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Russia Accelerates Construction of a New Black Sea Port

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Taman Port. Image source: portnews.ru

Economic and technological competition between China and the US has become an obvious fact for world politicians as well as analysts. However, as everyone pays attention to the ongoing trade war between the two giants and steady military build-up in the South China Sea, interesting developments are taking place in the Black Sea basin. Behind this global trend, Russia is slowly building up its economic position in the region by accelerating the construction of a new deep-sea port which will endanger Anaklia’s future.

For quite some time Beijing and Washington have been working to increase their economic and technological competition in or around the Black Sea. The Anaklia Deep Sea port is a primary example. China has traditionally been careful in its statements about its views on Anaklia, but the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Georgia a few months ago was an indication of Beijing’s interests in the port. Interestingly enough, the visit coincided with financial problems centered around the Anaklia Consortium.

Currently, as the problems deepen with the withdrawal of the US’ Conti Group, it is likely and quite logical that China might actually increase its efforts to get involved in the Anaklia port construction.

Within the light of numerous uncertainties surrounding the US’ position worldwide, Washington will find it harder to counter potential Chinese initiatives in and around Georgia. Many in Georgia, particularly in the analytical community, suspect that the US is experiencing troubles in its policy towards Georgia and that had not it been so, the current Anaklia issues would not be happening.

American interest in the Anaklia port is to deny the Chinese use of the place for their economic activities within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, the US calculus might also be that the port, apart from economic benefits, could potentially be used for military purposes.

Considering this geo-strategic thinking, Washington would not allow any third party to dominate the Anaklia port project. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement comes to mind- when he questioned how honest Beijing and Moscow are being in trying to be Tbilisi’s “true allies.” He also emphasized that the Anaklia port will be built.

The third power, which has more military power in place in the Black Sea region, is obviously Russia. Its recent moves in the economic realm, though, could seriously undermine Anaklia’s future business environment even if the port is successfully built.

It was reported that Russia has recently sped up solidifying its grip on the Kerch Strait and Azov Sea. The RMP (RosMorPort) Taman Consortium which is expected to include five companies, RosMorPort, KuzbassRazrezUgol, MetaloInvest, Russian Railways (RZD) and SUEK, is set to build the ‘Taman Port,’ which is strategically located on the Russian side of the Kerch Strait that connects the Black and Azov seas.

Alongside this quiet battle, the US and China are in purely technological competition. It has been reported that US National Security Advisor John Bolton wants to undermine the pending Chinese acquisition of an important Ukrainian aerospace company. Washington fears that the acquisition will give Beijing vital defense technology as the Ukrainian military tech giant has for decades been producing vital parts for the Russian aerospace industry. The Ukrainian-Russian crisis, a result of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, has, for the time being, put a hold on Ukrainian sales.

Thus, these various seemingly unrelated events could well be set to complicate Anaklia’s fate. Among them, Russia’s persistence in building a deep sea port at Taman is less problematic: of more serious importance is the unstable nature of the Georgian government and the US’ still-evolving perspective on its position worldwide and particularly in the Black Sea basin.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Russia’s Potential Invasion of Ukraine: Bringing In Past Evidence

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Since mid-November 2021, the U.S. intelligence community and media have been warning of a Russian military buildup along the country’s western border. As the military activities are widely interpreted as a sign of Russia’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine, NATO needs to carefully analyze Russia’s motivations and previous behaviors, as well as hammer out policy options in case the existing fears prove to be correct.

Although Russia’s record of deception and recent statements about red lines make current tensions particularly worrisome, there is no hard evidence that an invasion is indeed being planned. The present situation is one of ambiguity (which is probably deliberate), and the West should treat it as such. Washington and its allies should be prepared for the worst without assuming that the negative scenario will inevitably come true. In particular, NATO should consider continuing its policy of tailored deterrence while refraining from steps that can lead to escalation themselves.

What Makes the Invasion Possible

Putin’s modern Ukraine policy originates from two basic assumptions about Russia’s relations with the West after the end of the Cold War. The first assumption is based on the broken promise narrative. According to Mary Sarotte, the Soviet Union did expect that NATO would not move eastward, whereas German Foreign Minister Genscher did promise that NATO “would not expand itself to the East.” The assurances have never been codified. However, NATO’s close military cooperation with Ukraine is viewed by Russia as violating the spirit of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 1990. The historical fear of an attack from the West makes this perception even more vivid. The second assumption is that protests, revolutions, and major political shifts in the post-Soviet space can usually be attributed to Western malicious intentions. The 2014 pro-European revolution in Ukraine is therefore referred to by Moscow as a coup d’état. As unpleasant as they are, the two preconceived notions have a substantial impact on Russian foreign policy, leading the Kremlin to take radical military and diplomatic steps.

Further, Russia’s previous behaviors indicate that Moscow can actually use force against its neighbors, which means that military scenarios should be given serious consideration. It is known that Russia used military force to take control of Crimea in 2014, as President Putin admitted Russia’s involvement and disclosed secrets of the “takeover plot” quite a while ago. It is also known that Russia occupied large swaths of Georgia in 2008, even though Russia’s sovereignty was not directly threatened by skirmishes in South Ossetia. It is presumed, yet denied by Russia, that Moscow has been directly engaged in the Donbas War, which began in mid-2014.

More importantly, Russia has a record of denying its role in crises where Russia’s involvement was suspected by others from the outset. It is only in April 2014 that Putin admitted responsibility for the takeover of Crimea that had taken place between late February and early March. A more recent example of deception is Russia’s anti-satellite test in November 2021. Initially, the Vice-Chair of the Defense Committee in Russia’s Parliament said that “[t]here is no limit to the fantasies of the State Department. Russia is not engaged in the militarization of space.” Foreign Minister Lavrov speculated that “there is no evidence.” Later that day, Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted that the test had been conducted. There are even more cases of Moscow’s presumed malicious activities where Russia has never admitted its role. Those include the Donbas War, the downing of MH17 in July 2014, and the poisoning of Skripal and Navalny.

Given this record, Russia’s assurances that no invasion is being planned cannot be taken at face value. Moreover, Russian officials have made a number of worrisome statements recently. Since late November, President Putin has been calling for “security guarantees” from the West to prevent further NATO enlargement. On November 22, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released a statement on the tensions over Ukraine, saying that “[w]e observed a similar situation in Georgia on the eve of the events of 2008.”

Rationality, Restraint, and History Lessons

Yet, it may seem that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be contrary to Russia’s interests, which is in fact true. A fait accompli along the lines of the 2014 takeover of Crimea is no longer possible, as Ukraine’s Army has been forged in the combats of Donbas. The covert war scenario for an entire country does not seem feasible either. Not only would an invasion result in numerous casualties for both sides, but it would also constitute a drain on Russia’s budget for years to come. A brutal war against Ukraine would literally destroy Moscow’s “fraternal peoples” narrative underlying much of Russian foreign policy.

The irrationality of attacking Ukraine is not the only reason why risks for NATO in the current situation may be exaggerated. Although Russia has used military force in a few notable cases, there have been even more examples of Russia’s restraint. In 2018, Russia refrained from attempting to keep in power Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan in a revolution that was framed by many as inherently pro-Western. Russia did not take sides in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, even though Azerbaijan was explicitly supported by NATO member Turkey. Russia was sticking to a “wait and see” approach during much of the attempted revolution in Belarus in 2020. Finally, Russia has tolerated coups and revolutions in Central Asia, including most recently the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2020. In other words, understanding what Russia could have done but chose not to do is no less important than the awareness of what has indeed occurred. Russia is not inherently expansionist, and the domino logic does not apply.

However, this in no way means that an invasion of Ukraine is impossible. Irrational, previously unknown, and even “impossible” events tend to occur from time to time, as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated 80 years ago. Even crazier twists and turns have probably been averted thanks to diplomacy and deterrence. This is why contingency planning is an integral part of any foreign and defense policy. NATO’s goal is to preempt, prevent, and be prepared for an invasion rather than predict whether it will happen or not.

Way Forward

While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not been launched, Western policy can rely on traditional deterrence instruments tailored to the crisis in question. In doing so, the United States and its allies should not act as though an invasion were inevitable, which it is not. NATO’s response to the current tensions should be very limited and focused, yet commensurate with the Western interest in countering Russian adventurism and short of upending the status quo for no apparent reason. First, the U.S. and its allies may continue providing military aid to Ukraine and even increase it, which is in line with previous policies. That said, troop deployments in Ukraine and enhanced military presence in the Black Sea would not be helpful, as such measures could alienate Russia without providing any benefits to the West. Second, NATO should dissuade Ukraine from attacking first, as Georgia did in 2008. Russia should be put in a position where any attack it might undertake would be unprovoked and very explicit. However, NATO should find it in its interest to refrain from providing any specific guarantees to Ukraine. The nature of Ukraine-Russia tensions makes provocations on both sides highly likely; assurances and alliances would only heighten risks, boosting Ukraine’s and Russia’s self-confidence.

A full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is possible. Still, it is neither inevitable nor likely. When everyone takes war for granted, the question arises whether the United States still has a foreign policy capable of fostering a positive environment for the prosperity of the American people.

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Putin Calls for Stronger Solidarity in New Year Greetings to BRICS leaders

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In a new year message to leaders of BRICS – Brazil, India, China and South Africa – President Vladimir Putin has called for a stronger unity among the group’s members, strengthen political dialogue and forge common approach to emerging challenging global problems especially issues relating economic stability and security.

In his message to President of the Republic of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, Putin stressed that the strategic partnership between Moscow and Brasilia in the outgoing year was quite successful. He expressed hope for continued constructive dialogue and joint activities bilaterally and within BRICS, the G20, the UN and other multilateral associations and organizations.

Moscow, together with other four members, has made appreciable efforts in developing the BRICS. It always intends to work effectively for the sake of enhancing the organization’s authority and promoting common approaches to pressing problems on the international agenda.

In the messages of greetings addressed to the leaders of the Republic of India, President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Russian leader noted the high level of Russia-India relations of special privileged strategic partnership, as fully demonstrated by the results of recent talks held in New Delhi.

“The implementation of the agreements reached will help further expand productive Russia-India cooperation in various areas,” Putin noted.

He further expressed hope that in the coming year, the two countries would continue their constructive dialogue both via bilateral ties and within BRICS, the SCO, the G20, the UN and other multilateral organizations. These would benefit the friendly peoples of both Russia and India and in the interests of enhancing security and stability in Eurasia and across the world.

In his message of greetings to President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping on the occasion of the New Year and the upcoming Spring Festival, Putin noted that 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Russian-Chinese Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which is a solid basis underlying bilateral relations.

Despite the pandemic-related challenges, the Russian leader noted that Russia and China’s interaction was exceedingly productive. “A dynamic political dialogue continued at all levels, trade was up at an all-time high, and cross years of Scientific, Technological and Innovative Cooperation led to good practical results,” the message says.

The effective coordination of efforts in addressing key items on the regional and international agenda was noted in the message, and confidence was expressed that the two countries would be able to expand the entire range of bilateral ties, and a new joint project between the two countries – the Year of Cooperation in Physical Fitness and Sports – would be implemented in full.

“I have no doubt that our Chinese friends will make sure that the Winter Olympic Games are a success. I look forward to our meeting at the opening ceremony of this sports festival,” according to his message of greetings.

Russia and South Africa, in particular, have been attempting to scale up their bilateral relations. “I hope that in 2022 we will continue to work closely to strengthen the multifaceted interaction between Russia and South Africa – both bilaterally and within BRICS, the G20, the UN and other multilateral organizations. This fully meets the interests of our peoples and helps strengthen international stability and security,” Putin wrote in his message to the President of the Republic of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa.

The BRICS member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) collectively represent about 26% of the world’s geographic area and are home to 3.6 billion people, about 42% of the world’s population. The five commands a combined nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$16.6 trillion.

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