By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
In a recent Annual Analysis Report compiled by the US based think tank “Stratfor”, a strategic forecast is given for 2019. The main thesis is that 2019 will be determined by a “great power competition”. What the authors don’t say is that one of the main drivers of the global power competition is the US under its new President Trump, who under the slogan “America first” has ruthlessly engaged in attempts to re-impose a US guided unipolar order upon the rest of the world. Whoever opposes this design will be strategically punished or blackmailed. As result one sees at present a total freeze in US/ Russian but also EU/Russia relations, accompanied by a widening division within the EU, new trade war threats on a global scale, in particular against China and EU, and the continuation of the game “divide and rule” pushed by the US in Europe as well as an offensive encirclement of Russia with new military bases and new missile defense systems in Romania, Poland, the Mediterranean as well as rearming Ukraine. This quite catastrophic outlook which could escalate into a new global war, and which feeds into the hostile anti- Russia rhetoric coming from the European mainstream press, stands in contrast to the thinking of some Russian strategists like Alexander Gromyko from the Institute of Europe Russian Academy of Science, who in a working paper develops the concept, that despite “multi drifting forces”, the room for “constructive” proposals to settle the multiple conflicts should be discussed.
Global Power Competition
The main line of Stratfor Analysis is that 2019 will be determined by “Great Power Competition” especially between the US and China and by an accelerated “arms race” among the US, Russia and China, given the US recent announcement to cancel the INF treaty. The US will lean on Japan, Europe, Australia, Canada, South Korea and Taiwan in order to establish stronger trade barriers against China, the paper states. Trade volatility in the global economy will increase and the biggest threats for the Eurozone will be a disorderly Brexit and the Italian debt situation, while Germany’s influence and the one of France will wane away. While the US is trying to sabotage the North Stream 2 gas project between Germany and Russia, it is positioning itself as becoming the No. 3 in LNG exports in the world. Disruptive forces will also play a role in the Americas where the US and Brazil will more closely cooperate, trying to contain Chinas influence and a spillover from Venezuela
The authors repeatedly underline that the great power competition between the US/ China and Russia will accelerate arms race and competition in cyberspace. It will intensify in 2019 and US will do everything “to erase Chinas drive in a number of strategic fields.” China may take blows and has the means and more motivation than ever to accelerate the time table and to reach parity with the US. Major European powers will try to assert their sovereignty against the US but will remain largely “relative” in a broader competition. As the authors state: “The US /China competition will escalate on all fronts in 2019! China is going to face pressure on tariffs, sanctions. Screws are also on Beijing over potential issues including cyber-attacks and human rights.” The key is that the “US is directly trying to counter the China One Belt One Road Initiative” and that Beijing leverages joint economic access and partnership deals with powers big and small to dilute US alliances. The US will lobby Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia and Taiwan, Canada and Europe to downgrade their ties with major Chinese high tech companies like Huawei and ZTE that will be branded as “National Security Risk” to other countries. 2019 is also a new revolution of the 5th generation tele-communications technology in the world development. The internet of things, virtual and augmented reality; Artificial Intelligence processing, autonomous vehicles and telemedicine which are already areas of intensive US-China competition – Huawei and ZTE have developed technology infrastructure and standards around 5 G. And in terms of global headwinds of the US trade policy it is clear that the US will use “bilateral” trade agreements to discourage EU trading partners from signing trade agreements with China. Given that Eurasia is the worl’s most expansive region connecting East to West forcing a Land Bridge that borders Europe to the Asia Pacific, the Mideast and South Asia, Brussels will see Beijing as a counterbalance to the US when it comes to defend multilateralism. But France and Germany will resist China’s penetration into Europe into sensitive areas such as technology and infrastructure, while “smaller states” will welcome Chinas investment as opportunity to boost their economies.
Reverberations of the US threat to leave the INF
Since the US will “likely withdraw” from the INF treaty, the arms race among US, Russia and China will accelerate and shake negotiations over the Nuclear Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Given the divisions in Europe, the Western powers try to avoid getting caught in an arms race build up, while states living on the front line with Russia – like Poland, the Baltic States and Romania – volunteer to “host US military assets.” The US leads the world in the Ballistic Missile Defense System. “With the western front divided, the US no longer is actively defending and in some cases actively battling the potential war rules based system of managing the global order.”
According to the authors, Europe is losing strategic significance: this has to do with mounting frictions inside the EU. As the report underlines, the “biggest fragility of the Italian banking sector will remain the biggest risk to the Eurozone stability while the economic expansion in Europe will slow down overall.” In the month of May European parliament elections will most probably lead to a strengthening of “Eurosceptics” in the EU parliament. A further paralyzing factor for the EU is the US sanctions policy against Russia that is going to intensify in 2019 with extraterritorial implications for third countries, as well as the US threat to leave the INF which will spur a news arms race and bring about a new missile threat for Europe. What will also heavily weigh on Europe is the Future of the Mideast – the US threats against Iran and the non-resolved Syrian war. The report warns that “Idlib could well become a flash point among Turkey and Iran, Syria loyalist forces and more remotely Russia.”
Given the US threat to withdraw from the INF Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, there will be on the US and Russian side military build-ups throughout 2019. While the US will pressure borderlands such as Poland, Romania et al to host additional assets, the authors add that for its part Russia will add to its military presence and assets in Kaliningrad, western Russia, Crimea and the Black Sea. Russia will also advance its own efforts to increase its military presence and infrastructure in Belarus. Another front in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia will continue to develop in the Sea of Azov. Both countries will build up naval assets and the US will weigh in security supplies for Ukraine. Hybrid warfare campaign from Russia, according to the authors, will intensify against Western leaning countries, by interfering into national politics, spreading propaganda and launching cyber-attacks and covert operations in a bid to undermine the EU and NATO unity. The report puts a lot of attention to the so called Russian efforts to meddle into the upcoming EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, seeing the opportunity to “supply far right an anti-establishment parties in Hungary, Italy and France.” Russia will also target the Balkan states, especially Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, with a mix of policy meddling, disinformation tactics and economic sweeteners to try to stymie their EU integration efforts.
US sanctions against Russia
The US is expected to impose sanctions on more Russian officials and entities and cut off trade channels and could perhaps downgrade diplomatic ties. The US congress could furthermore pressure the White House to take “more extreme options of targeting Russia sovereign debts or banning dollar transactions with its largest state bank.” Sanctions will be more controversial in the EU but the block will maintain them throughout the year. Russia efforts to insulate itself from sanctions by building up foreign exchange reserves, wealth funds diversifying trade ties and decreasing their exposure and dependence on Dollar transactions will enable it to avoid a major economic crisis in 2019. As the US increases security support for pro-Western states such as Ukraine and Georgia, Washington will also try to push back against Russia influence in states closer to Moscow like Armenia and Uzbekistan.
Russia and China will revamp up their economic and energy ties this year and Beijing will also increase its investments in building factories, pipeline, roads railways and other infrastructure projects in Russia especially in the Far East, the report states. The countries will try to strengthen military ties likely increasing the size and scope of their joint military exercises both bilaterally ad multilaterally as through the Shanghai cooperation organization. Russia will seek to strengthen its economic relationship with Japan, and sustain political and economic support for North Korea, pushing for inter-Korean projects while circumventing US sanctions against Pyongyang. In the Mideast Russia will maintain its military support for President Assad and increase ties with Iran as source of leverage against the US.
Russian Academician pleads for “cooperative polycentrism”
The Stratfor report feeds the wide-spread prejudices in the US and European strategic community, according to which Russia and China are solely to blame for the global strategic disarray. It is worthwhile to counterpose the thesis elaborated in the almost 70 pages Strafor report with a short three page “working paper” that was written by Russian Academician Alexey Gromyko (Corresponding member and Director of the Institute of Europe Russian Academy of Science, RAS), which was published by the RAS, at the end of November 2018. The analysis reads almost like a direct reply. It tries to discuss “options” how to overcome what is seen as “growing divergence between different actors.” Gromyko’s main thesis is that “Russia and the West political relations are in a deep freeze. The factor of Donald Trump and new populism both in the US and Europe change profoundly the tenets of liberal international order, which until recently was taken for granted by the Western political establishment.” As lamentable as this new reality may be, Gromyko suggests, that this new reality can also be used to “promote long term interest of all players” and he outlines what steps can be taken to minimize sharp tension of the transition period and to maximize opportunities to escape what he calls “the dangerous zone of confrontation.”
Gromyko starts his observation that while in the past years there was the narrative of a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” which included Russia, by 2018 this all ended up with the “schism” between Russia and the West as well as with multiple splits and cracks in the Euro-Atlantic itself. New significant changes came with the phenomenon of Donald Trump that have “enhanced tensions not only between the US and Europe but also inside Europe.” Today the EU is more divided than ever since 1957. It has also failed to prevent the nightmare coming true of losing a member which turned out to be Britain. The key question is, “if the EU will be able to regroup and to contribute to the shaping a new equilibrium in international relations.”
The author observes what he calls a “growing divergence: between Europe and the US, between the US and Russia, between the EU and Russia, between the US and China.” He describes it as “multi-drifting or multi-divergence, when centrifugal forces tear up a fabric of international relations” with the exception of the strategic convergence between Russia and China, which according to Gromyko for the foreseeable future serves national interests of both countries and the integration process in Eurasia and broader in the Asia-Pacific region. He predicts that the world is getting more and more “Asia centric and that this is not going to change for a long time.”
Gromyko notes that instead of the extended West or Greater Europe narratives, these days in Russia “we develop discourse of Greater Eurasia: Post-Soviet space integration projects plus their partners in the Asia-Pacific region, primarily One Belt, One Road and ASEAN+ which implies nowadays the interaction first of all between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Asia-Pacific Union.” Gromyko looks more critically at the other mega project “Greater Asia with China at its core” and calls an “illusion” to believe in “benign hegemony”.
He warns that at present “multi-polarity is moving along the track of crystallizing regional orders, which are at odds with each other. This is not a co-operative polycentrism, based on multilateralism and common rules enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Helsinki process.” There is, what he calls “a silver lining in the cloud, as Russia and a number of European countries try together to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran, object to extraterritorial sanctions of the USA, criticize the US for a decision to abandon the INF treaty and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, are engaged in Normandy format, talk with each other on conflict resolution in Syria and build North Stream”. By doing so they show that co-operative polycentrism with the EU and Russia as stakeholders is possible. Hence Europe and different parts of Europe need “long term geopolitical leverage.”
Seven recommendations for avoiding confrontation
Elements of these are, according to Gromyko, the resumption of talks between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union concerning talks of the revamped Basic Treaty; the resumption of talks between the EU and Russia on the visa free regime; joint actions in the Normandy format to facilitate the discussions on the new hybrid US/ OSCE peacekeeping mission in Donbas; a common EU/Russia effort with Washington and vis-a-vis Washington to minimize damage, ensuing from its decision to leave the INF. The need to relaunch “Strategic Stability consultations between Russia and the United State” (Russian proposals on this subject were handed over by Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump in Helsinki in July 2018; they include the INF and START 3 issues). The author notes that it is amusing to see how certain people in Europe justify Washington’s line with respect to the INF who keep talking about Russian violations of the INF treaty, ignoring the fact that Russia for years has not been pointing out violations of the treaty by the US and has been calling for military specialists of the two countries to meet to discuss all the issues involved. “This problem, accusations and counter-accusation should be dealt with in a professional way, not through megaphone diplomacy.” The author also sees the need to “resume some least sensitive challenges of interaction in the NATO-Russia Council, for example the work of the NRC Science for Peace and Security Committee.” And he urges to “maintain momentum of the November Russia-Turkey–Germany–France summit on Syria.”