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Russian Revisionism or Restoring Justice?

Pavel Koshkin

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U.S. politicians have criticized the Russian application FaceApp, which reads biometric data from user-uploaded photos and generates altered images: those of the user in the future, in the past, and so on. In the second half of July, Chuck Schumer, who leads the Democrat minority in Senate, requested that the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission look into FaceApp’s potential for endangering U.S. national security and the private life of the millions of Americans who use the app.

One of Schumer’s key arguments was that the FaceApp developer is based in Russia and that the app’s authors have “full, irrevocable access” to the personal photos and data of the app’s users who allow access to their smartphones. The following day Schumer again addressed U.S. FaceApp users. On July 18, he tweeted: “Warn friends and family about the deeply troubling risk that your facial data could fall into the hands of something like Russian intelligence or military.”

Despite the fact that IT specialists have already disproved the allegations of FaceApp-related risks, Schumer’s concerns indicate that the U.S. believes the Kremlin and Russian hackers to be one of the key threats. Western politicians’ fears are to a certain extent based on the fact that, after the takeover of Crimea, Russia is viewed as a country that undermines the liberal world order and attempts to promote its own alternative.

It’s easy to understand this thinking if we recall European leaders’ reaction to a statement made by the Russian president in a June 2019 interview with The Financial Times, when he said that the liberal idea “has become obsolete.” This statement was countered by European Council President Donald Tusk and Boris Johnson, who was later elected as Britain’s new prime minister on July 23. Tusk argued that it was not liberalism that had become obsolete but rather authoritarianism, even though it might still seem effective. Johnson, for his part, referred to Putin’s statement about liberalism’s ineffectiveness as “the most tremendous tripe.”

It should also be noted that Russia’s revisionism, in the eyes of the West, implies not just an active foreign policy but also intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.

“U-turn over the Atlantic” and Munich

Revisionism, in its broad sense, is a reassessment of values, views, theories, established standards, and rules in a certain field. In the narrower field, such as international affairs, revisionism is seen as a revision of the world order, accompanied by individual countries’ attempts to intensify their foreign policy efforts and take a fresh look at their role in the world.

Russia, strictly speaking, does behave like a revisionist power. Nowadays, Moscow clearly defines its foreign political vector and conducts independent policy on the global arena without taking into account the West’s opinion.

However, what Washington and Brussels view as revisionism is, to Moscow, the “restoration of historical justice” or the protest against the unipolar world model and what Russia calls “U.S. hegemony.” After its victory in the Cold War, the U.S. became the sole superpower and, in the words of Russian politicians, the world turned into a unipolar system in which Washington predominantly imposed the rules of the game. During the long period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, from 1991 to 1999, Russia perceived the U.S. as a close ally and an economic donor, but then everything changed.

The key factor here became the NATO military operation in Yugoslavia, and the main symbol of Russia’s protest came in the form of the so-called U-turn over the Atlantic. On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to Washington for talks with Vice President Al Gore. As the Kommersant daily reported at the time, Primakov was to negotiate the nearly $5 billion loan to Russia from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), secure U.S. approval for the restructuring of Russia’s foreign debt, and sign a number of trade and economic agreements, including on the use of Russian launch vehicles in orbiting U.S. satellites, lease plans for agricultural equipment, and the supply of Russian steel to the U.S. market.

However, as Primakov’s aircraft was passing over the Atlantic, he received a phone call from Gore, who said that an aerial bombing of Belgrade was imminent. The Russian prime minister then called President Yeltsin, canceled his U.S. visit, and returned to Moscow. According to Kommersant’s estimates, this U-turn cost the Russian economy $15 billion. Already back then Russia had demonstrated that it would be carrying out an independent policy and that Moscow was prepared to sacrifice its economic welfare for the sake of its principles. The Primakov U-Turn became Moscow’s first protest signal, one that denoted its categorical disagreement with the West’s appraisal of the situation in Yugoslavia. In essence, this was also an attempt to revise Moscow’s take not only on U.S. foreign political decisions but also on its own policy. While the West believes that this may be described as revisionism, Russia views it as a manifestation of a self-sufficient and independent foreign policy.

Notably, it was Primakov who proposed the concept of “multipolarity” and argued that the unipolar world model imposed by the U.S. was no longer working. Putin redefined Primakov’s ideas and went even further, consistently criticizing the U.S. “hegemony” and expressing hope that more than two geopolitical poles would emerge around the world. Putin’s February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference came as a shock to the West. He said that the U.S. unipolar model was no longer working and that it was “not only unacceptable but also impossible”: “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”

In essence, Putin completely revised the legacy of the Cold War, which, in his opinion, had left the world with “live ammunition” in the form of ideological stereotypes, double standards, and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking. It is no wonder, then, that his speech was viewed as an early harbinger of the current standoff between Moscow and Washington, which some experts refer to as a new Cold War.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates jested at the time: “As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time.” The late Senator John McCain noted that Putin’s speech indicated a pronounced autocratic turn and that Russia’s foreign policy was becoming more opposed to the principles of the Western democracies and, oddly enough, of multipolarity: “In today’s multipolar world, there is no place for needless confrontation.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, noted that Putin’s rhetoric had “done more to bring Europe and the U.S. together than any single event in the last several years.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said that Putin’s speech “takes us back to the Cold War.”

The Ghost of the Soviet Union

After Putin’s Munich speech, the West began fearing a revival of the USSR and came to view any of Moscow’s foreign political moves across the post-Soviet space through this particular lens. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in December 2012 that the Kremlin’s policy (such as the establishment of the Eurasian Union or the Customs Union) resembled attempts to reinstate the Soviet Union.

These fears were first voiced in the declassified 1992 documents of the Clinton administration, informally known as Defense Planning Guidance. The documents stated that Washington should use its status as the recognized leader in order to strengthen the new liberal world order. In fact, the Clinton administration did not rule out the possibility of the USSR being brought back in one form or another.

“Democratic change in Russia is not irreversible, and despite its current travails, Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia and the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States,” the Defense Planning Guidance reads. The document reiterates several times that the U.S. must prevent a possible Russian “hegemonic position in Eastern Europe”: “Should there be a reemergence of a threat from the Soviet Union’s successor state, we should plan to defend against such a threat in Eastern Europe.”

From Crimea to the Arctic

The West’s fears may not necessarily have been justified, but they intensified after President Putin’s position became stronger in Russia. In the past, Russia’s possible revisionism would be mentioned – in fact, very rarely so – in classified U.S. National Security Council documents. Nowadays the West talks about it openly and frequently, and for good reason too: Moscow has been actively restoring its influence in the geopolitical arena since 2014.

First Russia took over Crimea, and then it launched a military operation in Syria in 2015 while simultaneously attempting to restore its positions in the Middle East and actively negotiating with governments in the Gulf following a sharp drop in oil prices. In October 2017, the king of Saudi Arabia, one of America’s key Middle Eastern allies, paid a visit to Moscow. Since 2015, Putin has regularly held bilateral meetings with Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia: in Moscow, Sochi, St. Petersburg, and on the sidelines of the G20 summit. At least seven such meetings have been held to date, and Putin is planning to visit Riyadh in October 2019.

In addition, Russia probably sees itself as a new mediator in the Palestine-Israeli settlement process. Putin has held at least eight meetings and three phone conversations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since 2014. Over the same period, Putin has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than 40 times and held some 11 personal meetings with the Israeli official: mostly in Moscow but also once in Paris.

According to Russian and international media, which quoted anonymous sources close to the Libyan authorities, the Russian Ministry of Defense, and British intelligence services, Russia opened a new foreign political foothold in October 2018 by sending troops to Libya in support of the field commander Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army. Haftar, who controls Libya’s eastern regions, had previously visited Russia and repeatedly met with senior Russian officials, including Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu. In fact, Moscow supports the Libyan forces opposed to the UN Security Council-recognized Government of National Accord, which is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

In 2019, Russia openly declared its interests in Venezuela, where the Juan Guaido-led, U.S.-backed opposition forces had attempted to depose President Nicolas Maduro, whose economic policy they believed to be untenable and destructive to the country. Indeed, Venezuela was living through a drastic economic and social crisis, with inflation going through the roof at 130,000%: the population found itself on the poverty line and took to the streets in protest. The U.S. and its allies (more than 50 West European and Latin American states) supported Guaido, who had declared himself the new president. Russia and China backed Maduro.

Media reports emerged in March to the effect that 99 Russian troops had arrived in Venezuela. Washington then demanded that Moscow withdraw the troops. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied that “the presence of Russian specialists on Venezuelan soil” did not contravene the Venezuelan constitution and strictly complied with the bilateral military-technical cooperation agreement that Moscow and Caracas signed in May 2001.

The Russian and U.S. presidents have repeatedly discussed the Venezuela issue during telephone conversations and personal meetings; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have also actively discussed this matter. In the meantime, Western journalists, experts, and politicians suggest that Venezuela is becoming yet another topic for the ongoing Moscow-Washington conflict, which is starting to resemble a new Cold War.

Russian revisionism can be found even in Africa. Leading U.S. news outlets report that Moscow is strengthening its positions on that continent. Russia has been steadily expanding its military influence across Africa, alarming Western officials with investments in local mineral extraction and energy projects, increasing arms sales, security agreements, deployment of mercenaries, and training programs in support of local dictators, The New York Times reports. Bloomberg, for its part, says that Russian political advisors rig elections in African countries in favor of candidates that suit Moscow.

Finally, the West is concerned about Russia’s Arctic activities. The New York Times cites NATO spokesperson Dylan White as saying that Moscow is bolstering its military presence in the Arctic. U.S. intelligence services suspect that Russia is conducting low-yield nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya. “The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Any Arctic move by Russia invariably causes concerns. The website of the TV channel Current Time points out that Russia has, since 2016, launched the nuclear-powered icebreakers Sibir, Arktika, and Ural: “Moscow has not built so many vessels of this class since Soviet times.” On the other hand, Russia sometimes offers a good reason for concern, and the West usually interprets Moscow’s statements in the context of possible aggression.

Shoigu said in December 2017: “Over the past five years, 425 facilities with total area of 700,000 square meters have been built on Kotelny Island, Alexandra Land, Wrangel Island, and Cape Schmidt in the Arctic. They house over 1,000 troops complete with missionized weapons and equipment.” Shoigu added that Russia would continue its efforts to build “a full-blown airfield” on Franz-Josef Land that would be able to handle aircraft movements around the clock. The minister stressed that not a single country had previously managed to implement any such massive-scale military projects in the Arctic in the entire history of the region.

By 2020, Russia is planning to complete construction on or modernize six military bases in the Arctic. In this light, it is quite understandable that the West treats such plans with suspicion, despite Shoigu’s assurances that Russia is “not rattling its saber and not intent on waging war against anyone.” However, the second part of his statement – “at the same time, we would not recommend anyone to test our defensive capacity” – sends a totally different message to the West: Russia is not intent on living with the old world power and will act based on its own national interests.

The Russian dossier, again

 “They are doing it as we sit here,” former Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice Robert Mueller said during a June 24 hearing in the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as part of comments on Russia’s alleged interference in the upcoming November 2020 elections in the U.S. Mueller’s testimony indicates Washington’s serious concerns.

The Mueller probe, whose results were made public this past spring, exposed Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. Even though Moscow has been consistent in denying any attempts to influence the results of the 2016 presidential campaign and dismissing Washington’s attitudes as lunacy and “Russiagate hysteria,” the U.S. is convinced that the Kremlin is lying. In this sense, Russia’s alleged interference with the U.S. election may be viewed as a form of revisionism.

Putin, for his part, has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, including the organization of protests during the 2011 and 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. The Kremlin continues to reiterate the thesis that the U.S. is instigating “color revolutions” in post-Soviet countries. So, if one takes into account U.S. statements about Russian interference (including Mueller’s viewpoint), then Russia denies its involvement in the U.S. presidential race while letting Washington know that, from now on, it is not just the U.S. but also its geopolitical rivals that can influence political processes in other countries.

Lost in translation

How should Russia respond to the constant accusations of revisionism? Before we answer this question, one needs to understand the causes of this revisionism. There are two, and they are not hard to grasp.

First, Russia and its political elites are suffering from a post-Soviet inferiority complex. Moscow has always attempted to prove to Washington that it is more than just a regional power; that it can be an equal partner for the West and not just its “little brother”; that both sides won the Cold War, not just the U.S.; and that Russia’s national interests, including those in other regions, need to be reckoned with.

This inferiority complex is evident from both Russia’s history (from way back when it was indeed respected internationally) and from Putin’s numerous statements in which he says, time after time, that the West has virtually never reckoned with Russia and always attempted to “drive it into a corner.” At the same time, in his 2005 interview with CBS, Putin said that a cornered animal “turns back and attacks you, and does so very aggressively, pursuing the fleeing opponent.” It is no wonder, then, that Internet channels of Russian government media currently put up headlines along the lines of “Putin has driven the presumptuous West into a corner!” If we are to resort to metaphors, then revisionism, in effect, constitutes an attack on and the pursuit of the opponent in response to an insult.

The second cause of Russia’s revisionism is the Western superiority complex, namely America’s conviction that it won the Cold War. Back in 1992, Washington stated in no uncertain terms in its Defense Planning Guidance that it was the U.S. who was the victor and not Russia. The excessively protective attitude of the U.S. towards Russia, as well as NATO expansion, which the Kremlin opposed, ultimately led to Russian political elites growing disillusioned with the West and turning their back on it. This resulted in a crisis of trust between the two countries and the “new Cold War,” complete with all its attributes such as increased state propaganda on both sides, the arms race and a war of ideologies, which has transformed into a confrontation between Russian-style state capitalism and the U.S. liberal democracy in the 21st century.

To a certain extent, this new confrontation between Moscow and Washington involves framing, i.e. the creation of notions and definitions that reflect the way the conflicting sides think. In this sense, Russia and the U.S. speak totally different languages and live in different universes: what the West perceives as revisionism and aggression is, to Russia, the restoration of justice and the protection of its national interests in the ruthless world of geopolitics. Russia proceeds from the premise of neorealism, in which revisionism is rather a norm than a deviation. In Russia’s view, revisionism means protecting its national interests, not the desire to aggravate confrontation with the U.S. The West, for its part, leans more on idealism or the critical theory: within their frameworks revisionism might be destructive in its nature. No matter what Russia does, its actions will cause fear, criticism, and condemnation in the U.S.

In this sense, Moscow, just like Washington, should develop empathy: the ability to see the situation through the opponent’s eyes. If the parties learn this, any recriminations will not resonate so strongly, and the two countries will be able to react to each other’s actions in a more reasonable manner. This skill will allow them to avoid excessive emotions in their dialogue, which is so important today.

In practice, this means that Moscow, for example, should recognize, understand, and respect Washington’s concerns with regard to Russian interference in U.S. elections. Rather than ridiculing the U.S. and dismissing Mueller and Congress probes as Russophobic hysteria, Russia should avoid such statements and propose more constructive ways out of this deadlock. This is the only way to restore at least partial trust and create a new platform for dialogue.

A “non-interference pledge” would be a step in the right direction and a good example of this approach. In mid-June, Russian and U.S. experts proposed the concept in connection with the mutual accusations of attempts to influence elections through modern technology. The essence of this hypothetical agreement is that Moscow and Washington should develop a set of rules that would oblige the parties “not to make public information of political significance obtained by state agencies,” not purchase political advertisements on social media, and refrain from public assessments of the quality of elections “before international observation missions issue their reports.”

This also applies to other issues: in response to the West’s accusations of revisionism, Russia should not deny the facts and attempt to defend itself; rather, it should begin the dialogue with the words: “We understand you.” This approach sets a positive tone for seeking a compromise. Even if the Kremlin sees statements by U.S. or European colleagues as exaggerated or contrived, it stills needs to persuade Washington that Moscow is ready to cooperate in order to get out of the current crisis in mutual relations. However, this equally applies to Washington: if the U.S. resorts to raising confrontational rhetoric to the detriment of empathy, the existing problems will remain unresolved.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D., Fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, Former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet, RIAC Expert

Russia

Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.

“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.

The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.

As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.

The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.

In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.

BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

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Russia vs China

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Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.

The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.

We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.

Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.

Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.

Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.

Notable characteristics:

Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;

Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;

All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;

The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;

Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;

Total control over public life.

Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.

Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.

The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.

However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.

Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.

History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.

It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.

In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.

The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.

The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.

It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.

If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.

“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.

Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.

What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.

Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.

This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.

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COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.

Opportunities

Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World

Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.

The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities

The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.

The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”

Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.

Threats

Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating

The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.

The Rise of Isolationism in Russia

Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.

The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.

P.S.

“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.

From our partner RIAC

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