by Gordon M. Hahn
Western hopes of sufficiently alienating Russia in order to break the Kremlin’s will on Ukraine and/or bring down Russian President Vladimir Putin have failed. Over the last year, Moscow has achieved a series of foreign policy successes on both multilateral and bilateral levels outside of the West. What has been called Russia’s ‘Asia pivot’ is much grander. Not even the phrase ‘Eurasian-Asian’ pivot captures its aggressive foreign policy efforts outside the West. In effect is a continuation of Russia’s decades-long ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy in even hotter pursuit of a multipolar world to counter American hubris and Western indifference to Russian national security and economic interests.
On the multilateral level, Russia has seen growing robustness, including hosting successful summits, of three of its most ambitious international projects – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and BRICS summits – and joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in July. Bilaterally, Moscow has strengthened its strategic partnerships with Eurasia’s’ other leading power, China and India, and engineered several pivotal foreign policy coups in the Middle East and larger Muslim world, most notably with Saudi Arabia and the Iran nuclear deal.
The Eurasian Union
Late last year, Moscow won agreement from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan to join the EEU. Armenia abandoned an EU association agreement it had been working on for years with Brussels and officially acceded to the EEU in January, and Kyrgyzstan will do so by the end of the year. This will bring the membership to five states, adding Kyrgystan to Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Tajikistan is currently reviewing whether it will seek membership.
Moreover, the EEU is establishing free trade zones (FTZ) with countries outside the traditional post-Soviet Eurasian sphere. In October 2014 Syria requested talks on a FTZ, to which Moscow and the EEC responded positively. In April 2015 Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev offered Thailand a FTZ with the EEC. In May Vietnam became the first country to sign a FTZ agreement with the EEU. At the EEC summit on July 6th Russian presidential aide foreign policy Yuri Ushakov announced that India and the EEC had agreed to create a working group for exploring an India-EEC FTZ. A recent Kazakhstani report indicates that more than 30 countries – including Zimbabwe, Jordan, Mongolia and Albania – have applied to the Eurasian Economic Commission for a FTZ with the EEU (http://en.tengrinews.kz/politics_sub/Over-30-countries-interested-in-signing-free-trade-agreement-261289/).
July’s SCO summit – hosted by Russia in Ufa, the capitol of the Volga-Urals republic of Bashkortostan simultaneously with the BRICS summit – marked a global ‘pivot’ to Eurasia. Several states, located outside post-Soviet Eurasia in what can be called Greater Eurasia or Eurasia writ large, deepened their involvement with SCO. In Eurasia’s east, former SCO observer members India AND (!) Pakistan were approved to become full members. Cambodia and Nepal became dialogue partners. Westward, Observer Iran agreed to become a full member in future, and Belarus took observer status. Also, Azerbaijan AND (!) Armenia became dialogue partners. I emphasize ‘and’ in two cases because the countries connected by the conjunction are enemies to each other. Given SCO’s growing role in Eurasian security issues, we can expect that the multinational organization could become a forum for settling the Azeri-Armenian frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh and containing tensions in Indo-Pakistani relations. The parties to the SCO summit focused on cooperation on four often interconnected security issues: counter-terrorism, extremism, border security, and drug trafficking. Except for Belarus, all the participants have been victims of all four of these maladies.
The BRICS project is also very, though certainly not exclusively focused on Eurasia as far as Russia and China are concerned. At the 7th BRICS summit, the organization’s Development Bank officially opened with $50 billion in start-up capital and potential to garner $400 billion in capital. Funds will target member-states’ infrastructure development, including the New Silk Road. Future projects might soon extend to non-EU European countries such as Serbia and Macedonia and later to projects in the southern hemisphere that will facilitate member-states’ trade in those regions. The bank’s president, Kundapur Vaman Kamath, suggested that it might assist in the reconstruction of Syria.
In addition, the summit saw Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and BRICS member-states’ foreign investment body, including China’s Silk Road Fund and India’s Infrastructure Development Finance Company, signed an agreement on cooperation. A parallel step in Moscow’s and Beijing’s efforts to move toward an alternative global financial system and perhaps currency, Russia simultaneously joined the new Chinese-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The BRICS bank, AIIB, and other Sino-Russian partnership’s other new financial institutions will be particularly focused on the New Silk Road that will link Greater Eurasia through a network of air, rail, road, river, and ocean transportation hubs and connections. These will compliment Eurasian intra-continental and global intercontinental energy production and transportation networks. In this connection, China recently changed the path of its efforts to establish a New Silk Road so that it will pass through Russia as well as numerous other states in southern Greater Eurasia. Russia will also benefit from the infrastructure development projects through contracts with countries from across Eurasia, the BRICS states and partners, and EEC FTZs for its more advanced transportation and construction companies.
The Chinese-Russian-Indian economic axis anchored by these powers’ common membership in SCO and BRICS is already spurring economic and transport infrastructure development across the southern Eurasian epicenter of the New Silk Road. A few examples of present and future projects include: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, including a multilane highway between India and China; the Russo-Iranian-Azerbaijani, north-south Persian Gulf-Gulf of Oman-Caspian Sea-Volga River water transportation corridor; the Indian-Iranian-Russian maritime corridor to extend from Mumbai to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port to Russia’s north Caspian Sea port at Astrakhan; and the Chinese-built railway from Urumqi, Xinjiang Province to Almaty, Kazakhstan that some claim might be extended to Iran and the Persian Gulf.
Russia is using BRICS, other multilateral fora, and bilateral efforts to replace goods, especially agricultural products, made in the West with quality equivalents from non-Western states.
Politico-militarily BRICS and especially SCO are set to fill the security gap in Afghanistan created by the West’s withdrawal from the conflict. Afghanistan has become a SCO observer-member, and in Ufa both organizations called on the Taliban to disarm, accept the present Afghan regime as legitimate, and cut ties to global jihadi revolutionary groups like Al Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and the Caucasus Emirate. Even more than Moscow, Beijing is interested in a successful Kabulization and ultimately resolution of the conflict because of the potential threat to Xingjiang from the Uighur jihadi group, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, and energy and other economic interests both in Xingjiang, Central Asia, and South Asia such as the 900-mile-long Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline (see Gordon M. Hahn “,” Islam, Islamism and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER), No. 67, 14 October 2013, https://gordonhahn.com/2013/10/14/islam-islamism-and-politics-in-eurasia-report-no-67-oct-2013-special-report-china-and-central-asia-after-afghanistans-kabulization/).
BRICS still lacks a predominantly Islamic member-state, and it can be expected that China and especially Russia will seek to make the next member such a state in order to open up trade opportunities and as a means of public diplomacy to counter the global jihadi revolutionary movement on the domestic, Eurasian, and global levels. The top candidates in order of likelihood are Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan. BRICS’s choice could very well be determined by the extent to which China, Russia, and other members would like to make the anti-Western vector of the organization more robust.
The more robust the choice, the more likely it will be Iran, given Tehran’s close relationship to Moscow and Beijing. This raises the spectre of a rather robust counter-NATO Sino-Russo-Iranian strategic alliance. Turkey would also enhance the anti-Western aspect of BRICS by strengthening Turkey’s drift away from Europe and towards Eurasia, where Ankara has its own interests and ambitions. Turkey’s involvement might also help Russia and China induce Ankara to be less welcoming to North Caucasus jihadi and nationalist elements and Uighur immigrants.
Moscow brought all of the above together when it convened a join EEC-SCO-BRICS meeting in July 9th. The next day a stunning breakthrough was announced; Moscow and Beijing had set up a working group to discuss ways to integrate the EEU and the New Silk Road under the auspices of SCO. With the last being increasingly ‘securitized’ in recent years, this scale of Eurasian economic integration opens the potential for a larger Eurasian economic, political and military infrastructure that will overshadow the largely decorative G-8 and even the G-20 and can challenge both NATO, the EU, TTP.
In bilateral relations, Moscow continued deepening its strategic partnership and economic dealings with China by cutting a series of energy, weapons, transportation, and other deals in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and Western sanctions as is well-known. Between bilateral summits and multilateral fora Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping bave been meeting nearly on a monthly basis over the last year. One obvious problem in Russia’s reliance on this partnership is the recent Chinese stock market crash and the fact that China has still not begun any kind of political liberalization, a process that will test Chinese state and society just as it did the USSR and other totalitarian and harsh authoritarian regimes.
The potential implementation of the Iran nuclear deal is a diplomatic victory for Moscow and opens up numerous trade opportunities to Moscow, but it also could promote Tehran as a competing oil and gas supplier to China and even Europe. The Iran nuclear deal will lead to a deepening of Sino-Iranian relations, including energy, weapons, and cyber technology trade. Thus, Tehran will become a major competitor of the Kremlin on the Chinese market. Going around the sanctions Beijing had already increased its purchase of Iranian oil by 30 percent over the last five years. China will also be stepping up to help finance completion of the Iranian-Pakistan gas pipeline, construction of which was suspended in 2013 due to the sanctions on Iran. The nuclear deal will also strengthen the impetus in Tehran to complete its matriculation as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization announced as an intent at the recent SCO summit.
However, the Iran nuclear deal also helped facilitate a major Russian diplomatic breakthrough just off the Eurasian mega-continent, in Saudi Arabia which seeks to counter Iran’s geostrategic, nuclear, and energy ambitions. Thus, Saudi Prince Muhammad Salman visited Russia’s St. Petersburg Economic Forum and concluded a series of agreements potentially worth more than $10 billion, including arms, nuclear energy, and other trade deals. Riyadh is interested in acquiring ballistic missiles and is ready to purchase Russia’s S-300 and new S-400 missile systems, T-90 tanks, M-17 helicopters and, according to some sources, the Iskander-M, which can carry nuclear warheads (Faud Shahbazov, “Russia’s Shadow in the Middle East: Riyadh – Moscow Nuclear Agreement,” CESRAN, 23 July 2015, http://cesran.org/russias-shadow-in-the-middle-east-riyadh-moscow-nuclear-agreement.html). The creation of a working group was announced to develop joint oil and gas projects. This might be an effort on Moscow’s part to substitute some of the competition with Saudi Arabia in the oil sector with joint projects. In July Riyadh became China’s largest supplier of oil (16 percent of Beijing’s supplies) with Russia falling to third place (11 percent) behind Angola (14 percent) (http://chinaandthemiddleeast.blogspot.com.tr/2015/07/saudi-arabia-tops-list-of-chinas-oil.html).
The sides also agreed for Russia’s RosAtom to build Riyadh two nuclear reactors with Saudi plans to build a total of sixteen such installations. The deal includes constructing nuclear enery reactos, providing services for the entire nuclear fuel cycle, building nuclear power plants, handling spent fuel and radioactive waste, producing radioactive isotopes for industrial, medical and agricultural use, and training of personnel.
All this, despite or perhaps because of Riyadh’s staunch opposition to the partially Moscow-brokered Iran nuclear deal. CESRAN analyst Ted Karasik notes: “The Saudis need Russia more than the other way around. That is a significant change that guarantees that the Kremlin will be a major player in the future security and economic development of the Middle East. … The Saudis are waking up to the fact that the Kremlin’s influence in Iran, Syria and Yemen is a strategic asset” (http://azeridaily.com/analytics/8119). The Iran deal gambit appears to have forced the Saudis to engage Moscow in order to compete with Tehran for its favors. They might be positioning themselves to broach an alliance with Moscow should the U.S.-Iranian relationship, however unlikely, become close and Washington exchanges its Sunni horse for a Shiite one driven by the battle with the Sunni global jihadi revolutionary movement. In the shifting geopolitical sands, Russia needs a Mideast and Sunni ally.
A similar Russian diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East with Egypt and Jordan in recent months, including an agreement to build Egypt’s first nuclear reactor and a $10 billion deal with Jordan to build its first nuclear power plant, reflects a similar dynamic to the Russo-Saudi breakthrough and makes Cairo an alternative to the Saudis. On the other hand, Moscow is most likely to have it both ways in the Muslim world by courting Shiites and Sunnis for trade deals and network-building to counter Western power. This would be consistent with its multi-vectoral approach. Unfortunately, it is also consistent with increasing not just the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region and, with the Islamic State on the march across North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula (and elsewhere), but also the risk of jihadists getting their hands on nuclear or radiological materials for a dirty bomb further down the road.
Moscow played a constructive role in securing the recent Minsk working group agreement to withdraw more forces further away from the line of demarcation between the Donbass rebels, on the one hand, and Ukraine’s Army, National Guard, and neo-fascist volunteer battalions, on the other hand. The EU remains split on relations with Russia and the Ukraine crisis, with Hungary, Serbia, and Greece supporting an end to or softening of sanctions against Moscow. The Greek crisis gives Moscow more leverage over Athens, which still views the Kremlin and the Heavenly City as potential solutions to its economic and political problems in the EU. Even when it comes to Ukraine’s civil war and the Crimea dispute, what remains of the isolation strategy is breaking down. French parliamentarians recently visited Crimea on July 22nd, and, according to the reliable Russian daily Kommersant, Italian parliamentarians are soon to follow suit (http://kommersant.ru/doc/2777874).
In addition, the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, regardless of its many downsides, marks a success in joint U.S.-Russian diplomacy. The fact that Moscow has not been undertaken any military or even political action undermine Kiev in the last year is reducing the tensions surrounding Ukraine, despite the Maidan regime’s continuing economic and political degradation. There is also continuing cooperation in space and several other spheres. These points of accommodation along with the relative calm and progress in Ukraine could create a platform from which Moscow and Washington could step forward and step up contacts on Ukraine, helping to resolve the crisis.
In all of the the above ways and others Moscow’s efforts to counter isolation from the West with closer ties to Beijing and the rest of the non-West are bearing a perhaps bitter fruit. Eurasian integration is now invigorated on a potentially much grander scale than the scare-mongering cliche’ regarding ‘Putin’s goal to restore the Soviet Empire.’ China and Russia are overseeing a consolidation of Eurasia that could assist Moscow’s (and Beijing’s) goal of delimiting the West’s influence.
Moreover, the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is going global, leveraging both powers’ ability to network internationally for purposes of trade, development and national security vis-avis both the potential NATO threat and the kinetic global jihadi threat. In combination with the other major Sino-Russian international project – BRICS – the SCO Eurasian project can be seen as a key building block in the efforts of Eurasia’s two great powers – China and Russia – to tap markets easier to access than Western ones, where political criteria often trump cooperation, and insure themselves from American hegemony, humanitarian interventionism, and adventurist revolutionism or ‘regime change.’
Thus, the West’s Kiev gambit has crystallized a consolidation and expansion of the Sino-Russian global partnership that at the least will circumvent U.S. hegemony and at most could challenge and overthrow it.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.