Overview of Russia’s Recent Foreign Policy, India Important for Both US and Russia: Gabriela Ionita

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As soon as Vladimir Putin assumed power in Kremlin last year, we have seen immense involvement of Russia in the international affairs. From Cyprus to Iran and Syria, the amount of aggressiveness Russia showed to maintain its interests was comparable to Soviet times. After a big gap of 20 years, when this huge nation was keeping a low profile since the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia’s recent active role in the world politics has given hopes that soon we are going to see a multipolar world ending US dominance. To discuss the mood in the Kremlin we interviewed Gabriela Ionita, Editor in chief of Power&Politics World who is also an expert in Russia’s international affairs.

TWR: After the collapse of Soviet Union, we saw Russia had gone under a cold state. There was almost negligible response from Russia on Iraq and Afghanistan war. But we could see some response from Russia on Libya, and now Russia has come out fully aggressively in Syria’s case. Do you think all these years, when Russia re-established itself on the global platform, it has prepared itself to take on western world again on global geopolitics issues? Are we going to see a bipolar or a multi polar world soon?

G.I.: We are already part of a world with multiple power centers. President Obama’s speech, at the recent meeting of the UN, certifies such a perception of political analysts. To reduce the geopolitical equation only highly questionable relationship between U.S. and Russia is meaningless. There are numerous emerging economies from which even Russia and U.S. could learn some useful lessons. Also, there are many cooperation organizations to which the two are not only States, but also leaders and the need to find consensus solutions to highlight leadership. And last but not least, we see that today almost all the countries of the world – from the European Union, the Middle Orient, the Chinese and American societies – are faced, in one form or another, with the need to find new strategies and preserve their identity in the radically changing world, and Russia – a huge melting pot of ethnicities and cultures – cannot make an exception from it.

In the last two decades, Russia has changed its political and ideological concepts as far as was possible with the legacy of the former USSR, legacy assumed open by the new leaders in Moscow. As you were saying, there was almost a negligible response from Russia on Iraq and Afghanistan war. But we must remember that Russia had its own catastrophic experience in Afghanistan, whose consequences are still felt in the minds of the Russian society. So it’s good to notice that after the disintegration of the USSR Russia has really felt what a collapsed state means. Its first and foremost priority was the domestic situation. It is known that the economic growth, prosperity and geopolitical influence are derivatives from the total condition of a settled society. After overcoming the urgent impediments of internal order, it was logical for Russia to wonder itself: ”who is ?” and where should it be looking on foreign policy for supporting its own interests. The first step, of course, was trying to gain the regional influence and, subsequent, the global influence and its returning to the table of the world’s great leaders.

Regarding the reaction to the conflict in Libya, I do not think that Russia had a clear strategy. This was more an attempt of the ex-president – the current prime minister Medvedev – to improve his personal political rating, which proved to be a rather unsuccessful attempt. Instead, Russia’s intention to protect its interests in the Middle East were seen in the intervention in Syria. Russia wants to be a major decider and even a major opponent when its interest dictates. And if you take a peek at the commercial agreements between Russia and Syria or Iran, it is easy to see that here the interests dictate.

Contrary to controversial statements regarding Russia’s imperial obsessions, restoring the USSR and other such foolishness that the russophobias propaganda sites are full of, there is nothing unusual in Russia’s intentions. Looking closely and judging right, we can see that all the great and small powers of the world are doing everything they can to promote their economic interests and preserve their own sphere of influence. What differs are only the methods and strategies used. Some prefer to invoke the principles of democracy and human rights, other – the rule of law and veiled threats, other – economic pressures and direct threats, others – just shut up and do – the last statistically having the best results.

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TWR: – But what do you think about the relations between Russia and the U.S. at the moment?

G.I.:  On one hand, it would be childish of us to believe that between two states that claim to be a global power pole there could be a relationship like ”milk with honey”. On the other hand, in spite of the officials declarations, the restart of Russian and American relations continued all along (sometimes even for reasons of internal propaganda of the two states) to be hunted by the ghosts of the Cold War. Nowadays, at the level of perception of public opinion I will quote Olga Kamenciuk, communications director of the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. “Lately, between Russia and the U.S. there are many differences. Mainly, this is on the cases such as Snowden and about Syria. Regarding Snowden, for example, most Russians thought that Russia’s position will worsen relations with the U.S., but only 15% are saying he does not have to be granted political asylum”. The same is the public opinion in the case of Syria. Russians understand that this situation will worsen relations with America, but prefer an independent position of their country on this issue. In the U.S., the situation is somewhat similar. According to Gallup (agency for marketing and social studies) for the first time since 2000, the number of those who consider Russia an enemy exceeded the number of those who see Russia as an ally.

But it’s good to remember that not always the public perception also means the reality behind the closed doors. U.S. and Russia worked together and effectively collaborate on the levels where the interests of the two coincide. The fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, aviation security, cybercrime are some aspects of this collaboration. Then, behold, recently a NATO ship arrived in port at St. Petersburg as part of continued NATO-Russia Council military cooperation, and provided an opportunity for naval counterparts to meet and exchange experiences. And even when we are tempted to believe that relations between the U.S. and Russia are at their lowest level in a few days will take place in Brussels the first over two years meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) at the level of Defense Ministers with the participation of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The NATO headquarters considers Shoigu’s involvement in the meeting the unique opportunity to give an impetus to military relations between Russia and NATO in the field of security. So here, the reality is much more complex and cannot be reduced to categorical labels.

TWR: In spring, Cyprus approached Russia under financial crisis to seek potential bailout plan which Russia refused. Why do you think that Russia let go such a big opportunity of earning a partner in Mediterranean Sea, who was ready to offer its gas fields and warm water port at a strategically important place just under the nose of EU? 

G.I.: In reality, things are not so simple. Many people said they were surprised and wondered at the time why the Prime Minister Medvedev stepped out in the case the Cyprus crisis. There are two main aspects that need mentioning: first – Cyprus is an EU member state. And as a member of the EU, many of the internally decisions required leaders must receive first approval from Brussels. The second aspect – the EU is Russia’s main trading partner. Neither of the two can to decide unilaterally, without respecting certain commitments previously taken and without assuming certain economic and diplomatic consequences in case of slippage. Russia could not call into question the partnership with the EU to an offer rather unclear and unlikely from Cyprus. Then, I do not exclude that the Kremlin was probably happy that their citizens, holders of accounts with many zeros in banks in Cyprus, to receive a lesson. If Russia’s option was estimated right will see soon, because last week Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation at the EU, Vladimir Chizhov told Itar-Tass in an interview that Russia and the European Union “have practically completed the implementation of joint steps towards a transition to a visa-free regime” and they may announce this at the forthcoming Russia – EU summit this winter.

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TWR: There are a lot of talks about Russia’s opposition to the pro-European options of Ukraine and the Republic Moldova. Is Eurasian Union a viable project?

G.I.: Yes. Depends what you mean by this “viable”. For now, though thought to bring economic benefits and to be a counterweight to the EU, Eurasian Union is primarily a political project. Or a political project has a limited lifespan. And it offers too few attractions and opportunities in terms of economic, hence more acute lack of adhesion. Ideology does not solve social problems. No wonder that the Customs Union member states require serious focus on the economy development. If Moscow will know to develop such a strategy, then it is possible that countries that today are turning to the EU to reassess the situation. Let’s be honest: the opportunities offered by the EU are not spectacular (if Ukraine will sign the treaty of association and free trade with the EU, it does not mean that it will begin to flow with milk and honey in the streets of Kiev. But it’s something other than continue discussion with Moscow, the latter always in the position of power). If Moscow will not convince that the Eurasian Union can generate economic and social benefits (its policies on migrants are equally ineffective and discriminatory as those of many of the EU countries), then perhaps there will be a period of time as a political project, without the chance to build something solid. The failure of EU policy starts from the fact that it was a political project without economic and social cohesion, despite the propaganda statements. Will Moscow know to avoid a similar mistake? Honestly, at this time, I have great doubts.

TWR: Seeing India cozying up with the US and Israel, Vladimir Putin decided to visit Pakistan searching for a new ally as Pakistan has its own disagreements with USA. Although the visit was later cancelled, do you think the policy of US enemies as Russia’s friends is correct? In South Asia can Russia afford to lose India for Pakistan, where former funds and jointly works on various projects with Russia and is also largest importer of Russian weapons?

G.I.: I think it’s not a very good strategy if we limit ourselves to think only in black and white colors (enemies of America – friends of Russia). The political and economic substance shows us that the things are much more diverse and counts many shades of gray. Each state actors which you listed has interests that it wants to promote, has goals it wants to see fulfilled, and according to them and the global context can opt for a partnership with Russia or with the West, namely America, European Union, or why not, one of the emerging economies of Latin America or Asia.

Returning to the essence: Pakistan has been a loyal USA partner. But, it seems that loyalty was not its strong point in its partner’s eyes. Pakistan’s extensive oil and gas reserves, largely located in Baluchistan province, as well as its pipeline corridors are considered strategic by the West alliance. According to Professor Michel Chossudovsky, in “The Destabilization of Pakistan”, Washington’s foreign policy course is to actively promote the political fragmentation and balkanization of Pakistan as a nation. He said that balkanization is intended for creating a free Baluchistan (with its huge natural resources and a coastline of 750 kms). The remaining coastline with Pakistan would be 250 kms. The warm waters have always been the great game objective. Whether the political and the military establishments of India are aware or not, India’s role carved out by the US is critically important for Pakistan’s denuclearization. India does comprehend very well that if Pakistan is divided and de-nuked, the power in Asia shifts in favour of… India, course. Since China is a fast rising economic and military power, it is essential that the West develop India as an equal economic and military power to counter China. This balance between India and China cannot be maintained if Pakistan is to remains a regional power.

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In the same time, for Russia, India is a important partner, but also the importance of relations with Pakistan is already on the increase, if only given Afghanistan’s involvement in drug trafficking, since the bulk of the drugs end up in Russia and the rest go on to Europe. Following the withdrawal of the majority of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014, there will remain approximately 10,000 American servicemen (as of 1 January 2013, there were 66,000 American soldiers and officers in the country). The American contingent staying on in Afghanistan will, just as before, need supplies of food, fuel and other products and these will be delivered to Afghanistan via tried and tested routes – through Pakistan and Russia. This means that the coordination of actions between Moscow and Islamabad is also important from this angle… In general, improving relations between Russia and Pakistan could have a positive influence on the situation both in Afghanistan itself and in Central Asia. In addition, we are rather talking about an integrated approach of Russian foreign policy, a step forward from Central Asia to the Asia-Pacific region (somewhat considered a stronghold of the West), and not about a decrease in the importance of partnership with India. Remember, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum’s summit in Bali (Indonesia), Sergey Lavrov had a full agenda of bilateral meetings: with Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, Vietnamese Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Pham Binh Minh, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Thailand, Surapong Tovichakchaikul. Not to mention the fact that Vladimir Putin celebrated his birthday as a star.

TWR: Just because you reminded about Vladimir Putin… Noble peace price holder Obama has provoked Iran and Syria creating tensions not only in the region, but also worldwide. Recently Russian advocacy group has nominated Vladimir Putin for effectively handling the Syria issue and using platforms like G-20 summit to win the votes of other countries and avoid US led military intervention in Syria. But the Nobel winner was Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Do you think Vladimir Putin deserves to lay claim on Noble Peace Prize? 

G.I.: I think it’s better to clarify something: according the official website of Nobel Foundation, the nominations to Nobel Prize must usually be submitted to the Committee by the beginning of February in the award year. Nominations postmarked and received after this date are included in the following year’s discussions – aspect applies to Putin’s nomination. Events are dynamic, there’s enough time until next year assessments. But, it is true, no one has explained how – surprising – the OPCW appeared on the list of nominations. However, I think it was a quick compromise decision. One designed to bind up the “wounds” of some prides hard hit on the shores of Neva. Due to its political nature, the Nobel Peace Prize has, for most of its history, been the subject of controversies. By the way, awarding the Nobel Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama has sparked a wave of criticism and ironic statements in many countries. Also, critics took the initiative of Russia Academy. The main argument of opponents: both leaders patronized armed conflicts. They are right, aren’t they?

Gabriela Ionita,
Editor in Chief Power&Politics World

Gabriela Ionita is Editor in chief of Power&Politics World online journal, analyst in the field of International affairs (mainly connected with the Russian Federation and Community of Independent States). Also maintains a frequently updated her personal blog. She took her university degree in Communication and Public Relation at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies – Bucharest/Romania. Currently attending master studies in the field of Foreign languages and civilizations (Slavonic studies) at the Faculty of Philology from Al.I. Cuza University – Iasi).

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Sanskar Shrivastava is the founder of international students' journal, The World Reporter. Passionate about dynamic occurrence in geopolitics, Sanskar has been studying and analyzing geopolitcal events from early life. At present, Sanskar is a student at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture and will be moving to Duke University.