While Putin’s appearance at the UN General Assembly was the most talked-about foreign policy event of the month, there were plenty of other moves, from Central Asia to the Middle East, worthy of consideration.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting on Sept. 10, 2015. Source: RIA Novosti.
Russia's increased military involvement in the Syrian crisis and the much anticipated meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York grabbed most of the headlines in September.
As a result, some other Russian foreign policy moves have passed largely unnoticed. Yet, these other events also significantly affect Moscow's relationship with other countries and help to advance the Kremlin's strategic interests abroad.
Here is our countdown ranking of Russia’s top 10 foreign policy moves in September:
#10. Europe’s largest Sunni mosque opens in Moscow
Europe's largest Mosque, able to accommodate 10,000 worshippers, opened on Sept. 23 in Moscow. The event was a landmark for Russia’s Sunni Muslim community, which comprises about 10 percent of the nation’s population (14.5 million people). The Kremlin described the opening of the mosque in the heart of Russia as a symbol of a "united, multi-ethnic and multi-religious" country.
Putin expressed confidence that the mosque would help disseminate the “humanistic ideas and true values of Islam” in Russia.
Kremlin transcript - Putin at mosque opening; Moscow's Cathedral Mosque has reopened after reconstruction https://t.co/jGxYfAL2Sr
— Johnsons Russia List (@JohnsonRussiaLi) September 28, 2015
The opening of Europe’s largest mosque also gives Russia additional weight in the eyes of the Sunni countries of the Middle East, especially Turkey and Egypt, as well as among Europe’s Muslim communities.
#9. Russia strengthens security on the Tajik-Afghan border
In recent years the political stability of Russia’s allies has acquired increased importance for the Kremlin, as it directly affects the situation within Russia itself. In this context, Moscow has developed a new defense strategy, the essence of which is to create defensive frontiers away from the Russian border. In relations with neighboring Tajikistan, the logic of this strategy is particularly well defined.
For instance, in September Moscow began to render border security assistance and supply modern weaponry to Dushanbe. In recent years the country has been in a particularly difficult position. The turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan has only added to the internal instability. During one incident in early September, an army general raised an armed rebellion against the government.
#8. Russia hosts a military airbase in Belarus
On Sept. 19 Putin approved the establishment of a Russian airbase in Belarus. A preliminary agreement on the matter was reached in 2013, but its implementation suffered continuous delays. However, the tension with NATO, U.S. plans to deploy military bases in Poland and the modernization of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe sped up the decision.
Establishing a base is logical given the deep military ties between Russia and Belarus. Since 2009 an agreement has been in place on the joint protection of the countries’ external air borders and the creation of a joint regional air defense system. The base is due to be located in eastern Belarus, closer to Russia's borders than the EU’s, which means its purpose is more defensive than offensive.
#7. Russia approves the sale of French Mistrals to Egypt
The saga of the two Mistral helicopter carriers, which France originally built for Russia, but then aborted the deal because of the situation in Ukraine, was unexpectedly revived in September. With Moscow’s consent, Paris has signed a contract to sell the vessels to Egypt. A simultaneous agreement was signed for the supply of 50 Ka-52 Russian military helicopters.
Moscow had made clear that it wanted to avoid further tension with Paris, so it allowed the French government to pull out of the deal with minimal losses. As a result, Russia is still on good terms with France. It has also received a refund and advanced its interests the Middle East.
#6. Gazprom restores strategic ties with European energy companies
September proved to be a successful month for the Russian energy sector. The Kremlin managed to restore the pre-crisis status quo in relations with major European energy companies, and from Sept. 3-5 took place in Vladivostok the East Economic Forum, where three important energy contracts were signed.
First, Moscow and Berlin struck a deal on their respective equity stakes in the Nord Stream-2 pipeline, which will run under the Baltic Sea, further isolating Ukraine. Second, Gazprom and Germany’s Wintershall concluded an asset swap deal under which the German company will regain a stake in Siberian oil fields, while Gazprom has returned to the North Sea and gained control of a gas hub in Germany (with the largest underground storage facilities in Western Europe).
Lastly, Gazprom and Austria’s OMV signed an agreement on the latter’s participation in Siberian oil fields in exchange for a stake in OMV’s European projects.
#5. Russia refuses to write off part of Ukraine’s debt, but does not push for immediate repayment
On Sept. 15 Russia declined to write off part of Ukraine’s public debt, which falls due at the end of 2015. It is a clear signal to Kiev’s Western partners that Moscow will no longer support the Ukrainian economy by itself. Under the relevant agreement, Russia has the right to demand early repayment of amounts owed if Ukrainian public debt reaches 60 percent of GDP.
Although the figure is far in excess of this level (currently around 95 percent of GDP), Moscow has not yet demanded early repayment for fear of causing Ukraine to default. The collapse of its neighbor’s economy would hurt Russia’s interests and lead to unpredictable political, social and migration consequences, which the Kremlin does not want to initiate or be accused of causing.
#4. Moscow undertakes to ensure that Donetsk fulfills the Minsk-2 agreements
On Sept. 4 security forces in the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) with Russian assistance arrested National Council member Andrei Purgin and some of his supporters. Moscow is trying to reduce the radicals’ influence on the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreements.
Despite the reluctance of Donetsk and Kiev to negotiate directly, the international guarantors of Minsk-2 — France, Germany and Russia — continue to exert pressure on the parties to the conflict, forcing them to move towards a peaceful settlement. A watershed moment will be the 2016 local elections in the DPR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which should involve pro-Ukrainian parties too.
#3. Russia-China relationship grows closer
In September Russia and China’s political relationship grew even closer thanks to greater economic ties and new joint projects in Central Asia. During Putin’s visit to Beijing to participate in China’s Victory Parade on Sept. 2-3, the two countries confirmed the decision to join forces within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union and the New Silk Road project, thereby agreeing that the two integration projects will not compete with each other in Central Asia.
In addition, a package of investment agreements on Russian infrastructure was approved. In the energy sector Gazprom and China’s CNPC and Sinopec agreed on gas supplies and new field development. The largest Russian and Chinese banks also agreed to denominate payments and loans in yuan.
#2. New York hosts the first Putin-Obama meeting in two years
Putin’s speech in New York at the 70th UN General Assembly on Sept. 28 was eagerly anticipated. However, analysts pointed out in advance that despite all the hype around the UN, the main purpose of the Russian president’s trip was to meet his U.S. counterpart. Their first meeting in two years did not deliver any clear breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. relations (although the details of the talks are not yet known).
Nevertheless, it is clear that the first phase of normalizing relations between Russia and the West needs to be a clear understanding of each other’s positions. In this connection, the personal meeting between the two presidents represents an important, albeit symbolic, step towards rapprochement.
#1. Russia starts a military campaign against ISIS in Syria
The main foreign policy event of the month was the stationing of Russian armed forces and equipment at the Latakia airbase in Syria and the start of air strikes against ISIS positions.
Overnight the balance of power in Syria has shifted in favor of government forces and put Moscow’s security role in the Middle East and Europe at the top of the agenda. The Ukraine crisis has been overshadowed by the fight against international terrorism, in which Russia has assumed a leading role.
Also contributed to the article: Tatiana Tyukaeva, an expert in the Middle East and an analyst at the analytical agency Foreign Policy, and Ekaterina Zabrovskaya, the editor-in-chief of Russia Direct.