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From KGB to Kremlin: Twenty years’ saga of Putin

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When the red flag was removed from the top of red square followed by Gorbochove’s statement that declared the official disintegration of USSR, the West was erupted in jubilation as the sole winner of the cold war. Political theorists like Fukuyama coined a new political phase “End of History” which affirmed that the world emerged after the collapse of Soviet Union will be based on the interests of West and it’s liberal order and this prophesy seemed to be true at outset as the Russia born out of Perestroika eagerly embraced Western democracy and open economic order things they loathly rejected under Communist rule. Ninety decade was a bad time for people in Russian federation as country was in tatters under Yeltsin’s rule and inflation and rise of crime impoverished people. The mayhem continued till a lesser known figure called Vladimir Putin became new Russian leader in the new year eve in 1999. Perhaps it would be a dramatic statement to say Russia made its tryst with destiny in the dawn of new millennium. Especially, the serious of bomb blasts in Moscow devastated Russian public life which finally paved the path to bring lesser known former KGB officer Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin to zenith of power.

In analysing his first decade in power, the manner he dealt with West, in particular with Washington was impeccable as his moves went beyond the predictions of political pundits in Western think tanks. After his first meeting with George W Bush, US leader had stated that in Slovakia Summit in 2001 “I looked the man in the eye and saw him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”. Indeed, Putin became too much straightforward to West in his actions later. In the first half of his regime, president Putin coped with its rebellious southern republic Chechnya and by 2003 Russian forces could occupy Chechenia after terribly crushing Chechenian rebels, yet fragments remained as seeds of conflict continued to exist in Russian geo political space. As an example, the hostage crisis in Beslan marred his image as the fight between militants and Russian forces in rescuing the hostages finally caused civilian lives including many children. However, he could triumphantly bring the very end to crisis in Chechnya through military means in 2009 and the its capital Grozny which was described by the UN as the most devastated city on earth in 2003 was rebuilt. As a matter of fact, his first decade or till Russia envisaged its military encounter with Georgia, Russian foreign policy with West was much amicable. In fact, president Putin was given a gala reception in the Western states when he made his state visits. In particular, Putin became the first Russian leader to visit Great Britain since 1874. Yet, the honeymooning period with West began to reach its ebb after Georgian crisis in 2008 and which saw its worst nightmare in 2014 when Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

2014 military invasion of Crimea was followed by a serious of EU sanctions upon Russian federation and Russia was expelled from G8 group as well. But, the consistency of president Putin and his political acumen was not affected by any of those external influence as his actions proved his determination to carry out the national interest even if it makes Russian position vulnerable internationally. As an example, when antagonism with West became much severe, Moscow opened to other options like China. Russia ‘s involvement in China ‘s  belt and road initiative under Putin is one of notable factors since 2014 which indicates Russia is deviating itself from Europe in order to locate her position in the new rising epi center Beijing. Also, the formation of BRICS as a common platform for emerging world powers further strengthened Russia’s relationship with states outside Europe. It is by no means an easy task to relocate Russia outside Europe, yet the circumstances and the rise of new world economic order under China paved the path for Sino Russo alliance under president Putin.

His flair for cult personality seems to have made him more popular in media than any world political leader. Yet, his persona as a political leader has made him a tyrant before Western mainstream media. Except during 2008 to 2012 (serving as premier to Dmitrij Medvedev) Putin has been holding the helm as world largest states leader despite his political actions have been vehemently criticized by western states. Nevertheless, he could secure 76 % majority in the presidential election held in 2018 March which granted him the power to stay in power till 2024 albeit there has been a huge criticism regarding the transparency of the election results.

In assessing current strategy of president Putin in carving the future of Russia, his intention of restoring its lost glory appears to be the prime task. In his own words “Demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century”. He seems have believed that Soviet Union was crushed as a result of western intelligence service operation. But, his active role in the Middle East has ensured Russia’s entry back to the global geo political game as a key player. Perhaps the current situation in the Middle East would have been unthinkable in the days of Kissinger with his notion of global geo political chess as Russia’s entry into Middle East simply upset the apple cart and her role started to overcome the influence of the USA in the Middle East. Especially, Trump’s decision to pull US forces away from Syrian Turkey border and America’s inability to protect Kurds in have lost its credibility in the Middle East as a reliable partner whereas Russia has proved its worth in Syria by protecting Assad’s regime. On the other hand, Russia has accomplished its foreign military bases under president Putin. Russian naval base located in Tartus and the expansion of its air base in Latakia have increased Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.

The evident truth of Putin’s strategic mechanism is that his devotion to take Russia back to its former glories. Yet, the internal vulnerability of Russia as a demographically weakening state with a stagnant economy can curtail his grand strategy. On the other hand, the vacuum remains in its political space to find a potential successor to president Putin is a crucial factor for Russia as its history has always proven how country can undergo a wretched period after a sudden dismay of a strong authoritarian leader. All in all, his twentieth year in power can be a much significant era as it clearly affects the global political order. The challenges appearing in 2019 have become much complicated than what world witnessed when Putin stepped into Kremlin in 1999. The rise of right wing political ideology around the world and BREXIT crisis are just few global chaos in that modern world faces today. The question remains unsolved is that how would Putin survive the internal problems looming before him while continuing his enthusiasm over restoring Russian pride as a global super power.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]gmail.com

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Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?

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The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.

Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.

In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.

The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.

Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.

Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.

The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.

In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.

Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.

Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.

The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.

Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.

In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.

Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.

In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.

Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.

Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.

Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.

Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.

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Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement

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image source:syria.mil.ru

(This is the second and final part of the author’s article series on this topic. The first one can be read here, and it is recommended to review it before the present piece).

Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, or its post-2014 comprehensive engagement with the many Muslim-majority countries along its southern periphery and beyond, comprises one of the most important pillars of its contemporary grand strategic balancing act between East and West. The Southern vector of its diplomacy prevents any zero-sum choice between East and West by presenting the Eurasian Great Power with a much-needed third option, which in turn can be leveraged to improve its negotiating potential with those aforementioned two regions of Eurasia. The first part of the article series elaborated on the geostrategic situation in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, while the present piece is more focused on Russia’s opportunities in these regions and narrative engagement with them. Although they can be read separately, it is recommended that they are reviewed together in order to obtain a better understanding of everything.

Russian Interests

North Africa: Becoming the Libyan Power Broker

In North Africa, Libya is the scene of intense competition between Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France on the other. Russia must therefore seek a compromise solution that prevents either side from becoming dominant, with Russia playing the kingmaker role if possible (perhaps through a mix of creative diplomacy, energy partnerships and PMCs). The victory of either side over the other might unbalance the region, creating more opportunities for American or other meddling with unpredictable consequences. Libya is also the gateway to parts of West and Central Africa, so whoever fully controls it could expand more confidently into Africa with time, thus complicating Russian interests there too (which are beyond the scope of the present analysis despite some of the countries being Muslim-majority ones). If pressed to choose, Russia should side more with Egypt and the UAE, especially since the latter can open doors for Russia in other regions if their partnership reaches the strategic level through cooperation here and elsewhere.

Levant: Resolving the War in Syria

Russia must somehow resolve the Syrian dilemma, ideally by pairing an Iranian withdrawal with the nuclear deal, sanctions relief for Syria, and some form of decentralization that is acceptable to Damascus. Moscow must also ensure that Turkish influence is balanced by Emirati influence and that the Muslim Brotherhood is contained. In addition, comprehensively strengthening ties with Israel is a must, but Russia has to articulate the reasons behind this balanced policy to Arab civil society to avoid losing soft power by having its rivals (i.e. America) exploit the narrative void to portray Russia as “pro-Zionist”, etc. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has to maintain balanced influence there which does not infringe on its neighbors, all the while expanding its role over that region via its springboard of energy diplomacy. The Kurdish card can also help Russia balance those same countries, but it must be played very carefully to avoid possibly irreparable blowback to Russian interests.

The Gulf: Investing in Vision 2030 & Engaging with (South) Yemen

Unlike the other “Ummah Pivot” regions, Russia has no serious risks in the Gulf, but plenty of opportunities. It should continue its military and energy diplomacy with all partners to expand its influence over their elite. This can help open up real-sector economic opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 model of socio-economic development for example. Still, the UAE should be Russia’s priority partner because it is obviously more influential than Saudi Arabia is right now even if Riyadh commands more power over the global energy markets than Abu Dhabi does. Russia should seriously consider diplomatically involving itself more in resolving the long-running and highly disastrous war in Yemen by attempting to replicate its regrettably unsuccessful but nevertheless principled approach to the Syrian one by encouraging decentralization. This necessitates closer ties with the UAE and its South Yemeni partners, but must not be pursued too enthusiastically lest Saudi Arabia and Iran grow suspicious of Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.

South Caucasus: Managing the New Regional Reality

Russia’s interests here are three-fold and interlinked: it must manage Turkey’s growing influence over Azerbaijan, ensure Armenia’s compliance with last year’s ceasefire agreement mandating the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, and effectively utilize the aforementioned to bring about tangible economic dividends related to improving trade with all concerned countries (most importantly Turkey and Iran). This requires a tricky diplomatic balancing act, but there are still certain reasons to be optimistic about its success. Azerbaijan seems increasingly conscious of Turkey’s creeping influence over it and might move closer to Russia in order to balance this. Armenia, while more nationalistic than ever, can’t realistically refuse to unblock the corridors in perpetuity, so eventually it’ll be compelled to comply. As for trade, Russian companies are already active in the South Caucasus and can expand their businesses into Turkey and Iran with time.

Iran: Bolstering the Islamic Republic’s Balancing Act

With or without resolving their strategic dilemma in Syria that was earlier explained, the future of the Russian-Iranian relations seems bright, but it mustn’t be overhyped due to the difficulties that Moscow might face in making significant economic inroads in the real-sector of Tehran’s economy given Beijing’s newfound role. Russia should work more closely with India by reviving the NSTC as soon as possible, though New Delhi might not be too interested unless Washington’s sanctions are eased or removed. This severely limits Russia’s economic diplomacy but does not outright exclude its possible effectiveness. Russia should seek to expand upon its existing strategic economic partnerships to reach new commercial and other ones, taking advantage of its closer location to Iran vis-a-vis China and realizing that it might take time for China to optimize its overland trade routes to the Islamic Republic via Central Asia and W-CPEC+.

Central Asia: Retaining Strategic Influence

Russia risks losing the most out of this portion of its “Ummah Pivot” given growing Chinese, Turkish, and perhaps soon even American influence through a variety of spheres as was previously explained. The most effective solution rests in more confidently engaging civil society to retain the appeal of Russian soft power, continue cultivating regional elite including through MGIMO’s new Tashkent branch campus, and relying upon military diplomacy related to countering Afghan-emanating threats to secure privileged economic partnerships in exchange. Cynically speaking, while Russia in no way supports growing Sinophobic sentiments in the region, this terrible trend helps keep Chinese influence in check to Russia’s benefit, though China’s said influence might then just as easily be replaced by Turkey’s, especially considering some locals’ recently revived interest in the brand of political Islam that Ankara unofficially exports. Russia might not be able to stop some loss of its influence, nor the gradual establishment of a larger Muslim bloc like was earlier discussed, but it can still manage this process if it better understands exactly what is happening and why.

South Asia: Containing Afghan Threats & Pioneering Trans-Regional Connectivity

The post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is the greatest uncertainty in this region, as is the strategic significance of N-CPEC+/CEC, the latter of which can either strengthen Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) vision and/or serve as an entry point for American balancing influence in Central Asia. Moscow must see to it that Afghanistan does not fester with ISIS threats that can subsequently spread throughout the broader region in parallel with maintaining a pragmatic balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. With the latter in mind, Russia should seek utilize its historic partnership with India to draw New Delhi further away from the Quad and therefore stabilize the strategic situation with all five related nuclear powers, though without compromising on its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan. Ideally, Russia will restore stability in this highly strategic space and tangibly profit from it through economic means, including new trade routes like N-CPEC+/CEC and the VCMC.

Narrative Engagement

North Africa: Keeping the Spotlight on Turkish Activity

Russia should emphasize the need for a pragmatic compromise to the Libyan Civil War, while also highlighting the trends of Arab unity and growing Turkish influence through political Islam. Egypt’s role should be afforded particular attention in order to improve Russia’s appeal in its society by showing its people that Moscow deeply respects their country’s regional power status. As for the Turkish dimension, it should be critical, but fair, though not propagandistic and overly anti-Turkish in order to avoid worsening very sensitive ties with Ankara. Another idea is to also talk about the UAE’s growing power as well, focusing on its extra-regional engagements in North Africa so as to provide positive informational support which enhances bilateral relations.

Levant: Articulating Russia’s Complex Balancing Act

Russia must urgently articulate the driving forces behind its multi-sided balancing act, especially with Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, in order to dispel suspicions about its grand strategic intentions due to the visible narrative void that’s characterized the past few years as a result of lackluster efforts in this respect. When it comes to Syria, Russia must begin floating pragmatic compromise solutions to provoke wider discussion about them in order to discover whether they are acceptable for all stakeholders. As for Turkey, Russia did indeed unofficially legitimize its sphere of influence in Syria, but should begin talking more about how destabilizing it is become and how counterproductive Ankara’s unrealistically recalcitrant stance on compromising on President Assad’s political future is for the peace process. Concerning Iran, Russia should applaud its anti-terrorist contributions but consider highlighting its regionally destabilizing role vis-a-vis Israel, though in a sensitive and fair manner. Finally, the Kurdish card must be played very carefully because the risks might easily and far outweigh the rewards, but this outpost of Russian influence should not be forgotten either and should receive more attention when it comes to the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Gulf: Encouraging the Region’s Socio-Economic Transformation

While appreciating the UAE’s aspiring regional hegemon status, Russia should be careful not to offend Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities. It should concentrate on multilateral security solutions, such as its existing Gulf one while pioneering a decentralized compromise solution to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Russia should applaud MBS’ socio-economic reforms and begin engaging more closely with the country’s youthful society. Turkey’s military base in Qatar can largely be ignored for the time being since it does not do much, but if it becomes troublesome, Russia has to consider how to respond to it in the narrative sense, though once again without risking a worsening of very sensitive Russian-Turkish ties. Generally speaking, the Gulf should not present too many narrative challenges for Russia as the opportunities far outweigh the risks.

South Caucasus: Promoting Regional Reconciliation

Russia has to balance its sympathy for Armenia’s reactive nationalist outcry to losing last year’s war with its newfound partnership with victorious Azerbaijan. It also must gently encourage Armenia to abide by last year’s ceasefire agreement when it comes to unblocking all regional economic and transport corridors. The key challenge is how to respectfully respond to Turkish influence, especially if it becomes visibly pernicious. As a rule of thumb, being softer is better than being harder because of the sensitivities at play. More than that, Azerbaijan seems to naturally realize the risks of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Russian media possibly drawing attention to this too conspicuously might elicit a negative reaction though and make many suspect Moscow’s motives, though this might still be possible to strike a fair balance and/or employ other means to this end.

Iran: Recalibrating Russia’s Balancing Act

First and foremost, the strategic dilemma with Iran in Syria must be publicly clarified at the elite and civil society levels. Secondly, Russia has to re-engage Iran more enthusiastically than ever before, with or without the removal of U.S. sanctions. It also must bring India on board as well, taking advantage of recently troubled U.S.-Indian relations. Without India, Russia’s outreaches with Iran will remain limited, and Moscow will become a junior partner to Beijing. Speaking of which, the People’s Republic should not be criticized, but Russia can still gently and very generally speak about the risks of disproportionate dependence on any single partner. Iran must come to realize that Russia is an irreplaceable balancing partner for it, one which can fulfill a very strategic role, but it must also carry tangible economic and political benefits too.

Central Asia: Cultivating Regional Elite & Promote Secularism

More elite cultivation and media engagement is needed otherwise Russia will lose out to other powers in its own “backyard”. Russia should not ever support Sinophobia, but it could draw attention to some objective economic consequences of reportedly lopsided deals and their impact on the locals, though perhaps via indirect means to avoid angering China. Secularism must also be supported to counteract rising Islamist tendencies which could lay the seeds for non-state threats, especially via Western/U.S. and ISIS ideological infiltration of those societies. Those threats can be emphasized quite a lot to remind everyone of Russia’s stabilizing military role, which could in turn justify the privileged economic deals that it receives unlike some of those other countries’ partners in exchange for its indispensable security services.

South Asia: Pragmatically Engaging with the Taliban & Constructing a New Regional Paradigm

Engagement with Afghan society is extremely limited so Russia should concentrate on retaining cordial relations with Kabul while expanding pragmatic ties with the resurgent Taliban. It needs to formulate a narrative means through which the entrance of Russian mineral extraction companies won’t cause the same level of controversy as any of its competitors, especially Western and Chinese ones. It also needs to focus on the socio-economic benefits of N-CPEC+/CEC, especially with respect to how more Russian trade and investment can help the Afghan people. It could also, however, warn about the U.S. using N-CPEC+ as a Trojan Horse for slyly expanding influence there and beyond to reduce its appeal among the populace and preemptively thwart a prospective economic diplomacy plot. The historic partnership with India must be celebrated at every opportunity to continue courting it back to Russia’s side after recent years of allying with America. Russian experts can also take the lead in discussing pragmatic balancing solutions for the region’s nuclear powers, including Pakistan, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s legitimate interests so as to continue strengthening their ongoing rapprochement, perhaps by drawing more attention the strategic balancing motives behind their country’s CPEC+ vision.

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Quo Vadis

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Image source: kremlin.ru

The Geneva Summit between President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Joe Biden of the United States had several dimensions.

On the one hand, it was supposed to give us an idea of how the relations between the two largest nuclear powers—largely determining the overall state of global security—would develop. On the other hand, and no less importantly, the meeting was to serve as a crude indicator of the main trends in global politics. This is why, politicians, journalists and experts continue to focus on the outcomes of the summit and its possible significance for international relations.

As for the bilateral U.S.–Russia relations, the summit appears to have lived up to the quite realistic expectations of the parties. Following a protracted and a very deep nosedive, it would have been too far-fetched to expect any explicit commitments to emerge—ones capable of turning the bilateral relations towards constructive cooperation. There clearly was not enough time to prepare such commitments either. Strictly speaking, no one expected any comprehensive documents to be signed. At the same time, the two presidents adopted a joint statement following the talks, setting down a series of fundamental positions and objectives; their implementation could lead to specific arrangements as well as some headway on strategic stability.

The presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the principle that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This intuitive statement does, in fact, carry tremendous meaning. Recent years have seen heated discussions revolving around the military doctrines of the two nations. There has been much speculation that the first strike option should not be abandoned under certain circumstances, too. These debates have taken place against the backdrop of a deteriorating treaty-based framework of nuclear arms control and overall bilateral dialogue, which has significantly increased the risk of an unintended conflict that could involve nuclear weapons. With the willingness of the two leading nuclear powers to work together to prevent a nuclear disaster confirmed at the top level, this could serve as a foundation for an entire range of practical steps to reduce the risk nuclear weapons being used. Besides, this willingness will come to bolster the non-proliferation regime.

The Russian and U.S. leaders admitted that strategic predictability is the only thing that can reduce the risk of military confrontation and the threat of nuclear war. This was the case during the tensest years of the Cold War. Today, when security challenges are becoming increasingly complex and risks are growing progressively acute as the militaries introduce new cutting-edge technologies, predictability turns into one of the decisive factors in reducing risks and rebuilding trust.

How can we achieve predictability in our fundamentally unstable world? Intensive negotiations—involving diplomats, military personnel and scientists—as well as coordinating and approving documents that would allow the parties to exercise effective control and verification in the agreed areas are the only option to make it possible. Following the important political commitments demonstrated in Geneva, front stage should now be given to experts who, having extensive knowledge in the subject matter of the talks, could put forward their proposals on how to stabilize the nuclear arms balance. Predictability goes hand-in-hand with trust; one is impossible without the other.

As for the practical steps, the presidents agreed to launch a comprehensive dialogue on strategic stability without delay that should, further down the road, lay the foundations for an arms control regime of the future. The difficulty of such a dialogue and its fundamental difference from similar mechanisms of the past lies, primarily, in the need to conduct talks in several areas at once, including nuclear and conventional strategic arms, missile defence systems, cyber arms, space systems and many other things. To the best of our knowledge, Russia has already presented its ideas on the relevant bilateral working groups; we shall hope that Washington will not drag its heels in responding to these ideas.

It was no accident that strategic stability issues were the focus of the U.S.–Russia summit. The absence of mutual understanding in this area would make it virtually impossible to talk about any bilateral cooperation on particular issues of global or regional dimensions. When such understanding is there, compromises stand a chance, even in those areas where the interests of the parties significantly diverge.

As often happens, the bilateral relations are moving towards an equally important period, when the agreements reached by the two presidents will have to be implemented. Bureaucracies throughout the world have one common feature: they are well-versed in delaying the implementation of political initiatives while seamlessly shifting the responsibility for such actions onto the other party. This has happened many times in the U.S.–Russia relations. This danger is particularly imminent today, as there are plenty of pessimists on both sides who do not believe in any progress in the bilateral relations. It is, therefore, important that a detailed schedule for implementing Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden’s commitments be immediately drawn up and that a strict personal control be instituted over the efforts of the ministries and agencies concerned. Then, and only then can a set of specific documents be prepared for the next summit, and it should not be delayed either.

For obvious reasons, the significance of the U.S.–Russia Geneva summit goes far beyond their bilateral relations. The summit has already become an important factor exerting a positive effect on the overall political situation in the international community.

From our partner RIAC

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