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Observations of an Expat: Russian Pivot

By Tom Arms

While the world public’s attention was focused on submarine rows between allies and the rising Chinese threat, Vladimir Putin was making disturbing diplomatic and political moves to change the security map on the European side of the Eurasian landmass.

The focus of Putin’s efforts is Belarus and the faltering regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Ever since his clearly fraudulent elections, “Europe’s last dictator” has suffered riots, demonstrations, defecting Belarussians and Western sanctions. All of this presents opportunities and problems for Vladimir Putin and headaches for everyone else. A Lukashenko/Putin summit plus a major military manoeuvre underscored both.

First the Military side of things. Belarus is strategically vital. It has a 1,239 Km border with Russia. If it moves into the Western camp (which the Belarussian opposition may desire) then NATO forces could move forward along a wide front on the border with Russia. Alternatively, If Putin gets his way, he will be able to move his forces westward to confront NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania as well as threatening Ukraine which shares a 1,084 Km border with Belarussia.

At the moment the latter is more likely and Russia and Belarussia earlier this month held six days of manoeuvres to demonstrate just that. Called Zapad 2021, the exercises have been taking place every four years since 1999. But this year’s Zapad involved 200,000 troops. It was the largest military exercise in Europe in 40 years.

Its stated purpose was two-fold: to demonstrate to NATO in no uncertain terms that any attempt to invade Belarus to effect regime change would be met with force, and, after years of rebuilding, that Russia is back—or about to be– as a conventional military force in Europe.

Almost simultaneous with the manoeuvres was the Putin/Lukashenko summit to discuss how the Russian leader can help his friend Alexander climb out of the economic and political hole into which he has dug himself with botched elections and his handling of the covid-19 pandemic. The Russian leader will, of course, extract a political price. Just how big it will be will not be clear until the end of the year, and even then it may be obfuscated to avoid giving the West and the Belarussian opposition political ammunition as well as providing a bit of all-around wriggle room.

Putin’s pet project–his dream– is the reconstruction of the Soviet Empire which was the Tsarist Empire before it was communist. He has repeatedly stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster for Russia and the world. Bringing Belarussia firmly and decisively back into Moscow’s orbit would be a major building block towards a reconstructed Russian-dominated realm.

The first step towards this aim started in the Yeltsin years—The Union State of Belarussia. The stated aim back in 1999 was total integration. The West certainly opposes this and Lukashenko has been fighting it ever since because he knows that giving up total independence would spell the end of his reign and be opposed by most Belarussians.  At the moment there is a sort of Common Market with a few attached bells and whistles. There is, for instance, a Supreme State Council that oversees relations between the two countries. There is common citizenship and cooperation on bank regulations, tourism, transport, money laundering and farming policies.

The 1999 agreement sets out the goal of total integration with a common currency, common flag, common anthem, and military and political integration. However, the Belarussian leader has balked at Russian proposals for a common currency and stronger military ties. There are, for instance, a mere 1,500 Russian troops on Belarussian soil and they are mainly involved in communications. However, the countries officer corps are integrated and Russia has military transit rights through Belarussia.

Moscow could easily turn the economic screws on Belarussia which is heavily dependent on the Russian market and for its manufactured goods and for cheap oil and natural gas (which it sells onto the West with a value-added price tag). Belarussia also receives an attractive aid package. At the September summit, it was agreed that Moscow would provide a further $630 million package of aid and loans over the next 12 months and that gas prices would be pegged.

The two men discussed the possibility of political integration. But Putin said afterwards that it was not seriously on the agenda “for the time being”. The details of what is on the agenda will become clearer when the State Supreme Council meets before the end of the year to rubber-stamp the results of their talks.

Whatever details emerge, it is clear that there will be a shift in the European balance of power and that Putin will have used Lukashenko’s problems to re-establish Russia’s European security credentials.

Tom Arms is the foreign affairs editor of LDV. His book America Made in Britain can now be pre-ordered from Amazon. The publication date is 15 October.

World Review

Remember Arizona. No, not the ship that was sunk at Pearl Harbour. The US state was going to lead the way in overturning the 2020 US presidential elections and put Donald Trump back in the White House with a voter recount. After several delays, the auditors have discovered that Trump actually received 261 fewer votes in the key Maricopa County and Biden 99 more. This is a huge embarrassment for the ballot counters, Arizona Republican state senators who ordered the recount and, of course, Trump and all of his “Stop the Steal” supporters. This was the ex-president’s best chance of proving that the “Big Lie” was actually the “Unvarnished Truth.” Cyber Ninjas is pro-Trump. Its CEO went on record as supporting the “Stop the Steal” campaign. Their auditors even went to the extreme of checking ballot papers for bamboo fibres to verify an outrageous conspiracy theory that Biden votes were shipped from China. Trump meanwhile continues to push the voter fraud story (as long as Republicans lose). He is now claiming that California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsome rigged his recall vote, even though the Republican candidate Larry Elder has graciously conceded. In other Trump news, the ex-president issuing his niece Mary and the New York Times for publishing details of his tax returns. He is not claiming that the story is untrue, just that it invaded his privacy rights. Finally, the Congressional committee investigating the 6 January Capitol Hill riots has subpoenaed Trump advisers who were in contact with the ex-president on the key date. They want to know exactly what he did, said and was thinking.

If China’s economy slows down then the rest of the world slows down. It is now the second-largest economy in the world and the globe’s largest manufacturer. It has managed to withstand the coronavirus storm while the rest of the world faltered. But it is facing a major financial crisis as its largest real estate developer—Evergrande—faces ruin and bankruptcy. Like many property companies, Evergrande borrows to build.  But it borrowed too much, and last year the Chinese government decided it needed to curb the company by limiting the amount of money Evergrande and other real estate developers could borrow. The company reacted by selling properties at a discount which, of course, affected their ability to pay the money they had borrowed to build them. It now owes a staggering $300 billion and this week failed to make an $83.5 million bond payment. Stock markets around the world took a dive. The Chinese government is making noises that it will refuse to bail out Evergrande, but that may change their minds when the impact of the company’s failure is fully assessed. It is not just the future of hundreds of thousands of jobs building 1,300 major projects in 280 cities. No, it is the financial impact. Evergrande owes money to 171 Chinese domestic financial banks and 121 other financial institutions. If they are not paid by Evergrande then they will have to foreclose on other companies and/or loan less money. This will impact on Chinese companies’ ability to expand and continue to provide manufacturing capacity to the rest of the world. It is a bit like the sub-prime mortgage scandal from which we have not yet fully recovered.

The Quad is meeting today (Friday) in Washington in the wake of the US/UK nuclear submarine deal. In case, you are wondering, the “Quad” is a new Indo-Pacific alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia designed to counter the rise of the Chinese. India is one of the most interesting members and a bit of an outlier. It is the biggest with a population of 1.388 billion that rivals that of China. It is the only member of the Quad that shares a border with China which is disputed and has resulted in one war and several deadly clashes. It also has good relations with Russia and, despite the disputed border, shares membership of a number of regional organisations with Beijing. Its security concerns differ from the other three members. They are focused on the South China and East China Seas, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. India wants to beef up the Quad’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean and is worried about China’s historic links with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a key supporter of the Ghani government in Kabul and he is now concerned that the Taliban will support terrorist activities in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Historically, India’s relations with the US have been at arms-length. It is a big purchaser of Russian military hardware and at the moment their purchases are the subject of some congressional sanctions. This could, however, change dramatically in an alliance in which America is the senior partner.

France recalled its ambassadors to Australia and America over the nuclear submarine row. Their man in London stayed put. Why bother, argued French diplomats, London is not the centre of “Global Britain”. It is the HQ of Irrelevant Britain. Or, as Clement Beaune, French Minister for European affairs, Britain has become a “vassal state” of the United States. The French have consistently taken a dim view of the Anglo-American special relationship. Charles de Gaulle repeatedly vetoed British membership of the Common Market on the grounds that if it came to a crunch, Britain would always choose America over Europe. Brexit was the ultimate proof that DeGaulle was right. The problem that the British government faces is will America choose Britain over Europe or some other region of the world. So far the signs are not good. Boris went to the White House this week to plead for a US-UK trade deal. Biden’s response: “No way Jose.” Riding on American coattails on the sub deal, Afghanistan, and Iraq is not enough. What the proud Irish-American president really wants is the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol that Johnson negotiated. So does the US Congress. They won’t get it. Boris Johnson is on the verge of implementing Article 16 of the treaty which basically says that if it isn’t working—which it isn’t—then he can scrap it. That won’t help the special relationship, relations with France, The EU or anywhere else in Europe except a few die-hard Eurosceptics such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The one thing that Boris Johnson did walk away from the White House with was an agreement to allow vaccinated Americans to visit Britain. He and his spokespeople are touting this as a great Boris victory. In fact, the lifted travel restrictions apply to all of Europe—not just Britain—and the EU had a much bigger say in the negotiations than did the UK. Not everyone, however, is happy about the deal. Africans are furious. As part of the Covax scheme, the UK has been sending millions of vaccine doses to African countries. People are being jabbed and presented with vaccine certificates. The British government, however, says that tested Africans who have been jabbed with British-produced and distributed vaccines cannot visit the UK. Why they ask is that so when America—which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world—is encouraged to fly its citizens to British shores?

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