Russia Goes on a Global Search for Opportunity

8 MINS READMar 5, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) holds a joint press conference with Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez following their meeting in Moscow on Mar. 1, 2019.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez give a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow on Mar. 1, 2019.

  • As Russia's standoff with the West intensifies, Moscow will expand ties with non-Western countries around the world, from China and Syria to those in South Asia, South America and Africa. 
  • Russia will be opportunistic in pursuing its strategy, prioritizing countries that present direct economic and security benefits for Moscow, as well as those that offer leverage to the Kremlin in Russia's broader competition with the United States. 
  • Russia will never fully replace its economic ties with the West, but its diversification strategy will grow in scope and breadth so long as the Moscow-West standoff endures.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

It's been more than five years since the Euromaidan uprising in Kiev — an event which began in Ukraine, but whose consequences have reverberated around the world. In addition to sparking Russia's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, the uprising drove a wedge between the West and Russia, whose relations have plummeted to their lowest point since the Cold War. The United States and the European Union have sought to economically isolate Moscow through sanctions, while both Russia and NATO have angered each other by engaging in military buildups.

The Big Picture

In its 2019 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that Russia would seek to expand its ties and involvement around the world to chip away at Western hegemony and challenge the U.S.-led world order. Russia has indeed bolstered its economic and security ties in key areas around the world — a trend that is likely to only intensify in the upcoming quarter. 

As a result of the enduring standoff, Moscow has shifted its foreign policy strategy — pursuing a comprehensive diversification of its economic ties away from the West as a means to both insulate its economy from further sanctions exposure, and compensate for the economic opportunities it has missed due to years of trade and investment restrictions. China has been a key partner for Russia in this regard: Moscow has expanded trade, financial and energy links with Beijing every year since 2014, just as its economic ties with Brussels and Washington have plunged. China, however, isn't the only destination in Russia's drive to satiate its economic and strategic needs. With the Russia-West standoff likely to remain for the long haul, Moscow is also looking at South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America as places to foster economic and security ties — throwing a wrench into the United States' plans in the process.

To Syria and Beyond

A key component of Russia's strategy has been to expand its security and military linkages with countries outside the West — most prominently in Syria, where Moscow rode to President Bashar al Assad's rescue in 2015. Russia had practical reasons for intervening in Syria, ranging from its desire to preserve its naval base in Tartus, to its goal of preventing the Islamic State and other jihadist groups from spreading throughout and beyond the region. Strategic considerations linked to the United States, however, were also foremost in Moscow's mind when it entered the Syrian conflict. As in Iraq and other countries in the former Soviet space where color revolutions ousted autocratic leaders, Russia has fundamentally opposed U.S.-led or U.S.-supported efforts at regime change. Moscow also wanted to prove to Washington and the outside world that it, too, could conduct an overseas military intervention to preserve what it deemed to be a legitimate, internationally recognized government in Syria. Finally, Russia wanted to enhance its leverage in broader negotiations with the United States as well, by becoming a key power player in a country of strategic interest to Washington. 

A map of key countries where Russia has recently expanded its ties.

This strategy was effective for Russia as it boosted Moscow's role and importance in not only Syria, but the wider Middle East. Russia became more active as a key diplomatic mediator in areas such as Iraq, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has also expanded weapons sales to countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia has thereby raised its involvement and stature throughout the Middle East, meaning the United States must now factor in Moscow's position and influence in virtually every area of consequence to Washington — especially at a time when the United States is preparing to reduce its military presence in the region

Inroads Into South Asia

Russia's diversification strategy initially focused on the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East due to geographic proximity and more established connections. But in recent years, Moscow has expanded into other key areas of the globe. One such area is South Asia, where Russia has actively cultivated its ties and influence, particularly in Afghanistan. Russia has increased its involvement in the country's diplomatic sphere by hosting several negotiation sessions between key Afghan representatives, including officials from both the government and the Taliban. Moscow has also ramped up its security presence in Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where it has been conducting more counterterrorism exercises and training in a bid to block any potential spillover of Islamic State elements into Central Asia — or Russia itself. Moscow has taken great care to distinguish between isolating the Islamic State and engaging with the Taliban in the region as well, amid indications that the Kremlin may have even provided some limited security assistance to the latter

As with Syria, Russia's involvement in Afghanistan has practical considerations — most notably in its desire to stop militancy from spreading. But the Kremlin has also entered Afghanistan with an eye to U.S. strategic interests in the country. As a result, Moscow is providing a challenge to the United States at a time when Washington is planning to draw down its troop presence there. In addition, Russia has used its increased engagement with Afghanistan to boost economic and security ties with neighboring Pakistan. Naturally, Moscow has been careful to balance such ties with its more entrenched relationship with New Delhi — a longtime buyer of Russian arms — and has even offered to play a mediating role between Pakistan and India following their recent flare-up over Kashmir

A Foray Into the U.S.'s Backyard

Another place where Russia has made inroads is right in the United States' backyard: Venezuela. Moscow's economic and security ties with Caracas predate the Euromaidan uprising in 2014, going all the way back to the Hugo Chavez era. In recent years, however, the Kremlin has steadily increased its financial support, security ties and energy cooperation with President Nicholas Maduro's government. Maduro visited Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2018, during which the two leaders signed investment contracts in the energy and mining sectors worth more than $6 billion. Shortly thereafter, unconfirmed reports surfaced that Russia was considering the long-term deployment of Tu-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela after it confirmed that such bombers had visited the Maiquetia Airport outside Caracas on Dec. 10. 

Its forays into Asia, Africa and South America notwithstanding, Russia has no desire in categorically closing the door on the West.

As with Afghanistan and Syria, Russia has direct interests in Venezuela in the energy and military-industrial spheres. But the South American country also provides a foothold from which Moscow can obstruct the United States and its strategic interests. Washington has actively attempted to shape domestic events in Venezuela, while Russia has an interest in countering such efforts and preserving the Maduro government. Nevertheless, the sheer extent of Venezuela's recent political crisis — along with the United States' concerted efforts to oust Maduro by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the leader of the country, ramping up sanctions against Venezuela's energy sector and publicly mulling limited security operations — mean Russia is unlikely to stage a direct military intervention in the country as it did in Syria. While there are reportedly a limited number of Russian mercenaries in the country in a private and unofficial capacity, Moscow has neither the willingness nor the ability to present a formal military challenge to the United States in faraway Venezuela. Still, Russia does have an interest in helping preserve the regime there — and its associated economic and security assets — for as long as possible. 

Russia's diversification strategy has also taken Moscow into more unfamiliar territory in recent years, such as Africa. In addition to mooting the possibility of helping modernize Zimbabwe's military, Russia has deployed private security contractors to the Central African Republic, where it has also made efforts to provide political mediation in the country's conflict. While bolstering ties with the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe may not provide Russia with a platform to counteract the United States, Moscow's entrance to such countries does provide it with an opportunity to expand arms sales and gain access to mineral resources. 

Its forays into Asia, Africa and South America notwithstanding, Russia has no desire in categorically closing the door on the West. Europe, in particular, will remain a key market for Russian energy and minerals exports, as Moscow has an interest in maintaining trade ties with the West — so long as it doesn't leave the Russian economy exposed to further sanctions. But with a resolution to the Russia-West standoff unlikely for the foreseeable future, Moscow has little choice but turn its attention elsewhere to fulfill its economic and strategic needs.

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