The end of the Cold War brought hope to the West that the world had evolved past the concept of spheres of influence. No longer, it was thought, would large Eurasian states strive to carve out territories for the expansion of their own geopolitical influence. But spheres of influence are a tenacious concept. They have been pursued throughout history and are likely to return in the coming decades.
One geopolitical constant is that the emergence of spheres of influence coincides with the pursuit by a rising or re-emerging power of higher status in international affairs. This usually takes the form of a power trying to attain a certain level of influence over neighboring states or far-flung territories.
Several large Eurasian states are aspiring toward a bigger geopolitical influence over the super-continent. China, for example, strives to attain undisputed control over the islands in the Asia-Pacific and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. And through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it plans to extend its influence well beyond its immediate neighborhood into what Beijing calls “West Asia,” otherwise known as the Middle East.
India, which fears China’s rising power in Asia, is also pursuing an exclusive sphere of influence in south and Southeast Asia. India’s geographic location and economic and military might give it a pivotal role in the region and position New Delhi as key to the Indo-Pacific strategy—the rival concept to the BRI.
Further east, Iran, though smaller in size and in economic and military power, is energetically pursuing its agenda of expanding its geopolitical influence even as it is buffeted by sanctions and other trials. Though hard-pressed by the West (particularly the US), the Tehran regime has neither desisted from its hegemonic regional drive, whether directly or via its vast network of proxy Shiite militias, nor abandoned the hope of spreading its Islamist message as far and wide as possible.
To the west of Iran is Turkey, which has been heavily involved in both Syria and northern Iraq. These activities have raised fears in the West that Ankara aims to create its own sphere of influence along its southern and southeastern borders. However, it can be argued that of all the Eurasian contenders, Turkey is perhaps the least likely to achieve this goal, and doing so might not even be Ankara’s intention. There have been instances when the West ascribed unrealistic geopolitical ambitions to the Turkish leadership.
Then comes Russia, which in the past two decades has been working to extend its influence in Eurasia, primarily across the former Soviet space. These areas are considered by Moscow to be its rightful and exclusive sphere of influence. The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty organization (CSTO) reflects Russia’s geopolitical aim to encompass its territory with closely linked military and economic allies.
These pivotal Eurasian states all have one thing in common. Their increasing geopolitical activity over the past two decades was the result of either an alternating magnitude of crises along their respective frontiers or a longing for their never-to-be-forgotten imperial grandeur.
Let us again take the example of Turkey. That country borders on five geographic regions with varying geopolitical importance: the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the South Caucasus, and Syria-Iraq. What these regions have in common is crises of different levels that directly affect Turkey’s borders. It is this matter of simple geography, not an overblown imperial agenda (as many think), that has conditioned Ankara’s active foreign policy in the Middle East from at least the early 2010s.
Then comes Iran. That country’s aggressive foreign policy reflects the changing geopolitical situation along its borders, which allows it to undermine the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq by carrying out clandestine operations against American forces and assets.
Similar arguments apply to India, Russia, and China. All three respond to varying uncertainties along their borders while simultaneously building their foreign policy ambitions around a yearning for past grandeur.
As noted, the pursuit of spheres of influence has been a factor throughout recorded history. Another interesting factor is geography. As the above-mentioned Eurasian states are mostly continental powers (either deep inland or partially bordering on seas), there is a constant fear among their political elites of land invasion, a cutting of trade routes, and spillover from border territories.
Geography largely explains why the notion of pursuit of spheres of influence can never be excised from geopolitics. Geography is also at the heart of the perpetual conflict between land and maritime powers and largely explains why the sea powers (Great Britain in its heyday; the US today) have always worked to limit the creation of spheres of influence.
Over the past 100 years, Washington has fought consistently against the creation of spheres of influence in Eurasia. This does not mean it has always been successful. During the Cold War era, for example, the US stood back from rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). A similar aloofness was visible in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and in 2014 during the Ukraine crisis and Moscow’s military moves in Crimea.
The US has always been burdened to navigate between hard geopolitical reality on the ground and exceptionalism in its foreign policy. “Realpolitik,” though much despised by the American political establishment, tends to prevail. In the coming decade, as it faces Eurasian states that are actively trying to carve out of spheres of influence, the US will have to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground.
Though tensions in Eurasia are likely to rise further, Washington still possesses several foreign policy tools with which to limit the Eurasian actors’ expansion of their spheres of influence. A primary ally could be India, which fears China’s efforts to increase its influence in Pakistan as well as extend its military power into the Indian Ocean. For New Delhi, which is bordered from the north and northwest by an unstable Middle East and an economically poor Central Asia, the rich Southeast Asian region and consequent competition with Beijing represents the most probable foreign policy priority in the next few decades. US foreign policy decision-makers should be able to use India’s resistance to China to keep Beijing’s ambitious BRI in check.
Another possibility is for the US to build closer relations with Turkey by using Ankara’s uncomfortable relations with Moscow over its military activities in Syria and support for Bashar Assad. Considering the divergence of Turkey’s and Russia’s interests on a number of issues (apart from Syria), such as Moscow’s militarization of the Black Sea, territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus, and politics in the Balkans, Ankara needs American support.
In contrast to Turkey, the US has few foreign policy tools with which to limit the ambitions of China, Russia, and Iran. All three are motivated to limit US influence in Eurasia, which occasionally drives them closer. But the three pivotal Eurasian states also share wide-ranging differences that are bound to reappear once the US ceases to be a priority in their foreign policy.
The Eurasian continent of the 2020s will be a space of re-emerging or newly emerging powers either pursuing grand historical ideas or simply responding to crises along their borders. Washington will have to adjust to a certain level of emerging spheres of influence, exacerbating the troublesome debate so characteristic of US foreign policy decision making: American exceptionalism and denial of spheres of influence as a remnant of 19th-early 20th century imperial politics poised against unescapable “realpolitik.”
Author’s note: first published in BESA Center
A Non-Alarmist Forecast for 2022
Recently, pre-New Year forecasts about international affairs and foreign policy have emerged as a popular trend not only across Western nations but also in Russia. In most cases, they include various horror stories about possible challenges and threats looming large for the world and certain countries in the coming year.
Forecasts exploring the potential opportunities that the new year may open up—whether for the international community or for individual nations—are much less common. At the threshold of the New Year festive season, we would like to remain optimistic. Let us try to challenge the usual alarmism narrative, sketching an illustrative list of opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy in 2022.
1. Preventing Escalation in Donbass and Along the Russian-Ukrainian Border
Today, many experts and politicians in the West believe that a new escalation of the military confrontation in Ukraine is a virtually inevitable prospect, with debates only revolving around the scale and the modalities of Russian involvement. Preventing such a scenario would be a major success of Russian foreign policy in 2022. In turn, this presupposes Kiev’s explicit and unambiguous refusal to solve the Donbass problem with military force, as well as the West’s denial to promote such attempts, be it directly or indirectly.
It would also be a great achievement for the parties to comply with (at least) the first three clauses of the Minsk Agreements on a sustainable ceasefire, pull-out of heavy weapons and effective OSCE monitoring as well as a considerable reduction in tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
2. Stabilization of the Russia-U.S. Relations
Interaction between Moscow and Washington will predominantly remain adversarial, as it has been over the past few years. However, given the contacts between the presidents of the two countries that have taken place throughout this year, we can expect next year to see the rivalry stabilize, particularly in the most dangerous areas—including through sustained dialogue on arms control, strategic stability and cybersecurity. The U.S. refusal to impose more anti-Russian sanctions could be considered a success. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that new targeted sanctions are almost inevitable.
An important goal for the Russian-American relations going forward to 2022 would be to end the diplomatic war and restore proper functioning of diplomatic missions on the two sides, at least in Moscow and Washington, which should be followed by a reopening of Russian and U.S. consulates in other cities.
3. Restoring the Russia–NATO Dialogue
Contacts between Moscow and Brussels were finally frozen in the outgoing year, and the proceedings of the Russia–NATO Council were terminated. Still, both sides have expressed their interest in continuing a meaningful dialogue—not only at the political but also at the military level. Such a dialogue could be resumed in some new format: for example, through a bilateral crisis management group in Europe. The latest time to resume contacts would be after the upcoming NATO summit in Spain in the summer.
To be effective, though, this dialogue should not be merely limited to periodic contacts between the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, but it must also include meaningful interaction between the militaries of the two sides at the working level.
4. Russia–EU Agreements on Energy Transition
Over the past few years—especially throughout 2021—Moscow has significantly updated its stance on climate matters by launching a series of practical programs for the low-carbon energy transition. At the same time, the energy transition could contribute to the rapprochement between Russia and the EU to become a new irritant in Moscow–Brussels relations, especially regarding cross-border carbon regulation.
Apparently, the coming year will be decisive for determining the future of Russia–EU cooperation in energy. It is important for Russia to finally put the Nord Stream-2 pipeline into operation, removing one of the main obstacles to a positive dynamics of energy cooperation between Moscow and its Western partners, along with the launch of joint new energy development projects.
5. Preventing Afghanistan from Becoming a Failed State
The socio-economic situation in Afghanistan rapidly continues to deteriorate, a trend aided by subsisting international sanctions against the new authorities. A humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan in 2022 would create a threat of many millions of refugees arriving in the neighboring countries, which would also strengthen the positions of the most radical fundamentalist groups capable of significantly destabilizing the political situation not only in Afghanistan but also in the surrounding states.
Establishing effective multilateral cooperation mechanisms for humanitarian and technical assistance to Afghanistan and agreeing on a number of exemptions from the UN sanctions regime would be a success for Russian foreign policy. At the same time, Kabul should demonstrate visible progress in respecting human rights, forming an inclusive government and curbing the activities of terrorist groups from Afghanistan.
6. Exploring Broader Horizons for Russia–China Relations
Cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is marked by a steadily positive dynamics; however, the two years of the pandemic have taken their toll to cause considerable damage, especially affecting humanitarian, cultural and educational facets of the relationship. The current format of economic ties has largely exhausted its former potential for extensive development.
The parties are faced with the task of supplementing traditional trade with developing joint technological and production chains as well as ramping up bilateral investment activity. The evolving geopolitical situation globally requires an increased level of coordination of Russian and Chinese policies in a number of regional areas and in many international organizations.
7. A Breakthrough in Relations with India
While Russia’s latest National Security Strategy puts India and China at the same level, the dynamics of Russia–India cooperation have long been lagging behind that of Moscow and Beijing.
2022 should ideally come to be the year of breakthroughs, encompassing not only trade and investment but also the geopolitical dimension of Moscow–Delhi relations. The countries have different approaches to China, to the concept of the Indo-Pacific, to the multilateral Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, India), to shaping the future of Afghanistan, etc. These differences can hardly be eradicated completely, but a significant convergence of the two countries’ positions on some of these issues is quite possible.
8. Consolidating Russia’s Positions in Africa
A second Russia-Africa summit is planned for the fall of 2022. Its first edition, held in Sochi in October 2019, raised many hopes for the prospects of an expanded Russian presence in Africa. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has made numerous adjustments to these plans, preventing the parties from reaching the expected levels of trade and investment. Nevertheless, Africa still retains considerable interest in interaction with Russia, which could act as an important balancer of the prevailing influence of the West and China in the countries of the continent.
Therefore, the coming year could become a “Year of Africa” for Moscow, a year of converting common political agreements into new practical projects in energy, transport, urban infrastructure, communications, education, public health, and regional security.
9. Stabilization in the South Caucasus
Just over a year has passed since another outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended with a fragile truce and the introduction of Russian peacekeepers into the region. Risks that the conflict resumes in some form remain, though. It is extremely important for Russia to mitigate them throughout 2022, by tackling the issues of demarcation and delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
It is equally important to prevent armed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, unblock the transportation arteries (they are currently stalled) and launch major development projects for the region, gradually forming a new basis for Moscow’s interaction both with Baku and Yerevan—and, in the long term, Tbilisi.
10. Initiating Political Transit in Belarus
The referendum on constitutional amendments in Belarus will take place in February 2022, marking the beginning of the political transit. Russia is certainly interested in carrying out such a transit in an orderly fashion, without any threats to the socio-economic and political stability of the state and without significant damage to the Russian–Belarusian relations.
Besides, next year should become crucial for implementing numerous integration projects announced in 2021, as well as for taking bilateral military and political cooperation to a new level. At the same time, as before, Russia in 2022 should not solidarize with all actions of the Belarusian authorities, which can be unpredictable and impulsive.
11. International Cooperation in the Fight against Coronavirus
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet become an incentive for the international community to unite around shared goals. Moreover, it has intensified global geopolitical competition. The task of achieving recognition of the Russian anti-COVID vaccines by the WHO and the EU was not solved in 202, which means this has been postponed to the next year.
However, Russian foreign policy can and should set strategic goals, including expanding international cooperation in providing vaccines to the Global South, facilitating the conditions for the post-COVID global economy recovery, countering covid protectionism, etc.
12. Avoiding a Collapse of Oil Prices
Russia welcomes 2022 with comfortable oil prices at $70 per barrel. Moreover, current natural gas prices in Europe are significantly higher than Russian expectations and preferences, with European gas futures having exceeded $1,800 per thousand cubic meters in December. However, the increased volatility of global energy markets threatens a new price collapse next year, similar to that in early spring 2020.
Consequently, one of Russia’s strategic tasks in the coming year is to reduce the volatility of energy prices using the established OPEC+ format. More generally, it is very important to enhance the interaction of hydrocarbon exporting countries in the context of the emerging global energy transition.
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For sure, this list of opportunities for Russian foreign policy in 2022 can be continued. However, we shall not forget that politics has always been and still is the art of the possible, so it would be unrealistic to expect such historic achievements as, for example, the dissolution of NATO military structures or even an unconditional implementation of the Minsk agreements on Donbass by Ukraine in the coming 12 months.
Achieving the much more modest goals, as outlined above, will require political will, exceptional diplomatic skills, effective coordination among the many government agencies, patience and perseverance from everyone who determines and implements the country’s foreign policy. Naturally, we would like to wish our politicians, diplomats and businessmen good luck in the coming year, which has always been essential to achievements in foreign policy as well as in life.
From our partner RIAC
The Neo-NAM: From Vision to Reality
The latest Putin-Modi Summit was a global geostrategic game-changer unlocking the potential for the two great powers to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”). Their meeting came against the backdrop of both countries recalibrating their respective “balancing” acts. Russia has been engaged in high-level diplomacy with the U.S. while India defied America’s CAATSA sanctions threats by remaining loyal to its S-400 air defense deal with Moscow. These two countries are signaling to the world that they’re strategically autonomous in the U.S.–Chinese New Cold War. Furthermore, they have complementary grand strategies when it comes to maintaining the balance of interests in Eurasia.
Not only that, but clause 93 of the 99-point “Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Prosperity” that the leaders agreed on during their summit announced that “the sides agreed to explore mutually acceptable and beneficial areas of cooperation in third countries especially in the Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa.” This can be interpreted as their interest in jointly facilitating the balancing acts of third countries in those regions (including their local Eurasian and South Asian ones) that are struggling to remain neutral in the New Cold War. The paradigm through which they can advance this vision is the Neo-NAM, something that the author has elaborated on in detail earlier.
He co-authored an academic article for Vestnik, the official journal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, run by the Russian Foreign Ministry), titled “The Prospects Of Russian And India Jointly Leading A New Non-Aligned Movement”, and released a follow-up for the Indian military magazine Force titled “Towards Bi-Multipolarity”. These pieces lay the basis upon which the present analysis will be built. To simplify the insight shared within them, the author argues that Russia and India are the only great powers capable of pragmatically balancing the two superpowers in the New Cold War and facilitating others’ respective balancing acts.
The game-changing Putin-Modi Summit and the complicated geostrategic context in which it took place confirms both countries’ intentions to do so, particularly when it comes to the earlier cited 93rd clause of their reaffirmed special and privileged strategic partnership. Therefore, their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep states”) will likely prioritize the convergence of their shared grand strategy of balancing Afro-Eurasian affairs in the coming months. To assist with this, the author decided to expand upon his earlier blueprints for bringing this pragmatic vision about. The present analysis should serve as a starting point for initiating joint activity in this direction.
Ground Zero: The Russian Far East
The first order of business should be to agree on flagship projects in the Russian Far East where India unprecedentedly extended its strategic partner a $1 billion line of credit in September 2019 during Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) as President Putin’s guest of honor. The leaders also announced the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor (VCMC), which is expected to serve as Russia’s connectivity concept across what India describes as the Indo-Pacific but which Moscow still officially regards as the Asia-Pacific. It is of the highest priority that the two make progress on this, since the VCMC won’t attract any third parties without proving its viability in the Russian Far East first.
India could be of special service to Russia if it succeeds in leveraging its strategic partnership with Japan for the purpose of convincing Tokyo to invest in this region irrespective of resolving what that East Asian nation considers to be the “Kuril Islands Dispute” but which, Moscow maintains, shouldn’t be an issue at all following that country’s defeat in World War II. India and Japan jointly unveiled the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) a few years ago—however, the project has yet to make any major investments anywhere. It would therefore be in all the three countries’ interests to focus on the Russian Far East since the host country needs the investment and those other two need to prove the viability of their concept.
The Mechanics of The Neo-NAM
No matter whether India proves successful in convincing Japan to invest in the Russian Far East, Moscow and New Delhi should establish a platform for coordinating their activity in third countries in order to maximally optimize the vision articulated in the 93rd clause of their latest partnership agreement. It would be advisable to make it as flexible as possible in the sense of proceeding along three tracks: the bilateral Russian-Indian one, a number of trilateral tracks for coordinating joint investments in third countries, and a multilateral one for managing all of the aforesaid. Upon reaching enough trilateral investment deals in third countries, the platform could then serve to coordinate all of their other activities.
To explain, economic engagement is the inroad through which the Neo-NAM can eventually become a political force through which Russia and India can facilitate its partners’ balancing acts between China and the US in the New Cold War. To be absolutely clear, this mustn’t ever be instrumentalized to influence the balance of interests between those two superpowers, but solely to ensure the greatest level of strategic autonomy for the countries caught in the middle of their global competition. Just like the NAM from the Old Cold War balanced its members’ relations between the American and Soviet superpowers, so too should the Neo-NAM in the New Cold War do the same with the US and China.
In practice, this could most immediately take the form of joint Russian-Indian investment projects serving as a pragmatic “third way” for such states who feel compelled to choose between American (“Build Back Better World”, B3W) and Chinese (Belt & Road Initiative, BRI) connectivity initiatives. Some might already have ties with one, the other, or perhaps eventually soon both, but they’d have a natural interest in diversifying through the Neo-NAM’s potentially proposed projects as well in order to balance between those superpowers and maintain as much strategic autonomy. This would help them preemptively avert any future disproportionate dependence on either superpower.
Since the New Cold War has many political dimensions, the third countries caught in the middle of this competition might feel compelled to side with one of them at the UN or in other multilateral fora. In that context, the Neo-NAM could serve as a voting bloc of truly neutral states that collectively refuse to get involved in those superpowers’ rivalry. They would eventually realize that they can effect more meaningful change if they stick together and vote (or not vote) as one instead of scattering to side with the U.S. or China. This could, in turn, prompt those two superpowers to appreciate the Neo-NAM’s countries even more, which might reduce the pressure they feel to side with either of them.
Militarily, the Neo-NAM might eventually seek to circulate more jointly produced Russian-Indian weapons among its many members in order to relieve the pressure that they’d feel to purchase American or Chinese ones. After all, whether or not either of those superpowers politicizes their arms exports, the other will certainly take notice if any given country purchases their rival’s. This is especially true for Chinese exports to West Asia and American ones to the ASEAN states. In order to avoid inadvertently offending either of those two, the Neo-NAM’s countries might opt to purchase jointly produced Russian-Indian arms instead in order to signal that they’re truly militarily neutral states.
Having explained the mechanics of the Neo-NAM, the rest of the analysis will discuss the means through which Russia and India can engage over half a dozen countries that might be most interested in joining their informal network across Afro-Eurasia. The informal aspect is emphasized because there might be certain political sensitivities with openly declaring their Neo-NAM intent even if their expert and media communities end up using this term for simplicity’s sake. That’s because China would almost certainly object to any such formal announcement, and neither Russia nor India wants to inadvertently risk having that country view their truly neutral grand strategic intentions with suspicion.
To begin, it deserves mentioning that Russia and India each have strategic partnerships with the centrally positioned ASEAN state of Vietnam. It would therefore be best if they incorporated that country into the VCMC and began trilaterally coordinating with it. The Vietnamese President was just in Moscow where he and his host agreed to renew their strategic partnership. Of particular interest was their joint declaration’s mentioning of UNCLOS, which speaks to Russia’s regional neutrality and unwillingness to take sides in the South China Sea issue despite its strategic partnership with China. This makes Moscow a trustworthy partner for all ASEAN states.
Vietnam was the first country to reach a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAU) with which India plans to launch free trade talks sometime next year according to their recently renewed strategic partnership. The BrahMos supersonic missiles that Russia and India jointly produced as their flagship military-industrial project will be exported to the Philippines according to Deputy Chief of the Russian Mission in India Roman Babushkin in November 2020 in spite of that country being America’s mutual defense ally. If those two will sell such arms to that country, then it follows that there shouldn’t be a problem exporting them to their shared Vietnamese partner too.
Maintaining the Vietnamese-Chinese balance of power in the South China Sea could encourage both claimants to continue pursuing a political solution to their dispute. It would also counteract the US’ divide-and-rule strategy of trying to pit ASEAN states against the People’s Republic. Since Vietnam already has official trade ties with the EAU and India will soon work on reaching its own, it shouldn’t be that difficult to coordinate trilateral projects in that regional state through the VCMC. Doing so would serve as a proof of the economic viability of that concept as well as the larger Neo-NAM within which that corridor would serve as a key connectivity project between many of its proposed members.
Moving westward into the Indian Ocean, Russia and India are already jointly building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, which testifies to how close those two are with Dhaka. That country became independent half a century ago shortly after the Indo-Soviet “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in 1971. All three therefore have time-tested relations that stretch back to Bangladesh’s inception. This could transform that country into the Neo-NAM’s top South Asian partner and make it a major node along the VCMC that this concept’s joint leaders plan to advance. Bangladesh is also balancing between China and the US so it would clearly be attracted to the Neo-NAM’s neutral “third way”.
The next point of convergence between Russia and India is Afghanistan, and it’s here where Moscow could repay New Delhi’s favor for possibly getting Tokyo to invest in the Russian Far East irrespective of resolving the so-called “Kuril Islands Dispute”. India evacuated that country in August following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover after investing $3 billion in over 400 socio-economic development projects in every one of Afghanistan’s provinces. The Taliban, which is still officially designated as a terrorist group by Moscow despite the Eurasian Great Power pragmatically engaging with it in the interests of peace and security, hopes that India can return to help it balance China and Pakistan.
Although that country’s de facto leaders have excellent ties with those two countries, it’s concerned about becoming disproportionately dependent on them in the future. Average Afghans also generally have very positive views of India, advanced to a large extent by its hundreds of socio-economic development projects that directly improved their lives. The Moscow peace process that resulted in the Extended Troika between that host country, China, Pakistan, and the US could prospectively be expanded to include India, which is what Foreign Minister Lavrov once again proposed following the game-changing Putin-Modi Summit.
Russia envisions relying on India and their shared Iranian partner to pragmatically counterbalance China and Pakistan in Afghanistan, which fully aligns with the Taliban’s undeclared policy as well. Considering this, de facto Taliban-led Afghanistan would therefore be a perfect partner for the Neo-NAM balancing network that Russia and India are jointly assembling. It doesn’t want to take sides between anyone nor become too dependent on any of the many stakeholders in its success. This explains why the group will likely be attracted to the neutral “third way” that Russia and India could soon propose for it in order to make Afghanistan their network’s most important Central Asian partner.
At this point, it’s worthwhile talking about Iran, which was mentioned earlier with respect to Russia’s repeated proposal to have it join the Extended Troika on Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic enjoys equally excellent relations with Russia and India but also clinched a 25-year strategic partnership with China last spring. It was also announced several months ago that Iran will join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which those three Great Powers also participate. Even though Tehran is presently renegotiating the nuclear deal with Washington, it practices a fiercely independent foreign policy and plays a crucial role in geographically bridging the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership.
It does this through the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) alongside neighboring transit state Azerbaijan. Although Baku and New Delhi have recently experienced some turbulence in their relations after Azerbaijan publicly supported Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and India began expanding its relations with that country’s Armenian rival, the NSTC still remains geographically viable since Russian-Indian trade could traverse the Caspian Sea. In addition, since Iran sits in the center of this connectivity corridor, it could also host trilateral investment projects, especially upon a successfully renegotiated nuclear deal that removes the US’ secondary sanctions threats that have thus far impeded this.
Across the Gulf lies the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which should also be approached by Russia and India to gauge its interest in joining their Neo-NAM. That country has recently expanded relations with both of them as part of its rapid rise to regional power status that’s the result of its visionary leadership’s geopolitical ambitions. It’s also extremely wealthy and has a lot of influence in the Horn of Africa, a region that will soon be discussed when talking about the Neo-NAM’s African dimension. The UAE is improving relations with Iran, managing increasingly difficult ties with the US, exploring a rapprochement with Turkey, and recently recognized Israel so it should be interested in the Neo-NAM.
Israel was just talked about and it’s also a perfect candidate for the Neo-NAM. Even though it’s regarded as among America’s top allies anywhere in the world, it bravely defied Washington’s pressure to sanction Moscow in solidarity with the West. In addition, Tel Aviv and the Eurasian Great Power have quietly become de facto allies after the Kremlin agreed to a so-called “deconfliction mechanism” with it in September 2015 immediately prior to its anti-terrorist intervention in neighboring Syria in order to coordinate actions above that third country’s airspace. This led to Israel carrying out literally hundreds of strikes against Iran and its allies since then who it claims are stockpiling weapons there to attack it.
This fact means that Russia has indirectly done more to ensure Israel’s most pressing national security interests than even America has in recent years. From there, trust between these former Old Cold War rivals reached unprecedented heights, with President Putin personally managing his country’s de facto allied relations with Israel. He’s on record proudly speaking about the crucial role that the Russian diaspora there played in building the people-to-people ties upon which their relations are expanding. President Putin is also extremely passionate about fighting anti-Semitism and World War II revisionism all across the world, which are two of the most sensitive subjects for Israel.
The US’ interest in renegotiating the nuclear deal with Iran made Israel suspicious of its traditional ally’s grand strategic interests. After appreciating how Russia ensured its most pressing national security interests in Syria and thus rewarding it by refusing to comply with America’s demands to sanction Moscow in solidarity with the West, the opportunity has certainly arisen for seriously considering Israel’s inclusion in the Neo-NAM. Iran’s possible participation shouldn’t be any obstacle since both it and Israel are also actively exploring free trade deals with the EAU and each have excellent relations with India as well. If Israel joins the Neo-NAM, then it would truly make this network a force to be reckoned with.
Ethiopia & South Africa
The last part of the world where the Neo-NAM can truly make a geostrategic difference is Africa, and it’s here where Ethiopia and South Africa can serve as its most important members. Both have excellent relations with China but are eager to diversify their ties as much as possible. Ethiopia has recently experienced unprecedented pressure from its nominal American ally to politically compromise with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that Addis Ababa officially considers to be terrorists. This upset the balancing act that that country was practicing up until the start of last year’s conflict and thus necessitates an urgent recalibration, which is where Russia and India can quickly step in.
Both of them defended Ethiopia at the UN, which were gracious political acts that Addis Ababa truly appreciated. India also already has some investments in Ethiopia while Russia is exploring such. Moscow and Addis Ababa used to be allies during the second half of the Old Cold War and even enjoyed special relations back during their imperial eras. All of these can be the bases upon which Russia and India can engage Ethiopia to gauge its interest in trilateral investment projects, after which that country could seriously consider joining their Neo-NAM network across Afro-Eurasia. Ethiopia has historically supported anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism so its membership would be especially symbolic.
As for South Africa, it participates in BRICS alongside Russia and India. As an Indian Ocean state, that country is also within the region that India considers to be its “sphere of influence”. Russia has historically close relations with it too stretching back to the former Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid freedom movement. As one of the continent’s largest economies, it’s a natural point of convergence between Russia’s and India’s economic interests and would add hefty weight to the African component of their Neo-NAM. Just like Russia, India, and China coordinate through RICs, so too could Russia, India, and South Africa coordinate through a special format in the proposed Neo-NAM.
The New Cold War is intensifying across all dimensions, especially across the economic domain after the U.S. unveiled its B3W and the EU just announced its complementary “Global Gateway” (GG). Those two will likely coordinate to compete with BRI all across Afro-Eurasia, with a particular emphasis on the first-mentioned continent due to its much more urgent developmental needs. Russia and India are late to the infrastructure game and will have to do a lot to catch up with their great power peers, but it is never too late to start. Should they succeed in proving the viability of joint projects in the Neo-NAM’s Russian Far Eastern core and expand the VCMC to Vietnam and Bangladesh, African countries will pay attention.
The VCMC could then become the centerpiece of Russia’s Indo-Pacific policy and the vehicle through which it and India jointly approach African countries, after which they’d likely rebrand that project or at least the African dimension. They also both have very close ties with the UAE and Israel, which have immense influence in the Indian Ocean half of the continent, so the possibility emerges to explore the chance for quadrilateral or even five-party projects in some capacity. If that’s not feasible given how ambitious such a proposal is and the difficulty in coordinating so many stakeholders’ interests, then Russia and India might individually advance trilateral projects with one or the other in African states.
The VCMC or whatever its proposed African expansion might be called will therefore serve as the connectivity vehicle for economically attracting countries to the Neo-NAM. The Afghan and Iranian dimensions can be advanced through the NSTC, while the Emirati and Israeli ones could see new concepts being created, perhaps even through Russian investment in facilitating the proposed “Arab-Mediterranean Corridor” between the EU and India via those West Asian countries. Upon establishing joint projects in third countries, the host states can the be encouraged to participate in the Neo-NAM’s diplomatic and military initiatives that were earlier explained in the mechanics section of this analysis.
Altogether, the Putin-Modi Summit was truly a global geostrategic game-changer because it extended enormous credence to the author’s earlier proposal for them to jointly lead an informal network of neutral states across Afro-Eurasia for the purpose of collectively facilitating their respective balancing acts. This Neo-NAM could eventually become a third pole of influence in the emerging bi-multipolar world and serve the irreplaceable function of relieving pressure upon the countless countries caught in the middle of the two superpowers’ global competition by presenting a pragmatic “third way” between them. Hopefully, Russian and Indian experts will prioritize research into the author’s ambitious proposal.
From our partner RIAC
A Brief Classification of Ambassadors
The forthcoming decennary of the Russian International Affairs Council gives us good reason to once again reminisce about RIAC’s many friends, fellows, partners and allies who have backed the Council throughout all these amazing and inimitable years. Along with directors of academic institutions, presidents of universities, federal ministers and heads of departments, editors-in-chief of field-oriented media and other opinion leaders of the Russian community of IR experts, it would be unfair to pay little tribute to foreign ambassadors, while they have played a significant role in establishing and promoting many areas of project work at RIAC.
In fact, the diplomatic corps accredited to Moscow cannot help but impress with its diversity. Foreign ambassadors and heads of affiliates of international organizations are often surprisingly bright and extraordinary people; and once you have met them, these meetings will stick in the mind for a long time to come. I once broached the idea of publishing a collection of essays featuring most memorable of the diplomats who I happened to know at different stages of my winding life. Being fully aware of the complexity and the known delicacy that this endeavour would have entailed, I had to postpone this task for a far-off future, only limiting myself with only a brief classification of what foreign ambassadors could be. In my humble opinion, this could give impetus for a more thorough and detailed research in this riveting field.
Before anyone possibly asks questions or offers their critical remarks, I would like to emphasize that the classification that I propose here fails to correspond to conventional matters of cultural anthropology, sociology, let alone political science. In no way do I seek to deal with the peculiarities of the countries represented by ambassadors working in Moscow. I have also chosen to leave out of account such undoubtedly important grounds for classification as age, gender, wealth, tenure as an ambassador or size and composition of the diplomatic mission headed by the ambassador.
Nevertheless, a number of generalized psychological and behavioral types of foreign ambassadors have been identified. This attempt at classification is now humbly laid before the readership. I would like to emphasize that it would in no way be appropriate, let alone permissible, to consider this classification fitting to describe particular foreign diplomats who are currently working in Moscow or used to work to Russia. Any possible coincidences are incidental and unintentional.
A modern ambassador is undoubtedly very different from the arrogant Swede we meet in the popular Soviet film Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, a diplomat who would demand the Kemsky volost from the tsar in a stubborn and straightforward fashion. There seem to be six major types of high-standing diplomats, with each having a whole set of features inherent only to their type.
The daydreamer. A distinctive feature of daydreamer ambassadors is their ardent, enduring and all-forgiving love for Russia. This love is typically rooted in a good command of the Russian language as well as a deep knowledge of Russia’s history and culture. More often than not, daydreamer ambassadors would begin their career as interpreters from Russian or with a long-term internship at one of the Russian (Soviet) universities. The ambassadorship in Moscow is a life-long dream, and the years in office are the best time and the pinnacle of their professional career.
In conversation, daydreamer ambassadors would but quote Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky or even Vladimir Vysotsky, who is less well-known outside Russia. In the ambassador’s office, one can find cultural relics made of blue-and-white Gzhel ceramics or golden-red-black Khokhloma dishes. The walls are hung with pictures showcasing Russian nature or urban landscapes of the old Moscow.
Daydreamer ambassadors tend to acquire wide contacts in the bohemia of the capital quickly and effortlessly, often attending premieres in Moscow theaters and being always present at the opening of exhibitions in metropolitan museums. They gladly give interviews to any media outlets, whether this is a government paper or a media resource of the radical opposition. They love to travel around Russia’s regions—moreover, they get to most abandoned of places in their wanderings, where the foot of the capital’s dweller rarely steps. They are stoic about the everyday and political vicissitudes of their life, since they are fully convinced of the bright future of both Russia and its relations with the native country. In public speeches, daydreamer ambassadors miss no opportunity to highlight how important are educational, cultural and humanitarian contacts, which are the basis for universal peace and friendship among peoples.
Upon leaving Moscow, daydreamer ambassadors would rather choose to give up on their diplomatic career, since any other position in foreign service would be a step backward rather than forward. Usually, they become professor emeritus at major universities or top contributors for leading think tanks, where they continue their struggle for better bilateral relations with Russia. Daydreamer ambassadors regularly return to the Russian capital to participate in various conferences, symposia and seminars, often publishing voluminous and touching memoirs about their historic mission in Moscow.
The businessman. This type of ambassadors refers to career diplomats or political appointees; far fewer such people come to the foreign service from the private sector. Usually, businessman ambassadors do not speak Russian, while having studied some Russian history and culture in the old days—obviously, not so deeply and thoughtfully as daydreamer ambassadors would. They arrive in Moscow convinced that discussions about the “mysterious Russian soul” are nothing more than idle fictions of a bunch of too excited cone-headed “friends of Russia” and that Russia, as a matter of fact, is no different from other countries and therefore requires a businesslike treatment rather than a romantic approach.
Businessman ambassadors are also confident in their ability to make inroads, while mainly relying on the overlapping interests of business elites of Russia and their own country. Such diplomats are quite well-versed in world oil, gas and wheat prices or other items of Russian export. They demonstrate a lively interest in the news about Western sanctions and Russian responses, new appointments in the economic sector of the government and any decisions of Russia’s Central Bank on the policy rate. The interior of their residence is distinctly business-like, minimalistic at times. Businessman ambassadors prefer to decorate the walls of their office with avant-garde painting or art photography.
Businessman ambassadors have extensive contacts in both Russian business associations and foreign business associations represented in Russia. They would always participate in all kinds of investment forums and other business events. Businessman ambassadors would never say no to cutting red ribbons at the opening ceremonies of industrial fairs and joint ventures. During public speeches, they would show presentations with detailed statistics illustrating the undoubted achievements in promoting trade and fostering economic cooperation between their native country and Russia.
Upon returning back home from Moscow, businessman ambassadors usually become consultants or even board members of large international corporations. Frequently, they set up new, and rather successful, consulting firms on their own or in partnership with other businessman ambassadors. They would rarely write personal memoirs; and if they do, stories about the time in Moscow would then be on the pages of a single—and far from the longest—chapter.
The box-ticker. In most cases, box-ticker ambassadors are career diplomats. An appointment to Moscow is a natural but not necessarily inevitable step in their diplomatic career, since they could just as likely serve as ambassadors to another major capital—be it Beijing, Brussels or New Delhi.
Box-tickers are usually self-restraint, attentive to details, prone to healthy conservatism. They may be lacking in the idealism of daydreamer ambassadors or the assertiveness of businessman ambassadors, but they would see—better than anyone in the embassy—into the intricacies of diplomatic protocol, etiquette and the established conventions of how foreigners work in Moscow. щ, unless absolutely necessary, would not overhaul things in the work of the embassy, whether the staffing table or the furniture left over from their predecessor. They believe that decorating walls with painting is redundant, and if one can see an artistic canvas in the ambassador’s residence, it most likely displays the national school of painting of the ambassador’s country. Box-tickers are ready to take on the lion’s share of the current tasks in the embassy. They would be the first to visit partners and experts. Should something important happen in Russia or in Russian foreign policy, they would be the first to send dispatches to their capital. Box-ticker ambassadors are not necessarily boring or reclusive: They can be very sociable, while remaining completely secretive. They are rather predictable and reliable interlocutors who do not deliberately ask provocative questions and never allow “accidental” leaks of information.
Box-ticker ambassadors attach great importance to their contacts with the Presidential Executive Office, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Federal Customs and Border Services as well as with fellow ambassadors and heads of representative offices of large international organizations. They would regularly attend all diplomatic receptions and dinners, having at the ready a well-suited set of greetings and toasts that can be used for all occasions. A box-ticker could become the ideal doyenne of the diplomatic corps or a group of countries.
The appointment to the embassy in Moscow is certainly not the last in their diplomatic career. They stand a good chance of further career advancement—up to the highest positions in the Foreign Ministry. Box-tickers remain loyal to the diplomatic service even after retirement, but they rarely go into teaching or consulting. Box-ticker ambassadors leave Russia with a sense of accomplishment. Since they tend to be invariably discreet and disinclined to expression of emotions in public, one can’t help but guess what the true impressions from Moscow and Russia could be.
The martyr. As is known, one can be either born or become a martyr. Some ambassadors try on the heavy shackles of martyrdom during their preparations for a posting to Moscow, but desperate daydreamers or disaffected businessmen may well become martyrs along the way. Box-tickers are less likely to become martyrs, although such cases have sometimes been observed. A distinctive feature of martyr ambassadors is that they can discern insidious intrigues of the authorities or carefully planned provocations in the most mundane things, both in relation to their country and to them personally.
A martyr could be upset with literally everything, both with the long wait for the presentation of the credentials, or the inability to arrange a meeting with the deputy foreign minister, and the surveillance over them and the embassy staff by Russia’s special services. Martyr ambassadors categorically refuse to believe in the bright future of their country’s relations with Russia, and they see the future in dark colors only. This does not mean, however, that martyrs are but sullenly passive—they may well be hyperactive. In the residence of the so-called active martyr, there would constantly be many people of different backgrounds, such as leaders of non-systemic opposition, free-thinking representatives of civil society, journalists and the capital’s creative intellectuals, who serve to fuel the ambassador’s eternal fears and their constant concerns for the future.
Martyr ambassadors love to travel to Russia’s regions but are afraid to do so. They would be referring to the restrictions imposed by the authorities and the possibility of the aforementioned provocations. For the same reason, they would behave extremely cautiously when communicating with local journalists, especially those who represent media outlets affiliated with the authorities. In defense of the martyr ambassador, it is worth noting that they are sometimes capable, like no-one else, of putting together an accurate and extensive list of challenges and threats facing Russia, and of outlining major yet unresolved foreign and domestic problems.
Upon their return to the homeland, martyrs count on a promotion as compensation for all the suffering they had to endure in the inhospitable Moscow. Once retired, such ambassadors would publish their memoirs exploring the various “horrors of the regime” and the few dissident heroes whom they met in Russia by some twist of fate. In their memoirs, they rather convincingly explain why their mission was doomed to failure from its very outset, while certain passages can make the sympathetic reader shed a quiet tear.
The hedonist. The complete opposite of the martyr is the hedonist ambassador. While martyrs are most often melancholic by nature, hedonists naturally include most of true choleric subjects. Much like as a martyr, one can become a hedonist having evolved from a daydreamer ambassador or a businessman ambassador, which happens when ambassadors become convinced that their initial expectations from the mission to Moscow were unrealistic.
If we compare the hedonist with the martyr, though, the former draws fundamentally different conclusions from the realization of the limitations of their abilities to radically change both the world and Russia. Without striving for great accomplishments as an ambassador, hedonists develop an amazing ability to turn their stay in Moscow into a most enjoyable pastime. Hedonist ambassadors can boast one of the finest chefs in Moscow’s diplomatic corps and a completely exceptional liquor cabinet. In any, even the most difficult situations, hedonist ambassadors still radiate calmness and contentment. The doors of the embassy are hospitably wide open for all sorts of politicians, businessmen, cultural figures and scholars. Sometimes, one would get the impression that hedonists are more interested in merely communicating with people than in discussing professional issues of diplomacy. It is no coincidence that box-ticker ambassadors rarely turn into hedonists, since box-tickers typically take themselves too seriously—as well as their work and the numerous formalities inevitably associated with this professional activity. Hedonist treat themselves and their work with a touch of irony, with many of the formal requirements of the diplomatic service appearing at best old-fashioned, if not downright ridiculous, to their taste.
Like daydreamers, hedonist ambassadors pay certain tribute to art—since they are rather weak at Russian, they have to contend themselves with opera and ballet instead of drama. One may often meet the hedonist on tennis courts or at elite golf clubs. Among hedonists, there are also those who are fond of the more unconventional sports, such as sailing yachts or go-karting. Hedonists travel around Russia with great pleasure, but this is more to replenish their personal collection of colorful memories, not so much for the sake of meeting the locals. Hedonists are always ready to go on a horse tour in the Altai Highlands or fly a helicopter to the Kamchatka Valley of Geysers. In a friendly conversation over dinner, they would casually mention how they climbed Kilimanjaro or hunted alligators in the Amazon Rainforest.
Hedonists leave Moscow with a feeling of slight sadness, though with no particular regrets, since they are completely sure that they will settle no worse in the next country of destination. In most cases, this confidence is fully justified. They usually refrain from writing memoirs as they do not fancy large texts and are always pressed for time—as befits a hedonist, they are in a hurry to live.
The philosopher. Perhaps, this is the most interesting type of foreign ambassadors. Apparently, any of the types described so far can become a philosopher. For this, the daydreamer must overcome their enthusiasm, the businessman must realize that business is subordinate to big politics, the box-ticker must loosen, if not break, the shackles of diplomatic protocol, the martyr must get rid of paranoia, and the hedonist must grow sick of the small pleasures of the ambassador’s life. Nevertheless, philosophers are often those who used to be in a high position (such as the head of the foreign policy planning department or even a deputy minister) in the Foreign Ministry of their country before moving to the post of the ambassador.
Issues of ambassador’s everyday life are rarely the focus of a philosopher’s attention. They are also much less interested in the specific day-to-day issues of their country’s bilateral relations with Russia, since the philosopher has an experienced and hard-working minister-counsellor or the resourceful chief of the trade mission. Philosopher ambassadors are more concerned with the broader issues of how the world and all of its nations evolve. They, as befits a philosopher, are lenient to the inevitable difficulties and irritations related to the post of ambassador. Philosopher ambassadors and all other staff at the embassy are divided by an invisible but irresistible line. While being in the spotlight, such ambassadors nevertheless look at them from a distance, just as the noble Athos in the famous novel “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas. Although he took part in all the adventures of the courageous company, Athos still remained more of an outside observer than the protagonist.
Philosophers prefer chamber meetings with a narrow circle of selected guests to crowded receptions at the embassy. They are very picky but persistent in their contacts with local politicians and intellectuals. The ambassador is respected and holds authority in the diplomatic corps, with some younger ambassadors proudly calling them a teacher and a mentor. The end of a philosopher’s mission in Moscow turns into a long line of dinner parties and receptions hosted by the grateful colleagues.
For a philosopher, the post of ambassador to Russia is often the last avenue in their diplomatic career. Therefore, they regard the appointment to Moscow as an opportunity to take stock of their long and diverse professional life. If they choose to write some fundamental work after the stay, this will not be a personal memoir, since the philosopher understands well how futile their personal ambitions would be against the background of eternity. Rather, the book will be an expression of the author’s views on international relations and life in a broader sense, with scattered references to the rich professional experience of the philosopher ambassador.
Certainly, the brief classification of ambassadors proposed in this piece will raise many questions, probably coming under justified criticism both within the diplomatic corps and within the expert community. Not without reason, I could be accused of excessive sketchiness, impermissible simplification and insufficient understanding of how foreign embassies function. In my defense, I would like to note that I do not believe the task of classifying ambassadors to be resolved, and I sincerely hope that research in this direction will be continued by more competent and ponderate scholars.
P.S. In conclusion, being more serious, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all the ambassadors who have worked with the Russian International Affairs Council over the past ten years and are still doing so. Surely, the ambassadors-partners of RIAC do not fit into this ironic classification, hardly lending themselves to any unambiguous typology. The Russian International Affairs Council is sincerely grateful to all of you for the interest that you and the staff of your embassies show in our activities. RIAC has always sought to reciprocate this interest, and we are pleased to think that our Council could support you in the difficult diplomatic work in Russia in one way or another. We hope that the cooperation established over RIAC’s first decade will become even closer and more robust, diverse and productive in the coming years.
From our partner RIAC
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