A Russian Geopolitical Reorientation

Posted: March 9, 2014 in The Long Telegram

Vladimir Putin, Sergei ShoiguPundits and politicians this last week have been quick to pronounce verdict on the Crimean crisis. Vladimir Putin and the Russians have miscalculated badly and ultimately lost, by turning to force to achieve what their soft power could not, damaging their relationship with the west and uniting Ukrainians in opposition to Russia. Or alternatively, Russia has presented the west with a fait accompli and has won. Their troops cannot be dislodged from Crimea, the Crimean referendum on independence and integration into Russia will almost certainly produce a ‘yes’ vote and Putin appears to have delayed Ukraine’s western integration until its territorial issues are resolved. I have serious doubts that the issue is so clear cut. As I am fond of saying, the Russians play the long game and I think the Crimean situation has a long way to go yet, and it not apparent who will come out of it strengthened or weakened.

What is apparent, as one of the most respected Russian area analysts points out, is that the crisis represents a decisive Russian geopolitical break with the Euro-Atlantic area. Of course for years Russian watchers have been highlighting its growing cooperation with China, especially in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and its obstructive opposition to US and European foreign policy goals such as missile defence and NATO expansion. Overall, however, compared to the Cold War’s level of confrontation, the 1990s and 2000s were marked by vastly increased cooperation. The establishment of the NATO-Russia council in 1991, and participation from 1994 in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, brought Russia and its former adversaries together in a consultative and collaborative framework.  Economic ties also strengthened as Russia was welcomed into the G8 grouping of major industrial nations in 1998 and 2012 finally saw the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, restricting US trade with Russia as a non-market economy. Russia even supported the initial campaign in the war on terror, using its influence in Central Asia to provide NATO forces with basing installations.

The Russian intervention in Ukraine however, represents an end to this period of cooperation, exposing the deep divisions that have grown between the two. Russia’s open use of troops, despite official denials, in a European neighbour, demonstrates how convinced its leadership has become of the futility of attempting to achieve a broader political accommodation with the west. It is Moscow’s considered view that the west (and the US especially) was never serious about integrating Russia into a global security condominium, that it is unmoved by Russian concerns over NATO’s post-Cold War role, and that policies such as missile defence, or support for the opposition in Syria, are designed to weaken Russia’s geopolitical advantages.

Judging by the US rhetorical and punitive response to the Crimean intervention, relations are set for a deep freeze.  With visa bans already in place, economic sanctions reportedly being prepared and broad security cooperation unthinkable in the present atmosphere, it is likely Russian-US relations will become more adversarial in nature, especially over US policy in the former Soviet borderlands and on issues such as arms control and humanitarian intervention. Coordination may still be possible on issues of joint interest, such as international terrorism and drug interdiction, but these will be transactional agreements.

Relations with Europe will doubtless suffer as well, especially with the EU’s eastern members who have long histories of confrontation with Russia and who are still nervous concerning their economic reliance on Russian energy. Overall economic relations with Europe are likely to remain largely unaffected however. A trade relationship worth an annual USD 500bn, and the vital nature of gas deliveries, will encourage major European states like Germany to adopt a hesitant approach to sanctions. Especially as talk of the US shale gas boom’s ability to counterbalance a disruption of Russian gas supplies is still some years away. Other European states such as Britain and France are also demonstrating their hesitancy to disrupt their economic relationship with Russia.

Despite this, however, Russia can be expected to return to its roots as a more Eurasian power than an aspiring Euro-Atlantic actor. Any reduction in gas purchases by Europe will be counter-balanced by increased sales to China. We were already given a preview of the growing energy cooperation between these two powers with the signing of a 38bn m3 gas delivery agreement in September 2013. Both countries are also likely to increase military cooperation and geopolitical coordination over the next several years, facilitated by China’s reliance on Russian military technology and, to an extent, doctrine.  This will necessitate a Russian abandonment of its traditional fear of becoming China’s junior security partner,  in order to balance greater hostility with the US. It is possible this could finally provide the impetus needed to transform the potentially influential, but currently disjointed, SCO into a major security coordinator.

Finally, look for Russia to strengthen security and strategic integration with its former Soviet allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Military cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), already a priority for the Kremlin, will be reinvigorated.  While currently serving as little more than a potential Central Asian anti-terrorism body and a vehicle for deliveries of discounted Russian military equipment to its poorer neighbours, Russia will seek to strengthen the organisation.  This will result in increased aid to the Central Asian, Armenian and Belarusian militaries, and an expansion of the conventional strength of the CSTO by augmenting its standing formations.

It would be futile to speculate on the long-term effects of this reorientation for internal Russian social and political development, but from a global perspective it appears the post-Cold War era, marked by reduced confrontation, nominal cooperation and growing integration as a result of globalisation, is over. In years to come historians may look on it as a missed opportunity.


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