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Mistakes are piling up: the Russian drift and European indecision

medputin.jpgEurope’s mistake regarding Russia’s latest actions in Caucasus stems from its inability to articulate a strong position in keeping with its interests. Moscow wishes to diversify its economy and not limit itself to being a mere energy provider, and in this sense Brussels has some negotiating leverage. The author says that if the EU does not take advantage of this opportunity, Russia will end up rerouting its energy supply to Asia.

(From Madrid) ONE OF THE MOST significant aspects of the current conflict in Caucasus is the series of mistakes made by the principle players involved. Among the worst was the Georgian president’s decision to opt for the military route without (ethical and humanitarian considerations aside) having carried out even a cursory prospective analysis of what the possible Russian response might be; this blunder acted as a spark for the whole conflict.

The fact that the Georgian armed forces were not capable of resisting the Russian raid for even four hours, coupled with Triblisi’s inability to obtain solid diplomatic support, is a sign of its lack of foresight, aside from its confidence in a swift military victory.

“Russia has been unable to obtain strong support from its partners in both the SCO and the CSTO” As for Russia, it has not made quite as many mistakes. Without a doubt, Saakashvili’s folly provided Moscow with a golden opportunity to launch a sudden attack in Caucasus. However, a crushing victory has turned into a sticky political situation for the Kremlin.

On one hand, President Medvedev’s figure has grown weaker in comparison with Prime Minister Putin’s leading role. On the other hand –and this is more relevant– both the disproportionate Russian response and its inability to diplomatically manage the crisis have not strengthened its position in the post-Soviet region, but rather have weakened it. As such, Russia has been unable to obtain strong support from its partners in both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO [1]), which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization [2] (CSTO) formed by Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

MODERATE SUPPORT FROM THE SCO

In the first place, President Medvedev tried to gain international backing for his position regarding Caucasus at the annual SCO heads of state summit held in Dushanbe this past August 28. However, out of the 14 points of the summit’s final statement, only one addresses the South Ossetia question, and it merely provides very moderate support to the Russian position.

“Both Central Asian and Chinese leaders are very sensitive when it comes to irredentist movements, and especially reluctant to any border modification whatsoever” In said article, the involved parties are urged to resolve their differences peacefully through dialog and, as the sole concession to Russia, the accord includes six points signed by both parties that support Russia’s active role in promoting peace and cooperation in the region. However, the first point stresses the SCO’s commitment to the principle of respect for the territorial integrity of states.

This is an opportune time to remind the reader that combating separatism is one of the SCO’s three conceptual cornerstones, and respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity (of its members) forms part of the foundation by which it is regulated. Besides, both Central Asian and Chinese leaders are very sensitive when it comes to irredentist movements, and especially reluctant to any border modification whatsoever, because they believe that they could be victims of a similar phenomenon within their own borders.

In fact, fear of an Uyghur independence movement in the Xinjiang region was what drove Beijing to call for the creation of the SCO itself. With this in mind, it comes off as very surprising that Moscow is trying to win support for South Ossetia’s secession in a forum that was created precisely to combat such phenomena.

MOSCOW-ASTANA: TOGETHER BUT WEARY OF EACH OTHER

The attempt to look for such support in Kazakhstan, where the Russian minority is still perceived as one of the potential risks for the territorial integrity and cohesion of the country, is even more showing of Moscow’s erroneous analysis. Ethnic Russians represent more than 30 percent of the population of Kazakhstan and, aside from in the city of Almaty, they are concentrated along the Russian border in the northern region of the country, where they make up the majority of the population. “Despite its dependence on and close relationship with Moscow, Kazakhstanian support is unthinkable”

During the years immediately following Kazakhstan’s independence, possible irredentist movements led by ethnic Russians –and the possibility that they would be supported by Moscow– were the authorities’ worst fear.

The possibility of this actually taking place was always very remote, but the government’s fears intensified due to the rhetoric of prominent Russian figures like the recently deceased Solzhenitsyn [3] (who is revered by the same press that is now attacking Russia), who openly clamored for the incorporation of these territories into the Russian Federation, and events like what occurred in November 1999 when a group of ethnic Russians proclaimed Ust-Kamenogorsk to be the Russian Republic of Altai.

Indeed, the main objective of the relocation of the country’s capital to Astana, in the northern part of the country, was to strengthen Kazakhstanian control over the region just in case Moscow should feel inclined to make its presence felt in the area. For these reasons, a Russia that is assertive when it comes to these matters arouses Astana’s worst fears, and so, despite its dependence on and close relationship with Moscow, Kazakhstanian support is unthinkable.

THE POST-SOVIET REGION

In turn, the CSTO’s failure is even more significant than whatever suspicions the military position adopted by Russia might arouse in its allies. As such, despite its central role and leadership in the forum, the Kremlin was not able to obtain more than a lukewarm backing at the meeting for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs held in Moscow this past September 4. “The Central Asian republics are not partial to the creation of confrontational blocs, and much less in favor of being lumped into one of them” In fact, the same sentiment that was expressed in the declaration that resulted from the summit that the SCO (in which Moscow counterbalances Beijing) held in Dushanbe is reiterated in the statement that was drafted at the meeting in Moscow: there is merely a backing of Russia’s active role in promoting peace and cooperation in Caucasus.

In this way, Russia has not witnessed its position in the post-Soviet region grow stronger, and it has seen its closest allies’ weak enthusiasm for a confrontational dynamic with the European Union and the United States.

For the Central Asian autocrats in general, a certain rivalry and competition between the big boys is a good thing because it strengthens their positions and keeps them from being excessively dependent and subject to irritating foreign pressure, fundamentally regarding human rights and democratization. Nonetheless, excessive rivalry entails many risks and few advantages for the weak Central Asian republics that, to a great degree, need the West’s technical and financial support in order to guarantee their own development, and Russia’s cooperation in order to guarantee their security. For this reason, the Central Asian republics are not partial to the creation of confrontational blocs, and much less in favor of being lumped into one of them.

Furthermore, they find this Russia, which is once again displaying imperial aspirations –albeit on a purely rhetorical level– very unsettling with respect to their own sovereignty. China, in turn, is concentrating on its own development, and does not wish to see such a scenario either. Hence, it is unlikely that the world’s most populous country will contribute to the consolidation of a tense and confrontational dynamic. Yet –and this is the most paradoxical thing– it looks like Russia does not have much to gain with a revitalization of the Cold War dynamic either.

INTERDEPENDENCE WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION

Moscow’s taste for aggressive rhetoric cannot mask the reality that the Kremlin elite derives its power from its relationship with the West, and with the EU in particular. Furthermore, this elite group that is supposedly looking for a confrontation with the West is composed of those that enjoy Western benefits and luxuries the most.

“It is the EU inability to articulate a common voice regarding the energy issue, and not a clever and perfidious Russian strategy, that is weakening Europe’s position against Moscow” As such, everything appears to indicate that, getting past its desire to respond forcefully to the Georgian attack and send out a clear message regarding what it considers to be the boundaries of a line that cannot be crossed when it comes to the security and strategic interests of Russia in its own backyard, Moscow is actually reacting to events, and lacks a clear and coherent strategy. Nonetheless, there are many in the European Union that believe, on the contrary, that Moscow is consciously and rationally looking for a confrontation with the West so that it can unhesitatingly put its energy weapon to good use against the dependent EU.

It is here where the Europeans have made the biggest mistakes in assessing the situation, given that, as Sánchez Andrés points out, its current relationship with Russia is actually one of economic interdependence. Moreover, it is really the Union’s own inability to articulate a common voice regarding the energy issue (due in part to the liberalization of the gas sector within the EU itself), and not a clever and perfidious Russian strategy, that is weakening Europe’s position against Moscow in the matter.

BRUSSELS, A CHIEF TRADING PARTNER

The mere mention of some data allows us to perfectly understand this situation. Here is an example: Russia provides a little more than 26 percent of the EU’s total natural gas consumption, but it supplies it in such a way that European dependence on it must be clarified and analyzed on a country by country basis. “In 2006 alone bilateral trade surpassed 200 billion euros” But what’s more is that for Russia, exportation to the EU makes up nearly 85 percent of its total exportation of natural gas. Hence, it is its principal source of income.

Also, this gas is mainly transported via pipelines, which commits both the buyer and the seller to the transaction. Consequently, while settling disputes involving the pipeline it will be very difficult to get around the mutual dependence determined by the existent infrastructure. On another note, in 2006 alone bilateral trade surpassed 200 billion euros, “The imposition of sanctions would strengthen the most aggressive currents running through the Kremlin’s power and influence circles, instead of appeasing them” and the EU is Russia’s principal business partner, representing more than 50 percent of its foreign trade.

Despite all of this, certain news bulletins-which have very nearly turned into dogma-are contributing to the obsession with the idea that the EU and Russia have completely divergent interests, and that a conflict between the two is inevitable. As such, it would not be out of place to point out that Russia has historically been a reliable energy supplier (even during the height of the Cold War) and to date it has never threatened to cut off supply to the EU or renege on the supply deals that it has signed. Nonetheless, the European countries most inclined to look for solutions through negotiation and a framework of friendly interaction with Russia are receiving severe criticism for being accommodating towards a revisionist Russia, which is causing some to draw unfounded historical analogies that have had disastrous results in other scenarios, like Iraq.

THE POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF A STRANGE RELATIONSHIP

Europe’s mistake does not stem from its failure to impose sanctions or adopt the hard line with Moscow, but instead from the Union’s inability to articulate a firm and coherent position in keeping with its interests. It is worth reminding that the suitability of any policy or initiative is measured by its results, and it is pretty obvious that, given the existent interdependence between Russia and the EU, the imposition of sanctions would be counterproductive for both parties. More than anything, it would strengthen the most aggressive currents running through the Kremlin’s power and influence circles, instead of appeasing them.

In this manner, the EU urgently needs to prepare its own strategic line of thought that will allow it to intelligently take advantage of its strengths in order to attract Russia’s attention. If Russia does indeed aspire to play a central role in global energy geopolitics, it is also hoping to reduce its dependence regarding this sector, and not limit itself to being a mere provider of raw energy resources.

Due to this desire to diversify its economy, the EU is of vital interest to Moscow. In other words, Brussels also has some leverage when it comes to negotiation and influence, and in this way it can ensure its energy supply. Nonetheless, the result of the misunderstandings between Brussels and Moscow and the disintegration of their relationship is still a weak, but gradual, rerouting of Russian, and with it, Central Asian energy towards the Asian markets. This is clearly detrimental to European interests, both in reference to the availability of raw energy material and its price.