U.S. politicians have criticized the Russian application FaceApp, which reads biometric data from user-uploaded photos and generates altered images: those of the user in the future, in the past, and so on. In the second half of July, Chuck Schumer, who leads the Democrat minority in Senate, requested that the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission look into FaceApp’s potential for endangering U.S. national security and the private life of the millions of Americans who use the app.
One of Schumer’s key arguments was that the FaceApp developer is based in Russia and that the app’s authors have “full, irrevocable access” to the personal photos and data of the app’s users who allow access to their smartphones. The following day Schumer again addressed U.S. FaceApp users. On July 18, he tweeted: “Warn friends and family about the deeply troubling risk that your facial data could fall into the hands of something like Russian intelligence or military.”
Despite the fact that IT specialists have already disproved the allegations of FaceApp-related risks, Schumer’s concerns indicate that the U.S. believes the Kremlin and Russian hackers to be one of the key threats. Western politicians’ fears are to a certain extent based on the fact that, after the takeover of Crimea, Russia is viewed as a country that undermines the liberal world order and attempts to promote its own alternative.
It’s easy to understand this thinking if we recall European leaders’ reaction to a statement made by the Russian president in a June 2019 interview with The Financial Times, when he said that the liberal idea “has become obsolete.” This statement was countered by European Council President Donald Tusk and Boris Johnson, who was later elected as Britain’s new prime minister on July 23. Tusk argued that it was not liberalism that had become obsolete but rather authoritarianism, even though it might still seem effective. Johnson, for his part, referred to Putin’s statement about liberalism’s ineffectiveness as “the most tremendous tripe.”
It should also be noted that Russia’s revisionism, in the eyes of the West, implies not just an active foreign policy but also intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.
“U-turn over the Atlantic” and Munich
Revisionism, in its broad sense, is a reassessment of values, views, theories, established standards, and rules in a certain field. In the narrower field, such as international affairs, revisionism is seen as a revision of the world order, accompanied by individual countries’ attempts to intensify their foreign policy efforts and take a fresh look at their role in the world.
Russia, strictly speaking, does behave like a revisionist power. Nowadays, Moscow clearly defines its foreign political vector and conducts independent policy on the global arena without taking into account the West’s opinion.
However, what Washington and Brussels view as revisionism is, to Moscow, the “restoration of historical justice” or the protest against the unipolar world model and what Russia calls “U.S. hegemony.” After its victory in the Cold War, the U.S. became the sole superpower and, in the words of Russian politicians, the world turned into a unipolar system in which Washington predominantly imposed the rules of the game. During the long period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, from 1991 to 1999, Russia perceived the U.S. as a close ally and an economic donor, but then everything changed.
The key factor here became the NATO military operation in Yugoslavia, and the main symbol of Russia’s protest came in the form of the so-called U-turn over the Atlantic. On March 24, 1999, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was on his way to Washington for talks with Vice President Al Gore. As the Kommersant daily reported at the time, Primakov was to negotiate the nearly $5 billion loan to Russia from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), secure U.S. approval for the restructuring of Russia’s foreign debt, and sign a number of trade and economic agreements, including on the use of Russian launch vehicles in orbiting U.S. satellites, lease plans for agricultural equipment, and the supply of Russian steel to the U.S. market.
However, as Primakov’s aircraft was passing over the Atlantic, he received a phone call from Gore, who said that an aerial bombing of Belgrade was imminent. The Russian prime minister then called President Yeltsin, canceled his U.S. visit, and returned to Moscow. According to Kommersant’s estimates, this U-turn cost the Russian economy $15 billion. Already back then Russia had demonstrated that it would be carrying out an independent policy and that Moscow was prepared to sacrifice its economic welfare for the sake of its principles. The Primakov U-Turn became Moscow’s first protest signal, one that denoted its categorical disagreement with the West’s appraisal of the situation in Yugoslavia. In essence, this was also an attempt to revise Moscow’s take not only on U.S. foreign political decisions but also on its own policy. While the West believes that this may be described as revisionism, Russia views it as a manifestation of a self-sufficient and independent foreign policy.
Notably, it was Primakov who proposed the concept of “multipolarity” and argued that the unipolar world model imposed by the U.S. was no longer working. Putin redefined Primakov’s ideas and went even further, consistently criticizing the U.S. “hegemony” and expressing hope that more than two geopolitical poles would emerge around the world. Putin’s February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference came as a shock to the West. He said that the U.S. unipolar model was no longer working and that it was “not only unacceptable but also impossible”: “One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”
In essence, Putin completely revised the legacy of the Cold War, which, in his opinion, had left the world with “live ammunition” in the form of ideological stereotypes, double standards, and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking. It is no wonder, then, that his speech was viewed as an early harbinger of the current standoff between Moscow and Washington, which some experts refer to as a new Cold War.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates jested at the time: “As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time.” The late Senator John McCain noted that Putin’s speech indicated a pronounced autocratic turn and that Russia’s foreign policy was becoming more opposed to the principles of the Western democracies and, oddly enough, of multipolarity: “In today’s multipolar world, there is no place for needless confrontation.” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, noted that Putin’s rhetoric had “done more to bring Europe and the U.S. together than any single event in the last several years.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said that Putin’s speech “takes us back to the Cold War.”
The Ghost of the Soviet Union
After Putin’s Munich speech, the West began fearing a revival of the USSR and came to view any of Moscow’s foreign political moves across the post-Soviet space through this particular lens. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in December 2012 that the Kremlin’s policy (such as the establishment of the Eurasian Union or the Customs Union) resembled attempts to reinstate the Soviet Union.
These fears were first voiced in the declassified 1992 documents of the Clinton administration, informally known as Defense Planning Guidance. The documents stated that Washington should use its status as the recognized leader in order to strengthen the new liberal world order. In fact, the Clinton administration did not rule out the possibility of the USSR being brought back in one form or another.
“Democratic change in Russia is not irreversible, and despite its current travails, Russia will remain the strongest military power in Eurasia and the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States,” the Defense Planning Guidance reads. The document reiterates several times that the U.S. must prevent a possible Russian “hegemonic position in Eastern Europe”: “Should there be a reemergence of a threat from the Soviet Union’s successor state, we should plan to defend against such a threat in Eastern Europe.”
From Crimea to the Arctic
The West’s fears may not necessarily have been justified, but they intensified after President Putin’s position became stronger in Russia. In the past, Russia’s possible revisionism would be mentioned – in fact, very rarely so – in classified U.S. National Security Council documents. Nowadays the West talks about it openly and frequently, and for good reason too: Moscow has been actively restoring its influence in the geopolitical arena since 2014.
First Russia took over Crimea, and then it launched a military operation in Syria in 2015 while simultaneously attempting to restore its positions in the Middle East and actively negotiating with governments in the Gulf following a sharp drop in oil prices. In October 2017, the king of Saudi Arabia, one of America’s key Middle Eastern allies, paid a visit to Moscow. Since 2015, Putin has regularly held bilateral meetings with Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia: in Moscow, Sochi, St. Petersburg, and on the sidelines of the G20 summit. At least seven such meetings have been held to date, and Putin is planning to visit Riyadh in October 2019.
In addition, Russia probably sees itself as a new mediator in the Palestine-Israeli settlement process. Putin has held at least eight meetings and three phone conversations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since 2014. Over the same period, Putin has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than 40 times and held some 11 personal meetings with the Israeli official: mostly in Moscow but also once in Paris.
According to Russian and international media, which quoted anonymous sources close to the Libyan authorities, the Russian Ministry of Defense, and British intelligence services, Russia opened a new foreign political foothold in October 2018 by sending troops to Libya in support of the field commander Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army. Haftar, who controls Libya’s eastern regions, had previously visited Russia and repeatedly met with senior Russian officials, including Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu. In fact, Moscow supports the Libyan forces opposed to the UN Security Council-recognized Government of National Accord, which is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
In 2019, Russia openly declared its interests in Venezuela, where the Juan Guaido-led, U.S.-backed opposition forces had attempted to depose President Nicolas Maduro, whose economic policy they believed to be untenable and destructive to the country. Indeed, Venezuela was living through a drastic economic and social crisis, with inflation going through the roof at 130,000%: the population found itself on the poverty line and took to the streets in protest. The U.S. and its allies (more than 50 West European and Latin American states) supported Guaido, who had declared himself the new president. Russia and China backed Maduro.
Media reports emerged in March to the effect that 99 Russian troops had arrived in Venezuela. Washington then demanded that Moscow withdraw the troops. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied that “the presence of Russian specialists on Venezuelan soil” did not contravene the Venezuelan constitution and strictly complied with the bilateral military-technical cooperation agreement that Moscow and Caracas signed in May 2001.
The Russian and U.S. presidents have repeatedly discussed the Venezuela issue during telephone conversations and personal meetings; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have also actively discussed this matter. In the meantime, Western journalists, experts, and politicians suggest that Venezuela is becoming yet another topic for the ongoing Moscow-Washington conflict, which is starting to resemble a new Cold War.
Russian revisionism can be found even in Africa. Leading U.S. news outlets report that Moscow is strengthening its positions on that continent. Russia has been steadily expanding its military influence across Africa, alarming Western officials with investments in local mineral extraction and energy projects, increasing arms sales, security agreements, deployment of mercenaries, and training programs in support of local dictators, The New York Times reports. Bloomberg, for its part, says that Russian political advisors rig elections in African countries in favor of candidates that suit Moscow.
Finally, the West is concerned about Russia’s Arctic activities. The New York Times cites NATO spokesperson Dylan White as saying that Moscow is bolstering its military presence in the Arctic. U.S. intelligence services suspect that Russia is conducting low-yield nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya. “The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Any Arctic move by Russia invariably causes concerns. The website of the TV channel Current Time points out that Russia has, since 2016, launched the nuclear-powered icebreakers Sibir, Arktika, and Ural: “Moscow has not built so many vessels of this class since Soviet times.” On the other hand, Russia sometimes offers a good reason for concern, and the West usually interprets Moscow’s statements in the context of possible aggression.
Shoigu said in December 2017: “Over the past five years, 425 facilities with total area of 700,000 square meters have been built on Kotelny Island, Alexandra Land, Wrangel Island, and Cape Schmidt in the Arctic. They house over 1,000 troops complete with missionized weapons and equipment.” Shoigu added that Russia would continue its efforts to build “a full-blown airfield” on Franz-Josef Land that would be able to handle aircraft movements around the clock. The minister stressed that not a single country had previously managed to implement any such massive-scale military projects in the Arctic in the entire history of the region.
By 2020, Russia is planning to complete construction on or modernize six military bases in the Arctic. In this light, it is quite understandable that the West treats such plans with suspicion, despite Shoigu’s assurances that Russia is “not rattling its saber and not intent on waging war against anyone.” However, the second part of his statement – “at the same time, we would not recommend anyone to test our defensive capacity” – sends a totally different message to the West: Russia is not intent on living with the old world power and will act based on its own national interests.
The Russian dossier, again
“They are doing it as we sit here,” former Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice Robert Mueller said during a June 24 hearing in the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee as part of comments on Russia’s alleged interference in the upcoming November 2020 elections in the U.S. Mueller’s testimony indicates Washington’s serious concerns.
The Mueller probe, whose results were made public this past spring, exposed Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. Even though Moscow has been consistent in denying any attempts to influence the results of the 2016 presidential campaign and dismissing Washington’s attitudes as lunacy and “Russiagate hysteria,” the U.S. is convinced that the Kremlin is lying. In this sense, Russia’s alleged interference with the U.S. election may be viewed as a form of revisionism.
Putin, for his part, has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, including the organization of protests during the 2011 and 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. The Kremlin continues to reiterate the thesis that the U.S. is instigating “color revolutions” in post-Soviet countries. So, if one takes into account U.S. statements about Russian interference (including Mueller’s viewpoint), then Russia denies its involvement in the U.S. presidential race while letting Washington know that, from now on, it is not just the U.S. but also its geopolitical rivals that can influence political processes in other countries.
Lost in translation
How should Russia respond to the constant accusations of revisionism? Before we answer this question, one needs to understand the causes of this revisionism. There are two, and they are not hard to grasp.
First, Russia and its political elites are suffering from a post-Soviet inferiority complex. Moscow has always attempted to prove to Washington that it is more than just a regional power; that it can be an equal partner for the West and not just its “little brother”; that both sides won the Cold War, not just the U.S.; and that Russia’s national interests, including those in other regions, need to be reckoned with.
This inferiority complex is evident from both Russia’s history (from way back when it was indeed respected internationally) and from Putin’s numerous statements in which he says, time after time, that the West has virtually never reckoned with Russia and always attempted to “drive it into a corner.” At the same time, in his 2005 interview with CBS, Putin said that a cornered animal “turns back and attacks you, and does so very aggressively, pursuing the fleeing opponent.” It is no wonder, then, that Internet channels of Russian government media currently put up headlines along the lines of “Putin has driven the presumptuous West into a corner!” If we are to resort to metaphors, then revisionism, in effect, constitutes an attack on and the pursuit of the opponent in response to an insult.
The second cause of Russia’s revisionism is the Western superiority complex, namely America’s conviction that it won the Cold War. Back in 1992, Washington stated in no uncertain terms in its Defense Planning Guidance that it was the U.S. who was the victor and not Russia. The excessively protective attitude of the U.S. towards Russia, as well as NATO expansion, which the Kremlin opposed, ultimately led to Russian political elites growing disillusioned with the West and turning their back on it. This resulted in a crisis of trust between the two countries and the “new Cold War,” complete with all its attributes such as increased state propaganda on both sides, the arms race and a war of ideologies, which has transformed into a confrontation between Russian-style state capitalism and the U.S. liberal democracy in the 21st century.
To a certain extent, this new confrontation between Moscow and Washington involves framing, i.e. the creation of notions and definitions that reflect the way the conflicting sides think. In this sense, Russia and the U.S. speak totally different languages and live in different universes: what the West perceives as revisionism and aggression is, to Russia, the restoration of justice and the protection of its national interests in the ruthless world of geopolitics. Russia proceeds from the premise of neorealism, in which revisionism is rather a norm than a deviation. In Russia’s view, revisionism means protecting its national interests, not the desire to aggravate confrontation with the U.S. The West, for its part, leans more on idealism or the critical theory: within their frameworks revisionism might be destructive in its nature. No matter what Russia does, its actions will cause fear, criticism, and condemnation in the U.S.
In this sense, Moscow, just like Washington, should develop empathy: the ability to see the situation through the opponent’s eyes. If the parties learn this, any recriminations will not resonate so strongly, and the two countries will be able to react to each other’s actions in a more reasonable manner. This skill will allow them to avoid excessive emotions in their dialogue, which is so important today.
In practice, this means that Moscow, for example, should recognize, understand, and respect Washington’s concerns with regard to Russian interference in U.S. elections. Rather than ridiculing the U.S. and dismissing Mueller and Congress probes as Russophobic hysteria, Russia should avoid such statements and propose more constructive ways out of this deadlock. This is the only way to restore at least partial trust and create a new platform for dialogue.
A “non-interference pledge” would be a step in the right direction and a good example of this approach. In mid-June, Russian and U.S. experts proposed the concept in connection with the mutual accusations of attempts to influence elections through modern technology. The essence of this hypothetical agreement is that Moscow and Washington should develop a set of rules that would oblige the parties “not to make public information of political significance obtained by state agencies,” not purchase political advertisements on social media, and refrain from public assessments of the quality of elections “before international observation missions issue their reports.”
This also applies to other issues: in response to the West’s accusations of revisionism, Russia should not deny the facts and attempt to defend itself; rather, it should begin the dialogue with the words: “We understand you.” This approach sets a positive tone for seeking a compromise. Even if the Kremlin sees statements by U.S. or European colleagues as exaggerated or contrived, it stills needs to persuade Washington that Moscow is ready to cooperate in order to get out of the current crisis in mutual relations. However, this equally applies to Washington: if the U.S. resorts to raising confrontational rhetoric to the detriment of empathy, the existing problems will remain unresolved.
From our partner RIAC
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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