U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow and Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference were the two most important Russian foreign policy events of December.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The final month of the year was not an easy one for Russian diplomacy. In December, rising tensions, combined with Russia’s willingness to respond firmly to the growing challenges of international politics, dominated the geopolitical agenda. Against this backdrop, Moscow keeps signaling its readiness to enter the negotiation process on a wide entire range of international issues, from Ukraine to Syria..
10. The question of a Russian military air base in Belarus remains open
The visit of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, originally scheduled for late November, took place on Dec. 14-15. Lukashenko needs at least $2 billion to support the Belarusian economy, but he could not get this amount from the Kremlin, although there were some signs of hope that he could get assistance.
According to the Russian ambassador in Minsk, “There is an understanding that both sides, during difficult times, are ready to lend each other a hand, including in the form of financial assistance.” For his part, Putin has not yet received consent from the Belarusian leader to place a Russian Aerospace Forces base in the Belarusian city of Bobruisk. This issue was discussed back in 2013, and not so long ago, seemed to be a done deal.
9. Trade benefits for Ukraine ended
A free trade zone will start operating between Ukraine and the EU on Jan. 1, and Ukraine’s participation in the CIS Free Trade Zone, established just three years ago, will end. In history, it has never been possible for any country to be a member of two free trade zones at once, and so it will be this time around. In addition, Russia has announced a reciprocal embargo against Ukraine on the import of food products, similar to the one that Moscow has implemented against the EU.
According to Ukrainian data, that country will lose about $600 million annually from being excluded from the Russian market. This figure is certainly underestimated. Trade between Russia and Ukraine has already decreased by 70 percent, compared to the year 2011, and in the future, volumes will continue to fall due to the ongoing recession in the Ukrainian economy. As a result of Kiev’s disastrous economic policies, Ukrainian officials are trying to justify the need to obtain new loans from the EU, the U.S. and the IMF.
8. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Moscow.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – accompanied by a large delegation of Indian politicians, experts, and business representatives – arrived in Moscow on Dec. 23. At a meeting with Vladimir Putin, Modi discussed cooperation in the military-technical and nuclear power spheres, as well as the expansion of Russian oil supplies to India.
India is preparing to carry out a large-scale rearmament program, on which it is planning to spend about $150 billion. Delhi is demonstrating the greatest interest in Russian military shipbuilding, Russian S-400 Triumph air defense systems, and cooperation in the production of fifth-generation fighter jets – the PAK FA (T-50).
Contrary to expectations, by itself, this first state visit of Indian Prime Minister to Russia has not led to major arms contracts being signed. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that large-scale contracts in the area of military-technical cooperation between India and Russia, totaling approximately $7 billion, will be signed sometime next year.
Modi’s delegation included many business people who are expecting to expand their share of the Russia market, after European and Turkish producers of food and clothing were shut out.
7. Meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council and meeting of the CSTO Collective Security Council
On Dec. 21, Moscow hosted a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council. Discussed were the effects of the agreement on a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU, as well as appointments to leadership positions of the organization.
On the same day, Moscow also hosted an Extraordinary Summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At this meeting, they discussed measures to deepen integration in the military field, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the problem of security in Central Asia. No official statement was released upon conclusion of the meeting, but the events that took place over the next few days suggest the summit had been a successful one.
On Dec. 23, the defense ministers of Russia and Armenia signed an agreement to establish a joint regional air defense system in the Caucasus Region of Collective Security, which has raised concerns in Turkey. A few days later, on Dec. 26, a meeting was held between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of Staff of Kyrgyzstan Janybek Kaparov, during which they discussed Russian assistance in re-equipping the Kyrgyz Army.
6. Sanctions against Turkey
Cautious attempts to defuse the tense situation in Russian-Turkish relations were observed coming from both sides. Initially, the Turkish government was very aggressive in declaring its readiness to continue shooting down Russian airplanes, but as time passed, it started to lay blame on the pilot, who allegedly did not know whose plane he was shooting down.
The Turkish Prime Minister even went so far as saying that, even in his worst nightmare, he could not have imagined deterioration in relations with Russia. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed its readiness to accept the new Turkish version of events, and on Dec. 14, the Russian side put forward conditions for the de-escalation of tensions between the two countries, which, overall, should be quite acceptable for Ankara.
Nevertheless, despite the softening of the rhetoric, the actions undertaken by both sides became tougher. On the Turkish side, they attempted to detain Russian ships in ports, and prevent the passage of vessels through the Straits. The Russian side, in turn, strengthened the country’s sanctions against Turkey, and demonstrated a willingness to enter into dialogue with political representatives of the Turkish democratic opposition.
5. Russia confirmed that national law had priority over international court rulings
On Dec. 6, the Federation Council approved the law on the priority of the Russian national laws over international court rulings. A few days before this, this law received the support of the State Duma (with 436 votes in favor, and only three against). Now the Constitutional Court may allow the authorities to ignore rulings of international courts, including those of the European Court of Human Rights.
Earlier, to resolve this dilemma, Paragraph 4 of Article 15 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation applied. It stated that, “If an international treaty signed by the Russian Federation stipulates other rules, than those stipulated by national law, the rules of the international treaty had priority.”
Some observers consider this decision as controversial; however, a number of countries, including the United States, adhere to the same legal logic. The Russian parliamentarians were forced to take this step due to the prejudicial rulings against Russia being taken in foreign and supranational courts, whose decisions were being used to put pressure on the Kremlin.
One such example was the Yukos case, in which the Strasbourg Court ordered Moscow to pay former shareholders of that company billions of dollars. It is possible that in the near future, there will be undertaken new anti-Russian lawsuits – such as compensation claims by Ukraine for financial losses suffered after Crimea separated from that country and chose to reunite with Russia.
4. Ukrainian debt issue will have serious consequences, and not only for Russian policy
Ukraine has decided not to pay off all its sovereign debt to Russia. This means that now the Russian authorities will seek to have Ukraine declared in default and go to the courts to get back the moneys owed. The Europeans are trying to persuade Moscow to make concessions and to restructure this debt on Ukrainian conditions, which would mean a reduction in the total amount of the debt.
In its turn, Russia offered to alleviate Ukraine’s debt repayment burden, by spreading it over three years, however with the proviso that the West would guarantee the payments. The U.S. and EU have refused such an option, and thus, according to Sergey Lavrov, “have confirmed their beliefs that they do not see any prospects for Ukraine to regain its solvency."
Instead, Washington has prompted the IMF to circumvent its own rules, and continue to lend money to Ukraine, even if it defaulted on its repayment of the Russian debt. This very serious precedent threatens not only the loss of credibility for the IMF, but also could also lead to similar demands coming from other countries with critical levels of debt.
Russia’s chances of winning through the courts are very high. From the legal side, the recognition of this as an odious debt would be absurd and is almost unbelievable. Moreover, this could create a disastrous international legal precedent for the Western countries, which are major lenders in the modern world.
3. Sanctions against Russia were extended, but Italy took a special position
On Dec. 21, the EU extended the sanctions imposed against Russia for a period up to July 31, 2016. The reason for this was the incomplete implementation of the Minsk Agreements, although this process is dependent much less on Russia than on the Ukrainian government.
Nonetheless, a number of European countries assumed critical positions on the issue of sanctions. Thus, on the initiative of Italy, the sanctions were not renewed automatically. Even agreeing on the preservation of European unity on this issue, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that it was likely that sanctions against Russia would be reviewed in the coming months.
This could happen as early as the end of winter 2016, when Kiev will not be able to meet its deadline for adopting a number of laws, which it committed to when the Minsk Agreements were signed. Following the public demarche of Rome, the European Union cannot continue to ignore the serious internal divisions when it comes to relations with Russia.
2. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Moscow
On Dec. 15, John Kerry paid a visit to Moscow. No official communiqué was issued after his talks with Lavrov; however, agreement was found on many issues. It must be assumed that the Secretary of State had come not only to find solutions, but also to seek compromises. “The world needs that two important nations, the two leading powers, be able to find common ground and agree on the given issues,” said Kerry.
Of course, he was referring to Syria and Ukraine – the two main topics of their talks. As concerns Syria, the intermediate results were confirmed on Dec. 17, when the UN Security Council adopted a joint Russian-American sponsored UN resolution requiring all states to take measures to stop the sources of financing of terrorists. Neither party is optimistic about the effectiveness of this resolution, but the mere fact that a common language was even found inspires certain optimism for the future.
On the Ukrainian issue, neither the Americans nor Russians are interested in a new spiral of civil war in the Donbas. However, a mutual understanding on this issue did not prevent the U.S. from expanding its sanctions against Russian companies.
Vladimir Putin’s traditional annual press conference this year mostly focused on international political issues. Despite the fact that the previous year was a difficult one, full of challenges, the Russian president has demonstrated his willingness to engage in dialogue with all partners. Even when it came to Russia’s conflict with Turkey, Putin made remarks that left hope for the possibility of de-escalation of tensions. However, it was doubtful that positive changes could be achieved with the current leadership of Turkey.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.