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.”. 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
How the West failed to understand contemporary Russia
A few years ago, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy claimed that, for anyone wishing to understand the domestic and foreign politics of Russia he should read and try to understand the great works of Russian literature. In a post that he made at theforeignpolicy.com, he mentions: “Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think”.
It is understandable that when a former NATO commander suggests something like that, policymakers and diplomats from the U.S. would have an easier time understanding contemporary Russian politics. However, if this claim was true, how is it possible that after thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the West in general still, fail to understand Russia and its position in this world?
The Russian-American relations in the era of Boris Yeltsin
By 1989, it was pretty clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the uprising in Eastern Europe created a chain reaction that eventually caught up with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the reforms that Gorbachev suggested to open up the Soviet Union failed. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian Federation became an independent state and declared itself as the successor to the USSR. The Russian-American relations during the Yeltsin period can be described as neutral with a mutual tolerance from both sides. Also, at that time, there was indeed a sense of officially ending the Cold War, as both sides took positive measures to ensure that. In 1993, both sides signed the START II arms control treaty that focused on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.
However, the warm relations between the United States and Russia revealed how the U.S. perceived Russia. As a weak nation trying to balance itself after the fall of communism and its dissolvement. At the same time, Russia had to deal with enormous problems. The new Russian Federation was forced to sell almost 40.000 public businesses, like energy, mining, and communications companies. The economy of the country was in a freefall and for years the country found itself, hostage, to oligarchs. Besides that, Boris Yeltsin himself was considered to be a national embarrassment, relying heavily on the oligarchs and the West that saw him as a political tool to influence Russian domestic politics.
The United States under Bill Clinton wasn’t exactly rooted in any exalted “Russophilia”, as Dr. Andrei Kortunov pointed out: “Washington gave warm support to Yeltsin because of numerous US agencies’ analyses indicating Yeltsin could be counted upon as a guarantee of the irreversibility of the big and small victories gained over the former Cold War antagonist” (Kortunov, 1997). However, in March 1999, these slightly warm relations would be tested, after the U.S.-led NATO military operation against Serbia over the disputed land of Kosovo. Russia was against the attack and until this day, it does not recognize the pseudo-state of Kosovo. A few months later, when he was visiting China, Boris Yeltsin verbally attacked Bill Clinton for his criticism of Russian tactics in Chechnya. He made a blunt reminder of the fact that Russia was still a nuclear superpower. “Things will be as we have agreed with Jiang Zemin. We will be saying how to live, not Bill Clinton alone”. This was the only attempt that Boris Yeltsin did to show that Russia must still be considered a major player in international affairs. The U.S. made the mistake to think that the weakness of one man represented a weak nation in total, but with the 1999 elections and the victory of Vladimir Putin on December 31st, it was clear that Russia was entering a new era re-emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and challenge the geopolitical status quo of the new millennium.
Vladimir Putin and the genesis of modern Russia
After the appointment of Vladimir Putin as the new President of the Russian Federation, the relations between the two countries were characterized as stable and warm. However, the West continued the same rhetoric of underestimating Russia. For former senior CIA officer Paul R. Pillar, the mistake that the U.S. and the West made was pretty clear. The West did not treat Russia as a nation that got rid of communism like Hungary or Poland. Besides that, the rapid expansion of NATO on former Soviet territories created more problems for the peaceful coexistence of both superpowers, as Russia viewed that as a sign that it will not be treated fairly and equally in the global political arena.
For years, Vladimir Putin had a more passive-aggressive stance against the United States. In 2001, Russia expressed its opposition against the invasion of Afghanistan and in 2003 again, against the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, Russia at that time was focused on its internal affairs, as President Vladimir Putin had to resurrect a crumbling economy, deal with suppressing the power of the oligarchs and ensure the safety of Russian citizens against the attacks of Chechen terrorists. According to Vladislav Surkov, former Aide to Vladimir Putin, the country did manage to stabilize itself due to bold political changes. “Russia stopped breaking and began to recover”, he wrote. To be able to compete again with the United States, Russia had to put an enormous effort to achieve that, under internal and external pressure, while being underestimated by its Western partners.
For Dr. Georgi Asatryan, Vladimir Putin and the concept of Putinism helped Russia achieve that. “Putin provided stability, predictability, and peace. Putinism ensured the possibility of development. The West cannot comprehend this since standards have always been higher there”, were his words in one of his articles for EuroNews. The West soon comprehended the role of Russia in the world, with the newly appointed Obama administration in 2008. While President Barack Obama, was optimistic about a potential reset between the relations of the two nations, the reality just proved that the West had gone from a state of misunderstanding and underestimating the Russian Federation, to a state of trying to find a scapegoat and a potential enemy to protect its ideal monopoly of international influence and power.
Tug-of-war with the Obama Administration
For a brief time, there was a possibility regarding the reset in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2010, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear arms treaty called NEW START to effectively reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile. However, this euphoric feeling of resetting lasted only for a few moments. By 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to serve as the President of Russia for a third term. The tug-of-war between the two countries involved certain disbelief about resetting the tones. On the one hand, the West continued its traditional feeling of mistrust, creating a sense of fear against the rapid re-emerge of Russia and the nationalistic policies of Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Russia remained paranoid about the intention of the West to meddle in its internal affairs as well as with their political expansion towards Eastern Europe.
Sir John Sawers, former head of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Britain, expressed his opinion a few years ago, in a BBC interview. “If there was a clear understanding between Washington and Moscow about the rules of the road, that we are not trying to bring down each other’s systems, then solving regional problems like Syria or Ukraine or North Korea would be easier”. Many experts believed that the mixed signals that the Obama administration sent towards Moscow might have been one of the reasons for the fragile relationship between the two states.
From 2013 until the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016, three main events have destabilized the relations between Washington and Moscow and also added up to the misunderstanding and animosity between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Firstly, the case of Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden released secret U.S. government documents exposing a mass surveillance campaign inside the United States and on foreign country leaders. He was granted asylum in Russia, where he remains until now. The incident of Edward Snowden was enough to cancel the meeting between Obama and Putin in Moscow. The second event that stigmatized Russian-American relations was the 2014 Ukrainian coup d’ etat and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In February 2014, after the collapse of the legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia decided to annex Crimea based on a referendum that was held on March 16, 2014. The referendum was successful and Crimea became part of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the West was against the referendum while the United States accused Russia of acts of aggression. On March 24, 2014, Russia was suspended from participating in the G8 summits. Due to the concerning situation in Ukraine at that time, the relations between the two states were characterized as the worst since the end of the Cold War.
Last but not least, the event that further increased the gap between the two sides was the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s involvement started in 2015 with an air campaign in Syria, aiming to help stabilize the situation and keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. A month later, after the air campaign, President Obama called the Russian military intervention a “recipe for disaster”. In October after the launch of the Aleppo offensive and two fruitless rounds of talks in Lausanne and London, Russia’s U.N ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, compared the tensions in Syria with the events during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, mentioning that the relations between the United States and Russia were the worst since 1973.
The Donald Trump Syndrome
The most important event in Russian domestic politics is the U.S Presidential elections. This phrase has been a joke in the Russian political elite circles in the Kremlin, but it does not go far from reality. In 2016, the victory of Donald Trump might have been seen as a dreamy situation for Russia, but the reality is far from it. Although there is some truth in this statement. Donald Trump had more open policies towards Moscow promoting a more ideal relationship between the two states. It was clear that the Kremlin had ambitions to rebuild the shattered relation it had with the U.S. that was filled with mistrust from the Russian side and increased Russophobia from the American side.
In 2018, President Doland Trump called for Russia to be allowed to join the G-7 summit, where Russia was expelled back in 2014. In the first formal meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018, some experts argued that there was a friendly climate between both sides. However, Donald Trump drew criticism from U.S. politicians regarding his stance to side with Russia on the allegations about potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections. John McCain went as far as describing Donald Trump’s policy as: “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.
Nevertheless, over the last four years, the Trump administration has been more of a headache rather than an ally of Russia. Particularly in the case of the Nord Stream II pipeline, where the Trump administration issued numerous sanctions on Russian and European companies involved with the project. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov criticized the Trump administration by saying that the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to destroy the U.S-Russia relations. Besides that, the paranoia of the former President Donald Trump with China, had a negative impact on any establishment of a new arms control agreement between the three countries, something that the Kremlin will be eager to pursue after the inauguration of Joe Biden. The increased instability inside the United States and political immaturity of Donald Trump, has been more harmful than beneficial for Russia who now sees the new Biden administration as a political pillar, to try and establish any sort of normalization in the diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in a respectful manner of mutual understanding.
Joe Biden and the Future of the U.S.-Russia Relations
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Joe Biden is an old familiar face to the Kremlin, having served as the Vice-President for Barack Obama. However, the fact that he is more familiar does not change the cold relations between him and Vladimir Putin. The cold relations can be traced back to 2011 when Joe Biden met with opposition leaders, expressing his thoughts on how Vladimir Putin should not run for President in 2012. This statement is still memorable for many Kremlin officials, and the same rhetoric seems to still be used, with Joe Biden referring to Russia as the “biggest threat to U.S. security”. However, despite what many analysts believe, the new Biden administration might be more reliable in building a new relationship of understanding between the two sides.
There is a growing feeling amongst the political elite of the Kremlin, that the growing turmoil and instability in the U.S. especially after the events on January 6, 2021, harms the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Besides that, Mr. Biden will take the “wheel” of a country that for four years has been exposed to unprofessionalism and childish acts from a President that is in danger of being removed from his office before the inauguration of his successor. Joe Biden, as a more traditional U.S. politician, a so-called “inside man” of U.S. politics, can be proven to be more reliable on rebuilding any new diplomatic relations with Russia. As former senator Bill Bradley, who visited the USSR in 1979 with Joe Biden, pointed out: “Joe knew the Soviet Union, knows Russia, has experience with Vladimir Putin and understands what’s possible and what’s not”.
Joe Biden’s familiarity with Russia might provide room for improvement, however, it is understandable that the relations between the two states will not be extremely friendly. A harsher attitude towards Russia is expected by the Biden administration. Nevertheless, the future of the U.S.-Russia relations with Joe Biden might conduct a more understanding approach without the mistakes of past administrations. In the end, the relations between Russia and the United States might reach a level of understanding each other’s coexistence in the global arena while acknowledging the realistic politics that require each state to behave in a manner that will maximize its benefits.
Russia and Belarus: An increasingly difficult alliance
Way back in 1991, while the crisis of the Soviet system was leading to the disintegration of that galaxy of nations which, under the acronym of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the second world power in political, military and economic terms, Russia promoted and obtained the establishment of the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS)in view of curbing the centrifugal force triggered by Ukraine’s declaration of independence of December 1, 1991.
On December 8, 1991, all the former Soviet Republics joined the CIS, with the exception of the independent Ukraine and the Baltic States, which had been absorbed into the USSR in September 1939 thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and since then had always considered themselves militarily ‘occupied’ by the Soviets.
Currently, after the defection of Georgia and other statelets in the Caucasus, the Commonwealth of Independent States has eight other members in addition to Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.
A glance at the map shows that Russia has placed itself physically at the centre of a region in which the CIS Member States play a fundamental role, not only as a free trade area covering a single market of over 180 million people, but also as an important collective security area that has ensured to Russia – which psychologically has never recovered from the Nazi aggression of 1941 – a ‘buffer zone’ around its territory, which is very important from a military viewpoint(all the more so after the “betrayal” of Ukraine, which, by siding militarily with NATO in 2014, helped fuel the Kremlin’s paranoia about border security).
It is in this political and “psycho-political” context that the “special relationship” between Russia and Belarus was born and developed – a relationship that for some time has been showing increasingly visible cracks.
Belarus is a Presidential Republic ruled since 1994 by “President-dictator” Alexander Lukashenko.
Elected and re-elected again and again over the last 25 years after elections looked on with suspicion by all Western diplomacies, Lukashenko has been tolerated with more or less obvious annoyance by the Kremlin, which is interested in maintaining a privileged and advantageous relationship at economic and military levels, even in the face of the harshness with which the Belarusian President has been trying for years to keep the political opposition in his country under strict control with his iron fist and with instruments that appear excessive even to the certainly non-liberal Kremlin representatives.
The straw that threatens to break the camel’s back and try Vladimir Putin’s patience vis-à-vis his Belarusian colleague was his umpteenth re-election in August 2020 to the Presidency of the Republic with vote percentages that in the eyes of the entire West, but also of Russia, appeared to be the result of shameless electoral fraud.
Last year’s August elections put the Kremlin in a very awkward and uncomfortable position.
On the one hand, continuing to support Lukashenko’s discredited government diminishes the Russian government’s democratic credibility not only in the eyes of Europe and the United States, but also in those of the more moderate allies in the CIS and, at the same time, risks alienating the respect and support of the pro-Russian citizens of the Belarusian Republic who are calling for more democracy in their country without undermining the friendly ties with Russia.
On the other hand, there is concern in the Kremlin’s upper echelons that too openly supporting the reasons for the people’s uprising against Lukashenko and the demand for more democracy in Belarus could turn the neighbouring Republic into a symbol for those who are calling for a similar expansion of democratic rules in Russia.
The cunning Lukashenko who, before the August 2020 elections had shown signs of impatience with Vladimir Putin’s policies – according to reliable sources, they hate each other – going as far as to order the arrest (a few weeks before the vote) of 33 Russian “mercenaries” accused of being part of a Kremlin plot to sabotage his re-election, after having been put in difficulty by internal unrest and the international reaction to his authoritarian methods of government, backtracked vis-à-vis Russia.
Initially Belarus granted Russia exclusive rights on the use of Russian ports for Belarusian oil exports – a request that Lukashenko had resisted for years. Later he agreed to the stationing of military contingents of the Russian National Guard on his territory. Finally, on January 10, the Belarusian President publicly called for “the removal of any obstacles…to greater integration between Russia and Belarus”.
In spite of the increasingly worried moves of the Belarusian autocrat, faced with the choice between supporting the Belarusian regime and trying to get rid of the troublesome neighbour with a coup –Russia is considering a third option which could safeguard the stability of a country like Belarus, which Russia deems essential not only from an economic, but above all from a military viewpoint, as basic foundation of the ‘strategic depth’ ensured by Belarus on the Russian borders in its important role of ‘buffer state’ safeguarding the security of Russia’s Western borders.
The third option is included in two documents leaked by the Kremlin at the end of last year and published by the Russian investigative website The Insider.
The first document is entitled “Strategy of Operational Intervention in the Belarusian Republic” and was drafted in September 2020, when Lukashenko’s democratic reputation was at the lowest ebb, after the evident electoral fraud and the harsh repression of people’s protests.
The drafters of the document speak of the need to change the Belarusian Constitution also through “the penetration of all opposition parties and organisations” to the regime “with a view to encouraging the creation of new political forces promoting the reform of institutions”, as well as through a propaganda work with the use of modern communication channels such as Telegram and Youtube.
The aim of this operation would be twofold: to turn the Belarusian Presidential Republic into a Parliamentary one and increase consensus towards the Russian ally.
The second document drafted by Kremlin strategists and skilfully leaked to The Insider talks about the foundation of a new political party in Belarus called “The People’s Right”, which would promote changes to the Constitution along Parliamentary lines, as well as social and economic reforms that would win citizens’ support.
The creation of this new Party has not yet been publicly announced, but its programme suggests that the Kremlin hopes to divert popular support in the neighbouring Republic towards a Parliamentary and democratic transition of the country, which – as a side effect – could reduce protests over electoral fraud in the last elections.
The new Party’s plans envisage that, even if – at least in an initial phase – Lukashenko remains in power to enable him to save face with a dignified departure from the scene, he will be deprived of almost all his current executive powers, as his future functions will be reduced to the typical representative functions of a ‘normal’ President in a Parliamentary Republic.
Furthermore, the programme of the new pro-Russian Party includes plans for extensive privatisation of the Belarusian public sector, as well as the ‘dismantling of censorship’ and ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual’.
The first feedback to the publication of these two documents, with which the Kremlin wants to demonstrate not only an obvious interest in the stability of Belarus, but also an unexpected (at least for us in the West) attention to democratic rules and respect for human rights, have aroused very positive reactions in the Russian business world, which is obviously very interested in penetrating more deeply into a country that has a well-developed industrial sector, exports a significant quantity of goods to Europe as well as to Russia, has two excellent large oil refineries and is at the forefront in the field of information technology and IT services.
In short, it is a potentially good geopolitical achievement for Vladimir Putin and his government: limiting and frustrating the ambitions of an autocrat who does not want to give up the reins of power and, at the same time, gain credit – towards Europe and the new U.S. Administration – as promoter of Western-style democratic and economic reforms.
All this while safeguarding the role of Belarus as a “buffer zone” against a NATO that, although weakened, remains a strategic opponent in the eyes of the Kremlin.
How Crimea Strengthened Russia’s Eurasian Identity
While the west imagined Crimea was just a territorial dispute that had got out of hand and its annexation a move forced on Putin to salvage something from the ruins of his Ukrainian policy, the Chinese saw it as the moment Russia flipped from being a Eurocentric power to a Eurasian one. The bridge that connected mainland Russia to Crimea which cost $3,69 bln and stretched for 19km symbolized the fact that this was not just a buffer zone but sacred territory and there was no going back as its unity with Russia was eternal. A massive new mega church the resurrection to honour Crimea’s return to the motherland. Leading Siloviki from the power ministries such as defence minister Sergei Shoygu was pictured in a mosaic to show that the days of Russian were over and that the security services were once again watching over Russia and ensuring that the enemies encircling it were kept at bay .The temporal and the sacral under Putin were once again in harmony after decades of being at odds with one another.
The idea that Russia through Eurasia was coming back to itself was a perennial topic of influential nationalists .The infatuation with the west was over and Russians were once again appreciating that being different did not mean inferior. For example Dmitry Rogozhin the head of Russia’s space agency commented that “in space one must not run after beautiful goods with wonderful labels under the music of Bowie, but one must lean first and foremost on well functioning systems.” The excellence of Russia’s high performance sectors should energize the low expectation culture that bedevilled many Eurasian projects . So for example regarding the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge which was built to accommodate 300,000 vehicles and had a load capacity of 4 million tonnes prime minister Mikhail Misushtin on its commemoration wanted to know “what it was like working with Chinese partners” on the project. Like the Chinese Russians should not tolerate excuses for shoddy work and should not look at the Crimea annexation as an exception but a rule. Not as a one off event with a short lived effect that disappeared once the euphoria ended but something to be harnessed permanently so it could be applied on an industrial scale across multiple sectors.
Russia had proved in Crimea that it had an edge in cyber technology in particular and could act unilaterally to defend its interests. But it was working at razor thin margins and stretching them to the limits so it could only be sustained for a short time. It was much more effective combined with a partner China that had spare capacity and an abundance of riches and did not have to work fast in case it used up all its resources too quickly. It only needed to employ a fraction of their strength and allow the Russians to spread the burden with the Chinese. Where they could concentrate on upgrading their labour and production capacity without the pressure of bringing immediate results. So whereas the Blagoveshchensk- Heihe bridge was a “difficult object because the weather did not allow us to work in the snow, the access road was snowed over” the barriers were ” quickly pushed them to one side”. And apart from Vant all the material was sourced from Russian factories. So “we ordered different products from Omsk, Tomsk – at various factories.”
As new technology became available the costs and risks of operating in the region would fall to acceptable limits and allow it to “reach central Russian living standards.” Its mass introduction would have a dramatic effect so that Siberia and companies like SIBUR would “have highly efficient and competitive production which would strengthen its position not only in the domestic market but in the world.” It could then pave the way for “thousands of high technology work places, transport and social infrastructure.” This would have a “multiplying effect” on the economy there. And in the case of joint projects such as the Amur gas processing plant the goal was “in the area of metal construction, building material, laboratory and tele mechanical equipment it would be 100% localized.” The problem was to keep as much production as possible within the region and not allow it to move across the border while engaging with the Chinese to the maximum extent. And that any gains in efficiency brought about by digitalization would not come at the expense of hollowing out of the local economy and turn it into a hub for low grade goods.
The Chinese would not be allowed to capture the regional market but it would not done in a way that would discriminate against Chinese companies and deter them from trading. The Russian attitude was that it would be scrupulous in respecting Chinese economic interests and would not disrupt the level playing fields to gain an unfair advantage. They might look to tweak the relationship a bit but not undermine the general direction of travel. The Chinese would continue to enjoy a privileged status within the Russian far east just as minority autonomous regions enjoyed a privileged position within the Federation. This allowed them to champion the cause of engagement with China by presenting it as a Eurasian enclave which shared as much with China as it did with Russia. So the Governor of the Jewish autonomous province Rostislav Goldstein extolling the opening of the bridge between Nizhneleninsko and Tsunyan looked forward to the time where “in the territories around the bridge industrial parks should appear which could produce additional value. And then we need to learn to produce our own products.” He added that “there is an idea now unrealized that we could get permission to create a cross border territory where Russian companies could learn from Chinese comrades.” So in the enterprise of Vostochny port for example “very attractive conditions of work were established.” And thus “decent pay, social guarantees, comfortable and secure conditions for production” would develop “team building”. And the benefits would be shared by “colleagues and members of their family who had access to health resorts, nurseries and convalescence centres.”
The degree of political closeness did not heavily influence Chinese economic decision making. It did not mean that because a country had friendly relations with China business opportunities would automatically follow. For the Chinese geopolitical considerations were much less important than economic opportunities .They viewed Eurasia in pragmatic rather than hard line ideological terms so that even if they shared the same authoritarian leanings the most important factor was economic competence. A country was judged by its economic fitness rather than its political compatibility. The departure from liberal norms was minimal and the extent of their ambitions was confined to working within the system and adapting it to its needs rather than replacing it with a new order based around Moscow and Beijing . The Chinese approach was subtle and multidimensional helping reinterpret the Russian state as a conservative bulwark at its core with distinct, complementary regional particularities open to prevailing global influences.
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