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Strategic Rivalry: Prospects for Russian-American Relations in the New US Political Cycle

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The US presidential elections regularly raise the question of how perceptions of the president-elect influence Russian-American relations. Each new political cycle of American politics is accompanied by hopes for a change for the better. This was the case after the victory of Donald Trump, who was portrayed as a Kremlin agent by the “witnesses of Russian meddling”. It was also the case with Barack Obama, whose empathy and youth were considered a good basis for dialogue. The same has been true of many other presidents. Soon enough, the hopes faded. Even if friendly ties developed between the leaders, the structure and mechanism of foreign policy eventually undermined their initial positive sentiments.

Joseph Biden, who won the recent elections, is rare among the presidents-elect of the past few decades in that he has failed to inspire false hopes and expectations in Moscow. Biden is an experienced and professional politician who has directly or indirectly influenced policy towards the USSR and Russia for almost half a century. Observers needn’t harbour any illusions about a “fresh look” at Russia. Biden won’t alter the structure of Russo-American relations or the basic constants of US foreign policy regarding Russia. We need to soberly assess the nature of our relations, as well as the strategic objectives of the American administration’s actions.

For the United States, Russia is one of the key and most dangerous rivals. Despite the weakness of its economy, the Russian Federation is a large military power that makes decisions on its own and is ready to defend them. Although Russia is inferior to the USSR in terms of its ideological, military, and, especially, economic influence, it is also important as a participant in possible anti-American coalitions. So far, Washington is turning a blind eye to the prospect of an alliance between Russia and China. The latter is also considered a key rival by the United States, albeit of a different kind. The initial premise seems to be that such an alliance is not yet in the interests of both Moscow and Beijing. It seems that the US is confident that it is possible to successfully contain and gradually grind both countries. Moreover, Russia-China policy in the military-political sphere is still far from what could be characterised as an alliance.

From the American point of view, Russia poses a threat or challenge to the United States in most azimuths: in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as in key functional areas—nuclear, digital, space, etc. At the same time, there are very few areas where Russia is vitally important, or at least, simply, important for the United States. At best, we are talking about maintaining a dialogue on arms control, cooperation in the Arctic, episodic interaction in the fight against terrorism, an unclear partnership on climate, remnants of interaction in space and very limited economic ties. The Russian diaspora in America has long been integrated with the rest of the country and does not represent a lobbying force on its own.

In his relations with Russia, Joe Biden and his administration will work towards the following strategic objectives:

1. Containing Russia and balancing its military potential as a minimum task and achieving complete superiority in all key types of weapons and military technologies as a maximum task. Strictly speaking, the maximum task is not mandatory here. Even if the US lags behind in some new types of weapons, it is unlikely to allow Russia to radically change the balance of power, undermine US security and receive some serious dividends. In the best case, this will allow Moscow to preserve its own security and occasionally interfere with the United States in achieving local objectives. At the same time, the ideal task for the United States in this area, apparently, is the radical disarmament of Russia on the model of Germany in 1945. This can be achieved either by military defeat of Russia, or as a result of a radical shock to its political system and subsequent alteration from inside. The first scenario shouldn’t be discounted, but the cost to the United States would be significant. The second scenario is cheaper and safer, especially given the experience of the collapse and self-destruction of the USSR. Hence the second task being considered more important.

2. The loosening of the Russian political regime. Its implementation is often associated with the financing of the opposition, the indoctrination of certain “pro-Western” audiences, information warfare, etc. But this is only part of the picture, and not the most important one. All these measures can be considered only as bacilli, which lack the potential to harm a healthy body. The Soviet Union did not collapse because of these factors, although they did exist. It collapsed under the weight of its own problems, their neglect and the subsequent loss of control over them. Washington may proceed from the assumption that the same scenario can work with modern Russia. It is enough not to interfere with the further flourishing of its systemic problems— corruption, dubious management efficiency, and problems with the rule of law. Ardent fighters against “Western meddling” will only help this goal. Like Brezhnev’s cadres, they will clean up the initiative, bureaucratise the system, and further undermine the law for the sake of imaginary security. Supporters of the cleansing of everything and everyone are the best allies of the United States in solving this problem.

3. Economic and technological containment of Russia. This task can be successfully resolved through sanctions and restrictions on trade, investment, finance and technology. However, this is only part of the problem. Even before the big quarrel with the United States and the West in 2014, Russia could not overcome its peripheral economic status, even despite the presence of significant financial resources, access to world capital markets, and other benefits. The situation is more complicated today. The market conditions are much less favourable, and the political risks for foreign economic relations are becoming higher. It is enough for the USA only to gradually warm up the “milk in the boiler”.

All this, of course, does not exclude cooperation or at least interaction on certain issues. Here there are separate spheres: business cooperation, educational projects, and human contacts. The two realities may well coexist. But politics will inevitably return to the three “great coordinates” of Russian-American relations, indicated above. Even if Russia decides to make large concessions on the Donbass or other issues, they are unlikely to change this vector. The anti-Russia narrative is firmly rooted in the United States. This means that any concessions for the sake of a nominal improvement in relations with Washington are unacceptable.

What should Russia do in such a situation?

1. Maintain and develop its defence potential, taking into account the latest global achievements in science and technology. This is a time-consuming and costly task. Many weapons systems do not allow for the resolution of current foreign policy tasks. But they guarantee that at a certain stage, Moscow will not witness the fate of Belgrade in 1999. Russia has the ability to asymmetrically contain the United States, even if the latter is superior.

2. Consistently build a state based on the rule of law, openness of society, and high management efficiency. It will be more difficult to shatter such a state from the outside, no matter how active propaganda, information warfare and intelligence operations are. Cleansing and excessive “verticalisation” will give the illusion of security. But, in reality, they will undermine it.

3. Maintain ties with the global economy, with the understanding that globalisation is shrinking under the influence of political competition from major powers. This means the need to diversify trade ties, and self-reliance in strategic industries.

In any event, these measures are of a purely defensive nature. Are offensive actions possible? Certainly. Moreover, they are unlikely to copy the American tasks. We can hardly beat Washington in absolute terms of power. The American political system has a large margin of safety, foiling attempts to try to undermine it using the same means that the Americans themselves use against their opponents. It will also be difficult for us to build viable global economic alternatives. What remains?

First of all, Russia must play on the trends of changes in modern international relations. Among them are the rise of the PRC, the instability of anti-Chinese coalitions, competition between technological platforms, changes in ideological coordinates and values, etc. Furthermore — to carry out a targeted, but at the same time concentrated impact in the regions and functional areas in which Russia has gained experience and has a foundation for active policymaking. Finally, the attractiveness and competitiveness of the Russian model itself, its value system and the way of life are also important. Solving this problem necessitates that Russia recognise and rediscover its own identity. It will take time, patience and a lot of work, which cannot always be reduced to ceremonial events and PR stunts. But it is Russia’s identity which promises to offer dividends for years and decades to come.

From our partner RIAC

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Relegating the “Russia Problem” to Turkey

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Image credit: Prezident.Az

Turkey’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Its Eurasianist twist is gaining momentum and looking east is becoming a new norm. Expanding its reach into Central Asia, in the hope of forming an alliance of sorts with the Turkic-speaking countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — is beginning to look more realistic. In the north, the north-east, in Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, there is an identifiable geopolitical arc where Turkey is increasingly able to puncture Russia’s underbelly.

Take Azerbaijan’s victory in Second Karabakh War. It is rarely noticed that the military triumph has also transformed the country into a springboard for Turkey’s energy, cultural and geopolitical interests in the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. Just two months after the November ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey signed a new trade deal with Azerbaijan. Turkey also sees benefits from January’s Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan agreement which aims to jointly develop the Dostluk (Friendship) gas field under the Caspian Sea, and it recently hosted a trilateral meeting with the Azerbaijani and Turkmen foreign ministers. The progress around Dostlug removes a significant roadblock on the implementation of the much-touted Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) which would allow gas to flow through the South Caucasus to Europe. Neither Russia nor Iran welcome this — both oppose Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy hub and finding new sources of energy.

Official visits followed. On March 6-9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Defense cooperation, preferential trade deals, and a free trade agreement were discussed in Tashkent. Turkey also resurrected a regional trade agreement during a March 4 virtual meeting of the so-called Economic Cooperation Organization which was formed in 1985 to facilitate trade between Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Though it has been largely moribund, the timing of its re-emergence is important as it is designed to be a piece in the new Turkish jigsaw.

Turkey is slowly trying to build an economic and cultural basis for cooperation based on the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency founded in 1991 and the Turkic Council in 2009. Although Turkey’s economic presence in the region remains overshadowed by China and Russia, there is a potential to exploit. Regional dependence on Russia and China is not always welcome and Central Asian states looking for alternatives to re-balance see Turkey as a good candidate. Furthermore, states such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are also cash-strapped, which increases the potential for Turkish involvement.

There is also another dimension to the eastward push. Turkey increasingly views Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as parts of an emerging geopolitical area that can help it balance Russia’s growing military presence in the Black Sea and in the South Caucasus. With this in mind, Turkey is stepping up its military cooperation not only with Azerbaijan, but also with Georgia and Ukraine. The recent visit of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Turkey highlighted the defense and economic spheres. This builds upon ongoing work of joint drone production, increasing arms trade, and naval cooperation between the two Black Sea states.

The trilateral Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey partnership works in support of Georgia’s push to join NATO. Joint military drills are also taking place involving scenarios of repelling enemy attacks targeting the regional infrastructure.

Even though Turkey and Russia have shown that they are able to cooperate in different theaters, notably in Syria, they nonetheless remain geopolitical competitors with diverging visions. There is an emerging two-pronged strategy Turkey is now pursuing to address what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a geopolitical imbalance. Cooperate with Vladimir Putin where possible, but cooperate with regional powers hostile to Russia where necessary.

There is one final theme for Turkey to exploit. The West knows its limits. The Caspian Sea is too far, while an over-close relationship with Ukraine and Georgia seems too risky. This creates a potential for cooperation between Turkey and the collective West. Delegating the “Russia problem” to Turkey could be beneficial, though it cannot change the balance of power overnight and there will be setbacks down the road.

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The Future of the Arctic

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The harsh ecological conditions of the Arctic in the past have sustained economic activity in the region. Climate change, new technologies and innovations open new perspectives for the development of these territories. The Arctic has turned into one of the hotspots of geopolitics: global and regional players are striving to expand their borders. Watching the Arctic is a complex problem, so the solution can only be secured by integrating the forces of all parties in the Arctic.

It is impossible to discuss the development of the Arctic from the standpoint “whether we are going to exploit it or not”, as the industrial development of the Arctic started about 100 years ago. Today 10 million people live around Arctic, only about 10% of them are indigenous peoples. The main question is how we can make this development responsible and sustainable to ensure all three aspects – economic, social and environmental – in the long term and who should be a stakeholder in this activity.

Scientists from Russia, Norway and Iceland, despite the difficulties and deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, are conducting an active dialogue on the future of the Arctic. They call for enhanced cooperation and joint development of the Arctic for the benefit of humanity, not for geopolitical confrontation, because “Together we are stronger.” Scientists have also called for attracting the capabilities of space satellites to conquer the Arctic and solve various tasks and problems. They hope to strengthen public and private investment in human capital, for better education, to attract more talented people, to create high-paying  jobs for young people, to create and develop smart cities. The Arctic is an excellent opportunity for a clean and green economy, for Industry 4.0 and for the creation of new industries.

As part of the High North Dialogue Arctic 2050: Mapping the future, a panel discussion was held on April 23, 2021. The umbrella theme of all Arctic 2050 presentations: Mapping The Future of the Arctic and exhibitors tried to give their views on development and change in the Arctic over the next few decades from the standpoint of economy, trade and maritime transport, energy, ecology and social trends. During the panel Russian scientists from the Skolkovo School of Management, one of the leading research centers in Russia and their Norwegian colleagues discussed possible scenarios for the development of the Arctic in the next 30 years

Although almost all exhibitors were wary of more accurate predictions given the many factors that potentially determine the course of events in this area, the general impression that could be gained from different presentations is that greater importance is expected in this area in world economic and traffic flows. Development opportunities in mining, energy and maritime transport are great, but there are also great unknowns and potential temptations regarding the mutual rivalry of countries in this area, regulating legal and policy frameworks for the implementation of development policies and finally regarding climate change and risk environment.

The ability to think long-term, and to maintain a balance between all three dimensions, is what is called a ‘sustainable mindset’ and this is exactly what the Arctic needs from leaders now and in the future. A new leadership agenda emerges in each and every sector, reflecting the paradigm shift: policymakers will have to work towards creating an enabling environment, incentivizing more responsible investment in the Arctic, instead of trying to find a balance between economic activity and environmental footprint business needs to turn away from the cost reduction imperative and concentrate on creating innovation in technology and business models that together will make it possible to do business in the Arctic sustainably, which means both at the new level of productivity as well as in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. NGOs must concentrate on facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs aimed at finding a balance of interests, rather than lobbying for limiting policies and challenging business activity in the region.  What is more important, is that, just as with the triple bottom line, these paradigm shifts should be synchronized and synergetic. The sustainable future of the Arctic tarts with the sustainable thinking of the leaders of today.

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Disagreements between States Should Be Resolved in a Peaceful Manner Based on International Law

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has appreciated the role of Pakistan in the peace process of Afghanistan. He said that Russia expects that the meeting of the extended ‘Troika’ will give a necessary impetus to the Intra-Afghan negotiation and active role of Pakistan in the preparation of this event is appreciable.

Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed these views during in an interview and its important points are shared below:

Q1.: Recently, another round of consultations took place in Moscow as part of the extended “Troika” on Afghanistan, which will likely to be followed by a session of talks in Doha. What are the prospects for an intra-Afghan dialogue given that the government of President Ashraf Ghani avoids such negotiations? How will peace and security in South Asia be affected by India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir, its active participation in the “Quad” (USA-India-Japan-Australia) and its dispute over the border areas with China?

Answer: We expect that the meeting of the extended “Troika” of March 18, 2021 will give a necessary impetus to the intra-Afghan negotiations. We note the active role of the Pakistani side in the preparation of this event. Moscow also hosted separate meetings between the Afghan delegation (headed by the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah) and representatives of the Taliban. We consider it important that both sides speak in favour of intensifying the intra-Afghan negotiation process.

As for New Delhi’s participation in the “Quad”, we proceed from the fact that India as a responsible world power determines its foreign policy priorities by itself. At the same time we are convinced that disagreements between states in any region of the world including, of course, South Asia, should be resolved in a peaceful, civilized manner based on international law. Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is ready to assist this in every possible way.

In principle we do not support the creation of divisive geopolitical structures in the spirit of the cold war. In modern conditions there is demand for such multilateral associations, initiatives and concepts which are based on the principles of inclusiveness, collegiality and equality. It is this philosophy that underlies the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Moscow, Islamabad and New Delhi are members, he said.

Russia is interested in building up cooperation with the Pakistani, Indian and other partners in Eurasia. We have common interests, above all, ensuring security and improving the quality of life of the peoples of our countries. A unifying agenda is being promoted by the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to develop Greater Eurasian Partnership. Participation in it is open to all states of the continent, including the members of the EAEU, SCO, ASEAN, as well as, in case there is such interest, the European Union. Systematic implementation of the initiative will not only strengthen positive connectivity and improve the competitiveness of all participants but will also be a solid foundation in building a common continental space of peace and stability, he said.

Q2.: Your comments on the global multilateral response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines. What role could the UN and other multilateral organizations play in resolving conflicts and ensuring the rule of law in relations between states?

Answer: Despite efforts to curb the coronavirus infection, unfortunately, the international community has not fully coped with this dangerous challenge. The current crisis not only reminds of the enduring value of a human life but also shows again that sooner or later most of the problems of our time become common. To tackle them efficiently we need to unite. Therefore from the very beginning we urged our partners to take joint steps. Now it is especially important to suspend trade barriers, illegitimate sanctions and restrictions in the financial, technological and information spheres.

The epidemic has demythologized the idea of superiority of the ultra-liberal model of development. It is obvious that self-sufficient countries with clearly formulated national interests demonstrate greater stress resistance. Those who took the path of ceding their independence, part of national sovereignty to others lost. We regard WHO as the main international platform for coordinating global efforts in the fight against the pandemic. We presume that, on the whole, the Organization is coping with its functions. We will continue to provide multifaceted support to it.

Russia is one of the leaders in the field of global health care. We will continue to contribute to international efforts to combat COVID-19. We will continue to help the affected states both in bilateral formats and within multilateral structures. Our accumulated potential for countering infections allowed us to develop and launch the production of the Sputnik V vaccine in a short space of time. To date two more Russian vaccines against the new coronavirus infection have been registered.

Now the priority is vaccination of the population. Of course, the issue of an equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines is very sensitive, especially for the poorest countries. In this regard we are ready to deliver safe and efficient Russian vaccines on a transparent basis. A lot of work is being done on this track. We have agreements on the supply of our vaccines with more than 50 states. A number of countries have launched the production of Sputnik V.

As for the second part of the question, the subjunctive mood is not entirely appropriate here. Same as 75 years ago, the UN is the “cornerstone” of the international legal architecture and its Security Council bears the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.

Despite the growing challenges, the UN on the whole successfully copes with its responsibilities to resolve conflicts. As an example, I can mention more than ten peacekeeping operations currently deployed in various parts of the world. Even amid the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the Blue Helmets continue to fulfill their duty with dignity.

Russia as a founding member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council advocates strengthening the central role of the Organization in the world affairs. Our constant priority is to contribute to the formation of a more just and democratic, multipolar world order. It should be based on the UN Charter and not on dubious concepts such as the “rules-based order” promoted by Washington and its allies.

Q3.: How close are the views of Russia and Pakistan on the various regional and international issues such as Afghanistan, peace and prosperity in South Asia and the Middle East? What are the plans for the development of trade and economic cooperation between the two countries especially in energy and other sectors as well as in defense?

Answer: Moscow and Islamabad enjoy friendly, constructive relations which are based on the concurrence or similarity of approaches to the majority of topical issues of the international and regional agenda. Among them are the issues of strategic stability and of course Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly the Pakistani partners supported all draft resolutions submitted by Russia and co-sponsored most of them. And, of course, we appreciate the contribution of Islamabad to the advancement of national reconciliation in Afghanistan, including through the mechanism of the extended “Troika” as mentioned above. I would like to note that our states are consistent proponents of settling conflicts including in the Middle East and North Africa solely by political and diplomatic means in compliance with the principles of the UN Charter.

In the area of bilateral relations our priorities are well known. These are, above all, cooperation in combatting terrorism as well as trade and economic ties. We will continue to provide assistance in strengthening the anti-terrorist potential of the Pakistani law enforcement agencies through joint exercises including “Druzhba” (Friendship) and the “Arabian Monsoon”.

In the field of practical cooperation we also have a lot to be proud of. The past year saw a record volume of bilateral trade: it grew by 46% and reached $790 million. We are making necessary efforts to start the construction of the North-South gas pipeline – the flagship project in the energy sector. We hope that all remaining technical issues will be agreed upon in the very near future. Russian companies are ready to participate in the modernization of the energy sector and the railroad system of Pakistan.

From our partner RIAC

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