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The Coming Bipolarity and Its Implications: Views from China and Russia

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Authors: Zhao Huasheng and Andrey Kortunov

The Chinese authorities have never accepted or used the concept of China-U.S. bipolarity. Neither the so-called co-governance (G2) nor the bipolar confrontation between China and the United States is consistent with China’s diplomatic philosophy and policy. The Russian official narrative has also rejected the idea that the world has been moving in the direction of a new bipolarity, insisting on a gradual transformation of the unipolar, U.S.-centered international system of early XXI century to a multipolar (or polycentric) world order.

In spite of this, there are more and more discussions on the bipolarization of China and the United States in academic circles both in China and in Russia. Especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, China-U.S. relations have deteriorated sharply, conflicts between China and the U.S. have intensified, and bipolarization has become a hot issue in academic and political discussions of international politics. More and more often, observers of contemporary international relations look at these relations through the optics of a seemingly irreconcilable confrontation between the West and the East (or between liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies, between Atlanticism and Eurasianism, between maritime and continental powers, and so on). This intellectual flavor of the month calls for an unbiased analysis of what bipolarity means for Beijing and Moscow and how it does or does not fit into the Chines and the Russian perceptions of the emerging world order.

Three Biporlarities

There are at least three forms of bipolarities: political bipolarity, structural bipolarity and value bipolarity. Political bipolarity is the bipolarity in political cognition. It has certain political attributes and shows a number of political implications in terms of international status and influence. For example, bipolar co-governance or bipolar confrontation belong to political bipolarity. Structural bipolarity is bipolarity in material cognition. It reflects the explicit superiority of two big countries over other international actors in terms of material resources that they have at their disposal. Fundamentally, material or structural bipolarity is the foundation for political bipolarity; the latter emerges based on the former. Finally, value bipolarity implies that in defining poles, one should keep in mind value differences between major actors. In particular, libel democracies by definition cannot be divided into different poles because of their value proximity to each other; the borderline between poles should, among other things, reflect a clash in value systems — e.g., between Western-type democracies and non-Western authoritarianism of various sorts.

This triple attribute of bipolarity is an important theoretical presupposition in the analysis of bipolarization and a logical starting point for understanding the cognitive and theoretical differences between China, Russia and the West on this issue. In China, there is a tradition to emphasize the material dimension of bipolarity (or multipolarity). For the Chinese, the international structure has a natural attribute initially. Whether it is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, these structures merge as a pure reflection of existing asymmetries in international players’ material potentials. If any two actors have material resources far superior to all other actors, we can define the system as bipolar. The term has no inherent political connotation. It is neither naturally confrontational nor cooperative. Its political nature is to be given by decisions of the two “poles” in question. These “poles” can either follow the idea of equal cooperation or pursue a policy of competition and confrontation.

In Russia, they tend to emphasize the political dimension in defining the “poles” in world politics. This approach reflects Russia’s active foreign policy and power projection initiatives, while the country experiences a relative deficit of material resources. In Moscow, they often claim that the United States, China and Russia constitute the top league of global politics. The material weakness of Russia can be allegedly offset by its remarkable ability to focus on achieving specific foreign policy goals, on its capacity to mobilize needed resources, on its readiness to sustain a coherent long-term strategy in various regions, and so on. In this paradigm, Moscow can punch way above its weight, bringing an important dimension to the U.S.-China equation.

In the West, it is common to emphasize the value dimension of bipolarity. This Manichean approach to international relations implies that bipolarity becomes confrontational primarily due to the gap in values, which might exist between major players in the international system. If the descending and the ascending world leader do not have this gap (e.g., the United Kingdom and the United States in the late XIX – early XX centuries), the system is not truly bipolar. At best, we can argue that the system contains elements of bipolarity. However, if the value gap exists (the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), the system turns bipolar in the full sense of the word.

New Type of Great Power Relations vs “Thucydides Trap”

Based on the theoretical premise that the political relationship between great powers is malleable, China proposes the concept of a new type of great power relationship, meaning an equal, mutually respective, cooperative and win-win relationship. It is opposite to the popular “Thucydides trap” theory, believing that the confrontational nature of bipolarity is natural, inevitable and unchangeable. In other words, China questions the assumption that bipolarity means and can only be a confrontation.

It is at this point that the Chinese and the Western perceptions diverge. If great powers are destined to be antagonistic, the new type of great powers theory raised by China will lose its meaning. On the other hand, if the new type of great powers theory is reasonable, then the “Thucydides trap” is just one of the possible outcomes, and not the only one. Although both in theory or in practice the antagonistic relationship of bipolarity is much easier to appear than a cooperative one, because cooperative relations need to have a common intention of both poles, an antagonistic one could be formed by one side’s intention and behavior.

In Russia, they seem to share the Chinese view that there can be no determinism in the nature of relations between the two most powerful nations in the world. Indeed, even during the Cold War, there were periods of relaxation of tensions and limited détente between Moscow and Washington. Still, the predominant view is that the West (or, to be more exact, the United States) will not abandon its claims to global hegemony in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it will not accept a “cooperative” bipolarity or multipolarity, not to mention a truly democratic and inclusive polycentric world. The overall perception in Moscow is that unless there a fundamental change in the American foreign policy establishment, any U.S. leader will try to get back to the U.S.-led unipolar world, which is likely to result in an adversarial model of bipolarity. This bipolarity should not be “the West against the Rest.” It might take the form of “the U.S. against the Rest.”

As for the West, many political thinkers there assume that though there might be some ceasefires and truces in the U.S.-China confrontation, as well as in U.S.-Russian adversarial relations, at the end of the day, one can reconcile the global system only on the basis of common values. This assumption means that one side is destined to win and the other is doomed to lose. Needless to say, Western-type liberal democracy should ultimately prevail over its illiberal alternatives.

The Western logic of the “Thucydides trap” is that a strong country is bound to seek hegemony and is fight against alternative sets of values. In other words, it equates a strong country with hegemony and value universalism. In this regard, it also forms a division with China’s logic. According to China’s thinking, the relationship between a strong country and power politics is not necessarily corresponding. A strong country does not necessarily adopt unilateralism and move towards hegemony.

Moreover, a weak country does not naturally abide by just and reasonable thoughts and policies. Strength is also relative. Most countries in the world have a dual identity. They are weaker in the face of the stronger, but stronger in the face of the weaker. They can be strong in some fields but weak in others. They might be powerful in their material capabilities but powerless in their commitment to using them. Under different circumstances, nations have the status of transformation between “strong country” and “weak country,” and have the question of policy choice when facing the stronger or weaker country.

Here does not negate the basic role of structure to policy options, nor the basic principle of existence determines consciousness, and also understand the strong historical and realistic arguments of the theory of structural determinism. However, different from structural determinism, what we see in “existence” is not only the structure but also the historical civilization background, political system and culture, the changes of times and international conditions, the development and influence of technological means and other factors. More than that, the influence of existence on consciousness is not an absolutely one-way direction.

China’s Choice

With national strength as the index, China’s status in world structure is not for China to choose. It is formed naturally and it’s not the result of a country’s choice. A state may desire for some kind of international structure, but it is only a subjective will, but not necessarily the objective reality.

Suppose that bipolarity has been already formed in material terms and China is one of it, what concept and policy will China choose? According to China’s thoughts, the most reasonable and possible choice is continuing to follow multilateralism. That is to say, China does not take the bipolarity as the center of international politics and does not regard the bipolarity as a super structure above the world, even if China’s national strength is higher than that of the other countries. China will assume greater international responsibilities, but it will still be willing to live with other countries as political equals.

This does not contradict China’s position as one of the two strongest poles, because multilateralism is a political attitude which is optional. The concept of multilateralism is closely related to multipolarization, so it is often treated as a similar or even the same concept, but in fact, they are different. Whether in Chinese, English or Russian, they are all nouns with different meanings. In nature, multilateralism is not only a method, but also a political thought and attitude with value orientation. Multilateralism is based on the principle of political equality, while multipolarization is mainly a policy based on relations of big powers. Multilateralism takes into account the interests of all countries related and is based on the balance of interests of all related countries, while multipolarization attaches importance to power and takes power as the main element. Multilateralism does not deny multipolarity and it can also contain multipolarity, but multipolarization does not necessarily contain multilateralism. It could be both compatible or contradictory with multilateralism.

Now as China’s status as a great power has been firmly established, and China is not only one of the many poles, but also possible one of the two strongest, China’s relations with the world have shifted to how it views relations with other countries rather than worrying about its own status. In this context, multilateralism, which focuses on relations with other countries, is more suited to China’s diplomatic needs. Multilateralism is not linked to a specific international structure and transcends the constraints of it. Therefore, it is not in contradiction with China’s status as one of the supposed bipolarity.

Russia’s Choice

Russian-Chinese cooperation is gaining more ground, growing in all areas from the economic to political and security domains. The Chinese-Russian axis creates opportunities and temptations for neighboring and more distant states, resulting in the rapid institutional development of such entities as the SCO or BRICS. Though in Moscow they still refer to the notion of a multipolar or polycentric world, it seems that in reality, there is an increasing readiness to accept the new bipolar reality with the United States and China as the centers of gravity for this new polarization of global politics.

One might ask the question: is there anything fundamentally wrong about a bipolar world for Russia? Was it not the Soviet-U.S. bipolarity that served as the foundation of global peace and stability for some forty years after the Second World War? Isn’t it fair to say that a bipolar world – with all its imperfections and limitations notwithstanding – is still much better than the potential alternative of a gradual erosion of global governance and the arrival of anarchy and chaos in international relations? So why can’t Moscow simply accept this new polarity as a plausible and realistic option that can define the hierarchy and structure of the international system in the XXI century?

Some analysts in Russia have gone even further and maintain that this new global split has been historically predetermined and unavoidable, being based on “objective” realities. It is often argued that the Atlantic and the Eurasian civilizations have opposed each other from the days immemorial, that “land” powers have always and will always be different from “maritime” powers, that the “global continent” (Eurasia) is the eternal counterweight to the “global island” (America). And that it makes little sense to challenge the laws of history and geography. The logical conclusion is that we should take the emerging bipolarity as a natural and, in a way, even desirable state of affairs. The only realistic goal should be to maintain this bipolarity within a mutually acceptable framework in order to avoid an uncontrolled confrontation with unacceptably high risks and costs involved.

In our view, such a conclusion is at the very least premature. It is hard to deny that a trend towards a new bipolarity has already manifested itself not only in geopolitics, but also in the global strategic balance and the global economy. But whether this trend can be considered positive and whether it should be regarded as inevitable — these are points that can be disputed. Let me briefly outline a couple of arguments against these assumptions.

In the history of intellectual thought, any rigid determinism — be it religious, ethnic, economic or geographical — has always failed to explain and to predict social change and international developments. The period of the Cold War can hardly be described as an era of peace and stability — it included numerous regional wars and crises and an unprecedented arms race. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the world was very close to global nuclear conflict.

It is even more important to underscore the following. The modern world is very different from what it was in the second half of the XX century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided into two systems — the Western (capitalist) and the Eastern (communist) with irreconcilable (antagonistic) contradictions between them. In other words, the bipolar system was based on a solid ideological foundation. This foundation is gone and it is hard to imagine that it will reemerge in the foreseeable future. Nationalism, even in its extreme forms, and religious fundamentalism are unlikely to replace the fundamental ideological divide of the previous century.

Moreover, all of the main international players today have to confront essentially the same set of threats and challenges to their security, which are very different from the traditional threats and challenges of the XX century and earlier periods. Today, state leaders have to deal with international terrorism and political extremism, with transnational crime and illicit drug trafficking, with uncontrolled migration and climate change, with the instabilities of the global financial system and increased risks of technological disasters. Some of these challenges existed during the Cold War, but only in an “embryonic” form, being overshadowed by the all-embracing East-West confrontation.

One of the specific features of this new set of challenges is that most of them are not generated by other (rival) great powers. In fact, these threats have nothing to do with state actors of the international system, except for a small number of irresponsible, radical regimes (rogue states). The new generation of threats and challenges come from subversive non-state actors. They may represent the negative side effects of technological and economic progress, or the growing shortage of natural resources, or the obsolescence of many key international institutions and norms of international public law. This is a fundamental difference between the period of the Cold War and today’s world. Additionally, this is why a new bipolar system, even if it can be established, is unlikely to provide any long-term security or stability.

One should keep in mind another important difference between the contemporary international situation and that of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was economically almost completely separated from the West, as the two poles of the world did not depend on each other for their development. Today, in the era of globalization, the level of interdependence between the East and the West, between the “global continent” and the “global island” is unprecedentedly high. Therefore, any political bipolarity, which would have an inevitable impact on the economic, financial, cultural, and humanitarian dimensions of international relations, is likely to have much higher costs for everyone than the Cold War ever had. Not to mention the massive relocation of material and human resources from addressing numerous global problems looming on the horizon.

In sum, the trend towards a new bipolarity is troublesome and dangerous. Even in its modified and “modernized” form, a bipolar arrangement is not likely to successfully handle the critical international questions of this century. If the world is split once again, this will likely have long-term negative repercussions for the whole system despite some tactical gains that can be anticipated by the leaders of the new “poles.” It is in our common interest to avoid this option and move towards a more inclusive, democratic and truly global international system. Since “no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.”

U.S. Choice

Looking at the current global geopolitical landscape, we have to conclude that, although the triangle is still a popular and useful analytical pattern and one of the possible future scenarios for U.S.-China-Russia relations, no U.S.-China-Russia triangle today resembles that of the Cold War. Instead, for a couple of years, we observed the U.S. policy of “dual containment” with Washington applying more and more pressure on both Beijing and Moscow. This pressure has become an important factor cementing the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership.

This situation is a clear strategic setback for Washington. Since at least the early 20th century, one of the most important goals of the U.S. foreign policy has always been to prevent any consolidated anti-American center of power in Eurasia. U.S. policymakers have perceived a divided Eurasian landmass as an indispensable prerequisite for the global U.S. strategic hegemony. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the critical importance of keeping Eurasia divided better than anyone else did. He was more efficient than any U.S. leader before him in exploiting the growing rifts between Beijing and Moscow back in the early 1970s.

Can President-elect Joe Biden repeat Kissinger’s success and resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle with the U.S. at the top of it? Of course, almost 50 years have passed since the famous trip of Kissinger to Beijing in July of 1971. The world today is definitely very different from the world of the 20th century. The former bedrock theology of geopolitics may look old-fashioned and even antiquated. Still, let us consider the options that the U.S. leadership has in trying to keep Eurasia divided.

The first option would be to read Kissinger literally. That is to support the weaker U.S. adversary against the stronger one. Today, it would mean that Washington should try to bring Moscow to the American side in its predestined confrontation with Beijing. After all, Russia is a communist country no more, and Russian leaders should be concerned about the growing asymmetry of power between their country and China. To play the weaker adversary against the stronger one was a stated goal of the Trump administration, which it failed to achieve. U.S.-Russian relations did not improve under Trump. On the contrary, they fell to historic lows.

It is highly unlikely that Biden can be more successful in pursuing this goal than his predecessor was. The U.S. simply has nothing to offer to President Putin to make him reconsider his current close friendship with President Xi Jinping — be it in economic, political or strategic domains. Even if Biden were considering a new reset with the Kremlin, he would hardly be in a position to go for such a reset: The anti-Russian consensus in Washington is too strong and shows no signs of crumbling. It seems that the U.S.-Russian relationship will be locked in a confrontational mode for many years to come.

The second option for Biden in trying to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle would be to play on the opposite side of the stage, seeking an acceptable accommodation with the stronger Beijing and putting the squeeze on the weaker Moscow. Turning Kissinger’s geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient opponent than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the U.S., severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The U.S.-Russia confrontation will cost much less, given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states, and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with Washington.

However, is it realistic for Biden to count on a sweet deal with China? Such a bargain requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the U.S. holds in the system of international relations. The U.S. will have to abandon its claim to global American hegemony similar to that of the times of Kissinger. Certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage is ready to do that. If a revolution in the U.S.’ self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this is not likely to happen earlier than 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense.

Even more importantly, just as Trump repeatedly saw throughout the four years of his presidency that it was impossible to tear Russia away from China, Biden will steadily see that China cannot be torn away from Russia. Beijing needs Moscow regardless of the current state of affairs and the prospects for China-U.S. relations. China’s leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or “balancer” between Russia and America, but it will not actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia. In other words, if a U.S.-China-Russia triangle could ever emerge, it would be a triangle with Beijing, not Washington, on the top of it.

Thus, the Biden administration will not accomplish a lot if it attempts to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle. Under the current circumstances, a version of a “dual containment” equation appears to be the most likely approach of this new U.S. administration towards Beijing and Moscow, with China being treated more as a peer competitor and Russia as a global rouge state. To cut the costs of dual containment, Biden will try to mobilize U.S. Western allies in Europe and in East Asia. It will also try to keep Eurasia divided by forging stronger ties to China’s adversaries in Asia — above all, to India. By doing so, Biden will inevitably push the world closer to a new geopolitical bipolarity instead of a modernized version of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.

Multilateralism – A Path for Future China-Russia Cooperation

Over the past years, promoting multipolarization has been an important target for China-Russia international cooperation. Now the situation has changed. China is becoming one of the supposed new bipolarity, the status of China and Russia in the international structure will no longer be the same. It can be felt that Russia’s concern about it may be in an unequal position in Sino-Russian relations is increasing. In addition, it used to be said that China and Russia were a coalition of two weaker states in response to pressure from the sole superpower, the U.S. Now that China itself is becoming a “superpower,” what concepts will serve as the path for future China-Russia’s international cooperation?

Multilateralism certainly could play an important role in this, both as ideas and policies. Multilateralism opposes unipolarity but does not negate multipolarity. It still leaves the door open for Russia as a great power in a multipolar world. Multilateralism embodies the spirit of political equality. It stipulates China and Russia are equal partners both in international affairs and in bilateral relations. Multilateralism is consistent with Russia’s diplomatic ideology as well. Russia itself is a supporter of multilateralism and takes it as the banner of Russian diplomacy. Russia proposes that the future multipolarity should have a just and democratic character and that it should not be based solely on the balance of power, but on the interaction of national interests, patterns, cultures and traditions. This can be interpreted as a moral demand of Russia to international structure, and it is certainly true. Above all, despite all of the changes, China will still pursue the same goals in international affairs, such as anti-hegemony, anti-unilateralism, anti-neointerventionism, maintaining international strategic stability and establishing a more just and fair world order. Therefore, the goals of China and Russia in international politics will remain unchanged.

From our partner RIAC

Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum

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The Road Ahead: Dissecting Russia’s Economic Diplomacy With Africa

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During the September ceremony to receive foreign ambassadors, Russian leader Vladimir Putin offered spiteful goal-setting policy outlines and some aspects of lofty Russia’s economic policy directions for Africa. Most of these directions considered significant have, over these years, featured prominently in all his previous speeches on Russia’s relations with Africa.

On September 20, in the St Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin received letters of credence from 24 newly-arrived ambassadors, including nine from Africa (Algeria, Egypt, DR Congo, Libya, Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda). By tradition, Putin briefly characterised the relations between Russia and countries whose envoys came to the Kremlin ceremony.

In a grandiose style, Putin gave a line-up of cheerful-looking ambassadors a step-by-step account of the global situation, the necessity for Russia’s “special military operation” in neighbouring Ukraine, questions relating to regional security, and economic instability due to rising prices for energy and commodities. He underscored the development of multipolar and more democratic and fair world order had entered its active phase.

“Regrettably, the objective movement towards multipolarity has come up against resistance from those trying to preserve their dominant role in international affairs and to control everything – Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa,” Putin said.

Referencing the current international situation with an emphasis on the critical regional problems of the African continent and the bilateral relations of African countries whose ambassadors were accredited to the Russian Federation, Putin stressed “the importance of the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in 2023 for strengthening diverse relations between Russia and African countries.”

Putin further touched on Moscow’s efforts to restore its geopolitical foothold on the continent after the historical collapse of the Soviet era. While the summit is considered a significant development for Russia’s power-wielding ambitions, Putin strongly reminded African ambassadors that the second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled to be held in St Petersburg in 2023. “We hope that together we will be able to give a new impetus to the comprehensive development of mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the African states,” he said.

Significant to note here that at the far end of the first summit, Russia and Africa issued a joint declaration; among the questions was to hold the summit every three years. Both Russia and Africa could not hold the summit during its third year, both Russia and Africa failed to choose the summit venue. While reasons were not assigned for this sharp inconsistency, policy experts suggested either the Central African Republic (CAR) or the Republic of Mali could hold the summit. CAR and Mali are “reliable Russia’s partners,” and holding the summit would have resonating effects.

During his speech, Putin invited the President of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to visit Russia. Understandably, Algeria is Russia’s second-largest trading partner in Africa regarding trade volume. And trade and economic cooperation continue to develop actively, as well as ties in other areas, including military-technical and cultural ties. Reports say Russia supports Algeria’s balanced regional and international affairs policy and continues to work together towards strengthening stability in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahara-Sahel region.

“We consistently build friendly relations with Egypt under the fundamental Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation signed in 2018. We view Egypt as one of our most important partners in Africa and the Arab world. We are in constant contact with President Sisi,” according to Putin.

The intergovernmental commission has been working, promoting trade growth, which increased by more than 40 per cent in the first six months of this year. Large joint projects are being implemented, such as constructing the El Dabaa nuclear power plant and creating a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal. There is a regular political dialogue and close foreign policy coordination. Within the general policy framework, Russia does not grant concessionary loans and has not publicly allocated a budget for Africa.

But in this exceptional case, Russia and Egypt signed an agreement, and the total cost of construction is fixed at $30 billion. Russia provides Egypt with a loan of $25 billion, which will cover 85% of the work. The Egyptian side will cover the remaining expenses by attracting private investors. Under the agreement, Egypt is to start payments on the loan, which was provided at 3% per annum, in October 2029.

Ambassador Harouna Samake (Republic of Mali) was among the envoys in the Kremlin and listened attentively as Putin welcomed the intention of the leadership of the Republic of Mali to form a long-term strategic partnership with Russia and develop mutually beneficial ties.

During a detailed telephone conversation in August with Interim President Assimi Goïta, Putin agreed to continue joint efforts in countering international terrorism and religious extremism. He further pledged that Russia would continue to provide the Malian people with comprehensive assistance and support in various ways.

The same diplomatic rhetoric praised Russia’s relations with Uganda, one of Russia’s reliable partners in Africa. The United Republic of Tanzania has listed promising spheres such as peaceful nuclear research, transport, energy and tourism. These spheres have been on Russia’s list for many other African countries.

Over the years, Russia has performed dismally in Africa’s transport and energy sector. In theory, it has expressed heightened interest in exploring and producing oil and gas in Africa. But so far, its investment efforts are not seen in the region. Russia claims the leading position as an energy supplier and is now rapidly diversifying its products at discounted prices to the Asian market. Therefore, it is logical that African leaders should not expect much from the Russian Federation in this oil and gas (energy) sector.

Currently, all African countries have a serious energy crisis. Over 620 million in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity out of 1.3 billion people. In this context, several African countries are exploring nuclear energy as part of the solution. Three decades after the Soviet collapse, not a single nuclear plant has been completed in Africa.

Some still advocate for alternative energy supply. Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko, Founder and Executive Director of Danquah Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes policy initiatives and advocates for Africa’s development, wrote in an email that “Africa needs expertise and knowledge transfer that can assist Africa to develop its physical infrastructure, add value to two of its key resources: natural resources and human capital.”

Russia has respectable expertise in one key area for Africa: energy development. “But, has Russia the courage, for instance, to take on the stalled $8-$10 billion Inga-3 hydropower project on the Congo river? This is the kind of development project that can vividly send out a clear signal to African leaders and governments that Russia is, indeed, ready for business,” he said in an interview discussion.

The renewable energy potential is enormous in Africa, citing the Democratic Republic of Congo Grand Inga Dam. Grand Inga is the world’s largest proposed hydropower scheme. It is a grand vision to develop a continent-wide power system. Grand Inga-3 is expected to have an electricity-generating capacity of about 40,000 megawatts – nearly twice as much as the 20 largest nuclear power stations. The cost of building nuclear power does not make sense when compared to the cost of building renewables or other energy sources to solve energy shortages in Africa.

With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russia has engaged in sloganism, and many of its signed agreements have not been implemented. The joint declaration adopted at the first summit is intended to raise the African agenda of Russia’s foreign policy to a new level and remains the main document determining the conceptual framework of Russian-African cooperation. Many remain as submit paperwork. China, Japan, India, the United States, the European Union and other players are progressively implementing their African strategies.

Over the years, Russia has shown high interest in Libya, whose ambassador, Emhemed Almaghrawi (State of Libya), was part of the Kremlin ceremony in September. Over the years, Russia has struggled to improve its bilateral political and economic dialogue and cooperation with that North African country. It has faced many pitfalls and obstacles, though.

“We attach great importance to relations with Libya and are interested in a fair and lasting settlement of the protracted internal conflict in that country. Russia will continue to support Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and help the friendly Libyan people defend their right to a decent life, peace and security. As the internal situation in Libya stabilises, we look forward to resuming bilateral cooperation in various fields,” Putin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the Atlantic alliance when he spoke to students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in Moscow on September 1. Russia claims it lost billions of dollars in energy, defence, and infrastructure contracts it had negotiated with the removal of Col. Qaddafi. Russia’s state arms exporter lost an estimated $4 billion in Libyan contracts after the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya.

Russian Railways had secured a $3 billion contract to build a high-speed rail link from Sirt to Benghazi. Many of these contracts were either signed in Qaddafi’s presence or were organized by him. Russia’s state news agency ITAR-TASS estimates that the country could lose as much as $10 billion in business if Libya’s new leadership challenges the legality of the existing contracts.

As Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observes that military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with some African countries.

“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” she acknowledges, “and it will continue so in Russia’s relations with Africa.

Russia has made significant arms deals with Angola and Algeria. Reports show that Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, Mali, Sudan and Libya have also bought arms from Russia. Small countries such as Burundi, Botswana, and Rwanda, with distinctively impoverished populations and budgetary limitations, have signed agreements. Russia also provides military training and support; it has defence orders worth $14 billion from African countries.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, quoting military experts, Russia has much to gain by promoting and attempting to dispose off its Soviet-era military equipment in Africa. After all, Russia is self-sufficient and has economic independence, so with enthusiasm, convincing African leaders to purchase fertilizers and grains, thereby pushing them towards depleting their hard-earned revenues.  Without a doubt, African leaders endlessly boast of vast uncultivated lands, making little efforts to support and mechanize agriculture.

During these months of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and sanctions from the United States, Europe and Pacific allies, Russian diplomacy has repeatedly stressed that Moscow is ready to export 30 million tons of grain and over 20 million tons of fertilizer by the end of 2022.

According to local Russian media reports, the Russian Agriculture Ministry’s Agroexport Federal Centre for Development of Agribusiness Exports, in close partnership collaboration with Trust Technologies and the business expert community, drew up a business plan for the development of exports for agricultural products (grain, dairy, meat and confectionery products) to promising markets of African countries.

The project’s goal is to prepare a practice-oriented model for increasing supplies and enhancing the competitiveness of Russian agricultural goods in the African market. The report says nine African countries have been chosen as target markets for the delivery of agricultural products. These are Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Tunisia and South Africa.

That report explicitly notes African leaders’ readiness to spend state budgets on food imports; without a doubt, “food security” is the central theme for the 2023 Russia-Africa summit. These countries account for 40% of the continent’s population and one-third of all African imports of agricultural products; Russia estimates to earn some $33 billion from Africa.

In practical terms, a microscopic analysis of Russia’s economic presence gives many interpretations and contradictions. While currently, Russia seems to be soliciting the support of Africa to lead the emerging new world order, Russia still does not recognize that it needs to adopt more public outreach policies to win the minds and hearts of Africans. Its economic footprint on the continent is comparatively weak. Instead of addressing its own investment agenda, it has consistently criticised other foreign players, especially the United States and European countries, that are active in Africa.

Many Russian companies have abandoned their projects in Africa. The latest is the lucrative platinum project contract that was signed for $3 billion in September 2014, the platinum mine is located about 50 km northwest of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. The Darwendale project involves a consortium of the Rostekhnologii State Corporation, Vneshekonombank and Vi Holding in a joint venture with some private Zimbabwe investors and the Zimbabwean government.

After widely campaigning for the construction of what was referred to as the “Southern Oil&Gas Pipelines” that was supposed to connect three or four southern African countries, Russia’s Rosneft finally abandoned the project. And similarly, State Nuclear Enterprise Rosatom never mentioned again the proposed nuclear plant construction signed by Jacob Zuma of South Africa.

Russia’s Lukoil undertook exploratory feasibility studies in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, only to abandon these projects. Nigeria’s Ajeokuta Steel Plant project remains a dream project for Russians. Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the Russian mining giant, ceased operations in Botswana. It owned a stake in the Tati Nickel in Botswana, where production was expected to reach its highest level. It has previously given a positive assessment of the possibilities for developing its production assets in South Africa and many African countries. There is a long list of Russian companies that under-performed or performed badly and finally exited Africa.

Just a few weeks before his departure from Moscow, the Zimbabwean ambassador to the Russian Federation, Brigadier General Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview discussion that several issues could strengthen the relationship. One important direction is economic cooperation. African diplomats have consistently been persuading Russia’s businesses to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) as an opportunity for Russian businesses to establish footprints on the continent. This view has not found favour with them, and it is hoped over time, it will.

Although the government has not pronounced incentives for businesses to set sights and venture into Africa, Russian businesses generally view Africa as too risky for their investment. He said that Russia needs to set footprints on the continent by exporting its competitive advantages in engineering and technological advancement to bridge the gap that is retarding Africa’s industrialization and development.

“Worse is that there are too many initiatives by too many quasi-state institutions promoting economic cooperation with Africa saying the same things in different ways, but doing nothing tangible,” he told me during the lengthy pre-departure interview. He served the Republic of Zimbabwe in the Russian Federation from July 2015 to August 2022. He previously held various high-level posts, such as military adviser in Zimbabwe’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and as an international instructor in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

There are several similar criticisms from former ambassadors. According to Mandisi Mpahlwa, former South African Ambassador, Sub-Saharan Africa has understandably been low on post-Soviet Russia’s list of priorities, given that Russia is not as dependent on Africa’s natural resources as other major economies. The reason: Soviet and African relations, anchored as they were on the fight to push back the frontiers of colonialism, did not necessarily translate into trade, investment and economic ties, which would have continued seamlessly with post-Soviet Russia.

“Russia’s objective of taking the bilateral relationship with Africa to the next level cannot be realized without a close partnership with the private sector. Africa and Russia are close politically but geographically distant, and the people-to-people ties are still underdeveloped. This translates into a low level of knowledge on both sides of what the other has to offer. There is perhaps also a fear of the unknown in both countries,” Mpahlawa said in an interview after completing his ambassadorial duty in the Russian Federation.

Russia has a lot of policy weaknesses in Africa. Reports indicated that more than 90 agreements were signed at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit. Thousands of bilateral agreements are still on the drawing board, and century-old promises and pledges for supporting sustainable development are authoritatively renewed with African countries. Like a polar deer waking up from its deep slumber, Russia is flashing its geopolitical headlights in all directions on Africa.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website indicates that there have been several top-level bilateral meetings, signing of MoUs and bilateral agreements during the past years. In November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the premises of TASS News Agency was very critical of Russia’s current policy towards Africa.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues and definitive results on the agenda remains small. It explicitly points out the inconsistent approach in dealing with Africa. Russia lacks public outreach policies for Africa. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

Ultimately, actions, not words, will determine if upcoming Russia -Africa Summit and the proposed Africa strategy will reset relations with the continent. The significant fact here is that little has been achieved since the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador-at-Large and head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, Oleg Ozerov, food security will be one of the top issues on the agenda of the second Russia-Africa Summit.

It is a fact that Russia’s ties with Africa declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, Russia continues efforts in search of possible collaboration and opportunities for cooperation in the past years. But most essentially, Russians must understand clearly that little has been achieved in Africa. Several bilateral agreements signed with individual countries are not implemented, while in the previous years, there has been an unprecedented huge number of “working visits” to Africa.

According to our research findings, in stark contrast to key global players, for instance the United States, China, the European Union and many others, Russia’s policies have little impact on African development paradigms. Russia’s policies have often ignored Africa’s sustainable development questions. Experts have repeatedly suggested Russia adopt an Action Plan – a practical document that would fill cooperation with substance between summits. In conclusion, Russians must strongly remember that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.

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Russia Facing China: Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella?

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Whenever I read another Western report on the prospects of Russian-Chinese relations, the old children’s fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood involuntary springs to my mind. In this well-known story, a little girl walks through a dense forest to bring cakes to her sick grandmother, unexpectedly stumbling upon an angry hungry Wolf. The light-hearted girl talks to the cunning Wolf, only to expose the purpose of her walk in the dark forest. Needless to say, this dangerous adventure cannot end well for Little Red Riding Hood: the insidious Gray Wolf eventually eats both the old sick grandmother and the tale’s main character.

With a little stretch of imagination, we can draw an analogy between the plot of this horror tale for kids and the West’s interpretations of the current relations between Russia and China. It is clear that Moscow has to play Little Red Riding Hood, stupid and naive, while Beijing is a fierce and ruthless gray villain. The emerging friendship between the two inevitably entails most tragic consequences for the girl. This is to say, Russia’s economic, technological, military and otherwise dependence on China will over time grow to an extent that Beijing will be able to take advantage of this growing dependence by turning Moscow into its obedient and compliant vassal.

While the fairy tale ends with the hapless Little Red Riding Hood set free from the wolf’s belly by the hunters who had arrived just in time, the real-life Russia cannot rely on a miraculous rescue. Moscow will have to accept the unpleasant status of an “outlying ulus” of the Middle Kingdom, with all the ensuing consequences for the Kremlin’s international ambitions. As President Vladimir Putin said on a slightly different occasion, “like it or don’t like it—it’s your duty, my beauty.” Unless prompt hunters (perhaps, the noble Americans and their faithful NATO allies?) eventually restore justice, bringing this story to a happy ending.

Still, when I come across the many Russian publications on the same interesting topic of bilateral relations with China, I can’t help but think of another well-known product of folk fantasy, the fairy tale Cinderella. It also tells the story of a young girl who is systematically mistreated and in every way abused by her ugly stepmother and heartless stepsisters. Fortunately, poor Cinderella is saved by her fairy godmother, who appears at just the right moment, generously dressing Cinderella for the upcoming royal ball. With one wave of her magic wand, the good fairy turns a pumpkin into a golden carriage, mice into horses, a rat into a coachman, and lizards into footmen. Cinderella’s filthy rags are miraculously transformed into a beautiful dress studded with jewels. For an additional gift, Cinderella receives glass slippers, which make the girl absolutely irresistible in the eyes of the local prince, who happens to be on the look-out for a suitable bride.

A large number of Russian analysts, politicians and journalists seemingly perceive China as the modern incarnation of the fairy godmother, ready with her magic wand to solve all the numerous problems of modern Russia, quickly and painlessly. They expect Beijing to vigorously oppose U.S. and EU anti-Russian sanctions, increasing purchases of Russian hydrocarbons and food at prices favorable to Moscow, providing Russia with critical technologies, and consistently supporting the Kremlin in all international organizations and multilateral forums. Multifaceted cooperation with China should allow Russia to avoid international isolation as much as enhance its status and influence in international affairs. Thus, despite all the machinations and intrigues of the envious and malicious relatives, Cinderella arrives at the royal ball in dazzling splendor and magnificence.

Moving on with this fairy tale analogy, we can argue about who the Prince Charming is in this case, and what fair punishment awaits Cinderella’s relatives in the end. The latter should obviously be understood as the notorious “Collective West.” In the end, all these details are not so important. What is important, though, is the understanding of China. Whereas it emerges as absolute pure evil in Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella rather portrays China as the embodiment of an equally absolute pure good.

However, the world of fairy tales and the world of international politics have little in common. No matter what anyone says about Vladimir Putin, he appears neither the naive and frivolous Little Red Riding Hood, nor the battered and hardworking Cinderella. The Russian President remains one of the world’s most experienced state leaders. For more than two decades, he has consistently stressed the paramount importance of efforts to bolster Russia’s national sovereignty and independence. If national sovereignty were a religion, the Kremlin could rightfully claim to be the cathedral of that religion. It is hard to imagine a situation where Vladimir Putin, or even one of his likely successors, would willingly sacrifice the country’s sovereignty and independence, even for the sake of promoting cooperation with China.

Perhaps even more importantly, modern China is ill-suited to the role of the hungry evil Wolf or the generous fairy godmother. The characters of children’s fairy are inevitably one-dimensional, grotesque, and poster-like. In fact, they represent either absolute evil or equally absolute good, which is the intrinsic value of fairy tales passed down from generation to generation. They help children clearly distinguish good from evil, white from black, and justice from injustice. These fundamental differences, fixed in children’s minds, come to be one’s moral bearings, without which a person cannot do in adulthood.

In politics, however, this kind of one-dimensionality is a rare thing. The real China, in contrast to the imaginary one, is a vast and rather complex country, with its numerous and varied national interests, aspirations and priorities. Some happen to coincide with those of Russia, some overlap only partially, while others diverge altogether. Therefore, it would be hardly fair to define Beijing’s foreign policy as “pro-” or “anti-Russian,” since they have always been and will primarily be “pro-Chinese.”

There is no doubt that Russia and China currently converge in their approaches to a number of critical issues of international security and development. Such unity is historically justified as it reflects the current geopolitical landscape in the international system. A convergence of interests forms a solid foundation for long-term mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries. It is to be hoped that the relations between the countries will remain dynamic, acquiring new and important dimensions over time.

Far from our two countries only, it is the international system at large that stands to benefit from a stable, predictable and sustainable Russian-Chinese partnership. The numerous prophets hoping for an imminent crisis in Moscow-Beijing relations and going on to predict a conflict between the two should think about the various grave consequences of such developments, not only for Russia and China, but also for the rest of the world. Tactically, many countries could probably take advantage of a Russian-Chinese rupture. Strategically, though, another tectonic split in the international system would not serve the interests of any of the responsible actors in world politics.

Nevertheless, Russian analysts and journalists should not flatter themselves, because no one will solve Russia’s own problems for it. No good wizard can turn a pumpkin into a carriage, mice into horses, and ash-soaked rags into a gorgeous ball gown. No generous fairy will shoe Russia in shimmering glass slippers, and no Prince Charming awaits Moscow at the magical royal ball.

Russia should fight corruption and mismanagement, the overreach of officials, and oppression of small businesses, all on its own. The country should invest in human capital, promoting its innovation sector, introducing full-fledged federalism and local governance, increasing the efficiency of the court system at all levels, and unleashing the creative potential of Russian society to its fullest. The faster and further Russia advances these goals, the more valuable a partner it will become—both for China and other foreign countries. This, in turn, means that the current crisis in the Russia-West relations should become another incentive to speed up the socio-economic modernization of the country, rather than slack or freeze it.

From our partner RIAC

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The Alliance of Downtrodden Empires

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Image source: kremlin.ru

There are many commonalities and differences, to the point of contradiction, in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish political and economic positions, calculations, and priorities. Nevertheless, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara maintain an alliance or, at least, close coordination that includes conflict files, that all or some of which are involved in different arenas.

To explicate this, it is possible to go back to the modern history of the three states, and to the fall of their empires. The empires that had their center in geography continued for long periods of time with space for their expansion and contraction and for their wars and the alteration of the territorial and water borders between them.

Russia witnessed the fall of two empires that ruled and sometimes fused their surroundings, and they played a central role in international relations for centuries. From the Russian Empire, which expanded in Europe and Central Asia and extended from the maritime borders in the east to with Japan to the Polish lands in the west which collapsed during World War I, to the Soviet Union, which ruled from Moscow an empire similar to the one that its leaders had brought down before its power increased after World War II to include Europe the entire East. The fall of the Union in the early nineties was a humiliation for the Russians and bitterness for an imperialist ambition that became unable to achieve its aspirations. In that humiliation and the bitterness that followed and the difficulty of being satisfied with the nation-state borders, Putinism was formed, and its rise attempted to marry Russian nationalism, Tsarist Orthodoxy, and Stalinism, based on violent suppression of the independence rebellion (Chechnya). Direct military intervention in the periphery (Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), leading to two comprehensive wars in Syria to declare a return by force to the international arena, and a denial of the legitimacy of the existence of an entity in Ukraine under the pretext of an American and Western threat to national security.

Iran, for its part, has not adapted to its national borders since it was drawn after the fall of Qajar rule and the rise of Reza Pahlavi to power after the First World War. The imperial intransigence of the new Shah and then of his son Muhammad, with historical arguments or a connection to a Persian bond, brought down Iranian relations with Afghanistan, Iraq and Bahrain ambiguities and tensions that remained until 1979. Then the Khomeinist “exporting revolution” ideology after the overthrow of the Shah, and the erupting Iran-Iraq war that followed in the eighties, transformed the Iranian ambition into a basis for forming alliances and loyalty in the Shiite communities in nearby states. Relying on previous attempts to influence the states were minorities of the Persian League and the historical Persian influence. Iran’s political and strategic expansion was enshrined after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regimes in Iraq. Tehran took advantage of the American occupation and the chaos it created to extend its influence to the west and complete a strategic arc that passes through Baghdad and Damascus, which is ruled by its ally Assad, and then reaches Beirut, where Hezbollah is founded and supported by Iran. Through it, it was able to engage directly with the Israelis, in order to raise a political-ideological position that provides popularity, and as a response to Tel Aviv’s threat to its nuclear program. Furthermore, Tehran provided finance and arms for Palestinian forces on one hand and Yemeni forces on the other, placing it at the heart of the conflict in Palestine and on the edge of the Red Sea overlooking vital navigation that affects the global economy.

As for Turkey, despite retreating from emerging ‘national’ borders and strict neutrality imposed by Atatürk through the establishment of the republic after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Despite a subsequent political and cultural push towards Europe and the joining of the NATO after World War II, it remained the result of its nationalist discourse. As a result of the massacres that accompanied the fall of the Ottomans, its relations with its surroundings are tense. Of course, the matter applies to Soviet and then independent Armenia, to Greece and then Cyprus, where it intervened militarily in 1974, and it applies to Syria and Iraq, where the border problems and the depth of the Kurdish question, represent its most prominent concerns. Morevore, it relates to some regions of Central Asia where the geographical contact and historical frictions between empires, and where there are Turkish-speaking national minorities. To all of that in 2002 was added a very important element linked to the Islamic identity that Erdogan and his party had elevated. He returned Turkish priorities to an eastern and southern orientation and made Ankara invest in the remnants of the Ottoman League to build an Arab presence (in cooperation with Qatar), then it overtook that about years ago. Building an African economic presence and playing intermediary roles between countries and regional hubs to demonstrate influence beyond the borders of what was a sultanate for centuries.

Undoubtedly, the issue of warm waters, the control of straits, and sea lanes is a priority for the three parties, both in past and present, for economic and geopolitical reasons. In turn, this explains another aspect of the current alliance (and competition) between them.

The Black Sea and within it the ‘Sea of ​​Azov’ is Russia’s only water port that can be permanently relied upon economically and militarily, as it reaches through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean ‘where Moscow’s only base is in Syria’. Obviously this is because of the impossibility of the Russians using their northern, eastern and northwestern seas due to the freezing of its waters for long months. This fact, of course, puts them in direct contact with Turkey, their partner in the maritime domain, and their obligatory waterway to the world. The latter, in turn, seeks to expand its exceptional water presence and establish areas of influence, whether in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine, in the Aegean Mediterranean Sea facing Greece, or in the Libyan West to reach the southern Mediterranean shore and energy fields.

When it comes to the Iranian case, the same water priority takes on another dimension, related to the control of the straits in addition to access to the Mediterranean. From the Strait of Hormuz, the oil artery separating the Indian Ocean from the Gulf, to Bab al-Mandab ‘the entrance to the Red Sea connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean’ to Syria, Lebanon, and their Mediterranean ports. Tehran is seeking to impose its control and presence through its armed forces or the forces of its allies ‘the Houthis, the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah’.

As a consequence, the maritime water issue, as the overlapping areas of geographical influence, and the recent past, which did not go beyond the complex and confusing present with its consequences during the transition from the empire to the nation-state, bring the Russians, Iranians and Turks together, despite the distinctions and different aspirations.

If we add to all the above, hostile discourses against Western hegemony in the capitals of the three states, an intertwining in their roles and occupations in Syria for years, their economic cooperation in the face of old American and European sanctions on Iran and the latest ones on Russia, examining the characteristics of Turkish mediation between Kyiv and Moscow, monitoring the Russian, Iranian and Turkish cooperation projects with China and India, we will see the depth of the mutual need for coordination between the heirs of the ‘Downtrodden Empires’. This common needs seem sufficient so far to curb the antagonism between Ankara on the one hand and Moscow and Tehran on the other hand in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict. It also gives the impression of satisfactory to overcome the difficulties between them in the Syrian arena, where they share the Astana path despite their contradictory positions and locations. Additionally, it puts to limit the repercussions of the clash between Russia ‘through ‘Wagner’ mercenaries; and Turkey ‘through drones and field experts’ in Libya. Finally, it seems sufficient to perpetuate Russia’s request to Turkey to mediate in the Ukrainian war, despite Ankara selling Kyiv the famous ‘Bayraktar’ drones with which the Ukrainians hunt Putin’s tanks crawling on the ruins of their cities.

The bottom line is, situations are not likely to change in the near future, even if the relationship of the three states or one of them changes with the West, given that diversification of options, taking advantage of the position, role, contradictions, and blackmailing the opposing parties have become a feature of international politics today. There are no signs that this needs to be changed.

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