Thursday 31 May 2012

Putin’s G8 Snub: Much Ado About Nothing

Joanna Christou

Newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with heads of the CSTO and other regional leaders in early May. The Moscow Times.    
Two weeks ago, US President Barack Obama hosted the G8 summit at Camp David consisting of the heads of state of the world’s eight largest economies. However, this time there was a notable absentee, newly re-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin who opted not to attend, citing the need to form his government and appoint his cabinet. 
Much has been said about this decision with speculation that this was a rather blatant signal that US-Russia relations are at a low ebb. In recent months, Russian displeasure has been evident particularly following the state department’s public criticism of the Kremlin’s democratic standards during the widespread anti-government protests in the Russian capital. Putin went as far as accusing secretary of state Hillary Clinton of inciting the protests, a rather bold claim but one that does show the extent of Russian feelings on what they have traditionally viewed as foreign meddling in their domestic affairs. 
That Putin’s decision not to attend the G8 was some form of a ‘snub’ is in many ways also re-affirmed when considering the Russian president’s usual desire to be in the public eye and to project an image of Russia as a great power. Missing an opportunity to attend a meeting as high profile as the G8 does in fact seem unusual, especially considering the two main topics of the agenda were the Eurozone’s financial crisis and international security particularly concerning Syria and Afghanistan, both of which have the potential to cause adverse consequences for Russia with the former possibly affecting the price of oil and the latter de-stabilising security in the already volatile Russian neighbourhood. 
Obviously, all this draws a rather grim picture of US-Russian relations. It is a well known fact that despite attempts to reset the relationship since Barack Obama’s accession to the White House, things have not gone particularly smoothly with the two powers clashing on a number of topics, including the planned US missile shield for Eastern Europe and their opinions on how to deal with the situation in Syria. However, it is also important not to read too much into Putin’s decision not to attend. The publicity surrounding this decision almost completely overshadowed the fact the Dmitry Medvedev, the now former Russian president and newly appointed Prime Minister did in fact attend. So while the situation may suggest a clash of personalities between Putin and Obama (and some of his subordinates such as Secretary Clinton) it does not suggest a widespread breakdown of relations. While some kind of reconciliation may be required – it has been four years since Putin was a head of state – it does not represent a major turning point in the relationship.
Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in attendance at the G8 meeting at Camp David. The Telegraph.
It is also worth considering the excuse given for not attending the summit. While as mentioned already Putin has always relished the opportunity to be seen on the big stage, it is worth noting that he has also always sought to maintain a strong position at home and within Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. It does seem fair to suggest that leaving Russian soil for an overseas summit which in many respects simply represents an opportunity for ‘group cuddling’ may not have been a wise move. Putin was only re-elected two months ago and this came in a time of unprecedented protests against him and the political establishment in general. Hence, his decision to stay may have been truly based on the domestic situation. 
Furthermore, in the run up to his re-election he did stress his desire for Russia to re-focus its energies on relations with its neighbourhood. Putin already met with the heads of the of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and non-members including the Ukraine and Moldova in early May, confirming he prioritises this region. Likewise, he has sought to capitalise on some of his neighbours’ weaknesses early on in order to strengthen the Russian position. For example, Ukraine and its president Victor Yanukovich have faced mounting criticism from the EU over the imprisonment of former president Yulia Tymoshenko and the voices of dissent are getting louder with senior EU figures, including the President of the EU commission Jose Manuel Barroso, threatening to boycott the Ukraine legs of the upcoming European Football Championships to be held jointly with Poland. This seems to have provided an opportunity for Putin to put pressure on his already besieged Ukrainian counterpart to sign a free trade agreement which other former Soviet states have already ratified.
So where does all this leave us in regards to what Putin’s decision not to attend the G8 says about the current state of play between Russia and the US? Well, it seems fair to suggest very little has changed. Even before this so-called ‘snub’ there was some obvious discord in the relationship occasionally manifesting itself when the two disagreed on major policy issues. However, when it has seemed necessary Obama and his Russian counterpart (previously Medvedev and now Putin) have met or will meet. In fact, it seems that the US administration went out of its way to stress it was neither ‘surprised’ nor ‘disappointed’ and pointed that Obama and Putin will in fact be meeting in the coming month (at the G20 in Mexico). 
So nothing it seems has changed for the worse in the relationship between the US and Russia, however it is also fair to suggest that nothing has changed for the better. And this is now the challenge for both parties to address. With Putin now in the picture for at least another six years (having amended the constitution to allow for six year terms) the US now faces the challenge of finding ways to constructively deal with the Russian regime on a number of serious issues including global security and economic stability which could have dire affects for both should they be mishandled. 

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Russia and the scramble for the Arctic

Adam Lenton

Russian offshore oil rig. Climate change is making the Arctic more accessible to oil exploration.
Climate change may be set to adversely affect hundreds of millions of people, but there are some who see it as a potential boon in the northernmost extremity of the planet. Commercial shipping sees the melting ice as a way to save travel time- up to 25%- between Rotterdam and Korea, avoiding the lengthy route through the Suez Canal and passing instead above Russia- known as the Northeastern Passage. It has only been in recent years that ships have been able to do this, given the receding of Arctic ice. It has also relied upon Russian bureaucracy’s willingness to facilitate transport, by allowing ships in its Arctic ports and by providing ice-breakers.

Notwithstanding this, there is a treasure trove of untapped resources hidden beneath the Arctic Ocean waiting to be claimed. According to the United States Geological Survey, around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lay there. Determining who actually owns the ground to be explored is a fastidious task. The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS) allows a ten-year period for nations to stake territorial claims, based on the territorial limits of a continental shelf. Russia is set to claim up to 380,000 square miles of the internationally owned Arctic in the next year, arguing that the Lomosonov ridge is an extension of Siberia. Whatever the Commission decides- and it is reasonable to assume that Russia has a legitimate claim to the lion’s share of territory given it’s geographical dominance in the region vis-à-vis smaller nations such as Norway- the biggest problem is that Russia’s most powerful rival in the region, the US, hasn’t yet ratified UNCLOS.

Perhaps this US intransigence can explain Russia’s brash move in 2007, sending a scientific vessel under the Arctic Ocean and planting the Russian flag underneath the North Pole. This symbolic act failed to attract the kind of attention that such a gesture sought. Policymakers may have tactically downplayed this, or simply been preoccupied with more pressing concerns of the recent financial crises- but they cannot ignore this sensitive region for much longer. A renewed confidence from President-elect Vladimir Putin may well translate into the kinds of geopolitical recalcitrance that has long irritated the West.  

Concern may be behind Putin’s confidence. Promises to increase social spending by $170 billion may make exploration in the Arctic paramount in Russia’s future foreign policy. Unlike areas such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Kremlin sees the Arctic as a region which hasn’t already succumbed to NATO’s influence. Profit and pride will combine to ensure that Russia will defiantly defend its interests there. Putin already made clear that the Russian Navy needed to be ‘capable of service in the Arctic Ocean’. For policymakers, this should be of concern, especially given Putin’s lack of consistency with foreign businesses. BP may be overjoyed at a joint venture with Rosneft in the region, but it should also remember that back in 2007 Gazprom bought up its gas fields in Siberia, paying such a low price that it was considered to be ‘bordering on nationalisation’. A pressurised Putin may find such an option to be a good way of increasing state revenues.

British businesses may find their situation becomes more precarious as more wealth is found in the region. Press TV.
The UK doesn’t need a worsening of UK-Russia relations. At best they have been tense, and this certainly wouldn’t be ameliorated if British businesses like BP were to be unsure of their long-term presence in Russia. Yet unless clear national boundaries are decided in the Arctic, this uncertainty cannot be expected to diminish. Britain may not be an Arctic nation, but it still has an interest to reduce tension amongst them. Trying to persuade the US to ratify UNCLOS, and therefore establishing clear rules of what territory can be claimed, would be a good starting point for future negotiations. The latency of the Arctic as a geopolitical hotspot is quite clear, and Russia has already made some clear indications of its interest in the region. An aggressive approach by the United States would provide the sort of threat Putin’s rhetoric thrives on and would be counterproductive for all nations involved. The only certainty for policymakers is that since Putin isn’t leaving anytime soon, the West will need to tread carefully over the ever-thinning ice.