Vladimir Putin has been consecrated as the “No 1 enemy” of the year in 2014 by Western countries. Initially favored among American officials during his first two terms (2000-2008) for his economic reforms and solidarity in the war on terror, Putin is now depicted by Western media as the dominant threat against Western interests and the advancement of liberal values abroad. However, the prevailing sympathy for Russian foreign policy within Russia as well as in many emerging countries – including China – should compel Western leaders and their citizens to reflect upon the reasons for such support in spite of his seemingly erratic behavior.
An idea now predominates in the non-Western world at different levels of society: the West has lost its mind. The United States and their European counterparts seem to have contracted a fever for enacting regime change abroad. The initial victories of Washington (since proven to have failed) following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the fall of the regimes in place encouraged American strategists to believe that the ideal time had come for regime-change and “made in America” democratization.
The Broader Middle East and North Africa project launched in 2004 by the Bush administration tried to take advantage of its two military operations to send a message to MENA dictators and autocrats ruling in to reform their governance in accordance to the American model. Yet another failure became apparent in the fact that the revolts of the Arab Spring were a not a result of neoconservative foreign policy: Regardless of covert foreign interference, it was the actions of an ordinary Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who, in desperation, self-immolated in December 2010, thus setting the Arab Spring in motion. Bouazizi, in all likelihood, was not a viewer of the American-engineered propaganda-channel Al Hurra, specifically created to promote American liberal values in Arabic to counter the anti-American sentiments of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. These Arab revolts have not only led to regime changes in several countries, but they have also superseded Washington’s control.
The NATO military intervention in Libya gave birth to the chaos that now pervades the country, now shattered and dominated by various radical Islamist movements that have become a threat not only for the entire African continent, but also for its European neighbor as well.
Furthermore, the US and Europe, through their hesitant inconsistency in supporting so-called pro-democracy resistance groups despite their hardly concealed Islamist traits, has only accelerated the development of an environment of political disorder – a disorder that has spawned the Islamic State (or Daesh), the greatest regional threat since the Second World War.
The exactions of Daesh, notably on Yazidi and Shiite populations, which should have been recognized by the UN and the West as crimes against humanity and genocide, have only been subject to meager condemnations by otherwise passive Western leaders and a limited American-led aerial campaign supported by the very same States, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that backed the emergence of such Islamist radical groups.
The confrontation with Putin’s Russia clearly places itself in the continuity of this volition for regime change. Refusing to recognize that Russia, the symbolic heir to the Tsarist Russian and Soviet empires, has the right to claim a core national security interest, which Washington had claimed both in 1961 during the ordeal of the Bay of Pigs (leading to an embargo imposed on Cuba) and even more so during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on false claims which will remain engraved in history, the West has decided to intimidate Putin into mistakes. First, by supporting an unorthodox regime change in Kiev and then by trying to draw to Europe a new Ukrainian regime comprised of officials who represent an anti-Semitic extreme right wing, which oddly enough, has not been subject to American condemnations such as those that would have been issued against Arab officials espousing similar ideologies.
Moscow considers that Ukraine and the West have crossed two “red” lines: the first with the establishment of a privileged relationship between Ukraine and the EU; the second with the newly expressed desire of Kiev to join NATO. If the membership process might last years before being completed, Russian officials have clearly stated that would constitute a hostile act towards Russia.
After having struggled for the past 15 years to find its place in a world order still dominated – but for how long? – by the West, Russia has now decided, probably permanently, to reorient its foreign policy towards the emerging continent to which it geographically belongs: Asia. The West, convinced by the notion that a regime cannot survive with empty pockets and being misled by its hegemonic ideology and obsolete analyses of the world order, does not seem to realize that it has just given major impulsion to a strategic move which has been progressively taking shape since the appearance of China on the world stage as a major economic protagonist, waiting to become a major strategic actor beyond its immediate regional environment. As such, China is the main beneficiary of this anti-Russian Western strategy.
The Cuban and Iranian cases have proven over the past decades that sanctions do not constitute a policy. Nevertheless, the US and Europe seem unable to imagine their relationship with Russia in another light than through a desire of humiliation and of a complete surrender of Moscow, an unlikely phenomenon. The reaction of Putin, who is evidently different than Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadhafi, as arrogant as it may be, is calculated and realistic. The West wants to exclude Russia from the so-called international order still dominated by the West. Therefore, Russia will naturally join a new world order in the making, the one which will likely consecrate the 21st century — an order with Asian dominance.
China-Russia relations have always been complex, inconstant and volatile, but this Beijing-Moscow axis constitutes one of the main vectors of the current remodeling of the international system. If the China-America relationship is necessary for the world’s stability, the one being shaped between Moscow and Beijing is an important adjustment variable of the Chinese strategy and will have a strong impact on the place of the US in a new world order. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which now regroups a certain number of Asian States around China and Russia, foreshadows an Asia with a stronger autonomy towards the West. Pakistan has already expressed a formal membership request, and India should soon follow. A strong network of economic and political relations is progressively being formed throughout the Asian continent, in spite of often conflictual interests of certain major protagonists, and its orientations broadly evade Western domination.
In this geopolitical context, Moscow sees Beijing as the only current power with enough sovereignty to not give in to American pressure aiming to exclude Russia from the international landscape through sanctions or its ejection from the G8 (returning to a G7). If Putin decides to redirect his foreign policy, especially his economic policy, towards Asia, will the West, and notably Europe, be able to face the economic consequences of such a reorientation when the European Union keeps sinking in an unprecedented economic, political and social crisis? New agreements concluded between Beijing and Moscow in the area of hydrocarbons are likely to lead China to take advantage of this crisis and reinforce its importations coming from the Russian Federation. The agreement, signed in 2014, will provide China with 400 million dollars’ worth of natural gas over a period of thirty years.
Until now, Russian gas was mainly exported to Europe. With the stagnation of Russia’s gas production, the quantity exported to China shall be deducted from the amount exported to Europe. The same scheme will be applied to oil, which represented 33% of Russian exportations in 2013 and was mainly exported to the EU and Turkey. The decrease of European agricultural exportations to Russia due to sanctions will also affect European producers as Moscow is leaning towards other providers, in Asia as well as in Egypt, for example, to bridge the gap.
In 2013, Russia imported 17.2 billion dollars’ worth of agricultural products from countries which were not applying the Western sanctions, 9.2 billion of which were related to products placed under the sanctions. The US should not be spared by this reconfiguration of commercial exchanges, importations originating from Russia having increased by 23% between 2009 and 2013.
Another consequence just as important is how financial transactions suffer the direct impact of sanctions and the looming sense of fragility now felt not only by Russian actors, but also by those in Central Asia. The sanctions set up against numerous Russian personalities, which led to the freezing of their assets or the interruption of financial transactions and private banking placements in Europe, have also encouraged fortunes from this region to redirect efforts toward warmer financial destinations, namely Dubai, Singapore or Hong-Kong. The owner of Megafon, operator of the third-largest Russian mobile network, recently announced that 40% of the company’s US dollar reserves had been converted to Hong Kong dollars.
China, owner of the world’s first currency reserves, clearly announced its anxiety towards the difficulties encountered by Russia and its will to help Moscow through its ordeal, especially by granting loans to resist against the Western operation of financial isolation of Russia. A noteworthy phenomenon is the fact that Chinese public opinion itself, often swift to be critical towards the government and its economic orientations, massively supports Russia against what they consider the expression of an abusive desire of hegemony from the West. The powerful rise of the Chinese currency in recent years increasingly presents the RMB as a plausible alternative to the omnipotence of the US dollar and greatly weakens the American pressure. In Russia as well as in China, alternatives are being studied to, for instance, resist against the domination of the Master-Card system and the banking networks placed under Washington’s control. This movement is progressive, but noticeable.
The key question still remaining in 2015: Can Russia be cornered to take a step backwards on Crimea and Ukraine in the face of pressure from the West? Or will the latter encourage Putin to speed up the reorganization of the Russian economy towards stronger efforts in the areas of industry and agriculture in order to escape the restrictions resulting from an emirate economy, with more than half of the federal State budget relying on mineral extraction taxes and custom taxes on hydrocarbon exportations. Signs of weakening in European positions towards the sanctions have already surfaced, especially in Germany.
Experts emphasize the limits of a policy of sanctions, not only because of the economic consequences which may reveal themselves as disastrous for Europe, but also of the risk, if the sanctions were to lead to the fall
of the regime. For the moment, at least, it does not seem likely that the Federation of Russia could break into small political entities, each one claiming ethnic, religious or political specificities, thus creating a new zone of major instability.
On the more general strategic standpoint, the rise of extremely violent non-State actors such as Daesh, which threaten the stability of several States, render necessary a greater concertation between leading powers, and the setting up of an efficient and coherent cooperation framework, including in a military aspect. The exclusion of Russia, whose influence in certain regions cannot be neglected — especially in the Middle East and Central Asia — leads Western countries to face several simultaneous threats which, although of different intensities, constitute multiple fronts. In a world going through a geopolitical mutation, can the
United States and Europe afford to take this risk on the long term and contribute to the creation of a true Asian front wanting to set back the current Western hegemony? Until now, Washington has put its efforts into raising Asian States one against the others: Japan against China, India against China, and China against Russia. This strategy seems doomed to failure now that all these States have become aware of the benefits of a strong Asian axis, or even a Eurasian one, a threat for the United States so well described by Zbigniew Brzezinski in “The Grand Chessboard.”Lionel Vairon, PhD is the CEO of CEC Consulting – Luxembourg and Elysha Business Consulting, Tunisia, working on development strategies of companies and governmental institutions of various countries, assisting them in negotiation and finding partners in the investment sector.
 In an interview for Der Spiegel, the leader of Germany diplomacy, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has declared being preoccupied by the consequences of the sanctions on Russia: “I’m worried. This is why I oppose any further tightening of the sanctions. Anyone who wants to bring the Russian economy to its knees is completely mistaken if they think that this will bring about greater security in Europe. I can only warn against that approach”. He also expressed himself on the toughening of the sanctions against Russia, mentioning problems due to the fall of the rouble: “It cannot be in our interests for this to spiral completely out of control”. (Der Spiegel, December 19, 2014)