What is “hybrid power”? In the days of the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese leadership described its strategy as “politico-military-diplomatic”, by which they meant an organically integrated, fused, multifaceted, multidimensional, hybrid strategy. It is such a holistic or total strategy that enabled them to wage People’s War as Total War. This of course was the strategy that enabled the USSR to prevail in the Great Patriotic War. As such, I would define hybrid power as the capacity of generating such an organically integrated holistic politico-military-diplomatic strategy and implementing it globally.
It is a forgotten fact that Russia used to have two parallel apparatuses—the official state apparatus including the Foreign Ministry, originally the Comintern (the centenary of whose founding was forgotten), then the Cominform, and more durably the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as well as the party’s many auxiliary bodies—all of which had international counterparts and linkages, constituting a transcontinental matrix. While the Foreign Ministry operated in the system of states, maintaining state-to-state relations, the Communist party apparatus enabled not only party-to-party relations but a whole other dimension of movements. While state-to-state relations must operate within a global status quo, the party-to-party and movement dimensions operated at a societal level and one of political struggle. This phenomenon occurred within the status quo, influencing it in some situations, but generating, leveraging or adapting to the dynamics of change in other situations.
It was Antonio Gramsci who broadened our vision from an exclusive focus on the fortress of the State to that of the complex network of trenches of civil society, arguing that moral, intellectual, ethical and cultural hegemony—as distinct from domination—fought for and established precisely on the plane of civil society, was the only guarantee of prevailing over the enemy. Prof. Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’ is an unacknowledged, much belated, and greatly oversimplified derivative of Gramscian ‘hegemony’.
A drastic demolition of an earlier network of trenches and apparatuses of para-state nature has given rise to a deficit of “hybrid power”. This has proved to be an obstacle for the Russian State in the face of its adversary, who is seeking to deprive them of the geopolitical and geostrategic space commensurate with Russia’s weight, role, self-respect and existential drives and needs. Meanwhile, the idealistic illusions of the “Doves of Détente” remain embedded in the complex network of trenches that Gramsci spoke of, and seem to be the dominant paradigm and discourse—sometimes manifest, sometimes latent- of the intelligentsia’s policy.
The dismantling of the 1990s meant the abolition of the political dimension of the “hybrid power” apparatus, which served Russia’s foreign policy interests, and also had a global reach right into the rear areas, as it were, of the adversaries’ societies. It was a unilateral disarmament in the field of political power and a distinct disadvantage in the arena of hybrid politico-military contestation. To give a dramatic illustration, 90 years ago, perhaps the finest text of hybrid warfare was co-authored in Moscow, and published under the collective pseudonym of A. Neuberg. It was co-authored by Tukhachevsky, Ho Chi Minh, Pianitsky and Wollenberg, with Togliatti as editor. Today, the Movement/radical change dimension is the sole preserve of the West, and is a powerful tool in its hybrid warfare strategy, over which it has a monopoly.
This absence of a parallel political-ideological track, especially one designed for catalyzing or accelerating change, means that a holistic doctrine or philosophy of world politics must pick up the slack. One strand of this would most certainly be the ideas of Yevgeny Primakov, which would however, have to be both contextualized and developed. The Primakovian contribution was the praxis of the double transition, from the Soviet to the post-Soviet and from unipolarity to multipolarity. However, this transition is now in a new stage characterized on the one hand by the end of Russia’s unilateral retreat and the drawing of Russian ‘red lines’ of resistance, and on the other, by the global strategic offensive posture of the US-led Western power, the advance of NATO to Russia’s borders, the open designation of Russia as an adversary and the attempt to encircle the Eurasian heartland states.
The tasks of this new stage require that the Primakovian perspective be developed, and this can be done only by intellectual fidelity and a return to the actual roots of the Primakovian idea: A Realist re-reading and creative application of the best of Leninist and Soviet thinking, while being liberated from its Procrustean frame. It was said of Marx that he used Hegel’s method but not his system, liberating the former from the latter. This was true of Primakov and the Leninist, Soviet and world Communist intellectual heritage: he extracted the method and set aside the obsolete system of thought. It would be inadequate to rely solely on the Primakovian perspective, and the larger matrix of Russian Realism must be rediscovered and revived as the paradigm of world politics today.
Russian realists tend to blame a dilettantish liberalism for the deviation from the great tradition of Western Realism, from Kennan to Kissinger, which they are familiar with. Russian thinking, while understandably rejecting the liberal idealism of Fukuyama et al, has tightly embraced an American or Western Realism, that of Kissinger and Huntington, when a far richer and authentic strand of Russian Realism exists, submerged in the history of the modern Russian State and its strategic politico-military thought. This latter realism is connected to an even larger matrix of Eurasian Realism, of which a good illustration is the difference between the responses of Dr. Kissinger and his counterpart, Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, in the Paris Peace Talks, when they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr Kissinger accepted, while Le Duc Tho, the Asian Leninist, politely declined, declaring that “so long as there is imperialism, there will be war”. Who then was the better realist, and which, the Western or the Eurasian, was the better realism?
It is a conventionally held belief that “ideology” leads to “idealism” while the further one gets from ideology the closer one approaches or embraces realism. However, the texture of actual history is rather different. There have been periods in which ideology went hand in hand with realism and other periods when it was twinned with idealism, and still other periods when it approximated neorealism. There are also periods in which there was a maximum deviation from or abandonment of one ideology only to embrace another, perhaps opposite ideology—and such periods exhibit the maximum characteristics of idealism rather than realism. Still more complicated are the periods of transition when within a period of ideology and idealism, there are influential individuals—Primakov inevitably comes to mind—who represent the strand of realism or neorealism.
In conventional reconstructions, the Leninist period is seen as one of ideology and therefore of idealism, even utopianism. The Stalinist period is seen, by contrast, as one of realism. The Khrushchevite period is once again seen as a time of idealism, while the post-Khrushchev period is labeled as one of welcome return to realism. The period of High Détente in the 1970s is seen as the acme of realism. I would question this periodization and propose a rather different periodization and classification.
It is often forgotten, but is hardly an accident that one of the founding fathers of modern realism in international relations, EH Carr, was also the historian of the Russian Revolution and a sympathizer of the Soviet experiment. There was neither anomaly nor contradiction between his realism and his abiding interest in the history of the Russian Revolution, and between the Soviet state and the history of the Comintern and Cominform. For EH Carr, the history and policy of the Russian Revolution in its internal and external dimensions was not the polar opposite, the antinomy, of the realism that he espoused. His abiding interest and treatment of the subject showed that for Carr, the policy of the Russian revolution and the Soviet state was either a version and variant of realism—a radical Realism—or a combination a synthesis of realism and idealism, of power structures and the normative factor, amounting to what would be later termed Neorealism, albeit a leftwing Neorealism.
EH Carr noted the realism of Lenin’s insistence on the signing of the Brest-Litovsk at the time he did, so as to prevent further collapse and further inroads by the Germans. Indeed, the resistance from the Left Bolsheviks and the hesitancy of Trotsky cost Russia considerable territory until the Treaty was signed. But EH Carr’s main emphasis was the turn to Realism proper by Lenin in the last years of his life, especially in 1920, following the defeat of the Red Army offensive into Poland. This defeat and Lenin’s shift to the NEP, marked the proper onset of Soviet Realism, which was solidified by Stalin. Carr’s work on the Comintern and the Spanish Civil War as well as the Cominform, traced the militant Realism of the Soviet leadership, fighting against right wing and leftwing idealisms but occasionally committing those very errors.
The development and deterioration of US-Russia and US-China relations should prompt a revaluation of categories and periods. I suggest that the post-Stalin period of modern Russian history be seen as a period which was dominated not by a turn to a consistent Realism, but by the dominance of idealism, which was misunderstood as realism. Indeed, I would argue that the tendency of Realism in the post-Stalin period was brief and often subject to political and ideological defeat. That realist tendency, which was more realist than its opponent, was misperceived as both ideological and idealist, as a left deviation, while its victorious opponent was seen as Realist, when in reality—and the pun is intended—it proved to be far more idealist than its defeated opponent. One may see a predominant period of idealism and a suppressed realism according to today’s perspective on the matter, which requires revaluation and rehabilitation, if one is to face the challenges of the current moment in world history.
The delusions of the 20th Congress dated back to the period immediately following the Great Patriotic War but were brought out into the open and combated in the denunciation of the idea of a prolonged postwar alliance with the US as over-optimistically foreseen by the leader of the US Communist party, Earl Browder. This line was criticized in the famous Duclos Letter (1945), penned by the head of the French Communist Party, Jacques Duclos. The international line of the newly created Cominform as articulated by Zhdanov, and the diplomatic interventions by Vishinsky were the landmarks of the post WWII realism of the Stalin leadership, which, following his death, were represented by Molotov and Kaganovich. This line was characterized by the constant awareness of the possibility of armed confrontation with the West, initiated by the West.
At no time did the Stalin leadership assume that the creation of atomic and nuclear weapons diminished this possibility. Nor was it even considered that the factor of nuclear weapons should mean that the possessors of those weapons, the USA and Russia, should establish a privileged relationship transcending the two camps; one in which the outreach to the US should be more important to Russia than the new relationship with the victorious revolution in the world’s most populous state, China. The post-Stalin ouster of Molotov and Kaganovich led to the dramatic change of the international and strategic thinking of the Russian leadership. The perceived need to address the issue of nuclear weapons led to the privileging of the equation with the West on the part of the post-Stalin leadership. It was this turn that was one of the major factors in the Sino-Soviet rift.
from the perspective of the strategic analyst though, is the first phase and leading personality of Realism in the post-Stalin period. I wish to suggest that the line of the most important Realist figure of this period was the most correct perspective available to the Soviet (and Russian) leadership in the post-Stalin period, and had it been adopted, the Soviet Union may well have remained intact and the present situation of encirclement of Eurasia may have been avoided. This unsung Russian Realist hero is Alexander Shelepin. Shelepin’s misgivings about the policy of détente vis-a vis the USA have been validated. The optimism of his opponents has been dispelled and disproved by the subsequent trajectory. Shelepin’s critics, the ones who prevailed in the inner-party struggle, may have been tactically, conjuncturally and episodically correct; but they have been proved strategically and historically wrong. Their chain of conceptual error and ideological illusion has to be dealt with.
It is time to recognize that contrary to conventional wisdom, the real Russian Realists were the so-called “hardliners” or “hawks”—I would call them lucid warriors—not the “doves” of Détente. These individuals include Shelepin, Andropov, Grechko, Gorshkov, Ustinov, Orgarkov, and Akhromyev. History has validated their clarity, skepticism and tough-minded Realism. It is their strategic perspectives and policies that when taken together, constitute the New Realist paradigm necessary to combat the global offensive and the long-term secular trend—whatever the US administration—of a tightening encirclement from Arctic to Indo-Pacific, of Eurasia’s heartland.
When the West treats the modern Russian state, be it Soviet or post-Soviet, as an adversary, a hostile entity, as evidenced by the movement of military forces, the exit from arms control agreements, and a reversion to the most ruthless Cold War doctrines such as ‘rollback’ and ‘first strike’/‘war-fighting, war-winning’, the Russian state has little reason to divest itself of its modern intellectual and political patrimony, turning its back on the political, philosophical, ideological, intellectual, doctrinal, conceptual armaments of the Soviet state and the Soviet period. In the contemporary context, the project of post-Soviet Russian Realism needs a selective, critical reintegration of elements of Soviet thought, updating and upgrading them as befits the 21st century. There is no other path to the (re)generation of ‘hybrid power’.
From our partner RIAC
Russia is a part of Europe, which never became a part of Russia
The process of the new European integration coincided in time with the intensification of the process of globalization, which has stimulated and inspired the formation of the European Union. Presently, debates about the crisis of globalization are going almost simultaneously with discussions about the crisis of European integration. The European press is now wondering who is to blame for the fact that globalization, which, overall, has contributed positively to the process of global development, failed to become a universal and, most importantly, a harmonizing model of the world order.
According to the authoritative participants in the discourse, currently going on in the European press, “the inevitable trilemma of the world economy, namely, the contradiction between the realities of democracy, sovereignty and global economic integration” has been both a bone of contention and a stumbling block. Naturally enough, these global tendencies have reflected negatively on the integration process involving the better part of Europe. As Alexei Gromyko noted in one of his recent speeches, the old principles of European integration are no longer being emulated.
The pro-EU-minded European elites admit that the whole idea initially emerged as a political project, with a “top down” structure. According to the authors of a collective study of identification problems in Europe, published by Cambridge University, political scientists of the European Union, often sponsored by the European Commission, focus mainly on the Union itself and the influence of its institutions, while virtually ignoring how the sense of community was being formed “from the down up” also outside the EU institutions or close to them. They added that the financial and economic crisis had clearly shown that external disciplinary principles of integration are ahead of, and in some cases run counter to internal integration, as well as its regional diversity.
Europe is now fully aware of the need to maintain its global competitiveness and exercise a rapid transition to a new industrial revolution. As for the East European countries, however, they do not have sufficient financial and economic resources to build a fully competitive industry of their own, and, therefore, EU subsidies to the tune of 20 percent of these countries’ budgets helped to narrow to some extent the yawning gap in the socio-economic development between the “old” and “new” Europe.
According to the director of the Minsk-based Center for European Integration, Yuri Shevtsov, “what we see today is a clear transition of European integration to a new principle of dealing with less developed states. The previous level of hidden and open subsidies is no longer possible. Juncker’s stimulus plan for the EU’s high-tech sector … was mainly applied to the countries of “old” Europe that are better prepared for it … The inevitable cuts in subsidies to Eastern Europeans create a new reality for them for the long haul and essentially perpetuate the longstanding negative tendencies of the region’s economic development. What can Eastern Europe hope for during the 10-15 years? What are the consequences of the EU’s switch to a new development model? “
This leads to another important question of whether this new reality will set the stage for a new historical rapprochement between Russia and the countries of this part of Europe.
It is not only economic issues and stability of the European market for the consumption of our energy resources that we are concerned about, of course. There is no denying the fact that Russia is a part of Europe. The French cultural historian, Pierre Chaunu, argued that involvement in an intra-civilizational dialogue is the only criterion of someone’s belonging to European civilization. Russia fully meets this criterion, of course. And yet, where does the feeling of a certain watershed, a barrier separating Europe from Russia that once was so acutely felt by the Slavophiles and Westernizers, really come from? From the point of view of anatomy, Russia is a part of Europe, which never became a part of Russia. How about the powerful influence of Byzantine culture on European civilization? Don’t we see enough traces of this culture in Italian, German and other European cities? And still, Byzantium never became part of Europe, which tried so hard to destroy the civilization of which Russia became a successor…
It is highly symptomatic that the Dutch authorities recently listed Russia as one of the countries “around Europe,” including this status in the concept of the kingdom’s foreign cultural policy for 2017-2020. We know, however, that the Netherlands is not alone in this assessment. Paradoxically, it was Holland that was the main partner of and a source of inspiration for Peter the Great, who opened the “window on Europe.”
We say that Russia is a part of Europe as if we were standing on the opposite bank. Why so? It would be more natural for us say: “Europe is a part of Russia,” especially since Russia is not absorbed by Europe and has a significant part of it belonging to Asia, and not only geographically.
At the dawn of the past century, one Russian thinker wrote: “When reading the press and listening to public moods, I am saddened to see just how neglected our Russian thought really is and how timidly, as if apologizing, Russian people think in Russian when their thoughts differ from those of the West. ”
The Institute of Europe is more than just an academic institution; it is the center, the focus of Russian thought about Europe. Moreover, in your work you have managed to maintain an important balance that is often ignored, especially by our education system, which prioritizes one part of Europe over the other. This is our eternal problem. Just as was so sadly noted by the observer I mentioned before, “We know something from history, from German, French and English literature, but we don’t know a thing about the history and literature of the Slavs. If the Russian people were examined on the history of Slavism, I think the result would be pretty much instructive, as we would feel ashamed of our ignorance. We learned about Karl, Friedrich and Louis at school, but not about the Slavs.”
The Russian philosopher Vladimir Ern famously said that in relation to Russia, Europe was making a rather rapid transformation from “Kant to Krupp.” This is something we should always keep in mind.
What trends will prevail in Europe? Centripetal, deepening the next internal convergence, or centrifugal, which will make Europe a conglomerate of nation states again? After all, history does not repeat itself in details only.
I think there is no need for any of us to become Eurosceptics or Euro-optimists, even though sometimes it seems to me that there are more Euro-optimists among our political analysts (in percentage terms) than anywhere else in Europe. It is important for us to understand just how Europe’s political, cultural and economic development is going to affect us. What will these changes mean for Russia? What do we need to prepare for?
The work being done by your institute and its unique team, acquires a truly invaluable role in solving these problems, and I want to wish all of you every success in this all-important endeavor!
From our partner International Affairs
How the West failed to understand contemporary Russia
A few years ago, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy claimed that, for anyone wishing to understand the domestic and foreign politics of Russia he should read and try to understand the great works of Russian literature. In a post that he made at theforeignpolicy.com, he mentions: “Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think”.
It is understandable that when a former NATO commander suggests something like that, policymakers and diplomats from the U.S. would have an easier time understanding contemporary Russian politics. However, if this claim was true, how is it possible that after thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the West in general still, fail to understand Russia and its position in this world?
The Russian-American relations in the era of Boris Yeltsin
By 1989, it was pretty clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the uprising in Eastern Europe created a chain reaction that eventually caught up with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the reforms that Gorbachev suggested to open up the Soviet Union failed. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian Federation became an independent state and declared itself as the successor to the USSR. The Russian-American relations during the Yeltsin period can be described as neutral with a mutual tolerance from both sides. Also, at that time, there was indeed a sense of officially ending the Cold War, as both sides took positive measures to ensure that. In 1993, both sides signed the START II arms control treaty that focused on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.
However, the warm relations between the United States and Russia revealed how the U.S. perceived Russia. As a weak nation trying to balance itself after the fall of communism and its dissolvement. At the same time, Russia had to deal with enormous problems. The new Russian Federation was forced to sell almost 40.000 public businesses, like energy, mining, and communications companies. The economy of the country was in a freefall and for years the country found itself, hostage, to oligarchs. Besides that, Boris Yeltsin himself was considered to be a national embarrassment, relying heavily on the oligarchs and the West that saw him as a political tool to influence Russian domestic politics.
The United States under Bill Clinton wasn’t exactly rooted in any exalted “Russophilia”, as Dr. Andrei Kortunov pointed out: “Washington gave warm support to Yeltsin because of numerous US agencies’ analyses indicating Yeltsin could be counted upon as a guarantee of the irreversibility of the big and small victories gained over the former Cold War antagonist” (Kortunov, 1997). However, in March 1999, these slightly warm relations would be tested, after the U.S.-led NATO military operation against Serbia over the disputed land of Kosovo. Russia was against the attack and until this day, it does not recognize the pseudo-state of Kosovo. A few months later, when he was visiting China, Boris Yeltsin verbally attacked Bill Clinton for his criticism of Russian tactics in Chechnya. He made a blunt reminder of the fact that Russia was still a nuclear superpower. “Things will be as we have agreed with Jiang Zemin. We will be saying how to live, not Bill Clinton alone”. This was the only attempt that Boris Yeltsin did to show that Russia must still be considered a major player in international affairs. The U.S. made the mistake to think that the weakness of one man represented a weak nation in total, but with the 1999 elections and the victory of Vladimir Putin on December 31st, it was clear that Russia was entering a new era re-emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and challenge the geopolitical status quo of the new millennium.
Vladimir Putin and the genesis of modern Russia
After the appointment of Vladimir Putin as the new President of the Russian Federation, the relations between the two countries were characterized as stable and warm. However, the West continued the same rhetoric of underestimating Russia. For former senior CIA officer Paul R. Pillar, the mistake that the U.S. and the West made was pretty clear. The West did not treat Russia as a nation that got rid of communism like Hungary or Poland. Besides that, the rapid expansion of NATO on former Soviet territories created more problems for the peaceful coexistence of both superpowers, as Russia viewed that as a sign that it will not be treated fairly and equally in the global political arena.
For years, Vladimir Putin had a more passive-aggressive stance against the United States. In 2001, Russia expressed its opposition against the invasion of Afghanistan and in 2003 again, against the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, Russia at that time was focused on its internal affairs, as President Vladimir Putin had to resurrect a crumbling economy, deal with suppressing the power of the oligarchs and ensure the safety of Russian citizens against the attacks of Chechen terrorists. According to Vladislav Surkov, former Aide to Vladimir Putin, the country did manage to stabilize itself due to bold political changes. “Russia stopped breaking and began to recover”, he wrote. To be able to compete again with the United States, Russia had to put an enormous effort to achieve that, under internal and external pressure, while being underestimated by its Western partners.
For Dr. Georgi Asatryan, Vladimir Putin and the concept of Putinism helped Russia achieve that. “Putin provided stability, predictability, and peace. Putinism ensured the possibility of development. The West cannot comprehend this since standards have always been higher there”, were his words in one of his articles for EuroNews. The West soon comprehended the role of Russia in the world, with the newly appointed Obama administration in 2008. While President Barack Obama, was optimistic about a potential reset between the relations of the two nations, the reality just proved that the West had gone from a state of misunderstanding and underestimating the Russian Federation, to a state of trying to find a scapegoat and a potential enemy to protect its ideal monopoly of international influence and power.
Tug-of-war with the Obama Administration
For a brief time, there was a possibility regarding the reset in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2010, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear arms treaty called NEW START to effectively reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile. However, this euphoric feeling of resetting lasted only for a few moments. By 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to serve as the President of Russia for a third term. The tug-of-war between the two countries involved certain disbelief about resetting the tones. On the one hand, the West continued its traditional feeling of mistrust, creating a sense of fear against the rapid re-emerge of Russia and the nationalistic policies of Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Russia remained paranoid about the intention of the West to meddle in its internal affairs as well as with their political expansion towards Eastern Europe.
Sir John Sawers, former head of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Britain, expressed his opinion a few years ago, in a BBC interview. “If there was a clear understanding between Washington and Moscow about the rules of the road, that we are not trying to bring down each other’s systems, then solving regional problems like Syria or Ukraine or North Korea would be easier”. Many experts believed that the mixed signals that the Obama administration sent towards Moscow might have been one of the reasons for the fragile relationship between the two states.
From 2013 until the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016, three main events have destabilized the relations between Washington and Moscow and also added up to the misunderstanding and animosity between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Firstly, the case of Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden released secret U.S. government documents exposing a mass surveillance campaign inside the United States and on foreign country leaders. He was granted asylum in Russia, where he remains until now. The incident of Edward Snowden was enough to cancel the meeting between Obama and Putin in Moscow. The second event that stigmatized Russian-American relations was the 2014 Ukrainian coup d’ etat and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In February 2014, after the collapse of the legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia decided to annex Crimea based on a referendum that was held on March 16, 2014. The referendum was successful and Crimea became part of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the West was against the referendum while the United States accused Russia of acts of aggression. On March 24, 2014, Russia was suspended from participating in the G8 summits. Due to the concerning situation in Ukraine at that time, the relations between the two states were characterized as the worst since the end of the Cold War.
Last but not least, the event that further increased the gap between the two sides was the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s involvement started in 2015 with an air campaign in Syria, aiming to help stabilize the situation and keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. A month later, after the air campaign, President Obama called the Russian military intervention a “recipe for disaster”. In October after the launch of the Aleppo offensive and two fruitless rounds of talks in Lausanne and London, Russia’s U.N ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, compared the tensions in Syria with the events during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, mentioning that the relations between the United States and Russia were the worst since 1973.
The Donald Trump Syndrome
The most important event in Russian domestic politics is the U.S Presidential elections. This phrase has been a joke in the Russian political elite circles in the Kremlin, but it does not go far from reality. In 2016, the victory of Donald Trump might have been seen as a dreamy situation for Russia, but the reality is far from it. Although there is some truth in this statement. Donald Trump had more open policies towards Moscow promoting a more ideal relationship between the two states. It was clear that the Kremlin had ambitions to rebuild the shattered relation it had with the U.S. that was filled with mistrust from the Russian side and increased Russophobia from the American side.
In 2018, President Doland Trump called for Russia to be allowed to join the G-7 summit, where Russia was expelled back in 2014. In the first formal meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018, some experts argued that there was a friendly climate between both sides. However, Donald Trump drew criticism from U.S. politicians regarding his stance to side with Russia on the allegations about potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections. John McCain went as far as describing Donald Trump’s policy as: “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.
Nevertheless, over the last four years, the Trump administration has been more of a headache rather than an ally of Russia. Particularly in the case of the Nord Stream II pipeline, where the Trump administration issued numerous sanctions on Russian and European companies involved with the project. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov criticized the Trump administration by saying that the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to destroy the U.S-Russia relations. Besides that, the paranoia of the former President Donald Trump with China, had a negative impact on any establishment of a new arms control agreement between the three countries, something that the Kremlin will be eager to pursue after the inauguration of Joe Biden. The increased instability inside the United States and political immaturity of Donald Trump, has been more harmful than beneficial for Russia who now sees the new Biden administration as a political pillar, to try and establish any sort of normalization in the diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in a respectful manner of mutual understanding.
Joe Biden and the Future of the U.S.-Russia Relations
On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Joe Biden is an old familiar face to the Kremlin, having served as the Vice-President for Barack Obama. However, the fact that he is more familiar does not change the cold relations between him and Vladimir Putin. The cold relations can be traced back to 2011 when Joe Biden met with opposition leaders, expressing his thoughts on how Vladimir Putin should not run for President in 2012. This statement is still memorable for many Kremlin officials, and the same rhetoric seems to still be used, with Joe Biden referring to Russia as the “biggest threat to U.S. security”. However, despite what many analysts believe, the new Biden administration might be more reliable in building a new relationship of understanding between the two sides.
There is a growing feeling amongst the political elite of the Kremlin, that the growing turmoil and instability in the U.S. especially after the events on January 6, 2021, harms the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Besides that, Mr. Biden will take the “wheel” of a country that for four years has been exposed to unprofessionalism and childish acts from a President that is in danger of being removed from his office before the inauguration of his successor. Joe Biden, as a more traditional U.S. politician, a so-called “inside man” of U.S. politics, can be proven to be more reliable on rebuilding any new diplomatic relations with Russia. As former senator Bill Bradley, who visited the USSR in 1979 with Joe Biden, pointed out: “Joe knew the Soviet Union, knows Russia, has experience with Vladimir Putin and understands what’s possible and what’s not”.
Joe Biden’s familiarity with Russia might provide room for improvement, however, it is understandable that the relations between the two states will not be extremely friendly. A harsher attitude towards Russia is expected by the Biden administration. Nevertheless, the future of the U.S.-Russia relations with Joe Biden might conduct a more understanding approach without the mistakes of past administrations. In the end, the relations between Russia and the United States might reach a level of understanding each other’s coexistence in the global arena while acknowledging the realistic politics that require each state to behave in a manner that will maximize its benefits.
Russia and Belarus: An increasingly difficult alliance
Way back in 1991, while the crisis of the Soviet system was leading to the disintegration of that galaxy of nations which, under the acronym of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the second world power in political, military and economic terms, Russia promoted and obtained the establishment of the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS)in view of curbing the centrifugal force triggered by Ukraine’s declaration of independence of December 1, 1991.
On December 8, 1991, all the former Soviet Republics joined the CIS, with the exception of the independent Ukraine and the Baltic States, which had been absorbed into the USSR in September 1939 thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and since then had always considered themselves militarily ‘occupied’ by the Soviets.
Currently, after the defection of Georgia and other statelets in the Caucasus, the Commonwealth of Independent States has eight other members in addition to Russia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus.
A glance at the map shows that Russia has placed itself physically at the centre of a region in which the CIS Member States play a fundamental role, not only as a free trade area covering a single market of over 180 million people, but also as an important collective security area that has ensured to Russia – which psychologically has never recovered from the Nazi aggression of 1941 – a ‘buffer zone’ around its territory, which is very important from a military viewpoint(all the more so after the “betrayal” of Ukraine, which, by siding militarily with NATO in 2014, helped fuel the Kremlin’s paranoia about border security).
It is in this political and “psycho-political” context that the “special relationship” between Russia and Belarus was born and developed – a relationship that for some time has been showing increasingly visible cracks.
Belarus is a Presidential Republic ruled since 1994 by “President-dictator” Alexander Lukashenko.
Elected and re-elected again and again over the last 25 years after elections looked on with suspicion by all Western diplomacies, Lukashenko has been tolerated with more or less obvious annoyance by the Kremlin, which is interested in maintaining a privileged and advantageous relationship at economic and military levels, even in the face of the harshness with which the Belarusian President has been trying for years to keep the political opposition in his country under strict control with his iron fist and with instruments that appear excessive even to the certainly non-liberal Kremlin representatives.
The straw that threatens to break the camel’s back and try Vladimir Putin’s patience vis-à-vis his Belarusian colleague was his umpteenth re-election in August 2020 to the Presidency of the Republic with vote percentages that in the eyes of the entire West, but also of Russia, appeared to be the result of shameless electoral fraud.
Last year’s August elections put the Kremlin in a very awkward and uncomfortable position.
On the one hand, continuing to support Lukashenko’s discredited government diminishes the Russian government’s democratic credibility not only in the eyes of Europe and the United States, but also in those of the more moderate allies in the CIS and, at the same time, risks alienating the respect and support of the pro-Russian citizens of the Belarusian Republic who are calling for more democracy in their country without undermining the friendly ties with Russia.
On the other hand, there is concern in the Kremlin’s upper echelons that too openly supporting the reasons for the people’s uprising against Lukashenko and the demand for more democracy in Belarus could turn the neighbouring Republic into a symbol for those who are calling for a similar expansion of democratic rules in Russia.
The cunning Lukashenko who, before the August 2020 elections had shown signs of impatience with Vladimir Putin’s policies – according to reliable sources, they hate each other – going as far as to order the arrest (a few weeks before the vote) of 33 Russian “mercenaries” accused of being part of a Kremlin plot to sabotage his re-election, after having been put in difficulty by internal unrest and the international reaction to his authoritarian methods of government, backtracked vis-à-vis Russia.
Initially Belarus granted Russia exclusive rights on the use of Russian ports for Belarusian oil exports – a request that Lukashenko had resisted for years. Later he agreed to the stationing of military contingents of the Russian National Guard on his territory. Finally, on January 10, the Belarusian President publicly called for “the removal of any obstacles…to greater integration between Russia and Belarus”.
In spite of the increasingly worried moves of the Belarusian autocrat, faced with the choice between supporting the Belarusian regime and trying to get rid of the troublesome neighbour with a coup –Russia is considering a third option which could safeguard the stability of a country like Belarus, which Russia deems essential not only from an economic, but above all from a military viewpoint, as basic foundation of the ‘strategic depth’ ensured by Belarus on the Russian borders in its important role of ‘buffer state’ safeguarding the security of Russia’s Western borders.
The third option is included in two documents leaked by the Kremlin at the end of last year and published by the Russian investigative website The Insider.
The first document is entitled “Strategy of Operational Intervention in the Belarusian Republic” and was drafted in September 2020, when Lukashenko’s democratic reputation was at the lowest ebb, after the evident electoral fraud and the harsh repression of people’s protests.
The drafters of the document speak of the need to change the Belarusian Constitution also through “the penetration of all opposition parties and organisations” to the regime “with a view to encouraging the creation of new political forces promoting the reform of institutions”, as well as through a propaganda work with the use of modern communication channels such as Telegram and Youtube.
The aim of this operation would be twofold: to turn the Belarusian Presidential Republic into a Parliamentary one and increase consensus towards the Russian ally.
The second document drafted by Kremlin strategists and skilfully leaked to The Insider talks about the foundation of a new political party in Belarus called “The People’s Right”, which would promote changes to the Constitution along Parliamentary lines, as well as social and economic reforms that would win citizens’ support.
The creation of this new Party has not yet been publicly announced, but its programme suggests that the Kremlin hopes to divert popular support in the neighbouring Republic towards a Parliamentary and democratic transition of the country, which – as a side effect – could reduce protests over electoral fraud in the last elections.
The new Party’s plans envisage that, even if – at least in an initial phase – Lukashenko remains in power to enable him to save face with a dignified departure from the scene, he will be deprived of almost all his current executive powers, as his future functions will be reduced to the typical representative functions of a ‘normal’ President in a Parliamentary Republic.
Furthermore, the programme of the new pro-Russian Party includes plans for extensive privatisation of the Belarusian public sector, as well as the ‘dismantling of censorship’ and ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual’.
The first feedback to the publication of these two documents, with which the Kremlin wants to demonstrate not only an obvious interest in the stability of Belarus, but also an unexpected (at least for us in the West) attention to democratic rules and respect for human rights, have aroused very positive reactions in the Russian business world, which is obviously very interested in penetrating more deeply into a country that has a well-developed industrial sector, exports a significant quantity of goods to Europe as well as to Russia, has two excellent large oil refineries and is at the forefront in the field of information technology and IT services.
In short, it is a potentially good geopolitical achievement for Vladimir Putin and his government: limiting and frustrating the ambitions of an autocrat who does not want to give up the reins of power and, at the same time, gain credit – towards Europe and the new U.S. Administration – as promoter of Western-style democratic and economic reforms.
All this while safeguarding the role of Belarus as a “buffer zone” against a NATO that, although weakened, remains a strategic opponent in the eyes of the Kremlin.
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