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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Orange is Not the New Brexit: Why America and Britain Face Very Different Challenges

Since Donald Trump's shock victory in the US presidential elections many commentators have compared his rise with the victory of the anti-EU Leave campaign in the 23 June referendum over Britain's membership of the European Union. Throughout 2016 the ups and downs of America's tangerine titan and the chaotic aftermath of the UK's date with European destiny have often been portrayed as part of a global populist wave undermining the established post-Cold War order. And undoubtedly there are parallels between both cases. The impact of deindustrialisation on many communities entrenched discontent with the political status quo in both countries. Specific parts of the British and American voter demographic were also drawn to themes that played on fear of migration as well as nostalgia for a mythical golden age in which their society seemed to operate autonomously from the wider world.

But if you dig deeper there are major differences between two political earthquakes that will shape how 2016 will be remembered. In Britain the anti-EU Leave campaign was made up of a disparate coalition of factions from across the ideological spectrum. Left Exit socialists, who believed the EU was holding the UK back from becoming the Marxist utopia they hoped for, worked hand in hand with so-called Liberal Leavers, who are convinced EU regulation is keeping Britain from achieving its economic potential as a global trading power. While both of these groups are not bothered about immigration, the referendum debate was often dominated by UKIP anti-immigrant isolationists who are as hostile to Scottish or Irish aspirations as any other society or culture they see as endangering their definition of English (not British) identity. The story since the referendum has been about the struggle by anti-EU Brexiteers to keep this coalition together even as the realities of Brexit come to undermine its cohesion. With clear majorities of voters below the age of 45 voting for Remain, British eurosceptics also face a demographic trap over the next few years as many elderly Leave voters who helped sustain their majority gradually disappear from the electoral roll. Faced with these pressures, Theresa May (who campaigned for Remain) and other politicians now committed to leaving the EU are desperate to complete the negotiation process as quickly as possible before demographic change and disagreement over models of departure weaken the Leave coalition and plunge the Brexit project into doubt.

The uncertainties surrounding Brexit in the UK stand in great contrast to some of the ideological and structural trends that helped bring about the rise of Donald Trump. Until David Cameron announced the EU referendum in 2013, absolutist euroscepticism that aims for a complete break with European institutions was the primary goal of only a particular faction within the British Conservative Party. Agreement that the UK needed to leave the European Union often masked very divergent views about what kind of social order should take shape in the aftermath. By contrast, Trump's rise is the culmination of long term ideological trends in the United States that came to reshape the political outlook of much mainstream thought within the American Republican Party. Trade wars, isolationism mixed with hyper-imperialism, a penchant for courting authoritarian regimes rather than less ideologically (in GOP terms) reliable democracies, hostility to the principles of the EU and the emergence of China, all of these themes have been floating around the heart of US Republicanism for twenty years. 

Attempts to suppress the votes of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and other minorities while trying to peel off culturally conservative elements of those communities have also been core elements of the GOP approach towards electoral politics since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy of the early 1970s. Moreover, Paul Ryan's Randian war on state institutions provided the foundations for his alliance with Trump's populist machismo. Though many Republicans have promoted free trade, the use of America First rhetoric by many mainstream GOP leaders also paved the way for Trump's bellicose threat to initiate trade wars with China and the European Union if foreign leaders do not bend to his will. As a movement hostile to the extension of electoral rights to minorities and preoccupied with the defence of the economic privileges of specific social groups, the GOP has evolved into a Far Right party since the 1990s. The key to Trump's success was his ability to ideologically outflank very right wing GOP candidates in a way that made it difficult for them to respond without alienating a base they have been cultivating for three decades. The only crucial difference between pre- and post-Trump Republicanism is that Russia's Vladimir Putin now plays the role of friendly conservative authoritarian that the Saudis or Pinochet once did under Bush and Reagan. 

Despite structural similarities in certain respects, it is likely that Brexit Britain and Trump's America will find themselves on quite different paths over the next decade. The success of the Leave campaign was the product of an ideologically diverse alliance of convenience that was able to sell leaving the European Union as all things to all people. This enabled a referendum campaign that claimed it was both open to the world as well as defending England from the rest of the world to achieve a victory that seemed unlikely only six months before. Yet the very ideological diversity of the Leave coalition is also its greatest long term weakness. As the tough business of establishing which specific institutional forms Brexit should take consumes the energies of the British state, divisions within the Leave camp over what Brexit actually means have the potential to grind the whole process to a halt even before Remainers can organise a coherent alternative model for Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe. By contrast Trump took advantage of internal contradictions within the GOP to isolate and marginalise factions within the US Right that promoted an internationalist outlook divorced from the hyper-imperialist isolationism of much of the Republican Party's base. Trump's ability to build his rise on long term ideological trends demonstrate that he does not represent a profound break with established trends in American society. By taking pre-existing institutional dysfunction and ideological polarisation within the American political system to its logical extremes, Trump was able to outmanoeuvre political opponents unwilling to believe that the US constitutional order was no longer able to guarantee stable social outcomes. 

That so many commentators emphasise parallels between Brexit and Trumpism while ignoring fundamental differences between these two moments of crisis arises from a tendency to narrowly focus on economic pressures that helped fuel their rise. For all the similarities between both cases when it comes to the impact of deindustrialisation, the importance of key institutional factors that opened up the space for such major political shocks have been given much less attention. Yet the impact of economic transformation on a society is often shaped by the particular state institutions and constitutional frameworks that sustain its political order. In this respect both Brexit and Trumpism are symptoms of distinct forms of state crisis unique to the respective constitutional orders through which they have emerged.

The roots of the state crisis that culminate in Brexit lie in the years between the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and the return of the Stone of Scone, a key symbol of Scottish sovereignty, from Westminster to Edinburgh in 1996. Along with the emerging foundations of the devolution settlements that reshaped the internal politics of the United Kingdom, those ten years saw the adoption of a Maastricht Treaty that bound the UK into transnational legal and political structures in a much more systematic way than was the case in the 1960s or 1970s. By the early 2000s, the unwritten constitutional order of the United Kingdom had been fundamentally transformed. With the shift from the Law Lords to a Supreme Court and an increasingly firm convention that the Prime Minister has to consult Parliament before declaring war in the wake of Tony Blair's disastrous blunders in Iraq, the constitutional order of the United Kingdom on New Year's Eve 2015 had experienced an extraordinary transformation from the political world that Margaret Thatcher dominated in 1985. 

Despite these clear indications of a constitutional transformation of the United Kingdom, large swathes of the British political elite in the UK parliament and London-based news media continue to behave as if nothing has changed since Thatcher's time. Many leaders of the Leave campaign blithely ignored the complex nature of overlapping political jurisdictions within the United Kingdom as well as how the British state has become deeply intertwined with transnational institutions in crucial policy areas. At the same time many prominent figures within the Remain campaign glossed over the extent to which the imbalances of a devolution process that gave parts of the UK more power than others and a relationship with the EU in which the British were merely observers of Eurozone and Schengen decision-making processes were inherently unstable. Even if some kind of return into the EU can be engineered, it will be most likely under very different conditions determined by the Copenhagen Criteria than the ones the UK enjoyed before 2016. Looking back at the referendum debate, what is so remarkable is not the polarisation between the two sides but rather the extent to which both Remain and Leave leaders shared assumptions about the stability and power of the British state rooted in a constitutional order that ended thirty years ago.

It is this sense of complacency that lost the Remain campaign the Brexit war before the referendum and is losing Leave the Brexit peace after it. Prominent journalists demanding that pessimism over leaving the EU must end compound an unwillingness within much of British society to recognise how a fundamental process of constitutional change already underway before 2016 necessitates a basic reconsideration of how political life is organised in order to sustain a stable and democratic United Kingdom. Yet an illusion of continuity, perhaps reinforced by the  sheer longevity of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, has slowed this much needed reassessment of British politics. Trapped by the twin cult of Attlee and Churchill, Theresa May risks being crushed by the same unrealistic public and elite expectations of the office of Prime Minister that helped destroy the careers of David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Despite an illusion of near absolute power symbolised by the worship of Margaret Thatcher in much of the British news media, in reality the role of Prime Minister has come to more resemble that of the German Chancellor. Just as Angela Merkel can at most arbitrate between rival power centres within the Federal Republic and balance conflicting interests within the European Union as first among equals, a British Prime Minister will have to contend with a whole range of policy areas where power is shared with actors as diverse as the Secretary General of NATO, the First Minister of Scotland or the Irish Taoiseach whether the UK leaves the EU or not.

A Remain campaign that built its strategy around an outmoded understanding of the power and influence of the Prime Minister was therefore as culpable for fuelling this crisis of the British constitutional order as Leave politicians are now doing in expecting Theresa May to suddenly find a quick solution to their Brexit problems. While the shock of the Brexit referendum and the institutional chaos that immediately followed it made the impact of the transformation of the UK's constitutional order clear, there is no guarantee that the outcome of this long-standing crisis will be a positive one. The London riots of 2011 and the assassination of Jo Cox act as a warning that institutional breakdown and economic pressures can often foster a recourse to violence by social groups that feel they have nothing to lose. A successful effort to restructure the UK's relationship with the European Union as well as Westminster's relationship with the British nations and English regions could complete the transformation of the British constitutional order in a way that secures stability and democracy. But a failure to harness the forces of constitutional change unleashed in the early 1990s could just as well lead to a break up of the United Kingdom and a collapse in relations with Europe that will have dangerously destabilising consequences.

In contrast to the decades of constitutional experimentation and improvisation that created the foundations for  the battles over Brexit, the crisis that has fostered the emergence of Trump as a political force is the product of constitutional stagnation and state paralysis in the United States. During the Cold War informal bipartisan conventions and shared experience of World War Two mitigated the institutional impact of vicious political conflict over US military intervention, civil rights and the expansion of the welfare state. By the early 1990s, however, generational shifts within the American political elite as well deepening ideological cleavages between Democrats and Republicans living in socially homogeneous geographical bastions began to undermine many of the informal procedural understandings that had enabled the US constitutional order to sustain stable and democratic government. Pat Buchanan's ferocious 'Culture War' speech at the GOP convention of 1992 and the takeover of the House of Representatives by New Gingrich and a Republican leadership focused on strategies of base mobilisation and voter polarisation marked the beginning of an era of aggressive winner takes all politics for which a US constitution designed in the late eighteenth century was not designed to cope.

In a zero sum environment where an embrace of ideological polarisation and the complete obstruction of the opposing party's agenda by all means possible seemed to promise the clearest path to political success, any attempts to change the US constitution to ensure that this change in political culture does not undermine stability and democracy has become impossible. The last major changes to the US system of government with the establishment of the Federal Reserve and introduction of elections to the Senate took place in 1913 and almost no further measures were taken to adapt the US constitution in the century that followed. A cult-like popular reverence of the eighteenth century gentlemen of means who became the Founding Fathers of the US constitution stifles debate about whether a political system that invests enormous foreign policy power in a president yet entrenches domestic political paralysis in its legislatures is stable or just. The deep public discontent in US politics that Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump managed to use in different ways to rise to political prominence is to a significant extent the product of this mismatch between public expectations of presidents, senators and congressmen and their inability to deliver within the confines of a dysfunctional constitutional order designed three hundred years ago. The extent to which such political frustrations from all parts of the ideological spectrum have reinforced a worship of the military as the only institution that seems to get things done should be of profound concern not just to officers and national security experts but to anyone who believes that the survival of US democracy is essential to global peace.

Donald Trump's victory in November's presidential elections was not a freakish outcome beyond the bounds of the established American constitutional order. His rise to power was very much the product of pre-existing ideological trends with the Republican Party that have accelerated the decay of the American political system. Though the Democratic Party's obsession with technocratic processes and its abandonment of large swathes of the United States to its political opponents have been major contributions to this crisis of the American state, it was a GOP drift to the Far Right that gained momentum in the early 1990s that enabled a figure with such authoritarian tendencies as Trump to gain control of the presidency. With his rise to power triggering existential struggles between and within both main parties, it is difficult to see how the root and branch reform needed to secure the survival of American democracy can take place anytime soon. 

Brexit and Trumpism are the product of an interplay between similar economic pressures and very different constitutional crisis. Though an examination of economic parallels between the two societies can provide a useful basis for reflection on the impact of deindustrialisation, the distinct political context of these two great crises of 2016 means that the search for stability, prosperity and liberty may go in very different directions. When it comes down to it, the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom in 2016 has been the difference between the death throes of a late Republic and the emergence of a new one.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Trapped in a War Bubble: Kaliningrad's Struggle for Survival

Military exercises right next to civilian holidaymakers.
Kaliningrad 2016

In a turbulent year, Russia's interventions in the Middle East and the United States have absorbed the attention of the global news media. Though its effort to regain influence over Ukraine has slid into stalemate, the seeming geopolitical successes the Kremlin has enjoyed have generated the impression that Vladimir Putin's regime is successfully undermining the cohesion of the Western alliance system. With blatant computer hacking and aid to populist parties designed to influence the internal politics of the European Union and United States or deepening involvement in the Syrian war, the Russian government has certainly managed to project the image of an expanding power on the cusp of overcoming internal and external challenges to its position.

Amplifying such growing concern over Russian expansionism in the West have been developments in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. A Russian region on the Baltic Sea cut off at the end of the Cold War by Lithuania and Poland as well as nearby Belarus from the rest of the Russian Federation, Kaliningrad has become a key part of a wider Kremlin strategy focused on military rearmament and expansion of strategic infrastructure. Even before Russia's seizure of Crimea and the creeping invasion of Donbas, moves by the Russian military to increase the numbers of troops and ships stationed in Kaliningrad raised concerns among the states surrounding it. With Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, further initiatives to increase the reach of the anti-aircraft systems stationed in the region as well as repeated threats to station Iskander medium range missiles there only stoked this sense of alarm over the extent to which Russian forces in Kaliningrad represent a deadly threat to the security of NATO states. 

With hostilities escalating in Ukraine, large scale military exercises in 2014 involving amphibious landings in Kaliningrad as well as incidents off the Swedish coastline that seemed to indicate that naval forces stationed there were being used for covert operations led to considerable focus withing NATO on the Kremlin's strategic plans for the region. Concern that Russian tank brigades using Belarus as a springboard could use the so-called Suwalki gap to cut off the Baltic Republics from the rest of NATO by linking up with units in Kaliningrad led the Polish and Lithuanian governments to step up security measures around the exclave. With the Russian military following through on its threats to station Iskander missiles in the summer of 2016, a wider range of NATO states including Germany and Denmark have come to focus on the threats that developments in Kaliningrad seem to pose to Europe's security. The resulting spiral of NATO exercises around Kaliningrad and Russian military exercises within the exclave have cemented the impression that the Kremlin's policy towards the region is part of of a grand strategy to cement Russia's status as a global power.

Yet as with so much of the Russia's military posturing in Europe and the Middle East, there are more complex internal political dynamics shaping the Kremlin's actions in Kaliningrad. While geopolitical analysts remain fixated on debates over the seeming success of hybrid warfare and hacking attacks whose impact is still not entirely clear, internal social and economic pressures within the region remain largely ignored in assessments of the factors motivating the Russian state to turn it into a fortress at the heart of Europe. This neglect by analysts focused on grand strategy of internal dynamics within the exclave that have long been noted by scholars specialised in the history of the Baltic region may lead policymakers to fail to appreciate the importance of factors that could help de-escalate tensions around Kaliningrad. Conversely such potential blindness among Western policymakers to how internal developments within the Kaliningrad region may be shaping the Kremlin's aggressive stance could turn the region into a geopolitical flashpoint that could make the Ukraine crisis look like a late afternoon tea party by comparison.

From East Prussia to Kaliningrad Oblast - 1945

The unique social and political dynamics of the Kaliningrad region that are causing the Kremlin such concern remain rooted in the way in which Moscow originally acquired the territories that now constitute this exclave. Though most German lands east of the Oder and Neisse rivers were handed to Poland, a large swath of East Prussia was taken over by the USSR and apportioned to the Russian union republic rather than the Soviet successor Republics of the once independent Baltic states. In the short term, attempts by the Soviet government to ensure the near complete suppression of any German legacy from pre-1945 East Prussia in the newly reconstitute oblast of Kaliningrad seemed to be destined for success. The mass expulsion of the German population was followed by the colonisation of the cleared territory by settlers from across the USSR. With large parts of Kaliningrad deemed a military zone closed to foreigners under Stalin and Khrushchev, the new Soviet settlers in the city were discouraged from discussing the region’s pre-1945 history. 

The settler population itself was made up of former Red Army soldiers as well as rural and urban professionals that had been effectively press ganged from across the Soviet Union into settling in ruined towns and villages. While farmers or industrial workers from far flung cities in the Soviet north and Siberia such as Murmansk and Norilsk volunteered with great enthusiasm, city dwellers from Ukraine sent to rebuild the city of Kaliningad and staff its various institutions had to be coerced into remaining by the NKVD and police. Despite these initial pressures, by the late 1950s the population of the region had stabilised to the extent that reconstruction efforts made considerable progress. 

Like other settler societies dominated by a strong military presence, Kaliningraders recreated much of the state culture of their society of origin in an environment unmediated by the influence of a strong indigenous presence. For such a regionally and culturally diverse group of settlers the key unifying factor remained the institutions and rituals of a shared Soviet experience. This regional dynamic only began to shift once the reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev radically altered the social structures of the USSR as a whole. As separatist sentiment swept the Baltic Republics that divided it from the RSFSR, Kaliningrad became increasingly cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the collapse of Soviet state meant that the military institutions that had shaped Kaliningrad life since 1945 were suddenly less socially dominant. Moreover, the contraction of employment opportunities in what territorially isolated Kaliningraders were coming to call the Russian “mainland” created a situation where by the mid-1990s there were far fewer incentives for graduates to leave the region for Moscow or St Petersburg. 

Facing their own severe economic downturn exacerbated by the region’s territorial position, local political and cultural elites were faced with a difficult set of choices. With the Yeltsin presidency mired in infighting and wars in the Caucasus, Kaliningrad remained a peripheral priority for the Russian state. As both the military and industrial pillars of the region’s economy fell apart, political leaders and academics who had once served the Communist Party of the Soviet Union searched for funding and trade opportunities that closer links with the European Union might generate. With the Soviet order that had once shaped the region’s cultural frames of reference defunct, both elites and the wider population also began to look for alternative historical and cultural frames through which to express a regional sense of identity increasingly distinct from a distant Russia Federation. 

Though interest in Kaliningrad’s pre-Soviet history had already been building within the universities in the late 1960s, this activity had remained largely focused on the preservation of the remnants of Prussian architecture. Such small scale activism that couched critiques of the Soviet present through an interest in a German past began to gain a degree of momentum over the course of the 1980s as a growing number of Kaliningrad born residents took interest in city beautification initiatives at a moment of state decay. Though not yet a direct challenge to Soviet ideology, initiatives such as the establishment of the Deutsch-Russisches Haus in 1993 or the restoration of the Lutheran Salzburg church in the town of Gusev (or Gumbinnen before 1945) represented a major shift in historical discourse in a region where discussion of the pre-1945 past had been a taboo only a decade before. As the need for external investment became increasingly clear, even state officials provided some support to historical reconstruction efforts in an effort to explore possible routes to reviving the local economy.


The German Fish Market and the Soviet House of Culture
Kaliningrad 2016

With this growing willingness to open up debate about Kaliningrad’s pre-Soviet history, the conditions for a full blown process of reconciliation with potentially generous German partners were in place by the time the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991. By the mid-1990s, German tourism as well as more limited inward investment from German individuals and businesses helped stabilise the region’s economy.  With the removal of state travel restriction, better off Kaliningraders able to get visas at newly opened consulates could cross into Poland and even Germany with increasing frequency. Such regular access along with the chaotic and crime ridden politics of the exclave fuelled cross-border smuggling, causing concern among Polish law enforcement agencies worried that such instability that would hold up Poland’s accession to the EU. Where tourism and trade provided the basis of formal cooperation, the illegal extraction of amber and extensive smuggling opportunities also created deep bonds between corrupt officials and organised crime on both sides of the Kaliningrad-Poland border. Yet this pervasive criminal activity also increased daily interactions between Kaliningraders, Germans and Poles at a time at which the region’s population had significantly less contact with everyday life in the rest of Russia.

The opening of German, Polish and Lithuanian consulates as well as cultural institutes and Catholic and Lutheran churches marked a period during which the EU developed ambitious plans to foster economic initiatives through which the exclave could act as a bridge to help Russia’s wider integration into Western institutions. As Vladimir Putin's first wife was a Kaliningrad native, between 2000 and 2007 great interest was shown by the Kremlin in projects that could help improve the city's profile.The exclave’s unique geostrategic position and the great interest of Germans and Poles of East Prussian origin helped turn the region’s pre-Soviet history from an ideologically embarrassing relic to be avoided into a major economic asset for the political and cultural elites of the region.  In an environment where all the certainties of Soviet society had collapsed, the economic opportunities as well as the yearning for a new sense of civic identity among large segments of the population created the basis for a re-engagement with the German past. 

However much such rapidly deepening contact between Kaliningraders and their European neighbours opened up new opportunities for local elites, it also heightened concerns in Moscow over the possibility of a creeping European or even German takeover of the exclave. As the Putin government concentrated power in the hands of the presidency the space for local officials in border oblasts like Kaliningrad to strengthen links with their European neighbours became more constricted. Russian security services fostered networks of nationalist and neo-Soviet organizations in the region to counter what they considered to be potential separatist tendencies. By 2008, even once obscure Cossack groups enjoyed funding in a region whose pre-1945 history and post-1945 population had little direct contact with Cossack traditions. Concerned that the bulk of the region’s population had repeatedly visited Europe while only a minority had visited “mainland” Russia more than once, federal authorities also initiated a programme of state grants for school visits to Moscow and St Petersburg. Under  pressure from Moscow, by 2013 local politicians began to distance themselves from the previous decade’s effort to engage with the region’s history, instead focusing on a revival of nostalgia for the supposed military greatness of Soviet society.

These step by step moves to reimpose central control over the region were not entirely successful. Having eliminated gubernatorial elections in 2005, the Putin administration imposed an outsider to rule the region in the person of Georgy Boos. This proved an unfortunate choice, as Boos’s attempts to take control of various local forms of corrupt state revenue sharing pushed local elites too far and offended a wider population unwilling to pay additional fees to finance increases in institutional graft. These tensions culminated in a wave of protests that forced the removal of the governor and his replacement in 2010 by Nikolai Tsukanov, a locally born politician who balanced support from Kaliningrad power-brokers with demonstrations of loyalty to President Putin. Though Governor Tsukanov was heavily involved in deeply corrupt local business networks he remained unwavering in his loyalty to the Putin government. Yet as a locally rooted political figure, he also demonstrated commitment to the expansion of the university as well as the continued restoration and beautification of the historic quarters of Kaliningrad and other towns in the region. As part of a process to mollify local discontent, further state financial grants were disbursed to the local university and historical reconstruction efforts. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Interior secure partial access to the Schengen area for Kaliningrad residents with the EU Commission and confirmed the continuation of the Special Economic Zone framework for a further five years.  

Kaliningrad 2016

Even this rearguard action to preserve the profitable particularites Kaliningrad had come to enjoy within the Russian political system could not withstand the pressures unleashed by the Russian army’s occupation of Crimea and escalation against the Ukrainian state in the Donbas region. Though initial EU sanctions in response to the Kremlin's actions did not directly affect Kaliningrad, the counter-sanctions set by the Kremlin limiting exports of agricultural goods from the EU marked the first step towards the unravelling of the region’s special relationship with its German, Lithuanian and Polish neighbours.  A succession of military exercises that were seen as provocative by the Polish government along with restrictions on the travel of police and judicial officials set a tone that disrupted cooperation between the region’s institutions and their EU counterparts. The cancellation of Kaliningrad’s privileges as a Special Economic Zone on 1 April 2016 effectively crippled the basis for business collaboration between the region and European Union countries overnight, while the replacement of Nikolai Tsukanov as governor in August 2016, initially by a former member of the FSO (the Kremlin's personal protection unit) and then a young technocrat linked to a rising circle of officials within the presidential administration, indicated a systematic attempt to limit the power of local cultural and business elites.

In this increasingly repressive environment, the basis for cultural and economic collaboration between Kaliningrad’s institutions and European partners was systematically undermined. Prominent Moscow commentators began openly speaking of concerns of German-backed separatism in Kaliningrad. This statement in 2014 by the editorial board of the influential and extreme nationalist Zavtra magazine was a characteristic example of such paranoia:

"Experts do not exclude the possibility that events similar to those in Kyiv could take place in Kaliningrad. According to them, we must clearly understand that is another question. If the West wants to take revenge for Crimea, it is likely that the object of this will be the Kaliningrad region, cutting it off from the main part of Russia."

Teaching of and public engagement with the region’s German history has now once again come under the scrutiny of the security services, forcing academics to take up positions at German universities or shift to less fraught research topics. In a region where for twenty-five years much of the population and local elites operated in an environment in which it was possible to consider oneself both a European as well as a good Russian, sudden shifts in the political outlook of the top echelons of government in Moscow are forcing individuals and institutions to choose between these two forms of identity.

Whether the people of Kaliningrad are in a position to pursue economic and cultural projects increasingly at variance to Eurasianist rhetoric that portrays Russia as a civilization separate from Europe that is popular with the circle around Vladimir Putin is a more than open question. At a moment when meetings run by academics to discuss European culture such as the literature of Kafka and Orwell come under attack by pseudo-Cossacks who receive state funding, the space to engage with an identity narrative that reconciles a society built by Soviet settlers with the long German history of the region looks increasingly bleak. Though Moscow may succeed in eroding any sense of cultural distinctiveness in the region, it is equally possible that a particular regional sensibility built around regular contact with the region’s neighbours and engagement with the region’s diverse past may be difficult to eradicate. If that is that case, attempts by the Putin administration to impose political and cultural uniformity could become counter-productive, entrenching exactly the sense of distinctiveness within the Kaliningrad region that the Russian central government fears might become a foundation for separatist aspirations.

It is in the context of these complex internal social and economic fissures within Kaliningrad that part of the Kremlin's motivations to isolate the region through constant military sabre-rattling need to be understood. While stationing Iskander missiles, increasing troop numbers and running aggressive naval patrols all fit into the Kremlin's wider foreign policy strategy of keeping the West off balance, these military measures also fulfil a crucial domestic function in helping to keep Kaliningrad society tightly under Moscow's control. This use of military escalation helps suppress any potential local initiative that could entrench the region's sense of cultural and political distinctiveness from the rest of the Russian Federation in three ways.

First, by increasing tensions with neighbouring states it undermines the extensive web of personal and business relationships between Kaliningraders and Poles, Germans and Lithuanians that could help provide the local population with sources of income and influence outside of the Kremlin's reach. Between 1992 and 2012 collaboration between intellectuals, businessmen, state officials, policemen and even gangsters on both sides of the border between Kaliningrad and the European Union opened up a path away from dependence on the Russian military or the Kremlin's patronage networks. The ostentatious military displays in Kaliningrad in the past two years have gone a long way to undermining these links. It was Russian exercises timed provocatively close to NATO meetings in Poland that led the new PiS government in Warsaw as well as the Lithuanians to terminate their support for the Schengen visa arrangements for Kaliningrad citizens. In conjunction with the drastic changes in the region's Special Economic Zone framework, this has put thousands of businesses dependent on trade and tourism with EU countries under enormous pressure, making the region even more dependent on subsidies from Moscow. From the Kremlin's point of view the very costly intense military activity in the region has proven good value for money by arresting Kaliningrad's drift to Europe.

Secondly, constant sabre-rattling has distracted the West as well as many local inhabitants from an extensive local crackdown designed to further undermine institutional links between Kaliningrad and its Baltic neighbours. Since the summer of 2015, a whole range of initiatives that linked the region's cultural and educational life with that of other EU states have been severely cut or wound down entirely. The closure of the Klaus Mehnert Institute for European Studies and the impending threat to declare the Deutsch-Russisches Haus a foreign agent are part of a wider state assault on institutions that have fostered discussion over the Kaliningrad region's European history and strengthened close ties many Kaliningraders have built with artists and intellectuals from Germany, Poland or Lithuania. By declaring Kaliningrad a potential geopolitical flashpoint that needs to be defended at all costs, the Kremlin has effectively trapped Kaliningraders in a war bubble that isolates them from their neighbours and enables the FSB and other security services to crackdown on local civil society with a minimum of internal or external resistance. Shocked and demoralised, in the short term those milieus within Kaliningrad with a commitment to internal reform and close relations with EU states are too preoccupied with the struggle for survival to take any action that can counteract the social impact of militarization.

Finally an atmosphere in which war seems imminent can empower those parts of Kaliningrad society close to the military that were always hostile to attempts to engage with the legacies of the region's German history. Since 2012 the military build up has been accompanied by parades and battle re-enactments designed to emphasise narratives from Soviet history that focus on wars against German and other European states. Such constant propaganda bombardment coupled with repeated war scares has strengthened a sense of isolation among a large cross-section of the Kaliningrad population. Though a significant number of Kaliningraders are still willing to express discontent about local corruption or the chaotic turnover in the regional assembly and the governor’s office, the hostility of many fellow citizens towards dissent in a perceived time of war hampers such efforts. The way constant images and direct contact with a highly active military infrastructure reinforces this sense of mobilisation has sustained the loyalty of many Kaliningraders who had been willing to protest against Moscow only a decade before.

The war bubble in which Kaliningrad remains trapped may stabilise the region in Moscow’s favour in the short term. But the high level of economic harm inflicted by the Kremlin on the region in the name of national greatness and local control is storing up problems for the future. Far more heavily exposed to the greater extent of prosperity and stability in Germany, Poland and Lithuania than the population of a distant Russian Federation, Kaliningraders remain deeply susceptible to economic frustration and social dissent. A sense of cultural distinctiveness based on a unique cultural relationship to a European present and a German past may prove impossible for the Kremlin to eradicate, creating further points of tension between the inhabitants of the region and distant rulers in Moscow.

This is not to suggest that the chimera of Kaliningrad separatism that hardliners in the Kremlin seem to fear as much as Putin's deepest opponents abroad such as Paul Goble hope for is a realistic scenario. Movements that have advocated separatist causes have remained a fringe phenomenon in the region. For all the local emphasis on distinctive cultural and social roots, the great majority of Kaliningraders still see themselves as loyal Russians. Despite the fascination with Immanuel Kant and other symbols of a German past, it is extremely unlikely that the local population would deliberately abandon the Russia Federation for some new form of Baltic statehood.

Nevertheless, the fact that so many in the exclave see no inherent contradiction in embracing both a shared European space of engagement with their neighbours as well as a strong commitment to Russian culture could help trigger a wider geopolitical crisis. As much a legacy of the very transnational Soviet founding moment of this society as any traces of East Prussia, a sense of distinctiveness based on an interaction between deep contact with a wider Europe and strong loyalty to Russian identity could foster ways of approaching confronting deteriorating conditions among Kaliningraders that could elicit a violent overreaction from Moscow. A sense shared by scholars, businessmen and even gangsters that things are done differently in Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia could revive a culture of protest against representatives of a central state that only seem to be worsening the region’s economic crisis. 

As with other regions in Russia any mass protest in Kaliningrad will most likely focus on specific local economic concerns over issues such as factory closures or bureaucratic corruption. In the eyes of the more paranoid elements within the Kremlin, protests that would reach the scales of those that toppled Georgy Boos in 2009 could swiftly become interpreted as a form of so-called colour revolution driven by putative internal traitors and Western intelligence services it so deeply fears. Such a misreading of local protest in such a militarised region could elicit an escalatory response by a Russian leadership that believes that any hint of separatism in any part of Russia could mark the first steps towards the collapse of the state. Coupled with violently counter-productive police measures more likely to alienate than win over frustrated Kaliningraders, such a crisis would also very likely lead to a military surge in the Baltic to prevent European intervention in the region’s affairs that could have unpredictable consequences.

While we are still some way from a Kaliningrad crisis, the risks a further deterioration of political and economic conditions in the region pose for global stability should not be underestimated. As long as the Kremlin remains hellbent on sacrificing the economic future of Kaliningraders at the altar of Russian greatness, pressures will continue to build up in the exclave that could burst open with unpredictable results. For the EU and the states neighbouring the region there remain few good choices. If they go too far in trying to restart the exclave’s integration in European institutional frameworks they risk stoking Kremlin paranoia that Berlin is plotting some form of reunification with the last remnants of East Prussia. Yet if Europeans allow Kaliningraders to remain trapped in Moscow’s war bubble they compound an atmosphere of isolation that makes a moment of crisis more likely. 

One of the few measures the EU, Germany, Poland and Lithuania could pursue to reduce these risks would be a reinstatement of the limited Schengen visa access agreement for Kaliningraders that proved such a boon to the region’s economy. The PiS government in Warsaw may prove resistant to the return of easy mobility most likely to benefit Polish regions bordering Kaliningrad that are ruled by its political opponents in the opposition PO. Nevertheless, providing Kaliningraders with this lifeline could play help to act as a safety valve that stabilises the exclave’s economy and reduces the likelihood of a sudden explosion of discontent. 

As a consequence Brussels, Berlin and Vilnius should exert the necessary pressure on PiS to reconsider. Contrary to the suspicions of more swivel eyed elements in the Kremlin, the European Union’s tendency to prize institutional evolution over revolutionary change would also make it more likely to encourage a de-escalation of any mass protests if they were to occur. Increased contact between Kaliningrad civil society and EU institutions through the restoration of the limited Schengen access agreement would actually reduce the risk of conflict by providing European officials greater means with which to encourage Kaliningraders to express discontent in ways that would avoid a dangerous crisis.

It is therefore unfortunate that European states preoccupied with a range of other problems have allowed themselves to be distracted by Russian military bluster from the internal faultlines within Kaliningrad society. Unless this changes, Kaliningrad will become another one of those geopolitical crises that everyone sort of saw coming but did nothing to prevent.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Gunboat Absurdity: What is the Kremlin up to in the South China Sea?

Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard ships confront each other in the South China Sea

It starts with vague rumours circulating among colleagues and then on the internet. The improbability of it leads you to dismiss the story as just more half-baked paranoia that sees the Kremlin's hand in every major event. Yet as the weeks pass more strange incidents, sightings of Russian personnel looking out of place in exotic locales and a sudden interest of Russian media in an issue it had once ignored begin to make you suspicious. Is it true? Could the Kremlin really be willing to take such an irresponsible set of risks? Would Putin really be willing to alienate this ally or that old partner? And then the rumours die down, the social media trail of Russian personnel runs cold and the attention of pro-Kremlin media abruptly moves on to other matters. But every once in a while...

In the past two decades there have been enough instances where initially unsubstantiated rumours dismissed by many journalists and Russia scholars have turned into very real moments of Kremlin escalation. In particular, Vladimir Putin's attempt to reassert Russia's position on the global stage by intervening in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war followed such a trajectory. Initial moves to establish a Russian or pro-Russian presence were developed covertly, often accompanied by mixed messages from the Kremlin to confuse external observers. At the same time a trickle of stories on the specific crisis the Kremlin was targeting turned into a torrent of propaganda to build Russian public support for intervention in an external conflict. Having prepared the ground, in the final stages the Russian military moved either covertly or openly to create facts on the ground that gave the Kremlin a decisive advantage in territory it deemed crucial to sustaining Russia's great power status.

Since the seizure of Crimea by the Russian military this form of strategic sequencing has often been misleadingly called hybrid war. In reality the hybridity of mixing limited military action with civilian activism is only an initial tactic designed to control the sequencing of a shift from peace to war or from non-involvement to intervention. This approach has of course been use by other states seeking to entrench their strategic position. Nevertheless, the autocratic structures that evolved since Yeltsin's shelling of Russia's parliament in 1993 have given the Kremlin a freedom of action that Western or Chinese leaders do not have. The Russian state's control of national media has enabled it to build public support for foreign policy adventures by controlling the domestic information space in a way that is impossible for European or American politicians. With Vladimir Putin centralising control over security strategy, the Kremlin also does not face the kind of collective decision-making that constrained the Chinese leadership until Xi Jinping's ruthless purge of Bo Xi Lai's faction in 2012 signalled the emergence of a new political order.

Though foreign policy adventurism provided the Kremlin with a significant boost in support among the Russian public, as conflict with Ukraine has ground on it has resulted in economic sanctions from the EU and US and alienated a sizeable neighbour with significant military potential. It is still difficult to ascertain the long term impact of Putin's air campaign in Syria. Yet reasserting Russia's seat at the Middle Eastern great power table by sustaining Bashar al Assad has come at the price of alienating Turkey and risking open conflict with Saudi Arabia. Facing economic problems at home, the temptation to seek another major foreign policy coup to sustain public support until the Duma elections (Russia's national parliament) in September 2016 must be strong. 

With the need to distract from the ambiguous outcomes of the conflict in Ukraine, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to limit direct Russian military involvement in Syria, there is a strong likelihood that his inner circle is looking to another geopolitical flashpoint in which to assert his claim that Russia truly is a global power. In the Autumn of 2015 meetings between Russian diplomats and representatives of the Houthi movement as well as supposed humanitarian aid flights to Sanaa indicated that there might at least be some consideration of providing support to Saudi Arabia's enemies in Yemen. More recently Foreign Minister Lavrov's threats to block United Nations consent to any European military operations in Libya as well as contacts with Libyan factions backing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives signal ambitions for a greater role in the Maghreb region.

There are also hints of Russian interest in a very different geopolitical flashpoint that could cement Putin's great power ambitions. Initially announced by Russian defence officials at Singapore's Shangri La security forum in May 2015, plans for a Russian naval exercise in the South China Sea are now beginning to take shape. Though the original announcement was not followed up by any systematic information campaign by pro-Kremlin media, since the beginning of 2016 there has been a trickle of reports and opinion pieces discussing the relevance of Russia to a region that has become a focus for great power rivalries in East Asia. Intriguingly, there also seems to be an ongoing effort to deepen political relations with Brunei, the weakest and most autocratically ruled state on the South China Sea. This includes a startling growth in Russian investment in this oil sultanate from a mere $31 000 in 2014 to over $25 million in 2015. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the planned Russian naval exercise in the spring and summer of 2016 will involve cooperation with units from the Royal Brunei Navy. With an upcoming summit in Sochi between Russia and the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) there are signs of growing Kremlin engagement in a region where the risks of interstate conflict are high.

Even if this expression of Russian interest in developments in the South China Sea remains limited to high profile symbolism, the Kremlin would be wading into a fraught and complex crisis. Though giving the Russian Navy its own starring role after the army's adventure in Crimea and the Air Force's prominence in Syria may make sense in terms of interservice rivalries and domestic political propaganda, intervening in the Asia-Pacific region could land Russia with the kind of complex dilemmas it faces in Ukraine or the Levant. The South China Sea is a geopolitical space in which tensions are escalating between a Chinese state asserting extensive territorial ambitions through military means and other powerful states in the with their own claims to islands and reefs. With sea lanes crucial to global trade with China, Japan and Korea, the United States has come to play a pivotal role in trying to contain this wave of Chinese expansionism. At the same time, regular stand-offs between Chinese coast guard vessels and naval units from the Philippines and Vietnam over the control of islands or the provocative placement of oil drilling platforms have come very close to armed conflict since the summer of 2014. 

For the Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippine governments the South China Sea dispute has become the focus for popular nationalist mobilisation. As the struggle for domination of the Chinese Communist Party between rival factions has worsened, reasserting Chinese claims to a vast part of the South China Sea encompassed by the so-called Nine Dash Line has helped it to sustain public support. A Vietnamese Communist Party struggling to manage the impact of rapid economic change and a politically assertive population has found that resistance to Chinese encroachment on islands that it claims are Vietnam's under international law has helped maintain the Party's credentials as guardian of national independence. In the more democratic environment of the Philippines, defending Scarborough Shoal and other islands and atolls claimed by Manila against Chinese appropriation has become a political football, with no presidential candidate willing to risk accusations of weakness in the face of external pressure. Other states along the South China Sea such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia are pursuing their own claims based on rival interpretations of how far their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) reach from their coastlines.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea

China's expansionism has pitted it against every major state in the region. Originally set out legally by the last Chinese Nationalist government in 1947, the Nine Dash Line is based on a set of claims that evolved from the early 1930s onwards to every group of islands and reefs from the Paracels south of Hainan right down to the Spratlys lying between Borneo, the Philippines and Vietnam. The mainland Chinese government has regularly reasserted these claims ever since, developing an elaborate legal case based on supposed evidence of sporadic Chinese settlement of these island groups from the seventh century onwards. In the late 1970s and 1980s tensions between China and Vietnam led to repeated skirmishes over atolls and islands, sometimes leading to casualties for both sides. After heavy clashes in 1988, both sides agreed to de-escalate naval operations without abandoning their disagreements over territorial control. In the ensuing two decades though every major state on the South China Sea filed legal claims over disputed territory to the Permanent Court of Arbitration for the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing's focus on building strong economic ties with its neighbours restrained it from asserting its territorial goals through subterfuge or force.

This relative period of quiet ended with increasingly aggressive Chinese moves from 2011 onwards. Overshadowed by events in Egypt and Libya, East Asia saw a steady escalation of tensions as Chinese ships blocked, rammed and stormed Vietnamese vessels while attempting to cut the Philippine Navy's access to strategic reefs such as the Scarborough Shoal. By 2014 dozens of Vietnamese and Philippine naval vessel were engaging in high risk games of chicken with the Chinese coast guard as Beijing placed oil drilling platforms in disputed waters. At the height of the crisis, anti-Chinese riots sweeping Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City at the height of the crisis. Over the next eighteen months evidence also accumulated of a colossal Chinese land reclamation effort, turning reefs and atolls into full blown islands with naval bases, anti-aircraft batteries and landing strips for fighters that could assert control over every section of the South China Sea's shipping lanes. 

Such successive escalations since the ascension of Xi Jinping to a dominant position in Beijing have drawn a growing number of major powers into the South China Sea dispute. Concerned about the impact Chinese actions may have on international conventions that are fundamental to freedom of navigation, for the last six months the United States has run increasingly aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). In the process, US Navy ships and aircraft have come close to islands with Chinese military installations in order to demonstrate that Washington does not accept Beijing's attempt to create facts on the ground. Accelerating US naval activity, in cooperation with local partners as well as India, Japan and Australia, also reflects widespread concerns that these Chinese military installations could prove the first step to excluding all other major powers from a key waterway. As James Kraska has pointed out, these operations have become more unpredictable since the Chinese military has come to use fishing trawlers and other seemingly civilian vessels to obstruct US and Vietnamese warships. The increasing frequency and scale of these confrontations have turned the South China Sea into a geopolitical flashpoint where considerable efforts have to be expended by diplomats on all sides to prevent further escalation.

As tensions have worsened in East Asia, the Russian government has been forced into an uncomfortably ambiguous stance. The breakdown in relations with the EU and US after the seizure of Crimea has heightened the Kremlin's focus on building political and economic links with China. Desperate to balance the economic impact of  American and European sanctions, Putin has played a personal role in completing natural gas pipeline deals with Beijing and trying to encourage Chinese investment in Russia's economy. Though this process of economic engagement has had less than satisfactory results for the Kremlin, a whole range of military and naval cooperation initiatives have been put in place to shore up any potential rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing that could help challenge American dominance of the international state system. In the process, the Kremlin has abandoned any qualms it might have had over supplying advanced weaponry to a potential geopolitical rival and has permitted the sale of anti-aircraft systems and the newest Su-35 fighter bombers to China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Particularly in the summer and autumn of 2014, Putin's attempt to court Xi was accompanied by a torrent of reports in Kremlin friendly Russian media praising China's leadership and condemning attempts to contain Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea and other contested strategic spaces as driven by US jealousy of a rising power.

Yet hampering these clumsy Kremlin attempts to draw closer to a Chinese regime is the fact that Russia also has a long-standing military and economic partnership with Vietnam, Beijing's most intractable adversary when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. In the latter stages of the US-Vietnam War the USSR kept Hanoi afloat with extensive military and economic aid. During the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, Moscow's help proved crucial in enabling the National Vietnamese Army to survive a relentless Chinese assault along the Northern border. Such military assistance led to wider links fostered by the Soviet state, which have remained strong enough after the end of the Cold War to sustain a Vietnamese community of thousands of traders, businessmen and students in Moscow. Despite an economic shift through the Doi Moi reform programme after 1986, Russia has remained Vietnam's primary arms supplier. While the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam in the past months may change this dynamic, in the last half decade Hanoi has ordered and received vast amounts of Russian weaponry, from advanced fighter-bombers and anti-aircraft systems to dozens of ships and submarines designed to give the Vietnamese Navy a fighting chance in any conflict with China.

While successive waves of Vietnamese arms procurement have been a financial boon to Russia's arms industry, the ongoing assistance towards the modernization of the Vietnamese armed forces since 2008 has also been of crucial strategic importance to the Kremlin. For all the recent talk of Sino-Russian friendship, Moscow has remained wary of China's foreign policy ambitions.These anxieties are fuelled by growing Chinese economic influence over states Moscow considers to belong to its Central Asian sphere of influence and the massive demographic imbalance between thinly populated oblasts in Russia's Far East and the large Chinese cities on the other side of the border. Faced with potential challenges from Beijing, the existence of various powers hostile to China's aspirations across the Asia-Pacific region remains useful to the Kremlin. Though Japan, India, Indonesia and the US are not states Russia can rely on, a strong Vietnam whose authoritarian political elite has close ties to the Kremlin is a partner that is more likely to provide some help to Russia if it ever comes under pressure from Beijing. It is no coincidence that Vietnam is one of the first non-Eurasian states to sign a trade agreement with Putin's pet Eurasian Economic Union project. For a Kremlin with few reliable allies, the survival of a strong partnership with the Vietnamese state has remained one of the anchors of stability in a foreign policy framework that has experienced tumultuous changes over the past half decade.

For all the superficial attractions of taking a more prominent seat at East Asia's great power table, a more interventionist approach in the Asia-Pacific region would put both emerging pragmatic cooperation with China and decades of friendship with Vietnam at risk. As long as Moscow has scrupulously avoided deeper commitments to geopolitical flashpoints between China and rival regional powers as well as the United States, it has not had to choose between either collaborating with Beijing or maintaining its alliance with Vietnam. Yet even a largely symbolic commitment such as a small base in Brunei or regular naval patrols in crisis zones in the South China Sea would radically change this equation. Where previously a distant Kremlin could simply get away with recommending de-escalation and negotiations, every regional and great power directly involved in the conflict would demand that newly arrived Russian interlopers pick a side in complex disputes. 

As Bonnie Glaser has pointed out, for external players trying to balance Chinese expansionism such as India, Japan or the United States the challenge the South China dispute represents is relatively straightforward. In trying to reassert freedom of navigation in the area while avoiding becoming too heavily associated with individual Vietnamese, Philippine or Malaysian territorial claims, these major players have converging interests that have led to intensified naval and intelligence coordination against perceived Chinese threats. At the same time, these external powers can focus on strengthening collective legal frameworks that could help reduce general military tensions in the region. With pre-existing commitments to both China and Vietnam, if Russia increases its presence in the South China Sea to assert great power ambitions the Kremlin will find it difficult to plot a similar course. 

Simply joining US led freedom of navigation operations together with Japanese,Indian and Australian ships would effectively subordinate any Russian contribution to an international effort co-ordinated by Washington. The sight of Russian admirals taking orders from the commanders of far larger US or Japanese naval contingents would jar with Vladimir Putin's efforts to present Russia as an adversary and geopolitical equal of the United States. Though Russian engagement in a wider effort to counter Chinese expansionism would bolster the Kremlin's relationship with Vietnam, it would also place relations with Beijing in which Putin has invested considerable personal prestige under unsustainable strain. Such a path to great power influence in East Asia would only provoke the ire of a state with which Russia shares a long land boundary that is almost impossible to defend. The costs of such a move would therefore be far greater than any benefits the Kremlin could possibly accrue.

By contrast, a more likely course even symbolic Russian intervention in the South China Sea would take would be one designed to obstruct the US Navy's attempts to defend key American strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Running regular patrols in highly contested territory could disrupt efforts by the United States to run more aggressive FONOPs against islands under Chinese control. With Russian ships in the immediate vicinity, US or Japanese naval officers already dealing with aggressive Chinese counter-measures would be faced with a further unpredictable variable that could make access to key areas more difficult. With the ability of the British government to fully maintain its base in Brunei in question, a Brunei government looking for additional protection could be willing to provide the kind of permanent facilities the Russian Navy would need to sustain any effort in these waterways. In the process, the Kremlin could both strengthen an increasingly crucial relationship with Beijing as well as force itself in to a wider consultation and negotiation process that could determine the future of one of one of the most important sea lanes for global trade. Not only would such an approach based on disrupting an issue crucially important to US global strategy provide a further opportunity to reassert Vladimir Putin's obsession with great power status, it would also complement Kremlin propaganda targeted towards the Russian population that continues to portray Washington as Russia's primary adversary.

This more likely Russian approach towards the South China Sea dispute would not be cost free. For all the claims made by Russian analysts loyal to the Kremlin, it is unlikely that the Vietnamese government or public would accept any justifications that would portray a Russian Navy presence as purely designed to counter US attempts to assert global hegemony. Rather, the sight of Russian naval vessels openly or tacitly colluding with the Chinese would inevitably put at risk a close partnership with Hanoi that has lasted for sixty years.  As Jonathan London has pointed out, the Vietnamese public as well as much of the political elite have come to see the struggle for control of islands in the South China Sea as fundamental to the survival of Vietnam as a sovereign state. With a newly reconfigured Politburo in Hanoi under the continued leadership of Nguyen Phu Trong dependent on delicate compromises between factions, the Vietnamese government will find it difficult to resist wider pressure for some form of retaliation against Russian involvement in any further Chinese escalation. 

Though the Vietnamese Communist Party would be very reluctant to see a collapse in relations it would be unlikely to continue providing support to some of the Kremlin's key strategic projects. At the very least, continued indulgence in Hanoi of Vladimir Putin's pet Eurasian Union project would not survive such tensions. If Beijing manages to encourage Russian naval visits to Chinese bases on disputed islands in the region by playing on the Kremlin's obsession with great power status, it is quite probable that the Russian armed forces will lose access to Cam Ranh Bay and other facilities on Vietnamese territory. Recent moves by the United States to drop the remnants of its arms embargo on Vietnam also mean that if there is a crisis with the Kremlin Hanoi now has a clear alternative to Russian weapons systems when it comes to modernizing its military. Most significantly, in alienating Vietnam and pushing it into a regional alliance system co-ordinated by Washington and Tokyo, the Kremlin would lose an ally that would be willing to help if a more expansionist Chinese regime turned its attention to Russia's Far East. Losing Vietnam in a short term bid for great power status would in the long term make Russia dependent on Beijing in a part of the world in which the Kremlin has no other firm friends.

As is often the case, despite the hints and fleeting interest it is equally likely that in the foreseeable future the Kremlin decides to look for it's foreign policy successes elsewhere. The Russian naval exercises in the Asia-Pacific region could simply be another opportunity to advertise military equipment in a region with a growing number of potential buyers. And no doubt there are many in Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence that have a strong commitment to friendship with Vietnam. Yet despite all the risks, the South China Sea is exactly the kind of geopolitical space in which Vladimir Putin would try to sustain popularity at home through the aggressive assertion of great power status abroad. As Stephen Blank has pointed out, much of Vladimir Putin's adventurism in Ukraine and Syria is driven by a need to mobilise the support of the Russian public for a Kremlin elite that is no longer able to guarantee economic prosperity or political stability. With Duma elections in September 2016 and presidential elections in 2018, the need for grand foreign policy successes is becoming more pressing. However absurd it seems, the Kremlin may see further gunboat diplomacy as the only way out of trouble. Facing a stalemate in Ukraine and a volatile equilibrium in Syria, military adventurism in the Asia-Pacific region that forces other great powers to engage with Russia would provide the Kremlin with the exotic TV footage and exciting headlines that can help keep the Russian public distracted from economic woes. 

Yet the dilemmas that the Kremlin would face if it chose the South China Sea as its next geopolitical crisis to achieve a short term foreign policy high illustrate how Vladimir Putin's quest for global prestige is sabotaging Russia's long term security. By disrupting an established regional order his gambles in Syria and Ukraine may force other powers to take Russia into account. But they also alienate states that benefit from the status quo. With his gambits in Crimea and Donbas, Vladimir Putin shot to unprecedented levels of public support at home at the expense of alienating key political actors in Germany that have begun to see Russia as a strategic opponent rather than a friendly partner. Through his brutal Syrian adventure Putin may have reasserted Russia's position in the Middle East by saving Bashar al Assad from defeat, yet he also destroyed previously cordial relations with the Saudi and Turkish elites for an unsteady alliance with an Iranian regime whose interests may diverge from those of Russia. Whether in Libya, Yemen, the South China Sea or Venezuela, an attempt to reassert global power status by disrupting a regional status quo would simply repeat a dynamic whereby short term successes alienate powerful states that had previously been friendly towards Russia. Yet whether Vladimir Putin will ever learn that there are some geopolitical tables that are just not worth sitting at remains an open question.