Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.
The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.
We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.
Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.
Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.
Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.
Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.
Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;
Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;
All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;
The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;
Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;
Total control over public life.
Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.
Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.
The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.
However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.
Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.
History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.
It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.
According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.
In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.
The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.
The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.
It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.
If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.
“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.
Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.
What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.
Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.
This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.
The Russian constitutional referendum of July 1, 2020
With specific reference to the health situation, Russia is still in a severe situation with over 350,000 Covid-19 cases.
Brazil, however, has replaced the Russian Federation as the hardest hit country in the world, while the United States is now firmly at the top of the ranking. Nevertheless, what really frightens the Russian decision-makers are the medium and long-term economic consequences of the health crisis.
Russia’s GDP had already recorded a 1.6% increase in the first quarter of 2020, but all Russian economists expect GDP to fall by at least 16% in the second quarter.
Two-thirds of this GDP contraction, however, can still be attributed to the lockdown, but only one-third to the related fall in oil prices.
With specific reference to the quarantine management, Prime Minister Mishustin thinks that 27 regions can now reduce quarantine restrictions, while the leaders of Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Consumer Protection Agency, have asked the Governors of the Sverdlovsk and Smolensk regions to restore or even tighten quarantine requirements.
The national average growth rate of viral infections in Russia is currently 3.9%, but a “Plan 2” for the definitive recovery of the Russian economy is already supposed to be in place.
However, there will be three recovery phases: in the third quarter of 2020, the government will ensure that recession does not spread to the sectors which are still scarcely affected and will then refinance, one by one, the hardest hit economic sectors.
The real Phase 2 – hence the real recovery – will take place from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021, with Russia trying to recover the pre-Covid 19 standards of living for the entire population. In the Phase 3, which will begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, the economy is even expected to start growing again.
Pursuant to Russia’s current regulations, all proceeds from oil and gas exports are directly deposited into the National Welfare Fund (NWF).
This Russian Sovereign Fund currently holds 11% of the whole Federation’s GDP. When the oil barrel prices are below 42 U.S. dollars, the Fund directly covers the difference by depositing what is needed directly into the federal budget. Above the threshold of 42 U.S. dollars, everything goes smoothly.
Regardless of the constitutional referendum, the central government is likely to decide to take the necessary funds for the new economic expansion directly from the NWF.
In a new crisis situation, the federal budget would directly receive all the oil revenues, which shall be allocated to the reconstruction of the Russian welfare and economy.
Again with reference to oil, unlike other countries, Russia needs a basic oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars to “recover its costs”.
Furthermore, the high prices reached after the various recent production restrictions within OPEC+ have enabled Russia to increase its reserves, which now stand at approximately 400 billion U.S. dollars.
The Russian Federation’s current resources, however, would still enable the country to sustain even an oil barrel price of 25 U.S. dollars for ten years.
Moreover, unlike Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ countries, Russia depends on oil and gas exports only for approximately two thirds of its revenues, while the rest is made up of raw materials such as uranium, coal, other metals and minerals, and especially the sale of arms abroad, a sector for which the Russian Federation is second only to the United States.
It is precisely in this geo-economic situation that the forthcoming referendum scheduled for July 1 in Russia will take place.
As you may remember, the announcement of the constitutional referendum made on January 16, 2020, enabled the then Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, to resign on that day and then take on the role of Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, which is obviously chaired by Vladimir Putin.
Medvedev was replaced by Michail Mishustin, who is not a “man of force”, i.e. a former director of the Intelligence Services turned politician, but comes from the Federal Tax Service. When Mishustin himself fell ill with Covid-19, from April 30 to May 19 he was replaced by the economist Andrey Belousov.
Hence what does President Putin want to achieve with his constitutional reform? Not just his mere stay in power, which the leader deems necessary, since he has not yet found his true heir apparent.
It is a particularly effective sign that the second reading of the constitutional reform, adopted by the State Duma at the beginning of March 2020, was dominated by the presence of Valentina Tereskova, the first cosmonaut, now an 83-year-old member of Parliament.
In that vote there were 382 in favour, 44 abstained and 0 MPs against.
Therefore, if approved in the referendum, the current reform will be the real constitutional definition of Putin’s “vertical of power”.
It should be recalled it is a mechanism made up of centre-periphery relations, but also of now stable electoral systems: the prohibition of presenting “independent” candidates; the registration of regular candidates by parties that are officially recognized and have at least 50,000 members in different regions of the country; the 7% hurdle, whereby the votes of those who do not reach said threshold shall always be distributed among all the other parties that have exceeded it.
Certainly the Russian Federation cannot be a democracy. If it were so, it would no longer exist as such.
A great empire, with a surface sixty times the size of Italy, but with a population just below the sum of Italians and Germans, as well as with empty Siberia on the border with the very overpopulated China.
In an “empty country” – as Baron De Custine defined it at the beginning of the 19th century – the fear of foreigners always recurs: Putin’s old video, in the 2012 election rounds, showed the Chinese arriving in Khabarovsk; NATO taking Kaliningrad; the Islamists raiding in the Caucasus and finally the skinheads – an evident symbol of Western stupidity – moving freely around St. Petersburg.
The Russian Constitutional Court, however, has already made it clear that Putin’s reform is legal.
Hence what does Putin want? Firstly, a stronger system of central State controls over the federal and peripheral governments, so as to create the constitutional legislation of the “vertical of power” which is currently based only on Putin’s personal energy.
Secondly the considerable strengthening of the status and role of the Russian Federation’s State Council, which is at present only an advisory body, not prescribed in the Constitution. It shall also be given the powers of orienting domestic and foreign policies, as well as identifying the main areas of future development in the country.
Thirdly, Vladimir Putin’s proposal would mean that the regional Governors could automatically be members of the State Council, obviously after having established a pact with the Kremlin.
Fourthly, the statute of the State Council shall be fully incorporated into the Constitution. The vast “nationalisation of elites” will be strengthened, since those who hold important positions for ensuring the country’ security, such as President, Ministers, members of the State Duma, regional Governors, judges or any other high-ranking State official, shall not have foreign citizenship or even a residence permit in other countries, either at the time of their work in office or, in the case of the President, at any time before.
A presidential candidate, however, must prove he or she has been permanently living in Russia for at least 25 years (currently 10 years) and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Ex post, of course.
The Constitution shall take precedence over international law and over the provisions of international treaties. Here the Russian concept of “sovereign democracy” is reaffirmed, which sometimes departs from the Western mythology of “human” and hence “universal” rights and states its clear opposition to dealing with the internal affairs of any other country.
In the proposed constitutional reform, there is also the clear prohibition to transfer and alienate part of the Russian Federation’s territories.
The Federation Council (the Upper House of Parliament), which now becomes the primary government body, shall also have the right to propose to the President to dismiss federal judges by providing a reasoned assessment and motivated opinion on their activity; in some cases, upon the proposal of the President, the Federation Council shall have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts.
The State Duma (the Lower House of Parliament) shall have the right to approve the Prime Minister’s candidacy (currently it only gives consent to his/her appointment). The State Duma shall also approve the candidates of Deputy-Prime Minister and Federal Ministries; the President cannot refuse their appointment, but in some cases he/she will be able to remove them from office
Hence the two directives of “United Russia”, Putin’s traditional party, become constitutional rule, i.ederžavnost’ – the ‘great power’ – and gosudarstvenničestvo, the ‘strong State’.
Moreover, as always happens in current political propaganda, there is the issue of family relations.
The new Constitution proposed by the President defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman – and even the TV propaganda of the referendum underlines this aspect.[
Furthermore, the State has the explicit duty to “preserve and honour the memory of the Defenders of the Fatherland, as well as honour the pan-Russian cultural identity and show faith in God” as a value sacredly received by ancestors.
Sobianin, the mayor of Moscow, the city which is still the epicentre of the COVID-19 infection, wanted to hold the referendum in September, but Putin wants it now.
Why? Because Vladimir Putin is aware of the political and personal tensions within the apparata.
In the Secret Services and in the Armed Forces – which, over the last few months, have been the origin of indirect and veiled attacks on him. A series of events has also revealed how the Military Secret Service (GRU) is no longer entirely in Putin’s hands, as was previously the case.
Certainly, now that the Covid-19 is in a phase of controlled expansion, Putin has anyway regained popularity.
Still today, 63% of the Russian population shows strong support for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin. In the referendum case, however, the voter turnout is estimated at 65%, which is always too little to ensure a real and definitive success to the President. Nevertheless, by paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, it should be recalled that democratic elections have ways “of which reason and the heart know nothing”.
About 47% of Russians, however, states to be in favour of the reforms proposed by Putin to the Constitution.
Too few? We shall see what the future has in store. Only 53% of young people is expected to vote, while 77% of elderly people is expected to go to the polls.
Nevertheless, 41% of young people will always vote against Putin’s amendments to the Russian Constitution, with 45% of them living in Moscow.
It is currently foreseen that 35% of voters will not go to the polls.
Is Putin in danger? We do not believe so, considering that – if this happens because of his poor electoral performance – the President will find a way to recover. However, we do not think this will be the case.
Hence centralization of true power in Putin’s hands, up to two terms and even beyond but, on the other hand, distribution regulated by the central power to the regional governments.
A new configuration of power in Russia, until Putin finds his true heir apparent.
If he ever finds him, of course.
The State is “a work of art”, as an old and valuable book by Jakob Burkhardt, “The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”, reads.
Therefore, every State does not reproduce as a photocopy, but only through the Author, the Artist.
If voted and adopted, the amendments to the Russian Constitution will enable Putin to be regularly re-elected for over two consecutive terms, but, with the current changes, we can think of additional 12 years and more in power, but only for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin.
As US-China Competition Unfolds, Russia Watches Closely
Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point in two decades. Similar patterns of warming and cooling have taken place intermittently ever since Russia emerged as a major Eurasian power in the early 18th century. Each crisis with the West alternated with rapprochement and at times full military and security cooperation.
An unchangeable trait of those relations was that Russia had scarcely any foreign policy alternatives with which to balance its West-oriented geopolitical worldview. For Moscow, the West remained a major source of technological, economic, and political progress even as it remained an existential threat, as various military invasions by western Europeans into the Russian heartland proved.
This changed in the early 2000s, when China’s rise gave Russia a new card to play. Today’s Russian political elites advocate a more balanced foreign policy in which the Kremlin’s interests lie in every major Eurasian region. According to that vision, Russia’s foreign policy is no longer attached to any specific region but is evenly spread in an era of “Global Russia.”
From the Russian perspective, the competition between the US and China is a geopolitical development that could offer Moscow many opportunities. The US, which once focused on containing Russia through broader support for vulnerable territories from Scandinavia to the Black Sea, is now focused on Syria and other Middle East trouble spots and is shifting its attention far from Russia’s borders to the Indo-Pacific.
There is, indeed, an urgent need for this shift in American focus, as China’s power far outstrips Russia’s. But for the Russians, the shift in the American worldview means US power will be depleted even more than it was in the 2000s. Over the century’s first two decades, the US entered Afghanistan and Iraq and later got involved in Syria, spending trillions overall.
This means that Russia’s pivot to the east, rebalancing the West with China, has much deeper geopolitical significance than many believe. Russia-China cooperation goes far beyond the “partnership of convenience” propounded by many analysts.
As the US-China competition persists (as it is likely to do for decades), it will grow easier for Russia to maneuver and attain at least some geopolitical aims in its immediate neighborhood. For Moscow, the longer the competition between the two economic and military powers goes on the better, as it will help Russia position itself as a separate pole of geopolitical gravitation.
We often forget that to the Russians, China and the US are long-term geopolitical rivals of very much the same caliber. The Kremlin does not trust either one of them, and their competition redounds to Russia’s benefit. A similar situation existed before WWII, when Stalin and the Bolsheviks perceived all Western powers as hostile. To gain geopolitical advantage it was necessary to foster disagreements between the Nazis and France and Great Britain.
While that strategy worked then, this is a different era. First and foremost is the grand scale of the struggle between the Chinese and Americans. Still, the inherent geopolitical worldview of the Russians remains the same: abstain from directly engaging in the US-China competition and try to leverage it to gain geopolitical points. The ultimate object is to have both the US and China approach Russia for geopolitical support.
Time will tell if this strategy will work. The US is increasing pressure on allies and partners across the world to desist from security and military cooperation with the Chinese. A clearly defined US-led techno-economic bloc is emerging. For the moment, Russia is closer to China through burgeoning economic and military ties—but the Russians fear that a powerful China could strategically challenge Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and elsewhere.
Ideally, Washington would prefer that Moscow come closer to the US than turn toward China. Perhaps serious effort will be made to salvage its broken relations with the Kremlin. The problem will be how many concessions the US and the EU can make. The focal points will be Ukraine first of all, and then Moldova and Georgia. Some concessions might be offered, but it is unlikely that the collective West will abandon its decades-long economic and military efforts in the former Soviet space.
Similarly, Russia will try to score points in the Middle East. The West might be more conciliatory there, but not to the point of abandoning the region altogether.
This leads to another scenario in which the West does not try to pull Russia closer, but rather leaves it to be drawn into China’s orbit. Many believe the collective West would be unable to match Russia’s and China’s combined resources. This might not be entirely true. After all, the US managed to contain the Soviets and the Chinese when they were close in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when their satellites controlled most of the Eurasian landmass. This US tradition could serve as the basis for a more pronounced confrontation with the non-democratic powers.
This would mean that Russian hopes for geopolitical gains through grand geopolitical trade-offs with the West might not materialize. The country might be further pulled into the Chinese sphere of technological, military, and security influence.
The possession of a large nuclear arsenal would not be a point of leverage for Moscow. Chinese influence would expand in every non-nuclear sphere. With Russia essentially cut off from the West, it would be unable to contain China’s economic and military power in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Either of these scenarios could unfold. Russia might try to play the difficult game of balancing the West and China to gain concessions from both. However, the Kremlin’s long-term hopes could be dashed if the US comes to regard Russia and China as strategically linked in the enemy camp. With China dominant and Europe hesitant to help, there would be very little room for cooperation.
Author’s note: first published in BESA
Possible West-Russia Rapprochement and its Impact on South Caucasus
In the West analyses abound on possible rapprochement between the West and Russia. This is mainly caused by China’s rise and the West’s fear that Russia could eventually be lost to Beijing’s economic, military and technological superiority. The possible West-Russia rapprochement will have a direct impact on the three South Caucasus states. Each country will react differently, but overall the three oppose the idea of a possible Western withdrawal as it will increase Russian influence and limit diversification of their foreign policy.
China and the US are in the midst of emerging global competition. Russia is an important player to watch as both Beijing and Washington will try to gain Russian support for their respective geopolitical visions. Surely, the US can confront Russia and China simultaneously (as it does currently), but with Russia being drawn closer to the West, the US will be better positioned to confront the rising China.
Instead of focusing on Russia, containing it through a wider support for the vulnerable territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the US is now shifting its attention away from the Russian borders to the rising Indo-Pacific region. For the Russians this shift means that American power will be depleted elsewhere.
Another feature of Russian thinking is that the US-China conflict might enable it to advance their own interests, which have been limited by the West over the past three decades. This was mostly evident in the former Soviet space. The successful western expansion into Russia’s neighborhood halted Moscow’s projection of power. The Russian political elite thus sees the nascent US-China competition as a chance to enhance its weakened geopolitical position across the former Soviet space.
Russians believe that both Washington and Beijing will need Russian support. This logic is driving the Kremlin’s approach towards Beijing and Washington. Russia wants to position itself to have the US and China strongly competing with one another to win her favor. If Moscow sides with the West, the concessions to Russia could be more significant than that those potentially offered by the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, with NATO expansion closer to Russia’s wishes.
For the moment, this tentative rapprochement might sound highly hypothetical. But Russia has its own reasons to worry about rising Chinese influence, which in the next decade or so could drive the Kremlin towards finding a compromise with the West. This in turn makes one think that in the long run Russia is interested in having the Western counterbalance to China.
West-Russia rapprochement will primarily impact the lands adjoining Russia, or what we commonly call the borderlands, which mostly consist of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine and Moldova have territorial problems with Russia, while in the South Caucasus there is a mixture of territorial issues with Russian economic and military overbearance.
Let us start with Georgia. Perhaps a tentative West-Russia compromise would cool down the existing Russo-Georgian confrontation. However, many in Georgia fear that possible improvement of West-Russia relations could potentially mean Washington’s abandonment of larger aid to Georgia and the latter’s hopes for NATO aspirations.
Tbilisi’s fears are aggravated by the developments in the EU too. Since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Brussels and Washington have been working in concert to impose and keep economic sanctions against Russia. This combined western resolve also meant the gradual increase of NATO troop presence in eastern Europe.
However, Russia’s recent return to PACE and the restoration of military cooperation between France and Russia (frozen since 2014) indicate that changes in Russia’s EU policy might be forthcoming. It should be added that the French president has insisted on the need to build more stable relations with the Kremlin. In several successive interviews Macron warned that Europe might eventually lose Russia to China.
More importantly, these statements and political moves coincide with a widening gap in between the transatlantic allies. The US’ policies are often at odds with European security imperatives. Take, for example, the US’ decision to cut down its troop presence in Germany by some 9 500 soldiers. A significant decrease whose meaning for the Russians is unmistakable – the US is increasingly unwilling to commit itself to the defense of the European mainland.
Differences in the West cause fears for Georgia. A rethinking of Georgia’s foreign policy might need to take place. It is no surprise that in September 2019, Georgian and Russian FMs (David Zalkaliani and Sergey Lavrov respectively) held a meeting for the first time since the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. It is likely that similar meetings could take place in the future. However, it is also worth stating that a full re-establishment of diplomatic relations is unlikely to happen.
Thus, any decrease of Western support for Georgia will have direct impact on the security of the country. Russia will try gradually increasing its influence through economic and political means. In the long run, this could sap Georgia’s resolve to pursue pro-western policies.
For the moment however, the US continues to support Georgia. For instance, since 2010, US non-military aid to Georgia stands at $64 million a year on average. This sum does not include various programs such as the five-year Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $140 million to support education. As for the military, in 2018, US military aid to Georgia reached $40.4 million. 400 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles were also sold to Georgia.
The pandemic further underscored the US’ support when its Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food for Progress programme, donated 27,000 tonnes of high-quality wheat to support Georgia when Russia prohibited exports of this product.
Additionally, a string of letters and statements coming from the US senators and congressmen over the past several months indicate the US is deeply involved Georgia’s fate.
Apart from the US, the EU too, despite the pandemic-related troubles, showed continuity in its approach to its eastern neighbors. In March a new Eastern Partnership was introduced – a milestone development as the project was feared to stall significantly.
The West’s collective approach to Armenia and Azerbaijan differs. But there are crucial interests which the EU and the US intend to pursue. Those are mainly regional infrastructure projects such as pipelines, railways and roads connecting the Caspian with the Black Sea.
Potential West-Russia rapprochement will have a lesser impact on Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the two countries are not interested in having larger Russian influence in the region. The EU and the US represent a certain counterbalance for Armenia and Azerbaijan against the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. Western withdrawal from the South Caucasus would bring a longer stalling of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Dependence on Russian trade and military support will increase leaving little room for the geopolitical maneuvering we witness from time to time: Azerbaijan and Armenia seeking other sources of military technology from Pakistan and India respectively.
Azerbaijan fears that an increased Russian influence as a result of tentative West-Russia rapprochement could result in the blocking of Azeri gas/oil from reaching the Mediterranean. This re-routing of exports to Russian pipelines is what Baku fears the most.
Overall, it could be argued that a certain change in perspective is taking place in the West. Loss of Russia to China is now widely discussed and different visions are being put forward to mend relations with the Kremlin. The rapprochement is still a far-fetched scenario. As shown above, the US and EU show a continuous resolve in supporting Georgia. Nevertheless, the South Caucasus needs to be discussed within the wider Eurasian context. The region could find itself in an uncomfortable place of being a bargaining chip between Russia and the West if the latter decided to have the Kremlin on its side in a growing competition with China. To avoid this situation, South Caucasus states should diversify their foreign policy and cooperate closely with the collective West.
Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch
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Youth Employment Support: a bridge to jobs for the next generation
European Commission is taking action to give young people all possible opportunities to develop their full potential to shape the...
Water cooperation between States ‘key’ to Blue Nile dam project
Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo underscored via videoconference that “transboundary water cooperation is a key element in the implementation of the Sustainable...
Safeguarding Your Mailbox from Spam, Hack & Phishing
An email goes a long way before getting to the addressee. After all, malicious software may be introduced in this...
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