The Paris climate change conference, the meeting of the OSCE in Belgrade and President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the nation’s political elite were the defining Russian foreign policy events of the week.
French police officers patrol in front of the entrance at the venue for the World Climate Change Conference at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, Nov. 29, 2015. Photo: Reuters
A number of major international summits were held last week, the most important ones being the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris and the OSCE meeting in Belgrade. In Russia, however, all eyes were on President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly, which traditionally contains important statements on the country's domestic and foreign policies.
New tensions in Russian-Turkish relations involving ISIS
News that could influence the future of Russian-Turkish relations continued to make headlines. Last week, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation provided the global community with evidence of the Turkish leadership’s involvement in the oil trade with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
As might be expected, the U.S. Department of State challenged these claims, “We don’t believe there’s any truth to their claims that the Turkish government is somehow complicit in the illegal oil trade with ISIL. It’s just not true."
However, this information about a potential link between Turkey and ISIS was not news for world leaders. It has long been known that Turkey is trading with ISIS, and, in spite of showing outward support, Turkey's NATO allies are increasingly disappointed in the country's political course.
Climate change issues pushed aside in Paris
On Monday, Nov. 30, Paris hosted the 21st UN Conference on Climate Change, which was attended by 147 presidents and heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Apart from the discussion of environmental issues, the Conference provided an opportunity for bilateral meetings where plenty of other issues were addressed.
Putin met again with Barack Obama, and they discussed Syria and Ukraine. The main point of contention between the two leaders is that Obama does not want the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, to be a part of the transition process in Syria. This scenario may leave Syria leaderless, but it does not guarantee that antagonistic opposition groups will be able to come to an agreement and maintain the integrity of the country.
The Russian leadership believes that urgent action is necessary. It is critical to compile a list of terrorist organizations and unite the global community behind stopping them, but it is also essential to figure out which groups can form a healthy opposition. According to the Russian President, who commented on his meeting with Obama, “They have an understanding of [their] goals."
Other meetings with Putin in Paris included those with the President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. Then the Russian President met with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, the President of Peru Ollanta Humala, and the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye. The details of all these talks were not revealed to the press, but usually such short encounters are not for making decisions, but for asking questions.
Meetings with Asian leaders were a special item on Putin's agenda. The meeting with the President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping was not scheduled, but it could be inferred that urgent and important issues were discussed.
The conversation with the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye was also very productive. After traditional compliments, it was pointed out that Russia's new policy in the East and South Korea's Eurasian initiative share common goals, which have already yielded positive results. The South Korean leader remarked that Russia was playing an important role in peacekeeping and security on the Korean Peninsula and asked that Moscow help create the conditions for a peaceful reunification of Korea. The nuclear program of North Korea was also addressed.
Before the conference, there was a lot of speculation whether Putin was going to meet with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but that predictably did not happen. Unless the Turkish side admits its guilt for the downing of the Russian plane, the two presidents will not communicate. Ongoing matters can be resolved through regular diplomatic channels.
At his final press conference, Putin was mostly asked about current issues, not climate change. In Paris, he claimed for the first time that the Turkish political elite was involved in the oil trade with ISIS. Only several days later the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation supplied evidence to support that claim.
OSCE meeting in Belgrade
The OSCE Ministerial Council held in Belgrade on Dec. 3-4 coincided with Serbia passing its Chairmanship of the organization over to Germany. As it is usually the case, there was plenty of time for formal as well as informal communication. One of the most anticipated events was projected to be the meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey.
In reality, though, the meeting proved virtually useless since it lacked any new content: the Turkish Foreign Minister just confirmed the stance taken publicly by the President and Prime Minister of Turkey. Thus, the reasoning behind Turkey's insistent requests for a meeting remains a mystery.
At the summit, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, proclaimed that Serbia was ready to become a part of united Europe. It is necessary to point out that Russia responds to the prospects for EU enlargement a lot more calmly than to NATO expansion. In this particular case, Europe made its choice without overusing anti-Russian rhetoric, and in the foreseeable future Serbia is not going to join NATO. If Serbia joins the EU, it will become yet another member of united Europe that is not a member of NATO.
Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly
On Dec. 3, President Putin delivered his address to the Federal Assembly. The main emphasis was on the economy, but the foreign affairs section was also quite memorable.
Deviating from the usual pattern, Putin did not criticize the U.S. and NATO. He offhandedly mentioned America in the context of global destabilization and quickly moved to the importance of joining forces in the fight against terrorism. This shift may be related to the change in Russia's international status due to its involvement in Syria. Moscow is no longer isolated and is trying to position itself as a world leader capable of creating order and eliminating threats, such as ISIS. This may be the reason why Putin did not mention Ukraine at all: Moscow and Brussels agreed to suspend the issue due to the inability to resolve it at the moment.
Putin also touched upon Russia-Turkey relations. He made it clear that Russia will keep punishing Turkey for the downed Su-24, and Turks are not going "to get away with a tomato embargo or some limitations in construction and other areas." "They will repeatedly regret what they did. We know what needs to be done," the President said.
In this issue, a pivotal point is the Kremlin's resolute refusal to disclose its specific steps. Moscow may be pushing Turkish businessmen to assess all their options, tally up their potential losses and then put pressure on their President.
Putin's statement that Russians "were ready to cooperate with Turkey on the most sensitive issues and were willing to accommodate them a lot more than their allies" is a clear reference to the Kurdish problem. The U.S., Ankara's ally, negotiated with Syrian Kurds and thus created a serious and long-term threat to Turkish national security. The implied message was that Moscow would not have done that, at least prior to the incident with the Su-24.
Russia’s formal protest over NATO membership for Montenegro
Montenegro was officially invited to join NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, called this a historical invite, and country leaders welcomed it as welcome news for the entire Western Balkan region.
Russia, however, is of a different opinion. A few officials, political scientists, and deputies immediately started explaining why Montenegro should not be a member of NATO. Some were saying that the country had nothing to gain from joining the Alliance and was imposing new risks upon itself instead. Others appealed to the illegitimacy of this decision. Since the majority of people in Montenegro are opposed to the idea, Russian parliamentary Alexey Pushkov believes that the current situation is plainly the result of some sort of conspiracy involving the elites.
Such statements seem pretty strong and strange. After all, if the decision lacks legitimacy, the people of Montenegro, not Russia, should contest it. An objective look at the invitation to join NATO shows that Russia is not going to run into any serious problems if Montenegro follows through.
First, NATO just extended an invitation for now, and there is still a long way to go before Montenegro joins the Alliance. Second, putting new NATO objects in Montenegro is not jeopardizing any Russian interests. Still, Moscow will protest at least to remind the West that its stance on the issue has not changed.
At the moment, NATO is not trying to expand to the areas that are sensitive for Russia. The Alliance's pragmatic politicians understand that taking in Georgia with its South Ossetia and Abkhazia problems, Ukraine with its claims to Crimea and Donbass, or Moldova with its Transnistria issue, dramatically increases the possibility of being dragged into a conflict with Russia.