On May 13th, 2021, Russia published “the list of unfriendly states of the Russian Federation,” which currently consists of two states – the United States of America and the Czech Republic. The following decree was introduced in accordance with the Executive Order of the President of the Russian Federation from April 23rd, 2021, “On measures (countermeasures) in response to unfriendly actions of foreign states” which will remain in force “until the cancellation of the measures (countermeasures) it has established”. According to this document, the following states will be limited in signing any types of contracts “leading to labour relations with individuals on the territory of the Russian Federation.” After it enters in force, the Czech Republic will be able to sign only 19 contracts, and the USA will be completely restricted from signing any of them. Such a choice didn`t surprise anyone taking into account the preceding events. For the last several weeks mass media is watching closely what is happening in Czechia. The whole situation remains unclear, no responsible found, and no exact investigation had been conducted so far. However, the consequences of this accident influenced Russian diplomats who had to leave the country. As for the USA, the situation is clear enough – Russia and the USA haven`t been friends on the international arena for quite a long time.
Long before releasing the final version of the list, the Russian side repeatedly mentioned its plans on creating it. In April 2021, Maria Zakharova, official Spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, mentioned that “the creation is in progress. As we all understand clearly, everything started with another round of unfriendly actions of the USA, <…> so I can confirm that the USA is on the list.” “Unfriendly actions became the reason of taking measures on equalizing conditions in which our diplomatic missions have to work,” – added Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia.
According to the official order, there are only two countries on the list – the USA and Czechia. However, many experts also express opinions that this list can be extended. Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, supports this idea because “what we see in the order is the reflection of the real facts.” Maria Zakharova underlined that this order is a countermeasure on hostile actions of other states: “we have always highlighted completely peaceful character of our foreign policy. But we have also always highlighted that all actions defined by us as “hostile” won`t be left unanswered. And the measures taken now are, indeed, one of such measures.”
The European Union reacted quickly: on May 15th, 2021, it published an official statement that the EU “considers the allegations of unfriendly actions as unfounded” and the order introduced by Russia is “incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961.” In accordance with it, the EU calls on Russia to “review its decision, to avoid a further deterioration of our relationship that is already under strain,” and at the same time expresses full solidarity with the Czechia (the EU Member State), and the USA, who is also on the list.
From the EU perspectives, the situation with the “list of unfriendly states” looks as the act of aggression from Russia who wittingly makes pressure on already tense situation. However, it seems that in such moments the EU intentionally closes eyes on the fact that it keeps introducing various sanctions on Russia for several years now.
Russia perceives this action only as the countermeasures to current political situation. It looks quite logical, remembering the fact that for the last several years it is Russian diplomats who were the target of unfriendly actions of other states. Thus, in 2019-2020 more than ten cases of expelling of Russian diplomats took place, and in 2018 during so-called Skripal`s case more than 25 countries followed Britain and expelled Russian diplomats. Of course, during each case Russia introduced tit-for-tat measures, but at the same time all these cases prove how vulnerable diplomatic workers are. As a result, it is hard to say that Russia groundlessly regards actions of some states as unfriendly, since Russia had reasons for that.
As for claim of incompatibility with the Vienna Convention, the USA has already set the compliance with the Convention`s Articles under the question in 2016 when it arrested the diplomatic property of the Russian Federation. The situation is that since that time and till now (almost five years in total) the Russian side has no access to this property. Russia said that the circumstances of the seizure were the violation of the Vienna Convention and Russia-US bilateral agreements; while the USA claims itself guiltless appealing to the provisions of the same Convention. Despite constant appeals of the Russian side to the UN and the international society, the question on the Russian diplomatic property in the USA is still open and it is unclear when it will be over.
As it is well-known, the opinions of the “powerful ones” and the ordinary citizens don`t always correspond to each other. And since the position of politicians from both sides is now known, it is worth having a look at what ordinary people think about this situation.
Many users of popular Russian media-portal Yandex-Zen robustly reacted on this news: “Finally Russia has woken up – we should know our enemies` faces, and not be shy talking to them the only language they understand – the language of power,” “they live in their propaganda constantly talking about that Russia poisoned Skripal and Navalny, that Russia shot down the plane, etc. Unfortunately, when every TV-channel tells you so, you will start to believe it,” “how the West perceives this list, it`s their problem. What`s important is that we should know our enemies,” “whoever brings the sword will fall by the sword. What they want, so they will get, and they will have to answer for their actions by themselves.” At the same time many net-users were surprised that the final list didn`t contain Baltic States (especially Poland), Japan and etc.: “And where`s Canada?,” “I would add Japan there..,” “Poland and Baltics should be at the first place. Especially Poland,” “Where is Turkey and Israel?”
Reaction of many foreign users can be called “careless”. After the broadcast of Rossiya-1 TV-channel which contained the preliminary version of the list, media-portal Reddit exploded with discussions, which, however, didn`t change much after the final version of the list was released. Some users left quite light-headed and ironical comments like: “What about Romania? This is disappointing… and insulting,” “As a Dutchman, I find this list also deeply offensive,” “Swedes: “Yo! We gotta try harder. We need to be on that list!”” “Georgia is in, hell yeah!” “Proud to be Lithuanian! High five to all countries in this list :)” “I am proud that Poland is on that list 🙂 Although we are guaranteed to be on it,” “As a Czech, I couldn’t be more proud,” “C’mon Canada and Australia. Get your shit together and get back onto that list!” Comments in favor or against of such action, or attempts on trying to understand why Russia did it are in minority.
But what unites all users is just one short “Is that all?” question since everyone understands that this list is just the beginning.
Looking at the situation from several sides, what is the outcome?
Russia started to take more active actions in terms of its foreign policy towards countering actions of other states. If previously Moscow was mostly taking tit-for-tat measures on already made acts, now it is reacting with measures it considers to be important and enough in regard to its political partners. It can be stated that Russia started to react not only on the fact of violation of the state`s rights, but it also started to work on pre-empt. At the same time Russia doesn`t show any unadvisable aggression towards the others. Thus, many people thought that Poland and Ukraine “had to be” on the list. Poland has long been calling itself a victim of the Soviet regime and claiming compensation from Russia for the “years of occupation”. Russia-Ukraine relations worsened because of the Crimea issue and are still at the same level due to situation at Donbass. However, Russia critically evaluates each situation without letting the emotions to have the upper hand, and doesn`t introduce sanctions to every “insult” as its foreign opponents frequently do.
It is worth mentioning one more interesting fact that this list (both preliminary and final versions) has no Asian countries. Of course, some internet-users expressed opinion about including Japan to it, supporting it with the Kuril Islands` issue and still non-signed Peace Treaty from the WWII. Nevertheless, no other Asian country was mentioned neither by government representatives, not by citizens, that once again underlines the fact that Moscow is introducing very rational foreign policy measures without taking thoughtless moves. Asian political direction, that Russia started to follow back in 2000s, still prove itself reliable: for the last years this region hasn`t shown any groundless aggression towards Moscow.
Taking into account that representatives of Russian political elites mentioned possibilities of “expanding” the list and that possible candidates for it are mostly European states, while Asian partners keep enhancing their potential and improve their relations with Russia, it is worth thinking about long-term perspectives of existence of the “list of unfriendly states.” Despite the position of Russia as the re-emerging state, it still has enough capabilities not only to protect its interests but also to demonstrate its power when it is needed.
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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