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The Kronstadt tragedy

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Next year 2017, is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, also called in various circles as the Bolshevik Revolution or the October Revolution. This event of monumental proportion, had sweeping implications for entire humanity and the world was never the same again.

Unfortunately, during the cold war period, populist media succeeded in creating image of Soviet Union as an evil empire clad in Iron Curtain, there by is isolating October Revolution as partisan heritage of section of Global society. It is true that the then Soviet ruling class did not help the cause either.

It was only post 1989, that mainstream Russian/Slavic scholars from the western academic world could freely travel and research the Russian History and once various state archives were thrown open and official files were made available for public scrutiny that an alternate fact based research gathered momentum. Today, more up to date and panoramic view of the history is available about events before and after the Russian Revolution.

Aeschylus, the famous Greek tragic dramatist has said, “In war, truth is the first casualty”. In case of Russian Revolution it was three wars combined in one. The First World War, the War with Tsarist forces and the Civil War. This has made development of historiographical narrative of the entire Russian Revolution too daunting a task.

kmap1This paper tries to analyse one relatively small but significant event of this saga; The Kronstadt Uprising which was unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the closing phase of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a municipal town located on Kotlin Island, 30 kilometres west of St. Petersburg near the head of the Gulf of Finland. The fort of Kronstadt was the seat of the Russian admiralty and the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. (formerly Petrograd

Kronstadt sailors had an uninterrupted history of revolutionary activity. They were at the forefront to storm the winter palace, and celebrated the February Revolution of 1917 by executing their officers. In May, they established an independent commune in defiance of the Provisional Government; in July they took part in the abortive rising against Kerensky; in October they helped to bring down his government. In January 1918, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly by heckling Mensheviks and preventing their leader Martov and practically forcing he and other Mensheviks leave the meeting. An early sign of democratic deficit of Bolsheviks. The late Anarchist historian Paul Avrich, writer of an earlier history (Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970) in his book describes life in Kronstadt as follows

For the most part, the citizens themselves administered the social and economic life of the city, through the medium of local committees of every sort (as hallmark of) libertarian atmosphere. Kronstadt’s residents displayed a real talent for spontaneous self-organization. Apart from their various committees, men and women working in the same shop or living in the same neighbourhood formed tiny agricultural communes, each with about fifty members, which undertook to cultivate whatever arable land could be found on the empty stretches of the island. During the Civil War, says these collective vegetable gardens helped save the city from starvation.

Cherishing their local autonomy, the Kronstadt population warmly endorsed the appeal for “All power to the soviets” put forward in 1917 by Lenin and his party. They interpreted the slogan in a literal sense, to mean that each locality would run its own affairs, with little or no interference from any central authority.

Avrich considers Kronstadters as volatile champions of direct democracy.

As it is well known now, the infant Bolshevik regime had emerged with a precarious victory. Major Civil war erupted at the heels of revolution. First the former Czarist generals organized White armies and with end of first world war   the allied powers, sent expeditionary forces to join white guards against the new regime.

As contingency measures, the Bolshevik government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. This only added fuel to the fire as the successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution had already produced famines and food shortages. War damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.

It is pertinent to note here, that the white Guards were not only the Tsarist Generals and Nobility or the armies of some 30 countries from all over the world. The Bolsheviks were also fighting with their former comrades like Anarchists, Left Socialists Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who all had contributed towards realisation of October dream in their own ways but had differing plans for the future.

Under such dire circumstances, fighting every odd, it may be pertinent to ask the question; what were the pressing ideological consideration to have an all out war against every one there by dwindling resources and creating cracks even in the infantile Bolshevik citadel. After all the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 had 352 the Left SR delegates as compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. More over the disagreement with Left SRs were about suppression of rival parties, the death penalty to fellow comrades of all colours and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

As regards Anarchists, once again I quote Paul Avrich from Russian Review, Volume 27, Issue 3 (Jul., 1968), 296-306.

When the first shots of the Russian Civil War were fired, the anarchists, in common with the other left-wing opposition parties, were faced with a serious dilemma. Which side were they to support? As staunch libertarians, they held no brief for the dictatorial policies of Lenin’s government, but the prospect of a White victory seemed even worse. Active opposition to the Soviet regime might tip the balance in favour of the counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, support for the Bolsheviks might serve to entrench them too deeply to be ousted from power once the danger of reaction had passed. After much soul-searching and debate, the anarchists adopted a variety of positions. A majority, however, cast their lot with the beleaguered Soviet regime. By August 1919, at the climax of the Civil War, Lenin was so impressed with the zeal and courage of the “Soviet anarchists”, as their anti-Bolshevik comrades contemptuously dubbed them, that Lenin counted them among “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power

Here, it is only natural for anyone to wonder What was the mindset of Bolshevik leadership that lump Mensheviks , left SR’s and Anarchist with the white guards and Black 100’s and other reactionaries? Would it have not been a clever strategy to pool in resources with other left parties and isolate the real counter revolutionaries with an all out attack. Such step would have conserved already overstretched resources, reduced loss of human life and restricted the magnitude of mass discontent among its own populace. Politician Lenin prevailed over the statesman in him.

As expected this all out civil war brought to the Russian society enormous hardships. In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives–apart from the military casualties of the civil war. In some, the population had been reduced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial output to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value. Nearly half the industrial work force deserted the towns for the villages. The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia.

The cornerstone of Lenin’s policy of War Communism was the forcible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. “We actually took from the peasant,” admitted Lenin, “all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers.” Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peasantry resorted to both passive and active resistance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the governments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.

For urban workers the situation was even more desperate. Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was distributed according to a preferential system which favoured heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Less important ones received only 200 grams of black bread a day.

The civil war also resulted in acute shortage of skilled labour. Those who ran factories during Tsarist period refused to cooperate with the new Government unless paid higher wages and better facilities. This led to the gradual abandonment of workers’ control in favour of management by “bourgeois specialists.” A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. For the rank-and-file workmen, the restoration of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism …. Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921…murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the potential loss of rations.

At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.

Once civil war subsided and a White restoration was no longer a threat, peasant and worker resistance became violent. There were mass strikes in Petrograd.

Back in Kronstadt, when news of the Petrograd strikes reached the sailors, they immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate. The delegates reported back on February 28 to a sailors’ meeting. Mammoth crowd of 16,000 sailors, soldiers and workers heard the report and then passed a resolution, which was to become the rallying point of the rebellion: The resolution sought; new elections to Soviets by secret ballot, freedom of press and political agitation for all left leaning groups, equalization of food rations between workers and party leaders and the lifting of ban on free exchange for agricultural goods.

At this stage the sailors didn’t see themselves as being in open revolt. In fact, they sent a committee of thirty men to confer with the Petrograd Soviet for an amicable end to the strike who were promptly arrested by secret police upon their arrival in Petrograd. The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land.

On March 5, Trotsky issued an ultimatum in which he promised to “shoot like partridges”(birds found in Europe). On March 7, an aerial bombardment was launched against the island, which continued over several days. After the first attack on 9th March failed, on the night of March 16, the last assault began. 50,000 Communist troops were pitted against 15,000 well-¬entrenched defenders. By morning the battle raged within the city itself. Women as well as men fought ferociously to save Kronstadt, but by evening Bolshevik troops conquered Kronstadt. Had they held out much longer, a plan sanctioned by Trotsky to launch a gas attack would have been carried out.

Kronstadt fell. In all, the Bolsheviks lost about 10,000 men, the rebels about 1500; about 8000 rebels fled across the ice to Finland; another 2500 were captured and either killed or sent to labor camps.

”It was not a battle,” said the Bolshevik commander later, “it was an inferno… The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage.”

Contrary to Bolshevik estimate;

The rebels were not necessarily anarchists. They were seeking alternatives within Bolshevik polity

It was in no way, White Guard sponsored conspiracy.

Kronstaders never engaged in any dialogue with outsiders or the dissident groups

Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Victor Serge the Russian Anarchist who reluctantly sided with Bolsheviks even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. The NEP implemented only an year later, replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.

At the Tenth Party Congress Lenin commented, “They didn’t want the White Guards, but they didn’t want us, either,” The historiography of Kronstadt offers several varying versions but the one I find most convincing is the following;

Bolsheviks had no experience with administration and no guide book to build socialist state. Under such circumstances when there was no precedence or no written laws, every decision was being taken on the basis of heated ideological debates on party forums in ad hoc manner. These debates were highly polemical and often resulted in reducing problems to polarised absolutes.

Even famous Anarchist Alexander Berman agreed that, there was no other party in Russia capable of defending revolution. Bolsheviks exploited this fear of “return of white guard should there be a deviation from Bolshevik course” to the hilt. Thus fear of deviation became the central tenet of Bolshevik political ideology. Fear of potential left or right deviation prompted Lenin in the 10th party congress to ban factionalism in the party. Increasingly the propaganda acquired universal validity that there is no middle position. You are either with proletariat or with bourgeoisie. There is no third option. The entire population was made to believe in this THEY or US dichotomy. Soon the hallmark of revolutionary mind set got cast into the mentality of absolutes. Unfortunately this had disastrous consequence not only in terms of inner party democracy but the very rise of Stalin. It made the entire ideology simplistic mechanistic decision tree paradigm, which got progressively fossilized and eventually dead. In that sense, Kronstadt was an early warning, which even great ideologue like Lenin missed out. Who knows, he may have thought of correcting this tendency later, for which he never got time. Because by then Stalin a relatively green horn in Ideological matters, had established his tentacles in the party organisation across the country. The tactical political absolutism was convenient to him to build a cadre loyal to him. Because the slogan you are either with Bolshevik or you are a counter revolutionary, was malleable enough to twist into, you are either with Stalin the chosen disciple of Lenin or you are counter revolutionary eminently worthy of elimination of being consigned to gulag.

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Russia Postpones BRICS Summit to Later Date

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The summits of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states have been postponed from July to a later date, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin press service said on May 27.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001, brings together China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia are SCO observers, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are dialogue partners.

“In light of the global pandemic and the temporary restrictions linked to it, the Organizing Committee for the preparation and securement of the chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the SCO in 2019-2020 and BRICS in 2020 has made a decision to postpone the meeting of the BRICS leaders and the session of the SCO Heads of State Council earlier scheduled for July 21-23 in St. Petersburg to a later date,” the press service said in a statement.

The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the member states and in the world in general, the statement said.

As part of the events, Foreign Ministers from BRICS held their meeting online late April while the Ministers of Health held theirs in May. BRICS members were, particularly, looking for ways to step up cooperation within the bloc to contain coronavirus pandemic, as well as to revive the economies that have received a major blow due to the travel restrictions and lockdown imposed in most countries to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Throughout 2020, – under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – Russia holds the BRICS pro tempore presidency.

The emphasis of the Russian presidency is on promoting science, technology and innovation and digital economy and health, and strengthening cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes.

In addition to those, dozens of academic, sporting, cultural and artistic events planned for the year. St Petersburg was chosen as the venue in accordance with the Presidential Executive Order No. 380 of 15 August 2019.

BRICS is the group composed by the five major emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, – which together represent about 42% of the population, 23% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 30% of the territory and 18% of the global trade.

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Russia vs China

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Cooperation between Russia and China has deep historical roots, and its earliest manifestations can be found already during the Chinese civil war. It seems that both countries should be most united by their communist ideology, but the ambitions of their leaders and the willingness to be the first and the most powerful was in fact the dominating force. Relations between these nations have seen times of flourishing, as well as times of military conflict.

The relationship between both countries are currently presented as friendly, but it is difficult to call them truly friendly. Even in the past, relations between the USSR and China were based on each nation’s calculations and attempts to play the leading role, and it doesn’t seem like something has changed at the present, although China has become a “smarter” and resource-wise richer player than Russia.

We will now look at the “similarities” between China and Russia, the ways they are cooperating and future prospects for both of them.

Russia is a semi-presidential federative republic, while China is a socialist nation ruled by the secretary general of its Communist Party.

Already we can see formal differences, but if we dive deeper both countries essentially feel like Siamese twins. There are more than one party in Russia, but only one party decides everything that takes places in the country – United Russia. Russia isn’t even attempting to hide the aim of establishing the said party, which is to support the course taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China, too, has nine parties, but only one of them is allowed to rule and it is the Communist Party of China which answers to the secretary general who is also the president of the state.

Therefore, there is a single ruling party both in Russia and China, and this party is responsible for implementing and executing whatever the president wishes, meaning that both countries are ruled by a rather narrow circle of people. Forecasting election results in Russia and China is as difficult as being able to tell that the day after Monday is Tuesday. To write this piece, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of China and Russia and the current events taking place in these countries, and for this reason I figured that we also have to look at the meaning of the word “totalitarianism”.

Totalitarianism is a political system in which a country is governed without the participation of its people and decisions are made without the agreement of the majority of the people; in a totalitarian regime the most important social, economic and political affairs are controlled by the state. It is a type of dictatorship where the regime restricts its people in all of the imaginable aspects of life.

Notable characteristics:

Power is held by a small group of people – a clique;

Opposition is suppressed and general terror is a tool for governing the state;

All aspects of life are subordinate to the interests of the state and the dominating ideology;

The public is mobilized using a personality cult of the leader, mass movements, propaganda and other similar means;

Aggressive and expansionist foreign policy;

Total control over public life.

Are China and Russia truly totalitarian states? Formally, no, but if we look at the essence of it we see a completely different picture. We will look at all of the signs of totalitarianism in China and Russia, but we will not delve too deep into events and occurrences that most of us are already familiar with.

Can we say that the majority of Russian and Chinese citizens are engaged in decision making? Formally, sort of, because elections do take place in these countries, but can we really call them “elections”? It would be impossible to list all the video footage or articles that reveal how polling stations operate in order to provide the required election results. Therefore, we can say that the general public is involved in making decisions, it’s just that the results are always determined by those in power.

The last paragraph brings us to the first point: power is held by a small group of people – a clique. Both nations are ruled by presidents who appoint whoever they wish and dismiss whoever they wish. This is power held by a small group of people. The next point – suppressing the opposition and using general terror to govern the state. Media outlets have written enough about suppressing the opposition in both countries, and everyone has seen at least a video or two on this topic. To stop their political opponents and any events organized by them Russia and China use not only their police forces, but the army as well. From time to time, information appears that an opposition activist has been murdered in either of the countries, and these murders are never solved. We will not even begin talking about criminal cases and administrative arrests of opposition activists. We can say that the point in question is completely true. Regarding all of the aspects of life being subordinate to the state and ideology – is there anyone who isn’t convinced by this? If Russia is engaged in restricting and “teaching” its citizens quite inconspicuously, China has no time for ceremony – the Communist Party of China has published new guidelines on improving the “moral quality” of its citizens, and this touches upon all of the imaginable aspects of one’s private life – from organizing wedding ceremonies to dressing appropriately.3 Is the public in Russia and China mobilized using the cult of personality, mass movements, propaganda and other means? We can look at 9 May celebrations in Russia and all of the surrounding rhetoric, and the events dedicated to the anniversary of founding the People’s Republic of China. I’m sorry, but it feels like I’m watching some Stalin and Hitler era montage but in a more modern fashion, and instead of Stalin and Hitler there are some new faces. What is left? Of course, aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. China has been very active in the South China Sea for many years now, which has aggravated tensions among the armed forces of its neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is continuing to physically seize, artificially build and arm islands far from its shores. And in the recent years China has been particularly aggressive towards Taiwan, which the regime sees as being rightfully theirs. China is also willing to impose sanctions against those nations who intend to sell arms to Taiwan.

However, when it comes to armed aggression China pales in comparison to Russia, which isn’t shy to use armed aggression against its close and far neighbors in order to reach its goals. Russia’s aggression goes hand in hand with its nihilism. I am sure I don’t have to remind you about the events in Georgia, Ukraine and previously in Chechnya as well. Russia will use every opportunity to show everyone its great weaponry, and this also includes directly or covertly engaging in different military conflicts.

Maybe some of you will disagree, but as I see it China and Russia currently are totalitarian states in their essence.

History has shown us that up to a certain point even two totalitarian countries are able to cooperate. Let’s remember the “friendship” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, but let’s also not forget what this friendship resulted in.

It is also true that the economic sanctions imposed against Russia have pushed it to be more friendly with China, but it seems that China will come out as the winner of this relationship.

According to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2018 the Chinese economy received 56.6 million USD in direct investments from Russia (+ 137.4%), meaning that by the end of 2018 the amount of direct investments from Russia reached 1,066.9 million USD.

In 2018, the Russian economy received 720 million USD in direct investments from China, resulting in a total of 10,960 million USD in direct investments from China by the end of 2018.

The main spheres of Chinese investments in Russia are energy, agriculture and forestry, construction and construction materials, trade, light industry, textiles, household electric goods, services, etc.

The main spheres of Russian investments in China are production, construction and transportation.5 We can see from the amount of investments that in this “friendship” China has far exceeded Russia. We also cannot ignore the fact that China has launched more large-scale investment projects in other nations than Russia has.

It should be noted that China’s procurement of military equipment has allowed Russian armaments programs to exist. Russia sold modern armaments to China, despite the concerns that China will be able to “copy” the received armaments and then improve them. But the need for money was much greater to worry about such things. As a result, in early 2020 it was concluded that China has surpassed Russia in producing and selling armaments.

If we look at the ways Russia and China are attempting to shape public opinion in the long term, we can see some differences. Russia tries to do this using publications, demonstrative activities and attempts for its compatriots to become citizens of their country of residence while maintaining their cultural identity in order to establish an intellectual, economic and spiritually-cultural resource in global politics. China, in addition to all of this, has established Confucius Institutes that are subordinate to the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are a total of 5,418 Confucius Institutes or classes around the world. These institutes, named after the most known Chinese philosopher, have drawn sharp criticism globally for its foreign policy views – ones that avoid discussing human rights or believe that Taiwan or Tibet are inseparable parts of China. These institutes have been accused of espionage and restricting academic freedom.

“The Confucius Institutes are an attractive brand for our culture to spread abroad,” representative of the Communist Party’s Politburo Li Changchun said in 2011. “They have always been an important investment in expanding our soft power. The brand name “Confucius” is quite attractive. By using language tuition as a cover, everything looks logical and acceptable from the outside.” The leadership of the Communist Party calls these institutes a crucial part of its propaganda toolset abroad, and it is estimated that over the past 12 years China has spent roughly two billion USD on them. The constitution of these institutes9 stipulates that their leadership, personnel, guidelines, tuition materials and most of their funding is ensured by the Hanban institution which is under the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Both Russian and Chinese citizens either buy or rent property abroad. Russians do this so they have somewhere to go in case the necessity arises.

Chinese citizens and companies slowly rent or purchase large swathes of land in in the Russian Far East. There is no precise estimate of the amount of land handed over to the Chinese, but it is said it could range between 1–1.5 billion hectares.

What can we conclude from all of this? China and Russia are, in essence, totalitarian states with bloated ambitions. If Russia tries to reach its ambitions in an openly aggressive and shameless manner, then China is doing the same with caution and thought. If Russia often uses military means to reach its goals, China will most likely use financial ones. If Russia attempts to fulfill its ambitions arrogantly, then China achieves the same result with seeming kindness and humility.

Which country has gotten closer to its goal? I believe it is definitely not Russia. In addition, just as the USSR, Russia too believes it is better than China. But for those observing from the sidelines, it is evident that in many areas China has far succeeded Russia and is now even acquiring Russian land.

This brings us back to history – what happens when two totalitarian states share a border? One of them eventually disappears. For now, it seems that China has done everything in its power to stay on the world map.

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COVID-19 Presents Both Opportunities and Threats to Russia’s Foreign Policy

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Like every major global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic both generates additional risks, challenges and threats to every state’s foreign policy and opens up new opportunities and prospects. Russia is no exception in this. The specific nature of Russia’s case lies, we believe, in its opportunities being mostly tactical and situational, while the threats it faces are strategic and systemic. The balance of opportunities and threats depends on many variables but primarily on how Russia ultimately copes with COVID-19 compared to other states, particularly its international opponents. Any comparative advantage that Moscow has in fighting the virus, be it the numbers infected and lost to COVID-19 or the relative scale of economic losses will somehow expand Moscow’s range of opportunities in the post-virus world. Any failure will increase foreign policy threats and curtail opportunities. Let us compile a preliminary list of these opportunities and threats.

Opportunities

Confirming Russia’s Perspective of the World

Over recent years, Russia’s leadership has insistently advanced its own “Westphalian” picture of international relations, emphasizing the priority of national states and the importance of sovereignty, questioning the stability of Western solidarity and the effectiveness of Western multilateral diplomacy. Thus far, the epidemiological crisis is bearing out the Russian perspective: the crisis is bolstering national states, demonstrating the helplessness of international organizations and generating doubts as to whether the West does, indeed, follow its own declared values and principles. This development both opens up a huge number of additional opportunities for Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda and justifies the Kremlin’s ambition to be one of the principal architects of the post-crisis world order.

The Possibility of the West Adjusting its International Priorities

The global pandemic that has delivered a particularly grievous (at the moment!) blow to the leading western states may well result in them revising their hierarchy of external threats and, accordingly, adjusting their system of foreign political priorities. In recent years, the established idea of Russia has come to be that of the “main problem” in global politics and the “main threat’ to the interests of the West, while COVID-19 is rapidly eroding this. Such a mental shift is unlikely to result immediately in practical positive shifts in Moscow’s relations with its western partners, but we do believe that it will open up opportunities for a “mini-reset” of these relations. At the very least, we might expect increasing pressure from the West on Moscow, as well as further escalation of the confrontation, to be averted.

The Expanding Global “Power Vacuum”

Proposals for curbing international commitments were popular in developed states, primarily the US, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic will, however, apparently be a powerful catalyst to such sentiments, which will have an increased effect on foreign political practices. This development will manifest itself, in particular, in a possible curtailing of bilateral and multilateral financial and economic aid programmes for the global South and in reduced military and political commitments to developing partner states. The expanding “power vacuum” in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the post-Soviet space can create additional opportunities for Russia’s foreign policy.

Threats

Russia’s Global Economic Standing Deteriorating

The experience of the last global financial and economic crisis in 2008–2009 allows us to conjecture that, in the new upheaval, Russia will be hit harder than other countries. The prospects of even a partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious, accumulated financial reserves will be shrinking rapidly, the timeframe for Russia’s economy returning to the global average growth rate will be revised, and the threat of Russia being pushed on to the periphery of the global economy will remain. Accordingly, there is an emerging threat of Russia’s defence and foreign policy resource base shrinking, and that includes support for Russia’s allies and partners, funding for international organizations, and Russia’s participation in cost-intensive multilateral initiatives (such as implementing the Paris Climate Agreement). If the country’s current socio-economic model remains unchanged in the post-crisis world, the consequences for the “national brand” will be no less significant.

The Rise of Isolationism in Russia

Russian society’s initial reaction to Moscow’s efforts to assist several foreign states (from Italy to Venezuela) was mixed. In general, however, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments and reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw demonstration of Russia’s presence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as an affirmation of it as a “superpower”, which was perceived in a solely positive light. Now, this presence is, with increasing frequency, viewed as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. It may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called “Crimean consensus” is becoming entirely ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of the country’s population.

The Harsh Bipolarity of the Post-Virus World

The COVID-19 pandemic has evidently accelerated the shaping of the new US-China bipolarity. The recently-launched electoral campaign in the US is marked by Trump and Biden outdoing each other in demonstrating their harsh attitude toward Beijing. The confrontation between the two states is undermining the effectiveness of the UN Security Council, the WHO, G20 and other international organizations. The emerging rigid bipolarity carries systemic risks for all participants in global relations; Russia, additionally, faces other specific threats. The growing asymmetry between the Moscow and Beijing potentials is becoming increasingly visible and cooperation with China’s real or potential opponents (such as India, Vietnam or even Japan) more and more problematic.

P.S.

“Never waste a good crisis”: this paradoxical adage credited to Winston Churchill is relevant today as never before. Neither Russia nor other states should waste the systemic global crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. A crisis does not give anyone grounds for crossing out their past mistakes or forgetting their past achievements. Yet a crisis is not just a convenient pretext but also a solid reason for shaking up one’s old foreign political “wardrobe.” Close scrutiny is certain to reveal things that are moth-eaten, no longer fit, or are simply no longer fashionable.

From our partner RIAC

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