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Working Under the Radar: The Stealth Alternative in Russia’s Foreign Policy

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The new cold war between Russia and the West is characterized by the absence of a clear ideological confrontation. This constitutes its fundamental difference from the era of bipolarity, when the Soviet Union and the United States were irreconcilable ideological enemies.

Both sides offered universal ideological doctrines to the world. Ideology served as an important source of foreign policy legitimacy and formed the basis for consolidating allies and spreading influence.

Today, the situation has changed. The West continues to rely on the liberal political theory. The ideological component remains strong in terms of pressuring Russia, although it is fairly outdated and needs major adaptations. Russia, however, is unable to come up with ideological alternatives comparable to the Soviet ones. All of this creates an illusion of postmodern rivalry with a mixture of pragmatism and populist simulation of meanings in the foreground. However, the real situation is different. The ideology of the new cold war is taking shape and will make itself felt. For Russia, much will depend on its choice of ideological strategy.

The sharp ideological division in relations between Russia and the West is the legacy of the “short 20th century.” It was then that Soviet Russia (and later the Soviet Union) began to define itself in opposition to the Western bourgeois environment, the source of an alien ideology and way of life, which must be contained and, ideally, converted into another faith. This never was the case in the imperial period. Russia competed with individual Western countries or coalitions. But, at the same time, it led other coalitions, was part of them or sought the neutrality of some to free its hands in war efforts with others. For several centuries, Russia skillfully avoided confrontation with the collective and consolidated West, while being part of the ideological divisions inside it. After the French Revolution and throughout the revolutionary 19th century, St. Petersburg acted as a consistent supporter and even leader of conservative policy. For Europe, Russia was a significant other, but managed to remain an integral part of European politics and diplomacy.

The situation changed dramatically following the 1917 October Revolution. As the only major power in which left radicals succeeded in seizing and subsequently concentrating power, Russia confidently claimed leadership of the international left. Its authority and soft power were extremely strong. This was facilitated by the fact that throughout the 20th century, Marxism remained the most powerful and one of the most influential political theories in the West and the world in general. However, European socialism evolved as capitalism adapted to the demands of the left, took on milder forms, and was eventually co-opted by the liberal-democratic model. The success of such co-optation in the post-war period dealt a heavy blow to the universalist ambitions of the Soviet Union, which was unlikely to follow the path of European socialism. The latter threatened the foundations of the Soviet regime as it suggested a genuine alternative, regular change of leaders and democracy. The end of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and Brezhnev’s conservative reversal clearly illuminated this trend. The Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring undermined the authority of the Soviet Union and its leadership position among the left. In Asia, the Soviet Union ran into a major opponent in the person of Communist China. Mao came up with an alternative interpretation of Marxism, accused the USSR of imperialism and demonstrated a determination to use force. In 1969, the Soviet army defeated Chinese troops on Damansky Island. However, China exposed the ideological unity of the international left on the world arena as ephemeral, and this was a much harder blow to the Soviet Union. On the ideological level, the falling out with China and the loss of authority in Eastern Europe did more damage to the Soviet Union than the US efforts to promote liberal values. Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet socialism started experiencing prolonged death throes, which intensified as economic administration deteriorated, the development gap widened and the exhausting arms race took its toll. Trust in socialism among the Soviet elite was shaken as well. Inside the country, ideology was increasingly becoming an imitation of itself, resulting in an explosive mixture of cynicism and frustration.

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to alter this disastrous trajectory. He tried to end the confrontation with the West, substantially modernize the Soviet socialist project and bring it closer to European socialism, achieve convergence with Western Europe within the framework of the common European home concept, and, thus, create space to tackle the most pressing internal issues. By 1988, Gorbachev had managed to achieve some key goals, such as exiting the Cold War without suffering defeat, ending the arms race, maintaining equality in relations with the West, launching the modernization of the socialist system and gaining immense moral authority. However, already in 1989 all these necessary but belated measures let off a cumulative mass of contradictions that had built up over years. The collapse of the socialist bloc and the USSR itself was a totally unexpected disaster, which was swift and irreversible. It is not surprising that the West won a convincing victory. But the victory was over the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, not the socialist project or the left idea as such.

Following the Cold War, Russia spent a long time flailing in search of a new identity and ideology. Interestingly, the positions of the liberals were fairly weak both in Russia and all the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Nationalism was consistently gaining ground across the vast post-communist space. In Central and Eastern Europe, it fit well with the new democratic institutions and the common course toward integration with the EU and NATO. However, in the post-Soviet space, it took on a starkly ethnic nature and was accompanied by the degradation of institutions. In many cases, Russia was portrayed as part of a “dark chapter” in national histories, and Russophobia became a convenient tool for national consolidation.

Developments in Russia followed the nationalist trend in general. Liberalism was quickly defeated here. It was torpedoed by a weak social base, unsuccessful reforms, severe economic crisis and an overall disappointment in ideological prescriptions as such. On the contrary, nationalism proved to be a convenient alternative for unifying a frustrated and disparate society. It relied on patriotism, consolidation around common threats to security, emphasis on continuity with both the Soviet and imperial history, an end to denying the Soviet past, and an independent foreign policy. The leadership of Vladimir Putin, who personified the new political course, played an important role. The lost sense of dignity returned to Russian society. It began to acquire a new national identity.

Seemingly, all this brought Russia back into the tradition of the imperial era, when the country played an independent role, but always was a systemic “Western” player. This logic also seemed to underlie Russia’s massive support for the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the pushback (along with Germany and France) against the US invasion of Iraq. Russia regained its space for foreign policy maneuvering and was no longer constrained by a universalist ideology.

However, unlike the imperial era, the West itself retained both military-political and ideological consolidation. As soon as Moscow’s foreign policy activities crossed the “red lines,” all the power of Western ideology concentrated on Russia once again. Only this time around, there is no global alternative on our side. We are forced to play the West no longer on the global field, but our own one, contrasting liberal universalism with our own nationalism. This is an extremely risky game, because the nationalism of a single country will never become global. It can succeed in beating liberalism on its own field, but this will only reduce the game to a draw and provide no guarantees against a new game at the worst time for the country at that. Russia entered a new cold war with the ambitions of the USSR, but without its power, ideology, or authority it enjoyed in its better years.

What are the alternatives? The first is to return to the status quo of the conventional pre-Munich period. The problem is that a tactical retreat here may well turn into a landslide loss of ground as it happened in the early 1990s. Especially if such a maneuver coincides with the aggravation of domestic problems.

The second alternative is an attempt to build one’s own global alternative. It is also an undesirable option given the obvious inability at this stage to back up a global ideology with an effective economy, appealing way of life or other important elements. The attempt to play on the same field with Western liberalism will lead to an even greater depletion of resources.

Finally, there is the third alternative which I would call the “stealth alternative.” By this I mean Russia gradually disappearing from the Western radars as a threat, while it accumulates resources, builds regional integration projects in Eurasia, expands its participation in international organizations and increases its role in resolving global issues. This approach implies preserving and strengthening foreign policy positions along with a qualitative change in the language of communication with the West and the outside world in general. The language and the narrative of our foreign policy will play the key role. It is time for us to quit constantly complaining about the treachery of the West, and stop dwelling on who cheated us and how in the 1990s. The West is unlikely to have any compunctions. However, such rhetoric creates a depressive impression outside the Western world. Threats must be countered, but one should not obsess over them. We need a language of opportunities that we see for ourselves in the world, and which we want to offer the world. Fortunately, Russia has something to work with in this area.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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How Crimea Strengthened Russia’s Eurasian Identity

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While the west imagined Crimea was just a territorial dispute that had got out of hand and its annexation a move forced on Putin to salvage something from the ruins of his Ukrainian policy, the Chinese saw it as the moment Russia flipped from being a Eurocentric power to a Eurasian one. The bridge that connected mainland Russia to Crimea which cost $3,69 bln and stretched for 19km symbolized the fact that this was not just a buffer zone but sacred territory and there was no going back as its unity with Russia was eternal. A massive new mega church the resurrection to honour Crimea’s return to the motherland. Leading Siloviki from the power ministries such as defence minister Sergei Shoygu was pictured in a mosaic to show that the days of Russian were over and that the security services were once again watching over Russia and ensuring that the enemies encircling it were kept at bay .The temporal and the sacral under Putin were once again in harmony after decades of being at odds with one another.

The idea that Russia through Eurasia was coming back to itself was a perennial topic of influential nationalists .The infatuation with the west was over and Russians were once again appreciating that being different did not mean inferior. For example Dmitry Rogozhin the head of Russia’s space agency commented that “in space one must not run after beautiful goods with wonderful labels under the music of Bowie, but one must lean first and foremost on well functioning systems.” The excellence of Russia’s high performance sectors should energize the low expectation culture that bedevilled many Eurasian projects . So for example regarding the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge which was built to accommodate  300,000 vehicles and had a load capacity of 4 million tonnes prime minister Mikhail Misushtin on its commemoration wanted to know “what it was like working with Chinese partners” on the project. Like the Chinese Russians should not tolerate excuses for shoddy work and should not look at the Crimea annexation as an exception but a rule. Not as a one off event with a short lived effect that disappeared once the euphoria ended but something to be harnessed permanently so it could be applied on an industrial scale across multiple sectors.

Eurasian road

Russia had proved in Crimea that it had an edge in cyber technology in particular and could act unilaterally to defend its interests. But it was working at razor thin margins and stretching them to the limits so it could only be sustained for a short time. It was much more effective combined with a partner China that had spare capacity and an abundance of riches and did not have to work fast in case it used up all its resources too quickly. It only needed to employ a fraction of their strength and allow the Russians to spread the  burden with the Chinese. Where  they could concentrate on upgrading their labour and production capacity  without the pressure of bringing immediate results.  So whereas  the Blagoveshchensk- Heihe bridge was a “difficult object because the weather did not allow us to work in the snow, the access road was snowed over”  the barriers were ” quickly pushed them to one side”. And apart from Vant all the material was sourced from Russian factories. So “we ordered different products from Omsk, Tomsk – at various factories.”

 As new technology became available the costs and risks of operating in the region would fall to acceptable limits and allow it to “reach central Russian living standards.” Its mass introduction would have a dramatic effect so that Siberia and  companies like SIBUR would “have highly efficient and competitive production which would strengthen its position not only in the domestic market but in the world.” It could then pave the way for “thousands of high technology work places, transport and social infrastructure.” This would have a “multiplying effect” on the economy there. And in the case of joint projects such as the Amur gas processing plant the goal was “in the area of metal construction, building material, laboratory and tele mechanical equipment it would be 100% localized.” The problem was to keep as much production as possible within the region and not allow it to move across the border while engaging with the Chinese to the maximum extent. And that any gains in efficiency brought about by digitalization would not come at the expense of hollowing out of the local economy and turn it into a hub for low grade goods.

Regional Dynamo

The Chinese would not be allowed to capture the regional market but it would not done in a way that would discriminate against Chinese companies and deter them from trading. The Russian attitude was that it would be scrupulous in respecting Chinese economic interests and would not disrupt the level playing fields to gain an unfair advantage. They might look to tweak the relationship a bit but not undermine the general direction of travel. The Chinese would continue to enjoy a privileged status within the Russian far east just as minority autonomous regions enjoyed a privileged position within the Federation. This allowed them to champion the cause of engagement with China by presenting it as a Eurasian enclave which shared as much with China as it did with Russia. So the Governor of the Jewish autonomous province Rostislav Goldstein extolling the opening of the bridge between Nizhneleninsko and Tsunyan looked forward to the time where “in the territories around the bridge industrial parks should appear which could produce additional value. And then we need to learn to produce our own products.” He added that “there is an idea now unrealized that we could get permission to create a cross border territory where Russian companies could learn from Chinese comrades.”  So in the enterprise of Vostochny port for example “very attractive conditions of work were established.” And thus  “decent pay, social guarantees, comfortable and secure conditions for production” would develop “team building”. And the benefits would be shared by “colleagues and members of their family who had access to health resorts, nurseries and convalescence centres.”

The degree of political closeness did not heavily influence Chinese economic decision making. It did not mean that because a country had friendly relations with China business opportunities would automatically follow. For the Chinese geopolitical considerations were much less important than economic opportunities .They viewed Eurasia in pragmatic   rather than hard line ideological terms so that even if they shared the same authoritarian leanings the most important factor was economic competence. A country was judged by its economic fitness rather than its political compatibility. The departure from liberal norms was minimal and the extent of their ambitions was confined to working within the system and adapting it to its needs rather than replacing it with a new order based around Moscow and Beijing . The Chinese approach was subtle and multidimensional helping reinterpret the Russian state as a  conservative bulwark at its core  with distinct, complementary  regional particularities open to prevailing  global influences.

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How to strengthen the unity of the people of Russia?

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The significance of the recent changes to the Russian Constitution, and topical issues of interethnic relations were the centerpiece of an online international conference held at the Moscow headquarters of the Public Chamber of Russia.

Opening the conference, “We are the multinational people of the Russian Federation: unity in diversity,” the chairman of the Public Chamber’s Commission and member of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations, Vladimir Zorin, described the period when the Constitution was adopted as very difficult and characterized by an active development of new concepts and approaches pertaining to interethnic relations. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, then one of the world’s two superpowers, brought about a flurry of serious problems, many of ethno-political nature, which rippled out into the outside world. These included a resurgence of national and cultural self-awareness of Russia’s many peoples, a religious revival, the exacerbation of old and the emergence of new ethno-political conflicts, and finally, the growth of ethnic and ethno-confessional separatism, which sometimes degenerated into open terrorism. All this threatened the very existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state. Russia was forced to make a swift transition from the Soviet to what was then perceived as a liberal-democratic model of “minimal state,” paying an enormous socio-economic and political price for that changeover, which ignored Russia’s traditional values and historical continuity and, at the end of the day, proved largely counterproductive. And all this time, sociologists and politicians alike have been searching for the optimal way of establishing Russia’s statehood and for an ideological doctrine that would be consistent with this country’s traditional values.

The Constitution, adopted on December 12, 1993, contained a number of innovations that laid the foundations for a new society. In its original version, it made no mention of the country’s ethnic and state makeup, as well as of differentiation between the subjects of the Russian Federation along ethnic-state, administrative-territorial and ethno-territorial lines. Neither did it provide the right or the procedure for their exit from the federation. Thus, the people’s right to self-determination is clearly interpreted as self-determination within Russia.

The Constitution allows broader legal regulation of ethnic-related processes, and of ethnic and civil identification at the personal, regional and national levels. In keeping with Section 2 of Article 26 of the Constitution, people are free to determine and indicate their nationality, and no one can be forced to either determine of indicate his or her nationality.

“The amendments proposed in the course of the discussion of the results of the nationwide vote on July 1, 2020, enlarged on these approaches. As a result, in recent years, the ethno-cultural sovereignty of the Russian Federation has been restored, with the state focusing once again on issues of an ethno-political nature,” Zorin concluded.

The head of the General Secretariat of the Eurasian Peoples’ Assembly, Svetlana Smirnova, noted that on the basis of the proposed constitutional changes, work is already underway to enshrine them in the law.

“This conference was on the list of events that are part of our program and were approved by the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs. This year is the first time that our federal and national-territorial cultural autonomies and associations have had the opportunity to hold events with the Agency’s support. Our main goal is to further improve the mechanisms for strengthening the civic unity of the Russian nation, preserve and develop ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity, popularize the spiritual and moral values ​​of the peoples of Russia in accordance with the amendments to the Constitution,” Smirnova noted.

One of the most important constitutional amendments makes it incumbent on the Russian Federation to help compatriots living abroad exercise their rights to protect their interests and preserve their Russian and cultural identity. The state safeguards the cultural identity of all peoples and ethnic communities, guarantees the preservation of the country’s ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity. This is not just a declaration. According to the State Ethnic Policy Strategy of the Russian Federation, adopted in 2012, there are people of 193 nationalities now living in the Russian Federation and speaking 277 languages ​​and dialects. At the same time, 87 languages ​​are used in the system of education. By the time the amended version of the Strategy was adopted six years later, their number had already risen to 105. This requires additional efforts and financing needed to write new  textbooks and train school and university teachers, and the Russian state is ready to foot the bill.

“In our country, as one of the world’s most multi-ethnic and multilingual states, issues of ethnic policy are of particular relevance,” said Anna Kotova, State Secretary – Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs.

Leokadia Drobizheva, who heads the Center for the Study of Interethnic Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, emphasized the all-importance for any country of the concept of “consent” that was added to the text of the State Ethnic Policy Strategy in 2012. Without this, it is impossible to implement either economic or cultural plans.

“This concept meant not just good relations between people, but also trust and the ability to coordinate their interests and settle disputes,” she explained.

According to the results of a sociological survey published by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), the indicator of trust in Russian society is constantly fluctuating, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. And still, apart from their desire to survive, our people also demonstrated a an acute sense of compatibility and a desire to help each other, especially in multiethnic places like Astrakhan region, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Yakutia and Karelia. The respondents named family, work and material wellbeing as their main values. They also mentioned equality of all people before the law, justice, equal opportunities for education and work, as well as the right for paid vacations among the goals that need to be achieved to maintain unity. Thus, the concept of “consent,” introduced into the Strategy, is provided with the most important social functions for a person, which also pertains to interethnic relations in Russia.

“Currently, only 4 percent of our citizens have experienced prejudice based on their ethnicity and race. However, the actual percentage of such attitudes is higher and varies depending on the situation in the region, with 78-80 percent of those polled saying that they do not experience any negativity.  On the other hand, we know that such problems arise regularly and need to be taken into account in order to ensure effective prevention of extremism. First of all, we are talking about the observance of a citizen’s constitutional rights. One’s nationality should not impede employment or career growth, and this is something about 40 percent of respondents are concerned about. The situation in Bashkiria, Yakutia and Tatarstan deserves special attention and here we have no reason for complacence,” Drobizheva noted.

In turn, the concept of “consent” is directly related to Russian identity. Even though Russian citizens are primarily concerned about their material wellbeing, it is equally important that they feel themselves as being one people. According to data released by VTsIOM, before the pandemic struck, 90 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Russian citizens. This is a very high percentage, of course. However, Russian citizens differ in their perception of national identity. While some of them associate themselves primarily with a single state, the majority associate themselves with the legal field they live in. At the same time, when it comes to history and culture, just under 50 percent of respondents said that besides unifying tendencies there are also separatist tendencies there, depending on the region.  

“This area deserves close and delicate attention,” Leokadia Drobizheva concluded.

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Russia took a stance on friendship with China

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Russia proved its sincere friendship with China by canceling its Summit meeting with India, on charges of its too much pro-American policies.

Russia and India signed a treaty of Strategic friendship in the year 2000. Russian helped India in many aspects, including market access, economic assistance, technology transfer, and defense cooperation. In fact, the Indian defense Industry was based on Russian technical assistance. Russian was extending its full diplomatic and political support under this agreement.

Since signing the strategic agreement, there was a summit meeting every year without any disruption for consecutive 19 years. But this year, the meeting was postponed a couple of times and finally canceled.

The political gurus foresee a severe rift in Russia-India relations. Not only different interests but opposite interests, which might lead to further consequences shortly.

India was developing its relations with America rapidly. India hired politicians, senators, Congress members, and media houses for lobbying inside America to promote Indian narrative and importance among the US-Administration. Gradually, India convinced US-Administration and developed close relations. Signing as A major Defense Partner and series of strategic agreements with the US, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement)being the last in sequence, has completed the close alliance between the US and India.

Indian role in Asia-Pacific Alliance and the US, Australia, and Japan is evident that Indian interests have aligned with America entirely. The alliance is to encircle China, counter China, and resist the Chinese rise. Whereas Russian interests are opposite, it cooperates with China, supports China, and maintains peace and security in the region and globally.

Russian interests and Indian interests were in a direct collision. Russia has declared its relations with China more strategic, and any country wanted to harm China, Russia feels its obligation to cut ties with them.

It was Russian who made it possible that India joined SCO. But now, many member countries in SCO doubt Indian role in SCO, as Indian interests coincide with America rather than SCO. Some member countries may ask for banning Indian presence in SCO, as it concerns the organization’s security and privacy.

India is also a member of BRICS, where Russia and China are also present. If India keeps opposing China and its mega initiatives BRI and keeps its border disputes with China, it might become very uncomfortable to keep its membership.

India might be wanted to play smartly, getting benefits from Russia while silently serving American interests. It might not work anymore. India needs to make its mind-set, either to be sincere in SCO, BRICS, relations with Russia and China, etc., and declare its straightforward policy. Keep its feet on two boats, going in opposite directions, may fail.

Many countries in the world are declared to be on the American block, and it is accepted. There is no harm to be in any club. But the problem with India is to be in two blocks simultaneously. It creates many suspicions.

Recently, Russia is in close relations with Pakistan, Turkey, and Iraan, while India has rivalries with all of them. It will also be difficult for Russia to maintains good relations with India while developing ties with Indian adversaries. Indian role in Afghanistan is also against the interests of Russia. Russian supports peace and stability in Afghanistan, whereas India opposes it. In geopolitics, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey are emerging a block, where India is the adversary to all of them.

Speaking via video link to the Russian international affairs council, a state-run think tank, recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while referring to the Quad group, said Western countries were trying to weaken India’s close ties and Russia.

Russian Ambassador to India, Nikolai Kudashiv, proposed a Eurasian treaty in the Indian Ocean — so it is crucial to understand what Russia has in common with the Quad Group.

“The United States and Russia are at odds with each other. The United States is in the Quad. In this way, India will become part of the ‘anti-Russia’ tent. The Russian Navy in the Indo-Pacific could be in danger.

Tensions between India and China in the Ladakh region have been high since May this year. When things got worse, it was in Russia that Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met with the Chinese Defence Minister. Many experts believe that Russia has acted as a mediator between the two countries at the behest of India. Russia had also played a similar role during the Doklam conflict. Some experts believe that it is immoral for India to be part of an “anti-China group” even when the border dispute between India and China continues, and Russia is playing a mediating role.

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