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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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Russia, Turkey and the new geopolitical reality

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The recent Russia – Turkey summit in Sochi, even though yielding no tangible outcomes (as became clear well before it, the summit would  not result in the signing of any agreements), has evoked a lot of speculation – ranging from assumptions of the “failure” of talks to fairly optimistic forecasts for the future of bilateral relations.

What can be seen as a clear result of the meeting is that the two sides acknowledged readiness for further dialogue. A dialogue is vital also in view of the fact that western countries have been curtailing their military and political presence in the region, which has thus led to the formation of a terrorist state in Afghanistan.

According to Sergei Lavrov, terrorist threat persists and has even been intensifying in Idlib: «Terrorist groups operating from beyond the Idlib de-escalation zone continue to attack the positions of the Syrian army, what’s more, they have been trying to act against the Russian contingent», – the Russian foreign minister told a news conference following talks with his Egyptian counterpart, after the summit in Sochi. A solution to the problem lies, he said, in “complete implementation of the agreements signed by Presidents Putin  and  Erdogan to the effect that terrorists, first of all, from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, should be isolated regardless of whatever new slogans they might come up with and for the purpose of quelling all these terrorist groups”.

As a final agreement on de-escalation in Idlib is expected to be reached, sources report a build-up of Syrian army forces along the Syrian side of the demarcation line, on the one hand, and a concentration of Turkish military groups, on the other (whereas after talks in Sochi the Turkish military started to retreat to the north – A.I.) Opposition representatives have been making aggressive statements again, even though in Sochi, Dmitry Peskov said,  the two sides reiterated their “commitment to earlier agreements, underscored the need to implement  these agreements by clearing Idlib of terrorist groups which  were still there and which could pose a threat and  launch a fierce attack against the Syrian army”.

Turkey keeps accusing Russia of breaching a ceasefire agreement for the northwest of Syria of March 5, 2020, while Russia maintains that Turkey is not acting on its commitments and that it is unable (or unwilling? – A.I.) to separate terrorists from armed opposition. For these mutual accusations the two presidents use politically correct statements, while their discontent over the situation is articulated by foreign ministers, press secretaries and MPs.

In brief, Moscow’s position is as follows: Bashar Assad is a legally elected head of the Syrian Arab Republic, the territorial integrity of which is beyond doubt.  A compromise with Damascus calls for similar steps from the opponents, whereas confrontation in Idlib and in other hot spots across Syria should be the responsibility of countries whose troops are deployed there without the approval of the UN or without invitation from official Damascus. These countries are known – the United States and Turkey.

While Moscow and Ankara are often at odds over the Sunni opposition, their attitudes to Kurdish nationalists are less of a clash. Moscow sees them as “mere” separatists who “have not been lost” for Damascus, while Ankara describes them as terrorists that should be eliminated or neutralized by a buffer zone which Turkey has been building and strengthening for several years.

Some experts and politicians believe that this will last forever. In 1920, the already not quite Ottoman but not yet Turkish Parliament adopted the so-called National Vow, which specified that New Turkey would include Syrian and Iraqi territories, which currently border Turkey. Even though the move failed, the National Vow is still, if only unofficially, seen as a founding ideological document of the Turkish Republic, the implementation of which cements the authority of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Moreover, areas occupied by the Turkish army (which make up more than 10% of the Syrian territory) are used for accommodating Syrian refugees, of which there are over three and a half million in Turkey proper. Turks’ growing discontent over the presence of such “guests” is adding to social instability. A new influx could trigger a public outcry in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.

In all likelihood, Ankara believes that any serious concessions in Idlib will entail the collapse of the entire “buffer zone” project and will invalidate three military operations and the multimillion investments. In addition, it will bring back “the Kurdish issue”, destroy the image of Turkey as a trustworthy ally, and will inflict irreparable damage on the reputation of the incumbent authorities.

Nevertheless, Cumhuriyet observer Mehmet Ali Guller argues that Erdogan suggested readiness to make concessions when he said: «We agree that the time has come to secure a final and lasting solution to the Syrian issue. We announced that we are open for any realistic and fair steps in this direction».

From our point of view, there is nothing about “concessions” in what Erdogan says but what is clear is that he is, if only unwillingly, beginning to accept The Syrian reality. After years of demanding the removal of Bashar Assad, the Turkish leadership no longer issues statements to this effect, though it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the incumbent regime (contacts at intelligence agency level do not count), promising to withdraw troops only after the establishment of “democratic rule” in Syria. But democracy as seen through the Middle East realities is something vague and unclear.

Furthermore, Erdogan is forced to “re-evaluate values” by a growing tension in relations with western allies. The Turkish president, after years of speaking strongly in favor of American presence in Syria, is now calling for the withdrawal of the  American contingent from the country.

A consolidated position of Ankara’s western partners on Russia-Turkey relations was formulated by Die Zeit: during talks with the Russian leader in Sochi Erdogan played the role of a “requestor”, since he “missed a decisive factor – the West”, which he needs as “a critically important partner, which makes it possible for Ankara not to bow to Russia”. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu did not agree to that: «We are a NATO member, on the one hand, but on the other hand, our relations with Russia are progressing…..Why should we make a choice [between them]?».

«It’s no secret that Ankara’s and Moscow’s interests in the region do not  coincide…..[but] The positive responses of the two countries’ leaders on the results of talks in Sochi suggest that Moscow and Ankara are prepared to remove all misunderstandings by dialogue», – Ilyas Kemaloglu, political analyst with Marmara University, says. Haberturk Media Holding observer Cetiner Cetin argues that American troops’ “flight” from Afghanistan and their gradual departure from other regions is creating a new geopolitical reality, which means that “Turkey might continue to distance itself from NATO in order to find itself among top players within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”.

While economic ties between Russia and Turkey are mostly problem-free, the political relations are often an issue. However, every time they meet, Putin and Erdogan manage not only to “quell” conflict, but to make a way for cooperation. The reason is that the two countries, despite their tactical differences, share the strategic goals: diktat of the West is unacceptable, the leading role in the East should belong to regional powers. As long as we share these goals, a Russia-Turkey alliance will be beneficial for both parties.

From our partner International Affairs

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The 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel

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Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey V. Lavrov’s article for the Israeli Newspaper “Yedioth Ahronoth” dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel, October 15, 2021.

On October 18, Russia and Israel celebrate the 30th anniversary of the renewal of full-fledged diplomatic relations – the beginning of a new era of common history.

Turning to the pages of the past, let me recall that the USSR was the first country to recognize de jure the State of Israel back in May 1948. Of course, there were ups and downs in the chronicle of our relationship. Today, it could be assessed with confidence that Russian-Israeli mutually beneficial cooperation has stood the test of time and continues to actively develop in all directions.

Its foundation is formed by an intensive political dialogue, foremost – at the highest level. Inter-parliamentary contacts are progressing, bolstered by Friendship Groups established in the legislative bodies of our countries. Inter-ministerial communications are carried out on a regular basis.

Over the past decades, a solid experience of diversified cooperation has been accumulated in such spheres as economics, science and technology, healthcare and education. More than twenty acting intergovernmental agreements reflect the richness of the bilateral agenda.

Our mutual practical cooperation has significant potential. A number of joint projects are being successfully implemented. Many initiatives have received the support of the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The interest of Israeli business circles in entering the Russian market continues to grow. Despite the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, by the end of 2020 trade between Russia and Israel decreased by only 3.9%, and in January-July this year it increased by 51.8% over the previous year’s period. The key coordinating mission in these common efforts is fulfilled by the Joint Russian-Israeli Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, founded in 1994. We are interested in the early resumption of its work in full.

A special role in strengthening the unifying baselines of our relations as well as ensuring their stability and continuity belongs to humanitarian contacts. We appreciate the high level of mutual understanding between the peoples of Russia and Israel, connected by a common historical memory and convergence of cultures. It is encouraging that this thread, which has no geographic boundaries, is only getting stronger in course of time.

There are millions of Russian-speaking compatriots living in Israel, including descendants both from the former Republics of the USSR and from the Russian Federation. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, survivors of the siege, former prisoners of concentration camps are among them. The fate of these people is of major interest to us.

Most vigorous rejection of the attempts of historical revisionism, combatting the distortion of the genesis, course and generally recognized international legal outcomes of the World War II have always united Russia and Israel. We will continue to coordinate our efforts, and specifically at the UN, to counter this shameful phenomenon.

While in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe Nazi henchmen are being brought to the level of national heroes and neo-Nazi tendencies are being revived, the memory of the decisive contribution of the heroic soldiers of the Red Army to the Victory over Nazism, the saving of Jews and other peoples from extermination, the liberation of the world from the horrors of the Holocaust is sacred in Israel. We see how Israeli colleagues – at the state and public levels – encourage the activities of the veterans and compatriots movements, conduct active work to educate the younger generation.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the law on Celebrating the Victory Day over Nazi Germany on May 9, approved by the Israeli parliament in 2017. It is particularly telling that on the 76th anniversary of the Great Victory, celebrated this year, festive events and commemorative parades along with the Immortal Regiment march were held in more than 45 Israeli cities. Thousands of Israelis of all ages as well as officials participated. This scale speaks for itself.

Cooperation in the field of education and science – whether through student and academic exchanges or joint scientific research continues to move forward. Every year, students from Israel get an opportunity to receive higher education in Russian universities. All of them are sincerely welcome there.

We hope that it will be possible to restore mutual tourist flows as soon as the sanitary and epidemiological situation improves. Russia is traditionally one of the top three countries in terms of the number of visitors to Israel.

The Russian-Israeli dialogue is vigorously advancing through the foreign ministries. It is obvious that without constructive interaction of diplomats it is impossible to solve a number of international and regional problems that are of paramount importance both for ensuring the prosperous future of the peoples of Russia and Israel just as for strengthening international and regional security and stability. From this perspective, diversified contacts between the Security Councils and the defense ministries of our countries have also proven themselves well. On a regular basis it allows us to compare approaches and take into account each other’s legitimate interests.

Russia is pursuing an independent multi-vector foreign policy, contemplating pragmatism, the search for compromises and the observance of balances of interests. Creation of the most favorable external conditions for our internal socio-economic development remains its backbone. We have no ideological likes and dislikes, or any taboos in relations with our foreign partners, therefore we can play an active role in the international arena and specifically through mediation in the settlement of conflicts.

We are interested in continuing consultations with our Israeli partners on security and stability issues in the Middle East. We always draw attention to the fact that comprehensive solutions to the problems of the region must necessarily take into account the security interests of Israel. This is a matter of principle.

At the same time, we are convinced that there is no alternative to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a generally recognized international legal basis. We strongly support direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A comprehensive solution to all issues of the final status is possible only through it. We are ready to work with Israeli colleagues, including multilateral formats, primarily in the context of the renewal of work of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators in close cooperation with representatives of the Arab League.

I am convinced: it is in the common interest to maintain the momentum. Ahead of us are new milestones and additional opportunities not only to continue, but also to enrich the positive experience of multifaceted cooperation for the benefit of our states and peoples, in the interests of peace and stability.

Source: Minister of Foreign Affairs

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The Emerging “Eastern Axis” and the Future of JCPOA

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Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said that Tehran would further strengthen its ties with Moscow via a strategic partnership. Said Khatibzadeh  ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded’

    This agreement will be similar in nature to the agreement signed by Iran with China in March 2021, dubbed as the strategic cooperation pact, which sought to enhance economic and strategic relations (China would invest 400 Billion USD in infrastructure and oil and gas sector while also strengthening security ties). Commenting on the same, Khatibzadeh also said that an ‘Eastern axis’ is emerging between Russia, Iran and China.

    Closer ties with Russia are important from an economic, strategic point of view, and also to reduce Iran’s dependence upon China (many including Iran’s Foreign Minister had been critical of the 25 year agreement saying that it lacked transparency). Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the eve of his Russia visit from October 5-6th, 2021 also stated that Iran while strengthening ties would not want to be excessively dependent upon either country.

Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Russia

    Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian  during his Russia visit  discussed a host of issues with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov including the current situation in Afghanistan, South Caucasus, Syria and the resumption of the Vienna negotiations.

Russia and Iran have been working closely on Afghanistan (on October 20, 2021 Russia is hosting talks involving China, India, Iran and Pakistan with the Taliban).

It is also important to bear in mind, that both Russia and Iran have flagged the non-inclusive nature of the Taliban Interim government. Russia has in fact categorically stated that recognition of Taliban was not on the table. Said the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly,   ‘the whole gamut of Afghan society — ethno-religious and political forces — so we are engaging in contacts, they are ongoing.’

China’s approach vis-à-vis Afghanistan

Here it would be pertinent to point out, that China’s stance vis-à-vis Afghanistan is not identical to that of Moscow and Tehran. Beijing while putting forward its concerns vis-à-vis the use of Afghan territory for terrorism and support to Uyghur separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has repeatedly said that there should be no external interference, and that Afghanistan should be allowed to decide its future course. China has also spoken in favor of removal of sanctions against the Taliban, and also freeing the reserves of the Afghan Central Bank (estimated at well over 9 Billion USD), which had been frozen by the US after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

If one were to look at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal, Russia has been urging Iran to get back to the Vienna negotiations on the one hand (these negotiations have been on hold since June), while also asking the US to return to its commitments, it had made under the JCPOA, and also put an end to restriction on Iran and its trading partners.

Conversation between US Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister

The important role of Russia is reiterated by the conversation between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Russian Foreign Minister. Angela Merkel during her visit to Israel also made an important point that both China and Russia had an important role to play as far as getting Iran back on JCPOA is concerned. What is also interesting is that US has provided a waiver to the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia and Germany. The US has opposed the project, but the Department of State said waiving these sanctions was in US national interest. Both Germany and Russia welcomed this decision.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia may have moved closer to China in recent years, its stance on Afghanistan as well as it’s important role in the context of resumption of Vienna negotiations highlight the fact that Moscow is not keen to play second fiddle to Beijing. The Biden Administration in spite of its differences has been engaging closely with Moscow (a number of US analysts have been arguing for Washington to adopt a pragmatic approach vis-à-vis Russia and to avoid hyphenating Moscow with Beijing).  In the given geopolitical landscape, Washington would not be particularly averse to Tehran moving closer to Russia. While the Iranian spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh spoke about a Eastern axis emerging between Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, it would be pertinent to point out, that there are differences on a number of issues between Moscow and Beijing. The Russia-Iran relationship as well as US engagement with Russia on a number of important geopolitical issues underscores the pitfalls of viewing geopolitics from simplistic binaries.

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