More belated posting, this time a short piece for a larger report done by NSI, a company that seems to do reports and papers for the US Government. It looks at the question of Negotiated Settlement in Afghanistan: Elements of a Grand Bargain. The other chapters are done by various prominent Afghanistan experts.

What Role Might China Play in a Grand Bargain In Afghanistan?

Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

Chinese analysts have historically seen Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires. This basis has meant their willingness to engage in grand bargains based on negotiating with actors whom they realize may only have a fleeting grasp on power means that their preferred willingness has been to focus on making sure that they have good, or workable, relationships with as wide a range of actors as possible. At the same time, they have increasingly put in place a growing volume of tools to ensure that their own specific security equities are covered. From Beijing’s perspective, the idea of a grand bargain in Afghanistan is an interesting one, but will only be one they will invest effort into once it is demonstrated that it is going to work, and once everyone else is on board.

Beijing’s equities in Afghanistan are relatively narrow. Their principal concern used to be direct security threats from Uighur militants using the country as a base to launch attacks within China. Over time, they have strengthened their relations with the relevant parts of the Afghan security apparatus and hardened their specific border with Afghanistan. Nowadays, the assessment in Beijing is that the Uighur threat is one that is more relevant in a Syrian context than in Afghanistan. Their current preoccupations with Afghanistan are more regional in nature. Of greater concern than what is going on within Afghanistan is what impact Afghan instability might have in Central Asia and Pakistan.

Chinese investments in Afghanistan have continued to remain relatively small. There are two prominent large mining projects, while numerous Chinese infrastructure firms have delivered projects on behalf of international financial institutions in the country. Additionally, there is a relatively limited degree of lower level engagement, including gemstone trade, some import and export of white goods and agriculture products, as well as other household products and construction materials. None of this amounts to what Beijing perceives as a major stake.

This is reflected in Beijing’s approach towards the country, where it has visibly invested in hardening its own border as well as Afghanistan’s nearby border regions (in Pakistan and Tajikistan), while only providing relatively limited broader support to Afghanistan’s security forces.

This context is all important to understand to be able to properly evaluate Beijing’s willingness to be involved or support a grand bargain within the country. Beijing is interested and concerned about what happens in Afghanistan, but it sees this through a narrow regional lens, rather than a grander national security context. This is reflected in the fact it has yet to demonstrate a willingness to take a strong leadership role within the country.

This is not to say that Beijing has been entirely delinquent in its action within the country. Aside from the above mentioned efforts, and a growing willingness to seek to bring Afghanistan within the broader context of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has shown a strong appetite to engage with other regional powers in the country. China has sought to get institutions like the SCO and CiCA more involved, it has a greater plurality of regional configurations around the country—China-India, China-Afghanistan-Pakistan, as well as extra-regional partnerships like India, US, UK or Germany— and played a role in others regional efforts, for example Russia, Iran, or the Istanbul Process.

Yet none of these are decisive, and there is a sense that Beijing might be seeking to dilute its responsibility through this large range of engagements. In some cases, it is even possible that Beijing sees Afghanistan as a useful security policy case study to engage with a partner it cannot find other formats to positively engage with. This might help explain the highly positive, but ultimately indecisive, Chinese engagements with India and the US in the country. Beijing has deeply contentious and conflictual relationships with both Delhi and Washington, yet is able to use Afghanistan as a context in which it can attempt to develop a collaborative relationship. This is positive (but not decisive) for Afghanistan, and it is not yet clear that this is evidence of a strong commitment by Beijing.

Within the context of a grand bargain, the likely envisaged role for China would be to support bringing the harder partners to the table. For example, Beijing’s strong relationship with Pakistan could help ensure Islamabad played a positive role in any deal in the country, and that it ensured its proxies within Afghanistan played along. At the same time, Beijing could use its long-standing links to the Taliban to play a more direct role in this regard.

But what is important to note is that these connections and relationships that Beijing has are both long-standing and not as total as is sometimes painted. Beijing struggles to get Pakistan to provide adequate security to its interests within Pakistan, while at the same time being frustrated by some of the Pakistani state’s decisions and planning around CPEC. It is no more likely able to guarantee Islamabad’s acquiescence to control its proxies in Afghanistan than anyone else. At the same time, were Beijing able to exert such influence over the Taliban directly, why has it not used these relationships more forcefully before now? It has maintained a steady relationship to ensure its interests are protected, but as has been seen, Uighur militants have still historically been able to operate from Afghanistan.

The key point here is that Beijing is only willing to play a role insomuch as it advances its interests. And Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan at the moment are seen from Beijing as being manageable. They have a security situation that is problematic, but largely contained within Afghanistan, and they have hardened their borders around it. They continue to play a role, and are pushing some investment and economic activity in the country, but they have chosen not to showcase the country as a place in which they are going to take a leadership role. The commitment involved in taking that sort of a position is something that is beyond their interest.

This all highlights the role that China would play in any grand bargain. It would support a deal, as long as all the parties involved were agreed and in commitment to deliver it. It would likely be willing to play a role in supporting building this, but it will continue to maintain other relationships while it is doing this—in other words, Beijing is unlikely to cut off any links in favour of one deal over another (it has in past severed relationships with groups, but learned over time that this approach unless bound to a specific and achievable goal, is not sensible in the medium or longer-term). This helps explain Beijing’s willingness to play a role both in efforts in Afghanistan with both the US and Russia or India and Pakistan at the same time. China does not want to choose and to therefore set itself up for potential failure. It is better to continue to engage with everyone.

At the same time, this does not mean China is not willing to take a role, but it will avoid choosing sides or taking any leadership role. This reality is likely to persist until there is a blunt and clear western forces withdrawal from the country—something that might change Beijing’s calculus. Until that moment, China would continue to hedge and would play a similar role in any current grand bargain thinking.

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Have been very delinquent in posting pieces on the site for a variety of reasons. So catching up a bit now. First up is a piece from early January for the Independent offering a view on some of the security information sharing concerns that might arise from the dreaded Brexit.

Hopeless Brexit planning has left Britain at risk from a new wave of terrorists

The twin threat of far-right extremists and Isis-inspired attackers can only be addressed with robust coordination across the continent

Largely unnoticed in the 2018 political chaos was a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report on the security consequences of Brexit. In deeply concerned tones, the committee concluded that the government had not prepared sufficiently for the potential domestic security implications of Britain’s departure from the EU.

Against a backdrop of lone actor plots across the continent and growing right-wing extremism, this is not good enough. The terror threat remains as diffuse and transnational as ever.

Key to disrupting these threats is information sharing – something the committee specifically identifies as at risk from the current approach to Brexit. The Police Federation, which represents 120,000 rank-and-file officers, claimed the government has left it with “no idea” how they will protect the British public after Brexit.

Recent plots in Strasbourg, ManchesterBottrop, Tokyo, Sweden, Italy and Newcastle have repeated a pattern of lone individuals potentially, but not necessarily, linked to larger networks. They are hard to identify before an attack. They pop up across the continent and can occasionally get through, as was the case at the Strasbourg Christmas market.

In almost every case, investigations reveal the attackers were previously known to authorities. The positive we can draw from the larger picture is that a growing number are disrupted before the plot is enacted. The tough task for European authorities is to work out which of the many individuals monitored are genuinely prepared to commit murder.

To arrest them all would be vastly disproportionate. These individuals remain free not due to the authorities’ laxity, but rather because of a lack of evidence, or lack of guilt. Some will likely never become priority targets for authorities, or active terrorists.

So how do we keep improving the decision-making about who to focus on? In brief, we need a fuller understanding of the individuals, and that comes from gaining access to more data. The current arrangements around Brexit put that under threat. According to the government’s own figures, one database, the Second Generation Schengen Information System (SIS II), contains 76.5m records that were checked by UK enforcement more than 500m times last year.

In his evidence to the committee, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Richard Martin highlighted the role of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). Martin quoted research that suggested “losing access to ECRIS would mean a response to a request about a foreign national’s criminal history would take an average of 66 days, compared to 10 days under ECRIS”.

At the same time as the threat from Isis-inspired terrorism has continued – despite talk of its “defeat” in Syria – we have seen a rise in extreme right-wing terrorism.

According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, right-wing groups and individuals killed 66 people in western Europe and north America between 2013 and 2017. In the UK alone the index tracked 12 far-right terror attacks in 2017, including the attack outside Finsbury Park mosque, where 47-year-old Darren Osborne drove a van into Muslim worshippers, killing one person and injuring at least nine others.

Perhaps most worrying are the potential links across Europe, where a more organised extreme right wing has long been visible in parts of Germany and is connecting across the continent. Groups in Central and Eastern European are making links to like-minded people in the UK, creating the alarming spectre of a transnational community.

Again, the only legitimate way to address this problem is closer connectivity and cooperation. Continental security partners will of course want to continue sharing information to counter a common threat, but in the absence of robust procedures and structures, information may slip through. It is all very good for security forces to want to share information, but this can only be done properly through appropriate and legally monitored channels to prevent abuse and protect civil liberties.

The combined threat of hard-to-track Isis sympathisers and international collaboration between far-right extremists present a relentless challenge to our security forces. They have had considerable success, but this is in part thanks to the shared information which builds difficult investigations to disrupt potential terrorists.

It is essential that they have the data to continue this task. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit at all, serious and concerted plans must be made to guarantee the seamless continuation of pan-European intelligence on the people that seek to do us harm. That there remains a lack of clarity here, despite expressions of concern by senior security officials, is a very worrying state of affairs.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

And second up, a piece in the Sunday Times just as the year closed which looks at the growing divisions in the world. Draws on a lot of the travel and workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend over the past year, and themes touched on elsewhere in my writing. Given my current workload at the office, suspect there might be some more in this broader vein. Separately, spoke to France 24 in the wake of the Egypt attack late last year, and this piece was picked up by the Daily Express.

Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East-West understanding

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The rhetoric and imagery of the Cold War is back. The year has drawn to a close with President Vladimir Putin flexing Russia’s military might. The test of a new hypersonic missile, which Putin boasts is “invulnerable” to western defences, heralds a world that we had thought was consigned to history. Yet while our threat perception in the past year has shifted from a fear of non-state groups to great-power confrontation, we are still nowhere near the fearsome heights of the Cold War.

The key difference is not the size of our weaponry, but rather the lack of a clear ideological confrontation and greater economic interdependence. Traditional thinking about deterrence no longer provides a frame with which to understand our enemies, leaving us open to the risk of dangerous miscalculation.

The clearest indication of the different level of global confrontation is military spending. Notwithstanding Russia’s new weapons and a blockbuster Pentagon budget this year, both sides remain far from the lavish spending of the Cold War. The US is nowhere near the roughly 10% of GDP it was devoting to defence at the height of that confrontation, and Moscow is far from the expenditure that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. It is also a long way from catching up with American defence spending.

While these new Russian weapons appear a terrifying development in the global arsenal, there is little clear evidence that they materially change the balance of power. Putin has over the past year announced a number of hypersonic and other menacing-sounding weapons, but these announcements are intended more for domestic consumption and for weapons sales abroad than for making Russia seem an invincible military power.

Moscow feels compelled to demonstrate a sense of global confrontation to enhance national power and to explain at home the imposition of economic sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media.

This need is vastly different from the ideological boundaries that used to divide the world during the Cold War. In contrast to that earlier world, we now inhabit countries that are deeply economically interdependent.

Moscow’s rich — despite sanctions — own property in London, while China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds. This transforms national perceptions of enemies and means that even when countries such as Russia and China try to change the international order, they are hesitant to sever the links. This may change in time, but it has not yet. We live in a world that can at best be described as divided by forms of governance, rather than by ideology.

Ideologies do continue to dominate, however, at the non-state level, where constellations of individuals come together around a utopian vision to threaten the old order. Countries and governments, on the other hand, still inhabit traditional structures. Moscow still thinks in these terms and therefore has to create a sense of narrative with traditional tools.

None of this should leave us complacent. There is a growing sense of confrontation in the world. Non-state groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis have not gone away. China is confused about the limits of the pushback it is facing. Its new national economic champions, such as the telecoms and electronics company Huawei, are targets of international ire. Beijing is struggling to interpret a world that wants its economic investment but at the same time fears its growing weight.

Moscow sees the current confused order as a prime environment in which to assert its meddlesome influence abroad and build a narrative at home of international power and importance. And Iran’s mullahs fail to understand why they are cast as an enemy or what the parameters of the current confrontation are.

There is a distinct, if fractured, axis coming together between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And while it takes little to find fissures between them — Beijing dislikes Moscow’s tendency to disrupt defined national borders and recognise stateless peoples; Moscow is no fan of Tehran’s use of proxy groups or Beijing’s encroachment into its back yard in central Asia — they all regard a democracy-promoting West as an adversary they need to worry about.

The threat they see is to their leadership structures rather than national ideologies. But this is not a popular narrative to sell at home: hence the need for confrontation abroad.

But these fissures also undermine the West’s ability to respond to them in a coherent way. With no unifying ideology and coherent enemy, it is hard to rally western capitals together in a clear and consistent fashion.

We are able to respond in only a piecemeal fashion and struggle to maintain a unified line for long. Previously, the clarity of a structured order between the Soviet and western blocs defined who the enemy was and what we would need to do in response to the weapons they were developing. Today we have a messy order, where we are as economically tied to our adversaries as we are locked into preparing ourselves for the possibility of confronting them.

Even worse, while our world is ever more interconnected, the gulf in understanding between our governments has deepened. On both sides there is a surprising lack of insight into what the other is thinking. Narrow lenses suited to domestic concerns and power plays are ill suited to understanding how people in faraway capitals think.

Travel to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran and you hear views we would dismiss as conspiracy theories being shared among some of the most sophisticated thinkers as mainstream perspectives. Doubtless they observe the same phenomenon when they visit us.

Notwithstanding the current rhetoric and bombast, we are far from a new Cold War. The past year may feel as though we are returning to the 1970s, but the biggest danger we face is not large-scale military conflict fuelled by hypersonic weapons. It is a miscalculation of one another’s aims and intentions that precipitates confrontation and spirals out of control into conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

A couple of quick posts begin the year of separate pieces that emerged towards the end of last year. On a more geopolitical bent than some of my previous work, but reflects a broader trend in my work. First up is an interview that I did with the magazine Fortune in India about India’s views and response to the Belt and Road.

‘To suggest that India rejects the Belt and Road Initiative in its entirety would be wrong’

Raffaello Pantucci from the London-based think tank The Royal United Services Institute explains what India has got right and what it has got wrong about the initiative.

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China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has created a stir around the world. Will this multi-country infrastructure and investment project, which conservative estimates put at around $1 trillion, transform the global power structure or will it trap numerous countries in debt leading to chaos? And what does it mean for India? In London, Hindol Sengupta spoke to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at The Royal United Services Institute, for some answers. Edited excerpts:

What do you think most people are getting wrong about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

What’s most missing in the discourse is often perspective from these countries (the countries through which the project runs) and which reflects their interests. We should be wary of superimposing our external interpretation or perception on them. For instance, this entire point about debt traps. Now there are issues about debt, but it is not really about China trying to trap these countries into debt. It is more about the capacities and issues within these countries. Two problems happen while analysing the BRI: one, people tend to think of it as one grand strategy as opposed to lots of things happening in diverse ways in lots of places; and [two], try to superimpose that view or superimpose the view of the bigger U.S.-China clash that is happening now onto this. But both are not quite correct. There are many nuances that get lost when we cut in that way.

What are the most interesting nuances in the Indian subcontinent that are being missed out in the BRI analysis?

On the India side, there is a tendency to think that India does see this as a big, hostile thing [in] its entirety, whereas I would say that the reality is in fact India can never sign up to the BRI project in its entirety because the China-Pakistan corridor cuts through disputed territory [Pakistan-held Kashmir]. But there are other elements in the vision like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), like investment into third locations, and like Chinese investment into India that the Indian government quite likes and would like to foster. In Pakistan, once again we talk about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as one overarching thing whereas, in reality, these are a number of smaller projects. And even the loans are of various kinds—some are loans given by Chinese banks to Chinese companies to complete projects, others are loans given to the Pakistani government as a concessionary rate, and then the Pakistani state hires companies on projects. We have a habit of treating these as one big block whereas actually these are a bunch of different projects being handled in different ways and with different kinds of reactions on the ground in Pakistan. In some regions, you see some tensions and local pushbacks on the ground in Pakistan like in parts of Balochistan; in some others, like in parts of Punjab, people are quite happy about these projects.

In this scenario, how do you look at the insurgent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi (in November 2018) for which Pakistan blamed India?

That incident did not surprise me in the least. If you track recent incidents in Pakistan, there have been more and more direct attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan by militant groups. We recently had an incident where a bomber of the BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army) targeted a busload of Chinese engineers. The BLA has been very clear that they are targeting Chinese interests in the country. The accusations against India have a long history. The thing that worries me is that while it is impossible to say whether there is any merit to these accusations, what is certainly true is that there is a lot of anger in Balochistan, which has been there for a long time. What they have now realised is that attacking the Pakistani state hasn’t really delivered any results. They have realised that if we attack the foreigners we will get more attention internationally, and we are attacking the Pakistani state’s biggest ally; and that in itself might deliver some results for us. It is erroneous to blame this on India or Afghanistan, and it is impossible to know for sure if there are any elements from these countries lurking in the background, but what we can say for certain is that there is real anger in Balochistan, and it has now decided that targeting the Chinese gets some sort of a reaction.

If this flares up, what does it mean for CPEC?

The underlying logic of CPEC would remain and this will remain an irritant to that. If the Chinese put more pressure on the Pakistanis to stop this kind of attacks, you will see a much stronger crackdown on the Balochi groups by the Pakistani forces. CPEC remains important and within Pakistan, CPEC has become kind of synonymous with Pakistani national economic rejuvenation, and that’s important for the whole region. Chinese companies will have much greater security around their assets and they might struggle on sending large numbers of engineers to Pakistan if these sorts of attacks escalate. But China is big; they will still find some people to send and its unlikely that these kinds of attacks would bring some sort of a grinding halt to the CPEC. A major attack might mean that the Chinese might [have] some of their security forces on the ground, but largely they would want the Pakistanis to solve this.

What ramifications does China’s stringent actions on the Uighur Muslims—including ‘re-education camps’—in the Xinjiang region have on its ties with Central Asian countries, Pakistan and the BRI?

What has been depressing is the lack of response from the Muslim world on this issue. Whatever comments there have been has largely come from Western capitals, and some from Malaysia. This is mainly because those countries do not want to upset China. But there have been some tensions in Central Asian countries some of whose citizens live in China and who are getting caught up in these issues in the Xinjiang region. What we have seen is concern, for instance, in Kazakhstan, where people are worried about these measures in China making their influence felt in their own country. There is pressure from the people in some of these countries for their governments to bring up these issues with China. This is not what the governments want to do because they want economic ties with China. This friction will grow.

How will the BRI project impact India’s future relations with China and Pakistan?

Clearly, in the Indian strategy vision, China is the biggest threat they look out and see. You see this in all kinds of things, in the strategic military purchases of India, in the so-called ‘necklace of diamonds’, in its relationship with Japan and the U.S. But notwithstanding all of this, we still see India hesitate to let the relationship with the Chinese to blow up into a full-fledged confrontation. That’s why we haven’t seen the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; the strategic coming together of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia] really live up to its expectations. This is because none of the countries want this to become very confrontational and seem like a great front against China. Because they realise that they have other business with China. The U.S. has been trying to push things towards a confrontational direction, but the other countries realise that they must engage with China, its rise is happening around their borders. It is a very complicated picture. The real question going forward is how India will accommodate China’s rise, but also that China must learn to handle India’s rise and take its concerns more seriously. They have historically really looked down on India and treated India in a really disparaging fashion. This has led to angry confrontations and a sense in India that it just not taken seriously enough. I think there is a rebalancing that will happen [between the two]. And if that happens successfully, it could be massively beneficial to both. But at the moment it seems to be that national pride in both countries means that they are butting against one another but if these two great powers can figure out a way to work together and how, their growth models would intertwine with another.

What is the low-hanging fruit that India and China can pick off to better their relationship?

The low-hanging fruit could be Afghanistan. If India and China could agree that they would partner in Afghanistan, you could see a real game changer on the ground in that country with hugely positive effects. The other is why does India and China have to see projects in the surrounding island countries as threats? Why not jointly build infrastructure projects using the AIIB or the BRICS Bank, which could again lead to cooperation.

A new format for a publication have contributed to before, the Financial Times, this time a book review of Walter Laqueur’s last book (co-authored with Christopher Wall) in a title that seems appropriate for the end of the year. It is a good short primer on the topic of terrorism which is widely available and worth reading. In addition, spoke to Neue Zürcher Zeitung about Syria and France 24 about the recent attack in Egypt.

The Future of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur and Christopher Wall

An account of the persistent allure of political violence to ‘purify society’

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A slightly limited post just to flag up a chapter I have written in a new book that has been published by my publisher Hurst on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions. The book is the product of an excellent conference hosted by the wonderful Michael Clarke at the Australian National University in Canberra, which brings together a number of the top experts on the topic, covering China and terrorism from a number of different angles. Given the nature of the publication I cannot just repost here, but am sure you can all purchase copies and enjoy the wonderful text in its entirety.

My particular chapter covers the question of how Uighur terrorism has intersected with Middle Eastern jihadism over time, bringing it right up to day with what is going on in Syria at the moment (though it was delivered much earlier in the year). Here is the abstract for it:

Uyghur Terrorism in a Fractured Middle East

What is the relationship between Uyghur terrorism and the current troubles in the Middle East? The aim of this chapter is to explore this question and attempt to define the impact of Middle Eastern jihadist terrorism on Uyghur terrorism. It will look in particular at what is going on at the moment in Syria and Iraq; it will try to understand the nature of the groups that are there; and, where possible, what activities they appear to be involved in. There are three sections to this chapter: first, a historical study of the links between Middle Eastern jihadis and Uyghurs; second, an investigation of the links between Uyghur extremists and the current conflict in Syria; and finally, some conclusions on how this might all impact on China’s future policies.

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Undoubtedly a subject I will return to more in the future, especially given the current context around Xinjiang. This aside, spoke to DW about the Huawei crackdown and the relation this has to the US-China clash more broadly which appears to have also been picked up in Polish by Business Insider for those who can read that.

A new post for a new outlet – this time for the British political magazine Spectator’s website drawing together impressions on some recent travel through the heart of Eurasia. Rather than the title suggests, it is about more than just Russia. Look forward to hearing feedback and to be writing more on these themes. This aside, spoke to the Financial Times about the China-US clash and the growing pressure on Huawei which was subsequently picked up by Silicon.

How the West failed to bring Russia into line

28 November 2018 | 5:15 PM

Moscow does not feel like a city under siege. Cracking jokes about Novichok, Muscovites are sanguine about the conflict they are currently in the midst of with the west. Rather, a sense of hardening has settled in, with most presuming the current deep freeze with the UK and west is permanent and adjusting their realities accordingly. There is little evidence that our action is having the desired effect; instead a new geopolitical alignment is settling in – something that is only confirmed by further visits to other Eurasian capitals and conversations with officials and experts from other powers like China or Iran. The longer it grows, the deeper and more permanent it becomes. Rather than a new Cold War, we are entering into a moment of clearer multipolar hostility.

Having recently returned from a two week trip which included stops in Moscow and Astana, Kazakhstan, one thing is certain: winter is bitterly cold in the heart of Eurasia. But while a simple narrative would translate this weather as chill wind welcoming in the new Cold War, this misses the broader and more nuanced picture which is visible from both of these capitals. These reflect a shift which is taking place at the heart of the Eurasian continent and with which we need to rapidly engage or miss out on one of the major geopolitical changes of our times.

The narrative starts in Moscow where there is little evidence of relenting in the face of western pressure. Russian officials and experts continue to advance lines which show little admission of defeat or culpability in recent events in Salisbury or the Hague. The closest they will get to admission is to say that such intelligence operations are more properly handled behind closed doors. More often than not, blame is apportioned to UK officials who are accused of stirring up trouble in an attempt to distract from Brexit. 

Such cynical conspiracy theories are par the course in Russia. But what is interesting is that they are accompanied by a strong sense of confidence. Economic indicators are not wonderful (but when have they been in Russia? And at the moment they are to some degree buoyed by rising energy prices), but there is little evidence of this having major effect on the public. On the one hand this is evidence of our consistent inability to comprehend Russian willingness to endure hardship. But it is also the reality of a sanctions regime that is not delivering what we might be hoping. The Russian agricultural industry has undergone a sweeping revival in response to the sanctions regime, while Russian defence contractors are doing a Machiavellian job of selling the same military hardware to both sides of a number of conflicts around the world. And Moscow’s rich natural resource wealth continues to attract not only booming Asian markets, but our own western firms that are locked into long-term projects on the ground.

But the confidence this has engendered goes deeper than this. Moscow now sees itself as an integral player in numerous conflicts around the world. In part this is self-generated relevance through insertion into existing conflicts to give the leaders more cards to play. But it is also seen grudgingly in the Eurasian heartland as the constant expression of Moscow’s behaviour. Here Russia is seen as frustrating, but a consistently significant player than cannot be ignored. Iranian experts will point out Moscow’s ability to talk to everyone around the table, while Chinese experts will spend the time to pay respect to a power that, when asked privately, they describe as their inferior in many different ways. 

Caught in between, Central Asian powers can increasingly see that their geopolitical narrative is shifting from Moscow to Beijing, but they nonetheless continue to speak Russian as their lingua franca and acknowledge the importance of their relationships with the Kremlin. Shortly before my stop in Astana, the capital hosted a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-driven institutional response to Nato which continues to be one of the most coherent non-Nato Eurasian security institutions. People in Astana wondered about whether the exercise was a show of strength for the audience in Moscow, a display to pushback on encroaching Chinese influence or more simply a way of showing non-CSTO member Uzbekistan of the value of joining. There was very little evidence of any of the messaging being targeted at the West; they have started to stop caring about us.

More significant than Russian influence, however, is China’s growing footprint in what Victorian geographer Halford Mackinder described as the ‘geopolitical pivot’ of Eurasia. The story in itself is not new – we have been hearing about Belt and Roads through the Eurasian heartland for some time – but this has now been accentuated by a sharpening trade war between Washington and Beijing.

In London and Washington, the interpretation of this clash is of an attempt by the new US administration to better respond to China’s vertiginous rise. Sat in the Eurasian heartland the view is very different. As president Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan put it in Astana, as the ‘counter-globalisation movement’ was building, China proffered its Belt and Road Initiative, proposing an opportunity built on connectivity. China is funding opportunities in his country and his neighbours, and they see the potential that this offers them. We may see debt traps and corruption, but they see the potential opportunity and like the connectivity narrative. The West in contrast is using economic relationships as weapons; it seeks to impose sanctions to coerce behavioural change in Eurasian powers like Russia and Iran.

The problem is that these weapons are becoming less effective: new industries emerge within countries to fulfil needs that can no longer be met by imports, for example, while parallel financial systems also quickly emerge. In Tehran, people now talk of using Renminbi to process payments; in Russia people are increasingly using Chinese payment systems, and Beijing continues to establish independent systems that are able to circumvent sanctions while continuing their economic relationship with the United States and the west. This, of course, is very much a ‘having cake and eating it’ approach. And even in pro-American European capitals, leaders talk of trying to find ways of circumventing sanctions with Iran. The system is clearly not working but is fostering a permanent change at the heart of the Eurasian continent.

It is not a done deal. We still hold a great many cards. Many prominent figures still seek to send their children to our colleges and schools. They all love to visit our historical capitals and enjoy the open and comfortable lifestyle we take for granted. As one oligarch put it to the Financial Times, ‘a new world order is obviously better than the current one. But no one here is a big fan of the Chinese life.’ People are waiting for the west to wake up, but the longer we take, the more permanent the shift will be. Mackinder was right in capturing the importance of the Eurasian heartland for global power – currently it seems it is leaders in Moscow and Beijing who are paying attention to his lessons.