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The Battle for the Indian Ocean and Island States

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Russia has taken an increasing interest in strengthening consistently its diplomacy with small island States especially Cape Verde, Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles. Late December, the Kremlin appointed Deputy Director Artem Kozhin at the Foreign Ministry as the new ambassador to the island of Seychelles, signaling the strategic importance it attaches to this island state of Seychelles with an estimated population of 85 thousand, located in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar and east of Kenya.

Former Russian ambassador to Seychelles, Alexander Vladimirov said the relations between the two countries have been extremely cordial since the two countries established diplomatic relations following the independence of Seychelles in 1976. Russia and Seychelles have seen remarkable developments between the two countries, including the arrival of many Russian tourists. Russian investors have been investing in the country.

On June 30, 2016, Russia and Seychelles marked their 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the years, both have pledged to forge mutual cooperation in many spheres, but little is tangibly visible.

Notwithstanding that little progress, an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Seychelles waiving visa requirements for short-term trips by citizens of both countries was signed in Victoria, Seychelles, on Sept 2, 2015. Under the agreement, citizens of Russia and Seychelles with a valid passport, including a diplomatic or official passport, are exempted from visa requirements and may enter, stay or transit the territory of the other state without a visa for a term of up to 30 days.

As expected, both countries have exchanged official visits and held meetings at different times. During one of such meetings, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, underscored the mutual interest in and readiness for the development of a joint plan for partnership, including transport and energy between Russia and Seychelles, and that would include the Southern African Development Community.

As far back as March 2015, on the topic that appeared that Russia planned to open military bases in Seychelles, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Cuba, Lavrov vehemently responded: “It is absolutely wrong. We have no plans to create military or marine bases abroad, but to resolve specific tasks: fighting piracy, pirates have appear in many parts of the world. Our fleet makes long-distance voyages. We agreed with some countries, that our ships use the existing infrastructure for calling into ports for maintenance and small repairs, supplementing food and water reserves, and for recreation of crews.”

Seychelles has over the years, suffered from sea piracy. However, the island is a key participant in the fight against Indian Ocean piracy primarily committed by Somali pirates. Former president James Michel said: “The pirates cost a great percentage of the Seychelles GDP, including direct and indirect costs for the loss of boats, fishing, and tourism, and the indirect investment for the maritime security.” These are factors affecting local fishing – one of the country’s main national resources.

As a support base, the island is currently strategic zone for the United States¸ China and India that are already competing in the Indian Ocean. But Sanusha Naidu, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue based in Pretoria, South Africa, thinks that it is very strategic for Russia to strengthen engagements with these island States, especially Seychelles.

“Part of this will enable Moscow to have an important maritime security presence from the Indian Ocean Rim on the East Coast to the Atlantic seaboard on the West Coast. This could offer important sea-lanes for Moscow’s economic transactions. But, it also represents crucial footprint to keep up with competitors like China and the United States in terms of geo-political interests,” Naidu told Modern Diplomacy.

In July 2019, President Vladimir Putin accepted the credentials of 18 newly appointed foreign envoys, among them was Louis Sylvestre Radegonde (Republic of Seychelles). Putin pointed to the fact that Russia maintains friendly relations with the Republic of Seychelles. It counts on further joint work to expand cooperation including tourism, trade, economic and humanitarian spheres, noting strongly that the tourism sector is the primary industry of that country.

Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries. Based on this fact, Professor Dmitry Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies, explained to me that “as part of the sustainable efforts by Russia with individual African countries, Russia and Seychelles could cooperate in the priority areas such exploring the seabed for minerals, fishing and seafood processing, aquaculture and marine services (including marine finance and marine biotechnology).”

In an emailed interview for this article, Punsara Amarasinghe, who previously held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and now a PhD Candidate in Law from Scuola Superiore Universitaria Sant’Anna di Pisa in Italy, discusses some aspects of Russia’s relations with Seychelles.

The diplomatic relation between Russia and Seychelles does not have a long history compared to the robust relations between Russia and other African states. Nevertheless, in its brief history staring from 1976, Seychelles had made a rapport with the USSR. In particular, USSR ships anchored in Seychelles and Seychelles supported Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, Russian influence in Indian Ocean waned in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet era and Russia’s interest in Seychelles consequently diminished.

Recently, Russia’s interest in Indian Ocean and African states have been escalated as a part of its global agenda to restore Russia’s role. Especially just a week before the assassination of Iranian General Solemani, Russia participated in a naval exercise along with Iran and China in Indian Ocean proving its interest in the maritime expansion in Indian Ocean.

Amarasinghe wrote in his email: “The indispensable importance of Indian Ocean appears as a key factor for any state interested in power expansion. It was not an exaggeration that Robert Kaplan vociferously exclaimed that one who controls Indian Ocean, will control the geo-political center of the world. Currently the only active military base of the US is located in Diego Garcia, 1800Km away from the Seychelles. The geographic position of Seychelles is alluring for Russia’s blooming military interests and if Seychelles allows Moscow to initiate a military base in the island, the maritime hegemony upheld by the United States will be undoubtedly challenged.”

More importantly, the crucial location of Seychelles parallel to African continent makes it a unique destination as a military base. However, realistically we cannot assume the possibility of seeing a Russian base in Seychelles in near future. Indeed, it is true that Seychelles’ main port Victoria was opened for Russian vessels for refueling and other logistical issues. Yet, the same offer was given to many other nations including China and the United States.

On the other hand, Russia’s internal economic chaos have significantly hit the military expenditures of the Russian army and it is a fact beyond dispute that the Chinese and the United States military budgets are forged ahead Russian annual military budget. The practical circumstances may not make it an easy task for Russian Federation to build a military base in the Seychelles, even though it has a significant strategic importance, according to Punsara Amarasinghe.

Nevertheless, if Chinese can pursue its fortune in Seychelles, it would be much significant for them as a military access to Indian Ocean and an apt strategic position for maritime Silk road. China has already established a military base in Djibouti and its proximity to the Seychelles will secure Chinese military presence strongly in Indian Ocean challenging the US hegemony. It seems to indicate that rather than thinking of a military base fully controlled by Russia, it is likely to see much of Chinese presence in Indian Ocean, or perhaps, in Seychelles. It will inevitably assist Russian interests too.

Maldives, independent island in the north-central Indian Ocean, while Mauritius is further south, located about 2,000 kilometres off the southeast coast of Africa. Seychelles is ranked high in terms of economic competitiveness, a friendly investment climate, good governance and a free economy. It has strong and friendly relations with various African and foreign countries.

By demographic developments down the years, Seychelles is described as a fusion of peoples and cultures. Seychellois, as the people referred to, are multiracial: blending from African, Asian and European descent creating a modern creole culture. Evidence of this strong and harmonious blend is seen, for instance, in Seychellois food that incorporates various aspects of French, Chinese, Indian and African cuisine. French and English are official languages. Seychelles is a member of the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the United Nations.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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