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Neo-Kennan Paranoia and the Hope for Russia’s Downfall

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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For more than two decades I have written about missed opportunities and egregious missteps on the part of America (sometimes accidental, sometimes seemingly deliberate) when it comes to establishing a new relationship dynamic with Russia that could be positive strategic if not necessarily truly friendly. For about that same amount of time I have traveled all across my native country of America, openly inviting and challenging any and all comers to respectfully but critically debate the issues and ideas that hinder this new relationship from emerging. For the most part, those entreaties and invitations have been ignored, refused, or openly derided. Now, admittedly, I would love to think this apparent reluctance to intellectually engage on stage before an interested public was motivated by dread fear of my incredible talent, intelligence, and debating skills. But alas, in all likelihood, the real reason for this lack of engagement is based on the simple fact that too many of the powerful institutions, agencies, and bodies in America are purposely set to maintain a negative relationship with Russia and see that it will not be allowed to move beyond tired standards set back during the worst of the Cold War-era. But, as they say, no worthy fight should ever be abandoned. As such, this article is yet one more attempt on my part to bring light to this purposeful paranoia and expose for it for the fake and flawed intellectualism that it is.

The focus of today’s effort is on a recently published piece in Politico.com by an international security professor working at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Now, for those that do not know the NDU, it is a magnificent and important institution, technically closed to the general public, as it trains and educates those already in the employ of the American Intelligence Community and those deeply engaged within the national security industry writ large. It is a place of deep thought, serious reflection, and total devotion to the security and well-being of the United States. This is why my focus on the recent article, “The Best Way to Deal with Russia: Wait for It to Implode,” is of such importance. If institutions as noted, respected, accomplished, and important as NDU can produce ideas so off-the-mark, then there needs to be some effort from somewhere to challenge those ideas. Otherwise, the national attitude on Russia has no chance but to remain stale and ignorant.

The first point to remark on is the telegraphing of intent in the article. The author, whom I have nothing but respect for in terms of his service and commitment to American security, culled the present article from a forthcoming book which he commands as a ‘neo-Kennanite’ approach to Russia. For those who may not know or have forgotten the importance of George Kennan’s genius, he really can be cited as the inspiration, the godfather, behind American Cold War ideology. Mind, this is not written as a refutation or rejection. Kennan’s words and philosophy (born from the post-WWII 1940s-50s) were indeed needed and necessary in the global circumstance at the time. What matters here, however, is the idea of someone trying to formulate a ‘neo-Kennan’ approach in 2019 which, if it stays logically consistent, is ideologically committed to justifying and maintaining a thought process at any cost which isolates Russia as a rival and enemy, just as Kennan did with the Soviet Union nearly 70 years earlier.

The problem, of course, for those who wish to work on new platforms and create new relationship foundations for Russia and America, is that there is nothing new about ‘neo-Kennanism.’ It is, de facto, a testimony to and application of Cold War thinking to modern Russia. It is a reduction of modern Russia so as to see it as nothing but a mimic of the old Soviet Union eternally. Indeed, it is a predetermined engineering of the narrative so that Russia has no other course, is able to achieve no other path, in its relations with America. As such, it is not a reflection of modern reality at all but a fantastical framing so as to make sure modernity does nothing but mirror the past. This tired approach must be discarded as much for its reckless dangerousness as for its lethargic inaccuracy.

In the very first paragraph of the article, the author decries what a giant threat Russia represents for its targeted interference in the 2016 American Presidential election and its alleged desire to continue such interference as America heads into 2020. While there is no doubt such attempts are indeed illegal under American law, the author does not mention the fact that every piece of evidence to date indicates Russian attempts to actually alter or interfere with real election technology proved unsuccessful. As a result, the real concentrated effort on the part of Russia was an expansive social media disinformation campaign, largely contained within Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Breakdowns of that disinformation campaign reveal almost laughably biased attempts to sway the minds of the American public, both left and right. If one argues that campaign was successful, then isn’t at least some, if not most, of the blame firmly resting in the gullible and intellectually lazy minds of American citizens, who did not bother to vet, check, or investigate the things they came across on social media?

Perhaps more bothersome, the author quotes an intelligence professional who admits that the American Intelligence Community is now, in response, doing far more than it has ever done before to Russian civil society, including stepped-up attacks on Russia’s power grid. The problem with this, obviously, is that the author is calling Russian social media attacks as grounds for maintaining Russia as a ‘deadly’ threat but openly ignores America’s own response, which, given it is an attempted incursion on critical Russian national infrastructure, is arguably far more threatening and far more dangerous. Finally, in this infantile tit-for-tat environment, why is anyone in America even feigning shock that the Russians would continue its own campaigns? The current dilemma between the two countries is far less Cold War and far more children on the school ground. The failure to openly and self-critically assess these kinds of positions (and whether they truly mark dangerous threats) makes American national strategy on Russia not only flawed: it drives it into dead-end corners of its own making.

The author also makes somewhat grandiose but utterly off-base assessments of the state of current Russian power, claiming it is far less stable today than the end of the Romanov dynasty and highlights supposed ethnic republican strife that could challenge the very territorial integrity of the Russian Federation as a whole. Again, with no disrespect to the author, these arguments are simply…WRONG. It is either a misreading of history (ie, not understanding just how flagrantly unstable and chaotic the end of the Romanov dynasty was) or an emotionally inaccurate and hyperbolic characterization of present-day Russia (ie, not realizing just how little ethnic unity there is between the so-called Finno-Ugric nationalities largely existing throughout Southern Russia). The citing of some relatively localized and entirely powerless youth/citizen groups in Bashkortastan and Tatarstan, respectively, is hardly evidence to make an argument as wild as millions of citizens are simply waiting for Putin to no longer be President so as to seek out their own state independence. This is simply false. As someone who has done research on the ground in both Ufa and Kazan, the capital cities of said republics, these leaps of illogic are more a reflection of American wishful thinking for the disintegration of Russia than real scholarly research built on painstakingly collected empirical data. This also hints at another egregious misconception often professed by American Russian experts: that the current Russian state is nothing but a megalomaniacal dictatorship revolving entirely around the whims of Putin’s personality. Again, this is completely inaccurate: a hyper-presidential system not entirely enamored with the American system of democracy, which Russia definitely is, is not a synonym for what Stalin created. It simply isn’t. Writing articles where you pretend that it is doesn’t make it so.

This position is only more erroneously pounded upon with statements that are both flat wrong and perhaps purposely taken out of context. Vyacheslav Volodin is incorrectly named as Putin’s Chief of Staff, a position he departed from in 2016 in order to run successfully for the Duma, where he now sits as its Speaker. In addition, Volodin’s 2014 quote of ‘there is no Russia without Putin’ was purposely misappropriated in the article. It was used as evidence for how dictatorial Russia had become. In reality, that quote came as Volodin was head of Putin’s presidential re-election campaign and was said as a reference to how none of Russia’s current success and progress could have been achieved without the efforts of Putin’s previous terms as President. It was literally standard campaign-PR bravado that we see already nearly every day in America as it gears up for 2020. Reframing it to push as false evidence of a modern-day Stalinist Russia is extremely flagrant. Worthy of a Russian disinformation campaign, in fact.

Finally, the author states that the fact that modern Russia no longer has a strong unifying ideology like it did back in the Soviet Union Communist hey-day means it is primed for divisional strife and ultimate disintegration. Most of what I have written above already proves how that is yet another example of hyperbolic political posturing/propagandizing. But I would also be remiss to not point out how the very argument itself is in contradiction with the other ‘pieces of evidence’ used in the article to justify keeping Russia the dread enemy of America. Russia has either remade itself into a modern-day equivalent of Stalinist Soviet dictatorship OR it is a mere shadow pathetic shell of itself barely keeping all of its disgruntled peoples under one bann er, desperately afraid of splitting into a dozen little pieces. It cannot be both at the same time. This article, without realizing it, argues that very thing.

So, for the so-called neo-Kennanites, I have bad news: Russia is not ready to disintegrate and even Putin’s exit from the political stage will not trigger a massive ethnic upheaval. Unfortunately, for the so-called neo-Kennanites, I have even worse news: the only group that likely needs to disintegrate, not only because it mishandles contemporary Russian analysis but pushes a political agenda that actually weakens, not strengthens, American national security, is the neo-Kennanite group itself.

MD Executive Vice Chairman Dr. Matthew Crosston is Director over all Intelligence Programs at the American Military University and Professor of Global Security and Strategic Intelligence. His work in full can be accessed at: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Battle for the Arctic: Friends and foes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner International Affairs

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Towards the First All-African Conference in Sochi

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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