Daily Briefing: RUSSIA’S FUTURE TRAJECTORY: TIME TO MEND FENCES WITH THE WEST? (June 25,2020)

Meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G20 Summit (Source:Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:

Russia Cannot Afford Another 15 Years at War with the West:  Philip Stephens, Financial Times, June 25, 2020

The End of the Honeymoon Between Iran and Russia in Syria:  Aref Bijan, Modern Diplomacy, June 23, 2020

Russia Looks to Washington for Help in Libya:  Jamie Dettmer, VOA, June 17, 2020

Russia and Israel: Towards a Pragmatic Partnership:  Pritish Gupta, ORF,Mar. 5, 2020

______________________________________________________Russia Cannot Afford Another 15 Years at War with the West
Philip Stephens
Financial Times, June 25, 2020Vladimir Putin is proposing to give himself the option of another 15 years in office. He could spend this time continuing to shake his fist at the west. Alternatively, he could brush away the cobwebs of the cold war and begin to recognise the challenge to Russian power from its friend and ally China.

So far Mr Putin’s foreign policy has been tactical rather than strategic. Its goal has been to keep up appearances. Russia’s president heads a nation in decline, but one unwilling to cede its place at the top table of global affairs. There is nothing unusual about this. British prime ministers clung on to the idea they were one of the “Big Three” even as the empire dissolved around them. At some point, though, the pretence becomes unsustainable.

Mr Putin has built his standing at home on the promise of restoring Russian prestige abroad. Above all, he has craved recognition for Russia as a match for the US. Nothing wounded him so much as former US president Barack Obama’s throwaway jibe that Russia had fallen to the role of a “regional power”. The Kremlin’s answer has been to sacrifice strategic interests to appearances. The unspoken price has been the acceptance of the role of junior partner in Beijing.

The Kremlin this week defied the Covid-19 pandemic to hold its delayed 75th anniversary commemoration of the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazis in 1945. The parade of the nation’s military might through the streets of Moscow is being followed by a vote over several days on constitutional changes that would allow Mr Putin to remain in the Kremlin until 2036. The referendum outcome, as with all Russian polls, is a foregone conclusion. 

Mr Putin’s promised victory, however, will say nothing about the nation’s future trajectory. The Russian leader has spent his first two decades in a noisy struggle against the west. His worldview was shaped by the cold war and the Soviet Union’s supposed humiliation by the west. In this mindset, the US-led Nato alliance remains the enemy, and the Kremlin’s goal is to secure the respect in Washington it commanded before the fall of the Berlin Wall. All the while, the economic and strategic realities have been travelling in the opposite direction.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Russia hard. So has the global economic downturn. The fall in the oil price has robbed the regime of economic flexibility and of funds to finance its foreign adventurism. Mr Putin’s revanchism in Ukraine and his opportunistic interventions in Syria and Libya have begun to look unaffordable.

Measured in terms of nominal national income, the World Bank ranks Russia 11th in the world — behind such nations as Italy, Canada and Brazil. Russia’s power now resides largely in its nuclear arsenal and in Mr Putin’s willingness to use its technological capabilities and military forces to disrupt and destabilise perceived rivals.

The Russian president, of course, may be banking on a victory for Donald Trump in this year’s US presidential election. Among the many alarming insights in former national security adviser John Bolton’s account of life in the White House is the president’s deep contempt for European allies. One more heave, Mr Putin may be thinking, and Mr Trump will destroy Nato from within. Although a second term for Mr Trump would be severely disruptive of the alliance, Mr Putin would be chasing dreams. Whether he enjoys defeat or victory in November, Nato will outlast this president. The question a strategically-minded leader in Moscow should be asking is why Russia continues to view the alliance as such a threat. Mr Putin would do better to look eastward to the ever more assertive foreign policy of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

On one level, the present Sino-Russian axis makes perfect sense. Both nations reject the American-designed postwar global order and repudiate the notion of a rules-based system rooted in western values. Both favour a Westphalian order in which the strong carve outs spheres of influence. For Mr Xi the gains speak for themselves. Moscow offers secure supplies of oil and gas to sustain the growth of the Chinese economy. The relationship provides strategic reassurance as Beijing confronts the US in pursuit of maritime hegemony in the western Pacific. Looking ahead, depopulated swaths of Russian Siberia offer an opportunity for economic expansion. Mr Putin’s forays in Ukraine and the Middle East are a bonus, distracting US attention from Chinese expansionism in East Asia.

The advantages for Russia of such an unequal partnership are not so obvious. Yes, Mr Putin gets a comrade-in-arms for his denunciations of western liberalism but at the expense of watching Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative undercutting Russian power in central Asia. Mr Xi’s plan to open the Northern Sea route to Europe threatens to undercut Russian interests in the Arctic. An expansive view of China’s influence-building in eastern and central Europe would raise fears of strategic encirclement. Mr Putin is a creature of the Soviet KGB. It may well be that it is too late for him to escape his own nostalgia. But a leader planning to hold on to power for another 15 years might take the time for a strategic stock-take. The challenges and risks lie to Russia’s east.
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The End of the Honeymoon Between Iran and Russia in Syria
Aref Bijan
Modern Diplomacy, June 23, 2020

Although many years have passed since the end of the Cold War, world powers are competing for hegemony and gaining allies in the Middle East. Perhaps the turning point is the Arab Spring (2011), which has shifted the balance of power in the region between global and regional powers, and then created new rules and actors.

Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, as important regional and global actors, sought to reconsider their Middle East policy and find new partners. Now that about 10 years have passed since the Arab crisis, the presence of these actors in Syria continues. But the current situation in the Syrian crisis has created differences between Iran and Russia, which shows that we are seeing changes in some of the policies of these two countries.

Now the question is whether Iran and Russia are still cooperating or whether the era of competition and their distance from each other has begun. A question that could be related to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit to Russia and Turkey last week. The trip coincided with the implementation of the so-called “Caesar” US sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. However, in addition to putting pressure on the Syrian government, Caesar’s sanctions appear to be putting pressure on the regime’s two main supporters, Iran and Russia, and increasing the cost of the two countries’ presence in Syria.

Cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria

The start of serious cooperation between Iran and Russia in Syria dates back to 2015, when the Syrian army’s defeat in the Syrian civil war and the fall of Bashar al-Assad seemed likely, in such circumstances, Iran asked Russia for help. Russia’s serious involvement in the Syrian war began in 2015, after the visit of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. At the same time, Iran called on Russia to intervene in the Syrian crisis to maintain Bashar al-Assad’s power. Russia’s military intervention in Syria is in fact part of Moscow’s attempt to return to the global geopolitical chessboard as a major power (and an attempt to forge multilateral alliances and a balance between most of the region’s powers); these characteristics are essentially based on pragmatism and political realism.

On the other hand, Iran’s presence in Syria was initially accompanied by advisory assistance and then the presence of ground forces to support the Syrian government. These forces included Iranian-backed military forces and paramilitary groups. But the defeat of Assad’s forces required extensive airstrike’s by Russian troops. Russia’s serious presence in Syria began in late September 2015, prompting Russia to work to eliminate threats, such as the American hegemony, separatism, and extremist Islamism. In this regard, Vladimir Putin has embarked on a path of multifaceted diplomacy.

Russia has launched a new phase of cooperation with Iran and Syrian forces with airstrike’s against Assad’s opponents in Syria. The attacks coincided with the rise of ISIS forces in Syria. The ground support of Iran and militias from the Syrian army, as well as the air support of the Russian military, led to the successive defeats of Assad’s opponents and the consolidation of his power, Under these circumstances, Iran and Russia were moving in almost the same direction due to common interests, so much so that Russian air forces used the Nojeh air base in Hamadan for their operations in Syria. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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Russia Looks to Washington for Help in Libya
Jamie Dettmer
VOA, June 17, 2020

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Wednesday that he would welcome any efforts by Washington to use its influence on Turkey to help fashion a truce in Libya, where Ankara and Moscow are backing opposing sides and appear to be at increasing odds.

Turkey dismissed last week an Egyptian-backed cease-fire offered on behalf of General Khalifa Haftar. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu scoffed that the general only wanted a truce because he was now losing on the battlefield. He said that as far as Ankara was concerned, the cease-fire initiative, broached by Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, another Haftar backer, was “stillborn.”

The Moscow-backed renegade warlord’s eastern-based forces last month had to lift their 14-month siege of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, following a massive, game-changing increase in military support by Turkey for the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA. Lavrov and Russia’s defense minister canceled on short notice a planned visit Sunday to Turkey to try to thrash out a cease-fire deal. Some Western diplomats interpret Lavrov’s appeal to Washington, an about-turn by Russia’s foreign minister, who in the past has criticized any Western involvement in Libya, as a sign of mounting exasperation in Moscow over the reversal of Haftar’s fortunes on the battlefield. The GNA is now threatening to move into Haftar’s eastern territory, and it is pressing home an assault on the coastal city of Sirte, located between Tripoli and Benghazi, the general’s stronghold.

As the Libyan conflict rages, more foreign actors have been drawn into the fighting between the U.N.-recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj and forces loyal to Haftar, who has the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Russia and to a lesser extent France. But Russia and Turkey have emerged as the key arbiters in Libya — much as they have in Syria — with reputation, clout, and potential oil and commercial deals at stake.

Balancing act

Forging postwar futures for either country that balance the interests of both Moscow and Ankara is proving highly elusive — and is not being helped by the capricious nature of their clients in both countries. In Libya’s case, Moscow is thought to have doubted the wisdom of Haftar’s decision to launch a military offensive on Tripoli. The latest phase of the long-running turmoil in Libya that followed the 2011 ouster of then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi has seen accusations of grave human rights violations leveled against both sides.

The United Nations raised the alarm Tuesday about the mistreatment of a large group of Egyptian migrant workers in Libya by GNA forces after graphic footage emerged on social media showing militiamen abusing scores of the workers captured in the western city of Tarhuna, 90 kilometers from Tripoli. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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Russia and Israel: Towards a Pragmatic Partnership
Pritish Gupta
ORF, Mar. 5, 2020

In the first two months of 2020, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have already met twice, with the meetings taking place within a week of each other. While the Russian leader was in Israel to attend events related to commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Netanyahu visited Moscow en-route from Washington where US President Donald J. Trump announced his plan for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The Prime Minister noted that his previously unannounced visit on January 30 was a sign of mutual trust between the two sides, as Russia was his first stop the day after the American plan was unveiled, ahead of his return to Israel.

In recent years, there has been a marked uptick in the bilateral visits at the highest level between the two countries. In fact, the Israeli leader has visited Moscow eleven times in his fourth term in office, including the January 2020 meeting, while Putin has visited Tel Aviv twice between 2012 and 2020.

Two key developments took place during Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow. The first was the release of Israeli national Naama Issachar, who was pardoned by the Russian president in a goodwill gesture, after having been held in Russia since April 2019 on drug charges. The case had been closely followed in Israel and her release was seen as a positive sign for the bilateral relationship, as well as a win for Netanyahu ahead of the March general elections. The second was the discussion on Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

Russia has criticized the US plan, instead calling for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine and international support for the process. It has argued that all the competing factions must be on the negotiating table for any progress on the peace process.

Russia, which maintains regular contacts with all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, has been interested in playing the role of a power broker. In fact, Putin’s visit to Israel on January 23 this year was followed by a visit to Palestine, where he met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, discussing the anticipated US peace plan besides bilateral issues. Palestine wants Russia to play a larger role in the peace process, as the trust deficit with the US has grown after US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and decided to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv. In fact, after the US announcement to the effect in 2017, Moscow remained critical of the move and held on to its position of East Jerusalem being the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Since the announcement of the Trump plan, President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that the Palestinian Authority is cutting all ties with US and Israel. He also affirmed that Palestinians would refrain from engaging in a US-led peace process and would rather prefer a multilateral one. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
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For Further Reference:

How Russia Saved Israel From a Palestinian State Based on the ’48 Borders Ariel Kahana, Israel Hayom, June 15, 2020 –– New details about some drama involving Israel, Russia, and the US that played out behind the scenes at the United Nations Security Council some four years ago are coming to light.

Russians Vote on Putin’s Reforms to Constitution:  BBC News, June 25, 2020 — The official vote is scheduled for 1 July, but authorities said they were opening polling stations a week early to stop overcrowding amid the pandemic.

New Russian Policy Allows Use of Atomic Weapons Against Non-Nuclear Strike: Vladimir Isachenkov, Defense News, June 2, 2020 — President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday endorsed Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, which allows him to use atomic weapons in response to a conventional strike targeting the nation’s critical government and military infrastructure.

Exclusive: U.S. Warns Russia, China of U.N. Isolation if Iran Arms Ban Extension Blocked:  Michelle Nichols, Humeyra Pamuk, Reuters, June 2020 — Russia and China will be isolated at the United Nations if they continue down the “road to dystopia” by blocking a U.S. bid to extend a weapons ban on Iran, U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook told Reuters ahead of his formal pitch of the embargo to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.