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
Russia’s geopolitics and strategy in the future
Russia’s military doctrine is clearly closely related to European security – which is obvious even after the Cold War– and is in any case completely independent of the internal political configuration of the Russian regime.
Therefore, studying the evolution of Russia’s military doctrine means predicting, a contrario, much of the strategic future of Europe and obviously of NATO as well.
A strategic future that is still tied to the USA’s – and not only within the Atlantic Alliance – but which experiences situations that would have been unimaginable during the Cold War: the destabilization of the Mediterranean; the jihad; the Iranian-Saudi tension; the new role played by Israel; the more or less artificial “Arab springs”, the new immigration from sub-Saharan Africa and, finally, China’s New Silk Road.
All possible sub-military threats – obviously except for Israel’s role – which, however, multiply the hotbeds of tension, while NATO is focusing again on the East-West confrontation, thus providing to the East a wide range of possible instruments which are automatically taken away from the West.
The last complete Russian military doctrine, however, was made public on December 25, 2015.
Before Russia’s participation in the war in Syria and hence even before the new projection of Russian power onto the Mediterranean, partly resulting from Russia’s relative success in Syria. In essence, Russia’s last doctrine was conceived in a very different phase of the East-West confrontation.
We should not even forget – as happened in the West in 2018 and afterwards – the Russian development of advanced medium-long range weapons, capable – at least according to the Russian technical experts – of hitting the Atlantic Alliance and the United States with the maximum speed and effectiveness without warning and without triggering nuclear-type equilibria.
In this case, we are talking about as many as seven strategic weapons programmes, most of which are already known.
Furthermore the United States have put the INF aside, as well as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The new Strategic Reduction Treaty (START) is currently far from being defined and the rhetoric of the clash between the two former military empires seems to have reached its apex, now placed between rhetoric and reality.
Two cycles of sanctions for Syria and Ukraine have already been decided by Trump’s Administration, both in relation to the poisoning of the former FSB agent Skripal, occurred in Great Britain in 2018, and to the use of the nerve agent Novichok, also in other situations.
We are obviously not in a position to ascertain whether these accusations are grounded, but it is interesting to note how these two sanction phases have been originated by a probable or alleged attack by the Russian Intelligence Services (not Armed Forces) against some of their former agents.
In any case, 2020 is always an end point for Russian military planners. Many things will be decided in the relations between East and West, based on the military doctrine developed this year.
Previously, with the start of the Serdyukov-Makarov military reform, 1.35 million military had as many as 52,000 elements dealing only with command and control activities, albeit of the traditional and bureaucratic type.
However, the real power and quantity of truly combat-ready Russian forces did not exceed 100,000 units.
Hence, on average, only 13% of the forces were combat-ready. In the Army the average rate was 17%, while it was 7% in the Air Force and 70% in the Navy.
In the Space and Strategic Missile Forces, however, 100% of units were combat-ready.
However, 55% of weapons were obsolete, at various levels. After that reform, however, Russia’s geopolitical and strategic ideas are still the same: NATO’s containment can be achieved only with the deterrence ensured by nuclear weapons; the doctrineis evolving towards the US-style network-centric warfare and finally the future of the Russian Forces will be based on their specialization in the counter-guerrilla warfare and the technological and operational organization of small units.
Moreover, the operations of the future are not designed to eliminate the enemy only physically, but also psychologically, culturally and in its stable relations with the civilian population. This is a typically “hybrid” factor.
According to Russia’s current planners, in the hierarchy of threats there arethe clashes in the Post-Soviet Space.
Furthermore, Russia is particularly interested in the stability of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian planners also imagine a “Falklands scenario” for the Kuril Islands, put in place by Japan.
Not to mention even an explicit “containment” of China which, obviously, cannot be achieved by connecting it to a nuclear threat.
The two external scenarios of primary interest for the Russian military planners are the Democratic Republic of Korea and the tension in Iran.
These are two possible points of entry into a narrow Russian strategic area, in which Russia’s response would be immediate, probably even nuclear and direct.
Still today, other potential threats are operations such as those which were carried out by NATO in the two Balkan wars, as well as the French-Italian-British presence in Libya, and some Western direct operations towards Belarus and the Russian borders, especially in the old area between NATO and the Russian terrestrial area.
Despite this historical tension, which is now well-known, Russia does not believe there is any acceptable probability of clash between NATO and the Russian Federation, since Russia still thinks that nuclear deterrence is more than sufficient in this case.
Therefore, the other strategic goals of the reform started in 2008 were the reduction of the available Forces to only 1 million military; the elimination of the low usable Forces; the reduction in the number of officers and a new command and control chain.
Certainly there were also the goals of reaching a 100% rate of combat ready forces, as well as increasing the outsourcing of materials and non-essential activities to civilian structures, and defining a new weapons program for 2020 designed to update 70% of material. Now we are already in 2020.
It should be clearly underlined that- to a large extent – these reforms implemented since 2008 have been successful.
Therefore, also some non-negligible aspects of the Russian strategic doctrine are changing.
In particular, Russia thinks that the U.S. and NATO attitude has radicalized.
Above all with the “enhanced” use of sanctions, as well as with the spreading of the so-called “colour revolutions” in the post-Soviet area -which the Kremlin interprets just as if it were the “hybrid warfare” of the Westerners – and finally the increase of inter-State conflicts in the disputed areas between Central Asia and the borders of Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus.
In fact, some military groups, especially in the United States, have explicitly stated they want to “intimidate” the Russian Federation again, and later contain it according to the tradition of the Cold War and of the old “Telegram” sent by “X”, alias George Kennan, in 1947.
Russian distrust towards the West which, however, Russia has already widely shown both in the military doctrines of 2015 (the year of its engagement in Syria) and in the subsequent “Concept of Foreign Policy” of 2006.
Here the small changes in terminology and doctrine are always decisive.
As early as 2015, the above stated General Gerasimov’s doctrine underlined that “the use of non-military measures for the whole range of new conflicts is increasing”.
That was, in fact, the mechanism used by Russia in Syria, at first, then in the Ukraine and, probably, also in Venezuela and in other countries of the world.
Hence, an “integrated defence” strategy, which combines political and not directly military actions with conventional operations or even visible or invisible advanced psywar or commando actions.
General Gerasimov defined it “a strategy which proactively weakens and defuses the threats to State security”.
Hence we find here a strengthening of territorial defence, besides the coordination of the actions made by various State agencies, halfway between intelligence services and the organizations of the so-called “civil society”.
In this sense, it was also referred to as the “strategy of restrained action”.
It is a term that was originally used to define precisely the Russian operations in Syria. It means to wage and fight a war always with limited goals, using only a part of the military potential and only certain groups of the Armed Forces, as well as selectively hitting only some enemy’s targets and groups which, however, are not necessarily military ones.
These are always joint operations, also with the use of nuclear weapons, which must be employed at such a level as not to trigger the enemy’s equalizing countermove.
Moreover, the Russian doctrine of 2014 mentioned, for the first time, also private military companies, generically defined as “a characteristic of modern conflicts”.
As General Gerasimov always maintain, private companies will be “a component of the increasing number of military players on the field”.
Like the guerrilla groups, the “quasi-States”, the various countries’ Armed Forces. All operators on the battlefield at the same level as the “classic” ones.
In this context, Russia will increasingly use private military companies, which enable the Kremlin’s planners to avoid being directly responsible for the operations and particularly to have the possibility of attributing important tactical operations to the sole willingness of their private “collaborators”.
For Russia, the primary point between propaganda and strategy is the U.S. abandonment of the INF Treaty.
With the next doctrine, Russia will reaffirm its interest in resuming a complete START-type Treaty with the United States. With specific reference to the nuclear issue, however, the criterion is the classic one: “the launch, immediately after an attack,” of a nuclear strike or of a conventional operation putting the Russian State in crisis.
Here the role played by the new weapons will be decisive anyway. Russia has the new Khinzal missile available, i.e. a ballistic air-to-ground or air-to-air, self-propelled, hypersonic and high-precision missile.
Russia has also the Avangard, previously known as Objekt 42020, available, i.e. a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be carried by continental ballistic missiles. The Burevestnik, previously known as Novator 9M730, a nuclear-powered surface-to-surface missile, is still operational, but there are some other weapons in advanced testing phase.
There are also significant evolutions in military robotics, in supercomputers and in semi-automated decision-making systems. This is another face of the future war, i.e. the use of “high-precision weapons and robotic instruments” – just to quote again General Gerasimov.
It is the technological face of hybrid warfare.
On the other side, in a mix of old and new theories, the U.S. strategists argue that “whoever controls Russia, rules the world” – a new version of Mackinder’s old formula of power.
In the next Russian doctrine there will probably be no reference to NATO or the United States as “military threats on Russian borders”, but both Western strategic entities will be regarded as mere “dangers”.
The next Russian military doctrine will also deal with non-military instruments, which will probably be coordinated by an ad hoc structure combining traditional military commands and intelligence, as well as – most likely – an integrated command for psyops operations of a political nature.
In particular, the new hypersonic and high-technology weapons will be used for “sub-optimal” threats towards the enemies, without having to resort to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or small or large nuclear weapons, and to change not only the military and strategic space, but above all the political complexion of the enemy forces on the ground.
We will have a theory of the strategic threat and political hegemony of the military spectrum, which will imply a set of instruments, organizations, and operations that is currently even hard to imagine.
The Russian constitutional referendum of July 1, 2020
With specific reference to the health situation, Russia is still in a severe situation with over 350,000 Covid-19 cases.
Brazil, however, has replaced the Russian Federation as the hardest hit country in the world, while the United States is now firmly at the top of the ranking. Nevertheless, what really frightens the Russian decision-makers are the medium and long-term economic consequences of the health crisis.
Russia’s GDP had already recorded a 1.6% increase in the first quarter of 2020, but all Russian economists expect GDP to fall by at least 16% in the second quarter.
Two-thirds of this GDP contraction, however, can still be attributed to the lockdown, but only one-third to the related fall in oil prices.
With specific reference to the quarantine management, Prime Minister Mishustin thinks that 27 regions can now reduce quarantine restrictions, while the leaders of Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Consumer Protection Agency, have asked the Governors of the Sverdlovsk and Smolensk regions to restore or even tighten quarantine requirements.
The national average growth rate of viral infections in Russia is currently 3.9%, but a “Plan 2” for the definitive recovery of the Russian economy is already supposed to be in place.
However, there will be three recovery phases: in the third quarter of 2020, the government will ensure that recession does not spread to the sectors which are still scarcely affected and will then refinance, one by one, the hardest hit economic sectors.
The real Phase 2 – hence the real recovery – will take place from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021, with Russia trying to recover the pre-Covid 19 standards of living for the entire population. In the Phase 3, which will begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, the economy is even expected to start growing again.
Pursuant to Russia’s current regulations, all proceeds from oil and gas exports are directly deposited into the National Welfare Fund (NWF).
This Russian Sovereign Fund currently holds 11% of the whole Federation’s GDP. When the oil barrel prices are below 42 U.S. dollars, the Fund directly covers the difference by depositing what is needed directly into the federal budget. Above the threshold of 42 U.S. dollars, everything goes smoothly.
Regardless of the constitutional referendum, the central government is likely to decide to take the necessary funds for the new economic expansion directly from the NWF.
In a new crisis situation, the federal budget would directly receive all the oil revenues, which shall be allocated to the reconstruction of the Russian welfare and economy.
Again with reference to oil, unlike other countries, Russia needs a basic oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars to “recover its costs”.
Furthermore, the high prices reached after the various recent production restrictions within OPEC+ have enabled Russia to increase its reserves, which now stand at approximately 400 billion U.S. dollars.
The Russian Federation’s current resources, however, would still enable the country to sustain even an oil barrel price of 25 U.S. dollars for ten years.
Moreover, unlike Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ countries, Russia depends on oil and gas exports only for approximately two thirds of its revenues, while the rest is made up of raw materials such as uranium, coal, other metals and minerals, and especially the sale of arms abroad, a sector for which the Russian Federation is second only to the United States.
It is precisely in this geo-economic situation that the forthcoming referendum scheduled for July 1 in Russia will take place.
As you may remember, the announcement of the constitutional referendum made on January 16, 2020, enabled the then Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, to resign on that day and then take on the role of Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, which is obviously chaired by Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev was replaced by Michail Mishustin, who is not a “man of force”, i.e. a former director of the Intelligence Services turned politician, but comes from the Federal Tax Service. When Mishustin himself fell ill with Covid-19, from April 30 to May 19 he was replaced by the economist Andrey Belousov.
Hence what does President Putin want to achieve with his constitutional reform? Not just his mere stay in power, which the leader deems necessary, since he has not yet found his true heir apparent.
It is a particularly effective sign that the second reading of the constitutional reform, adopted by the State Duma at the beginning of March 2020, was dominated by the presence of Valentina Tereskova, the first cosmonaut, now an 83-year-old member of Parliament.
In that vote there were 382 in favour, 44 abstained and 0 MPs against.
Therefore, if approved in the referendum, the current reform will be the real constitutional definition of Putin’s “vertical of power”.
It should be recalled it is a mechanism made up of centre-periphery relations, but also of now stable electoral systems: the prohibition of presenting “independent” candidates; the registration of regular candidates by parties that are officially recognized and have at least 50,000 members in different regions of the country; the 7% hurdle, whereby the votes of those who do not reach said threshold shall always be distributed among all the other parties that have exceeded it.
Certainly the Russian Federation cannot be a democracy. If it were so, it would no longer exist as such.
A great empire, with a surface sixty times the size of Italy, but with a population just below the sum of Italians and Germans, as well as with empty Siberia on the border with the very overpopulated China.
In an “empty country” – as Baron De Custine defined it at the beginning of the 19th century – the fear of foreigners always recurs: Putin’s old video, in the 2012 election rounds, showed the Chinese arriving in Khabarovsk; NATO taking Kaliningrad; the Islamists raiding in the Caucasus and finally the skinheads – an evident symbol of Western stupidity – moving freely around St. Petersburg.
The Russian Constitutional Court, however, has already made it clear that Putin’s reform is legal.
Hence what does Putin want? Firstly, a stronger system of central State controls over the federal and peripheral governments, so as to create the constitutional legislation of the “vertical of power” which is currently based only on Putin’s personal energy.
Secondly the considerable strengthening of the status and role of the Russian Federation’s State Council, which is at present only an advisory body, not prescribed in the Constitution. It shall also be given the powers of orienting domestic and foreign policies, as well as identifying the main areas of future development in the country.
Thirdly, Vladimir Putin’s proposal would mean that the regional Governors could automatically be members of the State Council, obviously after having established a pact with the Kremlin.
Fourthly, the statute of the State Council shall be fully incorporated into the Constitution. The vast “nationalisation of elites” will be strengthened, since those who hold important positions for ensuring the country’ security, such as President, Ministers, members of the State Duma, regional Governors, judges or any other high-ranking State official, shall not have foreign citizenship or even a residence permit in other countries, either at the time of their work in office or, in the case of the President, at any time before.
A presidential candidate, however, must prove he or she has been permanently living in Russia for at least 25 years (currently 10 years) and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Ex post, of course.
The Constitution shall take precedence over international law and over the provisions of international treaties. Here the Russian concept of “sovereign democracy” is reaffirmed, which sometimes departs from the Western mythology of “human” and hence “universal” rights and states its clear opposition to dealing with the internal affairs of any other country.
In the proposed constitutional reform, there is also the clear prohibition to transfer and alienate part of the Russian Federation’s territories.
The Federation Council (the Upper House of Parliament), which now becomes the primary government body, shall also have the right to propose to the President to dismiss federal judges by providing a reasoned assessment and motivated opinion on their activity; in some cases, upon the proposal of the President, the Federation Council shall have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts.
The State Duma (the Lower House of Parliament) shall have the right to approve the Prime Minister’s candidacy (currently it only gives consent to his/her appointment). The State Duma shall also approve the candidates of Deputy-Prime Minister and Federal Ministries; the President cannot refuse their appointment, but in some cases he/she will be able to remove them from office
Hence the two directives of “United Russia”, Putin’s traditional party, become constitutional rule, i.ederžavnost’ – the ‘great power’ – and gosudarstvenničestvo, the ‘strong State’.
Moreover, as always happens in current political propaganda, there is the issue of family relations.
The new Constitution proposed by the President defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman – and even the TV propaganda of the referendum underlines this aspect.[
Furthermore, the State has the explicit duty to “preserve and honour the memory of the Defenders of the Fatherland, as well as honour the pan-Russian cultural identity and show faith in God” as a value sacredly received by ancestors.
Sobianin, the mayor of Moscow, the city which is still the epicentre of the COVID-19 infection, wanted to hold the referendum in September, but Putin wants it now.
Why? Because Vladimir Putin is aware of the political and personal tensions within the apparata.
In the Secret Services and in the Armed Forces – which, over the last few months, have been the origin of indirect and veiled attacks on him. A series of events has also revealed how the Military Secret Service (GRU) is no longer entirely in Putin’s hands, as was previously the case.
Certainly, now that the Covid-19 is in a phase of controlled expansion, Putin has anyway regained popularity.
Still today, 63% of the Russian population shows strong support for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin. In the referendum case, however, the voter turnout is estimated at 65%, which is always too little to ensure a real and definitive success to the President. Nevertheless, by paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, it should be recalled that democratic elections have ways “of which reason and the heart know nothing”.
About 47% of Russians, however, states to be in favour of the reforms proposed by Putin to the Constitution.
Too few? We shall see what the future has in store. Only 53% of young people is expected to vote, while 77% of elderly people is expected to go to the polls.
Nevertheless, 41% of young people will always vote against Putin’s amendments to the Russian Constitution, with 45% of them living in Moscow.
It is currently foreseen that 35% of voters will not go to the polls.
Is Putin in danger? We do not believe so, considering that – if this happens because of his poor electoral performance – the President will find a way to recover. However, we do not think this will be the case.
Hence centralization of true power in Putin’s hands, up to two terms and even beyond but, on the other hand, distribution regulated by the central power to the regional governments.
A new configuration of power in Russia, until Putin finds his true heir apparent.
If he ever finds him, of course.
The State is “a work of art”, as an old and valuable book by Jakob Burkhardt, “The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”, reads.
Therefore, every State does not reproduce as a photocopy, but only through the Author, the Artist.
If voted and adopted, the amendments to the Russian Constitution will enable Putin to be regularly re-elected for over two consecutive terms, but, with the current changes, we can think of additional 12 years and more in power, but only for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin.
As US-China Competition Unfolds, Russia Watches Closely
Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point in two decades. Similar patterns of warming and cooling have taken place intermittently ever since Russia emerged as a major Eurasian power in the early 18th century. Each crisis with the West alternated with rapprochement and at times full military and security cooperation.
An unchangeable trait of those relations was that Russia had scarcely any foreign policy alternatives with which to balance its West-oriented geopolitical worldview. For Moscow, the West remained a major source of technological, economic, and political progress even as it remained an existential threat, as various military invasions by western Europeans into the Russian heartland proved.
This changed in the early 2000s, when China’s rise gave Russia a new card to play. Today’s Russian political elites advocate a more balanced foreign policy in which the Kremlin’s interests lie in every major Eurasian region. According to that vision, Russia’s foreign policy is no longer attached to any specific region but is evenly spread in an era of “Global Russia.”
From the Russian perspective, the competition between the US and China is a geopolitical development that could offer Moscow many opportunities. The US, which once focused on containing Russia through broader support for vulnerable territories from Scandinavia to the Black Sea, is now focused on Syria and other Middle East trouble spots and is shifting its attention far from Russia’s borders to the Indo-Pacific.
There is, indeed, an urgent need for this shift in American focus, as China’s power far outstrips Russia’s. But for the Russians, the shift in the American worldview means US power will be depleted even more than it was in the 2000s. Over the century’s first two decades, the US entered Afghanistan and Iraq and later got involved in Syria, spending trillions overall.
This means that Russia’s pivot to the east, rebalancing the West with China, has much deeper geopolitical significance than many believe. Russia-China cooperation goes far beyond the “partnership of convenience” propounded by many analysts.
As the US-China competition persists (as it is likely to do for decades), it will grow easier for Russia to maneuver and attain at least some geopolitical aims in its immediate neighborhood. For Moscow, the longer the competition between the two economic and military powers goes on the better, as it will help Russia position itself as a separate pole of geopolitical gravitation.
We often forget that to the Russians, China and the US are long-term geopolitical rivals of very much the same caliber. The Kremlin does not trust either one of them, and their competition redounds to Russia’s benefit. A similar situation existed before WWII, when Stalin and the Bolsheviks perceived all Western powers as hostile. To gain geopolitical advantage it was necessary to foster disagreements between the Nazis and France and Great Britain.
While that strategy worked then, this is a different era. First and foremost is the grand scale of the struggle between the Chinese and Americans. Still, the inherent geopolitical worldview of the Russians remains the same: abstain from directly engaging in the US-China competition and try to leverage it to gain geopolitical points. The ultimate object is to have both the US and China approach Russia for geopolitical support.
Time will tell if this strategy will work. The US is increasing pressure on allies and partners across the world to desist from security and military cooperation with the Chinese. A clearly defined US-led techno-economic bloc is emerging. For the moment, Russia is closer to China through burgeoning economic and military ties—but the Russians fear that a powerful China could strategically challenge Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and elsewhere.
Ideally, Washington would prefer that Moscow come closer to the US than turn toward China. Perhaps serious effort will be made to salvage its broken relations with the Kremlin. The problem will be how many concessions the US and the EU can make. The focal points will be Ukraine first of all, and then Moldova and Georgia. Some concessions might be offered, but it is unlikely that the collective West will abandon its decades-long economic and military efforts in the former Soviet space.
Similarly, Russia will try to score points in the Middle East. The West might be more conciliatory there, but not to the point of abandoning the region altogether.
This leads to another scenario in which the West does not try to pull Russia closer, but rather leaves it to be drawn into China’s orbit. Many believe the collective West would be unable to match Russia’s and China’s combined resources. This might not be entirely true. After all, the US managed to contain the Soviets and the Chinese when they were close in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when their satellites controlled most of the Eurasian landmass. This US tradition could serve as the basis for a more pronounced confrontation with the non-democratic powers.
This would mean that Russian hopes for geopolitical gains through grand geopolitical trade-offs with the West might not materialize. The country might be further pulled into the Chinese sphere of technological, military, and security influence.
The possession of a large nuclear arsenal would not be a point of leverage for Moscow. Chinese influence would expand in every non-nuclear sphere. With Russia essentially cut off from the West, it would be unable to contain China’s economic and military power in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Either of these scenarios could unfold. Russia might try to play the difficult game of balancing the West and China to gain concessions from both. However, the Kremlin’s long-term hopes could be dashed if the US comes to regard Russia and China as strategically linked in the enemy camp. With China dominant and Europe hesitant to help, there would be very little room for cooperation.
Author’s note: first published in BESA
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