Russia’s geopolitical greetings for 2020
In orthodox Russia, New Year’s Eve precedes Christmas. The Julian calendar, still promoted by the religious authorities, sets Christmas at January 7th. In consequence, between December 24th and January 1st, when Europe and the United States are enjoying the pleasures of family gathering, Russia is still very much active.
It knows how to make the most of this discrepancy between the western and the Russian calendars – to gain an advantage in certain dossiers; to recall its priorities of the past year; and to prepare for the year ahead. In recent days, the Kremlin has just sent the world several end-of-year messages. Strategic “greeting cards” and “kind reminders” that have to be taken into account for the brand new year.
Relaunching the peace process in Ukraine?
The most humanitarian act of Russia concerns Ukraine. On Sunday December 29th, a new exchange of prisoners took place between Moscow and Kyiv. The negotiation momentum, which has been at a standstill since 2016, is promising. Since a first exchange of 70 prisoners on September 7th 2019 and the resumption of discussions in the Normandy format on December 10th in Paris, Putin seems to give the new Ukrainian president the necessary room for manoeuvre to prepare his opinion for compromises on the east of Ukraine. But even if the signs of appeasement for 2020 are appreciable, the end-of-year reminder is clear: Russia will not compromise on Crimea.
Strengthening alliances with China and Iran
Orthodox Russia, Shia Iran and Taoist and Buddhist China have also chosen the holiday period (for Catholics and Protestants) to carry out large-scale military exercises in the Indian Ocean on December 27th-30th. By jointly deploying their fleets in this part of the maritime space, the three states have issued several warnings for 2020. Firstly, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf, crucial areas for global maritime traffic, are not US backyards. Secondly, Iran will be supported on the seas and in the UN Security Council by these two major nuclear, naval and diplomatic powers. For the United States, 2020 may be the year of appeasement in trade relations with China. But it will not be the year of relaxation in Russia’s strategic partnerships with China and Iran.
Taking advantage in the arms race
The period has also been chosen by Russia to publicly launch several new defence equipment announced in March 2018 by the Russian President. In particular, it widely announced the development of the Avangard complex, an unmanned air system capable of flying at a speed of 27 times that of sound, of changing course as it approaches its target and thus of piercing the current anti-air defence systems. Like the withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, this calls into question the strategic balances in Europe resulting from the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Here again, the announcement for 2020 is clear: Russia will not give up its status as a leader in the field of strategic armaments, for its own use as well as in international trade. And it will push its advantage if it can in order to catch up with the backwardness of the humiliation of the 1990-2000 period.
Setting the agenda in the Middle East
Russia has also reminded us once again of the central role it has regained in Syria and the Middle East since 2015. It has been giving essential air support to the Al-Assad regime in the operations it has been conducting in the Idlib area since mid-December. Here again, Russia is setting a date for 2020: the year will perhaps be marked by a political process of ending the war in Syria. But it will be on Russia’s terms and conditions.
The United States, France, Germany, Poland, NATO and the European Union are warned for 2020: the temptation of self-centred and national politics may be great. Pension reform and local elections in France, trade war and presidential election campaign in the United States, presidential election in Poland, the first steps of the new Commission for Europe, etc. All those topics are of great importance. Yet international relations cannot wait.
Cyrille Bret is an associate professor at the Higher Institute for Political Studies (Paris, France). He has worked in various positions, both in the public and the private sector. He is the creator of the site EurAsia Prospective, which contributes to the European geopolitical debates.