by Gordon M. Hahn
Not along ago the American journalistic, academic and think tank elite were asserting in unison as usual that Russia was at best a regional power isolated globally as a result of its ‘invasion’ of Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions. I suggested Russia is both a regional and global power and was never isolated with the onset of the Ukraine crisis (see Gordon M. Hahn, “REPORT: Putin’s Asia-Eurasia Pivot: ‘Isolation’ from the West Spurs Eurasian Integration and Russian Globalization,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 31 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/31/putins-asia-eurasia-pivot-isolation-from-the-west-spurs-eurasian-integration-and-russian-globalization/). As things have turned out, in reality the West overplayed its weakening hand and allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate foreign policy gains outside the West and make inroads inside it as well. Although not all of Russia’s wins are of its own making, there can be no doubt that things are going Moscow’s way.
In Russia’s main security zone and immediate sphere of influence – central Eurasia or the ‘former Soviet space’ – Russian continues to strengthen the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in what can be termed its ‘Eurasian-Asian pivot.’ Post-Ukraine Moscow won agreement from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan to join the EEU. Armenia even abandoned an EU association agreement it had been working on for years and officially acceded to the EEU in January 2015. Kyrgyzstan did so in August the same year. These additions brought the membership to five states, including also Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Tajikistan is currently reviewing whether it will seek membership. In May 2015 Vietnam became the first country to sign a free trade zone (FTZ) agreement with the EEU. At the EEU summit in July 2015 Russian presidential aide for foreign policy Yuri Ushakov announced that India and the EEU had agreed to create a working group for exploring an India-EEU 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 EEU FTZ relationship (http://en.tengrinews.kz/politics_sub/Over-30-countries-interested-in-signing-free-trade-agreement-261289/).
In Eurasia writ large, Moscow has been able to tighten its ‘strategic partnership’ with China economically, politically, and militarily. Both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or SCO and Moscow’s farther-flung project BRICS are deepening ties with potential new members singing up observer members, expanding economic cooperation, and deepening military ties. Russia joined Beijing in naval exercises in the South China Sea in a sign of solidarity in the conflict over territorial jurisdiction in the region with Japan, other southeast Asian countries, and the West.
In October of this year Russia and India signed a series of military-industrial and civilian economic contracts, including attack helicopter and nuclear plant deals. The Kremlin has been careful not to step on India’s toes as it develops post-Cold War relations with Pakistan. At the same time, Moscow has sterling relations with the world’s largest democracy because India, unlike the Western democracies, is not seeking to expand a military alliance into Russia’s sphere of influence. It has neither encouraged nor supported illegal, revolutionary seizures of power in states neighboring Russia.
Even in Europe, matters have been moving in Russia’s direction. Last month saw Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova and NATO and EU member Bulgaria elect pro-Russian presidents. In the former, all recent opinion polls show that the Moldovan population stands two-thirds opposed to the country joining NATO, and whereas a year ago it supported EU membership, less than half do now. Newly elected president Igor Dodon has set as one of his first three acts the closing of NATO’s office in Kishinev (www.ng.ru/cis/2016-12-13/7_6884_moldavia.html).
In France, November’s center-right primaries saw the victory of Francois Fillon, who, like his main competitor, former president Nikolas Sarkoszy, stood on a pro-Russian platform. When elected in May 2007, the latter took a pro-American position. Fillon is considered very pro-Russian, even a Putin admirer. The Hudson Institute’s Benjamin Haddad, a French analyst at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, has noted: “All over Europe, Putinism has emerged as an ideological alternative to globalism, the E.U., etc.” Putin, in his view and others, is seen increasingly as “a bulwark for conservative values” against Europe’s socialist-liberal order backing “gay marriage, immigration, Islam” (www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/world/europe/fillon-french-election-russia.html?emc=edit_th_20161130&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44251264&_r=0), though Putin’s reputation as a Western-style conservative is undeserved, as I have argued (“Putin: A Russian Neo-Traditionalist, Not a Western Conservative,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 8 December 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/12/08/putin-a-russian-neo-traditionalist-not-a-western-conservative/). At any rate, now both the leading candidates for France’s presidency — Marine Le Pen of the National Front and the mainstream right’s nominee, Fillon — favor better relations with Moscow.
In Germany, center-left leaders want to abandon Berlin’s leadership role in leading European efforts to counter Russia such as the Eastern Partnership and NATO buildup in reaction to the Ukrainian crisis. They advocate a return to ‘Ostpolitik,’ with (West) Germany balancing between East and West. On December 14, Sweden decided to refrain from blocking Russia’s ‘North Stream-2′ natural gas pipeline designed to circumvent Ukraine, reducing Russian exports’ and European imports’ reliance on Kiev’s increasingly unstable political environment. Similar trends have been extant in Italy, Hungary and, more naturally, Serbia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s instability and failure to carry out the promised reforms under the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and Europe’s immigration issues have led to Brussels’ repeated rejection of granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians, as promised by the EU. The most recent such disappointment came early this month, prompting expressions ranging from bitter disappointment in, and disenchantment with Europe to outrage. This is undermining Ukraine’s ‘European choice’, playing into the hands of the Maidan regime’s neofascist and ultra-nationalist elements and opponents, complicating Ukraine’s political stability and Ukrainians’ economic choices, and making a reversion to a more Moscow-friendly regime more likely. Moreover, as a result of the Netherlands’ referendum rejecting Ukrainian EU membership, the EU has been forced into negotiations with Amsterdam in order to ensure ratification of the association agreement, and the Brussles-Amsterdam talks recently stalled and will remain so through at least January. Thus, the ratification process is unlikely to begin before spring, ensuring further delay of a visa-free travel agreement for Ukraine.
The sharp turnaround in Russo-Turkish relations is yet another example of recent Russian foreign policy successes. Whereas before Russia’s intervention in Syria, Turkey was firmly following the Western line by backing the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, including its Islamist and jihadist elements, to the point of shooting down a Russian jet fighter earlier this year, now Turkey has apologized for the attack that killed a Russian pilot and begun to cooperate with Russia in the war. Moreover, on November 20th Turkish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkey is considering joining the Sino-Russian-led economic and increasingly military alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (http://uk.businessinsider.com/turkey-russia-china-shanghai-cooperation-organization-2016-11?ref=yfp). In Syria itself, Russia’s air, ground and intelligence support has allowed Syrian government forces and allied partisans to roll back the opposition’s hold on Aleppo and other areas.
Last week, President Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe achieved a significant breakthrough in the seven decade-long dispute over the Kurile Islands taken by the USSR from Japanese jurisdiction after World War II. For the first time, Moscow and Tokyo agreed to engage in joint economic activity on the islands and declared their intent to do so as a first step in confidence-building towards resolving the long-standing territorial dispute.
The coup de grace, one with which Moscow had little to do, was the victory of relative outsider Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. This change offers an opening through which Russia could consolidate all the gains mentioned above and then some. More importantly, should Trump decide to put an end to NATO expansion and U.S. revolutionism’s color revolt policy, Moscow can consolidate its hold over its traditional and quite natural sphere of influence in central Eurasia. According to the Kremlin’s website, in their first telephone conversation since Trump’s election the two parties agreed in their “dissatisfaction” with the state of U.S.-Russian relations and supported “active joint work for their normalization and a shift in the direction of constructive cooperation on a wide range of issues.” In particular, Putin and Trump agreed “to create a reliable basis for bilateral ties” by developing the trade relations and on “the necessity of joining efforts in the struggle against enemy number one – international terrorism and extremism” — the context for their discussion of Syria (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53255). This deviates from the Barack Obama administration’s focus on removing Bashar Assad from power and backing the Muslim Brotherhood as well as some jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. However, Trump’s first personnel appointments suggest there will be a difficult struggle over Russia policy in the new administration than that implied by President-elect Trump’s campaign statements. Trump’s choices for Secretary of State choice, ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson, and for National Security advisor, former DIA Director General Michael Flynn are pro-Russian and are bound to clash with several of Trump’s returned miitary general- appointees, such as General James Mattis.
Nevertheless, since the Ukraine crisis – beginning with the West’s support for the overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovych regime in Ukraine and Putin’s overreaction in Crimea and Donbass, and continuing with mutual economic sanctions — the Kremlin has enjoyed a series of political victories across the globe. In part, this may be a reaction to the Obama administration’s risky endorsement of the Maidan regime as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. States across the globe have numerous economic, political and security reasons to reject such policies. Quite naturally then, many countries’ publics and elites have increasingly grave doubts about the American policy and leadership and thus the American hegemony project as a whole or at least the destabilizing implementation thereof. Russia is effectively capitalizing on those doubts to its advantage not in order to defeat the West but rather to compete with it and simultaneously to tame Washington’s hubris and unrealistic hegemonic inertia.
Of course, things in foreign policy are often cyclical, and Moscow’s roll might be short in duration. However, for now it looks like the sun is rising in the East and setting in the West. An end to any objections to such a division of the world could mean one side will eventually get the upper hand over the other, with all the risks that entails. Either way, Russia remains positioned to play a role in deciding the outcome.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.