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The Fall of Kabul and the Balance of Power in Greater Eurasia

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The uniqueness of historical events is determined by the conditions in which they occur. States always act in the same way — what changes is the conditions that force them to act in one way or another, but, most importantly, any change in context leads to fundamentally different consequences of similar events. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989 became possible precisely on the eve of truly global political changes — the end of the Cold War as a result of the de facto defeat of the USSR and its subsequent collapse.

Likewise, the disastrous end of 20 years’ of the US and allies’ presence in Afghanistan is of fundamental importance not in itself, but in the context of a changing global balance of power and a general reduction in the ability of Western countries to play a decisive role in international politics and the world economy. What matters is not the fact of another defeat of the United States — there have been and will be many victories and failures in the military history of this power, but in what circumstances this happens. Now the events in Afghanistan are unfolding amid the growth of the Chinese power and, at the same time, the ability of Moscow and Beijing to coordinate their actions on the most important issues for the state of affairs in Eurasia.

The effects of important events equally depend on the circumstances — short-term or strategic ones. The coming to power of a radical religious movement in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s prompted an attempt by the United States to consolidate its ability to determine the development of world politics. Then any actions of the Taliban on the sovereign territory of Afghanistan became a legitimate reason for international attention and, most often, condemnation. The military intervention of Western countries in Afghanistan received almost the same support as the international operation to liberate Kuwait in 1991.

In the longer term, the establishment in 1996 of a radical regime in Kabul created conditions for the expansion of the presence of the United States and states close to it in central Eurasia. The vulnerability of the Central Asian countries to influence from Washington has significantly increased. But also in Tashkent or Astana there were own efforts to balance Russian and growing Chinese influence in the region with reliance on the West. Until 2014, the United States maintained a direct military presence in the region in the form of bases and logistics centres where the American military was stationed.

But in 2021, the return of the Taliban to Kabul, following the sudden fall of the republican government of Ashraf Ghani, will have very different consequences. First of all, it leads to the further strengthening of China, to better conditions for Russia and a weakening of the West in its fierce competition with Moscow and Beijing. What the Taliban are doing or can do inside the country is not a reason for the general denial of their right to exist. The international context has changed, including in terms of the value dimension of politics and its role in making the most important decisions. Strategically, the return of the radicals to power could lead to the stabilisation of the region, a significant decrease in the United States’ ability to influence its countries and the relative isolation of India, as the country that most closely connects its future with the West.

We do not know if peace in Afghanistan becomes a reality. However, right now, for the first time in the past 40 years, internal political stabilisation in this country has the most solid foundation. First, it is a military victory for a relatively consolidated political movement with a unified leadership and control system. Second, the agreement of the leading regional powers like Russia and China that the Taliban movement should be given a chance to show prudent behaviour inside and outside. For China, this is cooperation in the implementation of major economic projects and refusal to support those religious groups that pose a threat to the security on the Chinese territory. For Russia, this means the absence of aggressive intentions towards the countries of Central Asia. To independently ensure its security, Moscow cannot have complete confidence, as well as a reduction in the flow of drugs coming from Afghanistan.

We have reason to expect that the stabilisation of the military situation in Afghanistan will lead to a revitalisation of Chinese efforts to rebuild the country economically. In the event that expectations become reality, and the United States and the European Union do not find opportunities to make Afghanistan back to the chaotic state of “war of all against all”, it can be expected that the “arc of instability” that girdles Eurasia will be broken. This will be an important geostrategic change in the region, which since the second half of the 19th century has been a field of rivalry between mainland Russia and the Anglo-Saxon powers — first Britain and later the United States.

But what is happening and will continue to happen in Afghanistan may have more varied consequences. With a high degree of probability, it will strengthen the position of Pakistan, which already closely cooperates with China and relies on its economic opportunities. India will feel more insecure — this country already estimates the fall of the republican government in Kabul as a serious blow to its strategic interests. It is likely that the US and its allies’ attempts to establish a dialogue with Iran will become more active — despite the fact that the current regime in this country is not friendly to the West, the internal situation there may be susceptible to external influence.

For Russia, it matters how the reduced US presence in Eurasia affects Turkey’s position. While this country is trying to behave confidently, it is still closely tied to the United States and Europe economically. In the event of strengthening Sino-Russian control over the space of their common neighbourhood, Ankara may have to restore relations with its NATO allies. Also, one cannot exclude Turkey’s chaotic attempts to restore relations with the countries of Central Asia that are close in language, which will also require some Russian attention.

In general, for Russia, the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan means not only a decrease in the capabilities of the main opponent in international affairs, but also a general change in the strategic situation. In particular, we cannot now exclude the possibility that under the new conditions Russia’s policy towards the countries of Central Asia may change.

Most of them are in one way or another connected with Russia by allied relations, but bilateral cooperation does not always develop smoothly. After the United States has lost an important part of the resources to interfere in the regional affairs, Moscow may even face increasing responsibility for its internal stability.

But the United States itself will be looking for ways to return to the central part of Eurasia in one form or another. The defeat in Afghanistan did not have a serious impact on the military and economic capabilities of this power. After the initial shock wears off, we must be prepared for a new round of regional clout. Now, in this struggle, the objective interests of China are on the side of Russia, and this greatly facilitates the situation in comparison with all previous episodes.

The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, was an important historical event because it meant the actual end of the US attempts to exert a determining influence on international politics. Such efforts will continue, albeit under new ideological slogans, and the United States has long since abandoned attempts to create a truly holistic order under its leadership. In fact, we are dealing with yet another change in the dynamic balance of power that is now defining the nature of international relations. And, as in any case, this change brings new opportunities and new questions for Russia, which will need to answer in the very near future.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member

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Is War Inevitable?

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Over the past days and weeks, media outlets have been proliferating all kinds of apocalyptic predictions and scenarios on the immediate prospects of the Ukrainian crisis. Journalists, experts, and politicians claim—with all seriousness—that a Russian-Ukrainian war can hardly be thwarted, not to mention article that seek to explore a purported coup in Kiev, the crushing response of the West, or even the looming nuclear conflict of global dimensions.

We shall try to find an answer to a number of interwoven questions, which might arise in the minds of those who face this wave of dire prophecies and predictions. Why has this information attack been unleashed? Who is behind this and who is deriving profit from it? What is really going on and what could happen to the Ukrainian issue in the near future?

Starting off with Moscow’s plans and intentions. Anyone who is slightly familiar with the structure of power in Russia knows well that it is few people who are especially close to the power circles that are aware of the true plans and the motives of the Russian authorities. As a rule, these people tend to avoid showing up in the media. Strong statements are usually made by those tasked by their superiors to attract a lot of exposure or by those who act at their own discretion to be noticed and appreciated by their top management. Obviously, none of these talking heads are privy to any of the Kremlin’s plans, which means they are simply working out their tasks at a higher or lower professional level. Regrettably, being baseless and of no practical value, the campaign—launched by such ‘concerned’ people about the allegedly impending war in Ukraine—invariably affects the public sentiment in our country, causing either panic or warmongering. This bellicose campaign, coupled with its dire consequences, has the potential to seriously demoralize and traumatize Russian society. Time will tell what repercussions this may bring about; still, nothing good can obviously be expected from this wave of hysteria.

It can be assumed that some in Russia need another anti-Ukrainian campaign to deflect attention from the country’s severe socio-economic and political problems, to raise the population’s patriotic spirit, or to unite the country. If one thinks so, one is likely to be seriously disappointed over time. The very idea of war against Ukraine or in Ukraine is insufficient for a new national idea; it is not even close to a platform on which Russian society could be consolidated.

Now let’s take a look at this problem from Ukraine’s perspective. We have to admit that there are many in the country who are interested in stirring up information hysteria around the relations with Russia, and for various reasons. They assume that playing the role of an innocent victim of the bloodthirsty Russia can only bring benefits to Ukraine.

First, they believe that this way it would be easier to implement a plan in order to shape a new national identity. Second, the West might be willing to turn a blind eye to Ukraine’s domestic scandals, corruption cases and other issues. Third, one can count on increased economic and military aid by playing the victim. Fourth, numerous clumsy actions of Russian propaganda only serve to strengthen anti-Russian sentiments across Ukraine. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Kiev will go on with doing everything it can to heat up tensions in the media environment.

The campaign around Russia’s alleged imminent aggression in Ukraine is also good for Washington and its Euro-Atlantic allies. It provides a distraction from their own domestic problems, allowing for cohesion within the archaic NATO and diverting attention from the ignominious flight of the Western troops from Afghanistan. By focusing on what is going on around Ukraine, the White House is trying to counter the Europe-wide perceptions that the Atlantic string of U.S. foreign policy is finally receding into the background of U.S. priorities, giving way to the Indo-Pacific, which is more important to Washington.

Long story short, everyone is minding their own business, spinning a propaganda war around Ukraine.

Are there any forces that might actually be interested in a full-blown rather than a propaganda war in Ukraine? The situation looks different here. If one puts aside the opinions of fierce fanatics and professional instigators, it turns out that no one needs an actual war with the use of modern weapons, countless casualties and immense destruction. Everyone would lose from such a war, be it Russia, the West, or Ukraine. This would entail such political, military, and economic costs for everyone that it would not be easy to recover for decades, not merely years. The repercussions of a major war at the center of Europe would be no less lasting than the ramifications triggered by the Chernobyl disaster, which have persisted for almost forty years. Who would be willing to take such a risk?

We allow ourselves to draw a relevant, if not too original, conclusion, leaving all the forecasts and scenarios of a military conflict at the heart of Europe to the conscience of numerous slacktivists. The only decent way out of the current situation is for all sides to immediately meet at the negotiating table on mutual security guarantees. Russia, the United States, and NATO have all presented their proposals on this matter. The positions of the parties are known. Now we must come to agreement.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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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.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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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

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