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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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Russia is a part of Europe, which never became a part of Russia

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The process of the new European integration coincided in time with the intensification of the process of globalization, which has stimulated and inspired the formation of the European Union. Presently, debates about the crisis of globalization are going almost simultaneously with discussions about the crisis of European integration. The European press is now wondering who is to blame for the fact that globalization, which, overall, has contributed positively to the process of global development, failed to become a universal and, most importantly, a harmonizing model of the world order.

According to the authoritative participants in the discourse, currently going on in the European press, “the inevitable trilemma of the world economy, namely, the contradiction between the realities of democracy, sovereignty and global economic integration” has been both a bone of contention and a stumbling block. Naturally enough, these global tendencies have reflected negatively on the integration process involving the better part of Europe.  As Alexei Gromyko noted in one of his recent speeches, the old principles of European integration are no longer being emulated.

The pro-EU-minded European elites admit that the whole idea initially emerged as a political project, with a “top down” structure. According to the authors of a collective study of identification problems in Europe, published by Cambridge University, political scientists of the European Union, often sponsored by the European Commission, focus mainly on the Union itself and the influence of its institutions, while virtually ignoring how the sense of community was being formed “from the down up” also outside the EU institutions or close to them. They added that the financial and economic crisis had clearly shown that external disciplinary principles of integration are ahead of, and in some cases run counter to internal integration, as well as its regional diversity.  

Europe is now fully aware of the need to maintain its global competitiveness and exercise a rapid transition to a new industrial revolution. As for the East European countries, however, they do not have sufficient financial and economic resources to build a fully competitive industry of their own, and, therefore, EU subsidies to the tune of 20 percent of these countries’ budgets helped to narrow to some extent the yawning gap in the socio-economic development between the “old” and “new” Europe.

According to the director of the Minsk-based Center for European Integration, Yuri Shevtsov, “what we see today is a clear transition of European integration to a new principle of dealing with less developed states. The previous level of hidden and open subsidies is no longer possible. Juncker’s stimulus plan for the EU’s high-tech sector … was mainly applied to the countries of “old” Europe that are better prepared for it … The inevitable cuts in subsidies to Eastern Europeans create a new reality for them for the long haul and essentially perpetuate the longstanding negative tendencies of the region’s economic development. What can Eastern Europe hope for during the 10-15 years? What are the consequences of the EU’s switch to a new development model? “

This leads to another important question of whether this new reality will set the stage for a new historical rapprochement between Russia and the countries of this part of Europe.

It is not only economic issues and stability of the European market for the consumption of our energy resources that we are concerned about, of course. There is no denying the fact that Russia is a part of Europe. The French cultural historian, Pierre Chaunu, argued that involvement in an intra-civilizational dialogue is the only criterion of someone’s belonging to European civilization. Russia fully meets this criterion, of course. And yet, where does the feeling of a certain watershed, a barrier separating Europe from Russia that once was so acutely felt by the Slavophiles and Westernizers, really come from? From the point of view of anatomy, Russia is a part of Europe, which never became a part of Russia. How about the powerful influence of Byzantine culture on European civilization? Don’t we see enough traces of this culture in Italian, German and other European cities? And still, Byzantium never became part of Europe, which tried so hard to destroy the civilization of which Russia became a successor…

It is highly symptomatic that the Dutch authorities recently listed Russia as one of the countries “around Europe,” including this status in the concept of the kingdom’s foreign cultural policy for 2017-2020. We know, however, that the Netherlands is not alone in this assessment. Paradoxically, it was Holland that was the main partner of and a source of inspiration for Peter the Great, who opened the “window on Europe.”

We say that Russia is a part of Europe as if we were standing on the opposite bank. Why so? It would be more natural for us say: “Europe is a part of Russia,” especially since Russia is not absorbed by Europe and has a significant part of it belonging to Asia, and not only geographically.

At the dawn of the past century, one Russian thinker wrote: “When reading the press and listening to public moods, I am saddened to see just how neglected our Russian thought really is and how timidly, as if apologizing, Russian people think in Russian when their thoughts differ from those of the West. ”

The Institute of Europe is more than just an academic institution; it is the center, the focus of Russian thought about Europe. Moreover, in your work you have managed to maintain an important balance that is often ignored, especially by our education system, which prioritizes one part of Europe over the other. This is our eternal problem. Just as was so sadly noted by the observer I mentioned before, “We know something from history, from German, French and English literature, but we don’t know a thing about the history and literature of the Slavs. If the Russian people were examined on the history of Slavism, I think the result would be pretty much instructive, as we would feel ashamed of our ignorance. We learned about Karl, Friedrich and Louis at school, but not about the Slavs.”

The Russian philosopher Vladimir Ern famously said that in relation to Russia, Europe was making a rather rapid transformation from “Kant to Krupp.” This is something we should always keep in mind.

What trends will prevail in Europe? Centripetal, deepening the next internal convergence, or centrifugal, which will make Europe a conglomerate of nation states again? After all, history does not repeat itself in details only.

I think there is no need for any of us to become Eurosceptics or Euro-optimists, even though sometimes it seems to me that there are more Euro-optimists among our political analysts (in percentage terms) than anywhere else in Europe. It is important for us to understand just how Europe’s political, cultural and economic development is going to affect us. What will these changes mean for Russia? What do we need to prepare for?

The work being done by your institute and its unique team, acquires a truly invaluable role in solving these problems, and I want to wish all of you every success in this all-important endeavor!

From our partner International Affairs

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How the West failed to understand contemporary Russia

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A few years ago, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy claimed that, for anyone wishing to understand the domestic and foreign politics of Russia he should read and try to understand the great works of Russian literature. In a post that he made at theforeignpolicy.com, he mentions: “Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think”.

It is understandable that when a former NATO commander suggests something like that, policymakers and diplomats from the U.S. would have an easier time understanding contemporary Russian politics. However, if this claim was true, how is it possible that after thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the West in general still, fail to understand Russia and its position in this world?

The Russian-American relations in the era of Boris Yeltsin

By 1989, it was pretty clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the uprising in Eastern Europe created a chain reaction that eventually caught up with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the reforms that Gorbachev suggested to open up the Soviet Union failed. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian Federation became an independent state and declared itself as the successor to the USSR. The Russian-American relations during the Yeltsin period can be described as neutral with a mutual tolerance from both sides. Also, at that time, there was indeed a sense of officially ending the Cold War, as both sides took positive measures to ensure that. In 1993, both sides signed the START II arms control treaty that focused on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.

However, the warm relations between the United States and Russia revealed how the U.S. perceived Russia. As a weak nation trying to balance itself after the fall of communism and its dissolvement. At the same time, Russia had to deal with enormous problems. The new Russian Federation was forced to sell almost 40.000 public businesses, like energy, mining, and communications companies. The economy of the country was in a freefall and for years the country found itself, hostage, to oligarchs. Besides that, Boris Yeltsin himself was considered to be a national embarrassment, relying heavily on the oligarchs and the West that saw him as a political tool to influence Russian domestic politics.

The United States under Bill Clinton wasn’t exactly rooted in any exalted “Russophilia”, as Dr. Andrei Kortunov pointed out: “Washington gave warm support to Yeltsin because of numerous US agencies’ analyses indicating Yeltsin could be counted upon as a guarantee of the irreversibility of the big and small victories gained over the former Cold War antagonist” (Kortunov, 1997). However, in March 1999, these slightly warm relations would be tested, after the U.S.-led NATO military operation against Serbia over the disputed land of Kosovo. Russia was against the attack and until this day, it does not recognize the pseudo-state of Kosovo. A few months later, when he was visiting China, Boris Yeltsin verbally attacked Bill Clinton for his criticism of Russian tactics in Chechnya. He made a blunt reminder of the fact that Russia was still a nuclear superpower. “Things will be as we have agreed with Jiang Zemin. We will be saying how to live, not Bill Clinton alone”. This was the only attempt that Boris Yeltsin did to show that Russia must still be considered a major player in international affairs. The U.S. made the mistake to think that the weakness of one man represented a weak nation in total, but with the 1999 elections and the victory of Vladimir Putin on December 31st, it was clear that Russia was entering a new era re-emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and challenge the geopolitical status quo of the new millennium.

Vladimir Putin and the genesis of modern Russia

After the appointment of Vladimir Putin as the new President of the Russian Federation, the relations between the two countries were characterized as stable and warm. However, the West continued the same rhetoric of underestimating Russia. For former senior CIA officer Paul R. Pillar, the mistake that the U.S. and the West made was pretty clear. The West did not treat Russia as a nation that got rid of communism like Hungary or Poland. Besides that, the rapid expansion of NATO on former Soviet territories created more problems for the peaceful coexistence of both superpowers, as Russia viewed that as a sign that it will not be treated fairly and equally in the global political arena.

For years, Vladimir Putin had a more passive-aggressive stance against the United States. In 2001, Russia expressed its opposition against the invasion of Afghanistan and in 2003 again, against the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, Russia at that time was focused on its internal affairs, as President Vladimir Putin had to resurrect a crumbling economy, deal with suppressing the power of the oligarchs and ensure the safety of Russian citizens against the attacks of Chechen terrorists. According to Vladislav Surkov, former Aide to Vladimir Putin, the country did manage to stabilize itself due to bold political changes. “Russia stopped breaking and began to recover”, he wrote. To be able to compete again with the United States, Russia had to put an enormous effort to achieve that, under internal and external pressure, while being underestimated by its Western partners.

For Dr. Georgi Asatryan, Vladimir Putin and the concept of Putinism helped Russia achieve that. “Putin provided stability, predictability, and peace. Putinism ensured the possibility of development. The West cannot comprehend this since standards have always been higher there”, were his words in one of his articles for EuroNews. The West soon comprehended the role of Russia in the world, with the newly appointed Obama administration in 2008. While President Barack Obama, was optimistic about a potential reset between the relations of the two nations, the reality just proved that the West had gone from a state of misunderstanding and underestimating the Russian Federation, to a state of trying to find a scapegoat and a potential enemy to protect its ideal monopoly of international influence and power.

Tug-of-war with the Obama Administration

For a brief time, there was a possibility regarding the reset in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2010, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear arms treaty called NEW START to effectively reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile. However, this euphoric feeling of resetting lasted only for a few moments. By 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to serve as the President of Russia for a third term. The tug-of-war between the two countries involved certain disbelief about resetting the tones. On the one hand, the West continued its traditional feeling of mistrust, creating a sense of fear against the rapid re-emerge of Russia and the nationalistic policies of Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Russia remained paranoid about the intention of the West to meddle in its internal affairs as well as with their political expansion towards Eastern Europe.

Sir John Sawers, former head of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Britain, expressed his opinion a few years ago, in a BBC interview. “If there was a clear understanding between Washington and Moscow about the rules of the road, that we are not trying to bring down each other’s systems, then solving regional problems like Syria or Ukraine or North Korea would be easier”. Many experts believed that the mixed signals that the Obama administration sent towards Moscow might have been one of the reasons for the fragile relationship between the two states.

From 2013 until the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016, three main events have destabilized the relations between Washington and Moscow and also added up to the misunderstanding and animosity between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Firstly, the case of Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden released secret U.S. government documents exposing a mass surveillance campaign inside the United States and on foreign country leaders. He was granted asylum in Russia, where he remains until now. The incident of Edward Snowden was enough to cancel the meeting between Obama and Putin in Moscow. The second event that stigmatized Russian-American relations was the 2014 Ukrainian coup d’ etat and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In February 2014, after the collapse of the legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia decided to annex Crimea based on a referendum that was held on March 16, 2014. The referendum was successful and Crimea became part of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the West was against the referendum while the United States accused Russia of acts of aggression. On March 24, 2014, Russia was suspended from participating in the G8 summits. Due to the concerning situation in Ukraine at that time, the relations between the two states were characterized as the worst since the end of the Cold War.

Last but not least, the event that further increased the gap between the two sides was the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s involvement started in 2015 with an air campaign in Syria, aiming to help stabilize the situation and keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. A month later, after the air campaign, President Obama called the Russian military intervention a “recipe for disaster”. In October after the launch of the Aleppo offensive and two fruitless rounds of talks in Lausanne and London, Russia’s U.N ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, compared the tensions in Syria with the events during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, mentioning that the relations between the United States and Russia were the worst since 1973.

The Donald Trump Syndrome

The most important event in Russian domestic politics is the U.S Presidential elections. This phrase has been a joke in the Russian political elite circles in the Kremlin, but it does not go far from reality. In 2016, the victory of Donald Trump might have been seen as a dreamy situation for Russia, but the reality is far from it. Although there is some truth in this statement. Donald Trump had more open policies towards Moscow promoting a more ideal relationship between the two states. It was clear that the Kremlin had ambitions to rebuild the shattered relation it had with the U.S. that was filled with mistrust from the Russian side and increased Russophobia from the American side.

In 2018, President Doland Trump called for Russia to be allowed to join the G-7 summit, where Russia was expelled back in 2014. In the first formal meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018, some experts argued that there was a friendly climate between both sides. However, Donald Trump drew criticism from U.S. politicians regarding his stance to side with Russia on the allegations about potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections. John McCain went as far as describing Donald Trump’s policy as: “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.

Nevertheless, over the last four years, the Trump administration has been more of a headache rather than an ally of Russia. Particularly in the case of the Nord Stream II pipeline, where the Trump administration issued numerous sanctions on Russian and European companies involved with the project. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov criticized the Trump administration by saying that the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to destroy the U.S-Russia relations. Besides that, the paranoia of the former President Donald Trump with China, had a negative impact on any establishment of a new arms control agreement between the three countries, something that the Kremlin will be eager to pursue after the inauguration of Joe Biden. The increased instability inside the United States and political immaturity of Donald Trump, has been more harmful than beneficial for Russia who now sees the new Biden administration as a political pillar, to try and establish any sort of normalization in the diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in a respectful manner of mutual understanding.

Joe Biden and the Future of the U.S.-Russia Relations

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Joe Biden is an old familiar face to the Kremlin, having served as the Vice-President for Barack Obama. However, the fact that he is more familiar does not change the cold relations between him and Vladimir Putin. The cold relations can be traced back to 2011 when Joe Biden met with opposition leaders, expressing his thoughts on how Vladimir Putin should not run for President in 2012. This statement is still memorable for many Kremlin officials, and the same rhetoric seems to still be used, with Joe Biden referring to Russia as the “biggest threat to U.S. security”. However, despite what many analysts believe, the new Biden administration might be more reliable in building a new relationship of understanding between the two sides.

There is a growing feeling amongst the political elite of the Kremlin, that the growing turmoil and instability in the U.S. especially after the events on January 6, 2021, harms the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Besides that, Mr. Biden will take the “wheel” of a country that for four years has been exposed to unprofessionalism and childish acts from a President that is in danger of being removed from his office before the inauguration of his successor. Joe Biden, as a more traditional U.S. politician, a so-called “inside man” of U.S. politics, can be proven to be more reliable on rebuilding any new diplomatic relations with Russia. As former senator Bill Bradley, who visited the USSR in 1979 with Joe Biden, pointed out: “Joe knew the Soviet Union, knows Russia, has experience with Vladimir Putin and understands what’s possible and what’s not”.

Joe Biden’s familiarity with Russia might provide room for improvement, however, it is understandable that the relations between the two states will not be extremely friendly. A harsher attitude towards Russia is expected by the Biden administration. Nevertheless, the future of the U.S.-Russia relations with Joe Biden might conduct a more understanding approach without the mistakes of past administrations. In the end, the relations between Russia and the United States might reach a level of understanding each other’s coexistence in the global arena while acknowledging the realistic politics that require each state to behave in a manner that will maximize its benefits. 

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Russia and Belarus: An increasingly difficult alliance

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Way back in 1991, while the crisis of the Soviet system was leading to the disintegration of that galaxy of nations which, under the acronym of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the second world power in political, military and economic terms, Russia promoted and obtained the establishment of the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS)in view of curbing the centrifugal force triggered by Ukraine’s declaration of independence of December 1, 1991.

On December 8, 1991, all the former Soviet Republics joined the CIS, with the exception of the independent Ukraine and the Baltic States, which had been absorbed into the USSR in September 1939 thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and since then had always considered themselves militarily ‘occupied’ by the Soviets.

Currently, after the defection of Georgia and other statelets in the Caucasus, the Commonwealth of Independent States has eight other members in addition to Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.

A glance at the map shows that Russia has placed itself physically at the centre of a region in which the CIS Member States play a fundamental role, not only as a free trade area covering a single market of over 180 million people, but also as an important collective security area that has ensured to Russia – which psychologically has never recovered from the Nazi aggression of 1941 – a ‘buffer zone’ around its territory, which is very important from a military viewpoint(all the more so after the “betrayal” of Ukraine, which, by siding militarily with NATO in 2014, helped fuel the Kremlin’s paranoia about border security).

It is in this political and “psycho-political” context that the “special relationship” between Russia and Belarus was born and developed – a relationship that for some time has been showing increasingly visible cracks.

Belarus is a Presidential Republic ruled since 1994 by “President-dictator” Alexander Lukashenko.

 Elected and re-elected again and again over the last 25 years after elections looked on with suspicion by all Western diplomacies, Lukashenko has been tolerated with more or less obvious annoyance by the Kremlin, which is interested in maintaining a privileged and advantageous relationship at economic and military levels, even in the face of the harshness with which the Belarusian President has been trying for years to keep the political opposition in his country under strict control with his iron fist and with instruments that appear excessive even to the certainly non-liberal Kremlin representatives.

The straw that threatens to break the camel’s back and try Vladimir Putin’s patience vis-à-vis his Belarusian colleague was his umpteenth re-election in August 2020 to the Presidency of the Republic with vote percentages that in the eyes of the entire West, but also of Russia, appeared to be the result of shameless electoral fraud.

Last year’s August elections put the Kremlin in a very awkward and uncomfortable position.

 On the one hand, continuing to support Lukashenko’s discredited government diminishes the Russian government’s democratic credibility not only in the eyes of Europe and the United States, but also in those of the more moderate allies in the CIS and, at the same time, risks alienating the respect and support of the pro-Russian citizens of the Belarusian Republic who are calling for more democracy in their country without undermining the friendly ties with Russia.

On the other hand, there is concern in the Kremlin’s upper echelons that too openly supporting the reasons for the people’s uprising against Lukashenko and the demand for more democracy in Belarus could turn the neighbouring Republic into a symbol for those who are calling for a similar expansion of democratic rules in Russia.

The cunning Lukashenko who, before the August 2020 elections had shown signs of impatience with Vladimir Putin’s policies – according to reliable sources, they hate each other – going as far as to order the arrest (a few weeks before the vote) of 33 Russian “mercenaries” accused of being part of a Kremlin plot to sabotage his re-election, after having been put in difficulty by internal unrest and the international reaction to his authoritarian methods of government, backtracked vis-à-vis Russia.

Initially Belarus granted Russia exclusive rights on the use of Russian ports for Belarusian oil exports – a request that Lukashenko had resisted for years. Later he agreed to the stationing of military contingents of the Russian National Guard on his territory. Finally, on January 10, the Belarusian President publicly called for “the removal of any obstacles…to greater integration between Russia and Belarus”.

In spite of the increasingly worried moves of the Belarusian autocrat, faced with the choice between supporting the Belarusian regime and trying to get rid of the troublesome neighbour with a coup –Russia is considering a third option which could safeguard the stability of a country like Belarus, which Russia deems essential not only from an economic, but above all from a military viewpoint, as basic foundation of the ‘strategic depth’ ensured by Belarus on the Russian borders in its important role of ‘buffer state’ safeguarding the security of Russia’s Western borders.

The third option is included in two documents leaked by the Kremlin at the end of last year and published by the Russian investigative website The Insider.

The first document is entitled “Strategy of Operational Intervention in the Belarusian Republic” and was drafted in September 2020, when Lukashenko’s democratic reputation was at the lowest ebb, after the evident electoral fraud and the harsh repression of people’s protests.

The drafters of the document speak of the need to change the Belarusian Constitution also through “the penetration of all opposition parties and organisations” to the regime “with a view to encouraging the creation of new political forces promoting the reform of institutions”, as well as through a propaganda work with the use of modern communication channels such as Telegram and Youtube.

The aim of this operation would be twofold: to turn the Belarusian Presidential Republic into a Parliamentary one and increase consensus towards the Russian ally.

The second document drafted by Kremlin strategists and skilfully leaked to The Insider talks about the foundation of a new political party in Belarus called “The People’s Right”, which would promote changes to the Constitution along Parliamentary lines, as well as social and economic reforms that would win citizens’ support.

The creation of this new Party has not yet been publicly announced, but its programme suggests that the Kremlin hopes to divert popular support in the neighbouring Republic towards a Parliamentary and democratic transition of the country, which – as a side effect – could reduce protests over electoral fraud in the last elections.

The new Party’s plans envisage that, even if – at least in an initial phase – Lukashenko remains in power to enable him to save face with a dignified departure from the scene, he will be deprived of almost all his current executive powers, as his future functions will be reduced to the typical representative functions of a ‘normal’ President in a Parliamentary Republic.

Furthermore, the programme of the new pro-Russian Party includes plans for extensive privatisation of the Belarusian public sector, as well as the ‘dismantling of censorship’ and ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual’.

The first feedback to the publication of these two documents, with which the Kremlin wants to demonstrate not only an obvious interest in the stability of Belarus, but also an unexpected (at least for us in the West) attention to democratic rules and respect for human rights, have aroused very positive reactions in the Russian business world, which is obviously very interested in penetrating more deeply into a country that has a well-developed industrial sector, exports a significant quantity of goods to Europe as well as to Russia, has two excellent large oil refineries and is at the forefront in the field of information technology and IT services.

In short, it is a potentially good geopolitical achievement for Vladimir Putin and his government: limiting and frustrating the ambitions of an autocrat who does not want to give up the reins of power and, at the same time, gain credit – towards Europe and the new U.S. Administration – as promoter of Western-style democratic and economic reforms.

 All this while safeguarding the role of Belarus as a “buffer zone” against a NATO that, although weakened, remains a strategic opponent in the eyes of the Kremlin.

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