and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Republic of Sierra Leone Solomon Jamiru also held diplomatic talks, rounded up the discussion on fishing ventures, military-technical cooperation and the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit.

On Aug 1, while attending the official inauguration of the new leader in Mauritania, Bogdanov used the opportunity to discuss about current relations with President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The President of Mauritania elected on June 22, 2019. Both agreed on possible ways for strengthening aspects the existing relations. An official report says the common interest of Moscow and Nouakchott is giving additional dynamics to the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields, primarily in the field of marine fishing and the development of natural resources, as well as the personnel training in Russia.

Over the past two to three months, Bogdanov has met with nearly all African ambassadors accredited in the Russian Federation. The key issue here is to explore opportunities for expected stronger collaboration and dialogue them on African leaders’ and business people’s participation in the upcoming Sochi Summit.

According to the official information posted to the ministry’s website, Minister Bogdanov during these high-level meetings described 2019 as a momentous year for Russian-African relations, and the culmination of all activities would see the first full-format Summit and Economic Forum, on the sidelines of which a number of new bilateral and multilateral agreements are expected to be signed.

About 35 leaders of African countries have officially confirmed their participation in the Russia-Africa Summit, according to Bogdanov. “Almost all of them want to come. About 35 leaders have officially confirmed their participation. I believe at least 40 leaders will come. We do feel our partners’ commitment and their keen interest.”

Since his appointment in 2004, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has distinctively done a lot for Africa. Speaking in an exclusive interview as far back on October 21, 2011, (simultaneously with the Voice of Russia, the Echo of Moscow and the Radio of Russia) Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov informed listeners that “the main thing is to develop mutual economic ties, something that is yet to be implemented as far as our relations with African nations are concerned.”

Now, the situation is gradually changing. The Russia-Africa summit will be the first in a series of activities under the aegis and direction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian Ministry of Energy, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, as well as legislative bodies and public organizations. During the past decades, a number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held such gatherings in that format.

This first Russia-Africa summit is expected to enhance mutual multifaceted ties, reshape diplomatic relationships and significantly rollout ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa. The idea to hold a Russia-Africa forum first initiated by President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in July 2018.

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