By Konstantinos Efthymiou, Associate Contributor KEDISA
We are unfortunate enough to live in times where the world witnesses perhaps the most severe geo-political transformation since the war in Iraq and 9/11. It is now clear that this transformation is happening in the widespread area of Middle East and it could as well spread to the Balkans rapidly. Along with these transformations we are able to witness a vicious rally between a selective release of information from Secret Intelligence Agencies and their correspondents. Therefore it is really necessary for all analysts to pay attention to details; double-check information and decide whether these sources are accurate or not as well as to monitor extensively the intelligence coming from the field’s sources.
Following the wave of incidents occurring in the Middle-East and especially, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Turkey and Greece, it quite visible that – during the last three months – Kremlin is attempting to re-conceptualize the balance of powers in the region. After all, Russian diplomacy – at least unofficially – had never been comfortable with the existed western equilibrium. However, to those arguing that Russia would become offensive and provocative especially after the crisis of Crimea, Putin’s diplomacy has likely become a chess game which – until now – seems to favor Russian interests.
It is true that the coup of 15 July in Turkey, bared the complexity of the geo-political battle between the West and East. Sputnik International, an alternative news media agency had come then to transmit that FSB (Russian Federal Security Services) and mainly the SVR (responsible for intelligence and espionage activities outside the Russian Federation), actually saved Erdogan that night. By providing information to MIT (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı – National Intelligence Organization of Turkey), the Russians, according to Sputnik, actually gained Erdogan’s trust after the tensions caused by the demolition of their aircraft from Turkish military. Thus, surprisingly we had to witness a new bond between Russia and Turkey which –for many – could be considered as a clear threat to NATO and the West. However, as the months were passing by and despite the mutual meeting between Erdogan and Putin – in Ankara and Moscow – Turkey still hold its position in NATO as well as its Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria, which not only is not condemned by the West but it is US-backed from the beginning.
At the same time and that’s surprisingly brilliant – in terms of diplomacy – the fact that Turkish place in Sunni bloc is not questioned and despite its Euphrates Shield Operation – which aims to “Clean” the Northern Syrian borders from IS (Islamic State) militants and YPG (Peoples Protection Units) Kurdish extremist fighters (Turkish view) – there has been not a single clash between Russian troops and Turkish forces in Syrian Soil! Further to this, during the Putin-Erdogan meeting – couple of days ago – both leaders discussed the issue of supply the Turkish military with a modern air defense system from Russia. Dmitry Peskov-Kremlin’s spokesperson- reportedly, transmitted that if the request comes from the Turkish side, Russia will consider the possibility to deliver one of the most sophisticated air defense systems available to the Russian defense industry. Dmitry Peskov went even further by arguing that this issue – the potential military trade between Turkey and Russia – is purely a commercial affair and cooperation.
All these happened while Turkey annulled the agreement of 3.5 billion dollars to receive a fresh missile defense system from China – in November 2015. It is important to be noted that the competition of supplying Turkey with military defense systems, included the US with the Patriot system, Russia with S300-S400i, Chinese with the FD-2000 and the Italian-French consortium with the T system!
Egypt’s example perhaps stands as more dangerous than Turkey’s. Although both countries being on the Sunni bloc, Egypt’s case is more ambiguous, mainly due to Cairo’s relations and interdependence on Saudi Arabia. Here again, Russia’s approach is sharply orchestrated. On October 12th – 4 days ago – it was transmitted that Russia and Egypt will hold joint military exercises on Egypt’s soil in the future. At the same time media sources around the globe almost crucified Cairo for voting in favor of the Russian peace Resolution in the UN Security Council – regarding the Syrian conflict.
However, Egyptian – Russian relationship had not always been in balance. On the 20th of September – and while being in need – the Egyptian Government rejected a 60,000 ton-cargo wheat fungus from Russia – something that forced Kremlin to ban the import of Egyptian fruits and vegetable. That critical situation was likely to create major problems in terms of food supply to Egyptian people, as Egypt is dependent on foreign wheat imports to provide state-subsided bread to low-income families. With a restricted wheat-supply it is likely that Egypt will run out shortly from wheat – which will eventually lead to millions of people to starvation. In combination with the ongoing foreign currency exchange, the wheat shortage threatens Egypt capability to feed its own people in the long term and to maintain a security and political equilibrium on the region. However, even that provocation from Egypt had been addressed with sobriety, by Russians. Not only did Russia let it go, but soon transmitted – through governmental channels – that Egypt was aiming to equip its army with modern Russia-produced weaponry. Reportedly, after long-hour meetings of the joint military and technical cooperation commission, Egypt’s officials agreed to supply the national armed forces with Russian weaponry!
Along with that supply, sources close to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had then transmitted that it is of great importance for Egypt to be connected to Russia’s Glonass satellite navigation network. Practically, a joint military cooperation between Russia and Egypt should surprise no one as last year Russia and Egypt held their first-ever joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, which included the Black Sea fleets flagship Moskva missile cruiser. However that statement was transmitted under the shade of numerous reports coming mainly from Russian sources – still unidentified – which claimed that Russia is presently negotiating with Egypt to rent a number of military facilities, including an airbase in the coastal town of Sidi Barrani – 95 km east of the Libyan borders – which according to those sources could be possibly activated before 2019. Further to this, Egypt’s response to those sources had been significantly fast and came from the spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency – Alaa Youssef – who denied that bilateral discussions were taking place that could lead to the establishment of a Russian military base in Egypt. He even went further by insisting that is a principal issue for Egypt not to allow foreign military bases on its territory.
On the other hand though, until the middle-1972, Russia owned a naval base in the Sidi Barrani city that was used to monitor the movement of US warships. Therefore, even if the Egyptian authorities had chosen to react to those sources, history had proved the opposite. This issue is not military but mostly political. Vladimir Putin’s intentions are clearly to possess military bases away from Russia’s borders, giving Russia a wider scope against potential threats. Last week the Russian defense ministry declared that it was considering restoring its military presence in Cuba and Vietnam. Therefore, it is quite ambiguous to consider Egypt’s denial of such reports as de facto pragmatic.
Following the above, Egypt has to deal with a parallel challenge. The significant tensions which had erupted between Saudi Arabia and Egypt – after the latter voted in favor of the draft resolution from Russia in the UΝ Security Council could potentially work as a firecracker inside the Sunni bloc. In the aftermath of that vote, Aramco – a state owned Saudi Oil company – suspended its oil aid to Egypt while Saudi Arabia’s support for the opposition forces on Syrian soil left little choice to the Saudi Government. It is indeed unclear if Egypt will escape the criticism whilst Saudi Government’s circles unofficially transmit that Egypt’s “suspicious” voting on the Russian resolution might have effects on its short-terms relation with the Gulf countries.
Practically, both of the suggested resolutions – which Egypt voted for – covered key points to reach peace in Syria, such as the necessity of humanitarian aid and cessation of hostilities across the country. However, a crucial clause absent from the Russian resolution was the immediate halt of airstrikes and military flights over Syria. Thus, and despite that the two resolutions failed to be adopted by the Security Council – as Russia appealed against the French resolution using its veto power – Egypt’s voting in Russia’s favor triggered a short-term distrust between Saudis and Egyptians which undoubtedly complicates the balance of powers within the Security Council as well as on the broader region. After all, Russian diplomacy is well-known for its long-term diplomatic visibility. Based on that and despite the almost “traditional” military cooperation between Kremlin and Egypt, it is possible that Moscow will aim to demolish – stone by stone – the Sunni bloc, turning them against each other in order – in the long term – to favor its interests in the region and the much more stable and prosperous cooperation with Shia’s power, Iran.
Russia and Iran have expanded their cooperation in recent months after Iran’s interest in Russia’s Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system as well as Iran’s plan to spend more than $8bn on Russian arms. Months ago – on16th of August – Russian warplanes reportedly took off from a base in Iran to launch airstrikes on the Islamic State group in Syria – the first time they have used facilities outside Russia or Syria for air operations against the extremist group. The planes, which took off from the Hamadan air base in Iran – located 47km north of Hamadan city | 35°12′42″N 048°39′12″E | in the Hamadan Province – destroyed five armament depots, three command posts and militant training camps in Aleppo, Deir el-Zor and Idlib – Syria. Previously, Russian warplanes were launching strikes from bases within the war-torn country and Russia. However, Iran′s minister of defense – Hossein Dehghan – clarified that day that Iran was hosting Russia′s aircraft at the request of the Syrian government and Russia was free to utilize it as long as it was necessary. Even if later, tensions had been occurred between both countries in terms of the base utilization, the strategic partnership and the military trade deals still hold strong and prosperous for both powers.
However, Russian approach to Iran is much more “delicate” than of Turkey’s or Egypt’s. As soon as Russia burned its bridges with the West by intervening in Ukraine and had found little comfort in pivoting to China – Russia had to seek immediately new strategic partners, and this has been the driving force behind improved relations with Iran. It has pursued Iran by a series of credible, favor-winning, and largely unreciprocated acts. Despite being in the middle of prosecuting a hybrid war in Ukraine, Russia worked tirelessly to secure the Iranian nuclear deal now hailed as one of U.S. President Obama’s crowning achievements.
The deal, of course, released Iran from crippling sanctions but also warded off what was becoming a very real threat of military intervention. Russia also volunteered its Rosatom nuclear energy corporation to handle the exchange of 8.5 tons of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile (leaving just 300 kg as specified in the deal) for 140 tons of natural uranium. At the same time – apart from energy and military deals – Syrian conflict had occurred to be a negotiation terrain between both countries which offered the possibility of cooperation. Despite that Iran already controls much of the Syrian Army while its own militias, including the National Defense Force and Hezbollah, it is on Iran’s interest to have Russian troops officially supporting the Syrian Army at its behest. In no case does this mean that Iran uses Russia as an official foot on Syrian soil. This could be better preserved as a mutual agreement according to which Russia – by its presence in Syria – aims at winning the battle for Iran’s political future, and that it will become a forceful member of the anti-Western coalition that Russia has been assembling for years. Despite their joint military trade and the benefits of such investments, once again, Moscow’s long-term visibility is de facto.
During the last month, new sources coming straight from the inner-governmental circles in Kremlin transmitted that India is going to buy from Russia advanced anti-missile ground-to-air systems, after the bilateral talks which had been conducted between the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reportedly, the Russian anti-missile systems S-400 will be utilized for the strengthening of missile, air defense of the Indian armed forces along the borders with China and Pakistan. India and Russia, on October 15th, signed a total of 16 agreements at the 17th annual bilateral summit in the western Indian state of Goa. The deals range from defense to energy investments, including a highly anticipated agreement for the purchase of the S-400 Triumph air defense missile defense system.
• In particular, India has inked pacts with Russia to acquire advanced air defense missile systems, stealth frigates as well as jointly produce light-utility helicopters
• The three projects are collectively worth an estimated $10.5 billion
However, despite that these deals are extremely important for both countries, what is the essence of those agreements is PM Modi’s statement that with Russia’s assistance India now is able to be fast-tracked with the Eurasian Economic Union Free Trade Agreement! Further, the creation of a prosperous Russia-India Investment Fund – total worth of $500millions – has been also agreed! That is the point exactly which differentiate India from the other countries – mentioned above. It is believed that Russia’s plan is not merely to develop military partnerships or promote the Russian military industry. For many, Russia works on a strategy that will use military partnerships, bonds and mutual agreements to promote the Russian version of a new financial and political order. Perhaps, the example of the US is the most characteristic.
Russia vs United States of America: The new Cold War
Three weeks ago, Russia ordered all of its officials to fly home as well as any of their relatives living abroad amid the increased tensions over the prospect of global war. Specifically, politicians and high-ranking figures are said to have received a warning from President Vladimir Putin to bring their loved-ones home to the ‘Motherland’. That serious statement came after Putin cancelled a planned visit to France amid a furious row over Moscow’s role in the Syrian conflict and just days after it had emerged that the Kremlin had moved nuclear-capable missiles nearer to the Polish border. However, how did we reach to Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s warnings that the world is at a ‘dangerous point’ due to rising tensions between Russia and the US? Does Russian strategy apply differently in the US case?
It was about time that the Syrian – nationwide ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia – on the 12th of September – would began at sunset on that Monday, coinciding with the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, however there were concerns about whether it would hold. That day, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was reporting that major conflict zones across the country were quiet. “Calm is prevailing,” however, that there had been light shelling by both rebel groups and government forces in the country’s southwest. Despite the fact that the deal, agreed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was aiming at putting an end to fighting and moving towards a political transition after more than five years of war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups fighting to overthrow him, things followed another way. The fact that the truce did not apply to the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham ( the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front that changed its name after cutting ties with al-Qaeda in July 2016), appeared to be a crucial factor for the non-lasting status of that ceasefire. The Syrian government, as well as Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah armed group, two of its strongest allies, had all agreed to the deal, but rebel groups had again expressed serious concerns.
The story is more or less broadly covered and known. Continues clashes and fierce bloodshed followed that failed ceasefire whilst thousands of civilians, especially in Aleppo, Idleb, Homs, Hama, Dara’a and on the northern Syrian – Turkish borders have been killed, forced to flee their homes.
Russian accusations against the United States – during the Security Council summit and elsewhere – should not come as a surprise. The continuous battle in Aleppo – especially in the last week and after the freeze of the diplomatic negotiations between both countries – clearly indicates that a long-term resolution is at stake. The failed ceasefire was probably the final bid for a peaceful solution to Syrian war and a possible breakthrough whilst the latest boundaries which occurred – with Putin’s straight order to its diplomats – clearly indicate that the strategic distrust, between all fronts, is ecumenical. At the same time, it seems, that the US have lost the mobility to draw alternatives to the failed ceasefire whilst US-backed rebels and Turkish soldiers are accused to have strengthen IS positions on the ground.
Whilst trying to remain to the point – which is to present Moscow’s new strategy for dominating the balance of powers – it is quite difficult to exclude the Syrian conflict from mentioning as it is the star point of the Russian plan. Apart from the military and diplomatic turmoil among both countries – regarding the Syrian civil war – Russia’s intentions – while moving forward to re-shaping the balance of power – are to attack the American dollar. Having in mind the precise negotiation and financial agreements with India, the strategical decision to use Turkey’s mistakes for easing Russian interests and the almost “ideological” and various cooperation with Iran, the Russian school of diplomacy is coming back to China in order to destroy – in the long-term – the American monetary domination.
In particular, Russia declared its intention to issue its first bonds of around $ 1 billion in Chinese currency – firstly because of Western sanctions, partly to cover the deficits in its budget. Simply put, the country needs the money because the drop in energy prices increased deficits – while access to international capital markets is limited, because of the sanctions imposed. The big advantage of course is the very low public debt compared to the rest of the world – and cooperation with China is given. Thus, further, if Russia actually issued bonds in yuan, it would weaken the dollar, as the largest global reserve currency.
Further, sources close to Russian financial circles transmit that gold purchases by Russia, which now holds the 6th position regarding stocks, could lead to the preparation of a gold ruble. Therefore, the adoption of the gold ruble is not considered only but desirable from Russia, as would turn the ruble into a very strong currency but also feasible – which however – would be a huge blow against the dollar, which prints profusely and bounced the superpower, since the abandonment of the Gold Standard in 1971.
The immediate consequence for the US, which naturally have neither the intention nor the ability to pay their huge debts; it would be a very heavy inflation – because huge quantities of unwanted dollars would immediately enter inside the superpower, flooding the market. Moreover, while the US can relatively easily protect their interests in a world where the dollar is the main global reserve currency, if the gold standard returns – what Russia wants – then that American domination would be over. For example, the US would not have the ability to impose sanctions and fines on large banks when dealing with states which Washington had classified them as “rogue states” – as until recently was the case with Iran. Therefore, with gold standard more and more countries would want to lose their privileges against the US dollar while hoping that another global power would have taken until the then leadership of the global financial system. Well, Russia projects itself as that leader.
Considering the above analysis, there are many reasons to believe that Russia intends on re-shaping the traditional western-type equilibrium by attacking its fundamental roots: the US dominance in Middle-East; the military trade with global powers and the dollar-centered financial establishment. In the first scale, the manipulation of the Turkish crisis and the ambiguous position of Turkey in NATO by promoting a progressive military partnership with Ankara, it seems to work well for Russia. On the other hand, the agreement with Egypt seems to help Russia in putting its foot on a traditionally western-dominated ally. Further, the agreements with India, Iran and the potential financial turn-around China reveals – apart for the financial benefits – the attempt to establish, at least geopolitically, a financial and regional hegemony in the southern Middle East and the Asia sub-region.
It would be safe to argue that a creation of an ecumenical Eurasian region is situated at the center of the Russian masterplan. The implications could be many. The security super-complex in the region could lead to further tensions between the US and Russia as well as the Saudi Arabia’s answer to a potential Sunni dividing cannot been projected yet. What is certain though, is that Russia is not in rush while the US seem to have run out of moves.