The 2018 Trends and Developments: Valdai Club’s Top Five

As the stormy and alarming year 2018 is coming to an end, the Valdai Club is presenting its rating of developments that have had the greatest impact on the international situation.

1. A new nuclear era?

Under President Trump, the US withdrew from the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) and announced its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Both agreements cover the fundamental aspects of relations between countries in the nuclear sphere.

The JCPOA was one of the few working multilateral non-proliferation agreements, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said at a Valdai Club expert discussion last May. While recognizing Iran’s right to carry out nuclear research, the parties were able to create a mechanism ensuring its exclusively peaceful nature.

Will Europe Risk More Chaos in the Middle East for Transatlantic Solidarity?
Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal is strategic and was adopted for reasons, which are unrelated to the agreement as such. It is primarily directed against the Iranian regime, which, according to the Trump administration, conducts a destructive policy in the region. This conclusion was made by the participants in the Valdai Club’s expert discussion, held on May 15 and dedicated to the situation around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Iranian nuclear program (JCPOA).
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However, when he decided to withdraw from the “nuclear deal,” Trump was guided by considerations unrelated to its efficiency. His goal is obviously to “put Iran on its knees”, using even tougher sanctions. But over the forty years of the US-Iranian confrontation, no administration has been able to do it, and Trump’s policy has already led to a surprise rapprochement between the Iranian moderates and conservatives, who now seem to be able to give a concerted answer to any ultimatum.

The INF Treaty belongs to a different era, but it is also a key non-proliferation instrument – as yet. The demolition of the arms control regime throws the US-Russian relations back to 1979, when deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe began. Perhaps it is no coincidence. According to Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov, the American strategy is “to play on the rivals’ fears”, Russia’s main fear, according to Washington, being an uncontrolled full-scale arms race.

On Great-Power Rivalry in the Age of Ultimatums
Formally, the Valdai Discussion Club’s expert discussion on December 5 was dedicated to Russian-American relations. The experts Alan Cafruny, Dmitry Suslov and Ivan Timofeev transgressed the borders of the topic to reach a more global level, which appeared to be – no more no less, – a great-power rivalry.
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As it is consciously destroying the nonproliferation regimes (the New START could fall the next victim), the US is playing a risky game, and even its closest allies feel rather uncomfortable. The European governments said that they would continue to comply with the JCPOA, but will they be able to resist the US pressure? Another question is whether Europe is ready for a new discussion on the deployment of missiles on its territory.

2. Solidarity based on ‘highly likely’-style accusations

After British Prime Minister Theresa May laid the responsibility on Moscow for poisoning the ex-GRU colonel Sergey Skripal, convicted in Russia for spying for London, a total of 80 Russians left the British capital (23 of them being diplomats). More than 100 diplomats had to return to Russia from other countries which “demonstrated solidarity” with London. An unprecedented event.

Meanwhile, the collective West took this step without having reliable and transparent facts of Russia’s involvement in the incident, relying solely on the “highly likely” accusations. The theory of Russia’s involvement, as Ivan Timofeev, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, wrote, is based on verbal lace, references to its “bad reputation” and some “secret information” whose value as evidence equals zero unless it is openly presented to the public.

Russia vs the West: A War Scenario and a New Logic Of Confrontation
How can Moscow respond to a possible US strike on Syria? Will it be forced to admit its defeat? Yes, Russia is a nuclear power, but will it decide to launch a nuclear strike because of the standoff with Americans in Syria, considering that it would be followed by retaliatory strike? The American rational choice theory can fail to estimate the options, when confronted with the Russian strategic culture and its tradition. Russians could push the red button.
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© 2018 Hussein Malla/AP

But what if a similar incident takes place again? What will the Western partners do and how will Russia react to this? Expel the remaining diplomats, plus security officers and chefs? Or take some tougher measures?  There is a great scope for imagination, but it is not pleasing at all.

3. The Kim dynasty’s dream comes true

In June, a historic meeting of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump took place in Singapore, putting an end to the dangerous spiral of the nuclear-missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The leaders signed a joint declaration referring to peace-building measures on the peninsula, for which both countries will make all the necessary efforts.

This summit is undoubtedly a PR victory for North Korea: for the first time in history, its leader met with a US president, who spoke about Kim Jong-un in flattering terms (“a very talented man,” “loves his country very much”). Trump considers the summit to be his victory – just as almost anything else. The problem is that the summit did not bring any tangible results: the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula did not begin, and all the sanctions against the DPRK remain in force.

According to Andrei Lankov, the author of the Valdai Paper #90, the “Trump factor” plays its role. Given the US president’s controversial reputation, North Korea is likely to remain cautious, at least to some extent, when dealing with Trump’s White House. Pyongyang will not dare to provoke Trump, not out of sympathy, but because it would be a very dangerous thing to do. But all fears will become irrelevant after Trump is no longer incumbent. This is when North Korea is likely to go full throttle on its nuclear and missile programme.

4. Diplomacy is not worthless

The ability of participants in the Syrian collision to overcome acute crises, be that the US missile strikes, the downed Russian aircraft or the clinch over Idlib, proves that even in today’s extremely unfavorable conditions of global disparity, a smart and flexible politico-diplomatic line brings results.

Once again, the rapid return of Russia’s diplomacy to the region became the central topic of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference, held in Moscow last February. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was the conference’s guest of honor, emphasized that Russia’s principle is to work with all parties in any conflict. And it is efficient, as the Astana process demonstrates: despite the lack of complete understanding, and sometimes open contradictions between its participants, the work on achieving a peaceful settlement in Syria continues.

Working with All Parties Is the Constant Principle of Russian Diplomacy in the Middle East
On February 19, 2018,  the conference of the Valdai Discussion Club and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences was opened in Moscow, titled  Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields". The first session was attended by high-ranking guests – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, his Iranian colleague Javad Zarif, as well as Bouthaina Shaaban, Advisor to the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, and Nabil Fahmy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
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5. Un italiano vero or The revolt against the traditional elites

For the first time in Europe, a government has been formed by parties that are called populist – these are the League and the Five Stars Movement in Italy. But this is only the tip of the iceberg: across Europe and even far beyond its borders the usual party-political landscape is crumbling in front of our eyes, and the societal and ideological preferences of societies are changing. The election of the “far-right” Jair Bolsonaro as the president of Brazil was a blow against the positions of the left wing in Latin America and demonstrates the phenomenon of Trumpism beyond the United States.

What unites the victories of these forces is the global revolt against the traditional elites behind them (the Valdai Club wrote extensively about the global Leftist and Rightist revolts in its reports). According to Oleg Barabanov, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, the trend of our time is the synthesis of right and left protest – this is what we see in Italy.

The matter is that the socioeconomic situation in the West has led to the transformation of the “classic” proletariat to a stratum of small owners/consumers working for hire. This social stratum is simultaneously ready to accept both left- and right-wing ideas. The left agenda is expressed in insistence on expanding access to public goods, while the right one includes protection of the national labour and consumer markets. In fact, this is what Trumpism is about. The question is whether we should expect a right-left revolt to spread across the entire Western world.