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Russia Profile
August 17, 2007
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel:
From the Warsaw Pact to the Shanghai Pact?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Stephen Blank, Andrei Tsygankov, Andrei Zagorski

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are holding their first large scale military exercise in Russia with about 6,000 troops from all member states, including China, taking part.

The official objective of the exercise is fighting terrorism. However, on an inspection tour of the SCO troops, General Baluevsky, Russia's Chief of the General Staff, suggested that Moscow may be interested in a much more expanded form of military cooperation within the SCO that until now has resembled a talking shop to discuss regional security issues.

General Baluevsky explicitly said that Russia developed and forwarded to all SCO member-states a draft of a conceptual document as to how Moscow would like to see military cooperation within the group.

General Baluevsky has not outwardly stated that Russia would like to transform the SCO into a formal military alliance, but urged a much more expanded framework of military cooperation that might include different formats for forward basing and equipment propositioning.

Moscow has long wanted to add military clout to the SCO and turn it into a regional security organization with mutual security obligations among its members. But China has been generally lukewarm towards the idea, until recently going only as far as holding some harmless anti-terrorist exercises. Perhaps this might change, as Chinese President Hu Jing Tao is due to visit Moscow after the SCO summit.

This week Moscow has also increased its military saber-rattling by widely advertising the first deployment of its most modern S-400 air defense system near Moscow, and sending a patrol of two Bear-H strategic bombers on an over-flight mission over the US island of Guam in the Pacific, home to a US strategic bomber base.

What are the reasons behind Russia's interest in increasing security cooperation within the SCO? Is the Shanghai Pact feasible? Will Russia and China move towards a much closer security relationship through the SCO? What impact will it have on Russia's relationship with the West? How will the US respond to this paradigm shift in the Russia-China security relationship?

Andrei Tsygankov, Professor of Political Science, University of San-Francisco, San-Francisco, CA

Russia's alliance patterns normally emerge in response to the behavior of dominant, that is, Western, powers. The more the West jeopardizes Russia's security, the more the Kremlin will be likely to enter an alternative security grouping - rational behavior for a vulnerable power. Like it or not, but many in the security community define threat by capabilities, not intentions. NATO expansion and missile-defense plans may not constitute a threat in intentions, but they are correctly read by Russia as undermining of its strategic capabilities.

At the moment, all Western fears of a Russia-China alliance within or outside the SCO framework are unwarranted. Such an alliance is unlikely to take place any time soon because both powers are highly sensitive to the prospect of a junior partnership in a joint coalition and because they both depend on relationships with the West economically and technologically. Moscow's "saber-rattling" and showcasing of the SCO is therefore nothing but a continuation of its strategy to get the West to consider an equal partnership with Russia.

Some in the West understand Russia's security predicaments well and calculate that the Kremlin is bluffing by presenting the SCO as the alternative to Western security projects. It would be a mistake, however, to disregard Russia's domestic perceptions. Although the current leadership's central objective remains breaking into Western markets and security institutions, domestic arguments about Russia's anti-Western turn are gaining strength in response to the West's disregard for Russia's interests.

In addition, the West should be concerned that China has learned to exploit Russia tacitly by obtaining some advanced weapons systems and resources, such as energy and water, and by gradually pushing Russia out of Central Asia. The Kremlin thinks that it has the situation under control, but soon enough it may find itself to be controlled by China. That too is hardly in the interests of preserving the balance of power in Eurasia.

Professor Stephen Blank, The US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA

(Dr. Blank's views as contributed to Russia Profile do not represent the position of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government)

First we should understand that Russia has made a proposal that has not necessarily been or will be accepted, so as of this writing there is no paradigm change to speak of. Nevertheless it is clear that Russia for some time has sought to convert the SCO into a formal military alliance which goes against the already expressed wishes of several Central Asian states and China. Its motives are many. First Russia wishes to restore its hegemony in the area while excluding American influence and the potential for so called color revolutions, which to its elite are linked phenomena.

Secondly, a formal SCO alliance would probably allow it to restrain China's efforts to obtain bases in Central Asia while bringing India into the organization and striking at Indo-American rapprochement. Perhaps, though the public record does not reveal this, Moscow no longer feels it can keep China out on its own and therefore prefers to tie it down with a formal structure. Thirdly, Russia has sought to bring India into its own alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) while keeping China out, although there is no record as to the success of that initiative. Fourthly, these initiatives testify to the growing importance of the military factor (and it is not unrelated to the succession of Putin) in Russian foreign policy. Evidently feeling threatened, mainly due to its own hysterical rhetoric, Russia feels it has to tighten up everything in the military sphere while brandishing its power far and wide. Even so Moscow has long tried to formalize the military arrangements through which it participates in Central Asia.

Fifth, this is another effort to convert Central Asia into a closed bloc, in this case in defense issues. The CSTO is supervised by a department within Russia's General Staff, a good sense of just how dismissive Moscow is about the sovereignty of these states. And given American support for Azeri and Kazakh initiatives to develop their coastal forces in the Caspian, Russia has long tired to close off any possibility of these states having an external military outlet. Moreover, its defense policies in the recent past point to an effort to create an integrated air, land and sea force in and around the Caspian and Central Asia so that it can defend against "color revolutions" or counter American or Chinese presence.

In advance of the SCO summit it is difficult to predict if this initiative, which, as noted above, clearly goes against expressed statements of Central Asian and Chinese leaders, will succeed, but if it does it will be a decisive turn in the SCO's formal structure and presentation. But it must be remembered that it is very hard to establish what the SCO actually does. Until now Moscow and China have operated bilaterally in defense affairs with Central Asian states, a fact that may explain Russia's efforts to channel Chinese activity into a more readily controllable framework. But there are costs as well. It will further aggravate the relationship with to the West which will rightly see this as a power play to exclude it and limit the actual sovereignty of Central Asian governments. It may further reveal tensions lurking below the surface in Russo-Chinese relations. If the proposal is refused the initiative will more clearly present these tensions, as they apply to Central Asia. Furthermore, efforts to isolate Central Asia form the West will undoubtedly provoke a greater Western response to Russian imperial longings, and serve to heighten East-West tensions in this area. Even if a Sino-Russian bloc comes into being, or perhaps especially if it does, such a development directly clashes with the fundamental Western geopolitical interest of not allowing a recrudescence of the Russian empire in Eurasia.

Andrei Zagorski, Professor, MGIMO-University, Moscow

The SCO long ago became a framework for enhanced security cooperation and to the extent relevant to the security interests of its member states.

It started with demilitarization and confidence-building along the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to China. Since 2006, the anti-terrorist center in Tashkent has been increasingly helpful for intelligence and security services tracing individuals and organizations suspected of engaging in terrorist, separatist, and extremist activities. It serves Chinese interests in preventing Uighur separatists from operating in Central Asia, and the interests of some Central Asian regimes which tend to abuse anti-extremist legislation for suppressing political dissent.

That's about it, as far as security interest and cooperation is concerned. Turning the SCO into a "Shanghai Pact" is not on the agenda.

There is no consensus within the group on a common external military threat to justify a defense alliance, and several members of the SCO would see the US and NATO as important partners, rather than enemies.

Russia gives priority to the Collective Security Treaty Organization which institutionalizes its military predominance while, within the SCO, it would either lose that predominance, or, at worst, would be expected to subscribe to playing junior partner to China's senior.

Although, since 2005, Moscow has been increasingly open to the idea of military cooperation within the SCO, this cooperation and joint training serves more as a marketing strategy for Russian arms - especially in a desperate situation when previous arms deals with China and India - the two biggest buyers of Russian arms - started expiring in 2006.

Beijing is indifferent to the idea of a pact because it faces no hard security threat in the region.

Moreover, other member states complain that the two great powers tend to ignore security concerns and economic interest of their smaller SCO mates. Many in Central Asia would be more likely to see China as an eventual security problem, rather than a solution.

So, why would the West be fearful of the prospect of a confrontation with the SCO? It is hesitant towards it, certainly since, in the past years, the SCO was instrumental in granting authoritarian regimes in the region a reassurance that political opposition would not be offered a haven in any member states, and in jointly declaring resistance to democracy promotion from overseas.

It is a mixture of both concern and the belief that confrontation is not on the agenda which has motivated many in the West to thoroughly consider the question of developing contacts and exploring cooperation with the SCO. It has even motivated the United States to apply for observer status last year. In sum, the speculations ahead of the SCO Bishkek meeting are unlikely to substantially affect relations between Russia and the West beyond some irritations that have occurred recently.[]