Six months ago, when COVID-19 had just moved beyond the borders of China and embarked upon its triumphant march across Europe and North America, politicians and foreign affairs experts started discussing what will happen after the virus is vanquished. The debate that ensued balanced the fears and concerns of pessimists with the hopes and expectations of optimists, with the latter believing that the pandemic and the global recession that followed would inevitably force humankind to put its differences aside and finally unite in the face of common challenges.
Six months later, we can say without any doubt that, unfortunately, the optimists were wrong. The pandemic did not bring about the changes in world politics they had been hoping for, even with the ensuing recession making things worse. And we are unlikely to see any such changes in the near future. Sadly, COVID-19 did not turn out to be a cure-all for regional conflicts, arms races, the geopolitical competition and the countless ailments of humankind today.
These persisting ailments are more than evident in relations between Russia and the West. No positive steps have been made in the past six months in any of the areas where the positions of the two sides differ significantly, be it the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the unrest in Syria, the political instability in Venezuela or the war in Libya. The fate of the New START and the nuclear nonproliferation regime remains unclear. Moscow continues to be the target of new economic and political sanctions. Russia and the West are locked in an intense information war. There are no signs of a “coronavirus ceasefire,” let alone a full-fledged peace agreement, on the horizon.
Of course, Moscow has placed the blame for the lack of progress squarely on the shoulders of its western partners. While this may indeed be true in many respects, we must admit that the Kremlin has hardly been overflowing with ideas and proposals over the past six months. Even if Moscow did want to reverse the current negative trends in global politics, it has not taken any steps on its own to do so. Nor has it proposed any large-scale international projects, or even tried to temper its usual foreign policy rhetoric and propaganda.
On the contrary, the various troubles that have befallen Russia in the “coronavirus era” – from the public unrest in Belarus to the unfortunate poisoning of Alexei Navalny – are explained away as the malicious intrigues of Russia’s geopolitical opponents. For all intents and purposes, the Kremlin is in the same position now, in September 2020, that it was in back in March. The chances of another “reset” or at least a “timeout” in relations have disappeared completely, if they ever existed in the first place.
So, why did the “coronavirus ceasefire” never happen? Without absolving the West of its share of responsibility, let us try to outline the obstacles that Russia has put in the way of progress.
First, in an environment of unprecedented shocks and cataclysms, there is always the hope that your opponent will eventually suffer more as a result than you will. Many in Russia see the 2020 crisis as the final damning indictment of the West and even an inglorious end to the market economy and political liberalism in general.
The recent statement by Aide to the President of the Russian Federation Maxim Oreshkin that Russia is poised to become one of the top five economies in the world this year is particularly noteworthy. Not because the country is experiencing rapid economic growth, but because the German economy is set to fall further than the Russian economy. If you are certain that time is on your side and that you will emerge from the crisis in better shape than your opponents, then the incentives to work towards some kind of agreement hic et nunc are, of course, reduced.
Second, the current Russian leadership is convinced that any unilateral steps on its part, any shifts in Moscow’s foreign policy, will be perceived in the West as a sign of weakness. And this will open the door for increased pressure on Moscow. Not that this logic is entirely unfounded, as history has shown. But it is precisely this logic that prevents Russian leaders from admitting their past foreign policy mistakes and miscalculations, no matter how obvious they may have been. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to change the current foreign policy and develop alternative routes for the future. In fact, what we are seeing is a game to preserve the status quo, in the hope that history will ultimately be on Moscow’s side, rather than that of its opponents (see the first point).
Third, six and a half years after the crisis in Ukraine broke out, we are essentially left with a frozen conflict. Turning the large and unwieldy state machine around, rewiring the somewhat heavy-handed state propaganda machine, and changing the policies that determine the everyday actions of the army of “deep state” officials is tantamount to changing the trajectory of a supertanker carrying a load of hundreds of thousands of tonnes. It is perhaps even more difficult, however, to change the opinion that has taken shape in Russian society in recent years about the modern world and Russia’s place in it. Just because the Russian people are tired of foreign politics, this does not mean that they will enthusiastically support an updated version of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” of the second half of the 1980s or the ideological principles of Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev’s foreign policy of the early 1990s.
Fourth, the balance of power between the agencies involved in the development and practical implementation of Russia’s foreign policy has changed significantly in recent years. The role of the security forces has been growing in all its aspects since at least the beginning of 2014. Conversely, the role of diplomats, as well as that of the technocrats in the economic structures of the Russian government, has been dwindling with each passing year. It is the security forces that are the main “stakeholders” in Donbass, Syria, Libya and even Belarus today. It would be fair to say that they have had a controlling interest in Russia’s foreign policy. The oft-quoted words of Emperor Alexander III that Russia has only two allies, its army and its navy, perfectly reflect the shift that has taken place in the balance of powers between these agencies. We should add that this shift was largely welcomed and even supported by a significant part of Russian society (see the third point). Of course, the siloviki are, due to the specifics of their work, less inclined to compromise, concessions and basic human empathy than diplomats, economists and technocrats.
All these factors preventing the conceptual renewal of Russia’s foreign policy can equally be applied to its geopolitical opponents. Politicians in the West are also hoping that time is on their side, that Moscow will emerge from the crisis weaker and more vulnerable, and thus more malleable than it was before. They also believe that any unilateral steps, any demonstration of flexibility in relations with the Kremlin, will be met with an even tougher and more aggressive policy. Negative ideas about Russia have also taken root in the minds of people in the West, and foreign policy is being “militarized” there just as much as it is in Russia.
Thus, neither the coronavirus nor the economic recession will automatically lead to a détente, let alone a reset in relations between Russia and the West. We are, in fact, moving in the opposite direction, once again running the risk of an uncontrolled confrontation. However, this unfortunate situation is no reason to give up on the possibility of signing new agreements, even if COVID-19 will no longer be in our corner moving forward.
From our partner RIAC
U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s Weapon Systems: A New Game in the Quest of High-Tech Microchip
Modern warfare places a great deal of emphasis on semiconductors and microchips because they are the fundamental building blocks for a wide range of military technology, such as drones, radios, missiles, and armored vehicles. Russia has consistently used modern weapons in its military operations against Ukraine since the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, thereby prolonging the ongoing war.
In the year 2022, Moscow initiated a comprehensive military intervention in Ukraine, while the nation of Russia saw an increase in the importation of semiconductor technology, with a value of $2.5 billion, compared to $1.8 billion in the preceding year of 2021. Microprocessors originating from Western countries are used in smartphones and laptops, which are progressively being integrated into Russia’s military inventory. Moscow has been procuring a higher quantity of superior Western technology by using intermediate nations, such as China.
The Russian military incorporates a diverse range of foreign-manufactured components throughout its 27 advanced military systems. These systems include various technologies such as cruise missiles, communications systems, and electronic warfare complexes. A significant majority, exceeding two-thirds, of the foreign constituents detected in Russian military equipment may be traced back to corporations based in the United States. Additionally, a portion of these components are sourced from Ukraine, as well as other allied nations like Japan and Germany. Russia continues to successfully import the essential Western-manufactured components required for its military operations. Nevertheless, the influx of microchips into Russia continues via trade lines through China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other nations, contributing to the expansion of the country’s prewar inventories.
China is the primary supplier of microchips and other technological components used in critical military equipment to Russia. This represents a substantial increase compared to the same period in 2021 when Chinese sellers accounted for just 33% of the imports. Furthermore, Moscow has seen a notable rise in its imports from nations situated in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. In 2022, there was a notable increase in exports to Russia from Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. This rise mostly consisted of automobiles, airplanes, and warships, which played a key role in driving the overall growth. Simultaneously, there was an increase in exports from the European Union and the United Kingdom to these nations, although their direct commerce with Russia saw a significant decline.
The increasing trade flows have led Western partners to advocate for expanding the number of countries participating in sanctions or imposing secondary restrictions on specific companies operating inside those countries to suppress Russia’s military capabilities. In June 2023, the European Union implemented a fresh set of sanctions that include an anti-circumvention mechanism aimed at limiting the trade, provision, or export of specifically sanctioned commodities and technology to certain third nations serving as intermediaries for Russia. In addition, the aforementioned package expanded the roster of corporations that directly endorse Russia’s military by including 87 newly incorporated entities across several nations, including China, the United Arab Emirates, and Armenia. Furthermore, it imposed limitations on the sale of 15 specific technological goods that are often found in Russian military apparatus deployed in Ukraine.
The use of microchips originating from the United States is contributing to the enhancement of Russia’s military capabilities, even amidst the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, facilitated via clandestine channels including intermediate nations like China. American technological companies like Intel, Micron Technology, Texas Instruments, and others produce a portion of these microchips. The United States and other Western countries have put restrictions in place to make it more difficult for Russia to trade certain technologies.
While the Russia-Ukraine war is ongoing, Hong Kong ranked as the second-largest exporter of microchips to Russia in terms of monetary value and as the third-largest exporter in terms of transaction volume. In 2022, Finland ranked as the fifth-largest supplier of microchips to Russia in terms of dollar value and Germany ranked as the third-most significant supplier of microchips to Russia in terms of dollar value and held the fifth position in terms of the number of transactions conducted. Germany is a significant supplier of semiconductor equipment to the Russian market. In 2022, the Netherlands and Estonia held the position of being the fourth-largest exporters of microchips to Russia in terms of dollar value. ASML Holding NV, a prominent Dutch company, is globally recognized as the foremost provider of lithography equipment, a critical component in the production of sophisticated microchips.
Subsequently, the United States has implemented sanctions on Russia, which include prohibiting the shipment of American semiconductors, as well as items manufactured using American equipment, software, and designs, to Russia. The United States has engaged in collaborative efforts with its allied nations, including the European Union, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, to effectively enforce such limitations. The United States Commerce Secretary has issued a warning over the potential termination of Chinese firm’s access to essential American technology required for chip manufacturing in the event of their non-compliance with the ban on chip supply to Russia. The United States has also called upon China to participate in international endeavors aimed at exerting pressure on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. The United States employs diverse methodologies to oversee and trace the transportation of chip shipments that have the potential to reach Russia.
The sanctions imposed on Russia have had a substantial and diverse effect on its military capability. To develop modern weapons, Russia is heavily dependent on purchasing a variety of high-tech goods from Western nations, such as microchips, engines, composite materials, and semiconductor machinery. The implementation of Western sanctions has limited Russia’s ability to produce and maintain its modern military hardware, including aircraft, missiles, drones, tanks, and radar systems. Russia’s military-industrial complex, which includes more than 800 businesses engaged in defense and related industries, is largely responsible for the country’s defense capabilities. Western sanctions have been imposed on several companies, including Rostec, Mikron, Tactical Missiles Corporation, Sukhoi, MiG, and Kalashnikov Concern. The implementation of these sanctions has resulted in the cessation of their ability to get funding, access technological advancements, and engage in market activities, leading to a decline in their overall financial gains and profitability.
The Russian economy and energy industry exhibit a significant reliance on the exportation of oil and gas to Western countries. The industries have also been subject to Western sanctions, which have imposed limitations on their ability to access financial markets, technology, and services. This resulted in a decrease in their ability to produce new weapons. Additionally, this has led to a decline in the government’s foreign exchange reserves, both of which are essential for funding its military activities and defense expenditures. Also, these sanctions have resulted in the isolation of Russia from the international community since they have curtailed Russia’s ability to engage in diplomatic, political, and security collaborations with other nations. Russia’s influence and power in regional and international affairs have decreased, which has also made it more vulnerable to pressures and challenges from abroad. Furthermore, this has undermined Russia’s perceived credibility and standing as a dependable and trustworthy collaborator.
In conclusion, the imposition of Western sanctions has effectively sent a resolute and unified message from Western nations in reaction to Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine. However, there is little proof that these sanctions have caused Putin to behave differently or withdraw from Ukraine. Hence, the efficacy of the imposed restrictions in restraining Russia’s military aspirations remains uncertain.
Three Sahelian Interim Military Leaders Sign Security Pact
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have taken an admirable strategic step by signing trilateral security pact in collective efforts to battle extremism and terrorism threats in the Sahel region. It is an opportunity, especially this critical moment, to work relentless for peace and tranquility, a necessary factor that could determine their sustainable development.
These three Sahel states are under the interim military administration. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the 15-member regional bloc, has put political pressure on them to return to constitutional democracy since after removing the elected civilian governments. The African Union (AU) and the ECOWAS have jointly suspended their membership, and further imposed stringent sanctions on them.
Backed by the AU, ECOWAS has even gone as far as threatening the use of force to reinstate constitutional governance in Niger. In response, Mali and Burkina Faso have solemnly pledged to extend their support to Niger if it is eventually attacked by ECOWAS Standby Forces. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger also have considerable strain on their relationships with neighboring states and international partners.
Nevertheless, in a significant development on September 16th, three West African Sahel states came together to ink a security pact. Currently grappling with formidable challenges of combating Islamic insurgents associated with groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), this accord offers the possibility to tackle any rebellion or external aggression.
The security pact, known as the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS), unequivocally indicated that an assault on the sovereignty or territorial integrity of any of its signatory nations would be deemed an aggression against all parties involved. The agreement outlined their unwavering commitment to provide assistance, either individually or collectively, and further categorically stipulated the deployment of armed forces.
The signed charter binds the signatories to assist one another – including militarily – in the event of an attack on any one of them. “Any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracting parties shall be considered as an aggression against the other parties and shall give rise to a duty of assistance… including the use of armed force to restore and ensure security,” it states.
Malian leader, Col. Assimi Goita, announced the establishment of the Alliance of Sahel States through his social media account. He emphasized their primary objectives of establishing a framework for collective defense and mutual assistance. Its aim is to “establish an architecture of collective defence and mutual assistance for the benefit of our populations”, he wrote.
The Liptako-Gourma region – where the Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger borders meet – has been ravaged by jihadism in recent years. A jihadist insurgency that erupted in northern Mali in 2012 spread to Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
“This alliance will be a combination of military and economic efforts between the three countries. Our priority is the fight against terrorism in the three countries,” Mali’s Defence Minister Abdoulaye Diop also said after the signing the document.
Mali and Burkina Faso have vowed to come to Niger’s aid if it is attacked. “Any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties,” according to the charter of the pact, known as the Alliance of Sahel States.
The three French-speaking West Africa states were previously members of the France-backed G5 Sahel alliance joint force, (with with Chad and Mauritania) initiated in 2017 to combat Islamist extremist groups in the region. However, Mali withdrew from this alliance following its own military coup, and relations between France and these three Sahel states have severely deteriorated. France has been compelled to withdraw its military presence from Mali and Burkina Faso, leading to a tense standoff with the junta that assumed power in Niger after requesting the withdrawal of French troops and its ambassador. France has firmly declined to recognize the authority of the interim military governments.
The situation in the Sahel region including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger still remains extremely difficult with internal conflicts, extremism and militant attacks, economic development is undeniably at its lowest points in history. In fact, Sahelian states are consistently looking for strategic ways to effectively address the sustainable development in the region. These three French-speaking states and the entire Sahel region are the most volatile and have large impoverished population in Africa.
The African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union (EU), the United States and the United Nations (UN) are all asking for quick transition to civilian governments, and that efforts are taken to resolve outstanding issues relating to sustainable development and observing strictly principles of democracy in these French-speaking states in West Africa.
Depleting Water Resources and Growing Risks of Water Wars
Climate change, often regarded as byproduct of modern industrial society, has gradually transformed into a challenge with global ramification. The most concerning factor regarding climate change is the unpredictable nature of consequences it can cause. One of the grave impacts of climate change is the depleting fresh water resources available to humanity. The Earth’s surface is predominantly covered with water, accounting for approximately 70 percent of its total area. Within this vast water coverage, a staggering 97 percent is composed of saltwater found in the Earth’s oceans while only 3 percent is fresh water. This 3 percent is distributed among various sources, with the majority, approximately 69 percent, residing in glaciers and about 30 percent is situated underground. The remaining fraction, less than 1 percent, can be found in lakes, rivers, and swamps. This suggests that mere 0.33 percent of planet’s fresh water is directly available to humanity and other animal life forms. To put into perspective, if the world’s water supply was 100 liters, then usable fresh water supply would be mere 0.003 litre (one-half teaspoon approximately).
According to the United Nations, by 2025, two-thirds of the global population could be living under water-stressed conditions and around 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with absolute water stress. The depletion of fresh water sources is generating friction between nations and thus increasing the risks of water wars in vulnerable regions.
Conflict over water is not a new phenomenon and over 1298 conflicts over water have been recorded in human history. In modern times, factors like climate change, expansion of population, and shrinkage of water sources have further increased the likelihood of water-conflicts. There are growing concerns that the competition over water sources will yield conflicts between nations in near future. There are four regions in particularly, including South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, and North-East Africa, which are highly vulnerable to water induced conflicts. Besides suffering from water scarcity, these regions are under-developed and have history of political instability and mutual hostilities.
Perhaps the biggest flash point of water wars is South Asia, or more specifically India and Pakistan. Both nations, being the second and fifth most populated countries in world, are overwhelming dependent on rivers emerging from Himalayan Glaciers. These glaciers, located in territorially disputed Kashmir region, have the most snow covered land area after Antarctica and Arctic. Melting of ice due to global warming on one side has increased the intensity of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), while on other side it has significantly reduced the volume of frozen water deposits in Himalayan region.
The Indus Water Treaty (1960), which delineates the sharing of the Indus River’s waters between the two nations, has historically maintained a fragile equilibrium. However, with growing shortage of fresh water and subsequent construction of new dams by India at Indus upstream, occasional tensions and lack of co-operation regarding treaty have been observed between New Delhi and Islamabad. With disputed Kashmir region still awaiting resolution, any water-crisis can further exacerbate already strained relations between both nuclear armed neighbors. Under current circumstances, it’s highly probable that South Asian region will be at the verge of water-war in near future if both nations failed to undertake credible Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) regarding water resources.
In Central Asia, the climate change, coupled with growing populations, has also intensified competition over shared water resources. The construction of upstream dams by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, under the rubric of hydroelectric development, has raised concerns about downstream water availability for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The drying-up of Aral Sea and gradual reduction of water in Caspian Sea is exacerbating the water-crisis further. Similarly, the fertile land of densely populated Ferghana Valley, known for its near perfect faming conditions, is now heading towards desertification primarily due to global warming. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan converge in this valley which is gradually becoming a flash-point for water-based conflict. In April 2021, a border clash erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over dispute of irrigation water distribution. The conflict killed 40 people and displaced more than 30,000 residents. The confrontation stopped after Russia led diplomatic settlement but the core issue still persists.
With 61 percent population living in high water stress areas, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water scare region in the world. Approximately 60 percent of fresh water resources in MENA region flows across international border, and thus is source of political tensions between states already suffering from water scarcity and political instability. Against this backdrop, Euphrates and Tigris Rivers which are critical source of water for Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, have strained relations since 1960. Factors like erratic weather patterns, global warming, increasing population, and uncoordinated water management projects, are diminishing fresh water availability in Euphrates-Tigris basin. Instead of crafting a equitable and sustainable trans-border agreement for countering water deficiency, the four riparian stated have securitized water relations with neighboring countries. As a result, the risk of regional water-induced conflicts has increased substantially.
Moreover, militancy in region has also significantly contributed in intensification of water related crisis. For example, in 2014, attempts by ISIS to use Mosel Dam at Tigris River in Iraq for Hydro-Terrorism was also timely thwarted by security forces and a major water-disaster was successfully averted. Similarly, few months ago a border conflict ignited between security forces of Iran and Afghanistan in Zabu district of Sistan. The major cause of military clash was distribution of Helmand River water which flows from Afghanistan into Iran. Being among the most effected region of climate changes, both nations are vulnerable to frequent and intense droughts. Persistence of political instability and lack of co-operation has undermined the prospects of resolution of water issue in these regions.
In North-East Africa, the Nile water crisis has the potential to ignite a multifaceted conflict involving Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan due to their overwhelming dependence on the Nile River’s waters. Ethiopia’s construction of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has raised concerns in Egypt and Sudan as both are concerned over potential reductions in downstream water flow. In particular, Egypt, historically reliant on the Nile’s waters, views the GERD as a direct threat to its water security. In recent past, Egypt has even threatened military action against GERD if Ethiopia fails to address Cairo’s concerns. Despite several negotiation efforts, these African nations have failed to agree on a mutually acknowledged framework regarding distribution of Nile water.
Israel is often regarded as benchmark for overcoming the shortage of fresh water. Once a country suffering from acute fresh water shortage, Israel now has ample fresh water availability to meet the domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements. Israel achieved this fate by building robust water Desalination infrastructure. However, Israel’s example cannot be used as a template for highly populated regions with varying geopolitical and demographic dynamics.
Technological advancements have provided new solutions for conservation of new water resources. Beside desalination, many similar water conservation technologies like, drip irrigation, fog & rain water harvesting, nano-filtration, and aquifer recharge etc. have been developed to extract, purify, and store fresh water. However, adaptation of these technologies on national scale is very expensive and, therefore, beyond the economic capacity of majority of developing nations.
Abruptly changing weather patterns are disturbing water cycle and rapidly declining availability of fresh water. The intensifying water scarcity can potentially act as conflict flashpoint with far reaching consequences. Therefore, it’s crucial that international society should realize the magnitude of problem and adapt to the changing realities of a warming planet. Collaborative efforts are essential to; undertaking scientific research for finding affordable and innovative technological solutions, water diplomacy for establishing effective water-sharing agreements, and adopting water-saving practices for sustainability of fresh water resources. If humanity fails to timely resolve this issue, it will not only undermine the global strategic stability, but will also threaten our existence as modern civilization.
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