For Russia, It’s Business as Usual

Despite the impact of Western sanctions, and the continued threat of more if Russia continues its support for violent separatism in the Donbas region of Ukraine, it’s business as usual in Russia. The Kremlin continues to expand its cooperation abroad, especially in the energy sector, even as the Russian government has been violating international law and norms of behavior in southeastern Ukraine. For many countries, some of whom have abysmal human rights records themselves, this behavior does not seem particularly problematic or threatening. Russia’s growing isolation from the West is causing it to establish closer ties with other authoritarian countries in an attempt to expand its influence.

Russia’s May agreement with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which created the Eurasian Economic Union, is probably the most tangible example of Russia’s move to expand business and economic relations abroad. The Eurasian Union, a longtime pet project of Putin’s for increasing Russian power in the countries of the former Soviet Union, has been in the making for years. Although Russia claims that the agreement will help the economies of Kazakhstan and Belarus by encouraging economic integration with the larger Russian market, in reality the Eurasian Economic Union is likely to make both countries subservient to Russian political and economic interests. Russia also hopes that other former Soviet states, many of which are authoritarian or semi-authoritarian themselves, such as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, might also join the Union soon.

Russia’s USD 400 billion agreement with China that provides for the sale of Russian natural gas to China for the next 30 years is another example of the Russian government’s continued cooperation abroad. It’s not a surprise that China, another permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with a dismal record on human rights, according to non-profit organization Freedom House, doesn’t have any qualms about cooperation with Putin’s Russia. China, like Russia, also has caused stirs in the international community with its increasingly belligerent territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. As China becomes more confrontational over its claims to surrounding territories, it will likely look for support from Russia for its actions.

In addition to this highly publicized cooperation with China, Russia’s foreign economic and business relationships are also deepening with other authoritarian states. Iranian officials have emphasized their cooperation with the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin has reciprocated with statements emphasizing the cordial relations between the two countries despite Iran’s international isolation regarding its alleged nuclear weapons program. Russia and Iran are in the process of enhancing cooperation in the energy field, particularly regarding oil and nuclear energy. Earlier this year, Tehran and Moscow reached a deal that provides Moscow with oil in return for Russia’s construction of two nuclear power stations in southwestern Iran.

Russia’s increased economic cooperation within the newly minted Eurasian Economic Union, as well as with China and Iran, is supplemented by Russian cooperation with Venezuela and other states inimical to Western values and interests that supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  In Moscow last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Venezuelan counterpart. Russia pledged support for the Venezuelan government in the midst of the current political unrest there, and reiterated its support for growing Russian-Venezuelan cooperation in energy exploration, augmenting already strong military and technological cooperation.

Russia’s increased international isolation as a result of its annexation of Crimea and current support for violent separatism in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has caused the Kremlin to increase its economic cooperation with other authoritarian states. Countries such as China, Venezuela, Iran, and Kazakhstan seem largely unworried about Russia’s violations of international law and sovereignty, and have been more than eager to expand economic cooperation with this country. It seems that if the international community wants to rightly discourage further violations of international law and sovereignty that hold the current international system together, it needs to more seriously counter, rather than enable, Russian violations.

By Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center