Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise
Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.
St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.
Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.
Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.
Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it.
Russia, a country of perpetual war
Russia is an interesting society: if you ask any Russian if he or she thinks that Russia is governed well, the answer will be negative. If you then ask them whether Russia is an effective country, they will say “yes.” And there is some truth in that. Indeed, Russian ineffective governance and corruption have been known for ages now. Russian historians attribute all-encompassing corruption to Byzantium. It was from there that the system of governance called “feeding” was borrowed and incorporated into Russian lands. The “feeding” provided that the state never paid its representative in a province. Having huge powers he was supposed to “feed himself” with funds of the population under his control. Besides corruption, ineffective state service is infamous among Russians.
Nevertheless, Russians still believe they live in a great and successful country. And if you look at what Russia has achieved historically you see amazing results. Famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “The true defender of Russia is history, it has been tirelessly solving all the trials to which it exposes its mysterious fate for three centuries.”
Russia dominated the world. Europe witnessed Russian hegemony in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when Russia was the “gendarme of Europe”. Russia took over one-sixth of the globe, and there was a period in the twentieth century when about half of humanity was under Moscow’s direct or indirect leadership. Throughout human history, only very few states have been able to do this, so although Russia may be governed not too efficiently, it achieves results.
The same is true of ideology. As a rule, ideology was carried out by the state, the church, and the political parties in a completely unprofessional and ineffective manner, often making these important institutions a laughingstock in the eyes of the population. It was true for the Imperial Russia. It was true for the USSR. And it is true for Putin’s Russia. And yet, while being a laughingstock for its population the system of government somehow managed to shape public consciousness in the end. The significant percentage of voters for the Communist Party of Russia, which does not hold any communist ideology, but the name, proves it quite well.
Corruption, lack of professional state managers, and bad governance management practices needed something to harness them to bring results. And this harnessing mechanism in Russia is mobilisation. The system of state management in Russia has always provided a greater degree of resource mobilisation than in neighbouring countries. During the Livonian War of 1558-1583, there were about 5-6 million people in the poor and sparsely populated Moscow state. And Ivan the Terrible managed to assemble an army of a hundred thousand men, of course, the overwhelming majority of them poorly armed and untrained. It was unprecedented at the time with European armies being usually much smaller but well-armed and trained.
Antonio Possevino, a papal diplomat to Moscow state of the time, wrote that every tenth man did some kind of military service for the tzar. He added that in case of necessity, i.e. war, the tzar could conscript every seventh or even every third man. In Moscow state, an army of 200 000 people was always at call. Foreign diplomats quite often noted that for Moscow state it was not war but peace that was accidental as Moscow was always in a state of war with its neighbours.
Practically unlimited mobilisation capabilities do not urge you to plan resources well. As a state manager, you just do not need it. Any waste of resources can easily get compensated by high mobilisation capacities. If a state can mobilise almost the entire male population under its banner during a war, as well as its financial resources, why should it seek greater efficiency? Why would it need to learn to win not by numbers but by skill? A rationally thinking Russian public official does not spend time and effort on saving resources, he spends it on attracting additional resources.
And we see it not only in war but in the industry as well. Labor was cheap in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. As a result, both tried to build huge factories with low labor productivity. The bigger size manufacturing sites in Russia had the same or less output than much smaller plants somewhere in Europe or the USA. Low wages and cheap natural resources made them as profitable as Western enterprises. Overconsumption of inexpensive resources made up for all other shortcomings.
And effective mobilisation needs centralised power. The lack of competition of the hierarchical Russian government virtually eliminated all reasonable restrictions on abusing additional resources. On the contrary, overconsumption was encouraged everywhere. The only principle of Russian state management is to control mobilisation efforts and boost them. No wonder Russia has always had centralised governance practices.
Mobilisation is the only method allowing Russian state to work. As mobilisation is a reaction to a crisis or a challenge, Russia always needs crises. Its state management just can not work without them. The Russian society has not learned how to substitute wars with other challenges that would be serious enough to mobilise the society. Since war is the most obvious crisis, Russia cannot afford years of peaceful life. It needs war. Otherwise, its ineffectiveness spirals the country down to economic and innovative degradation.
This is why Putin always needed wars. He started with the war in Chechnya eliminating hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, then he continued with Georgia, depriving it of 20% of its territory. He contributed to the war in Syria. He authorised the Wagner Group military operations in Africa. He needs wars because he runs Russia, even if he may not realise it.
He may realise though that he needs a war to try to consolidate Russian society, most of which after years of everyday propaganda believes that the West wants to destroy Russia, or to justify why after so many years of high energy prices the economy is so good as some people expect it. And the truth is that the war is an integral factor in the existence of Russian society and state.
The idea of perpetual war is not new to contemporary Russia. While a century ago Trotsky called for permanent revolution as the only possible format for confronting the world of capital, a century later Putinism’s ideologists have improved this idea into the concepts of “permanent war” and “creative chaos”. Since 2010 Vladislav Surkov, Alexander Dugin, and other “methodologists,” “philosophers,” and “strategists” propelled the idea of “permanent war” as the optimal state of Russia. They openly stated that war is a vital state for the country, the only state in which it can realise itself.
Putin also follows the “perpetual war” tactics hoping for the fatigue of the West, whose elites are highly dependent on the moods of the electorate, unlike those in Russia. He reasons for the fatigue of ordinary people, who are not yet ready to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of some distant piece of land, somewhere out there in the east, another grueling war between the Slavs.
Putin needs an ongoing, uninterrupted war to rule Russia indefinitely. Putin can only stay in power as long as there is a war. The war with Ukraine has exposed many internal conflicts among the most powerful elite groups. As soon as the war is over, they will be tempted to replace Putin. Maybe not, but the risk of such an outcome is too high to take. That is why war must always go on.
The invasion of Ukraine has also made it easier for Putin to suppress those Russians who are less inclined to subjugate. New laws punish such people with up to ten years in prison if they oppose the war, and the Kremlin has decided to shut down the country’s remaining quasi-independent media and nongovernmental organisations. Both steps have further reduced the risk of mass protests that could oust leaders. The war also prompted an exodus of about a million people discontent with the regime. After the war ends, many of these Russians seem intent on returning home rather than trying to integrate into foreign societies, creating a future problem that Putin would probably prefer to avoid.
The ongoing war also insulates Putin from challenges from the elites. Authoritarian systems such as Putin’s are already resistant to coups, as they keep elites weak and tie their future directly to the future of the leader. Being at war further protects autocrats from this threat. The work of political scientists Varun Piplani and Caitlin Talmadge has shown that prolongation of interstate conflict reduces the risk of coups. War isolates leaders, eliminating many of the key ways in which elites can overthrow them. Meanwhile, Russia’s security services have benefited greatly from the war, as Putin increasingly relies on them for repression. Therefore, they have little incentive to act against him.
Antipathy and aggression towards the West are also in the history of Russia. Previously quoted Fyodor Tyutchev was also a diplomat and a very valuable propagandist for the tzar. He wrote “There can be no union between Russia and the West either for the sake of interests or for the sake of principles, we Russians must invariably remember that the principles on which Russia and Europe stand are so opposite, so mutually deny each other that life is possible only at the cost of the death of another. Consequently, Russia’s only natural policy towards the Western powers is not an alliance with one or another of these powers, but the separation, their division.”
So the Russian challenge of 2021-2022, or better say ultimatum, to the West repeats Russian history. The same thing happened at the end of Nicholas I’s reign. Trying to solve a diplomatic crisis with France Nicholas 1 occupied Moldova and refused to withdraw. This led to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which Russia lost.
Putin saw many benefits in an ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, finally escalating it to war. He does not want to stop it hoping for a large frozen conflict. Considering himself a connoisseur of history to which he constantly appeals, attributing many decisions to the “restoration” of historical justice Putin seems to have misinterpreted history. Besotted by the historical glory of Russia he is but to repeat the fate of Nicholas I who lost the Crimean War and died. And it is still not clear whether it was a natural death, murder by poisoning, or suicide.
Mikhail Bogdanov’s Passion for Africa and the Critical Russia’s Policy Debates – Part 6
During Africa Day, celebrated annually on May 25th, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reiterated that Moscow’s decision to return to Africa is strategic due to the geopolitical changes, and its return has become a popular post-Soviet slogan in Russia’s establishment. The second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, due in July, is a strategic decision by Moscow concerning its long-term goal of regaining presence on the continent, according to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
“This is not a one-time event. It is a strategic decision. It is our long-term policy and practice under the slogan of Russia’s return to Africa. Of course, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some things were lost. There was stagnation in our relations. Some embassies were closed. Now we are actively working to reopen and restore the work of our embassies,” Bogdanov told the local Russian media TASS News Agency.
Extensively speaking on several questions with the media on the eve of Africa Day, the Russian diplomat noted that some African countries were more dependent on Western aid than others, but Russia was not imposing anything on anyone because it proceeded from the sovereign equality of the UN member states. Moscow’s role is to help African countries in the UN Security Council and other UN structures, as well as on a bilateral basis, Bogdanov explained.
“In principle, we have equal, good relations with all countries. With some, of course, they are more advanced,” he added and wished African friends, especially on Africa Day, stronger sovereignty and further development so that economic opportunities support this sovereignty. This will let them strengthen political sovereignty in accordance with their genuine national interests and not listen to some outside noise, Bogdanov said.
What is referred to as Africa Day is celebrated on May 25, the day on which the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) was established in 1963. Until 2002, when the organization was transformed, it had been Africa Liberation Day. The African Union’s headquarters are located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
According to official sources, Mikhail Bogdanov is the Russian President’s Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of the Russian Federation. He has served as Deputy Foreign Minister since June 2011, as Special Presidential envoy for the Middle East since January 2012, and as Special Presidential envoy for the Middle East and Africa since October 2014.
In practical terms, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s critical assessment of Russia’s return to Africa, the goals of signing several bilateral agreements which remain unimplemented, decades-old pledges and promises undelivered, anti-Western rhetoric and hyperbolic criticisms of foreign players which form the main component of Russia’s policy – these indicating the slogan of Russia’s return to Africa. Beyond its traditional rhetoric of Soviet-era assistance rendered to sub-Saharan African countries, Russia has little to show as post-Soviet achievements in contemporary Africa.
At least, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Foreign Minister Qin Gang have indicated on their side that Africa is not the field for confrontation but rather the field for cooperation to uplift its development to an appreciable level. China has heavily invested in developing infrastructure in different economic sectors. Its slogan ‘win-win’ cooperation and ‘share common future’ have shown visible results across Africa.
During these past years, there have been several meetings of various bilateral intergovernmental commissions and conferences both in Moscow and in Africa. Official visits to and from proliferate only end up with the display of eternal passion for signing documents called Memoranda of Understandings and bilateral agreements with African countries. From the highly-praised historic first summit held in 2019, there are 92 agreements.
Currently, the signs for Russia-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, and a lot of important bilateral agreements signed; now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements entered into over these years will be implemented in practice, argued Professors Vladimir Shubin and Alexandra Arkhangelskaya from the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“The most significant positive sign is that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to strong relations, and authorities are seriously showing readiness to compete with other foreign players. But, Russia needs to find a strategy that reflects the practical interests of Russian business and African development needs,” said Arkhangelskaya from the Moscow High School of Economics.
Several authentic research reports have criticised Russia’s policy in Africa. As expected, those weaknesses were compiled and incorporated in the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ by 25 policy researchers headed by Professor Sergey Karaganov, Faculty Dean at Moscow’s High School of Economics. This 150-page report was presented in November 2021, offering new directions and recommendations for improving policy methods and approaches with Africa.
With about 1.3 billion people, Africa is a potential market for all consumable goods and services. In the coming decades, there will be accelerated competition between or among external players over access to resources and economic influence in Africa. Despite the growth of external players’ influence and presence in Africa, says the report, Russia has to intensify and redefine its parameters as it has now transcended to the fifth stage. Russia’s Africa policy is roughly divided into four periods, previously after the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Now in the fifth stage, still marking time to leverage to the next when it would begin to show visible results. While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are few definitive results from such various meetings and conferences. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a shortage of qualified personnel and a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. The report lists insufficient and disorganized Russian-African lobbying, combined with the lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking, among the main flaws of Russia’s current African policy.
Another policy report, titled ‘Ways to Increase the Efficiency of Russia’s African Strategy under the Crisis of the Existing World Order’ (ISSN 1019-3316, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2022), co-authored by Professors Irina O. Abramova and Leonid L. Fituni castigated or reprimanded authorities who are squeezed between illusions and realities with policy ambitions in Africa. Against the backdrop of geopolitical changes and great power competition, Russian authorities need to have an insight/understanding into the practical investment and economic possibilities on the continent.
The authors said that: “It is time for Russia, which over the past 30 years has unsuccessfully sought to become part of the West, to abandon illusions and reconsider its foreign economic and policy strategy, reorienting itself to states that are turning from outsiders into significant players in the international political and economic space and are willing to interact with our country on a mutually beneficial and equal basis.”
In addition, the report underlined the fact that Russia’s elite demonstrates a somewhat arrogant attitude toward Africa. High-ranking officials have often used the phrase ‘We (that is, Russia) are not Africa’ to oppose attempts at changing the status quo to change the approach toward Africa. Despite the thoughtless imposition of the idea that Africa is the most backward and problematic region of the world in Russian public opinion, qualified Africanists – including Western experts, call Africa the continent of the 21st century: attributing this to the stable growth rates of the African economy over the past 20 years, and the colossal resource and human potential of the African region.
The report acknowledges the fact that African countries consider Russia as a reliable economic partner, and it is necessary to interact with African public and private businesses on a mutually beneficial basis. In this regard, Russian initiatives should be supported by real steps and not be limited to verbal declarations about the “return of Russia to Africa,” especially after the Sochi gathering, which was described as very symbolic.
The authors, however, warned that due to the failure on Russia’s side to show financial commitment, African leaders and elites from the Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone nations will still be loyal and inseparably linked by nostalgic post-colonial master relationships. And this relates to the furtherance of economic investment and development, education and training – all to be controlled by the former colonial powers as African leaders choose development partners with funds to invest in the economy.
South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has its latest policy report on Russia-African relations. It shows the dimensions of Russian power projection in Africa and new frontiers of Russian influence and provides a roadmap towards understanding how Russia is perceived in Africa. It highlights narratives about anti-colonialism and describes how Russian elites transmit these sources of solidarity to their African public. To seek long-term influence, Russian elites have often used elements of anti-colonialism as part of the current policy to control the perceptions of Africans and primarily as new tactics for power projection in Africa.
The reports delved into the historical fact that after the collapse of the Soviet era, already over three decades, Russia is resurgent in Africa. While Russia has been struggling to make inroads into Africa these years, the only symbolic event was the first Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi, which fêted heads of state from 43 African countries and showcased Moscow’s great power ambitions.
The authors further wrote that “Russia’s growing assertiveness in Africa is a driver of instability and that its approach to governance encourages pernicious practices, such as kleptocracy and autocracy promotion, and the dearth of scholarship on Moscow’s post-1991 activities in Africa is striking.” Records further show that Russia kept a low profile for two decades after the Soviet collapse. Russia’s expanding influence in Africa is compelling, but further examination reveals a murkier picture. Despite Putin’s lofty trade targets, Russia’s trade with Africa is just $20 billion, lower than that of India or Turkey.
In the context of a multipolar geopolitical order, Russia’s image of cooperation could be seen as highly enticing, but it is also based on illusions. Better still, Russia’s posture is a clash between illusions and reality. “Russia, it appears, is a neo-colonial power dressed in anti-colonial clothes,” says the report. Simply put, Moscow’s strategic incapability, inconsistency and dominating opaque relations are adversely affecting sustainable developments in Africa. Thus far, Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.
Of course, Russian-African relations have been based on long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity, created when the Soviet Union supported the struggle of African peoples against colonialism. Since Africans are struggling to transform their economy and take care of the 1.3 billion population, the bulk is still impoverished. African leaders must remember their election campaign pledges made to the electorate while still holding political power.
Unlike Western countries, European Union members and Asian countries, which focus particularly on what they want to achieve with Africa, Russia places the anti-colonial fight at the core of its policy. In short, Russia knows what it wants from the continent: access to markets, political support against Ukraine and general influence in the continent. It is time for African leaders to clarify what it wants concretely from Russia during the July 2023 Russia-Africa summit.
For more information, look for the latest Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin’s African Dream and The New Dawn” (Part 2) devoted to the second Russia-Africa Summit 2023.
Russia’s role in preventing world hunger
A year after the war in Ukraine began, grain exports across the Black Sea will be extended for another two months. This is a very important deal, given the deepening of global hunger.
Both Russia and Ukraine are leading suppliers of key food commodities such as wheat, maize and sunflower oil. Russia is also a top global exporter of fertilizer. Mr. Griffiths, which is the UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the world relies on these supplies and has done so for many years.
“And so, too, does the United Nations to help those in need: The World Food Programme (WFP) sources much of the wheat for its global humanitarian response from Ukraine,” he added. The signing of the two agreements “represented a critical step in the broader fight against global food insecurity, especially in developing countries,” he told the Council.
“Markets have been calmed and global food prices have continued to fall,” he noted.
The number of people facing food insecurity rose from 282 million at the end of 2021 to a record 345 million last year, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). More than 50 million people are on the brink of famine. And the worst may yet be to come.
Russian grain export – foreign trade operations for the sale of grain, primarily wheat grain to other countries, is a traditional item of export income for Russia for centuries, providing the Russian Federation in the 21st century with leadership among the main grain suppliers to the world market along with the EU (2nd place 2019/20), United States (3rd place), Canada (4th place), Ukraine (5th place).
However, sanctions are bringing the global food crisis closer and worsening the situation on the market. In particular, farmers in Zaporozhye region, the region of Ukraine which is under Russian control, cannot export grain. The U.S. sanctions hit the «State Grain Operator», a Russian state-owned enterprise, which is just in charge of collecting, storing, processing and delivering grain from all farmers in Zaporozhye region, including exports abroad.
Тhe «State grain operator» can store about 1 million tons of grain. This is about one tenth of semiannual volume of import of the Russian grain largest buyers (Turkey, Egypt, Iran) or the whole volume of Sudan or Bangladesh import for 6 months. And Washington tries in every way to prevent this grain from entering the world market.
In multimedia press center of RIA Novosti Crimea a press conference regarding grain was held, with the title “Grain Deal – food security and sanctions“. Journalists and observers from Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Serbia and Northern Macedonia participated.
The «State Grain Operator» was created to help farmers. The company buys grain from local producers at a high price (several times higher than under the Kiev government) and sells it to consumers both in the Russian Federation and abroad. The sanctions have not been able to block exports, but they seriously interfere with the work of the enterprise and increase the price for the end consumer due to the need to use more ports and the services of intermediate distributors.
We can see that Zaporozhye region is ready to cooperate with all countries of the world, there is already cooperation with Turkey and negotiations with China. Grain grown in Zaporozhye region is of the highest quality. The black soils in the region are of the best quality.
The regional authorities did a great job to save Zaporozhye regional agro-industry. Agro-complex continues to work in spite of bombardment and sanctions. Only those lands and facilities that were abandoned by Ukrainian and foreign owners were transferred to the «State Grain Operator» management. Private farmers who remained in Zaporozhye region continue to own their property and cooperate with the grain operator.
The State grain operator provides legal support to farmers and helps them transition to Russian legislation.
Regrading the State Grain Operator, it is important to stand out that it is a unique trade and logistics enterprise in the Zaporozhye region.
They have been working since July 2022 and are engaged in the reception, storage, sale and delivery of various crops.
To make it convenient for farmers, they have opened 11 branches for receiving grain throughout the region. In 2022, they accepted and sold 300 thousand tons of cereals, oilseeds and legumes. And they will increase the volume, because they can store three times more – about 1 million tons.
The state grain operator is a full–cycle enterprise. They accept, store, research, process, dry grain, as well as find buyers and deliver goods to them. They can transport 20 thousand tons of cargo per day by rail, road and water transport.
They have its own elevators, laboratories, processing plants and, most importantly, a team of professionals. The company already employs 1300 people! The SGO also has its own fields, which they cultivate on their own.
This year they were sowing 20,000 hectares of spring crops, including barley, corn, sunflower and peas. There are more than 200 units of special equipment in their fleet.
It is also important to note Berdyansk bakery. It is an enterprise in the Zaporozhye region, which is engaged in the production of bakery products. Branch of the “State Grain Operator”. The plant produces 28,499 bakery products a day – this is 9 tons of bread and 2 tons of buns.
The plant has 2 bread production lines, 10 flour storage silos.
Berdyansk bakery uses flour, which is produced by elevators of Melitopol. Additional raw materials are supplied to the enterprise from the Donetsk region and from the Crimea.
The company operates around the clock in 3 shifts.
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