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Vladimir Putin’s Aggression Against Ukraine has thrown China’s Policy in a Geo-political Quagmire

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, image by the Presidential Press and Information Office, the Kremlin

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Authors: Stephen Nagy and Phar Kim Beng, PhD*

Wielded by diplomatic practitioners to close the scholars’ gap with the rest. foreign policy is the manifestation between foreign policy theory and the practice.

In the 1970s, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, who co-authored the book “Complex Interdependence.”  They argued that inter-state conflict would be increasingly unlikely in future as international trade concurrently becomes more vulnerable and sensitive than ever to supply chain disruption. 

This has not been the case of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and by extension China.

In hindsight, they could have added sanctions or the removal from the SWIFT banking system in their analysis after accounts, which was the observing the surprise reaction speed, cohesiveness and coordinated of the US and EU SWIFT sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. 

Unexpectedly, more than 400 even hundreds of private companies have unilaterally withdrawn their operations from Russia, in order to insulate themselves from being morally criticized and implicated in the world’s largest sanctions ever. 

The Russian-interruptus by corporates also speak to the cost and benefit analysis and hypocrisy of remaining in Russia during a time of war when other states such as China have also engaged in egregious behaviour domestically and abroad.  

Looking back, sanctions were not the foreign economic statecraft of choice in the past.

Nevertheless, much has since changed between 1970s and the current era. In the past, sanctions were used against Saddam Hussein and his generals in Iraq.  

They were approved by the UN Security Council, to prevent the country from misbehaving with total abandon, such as attacking Kuwait in August 1990. 

David Kortright at the Kroc Institute of Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame as well as scholars such as well as Meghan O Sullivan, at Brookings Institution, had both referred to “Smart,” and “Shrewd,” Sanctions respectively in the late 1990s. 

This is precisely what the US and EU deployment did. Indeed, since the onset of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine on February 24 2022, the Swift system to remit funds into Russia has been suspended.

Be that as it, the reality of Putin’s strategic miscalculation is becoming clearer and clearer by the day. 

With partial successes and many unexpected failures, it has becoming abundantly clear that Putin blundered into a prolonged insurgent quagmire bolstered by much of the world and strategic defeat.

With 144 million Russians to appease and another 44 million Ukraine to control, not to mention the global narrative that Putin has largely lost, he has brought to life what veteran Russian specialist Robert Sullins at St Anthony’s College at University of Oxford averred thar “While Putin may win the war, he cannot win the peace.” 

His one saving grace may be China. This is where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Putin’s comrade in arms Xi Jinping are up against an American-led “international order”; is still titling towards Putin to the extent that it has even contradicted Beijing’s longstanding Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

 These principles include mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s nuanced support for Putin’s position, could not make any head ways, granted that Putin’s choice of assault platforms was a combination of tanks, heavy artillery and armed personnel, these are military logistics that have to be refueled, replenished (with more ammunition) by railway or roads, and the soldiers fed. It is clear that Putin has blundered into a colossal strategic defeat. 

With 164 million Russians to appease, and another 44 million Ukrainians to control, not to mention that Putin has completely lost his strategic plot across the world, including China’s.

The domestic audience in China is not monolithic. When it comes to the invasion, there are parallels in China history. 

Some have likened it, to the Manchurian invasion of 1931 against China. The latter reminds some Chinese of the Imperial Japanese aggression against Manchuria.

Other scholars such as Hu Wei, the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counsellor’s Office of the State Council of Chine, have even argued called the severance of any ties with Russia lest China is guilty by association. 

Hu has asked for the “Cutting off the relationship with Russia so that China can be the sacred cow to prevent any irredentist behavior, in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet.”

But Putin is the same person who talked about peace, through the intermediary of President Emmanuel Macron, only to invade Ukraine. 

Since President Macron has won his presidential election this June 2022, all global leaders would know that any proximity to Putin is now and forever, politically toxic. France’s reputation as a member of G 7 could immediately be in the dumps.

As the Vice Chairman of Standards and Poor’s Daniel Yergin said : “Putin has destroyed 22 years of his own legacy.”

Even during the last year of Stalin’s life in 1955, Vincent Bevin, a reporter at Washington Post wrote “Stalin was constantly visited by members of his Politburo in his Dacha in Georgia.”

This does not seem to be the case judging from his many TV appearances where he is seated 50 to 100 feet away.

The Mere bombardment from the North, South and East of Europe’s “most arable land,” also known as the continent’s biggest  “bread basket of Europe,” except Kherson, Russian troops have done poorly in its inability to control Kviv, Odessa, Khakiv, or, the port city of Mahiupol.

As things stand, the Russian economy is losing USD 20 billion a day, even though the gains in the price of oil per barrel has hovered between USD 100-130 over the recent month to allow Russian Central Bank to accumulate close to USD 670 billion. 

This figure has been the highest financial water mark of the Russian Central Bank since 2015, when the Russian economy began experiencing an inflation of 20 per cent. 

This was; at a time when crude oil per barrel was being traded internationally at USD 40-50 permanently too. But with the price that has beached USD 100 per barrel, Russia can weaponized this policy instrument further. 

The inflation was also due to some sanctions on Russia for occupying Crimea in 2008, which belongs to Ukraine.

Be that as it may, the Russian Central Bank cannot make full use of the reserves. They are frozen by the US.

It can only assuage the confidence of the world that the Russian currency ie. Ruble is still of value.

It fell 14 per cent as of March 21 2022, not 37 per cent when the war had suddenly begun on February 24 2022.

Although the oil and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Russia to member states of EU and US have been spared from the sanctions, to prevent a spike in their own inflation caused by the disruptions of pandemic of Covid- 19.

To be sure, the likes of Lawrence Summers, the former Chief Economist of former President Bill Clinton, has explained to Fareed Zakaria over CNN last week, “This aggression must not stand. As a nation, we have to pay a price for our freedom. What we will pay is nothing compared to what the Ukrainians are suffering. I am an economist. But I am a political economist.” 

To which Fareed Zakaria agreed, only to be even more hawkish:

“Sanctions can only have limited effected if the oil and gas of Russia are not targeted. The US is the biggest producer of shale. Our economy only needs 10 per cent of what Russia’s energy sector had produced.” 

The US allies across the Atlantic may be more vulnerable, especially Germany and Italy where their energy imports are higher at 45 and 55 per cent respectively. 

But the world has more than one supplier too. These countries can weather this if their oil reserves stockpile is released and increased.

At any rate, despite Lawrence Summers and Fareed Zakaria’s view, one still cannot answer the ease with which Russia and Belorussia attacked Ukraine granted what Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye had argued in 1970s.

With up to 45 and 55 per cent of Israel’s wheat and oat reliant on Ukraine being conflict-free, it is no surprise that Israel has taken the lead in brokering for peace. 

In fact, wheat, oat and cereals may not be the staple diet of Asians, such as China, Japan, South Korea and the rest of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but they can be turned into animal feed for poultry and other livestock. 

As and when the prices of these staple food increases, so would the rate of their inflation. However, in the developing economies of the Indo-Pacific-Asia region, which is not the one region affected by the US and EU alone, the effects could spread.

If one were to use Egypt as an example of the Middle East and North America, not excluding Israel and Turkey, the pictures are just as gloomy.

In Egypt, for instance, the interest rate of the Central Bank has been raised on March 21 from 6 to 9 per cent, to prevent the devaluation of the Egyptian Pound because President Mohammad El Sissi understood the dynamics of inflation way too well

Inflation is caused by too much money chasing over too few goods. Thus, if interest rates are not raised, the cost of borrowing would be cheap. Leading to more liquidity in the system to curtail its Egyptian pound in circulation.

Similarly, since Turkey has relied on Russian tourism to enhance its economy over the last twenty years, it is not to the benefit of Turkey to see this was impoverishing both Russia and Ukraine. 

In the case of the latter, by the second week of the Russian onslaught, its GDP had been halved by USD 100 billion.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has agreed to diplomatic solution from the very start. 

But he added: “I am for any diplomatic solutions. But I don’t believe they will work. Let not the citizens of Ukraine believe that I have not tried.”

Although President Biden has requested another 33 billion, on top of approved another USD 1 billion on March 18 2022, and USD 800 million in March 2021, US disallowed these spendings earmarked for anti- tank arm to shoulder missiles such as Stingers and anti- land and aerial based assaults such as Javelins. With the remaining USD 200 focused on humanitarian assistance.

Here one comes to the thesis of John Mueller author of who wrote “The Obsolescence of War” in the mid- 1990s.

The latter argued that as the international community goes into the future, the shame attached to war, would lead it to be rendered obsolete; not unlike the twin social institutions of slavery and dueling at one stage in the 19th century. 

By the 20th century, these two institutions were banned domestically and internationally. 

Yet, once again, the discipline of international relations could not explain the puzzle of Putin’s action, especially a Judo black belt holder at that. 

Judo is a martial art that believes in using one’s stamina, the weakness of the other person’s position, and will, to over throw the victim, without inflicting life threatening injuries or permanent disabilities, let alone death. 

The latest projection of the UN affirmed that if the war is prolonged and escalated by Russia, the number of internally displaced refugees in Ukraine in the coming weeks would reach 11 million interim million people.

Meanwhile, another 7 million wad refugees had sought their safe shelter in Poland.

The fact is, while Professor John Mearsheimer, faulted the West for allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to expand eastward, he has been known to argue that the “best way to wreck Russia is to let it invade Ukraine and be trapped there,” to which he added, “I think President Putin is too smart for that.”

Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine is grotesque:

Apparently, intelligence has nothing to do with this war, since Putin could have easily weakened Joe Biden by not attacking Ukraine at all, leading him to be seen globally as the “President of the US,” who cried wolf. 

The Democratic Party’s foreign policy credentials would have been significantly damaged in face of the November 2022 Congressional and Senate Election, since global issue such as the rise of China has been entwined with US domestic politics across both sides of the aisles. 

Using the same strategy, what more for the 2024 Presidential election, Putin could indeed boost Trump’s chance of re- election too, as in the recent election in 2020, 

Trump received 72 million votes in total. That is 9 million votes higher than his prior presidential attempt.

The only one person who has praised him as a “genius,” with the evangelicals being oddly sympathetic to Putin given Putin’s anti LGBT stance.

John Lewis Gaddis, in an interview with a major Indian newspaper online, argued that President Putin has committed a serious strategic blunder, where the personal consequences to him are “”much more severe and messy,”” since the palace coup against him could potentially come from Russian intelligence agency (FSB).

On intelligence gathering, for example, President Xi has relied his understanding of the situation in Ukraine on what the Chinese United Front intelligence agency has been feeding him, when in fact China learned everything on Ukraine based on what FSB has proved with it.

Thus, when 6500 Chinese students and workers were trapped in various cities in Ukraine, none could be flown home. Buses had to be chartered to get them to Poland, only then from Warsaw back to China safely.

Such a slow gathering of intelligence abroad does not bode well for China’s intelligence gathering in foreign lands without substantial overseas Chinese who have formed their fifth column. 

But as the scholarship of Professor Terence Gomez, formerly at University of Malaya, pointed out, the idea of a “”Bamboo Network,”” is flawed and antiquated.

Overseas Chinese may be interested in trading with China. But it does not mean they are disloyal to the countries of their birth. 

In fact, the theory of the fifth column resulted in the death of millions of people all over Southeast Asia especially Indonesia. 

If these professionals, merchants, laity, or, what Professor Wang Gung Wu called “Hua Yi Chinese tribes/ 華夷,” are systematically discriminated, driven away, or, worse, decimated, who would hold up the private pillars of their political economy both domestically and internationally? 

China’s response to Russia’s invasion exemplifies David Shambaugh’s thesis of “China as a Global Partial Power.” 

In the view of Shambaugh, a prominent Sinologist in George Washington University, China’s lack of comprehensive depth in all dimensions of powers, that is except economic power where it is strongest in terms of its exports, may explain its contradictory position with Russia.

While China seeks to engage with the West economically, to make the most gains of it, Beijing has had to enlist Russia as a military ally.

At the same time, Beijing’s contorted diplomatic position on the invasion of Ukraine embodies Edward N. Luttwak notion of great power autism in his 2012 book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy. 

He argued that in history “China was isolated from peer states, and its foreign policy limited the receipt of tribute from smaller states and the management of barbarians, leaving current Chinese leaders less capable of navigating the modern Westphalian international system.”

These perspectives speak to the diplomatic impotence that have been demonstrated in the face of a critical juncture in international relations.

The world is now witnessing a return of great power competition, and the fragmentation of globalisation. 

China’s promotion of globalization, where it seeks to promote more of its goods and services is being eroded, as the US and European Union have become increasingly wary of the bond of China and Russia.

This is too be expected. China has done quite well   in Cambodia, Pakistan and a few other states but even there, states want more options than just China which speaks to Beijing’s poor acumen in shaping global events.

To be fair, during the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) it was distracted at home and with Maoism’s ideas that become extreme during The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution between 1955-1960 and 1962-1976 respectively, China was wracked by extreme poverty. 

As things stand, while 600 million people had been redeemed from poverty, the goal of President Xi Jinping is to eradicate poverty by 2049, the 150th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party’s victory over the Kuomintang.

Thus, China’s ability to throw its geopolitical weight around has been established since 2012 when it possessed more resources to be influential across various regions of the world. 

However, by supporting Russia through the “Cooperation Without Limitation,” on February 4 2022, China now stands accused of being complicit to President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This has cost China to lose significant soft power both within the country and without. They still don’t have the acumen, experience, and appeal to tell the “China Dream” well.

*Dr Phar Kim Beng is founder and CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena . He is a regular featured writer for The Jakarta Post and was the former Director of Political and Security Community in ASEAN Secretariat, a former visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA, 1999), and an Associate Fellow of Edx. Org, an online learning platform pioneered jointly by Harvard University and MIT since 2016.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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The Moscow–Tehran Axis: Alliance without Rigid Obligations

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Image source: kremlin.ru

Russia and Iran are finding ever more points of convergence in their foreign policies and across the domain of economic cooperation. It is no coincidence that a record number of high-level visits between the two countries have taken place this year, the most recent being Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran to take part in the Syria summit of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Fostering relations with Iran, along with the continued functioning of the Astana Process, demonstrate Moscow’s increasing use of pragmatism in its foreign policy: any non-Western power is a welcomed partner, even if there are contradictions and inconsistencies in its relations with Russia.

Biden in the Background

The Astana summit and Putin’s visit to Tehran came immediately after U.S. President Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East. Despite numerous commentators suggesting that the Russian leader’s visit to Iran was a “response” to the initiative of the American president, there is no real substance to this argument. What Biden’s trip does do is place the trilateral meeting in the Iranian capital into a wider context.

The Middle East is one of those regions where the presence of the United States and Russia matters, although the dynamics of their engagement are diametrically opposed to one another. While Washington is gradually pulling out of the region that holds less and less allure for the White House, Moscow is doing exact the opposite, being increasingly pulled into the processes unfolding in the Middle East.

The basic approaches of the two sides differ as well. The United States has become accustomed to finding allies in the region so that they can become conductors of its policy, while at the same time looking for key troublemakers that it can try to contain and isolate. Russia, on the other hand, does not have friends or enemies in the region. Over the past decade, Moscow has been trying to act as a universal mediator, maintaining relations with all the key forces in the Middle East.

Against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, the United States has set about trying to turn Russia into an international pariah. Moscow sees the Middle East as a possible route to circumventing the sanctions, even if partially, so it is only logical that Washington would seek to isolate Russia in the region. This is proving somewhat difficult, however, even with its impressive list of allied states and the lukewarm reaction of Middle Eastern countries to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. For one thing, no one in the Middle East wants to be faced with a choice between Moscow and Washington. In the Middle East, Russia remains a player to be reckoned with, and its interests coincide with those of almost all the countries in the region—including Washington’s partners—on a whole range of issues.

Take Turkey, for example, a NATO member who has serious disagreements with Russia over Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus. Worse still, Ankara has openly criticized Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, lending active support to Kiev by supplying hi-tech weapons. At the same time, Turkey, much as Russia, does not hide its annoyance at the U.S.-established order in the regions adjacent to its territory, notably the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Let’s not forget Russia–Iran trade relations as trade turnover between the two amounted to some $33 billion in 2021 and the bilateral trade is expected to reach even greater heights by year-end 2022. Given this, Ankara will clearly want to continue dialogue with Moscow, both with regard to Syria and on other issues.

A somewhat similar situation has been the case for the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Not a single one of these has joined the Western sanctions against Russia, and the United Arab Emirates is turning into something of a hub for Russian capital. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made it clear that his country places its agreements with OPEC+, where Russia is a key player, above U.S. interests, and Joe Biden’s visit did nothing to change this.

Outside the Persian Gulf, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has also refused to pursue a policy to isolate Moscow. Cairo has been one of the biggest importers of Russian weapons in recent years. And, like the United Arab Emirates, the country is also cooperating with Russia on Libya. Finally, there is another important U.S. partner, namely, Israel. Despite some friction with Moscow, Tel Aviv is still willing to cooperate with Russia to sustain its policy of containing the Iranian threat in Syria. In other words, all these players have more than enough reason to turn their backs on the binary approach that Washington imposes on them, where they are forced to choose between the United States and Russia.

The Astana Model

It would be quite a mistake to dub Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East a complete failure. He got some wins here and there, such as the Saudi decision to open flights to and from Israel. Besides, it is unlikely that the U.S. was harboring any real hopes to reverse the regional alignment, including the attitudes towards Russia, all in a single trip. What is telling here is the situation as such. The events in Ukraine were indeed a turning point in relations between Moscow and the West—however, the Middle East did not undergo any major changes until February 24, 2022, and later.

Today, the situation in the region is much different to the Cold War-style polarization that analysts bring up so frequently. The Middle East of 2022 is a complex combination of multi-vector approaches of various countries. All this is not so much a reflection of Washington’s weakness as it is an illustration of the fact that Russia continues to be an important and legitimate player for Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.

It is this difficult political climate that gave rise to the Astana format, a platform where the parties with different approaches—and even waging a proxy war against each other—can come to the negotiating table as partners who resolve issues. True, this format may only have worked in relation to the Syrian dossier in years gone by, but the most recent summit took the paradoxical relations between the countries to a new level. Turkish drones carry out targeted attacks on the Russian Army, which in turn shoots them down. But this did not prevent Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan from sitting at the same table and having a constructive conversation at the meeting in Tehran. Moreover, one of the main topics on the summit’s side-lines did not even have anything to do with the region, and that was finding a solution to the issue of exporting grain through the Black Sea.

This has nothing to do with banal hypocrisy on the part of sides with opposing interests. The participants in the Astana summit were not hiding behind smiles, sticking their middle finger up at each other from inside their pockets… no, they held a constructive dialogue. The grain issue was eventually resolved thanks to the negotiations between Turkey and Russia, and the summit in Tehran was largely responsible for getting the two together in the first place.

The Astana summit is swiftly turning into a model that reflects the basic principles of Russia’s foreign policy. What this model essentially boils down to is political realism in its purest form, where everyone is invited to cooperate, regardless of accumulated problems and disagreements, assuming the sides have overlapping interests.

And the invitation has effectively been extended to the West: despite the proxy conflict waged between Europe and Russia on the Ukrainian soil and despite the economic war in the form of sanctions, Moscow is nevertheless prepared to sell oil and gas to Europe. “Gazprom has always fulfilled and will continue to fulfil its obligations in full. If that’s what European countries want, of course, as they are the ones closing the pipes,” Vladimir Putin noted calmly at a press conference following the Tehran summit.

At the same time, the Astana format stands at odds with the traditional integration models of the West, which believes similar values to be a prerequisite for alliances. Certainly, the Americans do not always follow this approach. Still, even those relationships where common values typically play little if any role—such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia—become bogged down by human rights issues (in this case, Biden’s condemnation of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). In the present situation, we see that the Astana model of radical realism allows Russia, in such a difficult situation, to pursue dialogue with all players in the Middle East, while the United States is facing problems talking to its traditional allies.

Engaging Iran

With the relations with the West collapsed owing to the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s policy towards Iran is increasingly perceived as a policy case that could be heading in a promising direction. Putin’s trip to Iran did not bring any significant breakthroughs, although news reports about the summit and events surrounding it were overwhelmingly positive. One newsworthy item, for example, was the launch of the rial/rouble pair on the Tehran Currency exchange on the day of the summit, while another was a memorandum signed between National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom to involve investments of approximately $40 billion into Iran’s oil sector.

Some important news came out shortly after the Russian President’s visit, such as the decision to increase the number of flights between Russia and Iran up to 35 per week, or the announcement that an agreement on the supply of aircraft parts and maintenance work was being drawn up, or plans to earmark $1.5 billion for the development of railway projects in Iran.

It must be noted here that there is no guarantee that all these initiatives will be successful in the end. For one, timelines have not been set out for most of the projects, and not all of them will even reach the stage of implementation. And those that do—for example, the supply of aircraft parts—will concern a limited set of products. The Iranian aviation industry has been in a rut for a number of years now, thanks to the sanctions. They have learned to make certain things on their own, sure, but most parts are either imported through third countries or stripped from old planes that no longer fly.

Despite all this, some projects might turn out to be rather successful. The number of areas where cooperation between the two countries is possible is clearly expanding, and this is thanks to the sudden spike in interest on the Russian side in Iran. In addition to this, traditional pockets of cooperation are getting a new push. For example, the export of Russian agricultural products against the backdrop of the global food problem is fast becoming a key element of Iran’s food security. And the North–South Transport Corridor, which has been operating in test mode for the past few years, could very well become the main export route for Russian products.

A certain rapport can also be witnessed in the domain of foreign policy. Iran’s reaction to the events in Ukraine was more positive than that of the other Middle Eastern states. During his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Tehran, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stressed that NATO would have started a war with Russia on the pretext of Crimea if it had not been stopped in Ukraine. Certain changes can also be seen in Syria, where Russia’s responses to the actions of Israel are becoming increasingly harsh. Finally, the hallmark of the trilateral summit in the Iranian capital was the attempt of Tehran and Moscow to convince Ankara to abandon its military operations in Syria.

Be that as it may, there is no way the alignment between Russia and Iran would turn into a full-fledged alliance. The main reason why this will never happen is because of Russia’s image in Iran, which is riddled with negative historical connotations. Distrust of Tehran and a poor understanding of its policies can be found among the Russian elite as well. Besides, the sides disagree quite strongly on a number of issues, including their respective policies in the Middle East and how to resolve the territorial disputes over the Caspian Sea.

Also keep in mind that Russia and Iran are competitors in the energy market. The agreement with Gazprom largely stems from Russian efforts to gain leverage over the Iranian oil and gas industry. Exactly how much leeway the Iranian side will give to Russian companies remains to be seen.

However, paradoxical as it may sound, the bunch of contradictions that has accumulated in Russia–Iran relations does not stand in the way of rapprochement between the two countries. Russia is realistic in its approach, and this makes it possible to focus on areas of common interest, even when there are far more problems in bilateral relations, for example in Moscow’s relations with Ankara. At the same time, both Moscow and Tehran are extremely interested in an alternative to the West-dominated economic order. Neither country can do this alone, but these two “political outcasts” countries are better suited to the task than anyone else.

Here, positive developments were reflected in the conclusion of a long-term strategic agreement between Russia and Iran similar to the documents that Tehran signed with China and Venezuela. Judging by what Russian officials said, the project will be finalized quite soon. Importantly, the agreement will take the form of a memorandum—a formal confirmation that the intentions do not impose any direct obligations on the two countries. The “Russia–Iran axis” will continue to move in more or less the same direction. Relations between the two countries may well expand and deepen with each passing year to never-before-seen levels, but the sides harbor no intention of taking any unwanted obligations, including becoming allies.

From our partner RIAC

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Astana Trilateral Summit 2022: What did Russian President Achieve?

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Since he launched the fateful invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian President had not traveled outside the former Soviet territories. His only visit outside Russia was to “friendly” Central Asian States in June, where he predictably received a warm reception. The first trip by Putin outside former Soviet territories proved to be to the Iranian capital Tehran for the Astana Trilateral Summit — a forum established for the settlement of the Syrian conflict and features key players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian conflict took a back seat and the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the discussions at the trilateral summit.

After the boycott of Putin by the Western world, the Russian leader has been attempting strategic and economic reorientation toward Asia and has achieved considerable success in making up for the losses in revenues incurred owing to the Western economic sanctions by selling oil at heavily discounted prices to countries like China and India. The trip to Iran provided the beleaguered Russian leader an opportunity to dissipate the impression of Russian isolation — no matter if the support extended is from a state under the severest of Western sanctions – Iran. The outright endorsement of his Ukraine invasion and scathing condemnation of the Western world was precisely the music Putin wanted to hearken and the Iranian Supreme Leader had plenty to offer.

Nonetheless, being under Western sanctions has positioned both the countries abreast and Russia, by offering even cheaper energy rates, has captured the energy and steel markets previously held by under-sanctions Iran. The shift did cause some resentment in Iran and Putin sought to assuage the Iranian grievances by signing the $40 billion deal between the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and Gazprom for the development of oil and gas fields in Iran. Nonetheless, the suspicions do persist as the Iranian Supreme Leader pushed Russians to follow up and fulfill the agreements signed between the two countries in the oil and gas sectors.

Putin’s Tehran visit has cemented Russia’s position as an important power broker in the Middle East having friendly relations with countries on both sides of the regional Middle Eastern divide. Besides its longstanding relationship with Iran, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war forestalled the almost certain downfall of Bashar’s regime and the country is also a party in the Libyan civil war, wherein it patronizes the warlord Khalifa Haftar.  Moreover, Russia now has a multifaceted relationship with the USA’s Arab allies — particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar — primarily owing to the convergence of their energy interests in OPEC Plus. The Arab countries also avoided harshly denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine — as the West would have anticipated — so as to avoid antagonizing Moscow, and top Saudi and Emirati royals reportedly declined calls from President Biden during the initial days of the invasion.

Days before Putin visited Tehran, President Biden took a trip to the Middle East and in his address to a gathering of Arab leaders, tried to reassure Washington’s Arab allies that the superpower remains committed to the region and urged oil-rich Arab nations to increase their oil production to mitigate global oil price shock caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Following Biden’s visit, the de facto Saudi ruler Muhammad Bin Salman and President Putin during a phone call agreed to keep coordinating within the framework of OPEC Plus. Accordingly, during the cartel’s meeting held on August 3rd the OPEC Plus members agreed to make a small increase in the oil production, which is unlikely to drastically impact the energy prices as President Biden counted upon.

Even more remarkably, in utter defiance of the US sanctions, Saudi Arabia is importing Russian oil at discounted price for domestic use while selling its oil at higher prices in the international market. In effect, in a major geopolitical turnaround for Moscow in the Middle East, Putin has been able to reaffirm its partnerships, and the days of Arab capitals uncritically following Washington’s lead are all but over.

Putin’s meeting with Turkish President Erdogan during Astana Summit also captured headlines — initially after the Russian President was left awkwardly standing for around 50 seconds waiting for his Turkish counterpart before their meeting and successively for the discussions between the two strongmen to strike a deal to freight the Ukrainian grain from its three Black Sea ports (the deal has now been reached). During the discussions on Syria, Erdogan reportedly talked about the Russian President as “My dear friend Putin” in an exhibition of the close relationship between the two strongmen. Though Turkey and Russia feature on the opposite sides of equations in the Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan-Armenia, and Ukraine conflicts, they have long-lasting trade and energy ties. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, did not join the Western sanctions against Russia and is now buying more oil from Moscow. Correspondingly, Moscow looks to Turkey as a partner — nonetheless a difficult one — among a host of antagonists and as a crucial market for its energy products and wheat. Yet another meeting between the two leaders in the Russian city of Sochi further hollows Western gambits to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine; meanwhile, Putin continues to assemble allies.

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Russia (Re)Schedules African Leaders Summit for 2023 in St. Petersburg

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With perspectives on making a well-designed substantive agenda, African leaders will be getting ready for the next grand photo opps, witness the delivery of those sparkling high-powerful speeches and finally sign series of new bilateral agreements during the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit scheduled for mid-June 2023 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Despite the unprecedented sanctions and information warfare launched by the United States and its satellites, Africa has become a priority of Russia’s foreign policy, according to Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, noting further that “Russia highly appreciates the readiness of Africans to further step up economic cooperation, and the signed agreements and the results will be consolidated at the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit.”

During his late July visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Lavrov informed in one of his speeches about broadening African issues in the “new version of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept against the background of the waning of the Western direction” and this will objectively increase the share of the African direction in the work of the Foreign Ministry. Relating to the next summit mid-June in 2023, “a serious package of documents that will contain almost all significant agreements” is being prepared, he emphasized illustrating his passion for signing agreements.

Arguably the number of agreements signed is not the criteria for measuring success of influence in Africa. Nevertheless, Lavrov said that the two most important goals of the summit will be to sign off on “a memorandum of understanding between the government of the Russian Federation and the African Union on basic principles of relations and co-operation” and “a memorandum of understanding between the Eurasian Economic Commission and the African Union on economic co-operation.”

Russia already has thousands of decade-old undelivered pledges and several bilateral agreements signed with individual countries, yet to be implemented, in the continent. In addition, during the previous years, there has been an unprecedented huge number of working visits by state officials both ways, to Africa and to the Russian Federation.

After the first summit, Russia–Africa discussions become a permanent fixture at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, while Roscongress continues working on the African track until the next Forum. That Sochi summit brought together 54 African states, 45 of which were represented by their heads of state, and also attended by the heads of executive bodies of eight African regional organizations.

President Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdelfattah El-Sisi underlined the importance of opportunities to develop investment and trade between which would help to strengthen relations in line with the 2063 concept [agenda] developed by the African Union. And that Russia has, with a vast array of competencies in previous years, is ready to implement joint projects aimed at improving people’s quality of life in Africa.

In total, there were 268 speakers participated in various discussions of topical issues. Resultantly, 92 agreements and contracts were signed at the summit. There were two key agreements that include: (i) Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Russian Federation and the African Union on basic principles of relations and cooperation was adopted at the Summit in the presence of Vladimir Putin and Abdelfattah El-Sisi.

(ii) a Memorandum of Understanding between the Eurasian Economic Commission and the African Union on economic cooperation was signed by Tigran Sargsyan, the Chairman of the EEC Board, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission. 

Then, at the initiative of African participants, a new dialogue mechanism – the Russia-Africa partnership forum – has been created. It was agreed that top-level Russia-Africa meeting will take place within its framework once every three years, alternately in Russia and in an African state. Both Russia and Africa could not agree on the summit in 2022, and in an African country.

The Heads of State and Government from Africa and Russia adopted a final declaration that reflects the principles coordinated by the two sides, the most important of which, according to El-Sissi, are:

–. respect for international law and the UN Charter,

–. the movement towards peace and security through the creation of more equal and fair international relations

–. and a world order based on the principles of multilateralism, respect for national sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries

–. and the peaceful settlement of crises, as well as the protection of national identity and civilisational and cultural pluralism.

“Our declaration has reaffirmed the goals of Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We have approved a ministerial mechanism for promoting dialogue and partnership. We appreciate all these moves and believe that they have created a solid foundation for the further development of Russian-African relations,” said El-Sissi.

In an authoritative policy report presented last November titled – Situation Analytical Report – and prepared by 25 Russian policy experts, it was noted that “the intensification of political contacts is only with a focus on making them demonstrative.” The number of high-level meetings has increased during the previous years but the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are few definitive results from such meetings. Next, there has been a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

Late July 2022, TASS news agency reported that Russia has always offered African countries mutually partnership based on mutual interests, unlike some other partners. “We always offer equal cooperation. We offer projects that would be of interest to this or that side. It is never a one-way street other partners often offer to Africans, sometimes implicitly, sometimes openly,” Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Federation Council (Upper Parliament House), Konstantin Kosachev, said in an interview with Russia’s TV Channel One.

He noted that Russia and Africa have many spheres for cooperation. “They include high technologies, the nuclear industry, machine-building, medicine, pharmaceuticals, the development of transport infrastructure, and, naturally, the energy sector. Each of these topics are important for African countries,” he added.

That said, preparations for the next Russia-Africa summit mid-2023 are currently underway. “The Russian side aims to continue preparing the second and aims at making it as efficient as possible. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries are taking steps to build a full and mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the African countries, including the formation of a reliable social and economic infrastructure, food and energy security on the continent,” according to Oleg Ozerov, Ambassador-at-Large and Head of the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum.

With its impressive relations, Russia has not pledged concrete funds toward implementing its policy objectives and tasks in Africa. Moreover, Russian officials have ignored the fact that Russia’s overall economic engagement is largely staggering and various business agreements signed are still not fulfilled with many African countries. There is a distinctive divide between what has been pledged and promised at high-level meetings and summits, compared to what has actually materialized on the ground. For now there is very little to celebrate, except for speeches, photo-opps and sign a new communique (joint declaration), at the next African leaders summit in St. Petersburg in 2023.

Worth saying here that African leaders are waiting to cut white ribbons marking the successful completion of Russian-managed something. Really it is time to swift from regular rhetoric and move on towards implementing the package of bilateral agreements especially those involving infrastructure investments, and further determine financing sources for concrete projects and deliver on decade-old pledges and promises made to the people of Africa.

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