The compelling feedback one gets soon after arriving in Moscow is that whatever reservations the Russians may have about Vladimir Putin’s autocratic style of governance notwithstanding, they are united behind him on Crimea and the Ukraine. In his broken English our driver described with great gusto how Putin had snatched Russia’s Crimea back from foreign hands. This refrain was repeated across the broad spectrum, Russian nationalism stood out loud and clear. There seemed no qualms or second-guessing among the populace about the means Putin was using to raise the country back to its former greatness, on the contrary there was visible pride in the flexing of the military muscle to assert Russia’s dominance in what they call the “near abroad”. One is reminded about the Crimean War in mid-19th century and Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”, with the western sanctions starting to bite the Russian population remains united in “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
Leading US think tank EastWest Institute (EWI) got no negative signals from the US administration about going to Moscow for its Board Meeting at this time (28-30 May), given EWI’s usefulness as a possible backchannel to resolve a really serious world situation this was no surprise. The underlying tensions notwithstanding, the Russians were warm and friendly wherever we went, exhibiting a genuine desire to stop matters from spinning out of control, however they were clearly prepared to stay the course on Crimea while indicating signs of compromising on Eastern Ukraine. EU Ambassador to Russia, Vygaudas Ušackas (of Lithuania) set the stage with his dinner for meaningful dialogue through the week. His brief giving EU’s response on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was balanced by candid and contrary arguments by Aleksey Pushkov, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma (Russian Parliament). One came away convinced both were right.
This constructive dialogue continued the next day with EWI Chairman Ross Perot Jr leading the Board’s interaction with Director General Andrey V Kortunov Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and his colleagues. They summed up the threats and challenges facing Russia in the changing circumstances, and formulating thereof priorities for a successful foreign policy while integrating Russia into the globalizing world. Located between two major centers of the modern global economy, China and the EU, Russia’s geopolitical position and its transit potential are unique. With massive oil and gas reserves, its economy is dependant on their world prices as that of other raw materials. In some critical areas, the real position of Russia in the world is peripheral, it is generally perceived abroad as not very conducive for business. The country’s scientific and technical potential is reducing, the proportion in manufacturing and trade in high technology is extremely modest, and the population is decreasing.
The main financial source of its modernization, energy is a powerful resource for foreign-policy inputs as can be seen from the politicization of the energy card in Ukraine (and by extension the EU). Often associated with corruption, crime, bureaucracy, judicial tyranny, and other negative phenomena, Russia is often on the back foot in awareness-raising and image-building campaigns, creating a positive image of Russia abroad has not been successful. Confronting western sanctions, Russia’s foreign policy is undergoing a drastic change from its previous premise that a close strategic partnership with China was not beneficial for Russia. Pragmatism now favors flexible geo-political maneuvering and an 1800 turn for a solid alliance with China, symbolized by the recent China-Russia massive gas deal.
With the diligent and painstaking spadework put in over months with great persistence by EWI’s CEO John Mroz, David Firestein and Vladimir Ivanov, and because of the contacts of Russian speaking EWI co-Chairman Dr. Armen Sarkissian, formerly Prime Minister of Armenia, we got extensive ministerial briefings separately from Sergey Belyakov, Deputy Minister for Economic Development and Grigory Borisovich Karasin,
The Moscow office of our good friends Nand Khemka and Princess Jeet, and their son Shiv, organized an exhaustive private visit for us post our official commitments, allowing us to see a wide mix of the historical sites with modernity, including the Red Square, the magnificent Grand Palace Kremlin and some magnificent cathedrals. The Palace structure being originally from wood burnt down a number of times over centuries, stone was used in the 18th century for the first time. Disappointingly only four mosques in Moscow serve almost 2 million muslim population. The squeaky clean Russian underground (METRO) was far more spacious (or less claustrophobic) when compared to London, Paris and NY, etc. The statues and artwork were something else. Only the word “stupendous” can truly describe the Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater.
A scheduled meeting with Vladimir Yakunin, the Russian Railways Minister (from Putin’s inner circle he is on the western sanctions list), courtesy of former DG IOM Brunson McKinley, could not materialize because we could not reach the Music Olympus Ball in St. Petersburg in time. Founded in the 18th century by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was a revelation. Built along straight lines the fairly modern city is steeped in history with over 200 museums, the boat ride was along canals far more cleaner than in Venice. Tsar Peter visited many European shipyards, including personally working for some time in a Dutch unit to fulfill his maritime ambitions for Russia.
One could only see the vast Hermitage and Russian museums partly but the Peterhof Palace was magnificent, so was the journey back across Neva Bay by hydrofoil. St. Petersburg would not have been possible without Zina Generalova taking us around. We came to know her through my good friend Dr Bettina Robotka, formerly an East German she had studied in St. Petersburg University in the early 70s, she was made welcome in a city that had undergone a brutal 900 day siege by the Germans during World War 2 when other than the numerous casualties by bombs and artillery shelling, hundreds of thousands of civilians perished due to starvation alone.
Pakistan’s Ambassador Zaheer Janjua was meaningfully busy with the defence delegation visiting Russia coinciding with the lifting of the 56-years long Russian arms embargo imposed on Pakistan at India’s behest in 1968. One could not convince Ashfaque Kiyani in a small media gathering in 2009 the vital importance of augmenting our small and diminishing Army Aviation heli-fleet for counterinsurgency operations in the mountains. Unfortunately his brothers’ penchant for more material things than found in Jajja village probably was his greater concern, that was the last time I was invited. We Pakistan) must acquire the KA 52 Combat Helicopter as well as MI 17 troop/cargo transport helicopters (already doing good service with Army Aviation) and less than half the cost of their western counterparts. The lifting of the arms embargo is both symbolic and significant, graphically reflecting the changing environment, Russia is now perceiving Pakistan through Chinese eyes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, 25 years earlier, the geo-political alignment in the world is again changing drastically. Will it persevere?
The Chinese “Economic Corridor” to Gwadar will be a reality soon. Could Peter the Great’s dream of Russian access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, albeit now with Pakistani permission, come true?
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at email@example.com