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A Friendship Higher Than Alliance

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

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The day of July 16 marks the 21st anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Within the contemporary framework of the Russia–China partnership, the treaty has been dubbed the “document of the century” and, judging by the dynamics of the inter-state relations, it stands all chances to become one of the most solid international bilateral treaties of our age, which is particularly valuable at a time when the entire architecture of international relations appears to be close to collapse.

Yet, we should not forget that Russia and China have arrived at the current level of strategic partnership following a centuries-long path full of many trials and regrettable errors. Nor should we forget that the two largest states of Eurasia initially went through a difficult period in the 17th century, when it came to establishing first political and economic relations, a process that culminated in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk. We should also keep in mind that China, like today, supported the “new Russia” in the early 18th century, when the confrontation between Russia and Europe heated up and the Great Northern War (1700–1721) broke out. For instance, imports of Chinese goods (primarily, fabrics) played an important role in the formation of the Russian army, which emerged victorious under the leadership of Peter the Great[1]. Since then, the relations between the two states have not suffered protracted interruptions, remaining generally positive for two centuries. In mid-19th century, treaties establishing Russian and Chinese borders were signed, and the border issue was finally settled after the demarcation of 2004–2008.

The turbulent 20 th century had varying consequences for the relations between Russia and China. Times of strong friendship were interrupted by acute but short conflicts, typically rooted in ideology[2]. The partnership between the Soviet Union and the Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen was cut short in 1927 by a sudden attack on Chinese communists organized by his successor Chiang Kai-shek. A new thaw that marked the relations during the Second World War, when the Soviet Union and the Kuomintang established allied relations, which was ultimately enshrined in the 1945 Treaty, smoothly evolved into a closer friendship and alliance when the People’s Republic of China was established, with the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance signed in 1950.

However, the honeymoon decade of the 1950s was followed by an era of ideological confrontation that eclipsed the 1960s and 1970s. This period of a sudden cold spell, at times turning into animosity between the neighbours, resulted in the tragic events at Damansky Island in 1969, an incident that showed how ideological differences can destroy constructive interactions between friendly neighbouring states in virtually every area, from geopolitics to cultural ties, all in a matter of a few short years.

Since the early 1980s, this negative experience helped both parties come to the firm conviction that there is no alternative to good-neighbourly relations between the two peoples and countries. General consulates of both states were reopened in 1986. The historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing in 1989 marked a rapid and unfaltering development of friendly relations between Russia and China[3]. In 1992, the two states officially proclaimed their friendly relations; and they announced a constructive partnership in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, Moscow and Beijing signed a Declaration proclaiming their determination to foster an equal and trust-based partnership with a view to strategic interactions in the 21 st century. This declaration paved the way for the Treaty of 2001.

It is highly symbolic that the treaty was signed in the first year of a new millennium, with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and President of China Jiang Zemin putting pen to paper in Moscow on July 16, 2001. The document epitomized the many centuries of bilateral relations. Not only does it reflect four centuries of good neighbourliness and friendship between the peoples of the two countries but it also proclaims a new model of relations—one that aligns with the fundamental national interests of the two states and the hopes of their peoples. The model also plays an important role in maintaining a stable multipolar world order, ensuring security and stability. Bilateral relations were proclaimed to be free from ideological biases and prejudices. The Treaty envisaged mutual respect for the historical paths and political systems. Cooperation between the two sides was to be reinvigorated by mutual political and economic interests. Russia–China relations were now based on equality, consideration for each other’s interests, and freedom from current political and ideological circumstances.

The Treaty legally enshrined the description of mutual relations as “the strategic cooperative partnership of equality and trust” proclaimed in 1996. It also formalized mutual support in protecting national unity and territorial integrity, confirming bilateral commitment to refrain from first use of nuclear weapons against each other or targeting each other with strategic nuclear missiles. It also formulated the principle of respect for choosing one’s own path of political, economic, social, and cultural development, and envisaged immediate contacts in case of threat of an aggression against one of the parties.

Besides, the Treaty contains an important legal formula, stating intent “to develop the friendship between the people of the two countries from generation to generation” (a statement that has never been used in any other international instrument). The treaty calls upon the parties to always remain friends, good neighbours, and dependable partners, and to never be enemies. This legal wording was not present even in allied treaties between the USSR and China, and it makes it possible to say that the China–Russia friendship enjoys a status higher than that of an alliance.

June 5, 2019—the year of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and the People’s Republic of China—saw the adoption of a Joint Statement on Developing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Entering a New Era. Russia said it highly valued the fact that relations between the two states had reached an unprecedentedly high level.

Personal relations between the leaders of the two states play a very important role in shaping and bolstering such a close partnership. As of the time of writing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met 38 times while holding frequent telephone conversations. This creates a personal touch, ensures dynamically developing relations and allows any topical issues to be dealt with at the highest level. The vertical of power in Russia, and particularly that in China, ensure top-level decisions are effectively enforced. Consequently, Russia and China enhance their political dialogue year in year out. Strategic relations of trust between heads of state constitute a political advantage for the entire system of Russia–China relations.

Over the past year, the relations between China and Russia have faced unprecedented geopolitical and economic challenges. In 2021, Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated sharply over the situation in Ukraine. Even with the heightened international tensions, China has demonstrated its readiness to lend diplomatic support to Russia once again. On June 28, 2021, Russia and China adopted a Joint Statement marking the 20th anniversary of the Sino-Russian Treaty and announced its prolongation for five years.

Finally, a Joint Russia–China statement on International Relations Entering a New Era and Global Sustainable Development was signed on February 4, 2022, following talks between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Back in August 1997, Russia and China signed a Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order, advocating multilateralism ever since. In their Joint Statement of February 4, 2022, the parties announced that “no State can or should ensure its own security separately from the security of the rest of the world and at the expense of the security of other States.” The parties called for a new kind of relations between world powers—operating on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation.

The Statement also emphasized that the inter-state relations are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era, that friendship between the two states knows no limits, that there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, that enhancing strategic bilateral cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the evolving international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries. Vladimir Putin said that these relations have become “a paragon of efficiency, responsibility, and aspiration for the future.” Such words have established unprecedentedly close political relations between Russia and China, and the subsequent events of February 2022 showed that it was these relations that took the world into a new era.

From the first days of the conflict, China’s response to the events in Ukraine has been quite positive for Russia. China is consistent in its stance that the conflict was provoked by NATO’s expansion, while the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia are at odds with international law and they are provoking a global economic crisis. Besides, Chinese diplomats stress that the conflict has to be resolved through speedy talks and that historical roots of the conflict also need to be taken into account. These statements are quite in alignment with Russia’s stance.

In a telephone conversation on June 15, 2022, the Russian and Chinese leaders reaffirmed the successful development of Russia–China relations, notwithstanding a broad range of global changes. At the same time, the Chinese President reaffirmed Beijing’s independent stance on the Ukrainian issue with account for historical facts and realities.

The telephone conversation that took place on Xi Jinping’s birthday also happened to be on the eve of the key Russia–China session at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16. Over 40 Chinese companies (ten of them with annual revenues of over RUB 20 bn.) participated in the Russia–China business dialogue moderated by the heads of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies (now the Institute of Chinese and Contemporary Asian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and the Union of Chinese Entrepreneurs in Russia. The delegates from China made no secret of the fact that they had come to Russia with the explicit goal of filling the niches that the West had vacated in the Russian economy. Their business areas were selected to fit with Russia’s current needs: engineering, industrial equipment, automobile spare parts, petrochemical equipment, agricultural products, etc.

In his Address at the Forum’s Plenary Session on June 17, the Russian President emphasized that Russia finds it “interesting and important to cooperate with China, but it does not mean that Beijing should support Moscow in everything: China has its interests, and we need to respect them.” In turn, the Chinese leader, addressing the Forum’s attendees via video link, confirmed that “today, China–Russia cooperation in every area is on the rise […] it evidences high stress resilience and internal potential of China–Russia cooperation.”

Announcements made at the “Russia–China Business Dialogue” session included the establishment of a Coordination Council for China involving Russia’s leading academic centres and supported by the Presidential Executive Office, the Government, and the Security Council of the Russian Federation. Those in attendance were also informed that the Institute of Oriental Studies had been renamed the Institute for Chinese and Contemporary Asian Studies under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which certainly evidences Russia’s great attention to Russia–China relations.

Therefore, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum once again demonstrated the stability of and mutual interest in a steady development of practical cooperation between Russia and China. Today, political arrangements and joint statements are successfully transformed into economic outcomes. China has become the largest consumer of Russian energy resources, and the two governments are involved in intensive talks on establishing new routes for transporting Russia’s oil and gas into China, and these talks could produce agreements as early as this year. The reverse flow of commodities is perking up as well: in particular, an announcement on the resumption of deliveries of spare parts for civilian aircraft from China was made immediately after the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Cooperation in the automobile industry is also fostered. Sales of Chinese smartphones on the Russian market have surpassed those of the traditional leaders, American and South Korean brands, for the first time this year. All these developments mean that, despite sanctions pressure, Chinese companies will continue to increase two-way trade with Russia as part of the cooperation between the two states.

Bilateral military and political cooperation is on the rise. The sharply expanded geography of joint military exercises and drills is, alongside with military-technical cooperation, proof enough of this: this year, such exercises have been held in the Arabian Sea (January), the Sea of Japan, and the South China Sea (May). In July, reports surfaced that Russia, China and Iran were preparing for large-scale joint exercises in Latin America at the invitation of Venezuela.

Global cooperation between Russia and China is also reflected in their common stances in international platforms. In particular, interest in further enhancing Russia–China relations, including taking a common or similar position on issues in international politics, was demonstrated at the 14th BRICS Summit in Beijing on June 22–24, 2022 and at the BRICS Business Forum held as part of the Summit. BRICS, which accounts for 45 per cent of the global population, will overtake G7’s total share in the global GDP in the near future, thus increasing its global influence and becoming the epicentre of multilateral partnership in the interests of universal and equal development. It is by no accident that the Summit was attended by 13 countries in addition to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS+).

The leaders of Russia and China said in their addresses that the nations of BRICS stand for joint efforts to promote peace and stability around the world. BRICS enjoys support of many nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The five countries seek independent foreign policies and continue making active contributions to a truly multipolar system of international relations based on international law and on the key principles of the UN Charter. The Russia–China strategic partnership enshrined in the 2001 Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China may serve as a model of such relations between states.

[1]G. N. Romanova, “The Genesis of Russia–China Trade Ties (17th – first third of the 18 th centuries),” Tamozhennaia politika Rossii na Dalnem Vostoke 67, no. 2 (2014): 101–111.

[2]L. P. Chernikova, “Russia–China Relations: History and Present,” Problemy vostokovedeniia 68, no. 2 (2015): 42–46.

[3]Y. Li, “Mikhail Gorbachev’s Contribution to Normalizing Soviet-Chinese Relations,” Problemy Dalnego Vostoka2 (2021): 66–82.

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Doctor of Philological Sciences, Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Financial University, RIAC Member

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The Fate of Ukraine: Can the West Stop Russia?

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The options of financial containment are exhausting as Russia bristled through the last obstacle to its domination in the Luhansk province of Donbas. With the anticlimactic fall of the city of Lysychansk, Russian troops have turned to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk – the forefront cities in the neighboring Donetsk region. A heavy shower of artillery rocks both the cities as Russian forces (alongside the separatist fractions) are tilting toward drawn-out ground warfare to triumph over Ukraine’s southeast –  cementing a formation extending down to Crimea, the former southern-Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014. The strategic victory over Donbas would compensate for the initial failure in central Ukraine and allow Russia to regroup to eventually pressure Kyiv into surrender. Despite visible attrition in Russian forces, intense missile strikes have resumed in Kyiv and Kharkiv while Ukrainian defensive forces are preparing to launch a counteroffensive to reclaim Kherson. The Western coalition is privy to this subtle shift in momentum – albeit reacting a little too late!

The G7 summit was a mockery of the supposed resolve the West wished to portray. Banning gold imports from Russia and debating on an oil price cap was the highlight of the meeting (looking past the crude retorts by soon to be the ex-prime minister of the UK). Admittedly, the embargo on gold exports would hurt the Russian economy. Russia holds approximately $100-140 billion in gold reserves – about 20% of the total holdings of its central bank. Budgetary estimates reveal that gold is Russia’s second-most profitable export commodity – secondary only to energy exports. The ban would significantly dent trade as almost 90% of the gold export revenue comes from the G7 economies. And while Russia would still be able to streamline gold to alternative economies in Asia, the embargo would effectively “[deny] access to about $19 billion of revenues a year,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his interview with CNN. Thus, the US is seemingly determined to tumble the Russian economy to cripple the Kremlin’s ambitions in Ukraine. The mantra is the same – cutoff maximum revenues to the point that Russia struggles to finance its war of attrition. Unfortunately, such strategies are not enough.

Placing an oil price cap on Russian supplies is trickier than banning gold imports. For starters, gold is not essential for economic and social survival and, frankly, not the basis of upheaval in many developed economies struggling with skyrocketing inflation. While gold exports cannot flow easily to alternate markets, Russia has been sufficiently successful in replacing Europe as the prime market for its crude supplies.

Six months since the invasion and revenues earned by Russia from oil exports are already up by more than 50%, according to a market report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Since the invasion, Europe has relatively reduced its reliance on Russian oil while the US has absolutely banned crude imports from Russia. Still, India has procured roughly one-fifth of total Russian exports since the invasion – up from less than 1% pre-war quota. According to an exclusive Reuters report, Indian customs documents reveal that companies are rapidly replacing the US dollar to evade sanctions and purchase Russian energy supplies. In June alone, India imported roughly 44% of its 1.7 million tonnes of Russian coal via non-dollar settlements – either in yuan or the Hong Kong dollar. In July, that number increased over a fifth to a record high of 2.06 million tonnes.

Alternatively, China has been the core defiant force against Western pressure – despite not outright supporting Putin – terming sanctions against Russia as “illegal” and “Immoral”. China has also been a crucial economic lever for Russia – both symbolically and practically. According to the General Administration of Customs China, bilateral trade with Russia increased by 29% YoY during the first seven months this year. The most notably traded commodity is the Russian crude. Beijing imported roughly 55% more Russian oil in May compared to the same period last year, prodding Russia to replace Saudi Arabia as its biggest oil supplier. In combination, China and India have counterbalanced the revenue shortfall by $24 billion in energy imports from Russia – more than $13 billion in revenue compared to 2021. The US should now question: how exactly can a price cap work in this scenario?

According to official sources, the G7 coalition is considering placing a cap at $40-60 per barrel of Russian oil. However, the mechanism of implementation is still hazy. As of now, the ambitious plan to cap Russian oil revenues is still very much an ambition, without any concrete structure or broader consensus. On one hand, the G7 is considering to cap the oil revenues of Russia. On the other hand, the EU is easing payment restrictions for oil supply from Russian monopolies like Gazprom Neft and Rosneft. Many experts have questioned the viability of such a theoretical (and contradictory) policy. “The price cap policy would not put Russia under the immediate fiscal stress many expect,” said Mark Mozur, a market analyst at S&P Global Commodity Insights.

Failure to bring India and China on board would automatically tune the futility of the plan before it even gets launched. European insurance services provided to Russian oil cargoes could be replaced by Asian counterparts, assuming that the European companies would comply instead of overriding the cap to avoid a retaliatory cut back on oil supply from Russia. The recent slash in gas supplies through Nord Stream 1 (NS1) pipeline hints that Russia could potentially choke oil supply to Europe if a price cap is enacted. “As far as I understand, we won’t be supplying oil to those countries which would impose such price limits. And our oil (and oil products) will be redirected to the countries which are ready to cooperate with us,” said Elvira Nabiullina – Governor Russian Central Bank. According to the Russian Ministry of Finance, fossil fuel revenues have already surpassed last year’s budget projections. Thus, Russia is not short on finance for the remainder of this year. Yet a winter without Russian oil or gas would be a nightmare for a Europe already grappling with hyperinflation. Citing recent estimates by JP Morgan, if Russia resorts to retaliatory output cuts, the global oil prices could soar to around $380 per barrel. Hence, despite cutting export volumes, profits from oil sales would still flourish the Russian coffers. Ultimately, the superficial policy of a price cap could only spell doom – not just for Europe but for the entire global economy teetering on the cusp of a recession.

Mr. Richard Connolly – Director of the Eastern Advisory Group – perfectly sums my position: “For as long as the political will is there in the Kremlin and for as long as export prices remain high, I don’t see any immediate financial constraints confronting the Kremlin.” Thus, the desperate cartel-like strategies by the G7 economies only highlight the West’s constrained toolkit. Russia has successfully projected force in eastern Ukraine while simultaneously pressing intensely for Kyiv. The West, on the other hand, has focused on fortifying its own security instead of resolving the conflict in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly exuded optimism – refusing to cede the captured territory to Russia and hoping to negotiate from a position of strength. However, that position would almost certainly falter by 2023 when Western aid starts to dry up. “No one expects another $54 billion [in aid to Ukraine],” said Peter Baker, the Chief White House correspondent for The New York Times.

The truth is, while the NATO expansion might detain Putin from launching another invasion in Europe; it would not impede Russia from further dismantling Ukraine. Perhaps the Western bloc should pause and consider a few harsh realities. Firstly, the prospective expansion of NATO was the very catalyst that sparked the invasion in the first place. And secondly, an embargo on Russian commodities would not substantially damage the Kremlin unless Asia (predominantly India and China) supports the western consensus. And that support would certainly not be gained by pressuring India or evoking tensions over Taiwan with China.

The skewed western logic evades common sense sometimes. The West is cautious not to supply advanced weaponry to Kyiv; avoid tilting the war against Russia to the point of risking a nuclear retaliation from Putin. However, advancing Ukraine to retrieve captured territory in the south is somehow a safer strategy. It is unbelievably naive! And I believe the US already realizes this paradoxical reality yet continues to push forward – to save face and prolong the defeat of its pseudo-democratic rhetoric. Understandably, a push for diplomacy with Russia – though the ethical path to prevent further bloodshed – would be a swift political death to President Biden, as he prepares his bid for re-election in 2024. Therefore, we should be ready for two outcomes: a segregated Ukraine or mass destruction in Europe.

Ultimately, these sanctions and strategies, the NATO induction of Finland and Sweden, and the supposed candidacy of Ukraine to the EU have done nothing to derail Russia. Putin shows no sign of distress while political and economic attrition is gradually gaining a foothold in the US-led coalition. And expecting Putin to hang his gloves just because the West is exhibiting its renewed post-cold war cohesion is as fantastical as expecting a Ukrainian victory against Russia without detrimental consequences. Wishful at best!

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The Moscow–Tehran Axis: Alliance without Rigid Obligations

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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.

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Astana Trilateral Summit 2022: What did Russian President Achieve?

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Image source: kremlin.ru

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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