As President Obama declares that the US is preparing to boost its military presence in Europe to the tune of $1 billion, and NATO and the EU move quickly to deepen relations with Georgia and Moldova it is easy to conclude that the crisis in Ukraine and the recent actions of the Russian Federation are a very European issue. However, if we turn our attention to Mongolia, we can see that worsening US/EU relations with Russia are likely to have a far more global effect than may have been initially assumed.
Mongolia, for its part, seeks to simultaneously maintain good relations with its neighbors (Russia and China) while deepening relations with extra-regional powers such as EU member states, the US, Japan, and South Korea. While maintaining this balance and neutrality is difficult enough in a stable international environment, the recent increase in tensions between Russia and NATO/EU members has made playing both sides of the fence an increasingly delicate process.
The first sign that Mongolia was finding itself in an increasingly sticky situation appeared when the country chose to abstain from the UN resolution condemning the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Everything about Mongolian foreign policy and general international outlook would lead one to believe that Mongolian officials do not welcome Russia’s aggressive actions. Not only would Mongolia not be keen on Russia’s attempts to legitimize its actions by reference to historic rights and “arbitrary decisions” (this having the potential to set a precedent for claims on Mongolia’s territory by China), but this kind of action by a great power against a smaller neighbor more generally underlines Mongolia’s own vulnerability. That said, it is also clear that Mongolia is not in a position to upset its relations with the Russian Federation, given its importance to the Mongolian economy and its role as a neighboring balancer vis-à-vis China. “Abstain” was likely the only decision Mongolia could make.
It would appear that the Russian government is also watching how countries on its eastern borders will respond to the crisis in its relations with Europe and North America. Case in point: Russian President Putin met with Mongolian officials 2 times in just the last 3 weeks. The first time, Mongolian Prime Minister N. Altankhuyag met with Putin to discuss the two countries’ bilateral relationship at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The second time, Putin met with Mongolian President Elbegdorj at the Confidence Building Measures in Asia meeting in Shanghai. Russia is eager to keep Mongolia from sliding towards the United States and Europe.
While I do not know if the current situation in Ukraine was discussed at these meetings, Ukraine was on the agenda during recent meetings between the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold and the British Minister of Foreign Affairs two weeks ago. I would also guess that U.S. Senators Steve Lynch and Steven Shabet mentioned the issue during their visit to Ulaanbaatar as part of an official tour of Asia.
Mongolia and other small states seeking to maintain relations with Russia and the “West” are going to find it increasingly difficult to maintain a favorable balance. As Russia becomes more assertive of its foreign policy and security interests, its relationship with NATO and EU member states is unlikely to improve. While Mongolia has navigated the international arena successfully for the past couple decades, that well thought-out success has a limit. As Mongolia’s international profile rises and relations between real and third neighbors deteriorate, I predict that Mongolia’s goal of an omni-directional foreign policy will become more and more difficult to maintain. Difficult, but by no means impossible.
(Many of the resources and links for the post came directly from my “Foreign Policy Roundup”, which be can found here).
(This is a new fun category of posts where I imagine a scenario where foreign policy news leads to a 100% shift in international politics. I am not arguing that my scenario should or will happen; I am arguing that if this one piece of news went to an extreme, that we could expect the following changes in global politics.)
Just imagine, Russian policy makers give 100% to all their talk about shifting their developmental, foreign policy, and security focus to the Russian Far East and East Asia.
In another decade or two, the Russian Federation could have potentially achieved the following foreign policy milestones:
1) Deepened relations with China. True, Russian-Chinese relations aren’t all that bad now, but if the Russian Federation really devoted its diplomatic energies and expertise to East Asia, Moscow might be more willing to cooperate with China. China likewise would have to treat Russia as an Asian great power, incentivizing Beijing to cooperate at Russia’s bequest.
2) Solved its territorial disputes with Japan. If Russia is serious about becoming an Asia-Pacific power, it will have to solve its territorial dispute with Japan over the Sakhalin Islands. Moving east will not mitigate the U.S. encirclement of Russia, and Russia would be wise to court Tokyo instead of working against Japan as it likes to do with U.S. and NATO allies in Eastern Europe. This way, it could make room for itself in the region as a new player.
3) Turned itself into a stabilizing force on the Korean Peninsula. Russia will have to take an active role in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula. Russia might begin to partner with China to control Pyongyang, while simultaneously seeking to increase its standing in South Korea, to balance the U.S. presence in its new backdoor.
4) Become a balancing force against China in Mongolia. Certainly, Mongolia is focused on balancing the economic and political influence of its two giant neighbors, but currently China is really the only neighbor that needs to be balanced. A bit more interest from Russia coupled with continued third neighbor involvement might be just the thing to counter the obvious threat posed by the Chinese vasselization of the Mongolian economy.
For Russia’s neighbors, we could expect the following benefits:
1) Russia would treat the South Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics as secondary concern. That is not to say the Russia would stop behaving like an imperialist state towards these regions, but they would become a lesser concern if the Kremlin was focusing on Vladivostok instead of St. Petersburg. Georgia and Armenia would be freed up for integration into European institutions, the Baltics would face less pressure from Russia concerning Russian minorities in these countries, and Eastern Europe might not be bullied around with energy politics quite as much.
2) Central Asia would become slightly more relevant. Central Asia is pivotal to Russian-Chinese relations as a main point of competition AND cooperation, mainly through the SCO. As such, Central Asia would become more important than it already is to Russian and Chinese grand strategy. Getting the region right will be paramount to achieving strong relations with China, and ensuring the stability of the region.
3) The E.U. would feel less pressure. With Russia’s move away from Eastern Europe, E.U. expansion into the Caucasus would be simplified (still difficult and far away, to be sure). Furthermore, European sponsored pipelines would face less competition from Gazprom, furthering E.U. security and economic interests.
4) The U.S. would feel more pressure. If Russia was successful at turning itself into a recognizably Asia Pacific country, the U.S. would have to deal with another pole in the region, making its own pivot more complicated and delicate. A Russian-Chinese partnership could also give both countries the upper hand in denying the U.S. access to important regions, diplomatically and economically. If Russia was successful in courting Japan and South Korea, the U.S. could find its own alliances weakened by Russian influence. Also, a stronger Russian military presence in the Pacific would be a direct security threat to the United States (and Canada, for that matter).
Domestically, an Asia-Pacific Russian Federation would experience the following changes:
1) Eastern Demographic movement. Moscow and St. Petersburg would not loose their political and cultural significance, but an eastward moving Russia would mean that Irkutsk and Vladivostok, etc. would suddenly become the pillars of the Russian economy and key point of interaction with the Asia-Pacific.
2) More interference in Sakha and Tuva. The Sakha and Tuvan Republics are 2 of three more “independent” republics of the Federation, with Moscow decidedly less involved in their domestic affairs (Tatarstan being the 3rd of such republics). Our imaginary Russia would probably start interfering much more in these republics. In Tuva, one of the few republics with a majority titular demographic, the eastward move could also lead to an influx of Russians, potentially causing social unrest.
3) More balanced relations with North Caucasus and other more western ethnic republics. With less interest in Western affairs, the Western republics might get a bit more flexibility to pursue their own interests. Obviously, this will stop short of any real policy change, but with less interest Mother Russia might not notice key developments in regional agency.
This list is far from complete and a far cry from well researched, but I think I have touched on several important possibilities from the scenario.
In reality, I find it hard to imagine that Russia could successfully mould itself into a real player in Asia-Pacific affairs for one simple reason: Russia rarely displays foreign policy behavior that would attract other countries to welcome its presence. In order for this move to work, Russia would have successfully interact with South Korea and Japan; however, Russia has not shown itself particularly adept at working with U.S. allies in the past. While Putin might consider Russia already to be an Asia-Pacific country, I do not believe that the rest of the region would agree. In order to make political room for itself, Russia will have to charm, something the state has never been particularly gifted at.
Last week Foreign Policy published an article on how Russia’s energy policy has pushed Europe and Asia to find alternatives to Gazprom. No surprise here. It is the quintessential flaw in all Russian government policies: the strongman approach. Russia continually miscalculates its own strength, offering only the stick with very little carrot. The country is locked in a time when Moscow controlled a huge swath of the globe, including Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It seems that Moscow is unable to accept that countries like Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan are not only independent from the Russian Federation, but have options besides Moscow for international partnerships. Sorry Putin, there is no such thing as the “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье), anymore. Much of Eastern Europe is effectively integrated into NATO and the E.U.; the South Caucasus has cultivated strong relations with Turkey and the “West”; and even Central Asia is starting to loosen its Russian chains with China, India, and the U.S. eager to move in.
The most exciting part of the article is that it shows how small states are actually benefiting from a belligerent Russia. Wouldn’t we assume that small countries neighboring large, aggressive states would suffer as a result, bullied into policy changes and controlled from outside: their de facto autonomy weakened and pulled into “satellite state” status? Indeed, this seems to often have been the case. Historically, it was certainly the case for Russia’s neighbors until just recently. I identify three important takeaways from this article (in the context of post-1990 developments): 1) spheres of influence are dead; 2) even powerful states can over play their hand; 3) small states adapt quickly.
The term “sphere of influence” declined in use with the end of colonialism/WWII, but the general idea can still drive policy making on the part of large powers. Russia certainly still finds the term relevant with frequent references to a so-called “near abroad” (the term used for post-Soviet countries, suggesting that they are not fully independent of Moscow, essentially referring to a sphere of influence), and a persisting sense that Russia can and should play a special role in post-Soviet countries. A “sphere of influence”, whereby de jure independent states are under the de facto control of a large power, and that other large powers are not permitted to engage within this sphere no longer exists. Today, as Petersen’s article shows, Russia is not the only country engaging in the post-Soviet space, and in the case of Eastern Europe and some of the South Caucasus, it is not even the main player. True, much of Central Asia (especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) does not seem terribly eager to run away from Russia, and are even looking for an expanded role for the CIS and Customs Union. But, even these nations are increasingly able to step away from Moscow for security, economic, and energy needs/sales. Most Eastern European states are now firmly under the NATO security umbrella, and have the resources of the European Union to balance against dependency on Russia. Turkey, the U.S., and some E.U. member states are active in the South Caucasus. The Central Asian states are courted by the E.U. and U.S. for global security concerns, and China and India are moving in for geostrategic and energy-related reasons. Russia no longer has a recognizable exclusive sphere of influence or a “near abroad”, something Russia policymaking appears to be slow to realize.
Russia is laboring under the one of the biggest foreign policy flaws that powerful countries can and often do make: might makes right, or, to use a more classical cliché, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The assumption is that since Russia is strong, its neighbors can’t afford to do without it. I am not arguing that Russia’s neighbors can actually ignore it, but since these states no longer exist in an exclusive sphere of influence, they have choices. Had Russia opted for a non-confrontational stance and worked with the newly independent states as opposed to undermining their legitimacy and autonomous decision-making processes, the countries of Eastern Europe might have effectively straddled the space between Europe-proper and Russia, to their own benefit (Finland is a clear example). The South Caucasus and Central Asia have been more willing to cooperate with Russia, because they do not have the security of the E.U. or NATO to cushion the fall, but they have been persuaded to stay closer to Russia if Moscow was a reliable and benevolent ally. As Russia increasingly looses its foothold even in Central Asia, where up until a decade ago its position was entrenched, one can’t help but declare a complete policy failure. Russia overestimated what it could get away with, and now it is looking increasingly isolated.
Finally, this is yet another example of how small states are not only highly adaptable, but also able to make independent policy decisions with whom they do and do not cultivate international partnerships. Small states may lack the ability to make their own rules, but they are more than capable of choosing by whose rules to play. Russia pushed Europe to find energy alternatives, and Europe did just that: forging partnerships with the states along the Caspian Sea and building pipelines through Turkey. Now Gazprom’s profits have fallen 15%, and with it Russia’s control over neighboring energy resources. Small states will seek to cultivate relations with as many players as possible, with a clear preference for extra-regional/non-neighboring countries. Such a strategy is essential for small states to maintain their autonomy and independence. When Europe opens it doors to energy resources from outside the Gazprom monopoly, small states are going to respond. Likewise, when Russia makes unfriendly policies towards its neighbors, they are effectively justifying and encouraging those same countries to further entrench with the “West”. Georgia and Ukraine are two clear examples. Dr. Drezner argued in a recent article that low energy prices might actually promote instability since oil producing states rely on high prices to fund their own stability. This is certainly true in Putin’s Russia, where his popularity is largely based on petroleum-bankrolled development. However, for the smaller states bordering Russia, it appears to be the opposite.
Talk of a “new great game” should shift to a “global great game”, not confined to Central Asia, but an emerging trend throughout the international state system in response to new emerging powers and re-engagement by established global leaders. The basic policy considerations presented here are necessary considerations for larger states to effectively interact with smaller countries. As this article has pointed out, small certainly does matter in energy politics, when small states are necessary producers and transit countries for petroleum resources. While the same points hold for the U.S. and China as much as the Russian Federation, the difference is that the U.S. and China have already taken actions in this direction. China reiterates its “peaceful rise”, and the United States promotes itself as a “benign hegemon”. Mistakes are made and small states remain suspicious of China’s rise and America’s pivot, but it seems that China and U.S. have won this soft power battle in the “global great game”. Russia will have to significantly adjust its foreign policy ideology to win the war.
On January 15, Foreign Affairs released an intriguing essay on Azerbaijan's relations with Iran and Israel (here). Not only did I learn a lot about Azerbaijani foreign policy, but it also got me thinking that Azerbaijan might be another example of a small state implementing what I called "small power" in a previous post, albeit in a way very different from Mongolia.
Alex Vatanta presents compelling evidence that tensions between the U.S./Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran are evidenced in the newly developing ties that Azerbaijan enjoys with Israel and its tense relationship with Iran. Azerbaijan has had a remarkably fraught relationship with its southern neighbor. These tensions are the result of several historical and contemporary issues. The most important for our purposes being the following:
1) More ethnic Azeris live in the Northern Iran than in Azerbaijan, the declared homeland of the Azeri people.
2) Occasional remarks from Iranian politicians suggest that they still see the South Caucasus as part of their historical domain/rightful sphere of influence.
3) Iran supported Armenia over Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, fearing that Azerbaijan might be trying to unite the "greater Azeri nation".
In response, Azerbaijan as sought closer ties not only with the Russian Federation, but also with the United States. More surprising to me, however, was that Azerbaijan and Israel are showing ties of increased cooperation. Both countries have an expressed interest in seeing Iran contained, monitored, and ultimately subdued as a regional threat. In response, Iran has attempted to improve relations with Azerbaijan, with overtures including the release of Azerbaijan citizens accused of spying in Iran and other diplomatic motions.
I suggest that Azerbaijan has taken steps that look an awful lot like "small power". It seems to me that Azerbaijan is developing a policy of subtle balancing behavior, whereby it can best achieve its foreign policy and security goals. By maintaining ties with Russia, but also bringing the "West" and Israel into the mix, Azerbaijan can ensure two things: one, it is not dependent on any one larger country; two, Iran is now in a position to take Azerbaijan seriously. Iran's previous heavy-handedness pushed Azerbaijan to take measures to ensure that Iran did not become a threat. Now, Iran will have to court this small Caucasian nation, to ensure that Azerbaijan does not become a larger concern than its small size and population might have suggested in the early 90s. The alternative, that Iran take actions against Azerbaijan, seems unlikely since Azerbaijan has not taken any definitive action against Iran and a pre-emptive strike would only worsen Iran's geo-political climate. Azerbaijan has played its hand well, and it seems to be working.
Anyone familiar with Mongolia, has likely noted important parallels between the three points of contention in Iran-Azerbaijan relations, laid out by Alex Vatanta, and the historically complex relationship between Mongolia and China. More ethnic Mongolians live in Inner Mongolia than the Mongolian state; there are occasional statements of Mongolia's natural place within the Chinese nation (like Tibet and Xinjiang/East Turkestan), and China has expressed concerns about pan-Mongolianism affecting the security and stability of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. Mongolia's response has been remarkably similar to Azerbaijan's, in that the country has sought to deepen relations with countries besides its two neighbors - the "third neighbor policy". The differences are numerous (ex. Mongolian-Chinese official relations are quite good at this time and the U.S.-Chinese relationship is hugely better than U.S.-Iranian relations), but the similarities are also important and point to my larger argument that internationally engaged small states will take similar foreign policy directions with regard to their strategic environment. Azerbaijan, like Mongolia, can leverage certain things (location, ties with the West, love-less relationship with Iran) to increase its "small power" and ultimately further its foreign policy and security objectives.
In a turn to the more controversial and distinctly not Mongolian, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the Russian Federation’s issues with Islamic militarism and a general growth in domestic support for Sharia Law and Wahhibism. In 2011, I spent 8 weeks in Kazan, Tatarstan as a student in Arizona State University’s Intensive Advanced Russian program. Recent news out of Tatarstan, as reported on BBC and Radio Free Europe, suggests a rise in a more conservative, perhaps even radical form of Islam in a republic generally cited as Russia’s success story in terms of the peaceful coexistence of Orthodox Christian Russians and Muslim Tatars. I will never forget a news-broadcast that criticized the US for not seeking Russia’s advice for dealing with sectarian issues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laughing, I immediately turned to my friends after class and cited Russia’s suppression of all religion under the Soviet regime as well as the continuing troubles in Chechnya as good reasons to not listen to any advice Russia might have. Not only does Russia not have a foot to stand on, but it also has, in my opinion, missed the ball completely when analyzing its own domestic troubles as related to Islamic insurgencies. It’s not about Islam- It’s about reacting to centuries of cultural oppression.
The Russian Federal Government and many Russians in general seem to have missed the ball completely on understanding movements for autonomy, Islamic statehood, or general anti-Russian attitudes in the 12 republics of the Federation. Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is certainly something that needs to be worried about, as a particularly repressive form of religion that results in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran. That said, I just don’t buy that the problem in Tatarstan, Chechnya, or any other traditionally Islamic part of the Russian Federation is solely about Islam. Rather, it looks to me like a part of cultural revival and the potential of Islamic revival, in particular, to protest against Moscow and Russia’s continuing death grip on its indigenous peoples. It doesn’t look like those attracted to radical Islam are converts, but mostly youth from one of the federation’s titular groups that have been traditionally tied to the Islamic faith. In other words, ethnic Russians don’t seem to be joining these groups in any real numbers and Tuvans (traditionally Buddhists) are certainly not contending with any Islamic pressures in their republic. In a country where Russians clearly rein supreme, where Russian is the language par excellence, where almost all political control is centered in the Russian city of Moscow, and where even in the ethnic republics Russian’s often make up the majority and you are more likely to hear Russian rather than a titular language on the streets, I have to propose that the growth in popularity of more fundamental forms of Islam is one step in the protest against business as usual in the Russian Federation. A new way to reclaim one’s cultural heritage that exists in conjunction with re-learning local languages, dress, and music.
It’s all about sovereignty and survival. In the Russian Federation, linguistic, cultural, and political survival are never guaranteed. The Chechen war was never about Islam. Yes, Chechen fighters might be Muslims and find “holy war”, “jihad”, and “martyrdom” to be attractive principles, but lets not forget that the Russian government entered into its prolonged conflict in Chechnya in reaction to the republic’s announcement that it would be seeking independence from the Russian Federation. The Chechen War was Russia’s example to the other republics of the newly formed Federation, that unilateral independence would not be tolerated. Russian control was here to stay.
Let me point out here, that I do not support the murders, attacks on innocent by-standers, suicide bombings, and any other acts that result in any lose of life. Chechen “rebels” have certainly committed acts of atrocity, and the Russian Federation’s forces have committed similar acts in response. The news coming out of Tatarstan at the moment is no less disturbing. Yet, I cannot ignore that acts, such as the school shooting in North Ossetia in 2004 (when I was studying in Sestroretsk, Russia), are not indicative of the larger goals, and it is the goals/root causes that we must address in order to arrive at a potential solution. The word “terrorism” gets thrown around a lot regarding different groups, but a clear definition seems to have evaded even the most seasoned analysts. While some groups clearly have no other objective than to terrorize civilians, we seem to get confused when confronted with independence movements. Russia will have to learn to effectively and fairly respond to demands for real autonomy if it expects to really tackle this problem.
This is an important topic for future thought, since a similar argument can be made for approaching a deeper understanding of China’s Uighur population. In fact, for a great book on the topic of cultural resistance in Xinjiang, please check out Dr. Gardner Bovingdon’s book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.