Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.
Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World
Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.
The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities
The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.
The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”
Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.
Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating
The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.
The Rise of Isolationism in Russia
Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.
The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World
The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.
“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.
From our partner RIAC
Reigniting the Civil War in Donbas: Reminiscence of the Crimean Annexation
Europe has been the stage of calamity since the yesteryear’s shenanigans stirred by regional powers and political deadlocks. Coupled with the havoc subjected by the covid pandemic, the region continues to struggle with a health emergency laced with economic turmoil. Focusing on Eastern Europe, Belarus was the centre of attention following the rigged general election in August ensuing mass protests in capital of Minsk. However, while the internal conflict raging throughout the country posed instability, the region was never near an escalation as severe as the turn of events at the borders of Ukraine.
As the Pro-Russian factions are gripping in Eastern Ukraine, primarily in the region of Donbas, Ukraine fears a repeated episode of the War of Donbas of 2014 when the Russian intervention and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the south resulted in chaos and heavy casualty in the echelons of the Ukrainian military. While the Russian administration continues to veil its position by explicitly denying any inducement of the Pro-Russian voices in Eastern Ukraine, the sinister momentum is continually picking pace with heavy movements of Russian troops along the border of Donbas in the east and Crimea in the south. The timing and placement allude to a significantly graver possibility extrapolating from the notorious annexation not even a decade earlier.
Ukraine is an East European country bordered by Belarus to the North, Hungary, and Poland to the adjoining West, and Romania to the South. The Southern periphery is lined by the Black Sea while Russia stretches the borders in the North and Northeast. The region is scattered with the post-Soviet rendition of Eastern Europe: the countries conflicting and colluding which once stood as the mighty Soviet Union of the 20th century. Albeit Ukraine functioned as the pillar of the Soviet’s flourishing economy throughout the yester century, the country as an independent nation has been at an impasse, unlike its regional counterparts.
Unlike the ex-Soviet nations of Latvia and Lithuania, which incline towards the Western alliance and exist as one of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Ukraine struggles with a bifurcation of factions: one aligning with the European Union (EU) and the United States whilst the other jumping the bandwagon of Russia. While the former faction advocates joining hands with major Western powers, the latter opposes the active involvement of NATO in Ukraine, pushing for a Russian-backed government instead. This divide led to the annexation of Crimea in the South: marking Russia as an ever-looming threat to the sovereignty of the ex-Soviet countries deviating from the objectives of the Kremlin.
In 2014, mass demonstrations against the Pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, led to a dramatic turn of events. The revolution erupted in defiance to the abysmal economic policies of President Yanukovych that quickly erupted into an anti-Russian narrative bustling the streets of the capital city of Kyiv. While the President repeatedly tried to resolve the economic disparity by factoring in his alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his acts were perceived in the light of deception, especially by the Pro-European faction in Ukraine. The rage-fuelled protests eventually managed to topple the government of President Yanukovych, forcing him to step down and flee into exile to Russia. The falling-out of the Russian narrative, however, did not bode well in the echelons of the Kremlin.
In the months following the ousting of President Yanukovych, Russia started to tighten the screws against the surging opposition in Ukraine. While the primary objective was to reinstate the government of President Yanukovych, President Putin had other views. Quoting to his cabinet members, he stated: “We [Russia] must start working on returning Crimea to Russia”. Within days, Russia started to implement its scheme by systematically provoking the Pro-Russian rebels against their Pro-European counterparts. Russia supported the rebels in East Ukraine as well as Crimea in the South to take over the state infrastructure and grapple for power to induce chaos.
Once the mayhem was too hard to follow, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula whilst blocking the Eastern Ukrainian territory to impede any Western assistance to the Ukrainian military. The EU slammed sanctions over the Russian oil and banking sectors, the US warned of dire consequences and the UN denounced the invasion as an act of ‘Barbarianism’. However, it didn’t hinder the annexation of Crimea: separating it as the ‘Republic of Crimea’ before eventually signing a treaty of accession to incorporate the peninsula as a part of the Russian Federation. Despite the unabating US and UN allegations of war crimes and subsequent sanctions whilst deeming the annexation as ‘Illegitimate’, Russia controls the Crimean Peninsula except for the northern areas of Arabat spit and Syvash which still fall under the contested control of Ukraine.
Unlike Crimea, however, the Donbas region gives way to a different story altogether. Though an identical Pro-Russian sentiment follows through both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the foresight differs significantly. A 2014 referendum in Russia casted a colossal 96.7% voter count in support of subsuming Crimea as a part of the Russian Federation: which ultimately led to the accession of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia despite the UN deeming the vote illegal. Similarly, the perspective of the fate of the Donbas region was on congruent levels during the Crimean annexation. However, the narrative has loosened ever since. The Donbas region, comprising of the major revolt cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, enjoys a popular narrative in Russia to be liberated from Ukraine as independent states: Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) and Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR) respectively, instead of joining the Russian Federation. While the opinion of incorporating the Donbas cities within Russia has diluted since the war of 2014, the narrative supporting a unified Ukraine remains the most unpopular opinion in Russia.
Eastern Ukraine has remained a reminder of the Crimean annexation; the stalemate in the Donbas region has tallied over 13000 fatalities including the Pro-Russian rebels but primarily comprising of the Ukrainian troops ambushed in Northern swathes of Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that a total of 50 troops have perished in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2020 alone. The simmering tensions and the prolonged standoff has multiple roots. President Zelensky is a renowned Pro-European leader ad one of the major critics of the Kremlin intervention in the ex-Soviet countries including Ukraine. He has been crushing the clout of Pro-Russian militants in the pockets of Eastern Ukraine, incessantly blaming Russia for providing militaristic assistance to the rebels. Moreover, President Zelensky has been one of the primary proponents to peddle the cause of gaining NATO membership for Ukraine to put an ultimate end to the unremitting capitulation to Pro-Russian fighters and the Kremlin.
The strengthening of Ukraine-NATO relations has always irked the Kremlin regime: close movement and deployment of NATO forces along the Russian borders has been one of the most contentious and controversial aspects of diplomacy. This has established a grey zone between Ukraine and an official membership of the NATO: an accession that could likely lead to escalation through provocation and, dictated by Article 5 of the NATO charter, would mandate an armed retaliation by other members of NATO against Russia. The resulting devastation could not be even fathomed.
On the counter-side, President Putin is reeling through a tough tenure of his decades-long premiership. Covid fatalities run rampant and mass opposition blooms against the Kremlin in the aftermath of the incarceration of a popular Kremlin Critic, Alexei Navalny. Moscow requires a series of events to turn the stride in favor of President Putin. While President Putin’s recent stretch of tenure being extended further has done little to appease the raucous Russians backing Navalny, a conflict with a long-despised Ukraine should set his presidency back to a stable trajectory. Russia’s actions in Crimea pulled the popularity of President Putin to a phenomenal rating of 86% in 2014. Given how his government was rattled by the opposition back then and how the annexation instantaneously notched up his image in Russia, moving in tandem, an active intervention in Ukraine could again turn things in favor of the desperate Kremlin.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ruslan Khomchak, estimated a total of 35000 Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine. However, he estimated a tally of 50000 Russian troops lining across the border in Eastern Ukraine as well an additional 50000 troops lining the southern periphery in Crimea. While Kremlin has refused to be preparing for an invasion, a vague intent was implied by the Russian Presidential Spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stating that: “Nobody is planning to move towards the war. However, Russia has always said that it won’t remain indifferent to the fate of the Russian-Speakers in South-eastern Ukraine”. The statement is laced with a threat that led Ukraine to pry for assistance, specifically from NATO. However, despite constant US warnings as well as an invitation to a Summit extended to President Putin by President Biden to ‘Discuss the full range of issues’, Russia continues to claim the deployment as a routine military exercise. However, with expedited NATO movements along the Eastern Ukrainian borders, the US marines infiltrating the Black Sea and Ukraine historically close to obtaining the NATO membership, an invasion could most likely be on cards. The gravity of the ground reality could be gauged by the recent statement of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Of course. We know it from 2014, we know it [Russian invasion] can be each [and any] day”.
Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans
Despite various official efforts, including regular payment of maternal capital to stimulate birth rates and regulating migration policy to boost population, Russia is reportedly experiencing decreasing population. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, Russia’s population currently stands at approximately 144 million, down from 148.3 million.
Experts at the Higher School of Economics believe that regulating the legal status of migrants, majority of them arriving from the Commonwealth of Independent States or the former Soviet republics, could be useful or resourceful for developing the economy, especially on various infrastructure projects planned for country. These huge human resources could be used in the vast agricultural fields to boost domestic agricultural production. On the contrary, the Federal Migration Service plans to deport all illegal migrants from Russia.
Within the long-term sustainable development program, Russia has multibillion dollar plans to address its infrastructure deficit especially in the provinces, and undertake megaprojects across its vast territory, and migrant labor could be useful here. The government can ensure that steady improvements are consistently made with the strategy of legalizing (regulating legal status) and redeploying the available foreign labor, majority from the former Soviet republics rather than deporting back to their countries of origin.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has been credited for transforming the city into a very neat and smart modern one, thanks partly to foreign labor – invaluable reliable asset – performing excellently in maintaining cleanliness and on the large-scale construction sites, and so also in various micro-regions on the edge or outskirts of Moscow.
With its accumulated experience, the Moscow City Hall has now started hosting the Smart Cities Moscow, international forum dedicated to the development of smart cities and for discussing about changes in development strategies, infrastructure challenges and adaptation of the urban environment to the realities of the new normal society.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia lacks sufficient number of migrants to fulfill its ambitious development plans. He further acknowledged that the number of migrants in Russia has reduced significantly, and now their numbers are not sufficient to implement ambitious projects in the country.
“I can only speak about the real state of affairs, which suggests that, in fact, we have very few migrants remaining over the past year. Actually, we have a severe dearth of these migrants to implement our ambitious plans,” the Kremlin spokesman pointed out.
In particular, it concerns projects in agricultural and construction sectors. “We need to build more than we are building now. It should be more tangible, and this requires working hands. There is certainly a shortage in migrants. Now there are few of them due to the pandemic,” Peskov said.
Early April, an official from the Russian Interior Ministry told TASS News Agency that the number of illegal migrants working in Russia decreased by 40% in 2020 if compared to the previous year. It also stated that 5.5 million foreign citizens were registered staying in Russia last year, while the average figure previously ranged between nine and eleven million.
On March 30, 2021, President Vladimir Putin chaired the tenth meeting of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations via videoconference, noted that tackling the tasks facing the country needs not only an effective economy but also competent management. For a huge multinational state such as Russia, it is fundamentally, and even crucially important, to ensure public solidarity and a feeling of involvement in the life, and responsibility for its present and future.
At this moment, over 80 percent of Russian citizens have a positive view on interethnic relations, and it is important in harmonizing interethnic relations in the country, Putin noted during the meeting, and added “Russia has a unique and original heritage of its peoples. It is part of our common wealth, it should be accessible to every resident of our country, every citizen, everyone who lives on this land. Of course, we will need to review the proposal to extend the terms for temporary stay of minors of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation.”
President Vladimir Putin has already approved a list of instructions aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship in Russia based on the proposals drafted by the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.
“Within the framework of the working group for implementation of the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025, the Presidential Executive Office of the Russian Federation shall organize work aimed at reforming the migration requirements and the institution of citizenship of the Russian Federation,” an official statement posted to Kremlin website.
In addition, the president ordered the Government, the Interior and Foreign Ministries, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Justice Ministry alongside the Presidential Executive Office to make amendments to the plan of action for 2019-2021, aimed at implementing the State Migration Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for 2019-2025.
Nobody Wants a War in Donbass
Any escalation is unique in its own way. Right now there’s a combination of unfavorable trends on both sides, which are leading to an escalation of the conflict. This combination creates additional risks and threats that weren’t there before.
On the Ukrainian side, the problem is that the president is losing his political position and becoming a hostage of right-wing and nationalist forces. Many of the reform initiatives that he came to power with have stalled. Political sentiments are changing within his faction. They’re saying that with his recent steps, in particular the language law and the closure of television stations that Kyiv dislikes, he’s starting to stray towards the agenda of his predecessor, Poroshenko. And this means a weakening of his position. Probably, he’s already thinking about re-election and how he will look during the campaign. Here, the trend is unfavorable.
On the other hand, there’s the arrival of Biden, who will always be more attentive to Ukraine than Trump. There’s an expectation that the U.S. will be more consistent and decisive in its support for the Ukrainian side in the event of a conflict. This invigorates the forces that are looking for an escalation.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a role. They said there was only a political path to resolving the conflict, but in Karabakh [the Azerbaijanis] used force and made real progress. This motivates the people who think that military force can resolve a conflict. Moreover, Ukraine is carrying out defense cooperation with Turkey, so there may be hopes that the balance of forces will shift in Kyiv’s favor.
There’s also a radicalization of the political leadership of the DNR and LNR. They say that [full-scale] war is, if not inevitable, than very likely—and Russia must intervene. The idea that the DNR and LNR should join Russia is gaining popularity once again. This is facilitated by Russia’s actions. In the last two years, the mechanisms for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the LNR and DNR have changed. Hundreds of thousands of LNR and DNR residents are already citizens of the Russian Federation, and Russia has—or at the very least should have—some obligations towards its citizens. This gives hope to [the residents] of the LNR and DNR that if an escalation begins, Russia won’t remain on the sidelines and we will see large-scale intervention. Without Russia, the conflict will not develop in the favor of the republics.
As for Russia, our relations with the West continue to deteriorate. There’s Biden’s statement about Putin being a killer, and relations with the European Union. We are witnessing an accumulation of destabilizing trends.
I don’t think anyone wants a real, big war, since the costs of such a conflict will exceed the political dividends. It’s difficult to predict what such a conflict might lead to, given that the stakes are very high. But an unintended escalation could occur.
Hopefully, all of those involved have enough wisdom, determination, and tolerance to find a positive solution. So far, we are far from a serious conflict, but we’re closer than at the beginning of April 2020 or 2019. Unfortunately, we’re headed downhill, and it’s difficult to say how long it will go on.
To prevent a [full-scale] war from starting, the situation in Donbass needs to be stabilized. That’s the first task. In recent weeks, the number of ceasefire violations has been increasing, and the number of victims is growing. We need to return to the issues of the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the OSCE mission, and monitoring the ceasefire.
The second task is to discuss issues of political regulation. The main uncertainty is how flexible all the parties can be. The Minsk agreements were signed a long time ago, [but] it’s difficult to implement them in full, there needs to be a demonstrated willingness not to revise them, but to somehow bring them up to date. How ready are the parties for this? So far, we aren’t seeing much of this, but without it we will not advance any further.
The third issue is that it’s impossible to resolve the Donbass problem separately from the problem of European security as a whole. If we limit ourselves to how we fought in Donbass, Kyiv will always be afraid that Russia will build up its strength and an intervention will begin. And in Russia there will always be the fear that NATO infrastructure will be developed near Voronezh and Belgorod. We have to deal not only with this issue, but also think about how to create the entire architecture of European security. And it isn’t a question of experts lacking imagination and qualifications, but of statesmen lacking the political will to seriously deal with these issues. Because if you reduce everything to the requirements of the formal implementation of the Minsk agreements, this is what we’ve been fighting about for seven years already.
I think that Ukraine will now try to increase the political pressure on Moscow and get away from the issue of the Minsk agreements. And going forward a lot depends on what the position of the West and U.S. will be. To what extent and in what format will they provide support in the event of an escalation? This is still an open question. And, I think, even Biden doesn’t know the answer to it.
From our partner RIAC
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