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Hybrid Power and the Real Russian Realists

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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’.

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Ph.D., Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the Russian Federation

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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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