Thoughts on the Axes

The discussion over the affects of the rapid drop in oil prices on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela brings the following thoughts to mind about Russia’s balancing efforts:

1) Russia’s coalition building efforts are at least twofold and certainly overlapping: (1) with China in Eurasia and the Pacific (the “axis of sovereignty”), and (2) with Venezuela, Iran and other hydrocarbon producers with less than friendly dispositions towards the West. (There are of course other constellations, but the two mentioned are most useful for this post, given time constraints.) They do not necessarily have common conceptions of what their national missions or destinies are, but they have roughly similar ideas about how to go about achieving them. Venezuela wants to create a Latin American poll, and is using Russia as a means of building a center of gravity there. Brazil is not keen on that prospect, and neither are other regional heavy weights for semi-ideological and pragmatic economic reasons. Iran wants to bill itself as the premier regional actor in the Middle East. Few of the Arab states or Turkey are interested in Iran’s success. Russia is friendly to these countries’ ambitions, but only in so far as they complement Russian strategy. The axes are, as the Economist writes, “tactical not strategic”. 

2) Both “axes” have yet to bear their full fruit. The China-Russia axis in Eurasia has in many respects led to a net decrease of Russian influence there. The Russians could not rely on the Chinese and SCO states for support during the Georgia episode, and they are finding that the Central Asian states are more confident in Chinese built institutions than they are in Russian engineered ones. The SCO is a Chinese initiative, primarily on Chinese terms. Naturally, it highlights the member states’ common interests. It also highlights China’s rising dominance in Central more than it does Russo-Chinese cooperation. The SCO received (and rejected) an application for membership from Iran this year. Had Iran been granted membership, a quarter of the world’s land-mass would have been under the Chinese umbrella. That the application was rejected shows that China is more conscious of its limitations and the state of the world system than Russia perhaps is. The Russians have declared their belief that world politics has entered a new stage of multi-polarity, and have zealously acted to illustrate it in the weak spots rimming NATO. The Chinese rejected Moscow’s show of force in Georgia, as well did most the rest of the SCO. The Chinese seem to think that there is a longer road to be traveled than the Russians do, and their caution seems to moderate some aspects of Russian behavior. The Russians may grow weary of this. But a lack of genuine or successful soft-power from China (as well as the fact that China’s role in Central Asia is still in its early stages) means that Russia can still compete in an area where Russian cultural and economic influence is still strong. The gas axis, which naturally at its strongest when hydrocarbon prices are highest, is precarious, especially given the strength of its constituent economies. As prices rise, the voices and relevance of Russia, Iran and Venezuela do too. But the same is true when prices plummet. An “energy super power” is a precarious one, especially if its population and military capacities are sapped over time. Rainy day preparations are an absolute necessity for countries dependent on hydrocarbon exports, but many such countries tend to spend liberally and base their regimes’ domestic and foreign policies on demagogy without regard for future trends (as far as I can tell). Rivalry with other major producers, especially Saudi Arabia in Iran’s case, will make it difficult for supply reductions in the short term. And there is little insulating any of these states from the same economic problems facing the rest of the world. The “alternative” model offered by these countries is basically a kind of capitalist mercantilism known to produce great powers (it is similar in some ways to Britain’s growth model in the 18th and early 19th centuries) and great power conflict. 

3) The limited scope of these alliances — the Russians have yet to corral India into their Eurasian schemes and have made few inroads into Africa — may indicate that other states emerging from the former Second and Third Worlds are interested in their own prospects (though this is not the only thing, but I will focus on this possibility). Third World leaders like South Africa, India, Algeria, Malaysia, Brazil, etc. have yet to sign onto Russian initiatives. Chinese influence is growing in these sectors, relatively fast because of its previous absence or near absence, and while American dominance is weakening, that influence is still strong and rather durable. India and Algeria, both important geopolitically (because of India’s positioning and overall weight and Algeria’s Mediterranean location and gas resources), have been reluctant to sign themselves over to Russia’s camp for reasons of self-interest. Independent policy, or at least the pretension of independent policy,  is more digestible domestically and potentially profitable than alignment. The Indians gain more by having the Russians, Americans and Europeans court them than tossing all their eggs in one basket, potentially breaking them. They also are skeptical of banding with China, often a friend of Pakistan and with whom they have a frayed history. Their quest for great power status benefits from multiple sources of technology, investment, and cooperation. The same goes for the Algerians, except that their positions is complicated fundamentally by their copious oil and gas exports to Europe and America. Joining a gas cartel with Russia (and Iran and others) would potentially strain Algeria’s freedom of action and eliminate the competitiveness of her exports. As Algeria provides as much as 40% of some European countries’ gas imports, with Russia providing most of the rest of it, it can hope to act as a balancer, shifting the weight of its gas as the balance and distribution of power changes. The value of both countries (especially the Group of 15 states) rises while they remain free agents, as is the case with many other middle and still rising great powers. It also points to Russia’s relative weakness and lack of ideological and cultural appeal. Few countries aspire to be “like Russia,” and Russians do not have reputations for friendliness or relatablility in many developing countries. Their presence does not recall warm memoriess. The Russians reacted with rhetorical violence when the Algerians questioned the quality of their aircraft early in 2008, illustrating a lack of confidence in their products and international standing.

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