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Russia Profile
October 7, 2008
Just in Time
By Coordinating Rescue Efforts, Russia Attempts to Prove that It Can Still Collaborate with NATO and the EU
By Sergei Balashov

As exotic and irrelevant as it may appear in the contemporary context, the very real piracy that presently exists as one of the most profitable businesses in Somalia had so far been drawing little attention from the media. But all this changed recently, when a Ukrainian ship carrying military cargo was captured and held for ransom there. The story then developed according to an unpredictable scheme, when it became the setting for Russias first major attempt to come back to the international stage in its newly-assumed status of a major global power.

The pirates ceased the Ukrainian ship Faina, sailing under a Belize flag, on September 25, while the boat transported 33 tanks and other equipment to a destination in Africa, later said to be Kenya. The unfolding crisis has so far born all the elements of a true hostage drama. One of the crewmen has died in captivity, while the pirates have reportedly shot three of their own following a disagreement. Various ransom demands, which have recently increased to $35 million before scaling back down to just $8 million, have accompanied the intense coverage the occurrence is receiving in the media. Even the cargo has sparked concerns over a possible illegal arms trade conducted by Ukraine in Southern Sudan, after pirates claimed that a paper found on board market Juba as the final destination.

The United States, which has been the main force fighting the pirates on the African coast, had ships chasing Faina and ultimately surrounding it, with the help of a few other ships and helicopters monitoring the situation and providing the military force countering that of the pirates in case a skirmish breaks out.

After a bit of hesitation, Russia decided to set its own foot in the area, and sent the battleship Neustrashimyi to the Somali coast to protect Russian ships from Fainas fate. It then went further on the diplomatic level, as the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said that there was a possibility of a joint military operation between Russia and NATO against the pirates.

But that wasnt all, as Rogozins colleague, the Russian representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov, claimed that Russia would coordinate its efforts with the EU countries, ten of which are planning to participate in the EUs operation to defend ships from Somali pirates starting November. Russias Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later called for cooperation and coordination of the international naval forces in the area to out drive piracy.

Undoubtedly, Russia would benefit from ridding maritime passages of pirates, as it also trades with African countries and could find its own ships in a similar situation. Faina itself has three Russian citizens on board. However, its suspiciously active involvement has far outmatched its interests in resolving the crisis.

There may be more complex reasoning behind Russias involvement. The attempts to coordinate international efforts to free Somalia from pirates, propelled by the Faina incident, speak to the fact that Russia has chosen to further strengthen its presence on the global political stage, following the August war in Georgia.

The countrys recent efforts suggest that it is primarily pursuing three goals, none of them aimed at eradicating piracy and ensuring the safety of nautical passages.

The measures Russia is taking could be preemptive to a degree, but geopolitics is what matters most, said Eugenia Voiko, a foreign policy expert at the Center for the Political Environment of Russia. It all has to do with Russias desire to play more of an active role in resolving relevant international issues; Russia is trying to compete with the leading players, the EU and NATO, or, precisely, the United States, she added.

From this perspective, Russias attempts to coordinate international efforts in subduing the pirates make perfect sense. This incident could be a good place to start, getting right down to business after talking about the ineffectiveness of a unipolar world and presenting itself as the go-to power once trouble starts.

I cant remember another case when Russia would be so actively involved in a conflict that would be so far from its borders, said Voiko.

Somalias plea for help was supported by an odd statement from Ambassador Muhammed Handule, who asserted that his country was ready to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, thus joining Russia on the issue that has caused it the most pain with the West. His declaration was quickly denounced by the Somali government, yet the message was seen as an effort to appease Russia and boost its involvement.

The aforementioned conflict with NATO also factored into Russias antipiracy campaign. The calls for cooperation with the EU and primarily with NATO could once again bring Russia together with the military alliance, or at least appear to, which, amid growing tensions, should be enough to ease up the situation for now.

Russia is sending an unambiguous message to NATO, the United States and other Western powers that it is ready to restore cooperation on key international security issues, said Vagif Guseinov, the Director of the Institute for Strategic Estimates and Analysis.

The tense relations would be appeased, as joint participation in this kind of campaign can bring the sides together, Voiko noted, adding that it still wouldnt help solve the key issues that exist in the bilateral relations, namely NATOs eastward expansion and Russias growing influence in the neighboring states. But this seems beside the point, as there is a clear need to set the relations with NATO to prewar levels, when disagreements existed but tensions werent nearly as high.

It would also be shortsighted of Russia to ignore a good chance to prove its credibility as an international partner, primarily for the ex-Soviet countries that depend on Russia economically and, in the recent times, politically as well.

Notwithstanding their political stance, the ex-Soviet countries have been leaning toward Russia economically, and Russia needs to show that it can act without American involvement and be a reliable partner, said Voiko.

The piracy affair couldnt have come at a better time for Russia, amidst all the difficulties stemming from its political ascension. If all the steps are taken and Russians assume leadership in resolving the hostage crisis, much will hinge on the outcome. In case it is successful and Russia does indeed take center stage in coordinating the international efforts to free the Somalis from pirates, the increased global role the country is hoping for will slowly start taking shape.

The success of the attempts to prove that Moscow and Washington can indeed cooperate will depend on how coordinated their actions will be in this particular case. Russia will try to lead and show that it has the potential to be an equal to NATO and the EU, said Voiko.