Three milestones of Russia’s foreign policy in 2017

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Pavel Koshkin

Rethinking Russia analyzes Russia’s foreign policy agenda in 2017 and the most important events that have had a great impact on the Kremlin. 

2017 brought both successes and disappointments to Russia on the international arena. Moscow succeeded in establishing dialogue with its rivals in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It also participated in the Astana peace talks to come up with a compromise with Ankara and Tehran on Syria. Besides, Russia together with its Syrian allies defeated the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced about the partial withdrawal of the Russian troops from Syria.

One of the biggest challenges became the strengthening of the American sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Russia dossier probe conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Congress is also a very important event, because it could deepen the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations. Parliamentary and presidential elections in Europe also matter:  They took place amidst the buzz about the Russian cyber threat and hackers, and this indicates that there is not trust toward Russia in European countries today.

Finally, Russia has been consistently developing ties with China and trying to turn to the East. In this regard, a possible alignment of Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt might be a game-changer, if this project is implemented successfully.

Rethinking Russia offers the review of the most important events that have had a great impact on the Kremlin in 2017.

  1. Russia’s Middle Eastern gambit

Withdrawing troops from Syria 

On Dec. 11, during his visit to the Khmeimim air base, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced about the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Syria and congratulated the Russian soldiers with the victory over the Islamic State.

Earlier, on Dec. 8, during the OSCE ministerial meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Islamic state “was finally and fully defeated” in Syria. In the early December Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov said that the Syrian territory was liberated from the ISIS terrorists.

In March 2016 Putin had already announced about Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria, however the Kremlin had to increase its military presence in the Middle East afterwards to fight with the Islamic State. And during his Dec. 11 visit to the Khmeimim base, he made it clear that “if terrorists raise their heads again, we will launch such strike, which they have never seen before”.  Some experts believe that Putin’s statement about Russia’s withdrawal from Syria doesn’t mean that the Kremlin will decrease its presence in the Middle East.

“Putin’s announcement of Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria marks the victorious end of the military campaign but not of the Russian military presence and political involvement in the region,” Director of Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin wrote on his facebook page.

Normalizing the dialogue with Turkey

2017 was comparably successful for the Russian-Turkish relations: The countries were able to come up with a compromise on Syria within the format of the Ankara peace talks in Kazakhstan. Through the intermediary of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the representatives of official Damascus and the Syrian opposition were brought together at the negotiation table for the first time. There were seven rounds of the Syrian peace talks in Astana from January to October.

They resulted in the agreement on the creation of the trilateral Syria ceasefire mechanism, with all sides having discussed the principles of separating the moderate opposition from terrorist groups. Moreover, the guarantor states — Russia, Turkey and Iran — agreed to create four de-escalation zones to foster the political solution of the Syrian conflict.

In addition, Moscow and Ankara were able to strengthen the military-technical cooperation. In September, they signed the deal on delivering Russia’s S-400 missile-defense systems to Turkey. This boosted their bilateral relations, yet brought about concerns within the NATO countries. Russia is seen in this situation as the state, which sows discord in the North Atlantic Alliance.

However, the Russian-Turkey cooperation might not be longstanding, as indicated by the experience of two last years: In November 2015 Turkey downed the Russian jet near the Syrian borders and this incident worsened the relations between two countries. They disrupted political and economic ties, with their rhetoric toward each other having become very hostile. Some expert even warned against a direct military confrontation between Russia and Turkey.

Another challenge in their relations is the Kurdish question: They cannot come up with a compromise on this challenge. Russia supports the Syrian Kurds, while Turkey sees them as hostile forces that inspire Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara views as a terrorist organization.

Saudi King Salman pays a visit to Russia

On Oct. 5-8 Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud paid a historic visit to Russia. During this trip, Moscow and Riyadh discussed the ways of how to resolve the Syrian conflict and signed more 15 deals in the fields of space exploration, energy, telecommunications and culture.

For example, the Russia Direct Investment Fund and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) signed the $ 2.1 billion deal to invest in energy, technology and infrastructure projects. Moreover, as a result of his trip to Russia, King Salman discussed an arm deal on the purchase of the Russian missile-defense systems S-400. According to Kommersant newspaper, Riyadh plans to buy at least four S-400 batteries for about $2 billion.

The Moscow-Riyadh ties started strengthening in first half of the 20th century. Twelve years after the establishment of the diplomatic relations between two countries in 1926, the Soviet embassy in Saudi Arabia was shut down. In 1990, the countries resumed their collaboration, yet, in fact, it was not the case: During the Chechen war in 1994 and 1996 Moscow repeatedly accused Riyadh of sponsoring terrorists in North Caucasus. Yet, in the 2000s the countries had been restoring their contacts gradually. In 2006, Saudi King visited Russia, while in 2007 the Russian president had a trip to Saudi Arabia, which reinvigorated the bilateral ties, to quote former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Oleg Ozerov.

However, the Syrian civil war, which started in 2011, brought about serious differences between Moscow and Riyadh over the future of the Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia supported him — Saudi Arabia wanted him out. Moscow insisted on involving Iran, the archrival of Saudi Arabia, in the Syria peace negotiation, Riyadh spent a huge amount of money to support the Syrian opposition and overthrow Assad.

That’s why the visit of Saudi King to Russia made headlines in media and among experts. This visit can be seen as the triumph of Russian and Saudi diplomacy and pragmatism. The Saudi-Russian relations started improving in 2015 because of three reasons — the change of power in Saudi Arabia in 2015, the sharp drop of oil prices in 2014-2015 and the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria, according to Arabic scholar Marianna Belenkaya.

New Saudi King and his coterie took a more pragmatic approach toward Russia. The collapse of oil prices pushed Moscow and Riyadh to sign the November 2016 deal to decrease the oil production (it was prolonged until the end of March 2018). Finally, the Russian participation in the Syrian war strengthened its image of an intermediary in resolving the Middle Eastern conflicts, writes Arabic expert Belenkaya on the website of Carnegie Moscow Center.

However, amidst the improvement of the Russian-Saudi relations, Moscow ties with Iran might be at stake, because Riyadh sees Tehran as its archrival in the region and might give an ultimatum to Moscow: It should choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Belenkaya points out. Despite the fact that there is a favorable situation today for developing the Saudi-Russian relations, Moscow should not be obsessively optimistic, because the U.S. is still the key economic and political partner of Riyadh, the experts adds.

  1. On the verge of a new Cold war

Codification of sanctions against Iran, Russia and North Korea

In the early August, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the law that imposes additional sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea and codifies them. In July, the House of Representatives and the Senate adopted this bill, with 98 senators out of 100 having voted for it. The new law restricts the power of the American president in easing or lifting sanctions against other countries: From now onward, he has to inform Congress in advance about his plans, with congressmen having 30 days to block his decisions regarding the sanction policy.

According to American law experts, the new law strengthens sanction on Russia legally, which means that they are going to be longstanding. Now lifting sanctions requires long bureaucratic procedures and, most importantly, the political will of congressmen, which is absent currently with the U.S. establishment, because Russia lacks credibility today, as indicated by the statements of some American officials.

In addition, the law expands sanctions against Russian energy companies, including Rosneft, Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, Lukoil and Surgutneftegaz: American companies are forbidden to supply goods, services and deep water drilling technologies to these companies. The law also prohibits supply and use of American technologies in international projects, if more than 33% of its share belongs to the blacklisted Russian companies.  All this means that the new sanctions might affect some Russian international projects, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea and bypasses Ukraine. The U.S. sees it as dangerous for Europe’s energy security.

The key goal of the new law is to codify sanctions against Russia for decades ahead, wrote Sergei Sokolov, an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). “For the foreseeable future, it is impossible to imagine a situation, when the majority of the both houses of Congress will vote for canceling or at least for easing sanctions. This means that the American-Russian relations are returning to their usual abnormal state,” he said.

The “Russia dossier” probe

In 2017 U.S. Congress started investigation into the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The intelligence committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate launched their own probes in January and March respectively. In January, other subcommittees and committees of the both houses of Congress joined investigation. In May, U.S. Justice Ministry appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conduct an independent investigation. This move came after U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, who previously led the “Russian dossier” probe.

However, the demand for investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. elections emerged in December 2016, when former U.S. President Barack Obama gave an order to intelligence to review the Russian dossier. In January 2017, the American intelligence released the report, which accused Russia and its President Vladimir Putin of attempting to influence the results of the U.S. presidential campaign through propaganda and hacking.

Today, the Russia dossier might result in new sanctions from the U.S. and a more dangerous confrontation, if Washington is able to prove that the Kremlin tried to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.  The fact that the investigation is in full swing in America severely affects U.S.-Russia relations, increases mutual distrust and hostility.

“If Russia indeed interfered in the American election, the normalization of the relations will be possible only in the case of regime change either in Russia or in the U.S.,” Ivan Tsvetkov, an American Studies expert from St. Petersburg State University, told RIAC.

Election marathon in Europe

2017 was marked with the election marathon in Europe: Parliamentary and presidential campaigns were haunted by the Russian cyber threat and accompanied by the U.S.-led probe into the Russian interference in the U.S. domestic affairs. Russian hackers became a buzzword during the French presidential election (Apr. 24 and May 7) as well as parliamentary elections in Germany (Sept. 24), Austria (Oct. 15), Great Britain (June 8) and The Netherlands (March 15).

On July 28 the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee conducted the hearings about Russia’s possible interference in the European election. Russia repeatedly tried to meddle in American and European elections through state propaganda and “trolls factories” to impose its own narrative and influence the agenda of other countries, said Vice-Chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee Mark Warner. During the Senate hearings, former U.S. NATO envoy Nicholas Burns described Russia as “an existential threat” for the U.S. and Europe.

The West created a great deal of buzz about Russia’s presumed cyber threat before presidential and parliamentary campaigns. However, Russia was hardly able to influence the results of the European elections.  First, the fact of the Kremlin’s interference is not proven, and the Mueller investigation is still going on.

Second, the politicians that could not be seen as pro-Russian won the European elections. French President Emmanuel Macron takes a pragmatic approach toward Russia, but at the same time he sticks to the European liberal values and consistently criticizes Russia for its policy in Ukraine. The same can be said about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose party won the German parliamentary election in September. In March The Netherland voted for pro-European Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which he heads. However, Austria might be seen as an exception, because it elected 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who is friendly toward and cooperative with Russia: He called for the gradual cancellation of sanctions against Russia.

Thus, the results of the European elections indicate that the EU will be still tough and intransigent toward Russia regarding such sensitive topics like Ukraine and, probably, sanctions. It also means that Moscow didn’t have any impact on the electoral campaign in Europe. That’s why the claims of the Western politicians about the Russian “existential threat” look like another exaggeration.

  1. Russia and China: Fostering “Pivot to the East”

Aligning with China: The XIX Communist Party Congress, One Belt, One Road

2017 saw the further strengthening of the Russian-Chinese relations amidst the internal reshuffles within China and its increasing global economic and political expansion. On Oct. 24, the XIX Communist Party Congress, a policy-setting leadership reshuffle held every five years, came to an end.

The Chinese authorities announced a new Central Committee, the largest of its elite ruling bodies, and a new Politburo Standing Committee, which includes seven members headed by Xi Jinping, who was re-elected as the General Secretary of China’s Communist Party for next five years. However, the Chinese authorities gave up with the tradition of announcing the name of Xi’s successor. Now nobody even can speculate who will rule the country in five years.

This means that the current General Secretary might only strengthen his political positions in the future, even after the end of his next five-year tenure. Today, Xi is one of the most influential Chinese leaders, with his name included in the Party’s charter: Now he is put in the same breath with the founder of modern China Mao Zedong and economic reformer Deng Xiaoping. And it is rather good for Russia, because Xi took a pragmatic approach toward Moscow and established friendly ties with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, as said Vasily Kashin, a leading research fellow at the Institute of the Far Eastern Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences, in an interview to RBC daily.

Now, the Communist Party’s charter contains Xi’s ideas about socialism with a Chinese twist in the new era, his anti-corruption initiatives and his global economic project “One Belt, One Road”, intended to connect Europe, Asia and Africa through trade and infrastructure links.  In May 2017, a large-forum, dedicated to this grand project, took place in Beijing and brought together almost 30 country leaders from Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

While some countries like Japan, India and the U.S. see “One Belt, One Road” as another dangerous hegemonic project, the Kremlin welcomes this initiative and hopes to implement its own project — the so-called alignment between the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. This could alleviate the risks of a possible confrontation between Russia and China if they start trading barbs over the regional influence in the Central Asia, Carnegie Moscow Center’s Asian-Pacific Program chair Alexander Gabuev told in an interview to RBC Daily.

Pavel Koshkin is a fellow of The Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences. He has PnD from Lomonosov Moscow State University. He is the former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an analytical media outlet. 

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