5 things to know about Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises

I have an explainer article about the Vostok exercise on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog today. Here’s a sampler…


Military analysts around the world are keeping a close eye on Russia’s annual fall military maneuvers, as this year may turn out to be the largest post-Cold War show of force. Vostok-2018 kicks off this week in Russia’s Far East and the Pacific Ocean, along with auxiliary exercises before and after the main event.

The big news this year is the addition of joint exercises with China. What do these military exercises entail, and what do you need to know?

1. What are these war games?

The Vostok exercise is part of an annual rotating series of large-scale exercises that serve as the capstone to the Russian military’s annual training cycle. The series rotates through the four main Russian operational strategic commands (Eastern, Caucasus, Central and Western) that give name to the exercises. “Vostok” means east; last fall’s Zapad-2017 took place along Russia’s western border.

Similar major strategic operational exercises took place each fall throughout the Soviet period as well. However, unlike past military readiness drills, the Defense Ministry has billed Vostok-2018 as a strategic maneuver exercise, in which the forces are divided into two groups that engage each other rather than fighting against an imaginary opponent, as was the case in all previous iterations.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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Russia and China vie for influence in Central Asia

I’m still swamped with various projects, so in the meantime, here’s another Oxford Analytica brief. This one is from mid-December…

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Although China and the United States have focused greater attention on Central Asia in recent years, Russia remains the dominant power in the region. Its size and the cultural, political and economic connections that remain from the Soviet period are such that Central Asian countries are reluctant to take any actions that would antagonise Moscow. For Russian leaders, Central Asia serves as a buffer zone that protects Russia’s southern border from potential threats.

Impacts:

  • Increasing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia will curtail Russia’s efforts to limit China’s regional political influence.
  • After NATO’s exit from Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asian states will cooperate to prevent radical Islam from destabilising the region.
  • Shifting patterns of energy demand and supply will reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool for political influence.

ANALYSIS:

Russia’s various initiatives in Central Asia are shaped by three interest groups with widely divergent interests that often work at cross-purposes to each other:

  • The military and defence industry is focused on the role of great power competition in the region; it seeks to promote arms sales and to increase Russia’s military presence.
  • The energy industry focuses on securing exclusive rights to gas transit from Central Asia to Europe.
  • The security services concentrate on the transnational threats to Russia from radical Islam, terrorism and drug smuggling.

Maintaining monopoly

Throughout the last decade, Russia sought to maintain its energy-transit monopoly on the export of petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia. Until 2005, all major export pipelines from the region went through Russia giving it control over transit fees. Russia’s monopoly over natural gas transit to Europe also gave it political and economic leverage over downstream countries dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas for domestic consumption.

The construction of alternative pipelines over the last decade has eliminated Russia’s monopoly on hydrocarbon transit from Central Asia. Energy-producing states in the region can now sell their products to China and Iran. At the same time, changes in patterns of supply and demand for natural gas in Europe have decreased the political and economic significance of Russia’s remaining monopoly on natural gas supply to some European countries. The development of new methods of shale gas extraction in the United States has increased the supply of LNG to Europe at the same time as the 2008-09 global financial crisis has led to a sharp drop in demand for natural gas.

These factors decreased Russia’s ability to set prices and to use its control of energy supply for political ends, thus reducing the importance of future Caspian pipeline transit. Russia is now likely to focus on energy production in the Caspian Sea region and has already begun to develop several oil and gas fields that it controls jointly with Kazakhstan.

Keeping China at bay

China has sought to increase its economic and political influence in Central Asia without alienating Russia for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Central Asia has become one of China’s primary energy suppliers;
  • Central Asia serves as a security buffer zone between China and both Russia and the United States; and
  • China seeks to prevent Uighur separatists in Xinjiang from using Central Asia as a safe haven.

To further these goals, China made large investments into the Central Asian economies and, in particular, in energy infrastructure. The region provides raw materials to China in exchange for finished products such as machinery, food and consumer goods.

Russian leaders fear that their country’s position in Central Asia is gradually being displaced as China’s political influence and economic power grow. To maintain its sway in Central Asia, Russia has focused on ‘tying’ China into regional networks and institutions while retaining levers of influence through institutions in which China is not a member.

In the security realm, Russia has combined participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While the SCO provides a neutral forum where Russia can discuss security and plan joint operations and exercises with China, the CSTO allows Russia to address Central Asian security issues without China’s participation. At the same time, Russia has sought to counter China’s economic influence in Central Asia by setting up the Customs Union, which, in 2014, is expected to include Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Recent discussions concerning the establishment of the Eurasian Union in 2015 are also part of the effort to cement Central Asian economic ties to Russia.

Ensuring political stability

Although most of the regimes in the region have endured for over 20 years, Central Asia is now entering a period of potential political instability.

  • Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all bracing for a potential resurgence of Islamist radicalism in the aftermath of the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  • Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — both states ruled by authoritarian presidents in their mid-1970s — are highly vulnerable to succession risks.
  • Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from two episodes of violent regime collapse in the last decade.

The potential destabilising influence of radical Islamist groups and drug smuggling networks is a key concern for Russia. Moscow believes that the current Central Asian leadership has been able to contain the threat of radical Islam and is worried that a regime change, combined with the withdrawal of NATO troops, would facilitate the spread of radical Islam to Russia.

These concerns have led Russia to provide various forms of security assistance to the region’s more vulnerable states. In the last year alone Russia has:

  • extended leases on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan;
  • sold weapons to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan;
  • sought to persuade Uzbekistan to re-engage with the CSTO; and
  • agreed to provide 1.3 billion dollars to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to modernise their military forces and ensure their security after the departure of Western troops.

The extension of Russia’s military base agreements with Central Asian countries, together with Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ask the United States to vacate the Manas base after the NATO departure from Afghanistan, will leave Russia as the sole security provider to vulnerable states in the region.

CONCLUSION: Russia’s security relations with Central Asian states will strengthen as they face the consequences of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. At the same time, Moscow’s efforts to remain the dominant economic partner of the region’s key players will likely falter as China strengthens its position as the main recipient of Central Asian energy exports and a key supplier of imported consumer products.

Russian Politics and Law, November 2011 Table of Contents

Volume 49 Number 6 / November-December 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the M.E. Sharpe web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com.

This issue contains:

New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Editor’s Introduction p.3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy p.8
Dmitry Trenin
Russia and the New Eastern Europe p.38
Dmitry Trenin
Russia-China: Time for a Course Correction p.54
Evgenii Verlin and Vladislav Inozemtsev
Russia-China: “Reloading” the Relationship p.74
Vasilii Mikheev

New Directions in Russian Foreign Policy: Editor’s Introduction

For many American commentators, analyzing Russian foreign policy can be a fairly contentious topic. Some see Russia as a continuation of the Soviet Union and are therefore concerned about the future possibility of a revived Russia once again posing a threat to the United States and the rest of the democratic world. Others believe that while Russia is certainly not a Western democracy, it does not bear any aggressive intent toward the West. In this issue, we look at what Russian experts see as the goals of Russian foreign policy.

The issue begins with two lectures by Dmitry Trenin. The first, “Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy,” examines the current goals of Russian foreign policy and makes some recommendations for its future trajectory. Trenin argues that for the last decade, Russian foreign policy has been aimed primarily at maintaining the country’s status in the world. He argues that since the start of Vladimir Putin’s second term as president in 2004, Russia has been focused on cementing its status as an independent power in a multipolar world. Its primary emphasis has been on maintaining its preeminent status in the former Soviet republics. A second goal has been to ensure that it has a say on all the critical issues facing the international system. And the final goal is for the Russian economy to realize a profit from the country’s foreign policy.

Trenin criticizes these goals as inadequate for the twenty-first century. He argues that to be a superpower it is no longer sufficient to be able to destroy the rest of the world or even to be able to export rare natural resources at a premium. The greatness of a state in the modern world, according to the author, lies not in what it can offer the world but in how attractive it is to others. He finds that Russia has little to brag about in this department.

To change this dynamic, Trenin proposes that Russia focus on wide-scale international cooperation in all possible areas. Economic cooperation would be greatly enhanced if Russia were to join the World Trade Organization. He then takes on the question of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, arguing that although he is not a proponent of further expansion, he finds it difficult to see how the admission of states such as Ukraine or Georgia to NATO could be seen as a threat to Russia. The old Soviet mentality of maintaining a buffer zone around its border does not correspond to present realities, in which Russia and NATO are developing a partnership in dealing with the real security challenges. In this environment, the best strategy for Russian foreign policy is to let these states make their own foreign policy decisions while using its cultural influence to ensure that its neighbors are positively disposed toward Russia.

Having addressed the general outlines of Russian foreign policy in the first lecture, in “Russia and the New Eastern Europe,” Trenin focuses more specifically on Russia’s relations with Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. His first point is quite simple: these three countries now constitute a distinct and durable geopolitical reality that he calls the New Eastern Europe. Given the history of Russia’s interactions with this region, it is not at all surprising that these states’ political elites have devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that their countries develop distinct political identities that are separate from Russia. Trenin’s second point is that the existence of this region is not a transitory phenomenon. Russian efforts to integrate the states that formerly constituted the Soviet Union are unlikely to succeed, in part because of opposition within these states but in part because of Russia’s unwillingness to subsidize these states in the way that the Soviet Union used to subsidize its satellites. At the same time, this region is unlikely to be incorporated into the European Union (EU) either, both because the EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue and because the states that make up the New Eastern Europe are not yet politically or economically ready for such incorporation.

Given this geopolitical reality, Russian foreign policy will have to address its relationship with this region. When Russians travel to this region, they do not feel like they are in a foreign state. This affects their country’s policies toward the region, including the use of terms such as the “near abroad” that attempt to portray the region as less foreign than the rest of the world. But because of this feeling of cultural similarity, Russian policy toward the region is governed by emotion rather than pragmatic considerations. This is the context through which Trenin views such potentially counterproductive policies as Russia’s reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its visceral opposition to NATO enlargement. At the same time, there have been gradual improvements in Russian attitudes, as shown in the country’s relative equanimity in advance of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections and its efforts to restore cooperation with NATO soon after the 2008 Georgian war. A shift from a foreign policy focused on status maintenance to one aimed at domestic modernization would further help Russia develop normal relations with the New Eastern Europe, which in turn would only enhance Russian security on its western borders.

The last two articles in this issue focus on Russia’s relations with China. In “Russia–China: Time for a Course Correction,” Evgenii Verlin and Vladislav Inozemtsev focus on examining alternative scenarios for the evolution of this relationship, with an emphasis on the potential threats posed to Russia by China’s growing economic and demographic power. They argue that given its economic and political development, China is already a new superpower, although it is not yet sure about its place in the international system. The authors see the likeliest configuration of future power centers as involving a big three of the United States, the European Union, and China, with other regional powers such as Russia and Brazil allied with one of these centers on relatively unequal terms. They believe that Russia should respond to China’s emergence as a superpower by focusing on establishing a balanced relationship with China. Russians must end their long history of looking down on the Chinese, as this attitude has long provoked Chinese hostility. Although such views may have been acceptable when the Soviet Union was clearly more powerful than China, they are no longer permissible in the current geopolitical environment. The authors are concerned that the Russian–Chinese relationship is currently built on situational factors that are unlikely to last. This presents a danger to Russia, which faces a choice between becoming “an industrial appendage of Europe for a time or a raw-materials appendage of China forever.”

Vasilii Mikheev focuses on the role the Russian–Chinese relationship plays in overall Russian foreign policy. In “Russia–China: ‘Reloading’ the Relationship,” he argues that using the Chinese card in Russian relations with the United States is a potentially dangerous course that is unlikely to yield many benefits for Russia. Whereas the previous article focuses on the dangers that China’s growth presents for Russia, this article focuses on the potential opportunities. Mikheev argues that Russia should seek to develop a closer military and political partnership with China, including interactions on areas of potential common concern such as political stability in Central Asia and nuclear security. A dialogue on security in the Asia–Pacific region and the situation in North Korea are also necessary. In focusing on the Russia–China–United States triangle, Mikheev hopes that Russia will be able to avoid focusing on one or another of these states. To this end, he advocates for a trilateral dialogue that enhances international security. The strategic goal for Russia is to ensure that its relationship with China is closer than China’s relationship with the United States.

Although these four articles by no means offer a complete assessment of Russian foreign policy, they do show some of the key issues Russia is facing as it begins its third decade of independent statehood. After an initial effort to try to fit into the West and a subsequent period of attempting to regain the international status held by the Soviet Union, Russia is at a point where it is beginning to come to terms with its status as a regional power that still maintains a significant amount of freedom of action in its own neighborhood but needs to develop alliances with other powers to influence events on a global stage. I imagine that this process will continue over the next decade as Russia gradually cements its place in the international system.