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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club website.

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Russo-Ukrainian War and the Indigenous Arctic Population’s Human Security



This essay focuses on analyzing how the currently ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war could possibly become one source of threat to the Arctic indigenous people’s human security, especially in regards on how said war manages to destabilize the Arctic Council (AC) as the region’s main inter-governmental cooperation body. On 24th February, 2022, Russia officially announced its military aggression towards Ukraine (Al Jazeera, 2022), which started a post-Cold War open warfare that has been going on for more than 10 months. This war, not only destabilizing both domestic and foreign affairs of its belligerents, also influences other actors, nation-state or not, around the globe. One of the non-belligerents that certainly gets hit by the impact of this war is the Arctic indigenous people. Ever since the war began, news about the discord and schism inside the Arctic indigenous communities has been popping up (Last, 2022), further exacerbating the security threat caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (Arctic Council, 2020b). This phenomenon thus raised a question: is there a link between the commencement of Russo-Ukrainian war and the human security of Arctic’s indigenous population?   

Rethinking Human Security: The Arctic and its Many Insecurities

To answer that question, this essay employs the concept of human security proposed by Gary King and Christopher J.L. Murray in Rethinking Human Security (2001) journal article. In said article, King and Murray argue that the perspective of what constitutes as ‘security’ is currently ongoing a transition from its traditional, nation-state dependent conventional definition; if the definition focuses solely on the integrity of national territory, ‘human security’ focuses more on the fulfillment of human security on the individual level. This focus on individual human security, King and Murray also argue, will also contribute to realize the fulfillment of human security for the whole community (King & Murray, 2001:606). In order to formulate the extents of human security that is intended to be fulfilled, King and Murray provide two indicators (King & Murray, 2001:592-595): 1) Domains of wellbeing, that is, attributes that are deemed vital for human survival, in which King and Murray categorize indicators such as income, health, political freedom, and democracy (King & Murray, 2001:598); 2) Generalized poverty, the threshold of domains of wellbeing’s deprivation for human individuals. Based on such indicators given by the concept, there are a few urgent human security problems that could be observed in the Arctic indigenous people’s daily live, experienced across the Arctic territories in all eight Arctic littoral states.

The first threat to the indigenous Arctic population is mental disorders, specifically those that cause suicidal tendencies. This threat is directly connected to the ‘health’ indicator of domains of well being that King and Murray posits. According to STAT, a US-based health topic-related news website, suicidal tendencies are often observed specifically among the Sami people, with most of them residing in Sweden (Schreiber, 2016): around half of the adult population suffer from anxiety disorder and four time more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their non-indigenous counterparts. The representative of the Inuit people that reside in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia also complained that suicide already becomes a sort of ‘pandemic’ in the Artic indigenous community, even before their life conditions worsen because of COVID-19 (Arctic Council, 2020). Mental health disorders are also identified in the Arctic indigenous populace living in the rest of Arctic littoral states (Rönkä, 2022).  

Other than that, the rate of unemployment also becomes a big problem for the Arctic indigenous people, especially since the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the general unemployment rate of the indigenous Arctic populace across the seven littoral states is no more than 2-3% (Turunen, 2019b), there is a staggering exception: in Canada, indigenous Arctic population’s unemployment rate already reached 16.8% per August 2020, 5 percents higher than their non-Arctic counterparts. It is said that such an exorbitant unemployment rate is a by-product of structural barriers applied in Canada’s whole society that make it more difficult for Arctic indigenous people to gain employment (Benning, 2020). Such inequality of employment chance between various Arctic indigenous people groups that live across the territories of eight nation-states really drives home about the urgency of establishing inter-governmental organization in order to keep the Arctic indigenous people’s needs and interests heard and realized; income gain is one of the indicators of domains of wellbeing proposed by King and Murray, after all.

Then, the main problem that possibly has the most widespread damage to the indigenous Arctic population’s overall fulfillment of domains of well-being are environmental and living space problems of Arctic indigenous people, which included but not limited to climate change, various kinds of pollution, and indigenous people-government conflict over natural resources exploration and management. The last kind is especially damaging, especially when considering the possible multi-dimensional damage that inappropriate handling of natural resources could cause in both short and long term. However, that does not mean that the other aforementioned threat is any less important. According to a report from the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring written in 2022, there has been 5 Celsius-degree temperature increase at the span of Russian Arctic coastline since 1998 (Devyatkin, 2022). The climate change is caused by rampant pollution in the Arctic region (Mead, 2022) propagated by irresponsible practices of natural resources extraction (Macalister, 2011). This phenomenon becomes a legit security threat because of its impact on the environment, especially its contribution in raising the sea level (Technical University of Denmark, 2019), a condition that could drown indigenous peoples’ settlements. At the end of the day, the practice causes threat of eviction for Arctic indigenous people, with governments removing them from their traditional living space (Mirovalev, 2022). Thus, this problem affects all components of Arctic indigenous people’s domains of wellbeing.

The Arctic Council and Arctic People’s Human Security

Then, what role the AC plays regarding the problems of human security threats that Arctic indigenous people face? AC is currently the only inter-governmental organization in said region, established by eight Arctic littoral states, built and operates with a set of unique rules and norms that enable it to navigate many issues in Arctic between the involvement of big actors: other than eight Artic littoral states, AC also acknowledges the membership of six non-nation state groups of Arctic indigenous people’s representatives in the AC, giving the local communities a say in the AC’s policies (Arctic Council, 2015). This membership for six representative groups is a fixed attribute of the organization, in which this is done to ensure the fair representation of Arctic indigenous people (Arctic Council, 2015). In practice, these six representational organizations are always involved in the processes of formulation and implementation of the AC’s Arctic policies (Arctic Council, 2021).    

For 25 years since its inception in 1996, AC already exercised its duty as an indispensable ‘channel’ for Arctic indigenous people to expand their communities’ capabilities to improve many aspects of their life, in which through this process they also become better at fulfilling their domains of well-being (Arctic Council, 2021). A few of the newer programs that the AC already did are: 1) ‘Local2Global: Circumpolar collaboration for suicide prevention’, a special forum to enable discussions and research regarding suicidal tendencies suffered by people from the community of Arctic indigenous people (Arctic Council, 2020); 2) ‘Arctic Resilience Forum’ as a continuous workshop facility to train the Arctic people’s youth to be future leaders of their respective communities (Arctic Council, 2021:35-37); 3) Cultural preservation through immortalizing the languages of Arctic indigenous tribes (Arctic Council, 2021:38-41); 4) Preservation of Arctic culinary culture in order to create a sustainable economic cycle and living space for Arctic indigenous people, while ensuring a sustainable Arctic ecosystem (Arctic Council, 2021:46-49).       

Then, what does the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war have to do with the Arctic Council, more specifically about how it affects its work in ensuring Arctic indigenous people’s human security? As already described above, The AC already put a great deal of effort through its many programs and initiatives to increase awareness and move forward in fulfilling the Arctic indigenous people’s domains of wellbeing. Through elaboration in the previous paragraph of this writing, it is evident that AC is a principal political entity in the mission of enhancing the local populace’s human security, as this regime is the only channel for Artic indigenous people’s representatives to influence the littoral Arctic states’ handling of the region through negotiation chances provided through their status as permanent members of the organization. The existence of said regime as an official representative of the region’s interests becomes even more important for the indigenous people as researchers keep finding profitable natural resource wells hidden beneath Arctic ancestral lands (Rowe, 2022), which might become initiative for various actors to exploit the region. This chance to negotiate is also included in one of the domains of wellbeing indicators, which regrettably still find difficulties to be fulfilled in every single littoral Artic states individually (Arctic Centre, 2022). Because of those reasons, when AC experiences a crisis that could impede its day-to-day operations and endanger the solidarity of its member states to cooperate, the damage would also be felt by the Arctic indigenous people, especially in the matter of their human security.  

Arctic Council in a Stalemate: Threats to Human Security

Unfortunately, that very scenario is currently unfolding in the Arctic; not long after Russia announced its decision to launch a military aggression to Ukraine, the United States (US) and its Arctic allies immediately show opposition to such decision: per 3rd of March, 2022, the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland issued out a joint statement to boycott Russia’s chairmanship of AC and all of its activities in said organization as a ‘payback’ for the Russian aggression to Ukraine (U.S. Department of State, 2022). Moreso, they also issued out an agenda to form a new Arctic regime separate from the AC without Russia in it, but invited the six Arctic indigenous people representative organizations to join (U.S. Department of State, 2022). This could potentially become a substantial threat to the Arctic indigenous people’s human security because of a few reasons.    

The first reason is that the AC’s consensus-based mechanism of decision making (Arctic Council, 2015) makes it impossible for Russia as the AC’s current chairman to proceed with either existing or planned future AC programs because of the other seven littoral Arctic states’ boycott. Even though said Arctic states is currently trying to “look for a modality that will enable a limited form of cooperation through AC’s programs” (Global Affairs Canada, 2022), up until now there has not been any Arctic states that tries to resume cooperation in the Arctic with Russia as AC’s chairman. Meanwhile, there has been no initiatives from the Russian side either to start a restoration of good relations with the other AC member states in order to restart the progress of AC’s programs; instead, Russia issued out a threat to the other AC member states regarding the consequences of their action to boycott AC’s activities (The Arctic, 2022). Because of that, up until this day activity in the AC is still stagnant, shown through the AC’s official news that has not been updated since 1st of March 2022 (Arctic Council, 2022).   

Second, such stagnation then creates problem, because the US and other six Arctic littoral states’ agenda to build another regime in the Arctic without Russia’s cooperation is simply unrealistic. Even though there are seven out of eight Arctic littoral countries that are on board with this plan, a good relationship with Russia and its help is vital to deal with various complex Arctic issues. Out of all Arctic littoral states, Russia has the largest Arctic territory, both land and sea (Bonikowsky, 2012; Wang & Roto, 2019), second largest Artic indigenous people population after the US (The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), 2021), and possessing one of the biggest Arctic natural resources reserves in its national territory, especially the infamously lucrative petroleum, coal, and natural gas (Turunen, 2019). Other than that, Russia also one of the countries that already showcases its readiness to explore said region. This commitment is mostly apparent through the staggering amount of ice breaker ship in Russia’s possession which amounts to more than 40 vessels, far surpassing all other Arctic littoral states’ vessels combined even including the US (Pane dan Romaine, 2021). This enables Russia to monopolize the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is planned as a big new trade route in the North area and prophesized to be the main connector of the Arctic region with the world at large (The Economist, 2018). Based on those advantages that Russia has, it is nigh impossible to imagine a concrete, coherent Arctic cooperation without the Kremlin’s involvement.

Third, the longer the Arctic region’s current vacuum of power continues, then the region’s stability would become more compromised, thus diverting the focus and priority of Arctic actors from the Arctic indigenous people’s human security to the more traditional concern about national security of each Arctic littoral states. This condition then would ‘invite’ outside players and further threatening the region’s stability. One of the most apparent said threat is the possibility of a few opportunistic AC observer states to benefit from AC’s stagnation and its uncertain future. This is due to the observer states’ position as non-littoral Arctic states that are given roles by the AC only to help the permanent members of the regime to conduct their Arctic policies, but not to decide how the policies would be formulated and implemented (Arctic Council, 2015).

The indication of this latent threat getting ever closer to become a reality could be seen from the emergence of Russia’s attempts at cooperation with two AC observer states, China and India, outside of the AC’s institutional frame (Khorrami, 2022; Staalesen, 2022). These two observer states have a national interest that has very close link towards the abundance of natural resources in the Arctic region (Stephen dan Stephen, 2020; Koshy, 2022), and this interest aligns perfectly with Russia’s interest. Some of the recent cooperations that Russia had with those two countries are the construction of floating power unit at Chukotka (one of Russia’s Arctic territories) with China (BRICS, 2022) and cooperation in scientific projects with India (Chowdhury, 2022). Because those cooperations are done outside of the AC’s institutional frame, they would be done in a manner that disregards the components of human security already agreed upon by both Arctic littoral states and Arctic indigenous people’s six representative groups; there has been ongoing cases of pollution rampant in the Arctic ancestral lands (Borshchevskaia, 2022) and threats of eviction from said ancestral lands directed towards its original inhabitants (Mirovalev, 2022) that becomes increasingly out of control since the Russo-Ukrainian war (Borshchevskaia, 2022).


Based on arguments already delivered above, this essay concludes that the longer ongoing AC activity and power vacuum continues due to the Russo-Ukrainian war, the risk of Arctic indigenous people losing their human security gets even higher. This essay comes to this conclusion because AC has an indispensable role as the sole institutional channel of representation for the Arctic indigenous people to fulfill their domains of wellbeing when each Arctic littoral states’ domestic institutions fail to do said role. If the activity vacuum of the AC happens, Arctic indigenous people’s communities will become more vulnerable to not only neglect of, but also active threats to their human security through various actors’ interference in the region to maximize the extraction of Arctic natural resources. This process will consequently degrade their domains of wellbeing potentially passing the generalized poverty threshold, if left without further actions.  

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Russia, a country of perpetual war

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© Gavriil Grigorov/TASS

Russia is an interesting society: if you ask any Russian if he or she thinks that Russia is governed well, the answer will be negative. If you then ask them whether Russia is an effective country, they will say “yes.” And there is some truth in that. Indeed, Russian ineffective governance and corruption have been known for ages now. Russian historians attribute all-encompassing corruption to Byzantium. It was from there that the system of governance called “feeding” was borrowed and incorporated into Russian lands. The “feeding” provided that the state never paid its representative in a province. Having huge powers he was supposed to “feed himself” with funds of the population under his control. Besides corruption, ineffective state service is infamous among Russians.

Nevertheless, Russians still believe they live in a great and successful country. And if you look at what Russia has achieved historically you see amazing results. Famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “The true defender of Russia is history, it has been tirelessly solving all the trials to which it exposes its mysterious fate for three centuries.”

Russia dominated the world. Europe witnessed Russian hegemony in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when Russia was the “gendarme of Europe”. Russia took over one-sixth of the globe, and there was a period in the twentieth century when about half of humanity was under Moscow’s direct or indirect leadership. Throughout human history, only very few states have been able to do this, so although Russia may be governed not too efficiently, it achieves results.

The same is true of ideology. As a rule, ideology was carried out by the state, the church, and the political parties in a completely unprofessional and ineffective manner, often making these important institutions a laughingstock in the eyes of the population. It was true for the Imperial Russia. It was true for the USSR. And it is true for Putin’s Russia. And yet, while being a laughingstock for its population the system of government somehow managed to shape public consciousness in the end. The significant percentage of voters for the Communist Party of Russia, which does not hold any communist ideology, but the name, proves it quite well.

Corruption, lack of professional state managers, and bad governance management practices needed something to harness them to bring results. And this harnessing mechanism in Russia is mobilisation. The system of state management in Russia has always provided a greater degree of resource mobilisation than in neighbouring countries. During the Livonian War of 1558-1583, there were about 5-6 million people in the poor and sparsely populated Moscow state. And Ivan the Terrible managed to assemble an army of a hundred thousand men, of course, the overwhelming majority of them poorly armed and untrained. It was unprecedented at the time with European armies being usually much smaller but well-armed and trained.

Antonio Possevino, a papal diplomat to Moscow state of the time, wrote that every tenth man did some kind of military service for the tzar. He added that in case of necessity, i.e. war, the tzar could conscript every seventh or even every third man. In Moscow state, an army of 200 000 people was always at call. Foreign diplomats quite often noted that for Moscow state it was not war but peace that was accidental as Moscow was always in a state of war with its neighbours.

Practically unlimited mobilisation capabilities do not urge you to plan resources well. As a state manager, you just do not need it. Any waste of resources can easily get compensated by high mobilisation capacities. If a state can mobilise almost the entire male population under its banner during a war, as well as its financial resources, why should it seek greater efficiency? Why would it need to learn to win not by numbers but by skill? A rationally thinking Russian public official does not spend time and effort on saving resources, he spends it on attracting additional resources.

And we see it not only in war but in the industry as well. Labor was cheap in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. As a result, both tried to build huge factories with low labor productivity. The bigger size manufacturing sites in Russia had the same or less output than much smaller plants somewhere in Europe or the USA. Low wages and cheap natural resources made them as profitable as Western enterprises. Overconsumption of inexpensive resources made up for all other shortcomings.

And effective mobilisation needs centralised power. The lack of competition of the hierarchical Russian government virtually eliminated all reasonable restrictions on abusing additional resources. On the contrary, overconsumption was encouraged everywhere. The only principle of Russian state management is to control mobilisation efforts and boost them. No wonder Russia has always had centralised governance practices.

Mobilisation is the only method allowing Russian state to work. As mobilisation is a reaction to a crisis or a challenge, Russia always needs crises. Its state management just can not work without them. The Russian society has not learned how to substitute wars with other challenges that would be serious enough to mobilise the society. Since war is the most obvious crisis, Russia cannot afford years of peaceful life. It needs war. Otherwise, its ineffectiveness spirals the country down to economic and innovative degradation.

This is why Putin always needed wars. He started with the war in Chechnya eliminating hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, then he continued with Georgia, depriving it of 20% of its territory. He contributed to the war in Syria. He authorised the Wagner Group military operations in Africa. He needs wars because he runs Russia, even if he may not realise it.

He may realise though that he needs a war to try to consolidate Russian society, most of which after years of everyday propaganda believes that the West wants to destroy Russia, or to justify why after so many years of high energy prices the economy is so good as some people expect it. And the truth is that the war is an integral factor in the existence of Russian society and state.

The idea of perpetual war is not new to contemporary Russia. While a century ago Trotsky called for permanent revolution as the only possible format for confronting the world of capital, a century later Putinism’s ideologists have improved this idea into the concepts of “permanent war” and “creative chaos”. Since 2010 Vladislav Surkov, Alexander Dugin, and other “methodologists,” “philosophers,” and “strategists” propelled the idea of “permanent war” as the optimal state of Russia. They openly stated that war is a vital state for the country, the only state in which it can realise itself.

Putin also follows the “perpetual war” tactics hoping for the fatigue of the West, whose elites are highly dependent on the moods of the electorate, unlike those in Russia. He reasons for the fatigue of ordinary people, who are not yet ready to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of some distant piece of land, somewhere out there in the east, another grueling war between the Slavs.

Putin needs an ongoing, uninterrupted war to rule Russia indefinitely. Putin can only stay in power as long as there is a war. The war with Ukraine has exposed many internal conflicts among the most powerful elite groups. As soon as the war is over, they will be tempted to replace Putin. Maybe not, but the risk of such an outcome is too high to take. That is why war must always go on.

The invasion of Ukraine has also made it easier for Putin to suppress those Russians who are less inclined to subjugate. New laws punish such people with up to ten years in prison if they oppose the war, and the Kremlin has decided to shut down the country’s remaining quasi-independent media and nongovernmental organisations. Both steps have further reduced the risk of mass protests that could oust leaders. The war also prompted an exodus of about a million people discontent with the regime. After the war ends, many of these Russians seem intent on returning home rather than trying to integrate into foreign societies, creating a future problem that Putin would probably prefer to avoid.

The ongoing war also insulates Putin from challenges from the elites. Authoritarian systems such as Putin’s are already resistant to coups, as they keep elites weak and tie their future directly to the future of the leader. Being at war further protects autocrats from this threat. The work of political scientists Varun Piplani and Caitlin Talmadge has shown that prolongation of interstate conflict reduces the risk of coups. War isolates leaders, eliminating many of the key ways in which elites can overthrow them. Meanwhile, Russia’s security services have benefited greatly from the war, as Putin increasingly relies on them for repression. Therefore, they have little incentive to act against him.

Antipathy and aggression towards the West are also in the history of Russia. Previously quoted Fyodor Tyutchev was also a diplomat and a very valuable propagandist for the tzar. He wrote “There can be no union between Russia and the West either for the sake of interests or for the sake of principles, we Russians must invariably remember that the principles on which Russia and Europe stand are so opposite, so mutually deny each other that life is possible only at the cost of the death of another. Consequently, Russia’s only natural policy towards the Western powers is not an alliance with one or another of these powers, but the separation, their division.”

So the Russian challenge of 2021-2022, or better say ultimatum, to the West repeats Russian history. The same thing happened at the end of Nicholas I’s reign. Trying to solve a diplomatic crisis with France Nicholas 1 occupied Moldova and refused to withdraw. This led to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which Russia lost.

Putin saw many benefits in an ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, finally escalating it to war. He does not want to stop it hoping for a large frozen conflict. Considering himself a connoisseur of history to which he constantly appeals, attributing many decisions to the “restoration” of historical justice Putin seems to have misinterpreted history. Besotted by the historical glory of Russia he is but to repeat the fate of Nicholas I who lost the Crimean War and died. And it is still not clear whether it was a natural death, murder by poisoning, or suicide.

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Mikhail Bogdanov’s Passion for Africa and the Critical Russia’s Policy Debates – Part 6

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During Africa Day, celebrated annually on May 25th, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reiterated that Moscow’s decision to return to Africa is strategic due to the geopolitical changes, and its return has become a popular post-Soviet slogan in Russia’s establishment. The second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, due in July, is a strategic decision by Moscow concerning its long-term goal of regaining presence on the continent, according to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. 

“This is not a one-time event. It is a strategic decision. It is our long-term policy and practice under the slogan of Russia’s return to Africa. Of course, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some things were lost. There was stagnation in our relations. Some embassies were closed. Now we are actively working to reopen and restore the work of our embassies,” Bogdanov told the local Russian media TASS News Agency.

Extensively speaking on several questions with the media on the eve of Africa Day, the Russian diplomat noted that some African countries were more dependent on Western aid than others, but Russia was not imposing anything on anyone because it proceeded from the sovereign equality of the UN member states. Moscow’s role is to help African countries in the UN Security Council and other UN structures, as well as on a bilateral basis, Bogdanov explained.

“In principle, we have equal, good relations with all countries. With some, of course, they are more advanced,” he added and wished African friends, especially on Africa Day, stronger sovereignty and further development so that economic opportunities support this sovereignty. This will let them strengthen political sovereignty in accordance with their genuine national interests and not listen to some outside noise, Bogdanov said.

What is referred to as Africa Day is celebrated on May 25, the day on which the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) was established in 1963. Until 2002, when the organization was transformed, it had been Africa Liberation Day. The African Union’s headquarters are located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

According to official sources, Mikhail Bogdanov is the Russian President’s Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of the Russian Federation. He has served as Deputy Foreign Minister since June 2011, as Special Presidential envoy for the Middle East since January 2012, and as Special Presidential envoy for the Middle East and Africa since October 2014.

In practical terms, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s critical assessment of Russia’s return to Africa, the goals of signing several bilateral agreements which remain unimplemented, decades-old pledges and promises undelivered, anti-Western rhetoric and hyperbolic criticisms of foreign players which form the main component of Russia’s policy – these indicating the slogan of Russia’s return to Africa. Beyond its traditional rhetoric of Soviet-era assistance rendered to sub-Saharan African countries, Russia has little to show as post-Soviet achievements in contemporary Africa.

At least, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Foreign Minister Qin Gang have indicated on their side that Africa is not the field for confrontation but rather the field for cooperation to uplift its development to an appreciable level. China has heavily invested in developing infrastructure in different economic sectors. Its slogan ‘win-win’ cooperation and ‘share common future’ have shown visible results across Africa.

During these past years, there have been several meetings of various bilateral intergovernmental commissions and conferences both in Moscow and in Africa. Official visits to and from proliferate only end up with the display of eternal passion for signing documents called Memoranda of Understandings and bilateral agreements with African countries. From the highly-praised historic first summit held in 2019, there are 92 agreements.

Currently, the signs for Russia-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, and a lot of important bilateral agreements signed; now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into over these years will be implemented in practice, argued Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya from the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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

Several authentic research reports have criticised Russia’s policy in Africa. As expected, those weaknesses were compiled and incorporated in the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ by 25 policy researchers headed by Professor Sergey Karaganov, Faculty Dean at Moscow’s High School of Economics. This 150-page report was presented in November 2021, offering new directions and recommendations for improving policy methods and approaches with Africa.

With about 1.3 billion people, Africa is a potential market for all consumable goods and services. In the coming decades, there will be accelerated competition between or among external players over access to resources and economic influence in Africa. Despite the growth of external players’ influence and presence in Africa, says the report, Russia has to intensify and redefine its parameters as it has now transcended to the fifth stage. Russia’s Africa policy is roughly divided into four periods, previously after the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Now in the fifth stage, still marking time to leverage to the next when it would begin to show visible results. While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are few definitive results from such various meetings and conferences. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a shortage of qualified personnel and a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. The report lists insufficient and disorganized Russian-African lobbying, combined with the lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking, among the main flaws of Russia’s current African policy.

Another policy report, titled ‘Ways to Increase the Efficiency of Russia’s African Strategy under the Crisis of the Existing World Order’ (ISSN 1019-3316, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2022), co-authored by Professors Irina O. Abramova and Leonid L. Fituni castigated or reprimanded authorities who are squeezed between illusions and realities with policy ambitions in Africa. Against the backdrop of geopolitical changes and great power competition, Russian authorities need to have an insight/understanding into the practical investment and economic possibilities on the continent.

The authors said that: “It is time for Russia, which over the past 30 years has unsuccessfully sought to become part of the West, to abandon illusions and reconsider its foreign economic and policy strategy, reorienting itself to states that are turning from outsiders into significant players in the international political and economic space and are willing to interact with our country on a mutually beneficial and equal basis.”

In addition, the report underlined the fact that Russia’s elite demonstrates a somewhat arrogant attitude toward Africa. High-ranking officials have often used the phrase ‘We (that is, Russia) are not Africa’ to oppose attempts at changing the status quo to change the approach toward Africa. Despite the thoughtless imposition of the idea that Africa is the most backward and problematic region of the world in Russian public opinion, qualified Africanists – including Western experts, call Africa the continent of the 21st century: attributing this to the stable growth rates of the African economy over the past 20 years, and the colossal resource and human potential of the African region.

The report acknowledges the fact that African countries consider Russia as a reliable economic partner, and it is necessary to interact with African public and private businesses on a mutually beneficial basis. In this regard, Russian initiatives should be supported by real steps and not be limited to verbal declarations about the “return of Russia to Africa,” especially after the Sochi gathering, which was described as very symbolic.

The authors, however, warned that due to the failure on Russia’s side to show financial commitment, African leaders and elites from the Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone nations will still be loyal and inseparably linked by nostalgic post-colonial master relationships. And this relates to the furtherance of economic investment and development, education and training – all to be controlled by the former colonial powers as African leaders choose development partners with funds to invest in the economy.

South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has its latest policy report on Russia-African relations. It shows the dimensions of Russian power projection in Africa and new frontiers of Russian influence and provides a roadmap towards understanding how Russia is perceived in Africa. It highlights narratives about anti-colonialism and describes how Russian elites transmit these sources of solidarity to their African public. To seek long-term influence, Russian elites have often used elements of anti-colonialism as part of the current policy to control the perceptions of Africans and primarily as new tactics for power projection in Africa.

The reports delved into the historical fact that after the collapse of the Soviet era, already over three decades, Russia is resurgent in Africa. While Russia has been struggling to make inroads into Africa these years, the only symbolic event was the first Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi, which fêted heads of state from 43 African countries and showcased Moscow’s great power ambitions.

The authors further wrote that “Russia’s growing assertiveness in Africa is a driver of instability and that its approach to governance encourages pernicious practices, such as kleptocracy and autocracy promotion, and the dearth of scholarship on Moscow’s post-1991 activities in Africa is striking.” Records further show that Russia kept a low profile for two decades after the Soviet collapse. Russia’s expanding influence in Africa is compelling, but further examination reveals a murkier picture. Despite Putin’s lofty trade targets, Russia’s trade with Africa is just $20 billion, lower than that of India or Turkey.

In the context of a multipolar geopolitical order, Russia’s image of cooperation could be seen as highly enticing, but it is also based on illusions. Better still, Russia’s posture is a clash between illusions and reality. “Russia, it appears, is a neo-colonial power dressed in anti-colonial clothes,” says the report. Simply put, Moscow’s strategic incapability, inconsistency and dominating opaque relations are adversely affecting sustainable developments in Africa. Thus far, Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.

Of course, Russian-African relations have been based on long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity, created when the Soviet Union supported the struggle of African peoples against colonialism. Since Africans are struggling to transform their economy and take care of the 1.3 billion population, the bulk is still impoverished. African leaders must remember their election campaign pledges made to the electorate while still holding political power.

Unlike Western countries, European Union members and Asian countries, which focus particularly on what they want to achieve with Africa, Russia places the anti-colonial fight at the core of its policy. In short, Russia knows what it wants from the continent: access to markets, political support against Ukraine and general influence in the continent. It is time for African leaders to clarify what it wants concretely from Russia during the July 2023 Russia-Africa summit.

For more information, look for the latest Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin’s African Dream and The New Dawn” (Part 2) devoted to the second Russia-Africa Summit 2023.

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