The ‘Big Bear’ Is Back: Russia Promotes its Vision of a Multi-polar World

Image: Flickr, Global Panorama
Image: Flickr, Global Panorama

In a short period of less than a month, Russia has sought to assert its role in international forums as a leading player in a multipolar world.

This objective comes from the nationalistic view of its contemporary history initiated by Vladimir Pu­tin, and holds that a unipolar world should no longer be dominated by a single hyper­power, the United States. On June 15 and 16 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosted parallel summits of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the Shanghai Co-opera­tion Organisation in Yekaterinburg in the Russian Urals.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation includes all the countries of the former So­viet Union that border China – Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, plus Uzbekistan. Observer countries are India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia. Attending the two meetings therefore were a significant number of the leaders of the developing world, including newly re-­elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

President Barack Obama will visit Moscow on July 6 to 9 for bilateral talks on issues such as the negotiations for a nuclear arms reduction treaty, the US missile shield and areas in the world of security concern. Shortly afterwards the two leaders will attend the G8 meeting of the world’s major economies in L’Aquila in Italy.

In preparation for the G8 summit, a series of topic specific meetings have been held, including an African Cooperation Forum in Rome on June 10. The APF serves to broaden the existing high-level G8/NE­PAD dialogue to encompass Africa’s major bilateral and multilateral development partners. The meeting discussed four issues: The response to the economic crisis as it affects Africa; peace and security and terrorism, and in particular the problems of drug trafficking and piracy; climate change; and the future of the APF as a forum for dia­logue between Africa and its development partners.

In the intervening period, President Med­vedev made a four day trip to Africa. Be­tween June 22 and 26 Medvedev visited Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia and Angola. He was reportedly accompanied by a business delegation numbering 400 and including the heads of major Russian companies, such as Gazprom and Alrosa. The recurring theme was “Russia is back …” The phrase has been a recurring theme in Russian foreign policy rhetoric in various regions of the world in the past two years. It was used in Khartoum in January by Mikhail Margelov, special en­voy to Sudan who is also chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Medvedev was reported himself to have made a similar comment during the visit.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s influence in Africa has been over­taken by those of China, the US and even India and the visit of the Russian president was clearly an effort to reassert its influ­ence as part of its drive for a multi-polar world. The focuses of the visit were exploi­tation of energy and minerals and the sale of Russian technology.

The subtext was geopolitical: Russian in­volvement in the exploitation of resources would bring balance to the current control of oil and gas by Western, Chinese and Indian oil companies.

The African visit started in Egypt, where a strategic co-operation agreement was signed to help enhance Russia’s flagging role in the Middle East peace process. (Russia is a member of the Quartet with the EU, the UN and the US attempting to promote a peace deal between Israel and Palestine.)

Other topics that received attention were the proposed sale of Russian technology in the form of nuclear power stations and the development of a Russian industrial investment in Egypt. Russia is also keen to involve Egypt as an oil and gas produc­er, in its plans to control the supply of gas to western and central Europe.

In the case of Nigeria, vast resources of gas exist, but are either flared or convert­ed into LPG (liquid petroleum gas) for ex­port by ship to Europe.

As natural gas ideally is piped directly from source to user, Nigeria seeks to build a pipeline across the Sahara to Algeria via Niger, giving it access to European users.

During the Medvedev visit an agreement was signed between Nigerian National Petroleum and Gazprom to develop two gas fields and work on the feasibility of the trans-Sahara pipeline.

Russia’s involvement in its construction and operation would give it yet another lever to achieve its objective of controlling access to gas used in central and western Europe

In the case of Angola, since the termination of Soviet funding and support for the Cuban troops assisted the MPLA government in Angola in its battle against South Africa-supported UNITA in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, Russia’s presence in Africa has been hardly noticeable. Russian banks have agreed to provide loans to Angola for its satellite programme, linked no doubt to the purchase of Russian technology. In addition, Alrosa, the Russian diamond monopoly, is already active in Angola.

Namibia will receive loans from Russian banks to construct a nuclear power station, using Russian technology. At a time when lenders in the west are hesitant to extend credit to developing countries, state-controlled Russian banks are exploiting the opportunities.

Exploration for and Russian access to supplies of uranium also figured in talks in Egypt and Namibia.

Where was South Africa in all this?

A notable absentee from two of the Russian-initiated programme of events was South Africa. Although the leading economic power in Africa, and as such a member of the Outreach-5 countries that attend G8 meetings, South Africa did not succeed in securing an invitation to Yeka­terinburg.

Given that this was the first summit of the BRICs, the exclusion of South Africa conveys an important message about Africa’s perceived importance for the new emerging and re-emerging powers.

Nor was South Africa on the itinerary of the Russian President. While it could be argued that South Africa was one of only two African country visited by Vladimir Putin in 2006 – the other being Morocco – it does leave the question unanswered about whether Russia gives any importance to South Africa in it geo-strategic calculations.

19 Nov 2009