‘The world has changed dramatically since then. In particular, in the emerging multipolar order, Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States’ - (Kissinger 2016).
President Maithripala Sirisena pictured with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during his recent visit to Russia
The Sri Lankan President’s state visit to Russia symbolizes a pragmatic drift in Sri Lankan foreign policy, especially in the backdrop of celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. 2017 is the centenary of the Russian revolution, something which the current Russian regime may not want to highlight. Yet, the Russian revolution changed the course of world history, it created the behemoth Soviet Union (USSR) one of the two super powers that shaped global politics in the 20th century. 25 years after the fall of the USSR, Russia is raising its head again, standing up to its foremost geo-political adversary and this time it has many surprises up its sleeves calling into question conventional wisdom about its place in the world.
Many outside of Russia are still struggling to understand what it wants in the 21st century, or where Vladimir Putin wants to take the bear that has suddenly woken from its hibernation, and where does the bear fit in the great political rivalry that is emerging between the American eagle and the Chinese dragon. Russian foreign policy recently was dependent on three main factors. These factors included firstly, the relationship with the US; secondly, responding to global economic crises, especially, since 2007 and, thirdly, interest in conflicts in Middle East. While Putin is projected as a villainous anti-western autocrat, his early self was not antagonistic to the West. He tried to cooperate, clearly announced in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, the US and Russian interests of fighting terrorism aligned and he called for ‘pragmatic partnerships’ and relations with the western nations.
"FBI Director James Comey’s testifying at the US House Intelligence Committee last week led to him admitting that the FBI was investigating the Russian government’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections, and he mentioned that it was part of an ongoing counter intelligence mission"
Yet, the subsequent NATO expansion and American force presence in Eastern Europe, expansion of American missile defence systems into Poland frustrated Putin. Russians were convinced that Americans were trying to use their signature strategy of containment on their nation. They claimed the West was expecting more cooperation while giving less of it. When the so-called “Colors revolution” swept parts of Europe-North Africa merging to create the Arab Spring. Russians saw this as an American strategy to destabilize the region serving the national security interests of the US at minimal cost.
Russia and its intervention in Crimea and Syria is based on bringing back regional stability, while Americans called it Russia aggression, but Russians called it legitimate use of force to protect the status quo. With the war in Syria, Russia is trying to take the position of stabilizer other than aggressor. The US, at the same time, is politically imploding with massive polarizations. The current President is struggling to get consensus from his own party for domestic policy changes.
Analysts such as Peter W. Singer claim that Russian military modernization, sophistication of using cyber attacks have even surpassed American capabilities to deter such new attacks, Russia is being buoyed by a radical right-wing drift in European Politics. While Western analysts argued such as in the recently published report by the Centre for Study of Democracy (CSD) titled, Kremlin’s new Playbook, it argues that European right wing groups are all backed by the Kremlin, which it argues is involved in a strategy, “of influence, not of brute force, and its primary goal is breaking the internal coherence of the enemy system - and not about its integral annihilation’. FBI Director James Comey’s testifying at the US House Intelligence Committee last week led to him admitting that the FBI was investigating the Russian government’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections, and he mentioned that it was part of an ongoing counter intelligence mission. The debates that are engulfing US Politics go beyond Russia. Yet the latter remains one constant factor in the multitude of debates.
"Many outside of Russia are still struggling to understand what it wants in the 21st century, or where Vladimir Putin wants to take the bear that has suddenly woken from its hibernation, and where does the bear fit in the great political rivalry that is emerging between the American eagle and the Chinese dragon"
At the same time, Russian counter argument is that the world should look at a post western world order and as the current Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov points out there is no way that Europe can build a security architecture by excluding Russia. Thus, Germany maybe the indispensable nation in the EU. But when it comes to European security, Russia is becoming the unavoidable constant. The importance of focusing on Russia emerges from an existing reality which according to Georgetown University Professor Charles Kupchan signifies the emergence of ‘No One’s World’, a world where there is no real centre of gravity when it comes to concentration of global political power.
Focusing on Russia and its global political outlook is becoming more and more pertinent observing how it positions itself in multiple fronts, from being the largest oil exporter of 2016 to demonstrating the political will to flex its military muscles across various global theatres. The US is in panic mode with Russian expansion of its Arctic patrols, Arctic military readiness and expansion of submarines fleets that patrol the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean.
Analysing the Russian economy is a complex endeavour, yet, if one looks at how Russia is engaging in global trade, the numbers are astonishing, its trade has nearly quadrupled over the last 10 years. In 2003, it was worth 200 billion US Dollars, by 2014 that has increased to 750 billion USD, while nearly half of that accounted to trade with the EU. Russia’s relationship with Greater Europe is a complicated affair. The largest country on the planet is going through a period of serious domestic economic consolidations despite American and European sanctions, its GDP has grown from 200 billion to 1.3 trillion US Dollars by 2015.
Ever since 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO allies have been on high alert. Russia has increased its surveillance flights that have irked countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, while Germany has managed to maintain significant trade ties, France had been more hostile, it even suspended the ultra modern Mistral class helicopter carrier it was building for Russian Navy at a great cost. Russia is flying its nuclear capable strategic bombers across the globe, in a recent panel discussion on the future of Asian security organized by University of Chicago, a Japanese expert claimed that his country’s Air Force was preoccupied with chasing Russian aircraft which were encroaching its air territory.
Russian resurgence in its strategic sphere is remarkable, Russia has undertaken a massive accelerated military modernization scheme, it is producing new weapons platforms to project air superiority to weapons which are more autonomous in nature. Russia is going through the greatest experiment of military automation. While the world was fixated with the American Drone strikes debate, Russia has increased autonomous weapons research and production. Even weapons platforms such as Tanks have either been semi-automated which require a Spartan crew, the new Russian Battle Tank, the Armata is a classic example. Saudi Arabia recently placed an order for 50 Russian armed drones, while Russian air assets are shopped heavily by the Chinese and Indian militaries. China, over the years, according to research coming from Stockholm Peace Research Institute, has purchased arms and armaments worth 30 billion US dollars from Russia.
"Russian resurgence in its strategic sphere is remarkable, Russia has undertaken a massive accelerated military modernization scheme, it is producing new weapons platforms to project air superiority to weapons which are more autonomous in nature"
Why is Russia developing an army of robots? The answer is simple. It maybe rising but it has a dismal birth rate, population is around 120 million and is shrinking. Thus, to protect a vast country, mostly with flat land, which is the greatest geo political vulnerability, Russia has and explains its militarization of eastern European flank which makes it more dependent on technological innovation and robotics. From UAVs, UUVs to Surface unmanned vehicles capable of deploying weapon systems are tested out frequently.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Russia comes at a critical stage in global political transformations. The Sri Lankan government needs to recalibrate its foreign policy tunes that fit this complex world, which is no longer posited between one or two geo-strategic groupings. Americans always pointed to Russia’s over dependence on its energy industry and European market. What Russia has currently done and is doing is expanding east word, making China one of its newest clients for energy exports.
Russia is a Eurasian State, its Asian engagements are widening so are its Middle Eastern penetration. In ‘No one’s world’, a Friendly Russian bear maybe a useful ally to a country like Sri Lanka with its own complicated relationship with the geo-political West.
The Writer is Director, at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)