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What to Expect in 2020 for Russia–US Relations

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Russia and the United States have had another year of rocky relations that have included more sanctions, heavy rhetoric, and a shortage of constructive dialogue to bring the two countries together. 2020 will likely be a mixed bag of steps forward and stagnation that closely resembles the past couple of years.

Nevertheless, here are three of the boldest predictions for Russia-US relations in 2020:

Prediction #1: Expect more Russophobia

Russophobia has become par for the course since circa 2016. Its emergence as a tool wielded for political expediency is nothing new. In fact, the current moment we live in is truly reminiscent of the Red Scare — an era of McCarthyism that vociferously painted Russia and Communism at large as inherently evil and unpalatable. One could argue that the current moment is perhaps more tamed than that time when Senator Joseph McCarthy made a speech on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, and proceeded to brand 205 Americans as Soviet apparatchiks. Still, the moment we live in now is not so far removed.

Today, instead of being baselessly branded as apparatchiks, political opponents (typically of the Democratic Party establishment) are seared with the pejorative of being a “Russian asset.” Often times there is no basis for such a label, and even more often those labelled are hardly what one would call pro-Russian. Take, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been smeared with the nickname “Moscow Mitch” for not taking seriously a rather useless bill aimed at virtue signalling a false seriousness about “election security.” Or, take Democratic Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard, who has come under fire from members of her own party and been chastised as a “Russian asset” for merely opposing the policy of perpetual war and regime change.

In each case, the label doesn’t fit, nor is it remotely accurate, but what it is designed to do is to win the argument without making an argument. Demonizing an opponent as a “Russian asset” is simply easier than formulating a well-reasoned, cogent argument that addresses the facts. It requires less time, effort, and due diligence — and that’s why Russia will continue to be weaponized in the American political arena.

That said, there is at least one other reason to expect more Russophobia in 2020. That reason starts and ends with the American media.

Americans over the past couple of years have developed an irrational fear of Russia, which has been incited by a media culture that has traded away honest journalism for meretricious sensationalism and selective outrage that is devoid of objectivity. American media culture, unfortunately, has little incentive to change business models moving into 2020, and the reason being is relatively clear. Since 2016, cable news outlets, for example, have experienced an increase in profit of more than 19%, while at the same time devoting between 19 and 32% of all their media coverage to sensationalized stories that instil fear towards Russia and under normal circumstances would amount to slander.

Unfortunately, McCarthyism didn’t dissipate after just one election cycle. It lingered around like a bad cold for decades to come. It took on new forms and iterations over time. The current form of Russophobia will be no different. It will take on new shapes and sizes in 2020, but it will nonetheless be a feature of the Russia-US relationship that will carry with us into the upcoming year.

Prediction #2: Expect Russia to be absent from the 2020 election

For months, pundits and politicians in the United States have warned and stated without evidence that “Russia will be back in 2020” to “interfere” and “undermine American democracy.” The problem is — there is not much reason to believe these forecasts of doom and discord will come to fruition. Russia will likely be absent from the 2020 presidential election in the same way it was missing from the 2017 German elections, the 2018 US midterms, and the most recent UK general election. In each instance aforementioned, there was wild speculation that Russia would interfere to tip the ballot box in its favour in the same way it allegedly did so in 2016. And yet in each instance, Russian meddling was nowhere to be found.

Western media outlets raised false alarms for months and eventually took on the role of the boy who cried wolf. This history will likely repeat itself in 2020 because as mentioned earlier, the corporate media has a profit-driven incentive to sensationalize everything to do with Russia.

In fact, President Putin and his administration have virtually no incentive to interfere in 2020 given the hysteria and the backlash it has received for more than three years. As fun as sanctions are, Russia is not looking to acquire more; especially given that those sanctions are a counterpoise to the primary goal of President Putin’s foreign policy — economic growth and prosperity.

As Russia has stated time and time again, it is not interested in interfering with the affairs of other countries. This time around is no different. Russia has nothing to gain and everything to lose from a prolonged hysteria that frames it as the desperado of international relations. And even if the Kremlin wanted to play that role, who would it support? President Trump? The same guy who has levied more sanctions against Russia (often unwarranted). The same guy who has lobbied against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, pulled out of the INF Treaty, permitted airstrikes that killed Russian nationals in Syria, provided lethal military aid to Ukraine, and sought regime change in countries like Venezuela — places where Russian energy companies have billion-dollar contracts? Or what about Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic frontrunners? All of which have expressed a deep-seated aversion for Russia.

Therein lies the absurdity. Russian interference will be a constant topic of conversation on cable television in 2020, but Russia itself will be absent from the elections because it has nothing of value to gain. And just like in Aesop’s fable, the moral of the story will be that fearmongers (in this case, American media) will be rewarded with the circumstance that “even if they tell the truth, no one will believe them.”

Prediction #3: Expect Russia and the United States to extend the New START Treaty

Perhaps the BIGGEST and most crucial forecast for 2020 is the expectation that Russia and the United States will begin negotiations towards extending the New START Treaty — the only remaining nuclear arms reduction pact between the two countries — that is set to expire in 2021. Up until this point, Russia and US relations as it relates to nuclear arms control have been on a downward spiral. More accurately, the United States pulled out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty just this past August, a move that was harshly criticized for potentially destabilizing global security. The INF is likely a relic of the past, but when it comes to the New START treaty, there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic that diplomacy and dialogue will prevail in this upcoming year.

For example, earlier this month, President Putin offered to extend the New START treaty without any preconditions immediately. This demonstrates a serious willingness, at least on Russia’s part, to preserve the Soviet-era compromise that limits the number of deployed nuclear forces and provides an important verification system that holds both parties in check.

And although in the past, President Trump has erroneously called the treaty a “bad deal” for the United States, the Trump administration should have ample incentive to get itself a much-needed foreign policy win going into the 2020 elections. In fact, New START, by all accounts, should be an easy win. It should require less negotiation and diplomatic resources because it involves extending an existing deal as opposed to working off a blank slate.

More than that, it’s a great deal for the US that President Trump can advertise on the campaign trail in front of his constituents. The US has 155 more deployed strategic launchers than Russia under the current deal, and the treaty has actually forced Russia to make reductions to the number of warheads it loads on some of its missiles. Even Trump’s Democratic opponents, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, recognize these and other benefits and are in favour of extending the New START Treaty.

Trump will visit Moscow in May of this upcoming year for Russia’s annual Victory Day celebrations. This will signify the first full summit between Putin and Trump, which will likely result in both sides pledging certain deliverables. Look for the United States and Russia to extend the New START Treaty for a few more years, and possibly even launch a broader multilateral discussion on the future of strategic stability.

From our partner RIAC

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The 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel

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Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey V. Lavrov’s article for the Israeli Newspaper “Yedioth Ahronoth” dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel, October 15, 2021.

On October 18, Russia and Israel celebrate the 30th anniversary of the renewal of full-fledged diplomatic relations – the beginning of a new era of common history.

Turning to the pages of the past, let me recall that the USSR was the first country to recognize de jure the State of Israel back in May 1948. Of course, there were ups and downs in the chronicle of our relationship. Today, it could be assessed with confidence that Russian-Israeli mutually beneficial cooperation has stood the test of time and continues to actively develop in all directions.

Its foundation is formed by an intensive political dialogue, foremost – at the highest level. Inter-parliamentary contacts are progressing, bolstered by Friendship Groups established in the legislative bodies of our countries. Inter-ministerial communications are carried out on a regular basis.

Over the past decades, a solid experience of diversified cooperation has been accumulated in such spheres as economics, science and technology, healthcare and education. More than twenty acting intergovernmental agreements reflect the richness of the bilateral agenda.

Our mutual practical cooperation has significant potential. A number of joint projects are being successfully implemented. Many initiatives have received the support of the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The interest of Israeli business circles in entering the Russian market continues to grow. Despite the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, by the end of 2020 trade between Russia and Israel decreased by only 3.9%, and in January-July this year it increased by 51.8% over the previous year’s period. The key coordinating mission in these common efforts is fulfilled by the Joint Russian-Israeli Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, founded in 1994. We are interested in the early resumption of its work in full.

A special role in strengthening the unifying baselines of our relations as well as ensuring their stability and continuity belongs to humanitarian contacts. We appreciate the high level of mutual understanding between the peoples of Russia and Israel, connected by a common historical memory and convergence of cultures. It is encouraging that this thread, which has no geographic boundaries, is only getting stronger in course of time.

There are millions of Russian-speaking compatriots living in Israel, including descendants both from the former Republics of the USSR and from the Russian Federation. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, survivors of the siege, former prisoners of concentration camps are among them. The fate of these people is of major interest to us.

Most vigorous rejection of the attempts of historical revisionism, combatting the distortion of the genesis, course and generally recognized international legal outcomes of the World War II have always united Russia and Israel. We will continue to coordinate our efforts, and specifically at the UN, to counter this shameful phenomenon.

While in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe Nazi henchmen are being brought to the level of national heroes and neo-Nazi tendencies are being revived, the memory of the decisive contribution of the heroic soldiers of the Red Army to the Victory over Nazism, the saving of Jews and other peoples from extermination, the liberation of the world from the horrors of the Holocaust is sacred in Israel. We see how Israeli colleagues – at the state and public levels – encourage the activities of the veterans and compatriots movements, conduct active work to educate the younger generation.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the law on Celebrating the Victory Day over Nazi Germany on May 9, approved by the Israeli parliament in 2017. It is particularly telling that on the 76th anniversary of the Great Victory, celebrated this year, festive events and commemorative parades along with the Immortal Regiment march were held in more than 45 Israeli cities. Thousands of Israelis of all ages as well as officials participated. This scale speaks for itself.

Cooperation in the field of education and science – whether through student and academic exchanges or joint scientific research continues to move forward. Every year, students from Israel get an opportunity to receive higher education in Russian universities. All of them are sincerely welcome there.

We hope that it will be possible to restore mutual tourist flows as soon as the sanitary and epidemiological situation improves. Russia is traditionally one of the top three countries in terms of the number of visitors to Israel.

The Russian-Israeli dialogue is vigorously advancing through the foreign ministries. It is obvious that without constructive interaction of diplomats it is impossible to solve a number of international and regional problems that are of paramount importance both for ensuring the prosperous future of the peoples of Russia and Israel just as for strengthening international and regional security and stability. From this perspective, diversified contacts between the Security Councils and the defense ministries of our countries have also proven themselves well. On a regular basis it allows us to compare approaches and take into account each other’s legitimate interests.

Russia is pursuing an independent multi-vector foreign policy, contemplating pragmatism, the search for compromises and the observance of balances of interests. Creation of the most favorable external conditions for our internal socio-economic development remains its backbone. We have no ideological likes and dislikes, or any taboos in relations with our foreign partners, therefore we can play an active role in the international arena and specifically through mediation in the settlement of conflicts.

We are interested in continuing consultations with our Israeli partners on security and stability issues in the Middle East. We always draw attention to the fact that comprehensive solutions to the problems of the region must necessarily take into account the security interests of Israel. This is a matter of principle.

At the same time, we are convinced that there is no alternative to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a generally recognized international legal basis. We strongly support direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A comprehensive solution to all issues of the final status is possible only through it. We are ready to work with Israeli colleagues, including multilateral formats, primarily in the context of the renewal of work of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators in close cooperation with representatives of the Arab League.

I am convinced: it is in the common interest to maintain the momentum. Ahead of us are new milestones and additional opportunities not only to continue, but also to enrich the positive experience of multifaceted cooperation for the benefit of our states and peoples, in the interests of peace and stability.

Source: Minister of Foreign Affairs

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The Emerging “Eastern Axis” and the Future of JCPOA

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Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said that Tehran would further strengthen its ties with Moscow via a strategic partnership. Said Khatibzadeh  ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded’

    This agreement will be similar in nature to the agreement signed by Iran with China in March 2021, dubbed as the strategic cooperation pact, which sought to enhance economic and strategic relations (China would invest 400 Billion USD in infrastructure and oil and gas sector while also strengthening security ties). Commenting on the same, Khatibzadeh also said that an ‘Eastern axis’ is emerging between Russia, Iran and China.

    Closer ties with Russia are important from an economic, strategic point of view, and also to reduce Iran’s dependence upon China (many including Iran’s Foreign Minister had been critical of the 25 year agreement saying that it lacked transparency). Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the eve of his Russia visit from October 5-6th, 2021 also stated that Iran while strengthening ties would not want to be excessively dependent upon either country.

Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Russia

    Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian  during his Russia visit  discussed a host of issues with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov including the current situation in Afghanistan, South Caucasus, Syria and the resumption of the Vienna negotiations.

Russia and Iran have been working closely on Afghanistan (on October 20, 2021 Russia is hosting talks involving China, India, Iran and Pakistan with the Taliban).

It is also important to bear in mind, that both Russia and Iran have flagged the non-inclusive nature of the Taliban Interim government. Russia has in fact categorically stated that recognition of Taliban was not on the table. Said the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly,   ‘the whole gamut of Afghan society — ethno-religious and political forces — so we are engaging in contacts, they are ongoing.’

China’s approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan

Here it would be pertinent to point out, that China’s stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan is not identical to that of Moscow and Tehran. Beijing while putting forward its concerns vis-à-vis the use of Afghan territory for terrorism and support to Uyghur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has repeatedly said that there should be no external interference, and that Afghanistan should be allowed to decide its future course. China has also spoken in favor of removal of sanctions against the Taliban, and also freeing the reserves of the Afghan Central Bank (estimated at well over 9 Billion USD), which had been frozen by the US after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

If one were to look at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal, Russia has been urging Iran to get back to the Vienna negotiations on the one hand (these negotiations have been on hold since June), while also asking the US to return to its commitments, it had made under the JCPOA, and also put an end to restriction on Iran and its trading partners.

Conversation between US Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister

The important role of Russia is reiterated by the conversation between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister. Angela Merkel during her visit to Israel also made an important point that both China and Russia had an important role to play as far as getting Iran back on JCPOA is concerned. What is also interesting is that US has provided a waiver to the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. The US has opposed the project, but the Department of State said waiving these sanctions was in US national interest. Both Germany and Russia welcomed this decision.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia may have moved closer to China in recent years, its stance on Afghanistan as well as it’s important role in the context of resumption of Vienna negotiations highlight the fact that Moscow is not keen to play second fiddle to Beijing. The Biden Administration in spite of its differences has been engaging closely with Moscow (a number of US analysts have been arguing for Washington to adopt a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis Russia and to avoid hyphenating Moscow with Beijing).  In the given geopolitical landscape, Washington would not be particularly averse to Tehran moving closer to Russia. While the Iranian spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh spoke about a Eastern axis emerging between Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, it would be pertinent to point out, that there are differences on a number of issues between Moscow and Beijing. The Russia-Iran relationship as well as US engagement with Russia on a number of important geopolitical issues underscores the pitfalls of viewing geopolitics from simplistic binaries.

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New U.S. travel rules excludes foreigners vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V

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Local and foreign media have stepped up reports about rising Covid-19 infections in Russia. While the reports also indicated high deaths in the country, other highligted new trends that are noticeably appearing. Interestingly, directors at the Russian tourism and travel agencies say that many Russians are lining up for vaccine tourism in Serbia, Bulgaria and Germany and a few other foreign countries.

These Russians aim at getting foreign vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

Here are a few facts about Russian vaccines.

Russia’s Sputnik V was the first officially registered coronavirus vaccine on August 11, 2020. Russia is using four vaccines for mass vaccination for Covid-19. These are Sputnik V and Sputnik Light developed by the Russian Health Ministry’s Gamaleya Center.

EpiVacCorona developed by the Vector Center of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), and CoviVac developed by the Chumakov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Clinical trials of the EpiVacCorona vaccine on teens aged from 15 to 17 might begin in the near future.

China has 1.3 billion population and has given the two billionth vaccine by the end of August, the United State has 380 million and attained 60% of its population. In Europe, vaccination rate is highly at an appreciable level.

Overall, Russia with an estimated 146 million people has Europe’s highest death toll from the pandemic, nearly 210,000 people as at September 30, according to various authentic sources including the National Coronavirus Task Force.

More than 42 million Russians have received both components of a coronavirus vaccine, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova.

“The number of citizens who have received the first component of a vaccine has topped 44 million, and more than 37 million people have completed a full vaccination course,” Golikova said.

She gave an assurance back in July that once the population have been immunized with at least the first component of a two-shot vaccine, herd immunity to Covid-19, or at least an 80% vaccination rate, should be reached by November 1.

Reasons: Even though Russia boasted of creating the world’s first coronavirus vaccines, vaccination is very low. Critics have principally blamed a botched vaccine rollout and mixed messages the authorities have been sending about the outbreak.

In addition, coronavirus antibody tests are popular in Russia and some observers suggest this contributes to the low vaccination numbers.

Western health experts say the antibody tests are unreliable either for diagnosing Covid-19 or assessing immunity to it. The antibodies that these tests look for can only serve as evidence of a past infection. Scientists say it’s still unclear what level of antibodies indicates that a person has protection from the virus and for how long.

Russia has registered Sputnik V in more than 150 foreign countries. The World Health Organization is yet to register this vaccine. For its registration, it must necessarily pass through approved procedures, so far Russia has ignored them, according reports.

There have also been several debates after the World Health Organization paused its review process of the Sputnik V vaccine over concerns about its manufacturing process, and few other technical reasons. While some talked about politicizing the vaccine registration, other have faced facts of observing recognized international rules for certifying medical products as such vaccines.

During the first week of October, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has reiterated or repeated assertively that a certain package of documents were needed to continue the process for the approval of the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V by the World Health Organization. The final approval is expected towards the end of 2021.

Still some the problems with the registration as unfair competition in the global market. For instance, Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said in an interview with the Rossiya-24 television channel on October 5: “I think it is an element of competition. Until Pfizer covers a certain part of the market, it is pure economics.”

On the other side, Pyotr Ilyichev, Director for International Organization at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Interfax News Agency, for instance that World Health Organization has been playing politics around Russian vaccine especially when it is need in most parts of the world.

“The world is facing an acute shortage of vaccines for the novel coronavirus infection. In certain regions, for instance in African countries, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. The Russian vaccine is in demand, and the UN stands ready to buy it,” he told Interfax.

“However, certification in the WHO is a complex, multi-step process, which was developed in the past in line with Western countries’ standards. It requires time and serious efforts from our producers. We hope that this process will be successfully finalized in the near future,” Ilyichev said.

Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Leonid Slutsky has described as discriminatory a decision reported by foreign media that the United States, under its new consular rules, would deny entry for foreigners immunized with the Russian Covid-19 vaccine Sputnik V.

“Thus, the U.S. will blatantly embark on a path of ‘vaccine discrimination.’ There are absolutely no grounds for such decisions. The efficacy and safety of the Sputnik V vaccine have been confirmed not only by specialists, but also by its use in practice,” Slutsky said on Telegram.

He cited an article in The Washington Post saying that from November the United States may begin denying entry to foreigners vaccinated with Sputnik V.

It means that if such additional border measures are adopted, foreigners seeking entry to the United States will have to be immunized with vaccines approved for use either by American authorities or the World Health Organization.

According to an article published in The Washington Post, for the first time since the pandemic began, the United States intends to loosen entry restrictions for foreigners vaccinated against Covid-19.

The new rules, which enter into force in November, will not apply to Russians vaccinated with Sputnik V and citizens of other countries using this Russian vaccine.

Under the new rules, foreigners will enter United States only if they are immunized with vaccines approved for use by the United States Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization. Russia’s Sputnik V is yet to be approved by the World Health Organization and is not recognized by the United States.

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