In the first decade of 21st century Russia managed to get out of the economic crisis, restore its military strength, and take course to become a sovereign political pole. To understand the entire scope of Russia’s reaction to difficult foreign challenges and to analyze its probable steps, it is important to investigate its foreign policy strategy.
On November 30, 2016, the Kremlin adopted the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation” (Concept), which was signed by President Vladimir Putin. In the future, Russian diplomacy will continue its operations with this document as one of its main legal pillars.
This Concept argues that Russian foreign policy aims to ensure security, independence and territorial integrity of the state. It must contribute to the development of the democratic and juridical institutions of the country, and also be used for the further growth of the Russian economy.
It is worth mentioning that due to the Concept, one of the main aims of Russian foreign policy is making Russia one of the most influential centers in the modern world.
This clause of the Concept describes that in the future, Russia will be more actively involved in international politics. It will try to create new spheres of influence and find new allies and supporters, with whom it will be able to defend its national interests and reap benefits from different international developments.
It is worth mentioning that Russia has powerful levers to implement the aforementioned aims; the following circumstances can be mentioned:
1.Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This factor provides Moscow with an opportunity to make its voice heard on the main platform for creation of international law. Permanent membership gives Russia veto power, whichmeans that the other parties of the UNSC cannot adopt any resolution without Russia’s agreement. Thus, Russia remains in the group of main players in world affairs. It is the main reason why, in the new Foreign Policy Concept of Russia, it is mentioned that Russia will make efforts to strengthen the role of the UN.
2.Even after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) Russia still possesses the second most powerful military arsenal in the world, strengthened by modernized nuclear weapons. Only Washington surpasses Moscow with its military capabilities.
To strengthen and modernize its military capabilities, Russia plans to invest $700 billion before 2020.
3.Russia possesses tremendous sources of energy and other natural resources, which provide Russia with an opportunity for further development. Even during recent years, when prices on energy resources have drastically decreased, this factor has still played a significant role in Russia’s foreign policy, as Russia gets some economic and political influence in the countries, it supplies with its energy resources.
4.Russia’s geographic location also has its impact, as it provides great opportunities to the Russian navy and air force to maneuver from East to West. This geographic advantage also gives Russia wide economic prospects, as it is a unique bridge connecting Europe to Asia.
This paper aims to analyze and answer the following questions: in which directions will the “Russian bear” move? Which tools and sources will be used by Moscow for implementation of its foreign policy? Which kinds of developments will take place in the era of Russia’s return to big policy?
From Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)
In the section on regional priorities of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, it is written that Russia’s main aim is to develop bilateral and multilateral relations with the CIS member-states and foster implementation of integration projects in this organization with Russia’s involvement.
In the 51st clause of the Concept, it is written that in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union, it is very important to develop relations and implement joint projects with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The main purpose of this ambitious plan is to unite in one political and economic union the former republics of the USSR which are not integrated in other economic or political unions. Firstly, it regards republics, which, unfortunately, after the collapse of the USSR, could not adapt to challenging modern world developments. These states could not find an economic and political role that could make them interesting for the world’s other main players, and as a result their economies have been destabilized and contracted greatly. These states are in deep political and economic crises, and they have also security problems, as they are not able to secure their countries without the help of third parties. In this regard, Vladimir Putin mentioned, that the disappearance of the USSR was a “major geopolitical disaster.”Indeed, it was a disaster for the most of the USSR’s former member states and for its main allies. One-day citizens of the USSR slept in the one of the most powerful countries in the world, and the next day they woke up in a field state with a difficult political and socio-economic situation. In some former republics of the USSR, interethnic clashes started. It seems that Post Soviet states would be also very interested in integration with the EAEU, but the situation is much more complicated, because of the many conflicts acquired as a result of the USSR’s collapse. These unresolved issues create problems for integration processes in the Post-Soviet space.
The second main obstacle to integration developments in this space is the position of the West, which tries not to allow possible “reconciliation” of the USSR. However, it is evident that this is not possible even theoretically.
The Ukrainian revolution, which was fully supported by the West, can be considered the main argument for this second hypothesis. As a result of this political turmoil in Ukraine, Kiev broke its ties with Moscow, and did not join the EAEU, which is led by Moscow. Additionally, the clashes between Ukrainian military forces and the Russian population in East Ukraine are creating barriers between the two Slavonic nations, which are connected to each other by various historical and cultural ties.
In addition, the economic situation in Russia was heavily damaged by Western sanctions and the decreasing price of energy resources. Regardless, even in this challenging situation, Russia could have some success in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad was able to get out of a troublesome situation and start his counterattack with the help of Russian air forces. In East Ukraine, Pro-Russian forces also keep a huge territory under their control.
The Russian Bear Tries to Save its Burned Middle Eastern Hives
From a Russian perspective, resolution of the Syrian conflict is possible via the restoration of the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.
By the way, Russians can agree with Turkey and Iran on ridding Aleppo of terrorists and the so-called Syrian moderate opposition, and afterwards on the return of this strategically important city to Assad’s regime. It is worth mentioning that this unique triangle (Russia-Iran-Turkey), composed of such different states, could come to a conclusion without making an agreement with the US on this issue.
In the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, it is mentioned that International society must jointly struggle against terrorists and prevent creation of dangerous organizations such as ISIS. Additionally, the Russians offer to create a coalition which will battle against terrorism and operate based on an agreed-upon legal framework.
Russia’s tough position on the Syrian crisis and its main aim to finally destroy radical Islamists, who are spreading their ideology worldwide, formed partly because Russia has millions of Muslim citizens, and by struggling against Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, Russia is trying to stop the proliferation of this “dangerous disease”, which is called “the Ideology of ISIS”, on its own territory.
As one of the Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Russia plays a significant role in resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. On the Iranian diplomatic “front”, international society could achieve some success thanks to the constructive role played by Russia and other partners. It is worth mentioning that Russia always disagreed with the US on regime change in Iran under the shadow of the struggle against nuclear proliferation. Russia was against solving this problem by military means and also against unilateral sanctions imposed by the West and its partners to bring Tehran to its knees, as those sanctions were not approved by the UNSC. Playing a constructive role, Russia offered to solve the Iranian nuclear issue using a step-by-step method, which later formed the basis for success in multilateral negotiations with Iran.
Modern Russo-Turkish relations can be described as series of ups and downs, but it is a fact that both sides place importance on bilateral economic and political relations. The main argument of the aforementioned hypothesis is that the crisis of the Russo-Turkish relations was very short. This crisis started when Turkish forces shot down a Russian military jet along the Syrian border. Nevertheless, there is now a new political situation in the Middle East. As the US is trying to leave or showing that it would like to leave this region, it is possible that a new Russo-Turkish confrontation will emerge to divide spheres of influence, and of course, Iran will also participate in this struggle to protect its own national interests.
The Russian Far Eastern Vision, or the Russian Bear Looks towards Beijing
In the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, it is mentioned that the world’s potential is clearly being concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, and consequently the West is gradually losing its historical role as political and economic leader of the world.
In this context, the emerging Far Eastern superpower China is worthy of note, because through its “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st-century Maritime Silk Road” programs (The Belt and Road), it is trying to enlarge its influence. It is interesting that Russian President Putin does not see the new Chinese initiative as a threat; on the contrary, he believes that the EAEU and the Belt and Road must be combined.
It is obvious that in these circumstances, as a result of aggravated relations between Russia and the West, Moscow will deepen its relations with Beijing. It is also mentioned, in the 84th clause of the Concept, that Russia will increase its political and economic cooperation with China.But it is important to mention that China is unable to close the gap in the Russian economy, which emerged after the worsening of Russo-US and Russo-EU relations, alone.
Unlike economic relations, which are growing slowly, Russia and China have succeeded in forming close political cooperation. As a result of close political cooperation, Russia and China try to act as partners during negotiations on resolution of the Iranian and DPRK nuclear issues, as well as the problem of the South China Sea and Syrian crisis. In this regard, it is also worth mentioning the tough Sino-Russian position against the decision of the US and South Korea to place THAAD systems (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) next to the border with North Korea, making them capable of destroying missiles fired from Russian and Chinese territories as well as North Korean.
Russia is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. As in the case of Iranian nuclear issue, Russia does not wish to see new turbulence in the Korean peninsula due to the DPRK nuclear issue, and favors a peaceful solution to this issue through political and diplomatic efforts and negotiations. From my point of view, Moscow has agreed to follow China’s lead on the DPRK nuclear issue in the UNSC, in exchange for China following Russia’s lead on the Iranian nuclear issue.
It is worth mentioning that Iranians attempted to derive benefits from Sino-Russian cooperation in the UNSC. In this regard, Hassan Rouhani said, “We knew that if we could turn Russia to our side, China would also stand next to us.”
Closing, but Still Unclosed Doors to the West
Although it is mentioned in the Concept that Russia will continue implementation of the reduction and limitation of its strategic offensive arms, which it is undertaking due to Russo-American agreements,it must be mentioned, that the current escalation of tensions in Russia-US relations may complicate the possible conclusion of new arms-reduction agreements. Moreover, in this situation, there is the risk that both sides may abandon the agreements reached previously and start a new arms race, like that which existed during the Cold War. The Concept also condemns NATO and EU policies in the Euro-Atlantic region. In this document, Russia deems the policies being implemented by these two Western organizations expansionism.
It is mentioned that the idea to create a “European Common Security Framework” has remained on paper, and the main reason behind the escalation of tensions in relations between Russia and the West is the joint strategy of the US and its Western partners to contain and isolate Russia.
After the collapse of the USSR, when the former members of the Warsaw Pact started to join NATO, Russia tried to understand on which levels these processes helped or contradicted the national interests of Russia. It is worth mentioning that from 1988 to 1999, Russia reduced its army’s personnel from 5 mln. to 1 mln. people.
As Russian researcher Aleksandr Barsenkov mentioned, in the early 90s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced that Russia was ready to begin integration into NATO—one of Russia’s long-term goals in its foreign policy. After several years Yeltsin added that Russia is against NATO enlargement without Russia.
Furthermore, when Yevgeni Primakov was appointed as Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, he announced that Moscow was against NATO’s enlargement, because to Russians it was a threat; due to NATO enlargement, soon Russia would be left alone, surrounded by NATO members.
As Yevgeny Primakov mentioned in his book about negotiations on the enlargement of NATO, “on July 30, 1996, during my meeting with Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of the UK, I mentioned that there are two red lines regarding NATO’s enlargement which Russians will not allow to be crossed. The vertical red line means that Russia is against the placement of NATO infrastructure next to Russian borders by drawing in new members, and the horizontal one means that Moscow will never approve of Baltic or post-Soviet States joining NATO.”
This position remains one of the most important pillars of Russian Foreign policy regarding the enlargement of NATO, and because of this foreign policy priority, Russia has tried to express its disagreement by presenting a tough reaction to Georgia’s and Ukraine’s desire to join NATO.
High-level Russian officials are convinced of the idea that NATO has an anti-Russian orientation. The main argument for this hypothesis may be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech in the General Assembly of the UN. He stated,“Sadly, some of our counterparts are still dominated by their Cold War-era bloc mentality and the ambition to conquer new geopolitical areas. First, they continued their policy of expanding NATO – one should wonder why, considering that the Warsaw Pact had ceased to exist and the Soviet Union had disintegrated.”It appears that NATO is the West’s main lever for deterring Russia, and also the West’s unique watchdog, used to topple regimes which are not playing according to Western rules.
This Russo-American confrontation also takes place in cyberspace. The countries are engaged in a real war there. On the American side, with the help of Russian hackers, information about Hilary Clinton’s official electronic correspondence was spread worldwide, which had an influence on the results of presidential elections in the US. As a result, Clinton lost votes. Because of these Russo-American clashes in cyberspace, the Obama administration deported Russian diplomats from the US, accusing them of involvement in cyber-attacks perpetrated against the US. Putin did not respond to this measure with an equally aggressive answer, and instead announced that he had no wish to fall to the level of “kitchen diplomacy.” With this step, he did not participate in the burning of the Russo-American “last diplomatic bridge”. He confirmed once again that he is ready to cooperate with Donald Trump, elected president of the US, and that he did not want to escalate the situation.
However, while in 2017, Russia was able to keep its balance and avoid economic collapse, in the future, confrontation with the West may become more harsh and dangerous.
After the referendum on the status of Crimea, when Crimea was integrated into Russia, both the US and EU adopted sanctions against Russia.
In June 2016, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, President Putin offered several proposals for normalization of Russia-EU relations to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, but, the EU prolonged sanctions on Russia.
Further development of Russia-EU relations also highly dependent on US foreign policy under Donald Trump, because up to now US decisions have had profound influence on the generation of EU foreign policy.
Taking into consideration the fact that nowadays, the EU’s main leader is Germany, from my point of view, the political developments that have taken place in Ukraine can be placed within the framework of Russo-German historical clashes, but now in a new confrontation.
Throughout history, the German political elite was interested in the East, where it clashed with Russia several times, and as a result was forced to retreat. Until 1945 Germany’s eastern policy consisted of trying to conquer Eastern Europe by military means, but this strategy failed. It appears that German political thought has made new calculations, and now it tries to spread its influence not with weapons, but using its economic leverage—Soft Power. As a result of this new “Eastern Policy”, the majority of Eastern European countries have already joined the EU.
Because of the new Russia-West confrontation, Ukraine has been divided into two parts. On one hand, Western Ukraine has started cooperating with the West and set integration into the EU as its long-term political goal. On the other hand, Crimea and Sevastopol have been integrated into Russia, and Eastern Ukraine is still controlled by pro-Russian military groups.
It is worth mentioning that the annexation of Crimea by Russia was seen as a possibility by the Ukrainian political elite long before 2014. Back in 2007, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko wrote in “Foreign Affairs” that Russia must not be permitted to use Kosovo’s independence from Serbia as a precedent to promote secessionist movements, most importantly a Crimean secessionist movement, in attempt to destabilize national governments.”
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned that Russia has no intention to continue confrontations with the US, EU and NATO. As he stated, the best option for defense of the interests of the European continent’s population may be the creation of a single economic and humanitarian space, which would reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. He added that the newly established EAEU could become the best bridge for integration processes between Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
Non-Traditional Forms of Classical Diplomacy: New Directions
It is mentioned in the Concept that soft power must be one of the most important tools of Russian foreign policy, and must be widely used by Russian diplomats.
The “Gerchakov Fund”and the “Russian World” foundation actively work towards the improvement of Russia’s reputation and the creation of a network of supporters worldwide. They grant scholarships and organize special courses to represent the Russian language, as well as Russian culture, history and policy.
In the new Concept, Russian diplomacy places high value on the preservation of Russian communities and Russian identity around the world. It is worth mentioning that Russia has started to place importance on the involvement of the Russian diaspora in its foreign policy. It means that Russian diplomats plan to use public diplomacy to achieve their main goals.
The 48th clause of the Concept says that Russia must take steps to use the potential of Russian researchers in its public diplomacy by activating contacts between Russian and foreign scholars. Currently Russia has many powerful analytical centers, for instance: the Russian Council on International Relations, the PIR Center, the Valdai International Discussion Club, and others, which, with the help of modern technologies, distribute their publications in both Russian and English.
It is worth mentioning, that in the Concept’s 21st and 22nd clauses, Russia acknowledges its responsibility for the maintenance of security on both regional and global levels. It is mentioned in this document that throughout history, Russia has always played a unique role, balancing international relations and contributing to the development of civilization.
Professor Stephan Kotkin does not agree with this idea; as he mentioned, “Until Russia brings its aspirations into line with its actual capabilities, it cannot become a ‘normal’ country, no matter what the rise in its per capita GDP or other quantitative indicators is.” In my turn, I do not agree with Kotkin, as after the collapse of the USSR, Russia tried to integrate into the Western world several times and become, as Kotkin described, a “normal” country, but it came across closed doors. Then it tried to turn toward the East, but in East it is also very hard to play one’s own game, as China, in turn, tries to play the leading role there and will not surrender its position to the Russians. That was the main reason that Russia turned to the former Soviet Republics and started to create its own, independent pole.
Because of the West’s attempts to isolate and deter Russia, the country started to implement aggressive policy to defend its national interests and break the potential blockade. As a result, with lightning speed, Russia reunited with Crimea and Sevastopol.
By retaking Crimea and maintaining Assad’s regime, Russia ruined the West’s plans, due to which Russia could have been ousted from two seas, the Mediterranean and the Black. In short, thanks to its support of Assad, Russia extended its military bases in Syrian Latakia, and by reconquering Crimea, it kept the dominant strategic position of the Russian navy on the Black sea.
After the collapse of the USSR, during the Syrian crisis and Ukrainian political turmoil, Russia has demonstrated that it is capable of defending its national interests, not only via declarations and negotiations, but also by exerting its influence and projecting its power on a global scale by combining its military and economic strength.
Which kinds of developments will take place in the era of Russia’s return to big policy?
If Russia unites most of the Post-Soviet States in one economic and political block, it could form a new strong pole, which could become an alternative to the US and China’s political models. Russia chose the so-called Eurasian ideology for uniting different Eurasian nations under the umbrella of the EAEU. Indeed, this ideology can provide an opportunity to various states which were not brought into the EU or other integration programs projected by the West to join EAEU. The other argument is that if Russia and China will be able to harmonize the EAEU with the Chinese “One road, one Belt” program, they can form a very strong pole, and thus they will irreversibly change the unipolar world order, which was created at the end of the Cold War.
Russia’s return to global big politics means that the role of the UN will be strengthened. If, in the recent past, the US underestimated the role of UN, and many times made several steps without waiting or asking the UN, now it must, because Russia and China can keep them in the same manner, and as a result international society will face dangerous chaos. Thus, Russia’s return to “global big politics” will bring balance to world affairs. Development of the EAEU will provide an opportunity to improve the economic situations of Post-Soviet states, which are not in good political, social and economic condition.
The process of integration into the EAEU will provide opportunities for development to most of the Post-Soviet states which are still mired in political turmoil and economic hardship.
The only problem with Russia’s return to global big politics is that it can lead to new political crises in the world, arms races, a continuation of the so-called Cold war, wars, and victors and losers, if this return is seen by western capitals as a great threat.
(*)Mher D. Sahakyan-Doctor of Laws in International Relations (Nanjing University, China).Research Fellow, National Defence Research University, MoD, Armenia, Director of the “‘China-Eurasia’ Council for Political and Strategic Research” Foundation, Armenia and the author of the article Rethinking Russia’s Return to Global Big Policy, (Dar 21, 2(72), 2017, pp. 63-88), from which this essay is adapted. Translated from Armenian. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The other side of the Olympics
The world Olympic movement has always been based on the principles of equal and impartial attitude towards athletes – representatives of all states of the world. The Olympic Games were designed to stop wars and political strife, to unite representatives of all countries of the International Olympic Committee. One of the main Olympic principles was peacekeeping – the opportunity for the strongest athletes to meet under national flags for a peaceful competition. We seem to be losing all this today. Since the days of Nazi Germany, the Olympic Games have become a weapon of propaganda, and during the Cold War, political squabbles from terrorist attacks, protests and boycotts unfolded around them. However, now, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) forced the Russian team to abandon the national flag and anthem, the entire political background of the current Olympic Games has become especially visible.
In ancient Greece, military operations were stopped for the period of the Olympic Games. Peaceful competitions, the cult of sports, the cult of beauty and the spirit of ancient competitions had priority. As the founder of modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, wanted to revive all this! But the proud fathers of Athens or Baron de Coubertin could hardly have imagined that in modern days noble sports would turn into an instrument of a political game. Earlier, there were boycotts because of the Cold War, provocations in the stands, racism… Now we have strange doping scandals. As a result, the Tokyo Olympics, at the suggestion of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), have become institutions that also operate on the basis of political interests.
As a reminder, since 2014, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been investigating the massive use of doping by Russian athletes. They were stripped of their medals and removed from the competition. In Russia itself, where they love sports and root for their athletes, this was perceived as a planned attack on Russian sports. Moreover, for example, Russian biathlon fans are convinced that half of European athletes in this discipline use anti-asthma drugs that expand the lungs “for medical reasons”.
However, that the suspension of Russian athletes is not based on scientific facts is confirmed by the statement of the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, Ole Einar Bjorndalen.
Bjorndalen, 47, an eight-time Olympic biathlon champion, stated in 2017,that more compelling evidence than scratch marks supposedly found on sample bottles of some Russian athletes if they are to be implicated in the ongoing doping scandal.
“I hope that we will be able to see some evidence for what they [Russian athletes] are being punished, and that it it’s not that there are some marks on the bottles, because then I will be terribly afraid of giving samples,” Bjorndalen, said, as cited by the Norwegian News Agency (NTB).
The very idea that one can be found guilty of doping violations without being tested positive has stoked fears among the athletes as they now worry they can be punished virtually under any pretext, Bjorndalen said.
“We skiers are beginning to feel uncertain when we are being tested that there are some scratches on sample bottles for which they can punish us,” he said.
Anyone who violates the doping regulations should be punished, and severely, so that the strong message is sent, that fair play is the basis of the Olympic Games. But to punish the whole country, and which is superpower in sport(Russia is always among the few countries with the most medals won), on the basis of unreliable evidence, is absolutely unacceptable.
Therefore, in response to a well-thought-out decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the days of the Olympics rallies, the Russians launched the not quite tolerant hashtag #wewillROCyou (according to the permitted name of the Russian team – Russian Olympic Committee). The anger of ordinary Russian citizens is reasonable if we keep in mind that never in history has any country been deprived of its flag and anthem.
So we have to ask ourselves, all of us who love sports but also basic human rights, is it right to try to humiliate a country of 147 million inhabitants? Especially having in mind how much that country has provided to the world in the field of sports, culture, science. The answer is self-imposed – the injustice towards Russian athletes and Russia must be corrected.
Russian Foreign Ministry sees elements of show in “Navalny poisoning”
Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova has yet again dwelled with her usual sarcasm on last year’s reports about “Russia’s top opposition leader” and “the deadly Novichok”. Zakharova made the comments with her hallmark sense of humour over her Telegram channel following newly released reports on the results of an inquiry into the “poisoning of Navalny”, which appeared in the course of the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in July.
On August 20 last year, Russia’s public activist and campaigner Alexei Navalny had to be taken off his flight at Omsk and was delivered to hospital in a grave condition. Well before the final diagnosis he was flown to a Berlin hospital and there he was diagnosed with Novichok poisoning. Later on, he revealed the results of his own investigation which established the involvement in the poisoning of a group of FSB agents. The story has become the butt of a joke in Russia. Russians want to know why Novichok has not killed anyone so far and why Russian special services are unable to carry out a simple elimination operation.
Giving rise to more jokes was the publication of “an inquiry into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny” which the Russian side obtained from a report on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in implementation of its core document – the 2020-2021 Convention. Part 1.41 of the report, which was published after the session, says that “on August 20, 2020, at the request of Germany, the Secretariat dispatched a group of experts who were to render technical assistance in connection with reports about the poisoning of the Russian activist”. But August 20 was the very day of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who suddenly felt ill on board of the plane and who told the passengers about the poisoning himself. At about 6 a.m. (4.00 CET) Moscow time the plane with Navalny on board made an emergency landing at Omsk. The news got into the media by midday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were in meeting at the time. At 18.30 CET they give a press conference signaling the need to conduct an inquiry. On the same day the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received a request from Germany and reacted. However, for an international organization that adheres to specific procedures a reaction that quick is impossible for technical reasons. Unless all this has been planned before, which is what Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova points out.
Russian representatives prepared for the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons far better than the Germans. That’s why when asked why the draft report contains the date August 20 the German side first said that it was a misprint and then “recalled” that on that day chancellor Merkel turned to the Organization with a request. In any case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must secure a preliminary approval from its Secretariat before it can send any experts for conducting an inquiry. Interestingly, the Organization could not explain the confusion over the dates and procedures.
This situation enabled the Russian Foreign Ministry to ‘’strike a new blow’’, accusing the United States, Britain and a number of European countries of regularly breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention. Simultaneously, many Russian media reminded their subscribers that Navalny was hospitalized after two days of noisy parties and visits to the sauna. The lifestyle of “Russia’s top opposition campaigner” causes a lot of criticism, as the anti-corruption activist lives a lavish life, which is unaffordable to most Russians and alienates potential supporters.
Zakharova’s harsh and sarcastic statements, made via her Telegram channel and picked up by the Russian media, de facto demonstrate that Moscow views the entire “poisoning” story as poorly fabricated and will not accept whatever results the West’s inquiry may present. We can see that the “Navalny case” does have a lot of flaws and that the Kremlin had clearly pointed them out. Even the ardent opponents to the Russian government refrain from mentioning “poisoning”, saying that “Alexei” went over the line and that the story about “the Novichok-soaked underpants” sounds implausible.
Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?
The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.
Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.
In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.
The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.
Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.
Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.
The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.
In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.
Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.
Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.
The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.
Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.
In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.
Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.
In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.
Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.
Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.
Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.
Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.
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