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Rethinking Russia’s Return to Global Big Policy

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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The European Union and Russia: To talk or not to talk and about what?

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The recent visit of the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell to Moscow was seen by those, who care about good-neighbourly relations between the EU and Russia, as a first step on the way of putting an end to their decline, since already for some time they were going from bad to worse. Why didn’t the expectations of these people of good will bear the fruit? Were they simply naïve? To an extent, it is true. But why was there such a negative reaction to Borrell’s visit in several European capitals, and also in the European Parliament, including the calls for his resignation? What led Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, to declare that his country must be ready to severing relations with the EU in case the latter adopts new sanctions against Moscow? What would this mean for Europe, for Russia and even for the wider world since notwithstanding the coronavirus the world remains interconnected and interdependent, even if a reverse tendency has also become visible?

First of all, it has to be noted that there are those, both in Russia as well as in Europe, who are actively against any improvement of relations between Moscow and Brussels. In Russia these are not only, and even not so much, those ultra-nationalists (exemplified, say, by Alexander Prohkanov) for whom the Western influence in Russia is like a bat from the hell infected by coronavirus. These are also members of the radical pro-Western opposition to the Kremlin, exemplified by Alexei Navalny. For them any sign of reconciliation between the West and Russia is a cause for alarm since in such a case they may be soon out of job. And both of these Russian opponents of rapprochement between the EU and Russia have their counterparts in the West, including Europe. Significant parts of political elites, particularly in the Baltic countries and in Poland, for whom trans-Atlantic ties are much more important than European interests, hope that by supporting the radical opposition in Russia they could enforce there a regime change, a kind of ‘colour revolution’.

However, as the success of such scenarios is ‘highly unlikely’ and political pragmatism and economic self-interests usually prevail over vociferous extremism, be it political or religious, there is still hope at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, when Sergei Lavrov said that Russia should be ready to possible severing relations between EU and Russia, he didn’t mean at all that it would be Russia’s choice. It was said in the context of a response to a threat of new EU’s sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions since all such unfriendly measures inevitably undermine relations between States and societies. And though it is impossible to realistically imagine a complete severance of relations between Brussels and Moscow, it may well be that at least for the nearest future political relations between them become a bit frozen. It maybe even advisable to take the time off and reflect for a while, instead of continuing with mutual recriminations. However, this would also mean that relations between Russia and individual member-States of the Union would necessarily rise in importance since there are areas and issues where cooperation between Russia and Europe is inevitable and unavoidable (be it the situation in the Middle East, the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, responses to cyber-terrorism and even the conflict in Eastern Ukraine or the situation in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh, etc.). Moreover, Covid-19 is not only forcing States to impose stricter border controls, even within in the Schengen zone; the virus is also pushing them to cooperate in the distribution and use of effective vaccines, notwithstanding their ‘politically incorrect’ origin. This all means that the role and position of the EU in the world would further weaken.

The failure of Borrell’s mission was also predetermined by what the High Representative himself called ‘the DNA’ of the European Union – the concern for human rights, particularly in States that don’t belong to the Union. As the High Representative himself claimed, in justification of his visit and apologising before the MEPs for its meagre results, the primary purpose of his twofold mission was to convey to the Kremlin the Union’s concerns for human rights and political freedoms in Russia and particularly for the situation of Mr Navalny. He even demanded Navalny’s ‘immediate and unconditional release’. And only then came issues of bilateral cooperation between the EU and Russia. This was an absolutely wrong, even disastrous, way to start a dialogue. The European Union is not a human rights NGO, like the Amnesty International or the Human Rights Watch, and even if it has a human rights mandate, then only vis-à-vis its member-States. Moreover, the whole history of the human rights movement shows that inter-State relations (and relations between the EU and Russia are inter-State relations) are not the best forum for conducting a human rights discourse. For that there are specialised human rights bodies, both international and domestic, intergovernmental and non-governmental. When human rights diplomacy of States has had tangible positive effects, it has been achieved by unobtrusive approaches, never through public criticism in the face of mass media. Such criticism has always been counterproductive, even vis-à-vis smaller and weaker States, to say nothing about great powers.

Usually such public criticism doesn’t even have a purpose of improving the human rights situation in a target country. It may be a form of self-satisfaction – we are holding a moral high-ground, while you are outcasts (rogue or pariah States). It is nice to feel virtuous even if things on the grounds don’t change at all or even get worse. It may be also a part of regime-change tactics in parallel with undercover support for opposition forces in target States. Never have such public campaigns improved human rights situations. The opposite is true – human rights situations have improved as a result of fruitful cooperation between States. So, the reforms in China and the inclusion of China in the world-wide economic cooperation have lifted, according to the World Bank, 850 million Chinese out of extreme poverty, helping thereby the UN to achieve one of its Millennium Development Goals. However, such an unexpected success has not been to everybody’s liking and today Washington is trying to harness its allies to help contain Beijing’s rise, using for it, inter alia, human rights discourse that is not doing any good either for Uighurs in the North or Hongkongese in the South of the country. But such policy of containment is not at all about Uighurs or inhabitants of Hong Kong; it is about geopolitics in the disguise of human rights. 

In the aftermath of the failed attempts to promote democracy and human rights in the wider Middle East, the former British Prime Minister Theresa May promised that there is no ‘return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’She vowed never to repeat the ‘failed policies of the past’, breaking from the ’liberal intervention’ principle established and promoted by her predecessor Tony Blair. Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, was right in emphasising that ‘democracy and human rights will progress in future much less through the prescriptions and interference from the outside by the West than depending on the internal dynamics of individual societies’. It is often, though not always, the case that the less States publicly criticise other States on human rights issues, the better would it be for human rights.

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The Role of Ideology in Foreign Policy: Why Contemporary Russia Cannot Be Compared to the Soviet Union

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Ideology is a crucial component in understanding the motivation behind any individual or group of people. Realism falsely presupposes that the motivation of actors can be understood purely through the lens of survival in a limited resources zero-sum domain. At face level, this sounds rational and economic, but it should be understood that in microeconomics, even though people are assumed to always act self-interestedly, it is also understood that what their self-interest is actually composed of is ultimately subjective. Therefore, a more realistic and analytical view of realpolitik allows us to understand that the self-interest of nations is also subjective, which means that the role of ideology cannot be discounted as it pertains to foreign policy.

Throughout human history, nearly every nation has been founded for the sake of itself, even expansionist empires. A glaring exemption to this rule was observed during the Cold War, a clash of two markedly ideological countries.

The United States is a country that was founded on the ideology of humanist enlightenment liberalism and is a country whose founding was assumed to be not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of all mankind. This was seen as early as the settling of the American continent, with John Winthrop’s famous imagery in A Model of Christian Charity which portrayed the country as a moral paragon, a city on a hill for all the world to see. Likewise, this idea of liberal universalism was evident in the very founding documents of America. In the United States Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers wrote that their country was being incepted to secure the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

This founding ethos directly affected America’s foreign policy, as America has historically occupied a position as the world’s “policeman,” believing that they uniquely have an obligation to defend democratic values everywhere. This rhetoric can be found exhaustively in colloquial American media, but one noticeable concrete example of it is found in George Bush’s 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, where the document states that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.

In a similar vein, the Soviet Union was also founded upon an ideology that extended beyond its national borders. The USSR was the product of Marxist theory and was therefore not founded for the sake of national interest or nationalism, but for the sake of facilitating the international communist revolution, a sentiment captured in the final remarks of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains…WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

This created an interesting vision for communist statehood, because in the USSR, the state was not the merely the final end, as it is in many governance structures, but both an end in itself and a means to a further end. This Proletarian internationalism manifested itself into an interventionist foreign policy, one that sought to propagate communist ideology across the world and facilitate revolution. In fact, it could even be said that this was the primary function of the USSR. Even Lenin once admitted that “from the beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us” (Jacobson, 1994) [1].

The clash between these two ideological superpowers became physically manifest during the Cold War through various “cold conflicts” such as the Vietnam War, conflict in Angola, and Cuban missile crisis, instances when the US and USSR sought to project their values onto other nations. As can be imagined, the war made tensions very high between the two countries, and in the West, a staunch fear-based perception of Russia developed. The Cold War was portrayed in America as a fight between good and evil, and Russia was portrayed as a relentless enemy that will never back down, a sentiment which had a lasting effect on the way that Russia is viewed in the contemporary West. This impact has been so salient, that even Russia today is still often characterized as if it was some great evil, waiting for “red dawn” to arrive.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communist ideology that had influenced the behavior of the USSR fell with it. Without this ideological superstructure, Russia reverted back into a country that falls into a normal range of ideological behavior, determined primarily by a defined set of national interests. While the USSR and US fought for the ability to hegemonize a bipolar system into a unipolar one, contemporary Russia rejects the idea of unipolarity and seeks to coexist with other nations in a multipolar world. Russia certainly has defined geographical areas in which it has foreign interests, specifically the Eurasian sphere, but these interests are predicated on a shared history and mutual economic benefit, and not desires to imperialize.

Nevertheless, in the modern age, there are still fears about Russian imperialism and a “new cold war”. Such fears come from a misunderstanding about the role of ideology in foreign policy. These sentiments demonstrate both a failure to understand the determining factor behind Soviet foreign policy—the union’s ideology, and a failure to analyze a modern country independently of its ideological history. These feelings come from an assumption that Russia today has the same motivational foundation as the Soviet Union, and that is simply not true.

The ideology supporting modern Russia’s foreign policy had formed largely in response to the conclusion of the Cold War, when a bipolar system was turned into a unipolar one, dominated by the United States. In this condition, the world was severely influenced by American foreign policy, military interests, politics, culture, and media, and could be defined as what many scholars would call a global hegemon. Russia considers such a distribution of power to be undemocratic and an affront to the individual autonomy of nation-states.

In his 2007 Munich address on security policy, Vladimir Putin criticized the idea of an America controlled hegemonic order when he stated that in our world, “there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within”. Another comment by Putin from around the same time period attacks this model of governance was when he stated that “(the) people are always teaching us democracy but the people who teach us democracy don’t want to learn it themselves”.

It was in response to this new structural backdrop, as well as increasing levels of globalization, that an ideology of multilateralism and polycentrism became the underlying motivator behind contemporary Russia’s foreign policy. Russia’s ideology rejects a vision of an American led hegemonic order, but also does not seek to hegemonize the order for itself either, it merely beckons for the mutual coexistence and recognition of autonomy between the world’s global powers and regional subsystems.

This sentiment is captured in the words of Sergey Lavrov, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia in 2013. Lavrov stated that the world was undoubtedly moving towards a polycentric system of international relations, and that in order to ensure an equitable outcome during this transition, “fairer and more democratic systems where economic growth centers and new financial power centres should play a greater role in managing the world economy and political processes”. While the moves and actions of modern Russia are often framed in a realist lens by Western critics, the underlying ideology of the Russian Federation is actually quite liberal, as Russia accepts that a multipolar world should be brokered by polycentric or multilateral means, such as the United Nations.

It would be foolish to judge any country by its ideological history. It would be intellectually dishonest to evaluate a previously religious state in the context of religious ideology after secularization. Likewise, Russia today has largely, if not completely separated from its interventionist communist past and has embraced a new vision of both the world order and its foreign policy. When evaluating contempo

1. Jacobson, J. (1994). “The Ideological and Political Foundations of Soviet Foreign Policy.” In When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. University of California Press. pp. 12.

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What Russia Wants In The Balkans

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Popular narratives on Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Balkans point to two rather divergent directions. One of them, inherited from the 19th-century strategic thought, says that Russia, as a landlocked empire, must expand into the Balkans, so as to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. According to this narrative, the Balkans is treated as an empty space, regardless of the ethno-religious identity of the inhabitant population. The other one, which can be traced back to 19th-century romanticist pan-Slavism, but which has been popularized in its present form after the publication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“, says that Russia conceives of its influence in the Balkans through the cultivation of fraternal relations with the region’s Orthodox Christians, using common religious identity to project its geopolitical ambitions.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either. Russia’s influence in the region, from the early 19th century to the present day, could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis, exercised through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic foundations, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of weak nation-states. Although these nationalist movements used Orthodox Christianity and a popular folklore motif of fraternity with Orthodox Russia as effective tools for mobilizing the targeted populations on the anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic grounds, their elites always remained clearly detached from Russia, being continuously oriented towards their true patrons in London and Paris.

The Russian motive in mobilizing Serbian nationalism in the 1990s was, of course, quite convenient for London and Paris, having concealed their continuous support to the Serbian military invasion of Bosnia and Croatia, which produced a gigantic campaign of ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population in the occupied areas, with more than 100.000 dead and over one million expelled. That was one of the reasons why the British propaganda, both diplomatic and public, insisted on the alleged Russian support to Serbia and its military expansion as a reason why the Western powers could not intervene in the war in Bosnia and prevent further bloodshed. Another reason, much more important from a strategic point of view – indeed, the reason why the Serbian campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing was supported by London and Paris in the first place – was the global promotion of Hungtington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“ as „the next pattern of conflict“. According to that pattern, future geopolitical blocs would be formed on the basis of religious identities, acting as „civilizations“ in ineradicable conflicts. As a model of such conflicts at a micro-level was the one launched in Bosnia, in which Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians were pushed to the point of mutual extermination, in an attempt to form „ethnically cleansed“ areas. This scheme was imposed on these communities’ self-appointed leaders (Izetbegović, Karadžić, Boban) by the European Community’s negotiator Lord Carrington at the conference held in Lisbon in 1992, several months before the war. The widely promoted narrative of the alleged Russian support of the Serbian aggression on Bosnia, and the alleged pan-Islamic support to Bosnia’s defenders (with the deliberate media characterisation of all Bosnians, whatever their religion, as „Muslims“) served the purpose of transforming the world into one of clashing „civilizations“. The ultimate goal was to generate an analogous conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims on the macro-level, which would eventually push Russia into a lasting armed conflict with the former Soviet republics populated by Muslims, and then into a global conflict with the rest of the Islamic world. Needless to say, such a development would have created a significant strategic advantage for the Anglo-American powers and a great strategic loss for both Russia and the Islamic countries. 

Yeltsin’s foreign policy at the time did not show too much understanding of that geopolitical game, allowing for a public image of Russia as a promoter of pan-Orthodox ideology and a sponsor of the Serbian aggression in the Balkans. However, it must be noted that Russia was not drawn into any major conflict that would fit the pattern of Hungtington’s „clash of civilizations“, although the local conflicts in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, in which it was directly or indirectly involved, did possess some elements of that model. In contrast, Putin’s foreign policy was based on a much deeper understanding of global relations and geopolitical games at play, so that eventually the Anglo-American strategy of drawing Russia into inter-religious conflicts in Central Asia, in line with Huntington’s theory, did not bear much fruit. And so did the constructed image of Russia’s involvement on the Serbian side gradually wither away.

Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years Russia has played the role, previously insinuated by the Anglo-American propaganda, of a protector of Serbia’s efforts to create a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the neighbouring countries with a Serb ethnic minority population (Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo).It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive for a country, which is a home to more than 190 ethnic groups, than to adopt the principle of ethnic and religious homogeneity. However, contrary to the principles of ethnic diversity applied in its own territory and in the broader area of the former Soviet Union, Russia’s attitude in the Balkans has shown open support to the Greater Serbian programme of uniting all Serbs into a single, ethnically homogenous state. Russian foreign policy of open support for the Serbian efforts to cede the Serb-populated renegade province of Bosnia to Serbia is self-contradictory, to say the least. It is also self-defeating, if taken seriously and applied to Russia itself and the neighbouring countries with a Russian ethnic minority. Can anyone imagine today’s Russia in permanent efforts to cede parts of all post-Soviet republics populated with Russians, so as to unite them in some mythical Greater Russia? Or, can anyone imagine Russia attempting to ethnically cleanse its own territory, so as to expel or exterminate all those 190 ethnic communities, in the name of an ethnically homogenous Russian nation-state? Of course not. Yet, that is precisely the policy of Serbia towards its neighbours and towards its own population that Russia now openly supports on the international scene. Therefore, one has to rightfully ask, what is it that Russia wants in the Balkans?

In the first place, it is highly questionable how influential Russia really is in Serbia, despite its public support for it. For, the very existence of Serbia, from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882 , to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) at the Versailles Conference in 1919, always had explicit support by London and Paris. The dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia, which Serbia used as a convenient opportunity to implement the Greater Serbia programme, was also clearly backed by London and Paris, with no relevant participation by Moscow. Under these conditions, it is difficult to imagine a strategic shift from the centuries long Anglo-French influence to that of Russia. It is also difficult to identify Russian strategic interests in the Balkans, given that Russia’s foreign policy was not designed to exert control in the zones outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

Yet, if Russia has no real influence on Serbia, then the current Russian support of Serbia’s continuing hostile policy towards its neighbours may well be a simulation of influence. Even if such a simulation cannot deceive the foreign policy circles in London, which are quite familiar with the extent of their long-term control over Serbia, it may well deceive such circles in Washington, which are commonly persuaded that Moscow’s influence can be detected everywhere. For what purpose? If the Balkan region is of strategic importance for the US, not only as a link between the West and the Middle East, but also in terms of its natural resources (e.g. Kosovo), then the simulated Russian influence in the Balkans might serve as a leverage against the American influence in the zones of true strategic importance for Russia. What first comes to mind, of course, is Ukraine and its aspirations to join NATO: if a tactical simulation of Russian influence in the Balkans, as a zone of traditional strategic influence of the West, turns out to be successful, then it might be possible to push Washington to reduce its ambitions in Ukraine and leave it outside NATO structures.

There is also another purpose for which such a simulation might serve. Not so many analysts, diplomats or politicians are aware of the tacit strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey, which has elevated Turkey to the status of a great power. This alliance has already been tested in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Libya, Russia and Turkey simulated a possibility of mutual military confrontation, each supporting one of the warring parties, while in reality they agreed to divide the spheres of influence, using the Libyan warring parties as their respective proxies. In Syria, under the pretended confrontation, the new allies also divided the spheres of influence. Still, the most interesting game was played out in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey openly supported Azerbaijan in its efforts to restore sovereignty over this region. On the other side, Armenia was persuaded by Western powers, namely France, to go into the war over Azerbaijan’s region under the pretext that Russian military support to Armenia was a geopolitical inevitability. However, Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, took the region over, with no resistance on Russia’s part. Russia thus returned to the principle of inviolability of post-Soviet borders and finally abandoned the principle of ethnically homogenous greater states, advocated by Armenia and its patrons in Paris and London. Is there a possibility for Russia and Turkey to play a similar game in the Balkans? Is there a possibility that Russia and Turkey want to generate an illusion among the Serbian nationalist elites that Russia would unquestionably support their attempts to cede parts of Bosnia and Kosovo, at the same time leaving Turkey with a free hand to extend its military support to Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s efforts to prevent Serbia from questioning their sovereignty? Is there a will in Russia to return to the principle of inviolability of borders in the Balkans, too, thereby abandoning the principle of ethnic homogeneity advocated by Serbia and its sponsors in London and Paris, the most harmful principle for Russia’s own interests? Is there a will in Russia to follow its own geopolitical interests, in cooperation with Turkey, along the same lines and with the same implications as in Nagorno-Karabakh? Really, what is Russia doing in the Balkans? 

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