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Possible West-Russia Rapprochement and its Impact on South Caucasus

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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

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Updating the USSR: A Test for Freedom

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Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the only all-Union referendum in the history of the USSR took place. One question was put to a vote: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Almost 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the preservation of the USSR in an updated form. The authorities of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused to hold the referendum on their territory. By that time, the legislative and executive bodies and institutions in these republics were already controlled by secessionist forces, which did not hide their intentions to leave the USSR.

The March 17 referendum at that time was the only convincing attempt to appeal to public opinion on the most important issue of the political life of a huge country. However, the results did not change anything — by December 8 of the same year, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine decided to dissolve the USSR. The referendum itself became the beginning of the end of a unique state — an experiment in the vast expanses of Eurasia. By that time, the republican elites were already ready to take power and wealth into their own hands; the events of August 1991 spurred this readiness — in Turkmenistan, where almost 100 percent of the population voted to preserve the USSR, on August 22, 1991, all enterprises were placed under republican control.

All the republics of the USSR met the new year in 1992 as newly independent states. For some of them, this status was a long-awaited event, for which they had fought. Others were, according to former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Apas Jumagulov, “thrown out of the union, cut off as an unnecessary part of the body.” Many economic ties broke off immediately, while others collapsed gradually; the rest survived and were even strengthened. In politics, everyone was left to their own problems. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan plunged into bloody political and interethnic conflicts during their first years of independence.

The path of the countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR over the years was the road to gaining their own subjectivity in international politics. With great difficulty and despite all odds, Armenia and Moldova are coping with this task. The majority — Russia, Azerbaijan and all the countries of Central Asia — were able to solve the problem more or less successfully. Georgia and two Slavic republics — Belarus and Ukraine, were hanging in the “limbo” between external management and full-fledged statehood. The three Baltic republics quickly transferred their sovereignty to the European Union and NATO. In their independent development, they had to make, in fact, the only decision, which, moreover, was due to historical reasons and external circumstances. This decision was made and now the fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia cannot be perceived outside the context of Russia-West interaction.

For the rest, the direct link between success in creating their own statehood and the scale of interaction with the West (Europe and the United States) is quite obvious. This historical fact reveals a relationship between the ability of small and medium states to ensure their sovereignty and the interests of the great powers in their neighbourhood. Such powers were Russia and the European states, united into the European Union simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR. Also, an important role was played by the United States, which always sought to limit Russian opportunities and supported the newly independent states. At the same time, an attempt to choose in favour of closer relations with the West to the detriment of Russian interests in all cases, without exception, led to a very shaky statehood and the loss of territory.

The dramatic fate of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine shows that the strong collective institutions of the West are capable of exerting a stabilising effect only on those states that directly became part of them.

In all other cases, no matter how complete absorption becomes possible, an orientation towards these institutions only leads to the use of small countries in a diplomatic game with bigger partners.

Therefore, the experience of the development of such major players as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan is indicative — they were able to confidently form their own statehood, without finding themselves in a situation of choosing between conflicting poles of power. Their main resource turned out to be a rather fair demographic situation. But not only this — the population of Ukraine has also been and remains large by European standards. Kazakhstan is a success by this indicator; equal to the average European country or small Asian states.

Therefore, the ability of most of the countries of the former USSR to build relatively independent and stable statehood played no less important role. In many ways, this ability was established during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Founded on December 30, 1922, it was not just a continuation of the Russian Empire, which had collapsed five years earlier. Its main distinguishing feature was its unique model of state administration, based on the full power of one political party. As long as the unique position of the Communist Party remained in the Soviet state, the experiment could exist. With the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, its days were numbered regardless of the desire of the population or the real readiness of the elites to take full responsibility for what was happening.

The USSR model of state structure, new by historical standards, created the conditions for a rather unique experiment, within the framework of which union republics were created, none of which, except for Russia, Georgia and Armenia, had the experience of centralised state administration within the territorial boundaries that they acquired within the framework of the USSR. At least the peoples inhabiting them can boast of a significant experience of statehood as such. Thus, most of the countries of Central Asia trace their ancestry back to great empires or urban civilizations of past centuries.

The Baltic republics were always on the sidelines — their independent statehood arose during the collapse of the Russian Empire and existed as such for almost 20 years before being incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Russia has returned to its historical state of being a major European power or empire of the 19th century, with the development of a multinational and multi-faith society central to its development objectives. In fact, Russia has not lost anything really necessary for its survival in international politics.

The peculiar structure of the USSR formalised the situation in which the former outskirts of the Russian Empire ceased to be part of the Russian state, although Moscow served as the centre of the union. Russia among them was in the most ambiguous position — it did not have its own most important institutions of Soviet statehood — the party organisation and the republican State Security Committee. Russian nationalism was subjected to the most severe and consistent persecution by the Soviet authorities.

The vast majority of republics within the USSR, for the first time, received the experience of building their own state and their national elite.

The backbone of the ruling class was the Soviet and party nomenklatura, which all took power, with few exceptions, after 1991. Even in Tajikistan, where the first years of independence were overshadowed by the civil war, it was this part of society that was eventually able to establish control over the situation. In other Central Asian countries, elites formed on the basis of the state tradition established during the Soviet era, gradually supplemented by representatives of a new generation that grew professionally after the collapse of the USSR.

Thirty years is a sufficient period to assess the results of the independent development of the countries that emerged from the republics of the former USSR. Now the period of their growing up can be considered complete; ahead is an independent future. Russia is increasingly feeling independent and not particularly obligated to its neighbours. In any event, Moscow will continue to follow a moral imperative of responsibility for maintaining peace and strictly ensure that its neighbours correlate their actions with Russian security interests.

From our partner RIAC

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Fighting Covid-19 pandemic: The Russian Way

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With a strong structured plan and that includes President Vladimir Putin weekly meetings with regional governors and related ministry officials, Russia is indeed making headway in mobilizing first its own domestic resources in fighting and controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

Under these time-testing conditions, the Russian government also ponders on the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to the economic sectors related to public health system, making efforts to strengthen fundamental research in all health disciplines and close the pitfalls in its policy.

Arguably, Russia is really moving with innovative orientations, exploring and finding lasting solutions. Russia is far ahead, both in terms of medical tests and vaccines. Currently, it is partnering with India and South Korea in manufacturing vaccines for immunization of both foreigners and Russians.

“India and South Korea are already producing the vaccine, and many of these enterprises will reach full capacity in April. Thus, this is truly the greatest achievement of Russian science, which is widely  acknowledged by the entire world,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev told Russian President Vladimir Putin during an early April meeting to review developments as well as production and promotion of Russian vaccines.

In addition, he informed the president that RDIF and its partners are actively working with Russian manufacturers, it took us three months to build Sputnik Technopolis, one of the largest plants to produce the vaccine, and together with R-Pharm. Russia is setting up international production per agreements with 10 countries and 20 manufacturers, including the world’s largest producers.

Beyond that, the Russian Direct Investment Fund is actively implementing a programme, of course, with a focus on vaccinating Russian citizens, but part of the vaccine produced abroad will simultaneously be delivered to foreign markets, according Dmitriev.

According to his assessment, Russia is not only one of the current leaders in the world in terms of vaccination rate, but it can provide vaccines to all people in Russia who want to be vaccinated before June using the production capacities in Russia and abroad.

“As I understood from talking to experts, our vaccine is effective against all known strains of the virus,” Putin commented during the discussion, and Kirill Dmitriev smartly added that “due to the two jabs, it is better than the other vaccines as relates to mutations. We believe that our vaccine is one of the best in the world, including against new strains of COVID-19.”

Reports show that Russia has produced 20.1 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine as of March 17, while 4.3 million people, out of a population of 144 million, have received both shots of the vaccine.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, at 225,572, the total coronavirus-related death toll places Russia third after the United States, which has reported over 553,000 deaths, and Brazil, with over 325,000.

According to the Russian Statistics Service, this April Russia has recorded over 225,000 deaths related to coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. That Russia has the third highest death toll in the world.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 by the Russian government to make investments in leading companies of high-growth sectors of the Russian economy. Its mandate is to co-invest alongside the world’s largest institutional investors – direct investment funds, sovereign wealth funds and leading companies.

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Growing US Pressure Incentive to Make China-Russia Ties More Diverse

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image credit: kremlin.ru

Two months after the inauguration of Present Joe Biden, with the political dust in Washington settling down, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US Democratic administration policy toward Russia and China contains more elements of continuity than elements of change. Unfortunately, this continuity is not something that they would like to observe in Moscow and Beijing.

If someone has hoped that a swift and unconditional extension of the New START agreement might trigger a renewed US-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, these hopes have gone up in smoke after the US president labeled his Russia peer as a “killer.” Biden also unequivocally rejected the idea of security debates offered by President Vladimir Putin. Before the US-Chinese “2+2” meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, there could have been expectations of at least a limited détente between Washington and Beijing. But now after this very tense and not quite productive meeting, such expectations have just evaporated into thin air.

One can only guess why the Biden team opted to continue the “dual containment” approach of its predecessors toward the main US geopolitical opponents with such a relentless zeal and vigor. Maybe in the White House they decided that any shade of US flexibility would be interpreted in Moscow and in Beijing as a sign of an American weakness, and as an invitation to seek more concessions from the administration. Maybe Biden is concerned about potential criticism that a more flexible approach could generate powerful Republican reactions from neo-cons on the Hill and from a defeated, but not yet completely politically destroyed, Donald Trump. Maybe, by pursuing this tough line, the new administration intends to demonstrate to the US public and the American allies and partners abroad its unbreakable commitment to human rights and democracy promotion agenda.

In any case, with the change of guard in the White House the rules of the game on the Great Eurasian Chessboard have not changed a bit. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, continues to push the world toward a new bipolarity. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rushed to Guilin to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, marking his first visit to the country since the coronavirus outbreak.

The formal goal of the trip is to discuss the 20-year anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation signed in July of 2001. The treaty has indeed been a remarkable accomplishment of the two sides. But the ongoing conversation between Lavrov and Wang is not limited to expressions of mutual admiration; it focuses mostly on how Moscow and Beijing could work hand in hand with each other responding to the US assertiveness. There are many ways to do that—ranging from solidarity voting in international organizations to coordinating national information strategies, to working with like-minded countries across the globe and to exchanging best practices in preventing the US interference into Russia’s and China’s domestic affairs respectively.

Neither in Moscow nor in Beijing do they harbor illusions about opportunities to fix their problems with Washington anytime soon; the two foreign ministers are going to hammer out a new, enhanced model of the bilateral strategic partnership for years to come. Though a common interest in responding to the growing US pressure is definitely not the only driver for closer economic, political and military ties between Russia and China, the US factor is an important additional incentive for making these ties more diverse and intensive.

After China, Foreign Minister Lavrov is making an extended stop in South Korea. Here, again, the Russian minister can find plenty of issues to discuss with his hosts that have little or nothing to do with the US. After all, we are approaching 30 years since diplomatic relations between Moscow and Seoul were established—a remarkable jubilee and a nice opportunity to reflect on the next 30 years!

However, under the circumstances, Lavrov will undoubtedly try to test the limits of the ROK’s “strategic autonomy” from Washington. True, ROK is a US ally and it regards America as its prime security provider. Still, Seoul has special relations with Beijing and Moscow; these special relations are ones the ROK is not ready to give up. The ROK-China economic relations remain critical for the South Korea prosperity. The South Korean approach to North Korea is not a carbon copy of the US or Japanese positions. It is clear that the South Korean leadership is not ready to automatically subscribe to any new anti-Russian or anti-Chinese policies from Washington.

At the end of the day, the outcome of the Great Game on the Global Chessboard will depend on whether there are regional players bold enough to question the archaic bipolar thinking emanating from Washington today. The outcome of Lavrov’s trip to Seoul might be an interesting case to watch.

From our partner RIAC

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