In the normal case, pushing the reset button should not be a difficult thing to do. Yet, it is almost two months since United States Vice President Joseph Biden offered to do just that.
When he addressed the Munich security conference in February, Biden offered to reset the button in US-Russia relations. However, despite many positive signals and an overall lowering of rhetoric, the moves so far have been by and large symbolic. Across Eurasia, the signs are to the contrary. The Great Game is picking up momentum. The sharp fall in oil prices has complicated Russia's economic recovery, which in turn would disrupt the dynamics of the integration processes under Moscow's leadership - political, military and economic - in the post-Soviet space.
US diplomats are scouring the region for chance to drive wedges in the ties between Moscow and the regional capitals. Tajikistan, one of Russia's staunchest allies, has distinctly warmed up to the US. Uzbekistan is once again ducking, which suggests it is open to the highest bidder. But Turkmenistan could be the jewel in the crown of the US's regional diplomacy.
A concerted US effort has begun to somehow detach Ashgabat from the Russian sphere of influence and thereby kill the prospects of Russia's plans for laying new gas pipelines for the European market. Alongside, there is also a determined bid to develop a northern supply route to Afghanistan via the Caucasus and the Caspian that would bypass Russia. While Russian cooperation is welcome, the US will not want its vulnerability in Afghanistan to be exploited for a reciprocal accommodation of Russian interests in Europe.
As of now, Moscow is keeping cool. Any excitement would only play into the hands of the hardliners in Washington. It reacted calmly in early April in the face of the attempt to stage a "color revolution" in Moldova to replace the democratically elected government friendly toward Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned that the US and Russia should not "force" former Soviet republics to choose between an alliance with Washington or Moscow, nor should there be any "hidden agendas" in US-Russia relations. "It is inadmissible to try to place a false choice before them [former Soviet republics], either you are with us or against us. Otherwise, this will lead to a whole struggle for spheres of influence," Lavrov pointed out.
Attention at the moment is on the so-called Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer military exercise that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) proposes to hold from May 6 through June 1 in Georgia. The drill aims to improve "interoperability" between NATO and its partner countries. But, clearly, the US choreographed the initiative as a reiteration of the West's security commitments to the Georgian regime. In the event, the US had a hard time persuading its NATO partners to participate. Germany and France, which are opposed to NATO needlessly provoking Russia, declined.
A NATO military exercise in the highly combustible security environment in the Caucasus is indeed controversial. Russia sees it as a "back-door" attempt by Washington to involve NATO with Georgia's security and as a creeping expansion by the alliance into the Caucasus. Indeed, the geopolitical consequences of the conflict last August are yet to be assimilated.
Moscow reacted by calling off a meeting of Russian and NATO chiefs of the general staff, scheduled for May 7. The mild reaction disappointed hardliners in the US. Russian analysts have underscored that the military exercise constitutes a deliberate attempt to vitiate the atmosphere ahead of the expected visit by US President Barack Obama to Moscow in June.
President Dmitry Medvedev gave a measured reaction. He said, "This is a mistaken and dangerous decision ... [which] creates the danger of all sorts of complications arising ... because these sorts of actions are clearly about muscle-flexing and military build-up, and with the situation in the Caucasus tense as it is, this decision looks short-sighted ... We will follow developments closely and make decisions if necessary."
Moscow's preference, therefore, will be to keep the matter strictly at the level of Russia-NATO ties. Whether Lavrov will choose to discus the subject with his US counterpart Hillary Clinton when they meet on May 7 to prepare the agenda of Obama's visit to Moscow is an open question.
Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has gone on record that Moscow's response will not affect the transit of supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan via Russian territory. "I do not believe it will be among any possible retaliatory measures. We have never questioned the importance of [NATO cargo] transits, even during the war [in the Caucasus last August]. It is an issue of strategic interests in which we share a common enemy," Rogozin said.
Moscow's stance takes care that Washington has no excuse to complain about Russian cooperation over Afghanistan. This comes at a time when the US is making a determined bid to firm up a transit route to Afghanistan from the Black Sea via Georgia and Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, which bypasses Russia. Cargo arriving in Turkmenistan can be sent across the border to western Afghanistan or can be trans-shipped to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which also enjoy a border with Afghanistan. Thus, US diplomacy has been focusing on the three Central Asian countries - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - which can be accessed from the Black Sea, bypassing Russia altogether.
The US signed a transit agreement with Tajikistan this week. A similar agreement was signed with Uzbekistan last month while consultations are going on with Turkmenistan. US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher discussed the possibility of overland cargo transit and overflights at a meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat on April 15.
These developments are unfolding against the backdrop of an overall weakening of the Russian position lately in Central Asia. The fall in oil prices and the overall economic crisis in Russia arguably hamper Moscow's capacity to assert its leadership role in the region.
US diplomacy has succeeded to some extent in loosening Russia's ties with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan did not participate in two important regional meetings which were important events for Russia's integration processes: last week's foreign ministers meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference on Afghanistan last month in Moscow.
Indeed, if Tashkent "defects", that will be a prize catch for Washington and it will resurrect the "Great Central Asia" strategy that aims at whittling down Russian (and Chinese) influence in the region.
At the moment, however, US diplomacy is pinning great hopes on Turkmenistan. Washington sees a window of opportunity insofar as Russian-Turkmen energy cooperation, which forms the backbone of the relationship between the two countries, has run into difficulties. Essentially, the US hopes to break Russia's control over Turkmen gas exports and to somehow scuttle Russian plans to feed its planned South Stream pipeline to southern Europe with Turkmen gas supplies. The US seeks to cajole Ashgabat to come on board the rival the Nabucco gas pipeline project that bypasses Russia and will help diversify Europe's energy supplies.
Whether the Turkmen leadership will heed the US's entreaties is another matter. Turkmen people have sharp bazaar instincts and they must be relishing the accelerating US-Russia rivalry, which they will unfailingly exploit to extract the most favorable terms from Russia (and China). All the same, the relentless US hammering is eroding Russia's position.
Only a year ago, Russia offered to pay European prices for Central Asia's gas-producing countries. These purchase contracts are hardly affordable for Gazprom today, given a combination of factors, such as the decline in European energy demand due to the economic recession and the drop in energy prices.
Gazprom is caught in a bind. With demand dropping in Europe, import of Turkmen gas begins not to make sense. But Russia cannot halt Turkmen supplies either. When demand picks up eventually - as it will - Russia will badly need Turkmen gas all over again. Kommersant newspaper commented, "In a mid-term perspective, Ashgabat has no alternate buyer or transiter to Gazprom ... Obviously, some kind of compromise will be reached to find a way out. But whatever the outcome, Moscow-Ashgabat relations will never be the same again."
United States diplomats are doing all they can to portray that it is unwise for Central Asian energy producers to place faith in Russia and that gaining direct access to the international market without the Russian middle man would be the right thing to do. The argument seems to increasingly carry weight in Ashgabat. The signing of a memorandum of understanding on April 16 between Turkmenistan and Germany's Rheinisch-Westfaelische Elektrizitaetswerk (RWE) energy holding on the transportation of Turkmen gas to Europe and the development of the Caspian shelf shows a new vector in Turkmen thinking.
RWE is Germany's largest energy producer and supplier and the second-largest gas supplier. It is a partner in the international consortium hoping to build the Nabucco pipeline, which will bypass Russia by transporting gas from Azerbaijan via Turkey to Europe. The agreement with RWE is Turkmenistan's first ever with a major Western energy company. Under the agreement, RWE will be a consultant for identifying the options for export of Turkmen gas to Germany and Europe. Besides, RWE will also explore and develop gas resources on Turkmenistan's continental shelf in the Caspian Sea.
From the Western perspective, the timing of the RWE-Turkmen agreement couldn't have come at a better time. The Turkmen decision doubtless enhances the prospects for Nabucco, which Russia has been rubbishing as a mere pipedream. The European Union summit meeting in Prague on May 7 is expected to take a conclusive view on the implementation of the Nabucco project. With the emerging possibility of Turkmen gas supplies for Nabucco, if the EU summit formalizes the project, Europe will have taken a big step towards diversifying its energy sources and reducing its energy dependence on Russia. Therefore, Nabucco holds far-reaching significance for Russia's relations with the West.
The May 7 EU meeting is expected to transform the geopolitics of Eurasia in certain other directions as well. The summit will launch the EU's new "Eastern partnership" policy involving six former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - with the barely disguised intention to increase Brussels' influence in these countries at the expense of Moscow. The EU has no plans to offer the former Soviet republics membership, but at the same time would like to take them under its wings politically.
The "Eastern partnership" policy is crafted most ingeniously in such a way that through trade, travel and aid, the EU will work for greater integration of the former Soviet republics without having to actually accept them as full-fledged members.
The EU remains confident that the former Soviet republics will find Brussels' overtures decisively more attractive than the integration processes conceived in Moscow. In strategic terms, the raison d'etre of the EU's "Eastern partnership" policy is to counter Russia's influence in its "near abroad" and, therefore, it effectively works in tandem with NATO's eastward expansion.
Creative commentators have coined neologisms like "Chimerica" and "Chindia" for key bilateral relationships in world politics. But few envisage a "Chirussia", even though Sino-Russian ties today are at their highest level in history. Limitations to their "strategic partnership" emerge every now and then, most recently during the Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia. But anti-Western commonalities to the Sino-Russian tango are equally evident from their exuberant language of "multipolarity".
What has been missing in studies of the partnership is a credible intellectual framework to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Former Australian diplomat Bobo Lo fills the lacuna with a new book arguing that the Sino-Russian friendship has contradictions which cannot be papered over.
The present world system is in transition, with a declining United States but no single state replacement in sight. Lo posits a "new geopolitics" where short-term opportunistic and tactical alignments are the norm of diplomacy. With fast morphing domestic and international circumstances rendering "permanent national interests" transient, the author avers that China and Russia cannot afford to enter into a committed marriage.
The book's opening chapter surveys the burden of history on contemporary Sino-Russian relations. Although both countries' leaderships harp on present-day and future opportunities for partnership, the ghosts of the past have not been exorcised. The Mongol occupation of Russian city-states (AD 1223-1480) solidified the notions of "yellow peril" and "the East as an abiding source of threat in the Russian mind". (p 18) Russian popular attitudes to this day picture China as alien and menacing.
The "unequal treaties" imposed by Russia's Tsars on Qing China in the mid-19th century fostered a lasting Russian assumption of superiority and corollary Chinese humiliation from loss of territory. In the 1920s and 1930s, Joseph Stalin's support for president Chiang Kai-shek caused friction between the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party. Post-1949 relations between "older brother" Moscow and "younger brother" Beijing were cagey, especially due to the former's fathering of an independent Mongolian state.
When disputes over the undemarcated border led to a mini-war in 1969, Moscow contemplated using nuclear weapons should Beijing launch a "mass attack" using sheer force of numbers. The Sino-Soviet split reinforced mutual stereotypes and kept relations frosty and suspicious. Rapprochement came only in the late 1990s, when Russian president Boris Yeltsin moved his country's foreign policy away from a "Western-centric" approach. Convergence between Russian and Chinese positions improved before the new millennium, thanks to American double standards and "humanitarian interventions".
Yet, tensions lingered over settlement of the border dispute and growing Russian animosity to Chinese migration into Russia's Far East. In Yeltsin's later years, Moscow envisaged partnership with China as leverage against Washington, but Beijing viewed it in practical terms as insurance for Russian weapon exports and for frontier security. This owed to Moscow and Beijing's "diverging perceptions of their respective roles in the post-Cold War order". (p 37)
Since the ascent of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russia's former president, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, Sino-Russian relations are more substantial than ever before, even expanding to military-to-military cooperation. But once again, Moscow's approach to the partnership differs from Beijing's. For Russia, it is an "anti-relationship" to counterbalance the US's hegemony. Putin understands that Russia needs "other powers if it is to exert a serious influence in international affairs". (p 43) By befriending China, he aims to avoid strategic confrontation on two fronts (the West and East), reflecting Russian wariness of a potentially aggressive China.
Hu, on the other hand, sees no need to balance American power and is not interested in allowing the nation's partnership with Russia to ruin China's closeness to the US. Fearing repercussions to its domestic economic modernization, Beijing wants to avoid being seen as anti-Western. Lo clarifies that, for China, the partnership with Russia is of "secondary importance, lagging well behind more substantial ties with the US, the European Union and the countries of the Asia-Pacific". (p 47)
Though both Russia and China boast an "identity of views", Beijing was unpleasantly jolted when Putin initially endorsed a US troop presence in Central Asia after September 11, 2001, blithely accepted the US's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and concluded a Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Washington in 2002. In all these moves, China was kept out of the loop by Russia. The Kremlin's "Western-centrism" has from time to time rattled China.
Despite formal settlement of the territorial dispute under the watchful gazes of Hu and Putin, the demographic imbalance between a depopulated Russian Far East and the heavily populated northeastern provinces of China has stoked Russian nervousness and xenophobia. In cities like Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, writes Lo, "anti-Chinese sentiment is rarely far from the surface". (p 219) It is furthered by cross-border trade tilted heavily in favor of Chinese interests, arousing fears of Russia being reduced to a raw materials appendage of China's manufacturing colossus. Russians also worry that Chinese nationalists could resurrect Mao Zedong's demands that the Russian Far East be returned to China.
The Sino-Russian relationship is unequal, argues Lo, due to the gradual shift in the bilateral balance of power in China's favor. Russia's aggregate military strength still exceeds that of China, so much so that the former does not hesitate to sell hi-tech weaponry to the latter. But in the economic sphere, China is the dominant partner as a knowledge-based and "post-modern" industrial juggernaut, while Russia remains a petro-state. The bilateral terms of trade are so asymmetrical that it looks as though "a modernizing China is exploiting a backward Russia for its energy and timber". (p 85)
China's entry as a major player in Central Asia after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 has perturbed Moscow. In response, the Kremlin has played on Central Asian apprehensions about Chinese economic domination. In 2005, it attempted unsuccessfully to scupper the sale of PetroKazakhstan to the China National Petroleum Corporation. For years, Moscow has been trying to get India to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to stave off Chinese domination of regional structures. But Russia realizes that ejecting the US military from Central Asia is a grander objective for which a tactical alliance with China is exigent.
While Russia has tried to showcase the SCO as an alliance to oppose American hegemony in Central Asia, China's first priority is that the organization helps secure its far western Xinjiang province, instead of countering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. China's calls to steer the SCO towards regional economic integration through a free-trade zone have not been music to Russian ears, as it portends Central Asia's dependency on China. One reason for Moscow's flotation of a separate Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is to reassure itself that it has a regional forum from which China is absent.
In East Asia, Russia does not desire to witness one hegemony (the US) being replaced by another (China). Lo reasons that an overly powerful China in the Asia-Pacific could "undermine Russian attempts to play a more active part in the region's affairs". (p 119) Beijing, on its part, does not intend to assist the re-entry of Russia as another great power into this contested area. Lack of progress on the Russo-Japanese dispute over the southern Kuril Islands benefits China, as it compels Moscow to be "China-dependent" in East Asia. Pending a Russo-Japanese thaw, Beijing is confident that Moscow will remain a "bit player" unable to undermine China's leading position in the region.
The Sino-Russian energy relationship enjoys complementarities, but it, too, has not evaded inclement weather. China's bargaining ploys to obtain Russian oil and gas at discounted rates mean Europe remains a far more attractive market for Moscow. Flip-flops on the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline are symptomatic of the uncertain energy links between China and Russia. The pipeline agreement unraveled in 2003 when Japan offered Russia a more lucrative deal to construct a pipeline that bypasses China altogether. But the Russo-Japanese arrangement collapsed in 2006 due to their territorial dispute, turning the tide back in Beijing's favor. The unpredictability of Russian decision-making has led Beijing to restrict its demand for Russian oil to "non-dependent levels". (p 147) Putin's blueprint of "Asianizing" Russian energy markets have therefore floundered.
The later chapters of Lo's book focus on Russia-China-US "triangularism" in global geopolitical contests. Since 1996, Moscow has employed the "China card" to try to persuade Washington to be more responsive to Russian interests. Russian resurgence under Putin severely deteriorated relations with the US and generated a "new cold war". But China is not disposed to globally challenge American influence, despite professing a preference for "multipolarity". Unlike Russian leaders, Chinese elites have no anti-American "genetic make-up", (p 167) and are happy engaging with both Russia and the US on their own merits. If China intends in any way to undermine American power, says Lo, it "will be an evolutionary and uncoordinated process" rather than in alliance with Russia. (p 169)
Sino-Russian relations are currently at their peak, but they signify only a limited partnership due to a variance in strategic orientation of the two countries. The partnership is at its apogee right now because of the long-term presence of the US military in Central Asia. But the future holds many unknowns for the bear and the dragon. Much will ride on the direction of Sino-American relations. Lo prophesies that a "Sino-American condominium" would cut Russia down to "little more than a secondary regional power". (p 186)
While direct enmity between Moscow and Beijing is improbable, even in the long term, Lo predicts "strategic tension" in coming decades. If China keeps growing as a global power and if the bilateral relationship grows more asymmetrical, Russian frustrations will multiply. The prudent management of this tension will have a crucial bearing on the coming world order revolving around Asia. "Chirussia" may be a non-starter, but Lo's erudite analysis leaves readers better off about the subtexts of this complex friendship.
This publication is part of DIIS’s Defense and Security Studies project which is funded by a grant from the Danish Ministry of Defense...
This is a brief English version of a Danish DIIS Report on the foreign policy of Iran. In the Report, Iran’s foreign policy is investigated both ideologically and in respect of its pragmatic motivations.
It is argued that, since the revolution, and especially since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran has shown itself to be a rational, pragmatic actor in foreign policy, even though actions and rhetorical outbursts from parts of the country’s leadership have at times suggested otherwise.
It is also suggested that a dialogue between Iran and the West – and with the United States in particular – could very well turn out to be a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East.
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