While the Russian Federation is actively pursuing the cultivation of its Soft Power, the results, in the present cynical and confusing international environment, appear to be mixed. For instance, in a 2019 paper, an Israeli analyst argued that “Russian soft power efforts in the Middle East are bearing fruit, as many young Arabs now view Moscow as an ally and the US as unreliable .” But the “SOFT POWER 30” Index, for 2019, places Russia 30th among 30 states, below Turkey’s 29th score. Admittedly, these are quite “Russophobic” times in the West, except for occasional positive gestures by some Western capitals and the explicit support for many Russian policies by Cyprus and Greece. Moscow, then, must struggle to undermine widespread anti-Russian propaganda. Hence it seems to Russophile Greeks of Cyprus and Greece that Russia should also contain its own “Turkey problem.” For during the current Russia-Turkey manifold embrace, President Erdogan’s behavior could damage Moscow’s own image and international prestige.
This article will revisit Erdogan’s characteristic foreign policy decisions, actions, and claims in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Aegean Sea, with particular emphasis on Ankara’s aggression against Cyprus and Greece through Erdogan’s military threats. The behavior against Moscow’s two traditional friends needs to be exposed in order to counter the spread of fake news and erroneous analyses. The Conclusion, therefore, will entail that Moscow should minimize the negative effects of Erdogan’s adventurism on Russia’s Soft Power.
Erdogan’s Goals and Means in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Aegean Sea
President Erdogan has long been guiding Turkey’s belligerent regional adventures, driven by his professed ambition to establish the “New Turkey” and meet “the Borders of his Heart.” Echoing the neo-Ottoman syllogistic of his one-time mentor, Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, he has repeatedly claimed inter alia that Turkey, as “victimized” by the Lausanne Treaty, “deserves” to regain its former (Ottoman) possessions. Thus, he has named as legitimate targets vast areas of present-day Syria, Iraq, Greece, its Aegean Islands, and Cyprus.
Erdogan’s self-declared ambitions help us call Turkey’s military interventions – in Northern Syria, Northern Iraq, Libya, and the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Republic of Cyprus – by their proper name: expansionism contrary to International Law. Nevertheless, Ankara presents itself and its policies as “in accordance with International Law.”
Similarly, in another formulation, Ankara’s officials and spokespersons make their territorial “claims” in terms of Turkey’s “rights and interests.” Therefore, they conflate these distinct concepts, aiming to extract “rights” even from subjectively and artificially conceived chauvinistic interests. “Rights,” of course, should be premised on solid legal grounds; subjectively-defined interests are, for International Law, “neither here nor there.” And yet, Erdogan and his foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, his defense minister Hulusi Akar and the foreign ministry’s Hami Aksoi adopt the language of “rights and Interests,” as when they claim to pursue Turkish ambitions in what they have called “Blue Homeland.”
This neologism about a vast Eastern Mediterranean area covers half the Aegean Sea, “appropriating” all the Greek Islands of the Eastern Aegean. Moreover, by sheer Turkish Diktat, it includes the entire Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus and part of the EEZ of the Dodecanese Islands and Crete. So, what are Ankara’s alleged “grounds” for these claims? Turkey replies that “according to International Law,” Islands do not have either Continental Shelf or an Exclusive Economic Zone.
The claim appears inaccurate, for it contradicts the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states (Article 121):
- An Island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.
- Except as provided in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to another land territory.
- Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
Article 121.2 explains why Turkey refuses to sign UNCLOS, hoping it could substitute gunboat diplomacy for International Law. The UNCLOS, however, is part of International Customary Law, ratified by 167 states and by the European Union (EU), which Turkey hopes to join. Thus, the undisputed applicability of Article 121 has led to the massive condemnation of Ankara’s associated provocations.
Turkey’s “neo-surrealist” claim (as Greek FM Nikos Dendias once quipped) about Islands is currently extended to its two “MoUs” with Libya’s GNA government in Tripoli. The memorandum allegedly delineating a Turkey-Libya EEZ presupposes the elimination of the sovereign rights of numerous Greek islands, including Rhodes and Crete, by abolishing their Continental Shelf and EEZ. The EU has repeatedly deplored this memorandum as illegal. Athens and Nicosia have rejected both memoranda as “null and void.” Washington has variously expressed its condemnation calling them “provocative and counterproductive.”
Egypt’s own condemnation, submitted to the Security Council on December 19, 2019, was premised both on the technical fact that Libya’s “House of Representatives has not endorsed the two memorandums of understanding with Turkey” and the palpable geographic fact: “Egypt rejects Turkey-Libya sea rights, security agreements”:
The maritime deal would give Turkey access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, over the objections of Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, which lie between Tukey and Libya geographically.
A week earlier, Russian Ambassador to Athens, Andrey Maslov, commented on various issues during an annual press briefing: “Speaking on bilateral relations, Maslov said, Greece is a traditional and reliable partner for Russia in Europe, and the two countries can continue building their relations ‘even under the anti-Russian situation of sanctions’ by the EU.” He also expressed appreciation for “the established stance of the Greeks, that the architecture of security in Europe must include Russia as well.” And when asked about the recent Turkey-Libya memorandum on maritime zones, “the ambassador said he did not want to ‘enter into detailed commentary’ on the issue, which should be left to experts, but ‘the main issue is to observe the principles of international law, including the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982‘.
To Moscow’s credit, and given the mounting Libya crisis, Ambassador Maslov returned to the accusation of Turkey, when he declared explicitly: Islands do have a continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in face of Turkey’s insistence that they do not.
French President Emmanuel Macron, infuriated by Turkey’s manifold illegality in Libya, including its hostile actions against the French frigate, declared “the historical and criminal responsibility” of Turkey.
Finally, Greek FM Nikos Dendias visited the President of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, on July 1, 2020. In his published Statement, Mr Dendias summarized his positive discussion with Mr Saleh, including a potentially historic prospect:
We also talked about the delimitation of maritime zones between Greece and Libya, not in the framework of illegality, as is the case with the so-called Sarraj-Turkey memorandum, but in the framework of International Law and follow-up to the relevant talks held between Greece and Libya in 2010.
Despite such powerful international outcry, Erdogan and his ministers keep insisting that their decisions and actions “accord with international law.” Moreover, whenever Nicosia and Athens’ governments confront Ankara’s behavior, the latter accuses them of “not knowing their place in the world.” Therefore, verbal provocations accompany Turkey’s aggression adding insult to injury. Furthermore, since these violations of International Law and International Ethics are being progressively accumulated and intensified, they entail further negative consequences: Erdogan’s self-imprisonment in his untenable claims; the anti-Hellenic brainwashing of the Turkish people and Turkey’s Media; and their endorsement by the Turkish Opposition who, in chauvinistic competition, frequently become more “Erdoganian” than Erdogan himself.
Recent Escalating Aggression Against Cyprus and Greece
Traditionally, Greece and Cyprus have insisted on dispute-resolution according to International Law and friendship and cooperation with Ankara and the Turkish people. More recently, Nicosia and Athens realized that Turkey’s appeasement had proved utterly counterproductive: Erdogan’s and his associates’ offensive rhetoric, explicit anti-Hellenic threats, and historical and legal distortions kept escalating as some examples suffice to demonstrate.
To begin with, Erdogan’s close adviser, Yigit Bulut, after asserting his “certainty” that Washington plans to make Greece attack Turkey, declared that, since Greece “is no match for Turkey’s might,” it would be “like a fly picking a fight with a giant.” Moreover, regarding the Greek Imia islets that Turkey has decided to “claim,” Bulut stated in January 2018: We will break the arms and legs of any officers, the Prime Minister, or of any minister, who dares to step onto Imia in the Aegean (ibid.)
Also, in 2018, when a few isolated fascists burned a Turkish flag in Athens, Mustafa Deztiji, Erdogan’s political ally, declared, “The Turkish flag one day will fly again in Athens.” In March 2018, Erdogan announced with macabre pomposity how he conceived the “New Turkey” materialization, “Certainly, we will build a great and dynamic future for Turkey, and for this, we will sacrifice our life and take the lives of others when needed.”
Such rhetoric was not improvised or temporary. Burak Bekdil, the distinguished Turkish columnist, offered memorable comments on the 2020 celebrations of Constantinople’s 1453 conquest. Since Erdogan commemorated the conquest personally with Islamic prayers at the Hagia Sophia, arguably Christianity’s holiest monument, Bekdil wrote among other things:
In Turkish jargon…it is “conquest” when we do it and “invasion” when others do it. In this year’s celebrations, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the stakes when he spoke of the conquest prospectively, not just retrospectively. “I wish that God grant this nation many more happy conquests,” he said at a celebration where he recited from the Quran. .
In all this typically Turkish “conquest” fanfare, a serious question remains to be asked: When Erdogan wished God to grant Turkey many more happy conquests,” which non-Turkish lands is he hoping to “conquer”?
Besides such provocative verbal actions; Greece and Cyprus also experience Turkey’s unending hostility by non-verbal actions. They include the permanent violation of Greek airspace in the Aegean and the Athens Freedom of Information Region (FIR) by armed Turkish military jets, demonstrating Ankara’s expansionist dreams; the daily flights by Turkish military jets over Greek Aegean islands, often a few hundred meters above the terrified inhabitants; the constant issue of illegal NAVTEX within the Republic of Cyprus’ EEZ, long aiming to cancel or disrupt Nicosia’s hydrocarbon program; the “abortion” of gas drilling by SAPIEM 1200 in Bloc 3 of the Cypriot EEZ in March 2018 by the Turkish Navy, violating Cyprus’ contract with the Italian company ENI; the deliberate crash of a Turkish coast guard vessel into a Greek patrol boat off Imia in February 2018, literally threatening Greek sailors’ lives.
In 2019, Ankara intensified its “third invasion” within the Cypriot EEZ, by sending new drilling ships always accompanied by the Turkish Navy. The EU Institutions and individual Member-States flatly condemned these actions. Official Russian voices have consistently condemned Ankara’s relevant behavior since 2011, and Russian Ambassador Stanislav Osadchiy regularly declares that Moscow recognizes Cyprus’ sovereign rights in its EEZ. At the same time, Ambassador Tasos Tzonis received the same assurances when he met Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko last October: “Full Russian support for the Republic of Cyprus’ sovereign rights in its sea zones during Tzionis’ discussions in Moscow.”  And yet, because all the statements condemning Turkey haven’t been accompanied by tangible sanctions, Erdogan remains unmoved, fixated on brutally contradicting the principles and norms of International Law.
The Evros Crisis as a Test-Case
In early 2020, the whole world witnessed in awe the incredible Evros River Crisis, at the northern Greece-Turkey border. During a late February Greek holiday, the “hybrid invasion” of Greece was attempted by thousands of people, misled by Ankara to believe that “Turkey’s borders with Europe are now open.” Erdogan had opened Turkey’s border to Greece while Athens had declared it closed, unable to host any more than the thousands it has been forced by Turkey to accept on the Aegean Islands and mainland Greece. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of these people were neither “refugees from Syria” nor even refugees, mainly economic migrants, primarily from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Africa. As it transpired, they included former prisoners in Turkish prisons and real jihadists from Syria.
What is happening here is a textbook case for destabilizing entire regions. The situation is similar to the pre-Balkan crisis in Kosovo. Erdogan’s movements follow the same patterns as the ones that preceded his intervention in Syria, when he used the populations expelled from there as weapons and an alibi .
In addition to “weaponizing” thousands of miserable people in order to destabilize Greece and “flood the EU” (Erdogan’s stereotypical threat) to extract pro-Turkey decisions – including more money and support for his Syria adventures – the crisis was aggravated by Ankara’s orchestrated campaign of fake news and vicious propaganda. Immature Western journalists, passionate Turkish propagandists, and some naïve Western academics were deceived by Turkey’s fabricated news and unethical misinformation, threatening Greece’s dignity and prestige.
But the EU’s top leadership set the record straight. It gave full support to Greece through the visit to Evros River by European Commission President Ursula von der Leiden, European Council President Charles Michel, European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli, and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. They were escorted by Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said that “Turkey has now become an ‘official migrant smuggler’.” The EU leaders added that “It is no longer a refugee-migration problem but an ‘asymmetric threat’ to Greece’s eastern border, which is also Europe’s border.”
Ankara’s psychological warfare included the Interior Minister’s unashamed lie that “117,677 refugees have crossed into Greece” (ibid.). EURAKTIV’s Balkan expert, Georgi Gotev, explained in detail (ibid): that “the total number of migrants gathered in the border areas is estimated at some 20,000”; that the Greek authorities said that fewer than 200 migrants have managed to cross the border; and that “Greece has already sentenced all of them to four years of jail for illegal crossing.”
Therefore, the tragedy turned into Erdogan and his regime’s downturn. Eventually, Greece took effective measures to protect its and Europe’s borders from such “hybrid warfare.” While It attracted the respect of political elites and honest foreign commentators, the notorious pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah continued its unending anti-Hellenic hate-speech, as evidenced from the following formulation:
Ankara recently announced that it would no longer try to stop asylum-seekers, refugees, and migrants from crossing into Europe. Thousands have since flocked to Turkey’s Edirne province, which borders Greece and Bulgaria to make their way into Europe.
Daily Sabah’s attack used dubious statements by a certain “refugee rights researcher” and “advocate at Human Rights Watch,” who insulted the Greek security forces for having “detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum-seekers and migrants.” This fabrication has been totally falsified by independent reporters and commentators; by the aforementioned top EU officials; and by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX). Hence, Michael Rubin’s April 1, 2020, commentary, entitled, “Human Rights Watch reports are no longer credible.”
The Evros case illustrates Ankara’s ruses, narratives’ manipulation and other practices deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Cypriot EEZ, the Aegean Sea, Syria, Iraq, and now Libya, in order to implement Erdogan’s megalomania  What deserves a separate treatment is why Hellenism is Erdogan’s fixed target, verbally abused daily and threatened militarily unless Cyprus and Greece yield to his blackmail.
For now, the following hypotheses seem irresistible: (1) Turkey’s anti-Hellenic geopolitical bulimia erupted in the 1970s when oil reserves were discovered in the northern Aegean and Ankara decided to claim half the Aegean Continental Shelf; (2) the “Blue Homeland” consists primarily of Greek territories and Greece’s threatened sovereign rights; (3) Turkey had always regarded Greece as far weaker than Turkey and weaker than what Greece really is; (4) Turkey cannot forgive Cyprus and Greece for their EEZs’ hydrocarbon deposits in contrast to missing its own; (5) Erdogan cannot “tolerate” that Hellenism has weaved substantial collaboration with neighboring Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon; increasingly with France; and perhaps with (hovering) Italy; and (6) Turkish theologian, Cemil Kilic, asked about Erdogan’s passion for turning Aghia Sophia into a mosque, admitted inter alia Turkey’s “sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West.” If so, for obvious historical and cultural reasons, one could deduce that Erdogan’s inferiority complex towards Hellenism may be far more robust and probably incurable.
Previous RIAC articles authored by me since 2017 have celebrated Russia’s very special links and bonds with Hellenism, premised on mutual interests, shared values, historical/cultural affinities, and respect for International Law. More recently, I recognized some reservations and joint complaints in Russia-Cyprus relations, emanating primarily from the Moscow-Ankara “multiple embrace.” However, progressively, Erdogan’s “sui generis personality and geopolitical megalomania have worsened Russia-Turkey relations since, besides concurrence, they also exhibit contradictory perceptions and interests, rights, and suspicions.
Moreover, Erdogan’s opportunism, adventurism, and overextension show today signs of despair, since certain decisions have traumatized Turkey’s economy while questionable actions have isolated the country. The EU’s alarming inaction toward Erdogan’s aggressiveness, especially against Cyprus and Greece, was primarily a matter of some member-states’ economic interests.
In summer 2020, however, after President Macron’s aforementioned eruption, Angela Merkel’s seeming exhaustion, the threat of an Egypt-Turkey military confrontation, the apparent failure of Josep Borrel’s peace-making trip to Ankara, Turkey’s exhibition of Realpolitik cum Machtpolitik, and, finally, after the bombing of Turkey-supported targets in Libya (al-Watiya), the EU seems to be changing its mind. After all, Erdogan’s Libya intervention has secured substantial international condemnation by numerous actors – France, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, and Russia – sufficient to miss the next “SOFT POWER 30.” Inevitably, Russian Soft Power is being victimized by the Erdogan association. Hence Moscow, uniquely capable of containing its trouble-making associate, is ideally placed to take appropriate initiatives: as a service to international stability, international dignity, and Russia’s international image and prestige.
1. Shay Attias, Russian Soft Power in the Middle East, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No.1,238, July 26, 2019
2. See Cyprus News Agency, October 15, 2019.
3. Any country would act like Greece, Cyprus Mail, March 5, 2020
4. For Erdogan’s array of deceptive rhetorical devices, see Costas Melakopides, Brief Remarks on President R.T. Erdogan and His Allies’ Methodical Use of Logical Fallacies, RUDN Journal of Political Science, Vol. 20, No.3, 2018, pp. 376-386.
From our partner RIAC
Did Russia-China Relations Successfully Pass the “COVID,” “Hong Kong,” “India” and “Belarus” Tests?
Russia-China relations have been steadily improving since at least 2013, when the leaders of both countries presented a joint statement calling for deepening bilateral relations of “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” This formula has been modified with an addition of the “new era,” signifying both countries recognising new global challenges and the changing geopolitical environment. COVID-19 has largely contributed to the intensification of certain trends, including antagonism with the U.S. and the pursuit of more robust bilateral ties.
If before both countries would challenge and combat U.S. hostility (economic sanctions, political pressure, adversary rhetoric, etc.) mainly on their own, they are now more inclined to align and coordinate actions to elaborate more coherent voices towards the West. In late July, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the U.S. could not drive a wedge between Russia and China by expecting Moscow to join its anti-China alliance. Rather, Russia views further improvement of relations with China as a major factor that will contribute to stability in global politics.
In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, amid the virus outbreak, bilateral support between Russia and China became a safe fortress for “political viruses.” During a telephone conversation in July, Putin and Xi stressed that the agenda for the strategic partnership in Russia-China relations was materialised during the pandemic in the form of mutual help provided at a critical moment.
China and Russia have recently demonstrated the historical legacy of their close relations through the publication of a co-authored report by Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. The report unambiguously states that all countries must combine their efforts to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, terrorism, world pandemics, economic downturns, etc. These concerns are all focal points in which Russia and China have achieved mutual understanding.
Notably, even during the very vague political gridlock of the Belarusian leadership in the aftermath of the August presidential elections, China and Russia immediately demonstrated their support to the re-elected president Lukashenko. While President Putin congratulated the Belarusian president with a telegram, President Xi-Jinping opted for a personal phone call, during which he reassured Mr Lukashenko of China’s strong commitment to “push forward Chinese-Belarusian comprehensive strategic partnership.” Such profound political signals did not go unnoticed in Minsk, which has expressed gratitude to Russia and China for their support during these challenging times. China’s position on Belarus is important for Russia, as Moscow regards Belarus as its closest and most faithful ally. Belarus is now moving towards a higher level of political and economic integration with Russia, becoming a “Union State.”
As a signal of recognition and respect for Chinese core interests, Russia extended its support to China over Hong Kong, which came under the global spotlight following the introduction of the National Security Law in June. In a very crucial moment for China, when it received widespread criticism from all other major powers, Russia bluntly stressed that “the situation in Hong Kong as a purely internal matter of China,” thus fending off all speculation on the city’s juridical status.
China and Russia have recently vowed to strengthen their coordination on international platforms, which was seen in early July in the UN during their opposition to the extension of cross-border aid in Syria. The opposition to the U.S. initiative in June within the UN Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran following the break-up of the 2015 nuclear deal was another display of harmonised action. Multiple international issues were touched upon during the meeting between the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on September 11. Both countries reaffirmed the “closeness of their views on effective solutions to them,” and stressed that “the destructive character of Washington’s actions undermines global strategic stability.” Overall, the meeting once again confirmed the shared views of Russia and China in both the multilateral and bilateral dimensions.
The Russia-India-China format has made significant progress after a period of relatively little activity. The latest gathering of the RIC group took place in June. At that time, Moscow highlighted that India-China border conflicts were to be solved based on bilateral agreements only. Recently, Moscow has initiated negotiations between the defence ministers of India and China in order to find conflict mitigation solutions. As a result, Chinese and Indian officials met for the first time since the border dispute in May.
By organising peace talks involving China and India, Russia is playing a critical role in regional affairs. The upcoming meeting of the respective ministers of foreign affairs reinforces this statement. Meanwhile, the U.S. has repeatedly pitched its own candidacy as an intermediary, with the most recent attempt in early September. Russian media positioned the Moscow-hosted China-India meeting on September 10 as a rare foreign policy success. During their “frank and constructive” discussion in Moscow, India and China reached an important agreement to deescalate border tensions which are not in “the interest of either side.”
Economically, Sino-Russian cooperation experienced a COVID-19 blow, with trade volume falling by 5,6 per cent in June, amounting to USD 50 billion. Although it may have a tangible impact on the annual statistics, moving the 2019-set milestone for 2024 away from the predicted USD 200 billion in trade follows the global trend of economic contraction, with consumer demand in free fall. For example, the overall volume of Chinese foreign trade from January to June dropped by 6,6 per cent. However, this trade contraction reflects more about global trade dynamics at the moment than changes in Russia-China relations.
As a recent sign of combined efforts to contain U.S. global ambitions, Russia and China were able to decrease U.S. dollar transaction for trade to its historical minimum – from 51 per cent in 2019 to 46 per cent in 2020. The same trend for intensified bilateral cooperation can also be seen in the energy sphere. Following the successful launch of “Power of Siberia” last December, the Russian state energy giant “Gazprom” is embracing a new audacious initiative, the “Power of Siberia-2” gas pipeline. The project will connect Russia, China and Mongolia. On behalf of the President of Russia, Gazprom started the design and survey work on the project in May.
Energy cooperation remains a crucial element of bilateral relations. Fresh statistics show that in July, Russia once again secured its position as the largest importer of oil to China, with a 30 per cent spike. This amounted to 7.38 million tons (compared to 2019). In April, Russia took over Saudi Arabia as the biggest crude oil supplier, delivering 7.2 million tons. This is 18 per cent more than in 2019.
Russia-China relations represent a “strategic partnership,” which means that the two countries view themselves as partners on strategic issues. Indeed, on a majority of topics, be it global governance, world economic structure, geopolitics or security, Russia and China are on the same page. Many of them are of strategic significance pertaining to both sides. Both countries enjoy fruitful cooperation on multilateral platforms such as BRICS, SCO and the UN.
Nevertheless, despite their flawless facade, Russia-China relations have a weak spot – their difference in strategic and national interests. This is normal for global powers. For example, Beijing can never compromise its core national interests such as the South China Sea (SCS), Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Tibet, even to please its tried and tested partner, Moscow. This explains why China has repeatedly pressured Vietnam to halt all oil extraction activities in the SCS over the last two years. This has resulted in Vietnam suspending business cooperation in the SCS with the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft. On the other hand, Russia will never put its core interests at risk (especially concerning territorial integrity), irrespective of Beijing’s rhetoric concerning Russian Far East territories.
As long as Russia and China base their partnership on coinciding strategic interests and avoid any ubiquitous and provocative moves – their relations are likely to remain in the current burgeoning state or under the best circumstances can even be elevated to a higher level. Overall, during the first half of the year, relations between China and Russia were challenged several times. Despite some small cracks, like decreasing trade and frictions regarding energy projects in the South China Sea, their flawless mutual propaganda remains untarnished. As long as they can maintain a close and mutually beneficial bilateral tie, they should be able to endure any future challenges with ease.
From our partner RIAC
Legitimate soft power or malign influence?
The last couple of years I have experienced Russian soft power firsthand through various NGO-programs. Here is what I learned – and how I was influenced.
There are two kinds of people: The ones who are curious about the unknown and the ones who are afraid. The first category includes the ones who are open towards strangers and the second includes the ones who would rather stick to their own.
For centuries it has been a core component of democracy that we can openly exchange worldviews and discuss how our society should be organized. This makes us able to understand each other – also if we disagree – and it makes us able to find solutions to current problems.
The point of engaging in discussions is often either to learn from others or to convince the counterpart that your own argument is better. In other words, the point with having discussions is to be influenced or influence another. But the last couple of years along with the fast emergence of online and social media a lot of discussions have been disrupted by so-called ‘disinformation’ and there for ‘foreign influence’ has become a matter of national security – especially in countries where the government is elected by the people whom might be easily influenced or manipulated.
In the West, and in many other places in the world, fear of the foreign is increasing. The appearance of disinformation and so called ‘influence-campaigns’ means that if we are not careful, we will be manipulated by outsiders into abandoning our true beliefs and into turning against our own. What a lot of people fail to see is that if we are too careful, we will all find ourselves in the second category of the two types of people mentioned above. If that happens, all foreign information will likely be perceived as disinformation and we might as well go offline and isolate ourselves in small homogenous societies. A core component of dialogue-based democracy is at stake–on a global level.
From state to people
I allow myself to represent “the West” in this article even though I know this is academically questionable because there are many countries, divergent opinions, and different approaches within the West. Some of the influence we “in the West” seem to be most afraid of is ‘Russian influence’. But what we often see as malign Russian influence-attempts, Russia often sees as legitimate use of soft power. And since the West also possess and uses soft power, Russia sees our fear and our accusations as a double moral standard.
Soft power involves the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion (Nye 1990).It includes promoting your countries culture, political values, and foreign policyto become an attractive and reliable partner. Soft power has some advantages to hard power because it is cheaper and more legitimate to convince people to voluntarily work with you than to force them to do so by for example military power or economic extortion or bribery. Why invade people’s territory with military means if you can ‘invade’ people’s minds by being or at least appearing favorable?
Russian soft power strategy was launched during Vladimir Putin’s second presidency in 2004-2008. Kremlin launched an active policy towards countries in the post-Soviet space to improve the image of Russia among its perceived compatriots. At first the strategy was directed towards regimes. For example, Moscow established the customs union that later became The Eurasian Economic Union and the Nord Stream gas pipeline to promote itself as an attractive economic partner and a reliable energy supplier. After the Ukraine crisis and Viktor Yanukovych’s departure other regimes started to play an anti-Russian card to consolidate their power (Sergunin & Karabeshkin 2015: 349). Thus, the soft power strategy had to change.
Today Russia’s soft power strategy is more people-oriented and stretches further than the post-Soviet space. Within this strategy public diplomacy plays a huge role meaning any government-sponsored effort to communicate directly with foreign publics to promote a government’s strategic objectives – or said in another way: a governments effort to influence foreign public opinion (Osipova 2014).
Make no mistake though: Russia is not the only country engaged with public diplomacy. More and more countries are competing to win over public audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from attracting tourists, students, or foreign investment to promoting national image and influencing international affairs.
Here is where it gets tricky because public diplomacy is considered legitimate but conducting influence-campaigns in foreign countries is not – but theoretically the two concepts look a bit like each other. When a foreign country wants to influence domestic public opinion up to an election it isseen as an effort to undermine democracy. It seems logical though– and even legitimate – that foreign governments want people in other countries to choose leaders that favor them. It is the methods used to do so that vary in legitimacy.
From digital to physical
In my time as a student of political science in Copenhagen I heard and read a lot about Russia. Russia’s image in Denmark is not very favorable. Russia is often perceived as an enemy trying to undermine democracy and as a regime that does not live up to human rights obligations. Russia is also quickly impersonated as Vladimir Putin: strong but unfair. Russia is a country far away, difficult to understand, but easy to fear. Said in another way: Russia does not have a lot of soft power leverage in Denmark and I imagine it is the same in many other countries in the West. Whenever and whatever good we hear about Russia; we don’t really believe it.
A couple of years ago I decided to travel to Russia to test and question my perceptions about the country that have mainly emerged from what we hear and read in Western media.One of Russia’s soft power methods is to promote Russian culture and foreign policy through NGO’s targeting for example students and young professionals to promote educational programs and exchange (Simons 2018). I chose to cease this opportunity to get to know Russia better and thus I have participated in various NGO-programs in Russia. And boy; have I engaged in a lot of discussions, I have learned, and I have influenced.
Russian NGO’s are often viewed as illegitimate in the West because they receive economic support from the Russian government. Thus, they are not “non-governmental” people say. What we need to remember is that NGO’s can merely survive in Russia without government support because if they receive money from abroad, they risk being labeled ‘foreign agents’ (Svetova 2018). Surely if they receive government support, they might have some obligations towards their government, but it does not mean that they are deliberately trying to spread disinformation to manipulate people. At least this should not be our starting point.
Official opinions are often also reflected in people’s opinion and by denying those opinions we distance ourselves not only from the Russian government but from the Russian people. Say I disagree; then only by understanding official opinions, I can put forward a counter argument in an understandable way to those who share that opinion. This is what ‘mutual understanding’ is about– which is exactly what is missing in the relationship between Russia and the West.
Blurred lines: false or biased, fact or opinion?
Dialogue fosters mutual understanding, which fosters predictability and credibility, which fosters trust and furthers possibilities to cooperate (Head 2016: 360). But in the digital age credibility is a scarce resource and fear of being manipulated keeps us from cooperating. A Russian acquaintance once said to me: Whatever you say about Russia, the opposite is also true. In other words: Truth can be inflected.
A prominent discussion in philosophy of science is whether and when something can be viewed as knowledge and be defined as true. Positivists argue that when weknow something is true, it is also real. “Influence campaigns in this new digital reality do not try to convince us and win an honest argument. Instead, they question reality itself,” said the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofoed at a conference on how democracies can be protected against foreign influence. But it is questionable whether one reality exists.
In constructivist theory, reality is socially constructed within social contexts which means that different people in different contexts see reality differently. In other words, when people believe something is true, it is also real. Thus, it is difficult to define the line between disinformation and biased opinion. This is for example the case with the ‘annexation’ of Crimea as it is called in the west and the ‘reunification’ of Crimea as it is called in Russia. Those who agree with one or the other see true information, those who see an unfair framing see biased information and those who strongly disagree see false information. Information is interpreted within the framework of preexisting beliefs (Vuorelma2017: 120). Therefor it is questionable whether people are easily influenced by information that they strongly disagree upon, but it is quite possible that they would refer to the information as false.
Good image can be threatening
Things have happened recently that from a Russian perspective could give Russia more soft power leverage in the West. Russia sent medical aid to Italy and to other countries which could be a sign of goodwill. It has alsodeveloped a potential corona-vaccine, which could improve Russia’s image within biomedicine and broader academia – and could potentially put Russia in a position to help the whole planet. But in the West people are not exactly thrilled. In a Western perspective these are things that Russia can use for propaganda purposes meaning the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to achieve the goals of the propagandist (Jowet & O’Donell 2019: 6).
In the digital age aggressive behavior is not only expansionist behavior it is also a state’s intent to impose a good imageand thus, a signal of good intent can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, I did not learn the solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, we should not be blind towards that states or even NGO’s might have an interest in lying about its intentions in order to change or control other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, we should primarily put it upon ourselves to explore the reasons behind divergent perceptions. Though, I suggest this should not take place through online media where misunderstanding rule and disinformation disrupt. What we need is good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings whether between students, teachers, NGO’s or government officials. Because the more we disagree the more dialogue is needed.
Framing foreign influence as pure malign manipulation will keep us both from learning and from arguing our own case abroad. So, let us prevent soft power from turning too ugly. After all the use of soft power is preferable to the use of hard power. And let us hope the covid-19-crisis is over soon so that we can visit each other and engage in dialogue where influence is not always a bad thing.
Head, Naomi (2016). ‘Transforming Conflict: Trust, Empathy, and Dialogue’, in Yohan Ariffin, Jean-Marc Coicaud & Vesselin Popovski (eds.), Emotions in International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jervis, Robert (2017). ‘Signaling and Perception. Projecting Images and Drawing Inferences’, in: How statesmen think: The psychology of international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jowet, Garth S. & Victoria O’Donnell (2019). ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ (ed. 7). California: SAGE Publications.
Osipova, Yelena (2014). ‘Russification‟ of „Soft Power‟: Transformation of a Concept’.The Journal of Public Diplomacy, Vol. 5, 56-77
Sergunin, Alexander &Karabeshkin, Leonid (2015. ‘Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy’, Political Studies Association, POLITICS vol. 35(3-4), 347–363
Simons, Greg (2018).‘The Role of Russian NGOs in New Public Diplomacy’, Journal of Political Marketing, 17:2, 137-160
Svetova, Zoya (2018).‘NGOs in Russia: Do They Still Stand a Chance? The Kremlin is steadily ramping up its control over civil society’. Moscow Times. Located on: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/02/12/ngos-do-they-still-stand-a-chance-russia-svetova-a60471
Don’t Kid Yourself, Russia will Never Abandon Belarus
The world has been rivetted by the largest protests in Belarus’ history over the course of the past month. Dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator” by former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, its President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus ever since winning the country’s first and only democratic election in 1994. But is this the end for Lukashenko? Certainly, some have already dubbed this as another “Color Revolution” moment in reference to similar civil society “People’s Power” protests that were able to bring down post-Soviet governments from Kyrgyzstan to Serbia, and most recently the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych in Belarus’ multiethnic southern neighbor Ukraine in 2014. But that will not happen in Belarus. This article does not mean to be callous but frank. The stark reality is that Belarus is an ethnically homogenous country that is vital to Russia’s national security interests. It will never surrender that to the opposition in Minsk or the West and NATO.
First, culturally Belarus is overwhelmingly Russian. Belarus’ population of 9.5 million people, 84% are ethnic Belarussians and 70% are native Russian speakers, Belarus’ only official language. Unlike Ukraine or the Baltic countries, Belarus lacks a strong ethnic base to sustain a pro-European political movement. Moscow will never abandon these Russians either, if needed it will intervene militarily under the guise of securing their rights, as it has done already in Eastern Ukraine. Such a maneuver would lead to a devastating conflict, with serious regional implications, and could begin a cascade of interventions to protect Russian speaking minorities on its borders.
Moreover, Belarus’ location situated right on Russia’s western frontier makes it is too strategically important for Moscow to allow it to join the fold of NATO. The Belarussian steppe is an invasion and counterattack route that quickly conveys invading European armies to the gates of Moscow, or Russian forces into Western Europe. Belarus was the first to fall during Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, and it is in Belarus during Operation Bagration that the Red Army opened the road to Berlin. Today, Belarus’ existence within Russia’s political orbit is vital to provide it a buffer with NATO’s Eastern frontier. Without it, NATO could deploy forces just about 200 miles from Moscow. Thus, for Russia, any political change is a strategic threat. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea to, in part, protect its naval station at Sevastopol, after theUkrainians overthrew their pro-Russian leader Yanukovych, then it will do the same and more to Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s ouster.
Additionally, a stable Belarus is vital to Russia’s core economic interests. It is through Belarus that major oil and gas pipelines transit from Russia to Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the Baltic States. At least 10% of Europe’s oil needs come through the Druzhba pipeline in southern Belarus. And although Russia has also worked to diversify its avenues to export gas directly to the energy consuming countries of Europe, including with the construction of the Nordstream II and Turkstream pipelines, Belarus’ central location will always remain important as the most direct route to transport gas to Europe. In fact, Russia is already in a contentious dispute with Ukraine over gas pipelines, and it will not stand to also lose Belarus as a stable gas corridor.
And if that was not enough, one must remember Belarus is institutionally tied to Russia. It was at a hunting lodge in the Belarussian forest that in 1991, the leaders of the Soviet Union’s three Slavic republics: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine came together to formally end the Soviet Union by declaring their independence together in the Belzahevy Accords. Five years later, Belarus then reversed its separation from Russia when it formed a Commonwealth in 1996, and finally the “Union State of Russia and Belarus,” or simply the “Union State” in 1999. This experiment in reestablishing the Soviet Union as a unitary political entity includes Schengen Area-style freedom of movement and a single executive that until a recent constitutional referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked prepared to strengthen and assume the leadership of in order to stay in power. Now, Putin has raised the possibility of further integration as an antidote to the current protests. Belarus’ fate is thus closely tied to Russia’s own future as a nation state.
Notably, Belarus is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian led security alliance of regional states including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. From the CSTO countries, Belarus can request an international (albeit Russian-led) “Collective Rapid Reaction Force,” to intervene and stabilize the country. As an elected leader, Lukashenko would be well within his rights to request the CSTO to intervene, and Russia already noted weeks ago that it forces remained ready in “reserve” at Belarus’ request. This would be an entirely legal use of military force to quell the domestic unrest and secure Lukashenko’s rule.
Lukashenko is the human embodiment of Russia’s interests in Belarus. He has made possible the expansion of Russia’s influence in the country since his election in 1994 and has had the unenviable task of placating Russia, balancing Europe and preserving his own independence, to some degree, from Moscow. He is the only ruler modern Belarusians have ever known, and the only one who can be trusted to steward the interests of Moscow and ethnolinguistic Russians. He is therefore the lynchpin of any strategy to preserve Russia’s interests in the country. Whether Moscow likes it or not, Lukashenko is irreplaceable. Frankly, sanctions will not convince him to retire, but only remind him that to fail, to lose power, will lead to his demise, and possibly his imprisonment or death for only Russia can affect the situation on the ground in Belarus.
Most of all, Lukashenko is the only one trusted by the military. As noted by Belarus’ Soviet-era leader Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarussian army is manned and led by Lukashenko loyalists, it is one of the largest military force per-capita for its population, and its general staff leadership are well paid for their service to the state. Their fates are inexorably tied: a large, well-paid, ethnically homogenous military and their patron leader President Lukashenko. It is highly unlikely they will defect to the opposition, but even if so, that will only lead to a civil war and a Russian intervention. The presence of Lukashenko loyalists in the military ensures buttressed by the Russian speaking population ensures he will always have a strong power base in the country.
There may be a tendency in the West to think the Belarussian opposition will win. This belief is what guided overwhelming international support for Juan Guido in Venezuela to take power from the government of Nicholas Maduro. But Maduro held firm, knowing his allies in the military will decide his and the country’s future. They stayed in lockstep with the government, and despite massive opposition protests and the defection of much of Maduro’s political base, his government did not yield. They mortgaged the country’s future to survive –but survive they did.
The US especially must learn from Venezuela, or for that matter the rest of the interventions on its diplomatic resume. It is not a simple matter of course to remove governments even when the population is resoundingly opposed to their rule. Unless NATO, the US, and Europe plan on supporting a military opposition against Russia (which nobody is proposing), risking a direct confrontation with Moscow as well, there is little to no chance of changing the rulers in Minsk.
Of course, for the West, it still makes sense to support the opposition vocally, even if their defeat is inevitable. At the very least, it is a chance to draw attention to a crisis on Russia’s doorstep, at most, it will grant it an ally in a revolutionary Belarussian government –for all of five minutes that is, before Russian soldiers duly force it from office and restore Lukashenko to power. Belarus is in Russia’s backyard. The West should not forget that as it watches events unfold in Minsk.
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