Events and trends in the Russian Federation over the week of 03.09 – 09.09
1. The Russian Federation continues the tactics of raising the stakes in several areas at once. The goal is to start a dialogue, at least with the EU, and “freeze the conflict in Ukraine.” The Kremlin expects to get what it wants closer to mid-November. However, unlike in previous years, Russia’s blackmail may be ineffective. In this case, the Russian elites are considering their country’s transition to the “isolation” regime.
2. At the economic forum in Vladivostok, Putin made several statements demonstrating the disconnection of the assessments and decisions of the Russian leadership from the present economic and geopolitical circumstances. Thus, he criticized the decision to limit the upper purchase prices for gas. He threatened to refuse to fulfill gas supply contracts. That is, he openly announced a gas blockade of Europe. Putin once again failed to formulate the goals of the war against Ukraine clearly, but among the main assets were called out “strengthening sovereignty” and the process of polarization both in the world and within the country. The statements of the Russian leadership cease to be accepted even by those countries that are not part of the Western coalition. Loss of realism in assessing the situation and making strategic decisions leads not only to military defeats of the Russian army but also creates threats to the entire world.
3. The largest Russian banks face severe hardships, and many factors indicate it. With the growth of overdue payments, the number of bankruptcies may increase. The banking sector will suffer the most because the bankruptcy process is often used to restructure debts.
Slowly but systematically, despite the bravado on TV, the Russian economy, businesses, and citizens will suffer more, and debt and bankruptcies will increase. But the rate of weakening of the economy is still insufficient; therefore, the sanctions must continue to be strengthened.
4. The latest political communications of the Russian Federation with the leaders of Myanmar, North Korea, and Iran show that Moscow is desperately looking for a way to form partnerships that will allow it to neutralize the effect of Western sanctions in the coming months. But for now, all these communications indicate that many countries will extract concessions from the Russian Federation but cannot guarantee anything in exchange and, in some cases, will not take risks of being exposed to Western sanctions.
5. The usage of the “Russian peace” doctrine in foreign policy activities has been legalized in Russia. On September 5th, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree approving the “Concept of the humanitarian policy of the Russian Federation abroad”, which defines the goals, methods, and main directions of such activities. It allows a better understanding of the Russian strategy in this area.
Putin raises the stakes or fights to freeze the situation
Last week, the Russian Federation continued its bid-raising policy in a potential dialogue with the EU and the US regarding the war in Ukraine. Putin must try to enter the regime of “freezing” the hostilities or any other agreements that constrain Ukraine’s freedom for maneuver. The Kremlin uses several vital themes at once, trying elements of blackmail in each one of them.
The Kremlin’s logic of pressure and timelines
We have already described the logic of Putin’s stakes raising in previous issues of analyzing events in the Russian Federation. Briefly, the system looks like this. The Russian Federation presents several topics that are sensitive for EU politicians. Separately, each of the crises “announced” by Putin’s entourage is not capable of dramatically changing the position of even European states. But the topics are used by conditional “lawyers” of the Russian Federation from among EU politicians to promote the thesis about the need to find compromises with Moscow.
Among the key directions, it is worth noting:
- The issue of radiation safety and the threat of the collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation system. In this case, Moscow, playing on the security of the ZNPP, tried to lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and place them in Belarus.
- The topic of the energy crisis in the EU: the lack (or high price) of hydrocarbon raw materials, primarily natural gas, and, as a result, economic and political issues in the European Union.
- The issue of food security, especially in the countries of North Africa and a number of countries in Asia. As a result, the destabilization of these regions will result in additional flows of refugees to the EU.
- Annexing the occupied territories and bringing the “conflict” (as it is still called at the political level in Europe) to a new, higher political level, where the Kremlin will already try to talk about “protecting its territories.”
The idea of Putin’s entourage is to try to enter into a dialogue about “freezing” the conflict closer to mid-November. During this period, several events coincide:
- Mid-term elections in the USA, the results of which may affect the contours of American policy in Eastern Europe;
- The G-20 summit, scheduled for November 15th;
- Seasonal increase in gas consumption in the EU is associated with the beginning of the heating season and the period of concluding long-term gas supply contracts for 2023.
Until this period, Russia will try to raise the stakes and prepare additional arguments in favor of finding compromises with Moscow for its European partners. In this case, we are talking about both Russian activity and attempts to use the activities of international organizations and countries’ internal processes in their own interests.
Last week, the critical events in this direction were:
1. International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report on safety at the Zaporizhzhia NPP. This organization should evaluate the safety issues of the functioning of nuclear energy facilities (and those related to them, for example, research centers and laboratories). It does not have a mandate to assess the course of hostilities, to determine the side that poses a threat in conflict zones (there are simply no such specialists).
Therefore, the IAEA’s proposals to create a “safety zone” around the ZNPP without specifying the possible format of its operation and who should be the guarantor of safety were predictable. For the Russian Federation, such a case may be profitable since it opens the way to some “Minsk agreements” at a lower level. With a road map, “first we stop shooting, then withdraw (or not) the troops and maintain this regime until the external situation changes.”
The approach fits into the Kremlin’s tactics of “shredding problems” and trying to reach agreements on personal issues rather than on substantial ones. A typical example is an agreement on grain, which does not solve the problem of the blockade of the Black Sea ports of Ukraine (but only creates the possibility of working from one commodity group). But the Russian Federation “demonstrated the ability to negotiate” and received an easing of sanctions pressure from the US and the EU.
2. Termination of “Nord Stream” and the issue of gas supply to the territory of the EU. “Gazprom stopped pumping gas through Nord Stream. Russian politicians and mass media actively play on the topic, saying that it is the result of “ill-conceived” policies of the European Union. At the same time, several features of the discussion of future gas supplies were clearly revealed last week. In particular, in the Russian Federation, they do not mention (for a week, there was only one mention in the key media) the southern direction of transit — pipelines passing through the territory of Turkey (operating at full capacity). Instead, there were mentions that the Ukrainian HTS is supposedly the only system through which gas is supplied to Europe. Accordingly, in the coming weeks, attempts are expected to complete the logical construction in the form of “the war in Ukraine poses a threat to the gas supply to Europe. Therefore, at least for the winter period, active hostilities should be stopped.”
3. Street protests in EU countries. In the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, street actions took place almost simultaneously (within 2-4 days), the participants of which criticized the policies of their governments. One of the key topics was the issue of energy prices. As a result, there were theses about the need to improve relations with Russia. This is the first such wave, which is formally an internal matter of European states. In terms of the timing and nature of the demands, it entirely coincides with the interests of the Russian Federation and serves as a factor that strengthens “gas blackmail”.
4. Putin’s statements about the “grain agreement”. The President of the Russian Federation stated that his country was “cheated” by the grain agreement and Ukrainian grains go to the European Union countries instead of the “developing” countries. There has not yet been a direct threat to withdraw from the agreement. Still, until closer to November 2022, Russia will most likely demand its revision and/or the conclusion of additional agreements. Russia will again play on the topic of food (and fertilizer) shortages, using theses about the drought of 2022, expensive energy sources (and, as a result, the increase in the price of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers), and shipping safety.
The Kremlin’s calculation is to gain time to restore, first of all, its military potential, attempts to destabilize the domestic political situation in Ukraine, and reduce the level of support for Kyiv from its European partners.
Isolation as an alternative
Despite Russia’s comprehensive, multifaceted approach to putting pressure on the EU, agreements on “freezing” the issues may not work:
- If the European Union provides more gas reserves in storage by November than in 2021, gas blackmail will lose its relevance. If the concept of limiting the “price ceiling” for this type of raw material works, attempts by the Russian Federation to exert pressure due to the issue of gas price increases will also lose their meaning.
- At this stage, the United States maintains a cross-party consensus regarding support for Ukraine. In light of this, even the partial success of Russian policy in the European direction will not be a factor that forces Ukraine to sign any agreements regarding the “ceasefire”.
- Ukraine’s success in the counteroffensive in September and October 2022 could remove the issue of “referendums” from the agenda and make the idea of a “freeze” dangerous for Putin. If, as a result of the autumn campaign, the Russian Federation loses Kherson and at least 1-2 more significant settlements (on the scale of Melitopol, Izyum, Lysychansk), then the exit to the “truce” format will be perceived by some of the elites and the population of the Russian Federation as an “injury”. In this case, the cessation of hostilities will demonstrate the country’s leadership’s policy failure in the critical direction of restoring Russia’s influence in the world, meanwhile hitting on the imperial ambitions of citizens. As a result, a threat to stability is created within the Russian Federation.
Putin is aware of the possibility of a negative scenario and is sending an additional signal to his population and external partners — Russia’s readiness for isolation. In his opinion, it creates additional global security risks and sooner or later may lead to a dialogue about the place of the Russian Federation in the world system. However, unlike the previous years (2009, 2015), when similar hints had results, now the Russian Federation is in a very vulnerable position, and its vital argument – the strength of the army – is called into question due to the failed attempt to seize Ukraine.
“Russian peace” doctrine in foreign policy activities has been legalized in Russia.
On September 5th, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree approving the “Concept of Humanitarian Policy of the Russian Federation Abroad”, which defines the goals, methods, and main directions of such activities.
The concept recognizes that “Russian culture has been a symbol of Russia in all historical eras” (paragraph 5) and that “the historical experience, rich cultural heritage, and spiritual potential of Russia have allowed it to occupy a special place in the world cultural space and created opportunities for the successful promotion of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values abroad” (paragraph 6). The main dangers are identified as: a) globalization, which “endangers the cultural identity of countries and peoples”, and b) attempts to “spread and impose a distorted interpretation of the true goals of Russia… to discredit the “Russian world”, its traditions and ideals, replacing them with pseudo-values » (paragraph 9).
The first among the national interests of Russia is “the protection of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” (clause 13.1); among the tasks separately noted are “the protection, preservation, and promotion of traditions and ideals characteristic of the “Russian world” (clause 14.2) and “strengthening the role, the importance and competitiveness of the Russian language in the modern world” (p. 14.4). Finally, it is declared that Russia “provides support to compatriots living abroad in exercising their rights, ensuring the protection of their interests and preserving the all-Russian cultural identity” (p. 62), thanks to which it “strengthens its image of a democratic state in the international arena, which strives for the formation of a multipolar world, the preservation of its cultural and civilizational diversity” (p. 64).
The appearance of this document is a unique event in the humanitarian policy of Russia – it either introduced into the legal sphere for the first time or consolidated several doctrinal statements that previously existed only in a public format.
1) This is the highest-ranking official document signed by the President of the Russian Federation, which refers to the Russian World (русский мир) as a phenomenon, not the institution “Russian World Foundation” (10 decrees in 2007-2022).
2) This concept clearly formulates the signs of Russia’s “civilizational separateness”: “The unique geographical position of Russia caused the synthesis of European and Asian foundations in the culture of its multinational people. An important element in the formation of the value foundations of Russian society’s life, its cultural identity, and national mentality was the communal character of development, which was expressed, including in the aspiration of both each person and the entire society for social justice and the realization of long-term goals” (para. 7), and also “The Russian mentality is characterized by mutual assistance, collectivism, faith in goodness and justice.” (p. 19).
3) The concept openly postulates a “turn to the East” – it mentions the following countries for “humanitarian cooperation”: China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. At the same time, no Western European countries or the USA are mentioned.
4) The doctrine mentions the so-called “Donetsk and “Luhansk People’s Republics”, but there is no mention of Ukraine (although there is Moldova and Georgia) – which is also extremely revealing.
5) The Kremlin announces that it will make efforts to whiten its image and claim a special place in the world: “forming an image of Russia as a state that carefully preserves its rich history and cultural heritage, traditional spiritual and moral values, and in which dynamically social and cultural life develops in conditions of freedom of literary, artistic and other types of creativity, pluralism of opinions, absence of censorship restrictions” (clause 15.1); “The Russian state abroad is increasingly perceived as the guardian and defender of traditional spiritual and moral values, the spiritual heritage of world civilization” (paragraph 19); “Russia is committed to the principles of equality, justice, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, is ready for mutually beneficial cooperation without preconditions, recognizes national and cultural identity, traditional spiritual and moral values as the greatest achievements of humanity and sees them as the basis for the further prosperous development of human civilization” (p .21).
Therefore, the “Concept of Humanitarian Policy of the Russian Federation Abroad” allows a better understanding of the Russian strategy in this area. The Kremlin postulates in it are as follows:
First, culture is a tool, and even a weapon in the hands of the state, aimed at strengthening its international positions. Russia can and will actively use all the opportunities available – from the popularization of Russian ballet to the protection of the rights of Russian speakers abroad – to advance its interests.
Secondly, according to it, the planet is divided into the worlds of “traditional values” and global liberal “pseudo-values”, between which there is an irreconcilable struggle. Russia puts itself forward as the world leader of traditional values, as it seems to be built on them.
Thus, this document is the most straightforward answer to those who believe that Russian culture does not belong to the Russian state, is not a political tool, and does not threaten Ukraine and the rest of the world. Russian culture, as recognized in the document, has long been and still serves to promote Russian statehood. Without realizing this, there is a threat of Russia’s effective use of its soft power in the future.