The Engine of Empire? Pavel Volkov on the Geopolitical Dimensions of the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

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Last week, President Trump reaffirmed that his administration would move to withdraw the United States of America from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change pending the renegotiation of a “better deal” more amenable to American business interests. Though Trump’s announcement was generally met with dismay around the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction was, characteristically, hard to parse.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (PMEF) last Friday, Putin, citing unseasonable weather in Moscow, quipped that: “We [in Russia] should be grateful to President Trump. They say it has been snowing in Moscow, and it is raining here [in St. Petersburg], all around things are very cold. Now we can blame all of this on him [Trump] and American imperialism. But we won’t do that.”

Though likely intended as a cutting joke at Washington’s expense, Putin’s cheeky invocation of ‘imperialism’ in relation to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement nevertheless appears to have gained traction among some of the more serious-minded members of Russia’s media intelligentsia. A prime example is that of Vzglyad columnist Pavel Volkov, who last week penned an article regarding said withdrawal under the questioning headline, “Does a World of Coal and Steel Await Us?”

Published the same day as Putin’s jocular address to PMEF, Volkov’s article frames the Trump White House’s rejection of the Paris Agreement as a disavowal of the process of globalization embraced and promoted by previous administrations. On the face of it, this apparent retreat from ‘globalist politics’ on the part of the United States dovetails neatly with Putin’s putative ambition of restoring Russia to the status of a ‘great power’.

This ambition naturally hinges on Russia’s ability to pursue its national interests free of outside interference; as such, each failure of truly global, multilateral diplomacy (such as that which led to the Paris Agreement in the first place) ostensibly marks an opportunity whereby Russia may resume pursuing its own national interests free of external constraints imposed by groups of other, ‘lesser’ powers.

But back to Volkov.

Volkov imputes a strategic dimension behind Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. By returning to the model of unhindered industrial growth which fuelled American prosperity after World War 2, Volkov argues, Trump believes the United States can regain an edge over its principal economic and geopolitical rival – namely, China.

Whether Trump actually believes that easing restrictions on fossil fuels and other industrial pollutants will provide an advantage to the United States is, of course, a matter of debate. Whatever the case may be, Volkov construes Trump’s rejection of the global consensus on climate change in explicitly geopolitical terms.

Volkov opens his article by citing early 20th-century Marxist Karl Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism‘, which holds that competition amongst capitalist empires proceeds inevitably to the emergence of a single victor enjoying global hegemony. He suggests that this theory was vindicated briefly by the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Volkov contends that the emergence of China and the European Union as global powers at the turn of the 21st-century brought an abrupt end to America’s hegemony, and ushered in a new era of imperial competition. Faced with declining living standards and the prospect of civil unrest as a result of its inability to cope with these new geopolitical circumstances, he writes, the United States has found itself left with “nothing to turn to other to than the classics – in other words, to return to industrialization.”

At the same time, Volkov questions whether such a return is even possible, let alone desirable, in light of advances in smart technologies and the advent of service-oriented economies. Meanwhile, various regional powers are “already demanding to recut the pie”, with China, in particular, increasingly laying claim to America’s superpower legacy.

In this sense, Volkov appears to insinuate that the process of competition for ultra-imperialistic hegemony has begun anew. Nevertheless, the apparent fact of this process alone does not necessarily re-validate Krautsky’s theory of capitalist ‘ultra-imperialism’.

To demonstrate his point, Volkov cites Vladimir Lenin’s introduction to fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin’s 1914 work Imperialism and World Economy. Lenin maintained that although the European empires of his day were certainly developing “in the direction” of ultra-imperialism, such development took place with great conflict and upheaval, leading it to collapse under the weight of its own political, national, and economic contradictions.

With respect to this latter point, Volkov notes that the project of globalization has not been without its own share of “conflict and upheaval”. Yet far from perceiving an opportunity for socioeconomic revolution, he appears to see in this chaos an opening through which Russia might assert its own national interests. Just as China appears to be angling to supplant America’s position at the forefront of global leadership, so Russia seems to be eagerly carving out a niche for itself on the world stage. “Whether [Russia] will succeed in this effort is not clear,” Volkov writes, “though the process itself is obvious.”

There can be little doubt that the Trump White House’s renunciation of the Paris Agreement has struck a significant blow to America’s reputation as a reliable diplomatic partner. Insofar as he couches his assessment of this development in terms of the broader “collapse of the globalist project”, Volkov sees the one as complementing the other.

In this sense, America’s exit from the Paris Agreement certainly does not detract from the Kremlin’s long-term strategic interests. Indeed, with Washington out of the picture, Moscow is also under less pressure to fulfill its own obligations under the Paris Agreement, freeing it to focus on the extraction and export of fossil fuels – a mainstay of Russia’s economy, not to mention an essential component of its geopolitical strategy. As such while the fate of the Paris Agreement remains to be seen, for the time being, the geopolitical climate appears to be changing in Moscow’s favor.

Meet the Next Russian Ambassador to the United States

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Yesterday, the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma of the Russian Federation (i.e. the lower house of Russia’s parliament) reportedly endorsed the candidacy of career diplomat Anatoly Ivanovich Antonov for the post of Ambassador to the United States. Rumors of Antonov’s candidacy first emerged this past February through the Russian business newspaper Kommersant.

Earlier in the week Russian wire agency RIA Novosti also reported that the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation (i.e., the upper house of Russia’s parliament) would review the Antonov’s candidacy for the post of Russian Ambassador to the United States on May 22nd. If approved – and there is little reason to suspect he will not be – Antonov will replace Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, the current Russian Ambassador to the United States and a central figure in the ongoing “Russiagate” scandal.

Rumor has it that the Kremlin is removing Kislyak because of his connection to the aforementioned imbroglio. The Russian Embassy in the United States has so far kept mostly quiet on the matter, save for resident press secretary Nikolay Lakhonin, who jibed that “fake news in the U.S. has zero influence on [the] decision-making process in Russia.” Nevertheless, certain aspects of Antonov’s professional background indicate that his candidacy may be intended to ‘reset’ Moscow’s relations with Washington – though strictly on Moscow’s terms.

Antonov appears to have been born on 15 May 1955 in the southwestern Siberian city of Omsk. He reportedly obtained the equivalents of a master’s degree in economics and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1983 and 1978, respectively. In 1978, he joined the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reportedly serving in various unspecified diplomatic and central administrative postings. Antonov stayed on with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) during and after its reorganization into an organ of the Russian Federation.

Between 2002 and 2004, Antonov served as MFA’s diplomat-at-large, and from 2004 to 2011 headed MFA’s Department of Security and Disarmament Issues. During this latter period, Antonov led Russian delegations in negotiations aimed at halting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and participated in negotiations with the United States for the third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (“New START”).

In February 2011, Antonov was appointed by presidential decree to the post of Deputy Minister of Defense. In this capacity, Antonov liaisoned with diplomats and military attaches from such countries as ArgentinaBotswanaChina, GermanyItaly, JapanLaosThailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, as well as represented Russia at gatherings of defense ministers from various Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SOC) member states. On 18 December 2016, Antonov was appointed by presidential decree to the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, wherein his responsibilities reportedly pertained to unspecified political and military matters.

Antonov’s nomination has been applauded inside Russia as a necessary corrective to Kislyak’s now-tainted brand. Professor Andrey Anatolyevich Sidorov of the Moscow State University Department of International Politics framed his praise of Antonov in strictly pragmatic terms: “With all due respect to Kislyak […] he is a very controversial and ambiguous person in eyes of the US establishment. As for Antonov […] he is a veteran diplomat whose relationship with US leadership will be made easier due to the absence of all the ideological ‘baggage’ associated with Kislyak.”

Indeed, Antonov himself spoke out on Thursday of the need to reset US-Russian relations: “A great task is ahead of us – namely, to rectify the current situation. No one is talking about abandoning their own positions. We need to convince our colleagues in the United States that good-neighborly, equal, and mutually respectful relations are in the best interests of the Russian and American peoples.” Building on this point, Antonov furthermore affirmed his belief that Moscow and Washington “are positively fated to positive cooperation” on such issues as counterterrorism and counterproliferation.

Amiable though these sentiments may seem, they are not without certain political calculations. For the past two decades, Russia has reached out to the United States time again and time again to cooperate on security issues, both to advance its own security interests and to secure recognition from one global power to another. And, time and time again, these overtures have been rebuffed for the simple reason that Washington and Moscow hold fundamentally divergent strategic objectives.

At one point, Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US Presidency perhaps may have indicated to Moscow that change was afoot. Indeed, on the campaign trail, Trump on more than one occasion suggested that he would be open to partnering with Russia to combat the Islamic State. These intimations no doubt piqued Moscow’s interest, and it is worth pondering whether the Kremlin singled out Antonov to help facilitate such an alliance.

Antonov in the past has voiced his willingness to partner with the United States and its partners on counterterrorism. Yet suffice it to say that such overtures have tended to overlook how such cooperation might end up working at cross-purposes with US interests. More often than not, Antonov has shown himself to be more interested in elevating Russia’s operational profile than in seeking practical avenues for cooperation.

In October 2016, for example, Antonov voiced disappointment in the United States for not responding to Russian requests to coordinate air strikes in Syria: “A hundred times we asked our American colleagues, ‘where should we bomb?’ or ‘where should we not bomb?’ And the answer was always silence.” Never mind that by providing such intelligence to Moscow, Washington would risk exposing its partners in Free Syrian Army to bombardment by Russian warplanes.

Likewise, in an April 2015 interview with RIA Novosti, Antonov bemoaned the “counterproductive” attitude adopted by the United States and NATO towards cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan – despite the fact that Russia itself had already backed out of said cooperation in reaction to Western criticism of its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.

Antonov’s appeals for cooperation thus betoken an inequitable partnership at best. Moreover, for all his diplomatic bona fides, Antonov presents a profound reputational risk in and of himself. Most notably, in May 2015 he was subjected to sanctions by the Government of Ukraine in connection with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. As such, by engaging Russia via Antonov, the United States is all but certain to incur the indignation of Ukraine’s pro-Western government – which may be by design.

How Antonov might conduct himself as ambassador, of course, remains to be seen. Given his professional résumé, Antonov could be just the person to help bring about a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. However, if Antonov intends to continue exhibiting bad faith in his overtures to Washington – as he has demonstrably done in the past – then he faces a very steep incline indeed. Watch this space.