At his trademark annual year-end press conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again let drop selected foreign-policy nuggets essential to understanding what lies ahead on the turbulent Eurasian geopolitical chessboard.
By now it’s well known that Putin will run again in the presidential elections scheduled for March 18 (“it will be self-nomination” and “I hope for the overall support from the public”). The Man in Charge might as well continue to be in charge. So it’s always enlightening to bring down the (spin) noise: sit back, relax, and just listen.
On President Trump: “I am on first-name terms with Trump; yes, we would probably use the familiar ‘you.’ I hope he’ll get the opportunity to improve relations with Russia. Look at the markets, how they have grown. This means that investors trust the US economy, this means they trust what he [Donald Trump] is doing in this field.”
On Russiagate: “What’s so strange about this [diplomats speaking with officials in their host country]? Why do you have this ‘Russian spy’ hysteria?” On accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential race, Putin said, “They have been invented by those aiming to delegitimize Trump. These people don’t understand they are undermining their own country – they aren’t showing respect for the Americans [who] voted for Trump.”
On working together with Washington: “Russia and the US can work closely on a range of issues” even given the “well-known limitations” on Trump.
On potential US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty: “We hear about the problems with the INF Treaty. Apparently conditions are being created and an information-propaganda campaign is being run for a possible US withdrawal from the treaty. There is nothing good about a US withdrawal, that [would] be highly detrimental to international security. The US has de facto left the INF Treaty already, with the deployment of the Aegis ashore, but Russia is not going to leave the treaty. We will not be dragged into an arms race.”
Putin stressed that Russia’s defense spending was US$46 billion a year, while the US plans to spend $700 billion in 2018.
On the Arctic: “I have visited [the Arctic archipelago] Franz Josef Land; several years ago foreign guides, accompanying foreign tourist groups, would say that these islands ‘recently’ belonged to Russia. They had forgotten that [Franz Josef Land] is a Russian archipelago, but we reminded them, and at the moment everything is fine. We shouldn’t forget it. Developing all those resources in the Arctic should take place in sync with taking care of the environment … we should not impinge on economic activities of ethnic minorities.”
On Ukraine: “The Kiev authorities have no desire to implement the Minsk agreements, no desire to launch a real political process, the completion of which could be the implementation of an agreement on the special status of the Donbass, which is enshrined in the relevant law of Ukraine, adopted by the Rada [Ukraine’s parliament]. Russians and Ukrainians are basically one people” (the audience is audibly pleased).
On Syria: “The US is not contributing enough to the successful resolution of the Syrian crisis. It is important that none of the participants in this [Syrian peace] process have the desire or temptation to use various terrorist or quasi-terrorist radical groups to achieve their immediate political goals.”
On Iraq: “Let’s say, militants are parting for Iraq. We are telling our US colleagues, ‘Militants have gone this or that way.’ There is no reaction, they [militants] are just leaving. Why? Due to thinking that they could be used in the fight with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. That’s very dangerous.”
On Russia possibly influencing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program: “Your congressmen, senators look so good, they have beautiful suits, shirts, they are seemingly clever people. They put us alongside North Korea and Iran. At the same time they push the [US] president to persuade us to solve the problems of North Korea and Iran together with you.”
On a nuclear DPRK: “On North Korea, we don’t accept it as a nuclear country. As for the US, it has gone beyond previous deals [with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] … and has provoked North Korea to withdraw from agreements. I think we heard the US would stop military drills, but no … they didn’t. It is vital to act very carefully when dealing with the DPRK’s nuclear program.”
On China: “I have full confidence that cooperation with China is beyond any political agenda. We will always remain strategic partners, for a long period of time. We have similar approaches to the development of the international system. We are both interested in joint [economic] projects, including integration of OBOR [One Belt One Road] and the Eurasian Union.”
Crafting the integration soundtrack
And that takes us to the heart of the geopolitical New Great Game in Eurasia: the Russia-China strategic partnership, once again reaffirmed, and the deepening of integration between the New Silk Roads, formerly OBOR, now Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAUA).
Putin is clearly positive about the benefits for Russia from this economic interpenetration. He noted how “Russia was able to overcome major crises: the collapse of prices for energy carriers and trade sanctions. But the country is moving in the right direction with a greater focus on domestic production. Our internal trade grew by 3%. This has to mean something.”
As much as Beijing in relation to its BRI, Moscow has been on a charm offensive to enlarge the Eurasian Economic Union. Turkey is a possible EAEU candidate for the near future, as well as India and Pakistan
Stressing how Moscow is totally on board the BRI, Putin implied how this cooperation extrapolates to both the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) spheres as well; and that’s where we should place Moscow’s current efforts to convince New Delhi – also a BRICS and SCO member – that betting on the BRI favors India’s interests.
As recently as early this week in New Delhi, after a trilateral meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been adamant: “I know India has problems, we discussed it today, with the concept of One Belt and One Road, but the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional to resolving political issues.”
New Delhi has to be listening, as it was one of Moscow’s staunchest allies during the Cold War.
In a parallel development, Iran is bound to join the EAEU as early as February, according to Behrouz Hassanolfat, director of the Europe and Americas Department of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, as quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
As Asia Times has reported, India and Iran are getting more in sync economically via a parallel Silk Road to Central Asia centered on the port of Chabahar. Iran is also an essential BRI hub, and now will become an EAEU hub as well.
As much as Beijing in relation to its BRI, Moscow has been on a charm offensive to enlarge the EAEU. Turkey – already on board the BRI – is a possible EAEU candidate for the near future, as well as India and Pakistan.
Even as Putin at his presser once again advanced the cause of these multiple cross-pollinations of Eurasian integration, India sometimes may give the impression of being the odd partner out. New Delhi has just hosted the first ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit, which can be interpreted as an attempt to go against the BRI. Yet the emergence of an anti-China bloc across Southeast Asia seems far-fetched.
In parallel, Moscow certainly does not welcome a somewhat evolving “Indo-Pacific” US/India/Japan alliance. The undercurrent narrative in Putin’s script could not be more crystal clear: The roadmap for Eurasia integration is all about the coming together of the BRI, EAEU, the SCO and BRICS.