Since March 2014, the Russian “dispatch of troops to Crimea”, and the contested referendum in Crimea followed by its incorporation into the Russian Federation, “The West”* rhetoric is that Russia is isolated, and that the U.S. and its allies will work to further isolate it (e.g. Zeke J Miller, “Obama: U.S. Working To ‘Isolate Russia’“, Time, 3 March 2014).
As the war in Eastern Ukraine seems to be perceived mainly through “Crimean lenses”, this Western policy, added to rounds of sanctions, aim at seeing an increasingly isolated Russian Federation bend to a “Western” vision of what the international order should be. The soon ex-General Secretary of Nato Rasmussen’s statement on Estonian TV according to which “Russia is globally isolated due to its actions in Ukraine” is only one example of similar comments made over the last months (ETV Interview: Rasmussen Says Russia is Isolated, 5 September 2014).
The latest round of sanctions, coming into force on 12 September 2014 for the EU (EU; “EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis“), taken on 12 September for the U.S., when cease-fire and peace negotiations in Eastern Ukraine, supported by Russia, seem to progress, could result from the same logic and abide to the same rhetoric.
Yet, as shown by Kearns and Raynova looking at the voting pattern in the UN General Assembly for the 27 March 2014 adoption of a resolution ‘calling upon states not to recognise changes in the status of the Crimea region’, Russia’s isolation is far from being obvious (“Is Russia really isolated on Ukraine?“, European Leadership Network, 1 April 2014).
If Russia was not isolated then, could it be that more than five months later, it is truly becoming increasingly isolated, which would indicate the success of Western policies?
To estimate the alleged Russian isolation, we shall use as proxy indicators the sanctions applied upon Russia on the one hand, and, on the other, the international reactions to the Russian embargo on agricultural and food products. We shall focus the analysis on main players and salient points. Supplementary sources used to draw the concluding map (see below) are listed at the bottom of the post.
The Russian Embargo
The Russian agricultural embargo was taken under a “Presidential Executive Order On Applying Certain Special Economic Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation”, signed on 6 August 2014. The ban was an answer to the then last batch of Western sanctions over Ukraine and the MH17 tragedy felt as unjust, because Russia had (and, since then, still has) repeatedly denied any direct involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (Dmitry Medvedev, “Introductory Remarks“, Government Meeting, 7 August 2014), all the more so that no proper investigation could have then proved any Russian responsibility in the MH17 downing.
The preliminary investigation report published by the Dutch Safety Board seven weeks after the MH17 catastrophe, still unable to fully determine causes, only underlines further how early accusations against Russia could have been felt as not only far-fetched (if after seven weeks one cannot determine the culprit, then how could it have been done a few hours after the crash?) but also unjust. The embargo started when Medvedev signed a “Government resolution on enforcing this Executive Order”, i.e. 7 August, should last twelve months and through it “Russia has completely banned the importation of beef, pork, fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products from the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada and the Kingdom of Norway” (Medvedev, Ibid.).
Sanctions and Reactions to Russian Embargo
In Eastern Asia, the U.S. tried to enlist support for sanctions from China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, however without much success, save for Japan (e.g. Zachary Keck, “Why Asia Won’t Sanction Russia for MH17“, The Diplomat, 31 July 2014). South Korea stated it had no plan to apply sanctions, while Singapore only follows UN sanctions (Kiev Post, 25 July, Keck Ibid.).
As far as Japan is concerned, and despite Russian expressed disappointment with sanctions (taken in April and July), considering the so-far positive outlook of Japan-Russian relationships (e.g. VOA News, 12 February 2014; Ria Novosti, 5 August 2014), Russian News Agency RIA Novosti seems to imply that “behind the scene” diplomacy involving Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is taking place: Japan explains its decision regarding sanctions by “having been forced into it”, meanwhile reasserting the importance of relationships with Russia (“Japanese Politician to Convey Prime Minister’s Message to Russian Leadership: Reports“, 8 September 2014). Indeed, as reported in Japan, former Prime Minister Mori met with President Putin, handing him a letter conveying “Abe’s eagerness to prevent bilateral relations from deteriorating further.” (The Japan News, 11 September 2014). Japan, notably, is energy starved and needs to solve territorial issues with Russia over the Kuril islands, which stops both countries to sign any peace treaty ending World War II (e.g. Sudhir Devare, India & Southeast Asia: Towards Security Convergence, ISEAS, Singapore, p.36; Harry Kazianis, “World War II: Not Over For Japan and Russia“, The Diplomat, 30 April 2013).
China relations with Russia continue being excellent and are even reinforced by “the West” sanctions against Russia, as exemplified, among others, by the huge 30 years USD 400 billion gas deal (e.g. Martin, Forbes, 30 May 2014), the Arctic coordination (Valantin, RTAS, 23 june 2014), the launch in July 2014 of the New Development Bank (NDB) by the BRICS as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank, institutions of the American post-World War II order (e.g. our warning back in March; Pilling, FT, 30 July 2014), the recent military exercises conducted within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-SCO (e.g. Ria Novosti, 29 August 2014), the launch of Russia’s use of China UnionPay credit card system (RT, 15 August 2014), or deals regarding supply of fruits and vegetables to Russia from China (e.g. The Moscow Times, 11 August 2014).
Meanwhile, in early September, as Russian President Putin visited Mongolia, the Mongolian President stated that he will not take any sanctions against Russia, but, on the contrary, position the country to sell meat to his neighbour, while overall trade should be boosted (Al Jazeera, 3 September 2014).
In South Asia, the U.S. intensely courted India, a long-time ally of Russia, with trips by Secretary of State Kerry followed by Secretary of Defense Hagel (among others, Mark Smith, “Russia relations with India and Pakistan“, Russian Series, 4/24, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, 2004). To try attracting India into an American zone of influence, even suggesting the signature of an India-Japan-U.S. military alliance, which would fundamentally upset the current strategic outlook, Hagel did not hesitate to offer, for example, co-development of anti-tank guided missile, thus even directly competing with their Israeli ally (Ajay Banerjee, “Hagel calls for US, Japan, India alliance“, The Tribune, 10 August 2014; Rajat Pandit, “US takes aim at Israeli antitank missiles in Indian arms market“, Times of India, 10 August 2014).
Yet, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reasserted the continuity of Indian Foreign Policy, thus refusing to join the sanctions’ round against Russia (Defense news, 3 August 2014; Ria Novosti, 31 July 2014). Considering Indian historical relations with Russia, “our country’s greatest friend” as Indian Prime Minister Modi put it when meeting with Russian President Putin on 16 July, as well as Modi’s will to further “strengthening Russia-India ties” (Indian Ministry of External Affairs, India-Russia relations, 2014; Zeenews, 16 July 2014), India is unlikely to “abandon” Russia. However, the probable visit of President Modi to the U.S. in late September (The Times of India) is to be monitored, including because of possible strategic evolutions regarding China and Japan.
Meanwhile, on 26 August, Pakistan Ambassador to Russia suggested that Pakistan could “supply food products to Russia no inferior in quality to Europe‘s (Interfax Interview, 26 August 2014).
Sri Lanka would also plan “larger fish, seafood export to Russia” (Itar-Tass, 13 August 2014).
Most Central Asian countries have mostly good relationships with Russia, exemplified through common memberships to various international organizations, which were not deteriorated by “the West” actions. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of the SCO, with China and Russia. During the recent Dushanbe summit on 11 and 12 September 2014, they signed the so-called Dushanbe Declaration (official text), where, among other major point such as the possible enlargement of the SCO, consensus over commitment for the UN, Syria, Iran or Afghanistan, they “welcome[d] the signed September 4, 2014 Protocol on the basis of the consultations of the Tripartite Liaison Group on joint steps aimed at the implementation of the Peace Plan of the President and the President of the Russia initiatives” (Google translation).
Kazakhstan is also a member of the Eurasian Union (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus), and accepted that its territory could not be used to see the Russian embargo on agricultural products bypassed, even if it did not itself enforce an embargo (“Lavrov interview“, Itar-Tass, 11 September 2014).
Furthermore, Russia is also a crucial partner for many of those landlocked countries, as reminded, for example, by Tajikistan’s Ambassador to Russia who reasserted that ““Russia is Tajikistan’s strategic partner. We favour close economic cooperation with Russia” when he announced on 15 September the intention to “step up economic cooperation with Russia” notably in the framework of the agricultural embargo (Itar-Tass, 15 September 2014).
Uzbekistan as many other countries saw the opportunity with the Russian embargo to increase their own exports (Uznews.net, 8 August 2014).
Turkmenistan, for its part, seeks to maintain neutral and good relationships with all sides, and thus did not join in to sanction Russia.
Despite attempts by the European Union to talk Latin America out of taking advantage of the Russian agricultural embargo (Christian Oliver, Financial Times, 11 August 2014), Latin American countries quasi-unanimously seized this new trade opportunity (Dom Phillips, “How Russian ban on U.S., E.U. food could turn into a windfall for Brazil“, Washington Post, 9 August 2014; “Food Ban Expected To Boost Uruguay Beef Exports To Russia“, Farms UY, 7 August 2014;”Peru ramps up food exports to Russia amid sanctions“, Monitor Global Outlook, 12 August 2014; Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico: Financial Times, 14 August 2014; “Argentina announces food-export deals with Russia“; Fox News Latino, 21 August 2014).
These choices, according to countries, may also be read as political statements, underlining notably the historically built “misunderstanding and distrust [that] have characterized U.S.-Latin American relations (James D. Cochrane, “The Troubled And Misunderstood Relationship:The United States and Latin America“, Latin American Research Review, 28(2): 232).
In early September, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, true to Chavismo, went even further, suggesting that the “West’s ‘Attacks’ on Russia Are Attempt to Stifle BRICS” (The Moscow Times, 2 September 2014).
Middle East and North Africa
Turkey rapidly stated its intention to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Russian embargo, as emphasized by both the head of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM) and the Economy Minister (Reuters, 8 August 2014; Manolis Kefalogiannis, The Parliament Magazine, 9 September 2014). This move is criticized by the EU, showing that “Ankara is distancing itself from the EU” because “as a candidate country, Turkey should bring its foreign policy into line with that of the EU”, as asked by the 15 August council of foreign ministers (Ibid.). Again, beyond trade pragmatism, we may wonder if here too a political statement is not made, as Turkey has been kept waiting for so long by the EU, on the one hand and is, on the other – and probably relatedly, strongly interested in joining the SCO, to which it received the status of a dialogue partner in 2013 (Stephen Blank, “Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Motives and Consequences“, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 23 April 2014).
Unsurprisingly considering the good relationships between the two countries, Iran also stressed its readiness to export food to Russia (Fars News, 6 September 2014).
The relationship between Egypt and Russia is definitely strengthening, as furthermore both now share the experience of recent alienation by “the West”. When the Egyptian revolution and struggle against the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood were quite unanimously denounced as a military coup and condemned by “the West” in 2013 (e.g. The Weekly No108 and No107), Russia did not hesitate to reboot ties, notably with the visit of the “Russian defense and foreign ministers in November” 2013. Now, after the state visit of President al-Sisi to Russia in August 2014, not only are military, agricultural and infrastructure contracts signed or about to be, but discussions have started for “the creation of a free trade zone between Egypt and the Russia-led Customs Union, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan” (Al-Arabiya News, 12 August 2014; Ria Novosti, 12 August 2014; Egypt State Information Service, 12 August 2014).
More recently, on 2 September, the Tunisian Foreign Minister expressed Tunisia’s willingness “to supply many goods that Russia does not receive from Europe now”, among other issues discussed (Itar-Tass, 2 September 2014; Tunisie Afrique Press, “La Russie assiste la Tunisie dans sa guerre contre le terrorisme“, Global Net, 3 September 2014). Morocco also wishes to take advantage of the new opportunity and “a Morocco–Russia summit will take place in mid-September to create a strategy for more comprehensive trade between the two countries.” (Jeune Afrique, 5 September 2014).
Armenia, dependent upon Russian economy, and about to join the Eurasian Union in October 2014, saw an opportunity in the agricultural embargo to increase its exports in Russia (Sara Kojoyan, “Silver Lining?: Armenia keen on increasing agricultural exports amid Russian sanctions against EU“; “Sanctions: Armenia may feel fallout from West’s punishment of Russia“; Armenianow.com, 3 & 4 September 2014; RFE/RL, 18 July 2014).
Trying to preserve relationships with the West, as it is a signatory of an Association Agreement with the EU, while also wishing to continue improving the prospects for normalization with Russia, Georgia expressed its will to take advantage of the offered possibility to increase agricultural exports and stated it was not joining in imposing sanctions on Russia (Armenian News Tert.am, 15 August 2014; Georgy Kalatozishvili, “Georgia waits out the Ukrainian crisis, trying to please everybody“, 29 August 2014). Importantly, Kalatozishvili (Ibid.) also underlines that the West is perceived as weaker than thought, which contributes to explain Georgia’s decisions and its criticism of the sanctions’ path.
Azerbaijan is holding talks with Russia so as to increase its agricultural exports (Aynur Jafarova, “Azerbaijan’s unique chance to increase export of agricultural products to Russia“, 22 August 2014);
Belarus, a member of the Eurasian Union, hopes, logically, to sell more agricultural products to Russia. However, as Kazakhstan, it declined imposing a food ban similar to Russia’s (Volha Charnysh, “Belarus Hopes To Cash In On Russian Sanctions“, Belarus Digest, 19 August 2014).
Although candidate states to the EU were called upon to develop a foreign policy similar to the EU, Serbia refused to take any sanction against Russia (Lauren Gieseke, “Russian Sanctions Pose Particular Strains on Aspiring EU and NATO Candidate States (7/3)“, The European Institute, July 2014), most probably considering its long-standing relationship with Russia. On the contrary, Montenegro, for example, accepted to follow the European Union decisions (Ibid.).
However, this almost total EU unity also hides varying position according to member states. Besides hardliners against Russia, such as Poland and the UK, some states increasingly developed a more measured approach to sanctions, notably Finland, if not plain “opposition … now coming from Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, among others,” or from Hungary (DW, “Resistance grows in EU to new Russia sanctions“, 5 September 2014; BBC news, “Hungary PM Orban condemns EU sanctions on Russia“, 15 August 2014).
Furthermore, it would also seems that within some European states a domestic opposition develops against sanctions, in a more or less generalized way. For example, in early August, in Bulgaria, only 10% of the population supported stricter sanctions, whilst 40% thought “that Bulgaria should not participate in sanctions against any country in general, Russia included” (Novinite.com, 7 August 2014). Opposition to sanctions, in general, originates from the left (DW, Ibid.), from the business and corporate sector, as well as from agricultural producers, which will be seriously hit by the Russian embargo.
For example, in Spain, in Aragon on 18 August (RTVE.es) then in Catalonia on 23 August (RT video; Ria Novosti, 23 August 2014), farmers protested against the EU policy over Russia that led to the embargo and even burnt the EU flag. The cost of the retaliatory embargo to the EU will indeed be felt strongly as, according to the AP/AFP, in 2013 “Russia imported $1.3 billion (971 million euros) worth of foodstuffs from the US, an amount that was dwarfed by the EU’s agricultural exports to Russia in 2013, which totaled $15.8 billion.” (Deutsche Welle, “Russia announces ‘full embargo’ on most food from US, EU“). Hence the EU producers of agricultural products are paying the brunt of the West policy. Beyond direct and immediate cost, including bankruptcy for smaller farmers, the negative impact is highly likely to be long-lasting as the new contracts signed over the world will be difficult if not impossible to recapture.
As another indication of discontent related to sanctions, this time from both the political world and larger corporations, we find the little publicized meeting that was held under the aegis of the French non-profit organization Dialogue Franco-Russe, where the President of the Russian Duma and other Russian parliamentarians met French ones and political figures as well as businessmen, including the CEO of Total (energy, oil), the Director for Europe of GDF-Suez (energy) and Serge Dassault (founder of Dassault Systems, from aerospace and defense to energy etc.) – (meeting report, in French, in English). As another example, German businesses have also at time shared their doubts regarding the sanctions’ policy (e.g. Bethan John “One-third of German firms see sanctions hitting Russian business“, Reuters, 9 September).
Russia is not isolated
The resulting map was obtained with the following conventions: a scale from -4 to -1 for those countries applying sanctions, from the “hard-liners” to mildest sanctions; 0 given to countries having not applied sanctions or having refused to do so; a scale from 1 to 4 for countries taking advantage of the agricultural embargo, according to the strength of their relationship to Russia (the white colour means no data).
As visually represented on the map, it is obvious from the analysis that Russia is far from being isolated, on the contrary.
As a result, it would seem that the West policies are less successful than the rhetoric implies. We have obviously truly entered into an era of multipolarity, where the wishes of a single superpower are not systematically followed anymore. We would thus be witnessing the end of American hegemony, only still holding, and imperfectly so, in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Furthermore, the discrepancy between declarations and reality may also fuel change by promoting misunderstanding, leading to feeling of aggression and injustice, breeding in turn heightened tensions and accelerated actions to protect oneself. The cost of believing wrongly that there is or could be an isolated Russia may be huge, not only in economic terms – as born principally by Europe and European companies and producers – but also in terms of international influence and power and thus ability to achieve one’s vision and aims, including ensuring the security of one’s citizens at best.
As so many other threats, from the impact of climate change to the spread of Ebola without forgetting the expansionist and warring aims of the Islamic State would demand cooperation rather than avoidable tense and escalating divisions, it may be high time for “the West” to take stock of reality and devise new policies.
*”The West” here is a shorthand that refers to the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. (the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance), the EU and member states – the UK is, still, of course also part of the EU – Switzerland and Norway. New Zealand and Switzerland, however, have taken less strident positions against Russia (see sources below). We could – and should – however discuss why Russia is not seen as both a European, thus Western, and Asian country, when so many elements concur to show it is: geographically (until the Ural mountains at least), historically, culturally (considering the incredible Russian contribution to European culture, from music with Tchaikovsky (listen to a Best of – Youtube), Rimski-Korsakov (extract from Scheherazade), Rachmaninov (Best Of) or Prokoviev (Best of) to name only a few composers, to ballet dancing with Diaghilev and Nijinsky (e.g. Twenty Years that Changed the World of Art – visit Harvard exhibition) to painting with Kandinsky or Chagall for example, or literature, with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky among many others), and geopolitically (from Russia’s role in defeating Napoleon, to the 1907 Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia (e.g. Conybear and Sandler, “The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance 1880-1914…“, American Political Science Review, 84(4), 1990) to the Soviet Union costly and crucial fight against the Axis during WWII to take only recent examples.
Additional sources to establish the map
List of countries with which Russia’s Rosselkhoznadzor agricultural watchdog is in talk: China, Turkey, Serbia, Egypt, Mauritius, Ecuador, Chile, Columbia, Mexico, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Guatemala, Morocco, Kenya, Argentina and Lebanon – Itar Tass, “Faroe Islands may boost fish exports to Russia amid war of sanctions“, 8 September 2014.
Lauren Gieseke, “Russian Sanctions Pose Particular Strains on Aspiring EU and NATO Candidate States (7/3)“, The European Institute, July 2014.
“BRICS condemn sanctions against Russia“, The BRICS Post, July 16, 2014
Switzerland focuses on “Measures to Prevent the Circumvention of International Sanctions concerning the Situation in Ukraine” – rating on map (-1).
- State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, CH, Sanctions/Embargo: Situation inUkraine 13 August and 27 August.
- “Russia not to ban Swiss cheese or watches, but capital to leave Switzerland“, Itar-Tass, 28 August 2014
- Imogen Foulkes, “Swiss sanctions dilemma over Russia“, BBC News, 19 August 2014.
- Audrey Young, “Sanctions against Russia symbolic, McCully admits“, The New Zealand Herald, 24 March 2014.
- Eyglo Svala Arnarsdottir “Iceland escapes Russian sanctions for now, but seafood industry worries over impact” 8 August 2014.
- “Russia confirms Iceland not on EU sanction list“, Xinhua News, 8 August 2014.
- Denton and Mann, “Iceland and Norway have imposed sanctions against Russian officials“, Baker and McKenzie, 27 March 2014.
- “Russia, Ukraine: the impact of US and EU sanctions on international business“, The Law Society, 22 April 2014.