On October 3, 2000, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin cemented India-Russia bilateral ties with the signing of the historical agreement, the “Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership.” Two decades since the signing of the agreement, bilateral relations are hailed to have chartered new levels of cooperation amid fast changing regional and global scenarios. While shouldering mutual interests and concerns, the strategic partnership has been at the cusp of litmus test, as it has endured events such as the 9/11 terrorist attack, colour revolutions, the Georgian War, the economic depression in 2008, the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the Crimean referendum and its aftermath and the current COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore worth reflecting on the two decades of a seemingly positive bilateral engagement between India and Russia. It is important to analyse how the agreement signed in 2000 has played a role in the continuum of ensuring the mutual understanding, peaceful cooperation and reliability between the two strategic partners. This is also an opportunity to critically evaluate the magnitude of our strategic relationship and the changes in the foreign policy priorities since 2000. Given the current global context, the key question is how prepared are India and Russia for insulating the strategic partnership amid the challenges in the post pandemic world?
The Declaration of Strategic Partnership (2000) was signed at a time when the momentum in the bilateral relations between India and Russia post-Soviet collapse had fatigued due to several factors. But the most crucial factor of them all was the renewal of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1993. The renewed 1993 Treaty had almost written off the bilateral engagement, as Russia clarified that it was no longer willing to make any defence commitment during the time of any external military threat to India – a key security clause (Article IX) that constituted the very core of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty.
The Strategic Partnership Treaty signed in 2000 gave a new lease of life as it restored India-Russia relations to respectable levels.Both the countries realised the need to develop a multifaceted bilateral cooperation in all possible spheres of defence, energy, space, nuclear, science and technology etc. India’s strategic partnership with Russia since then has been unique, intense and substantive in many ways. Mainly, the Treaty led to the institutionalization of high level political interactions through annual bilateral summits – a key feature of the agreement to foster extensive collaboration and dynamism in the partnership. The twenty annual bilateral summits held so far between India and Russia have in particular seen major agreements and initiatives undertaken to strengthen the partnership to higher levels.
Additionally, in 2010, the bilateral ties were further elevated with the signing of the “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.” Arguably, the partnership between the two countries has been successfully reflected in many instances at regional and global platforms. India, along with BRICS member states, abstaining its vote during the United Nations General Assembly referendum against Russia for its accession of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s unequivocal support to India on the Kashmir issue are few cases in point.
Regarding strategic partnership in sensitive spheres of cooperation between India and Russia, defence cooperation continues to be one of the major boosters for engagement between the two countries. India has acknowledged Russia’s contribution in assisting the former in military power projection and preserving its national security interests. Although in recent times there is downgrading in the purchase of Russian defence equipment by India, the cooperation in this sphere has been unassailable given that it has progressed from buyer-seller relations to joint research development and production, high-end technology transfer that has encouraged India’s quest for indigenous defence capabilities. From the induction of INS Vikramaditya to the joint production of BrahMos missile, India-Russia defence cooperation has achieved new capacities through acquisitions and joint development. In fact, Russia’s resurgence as a military power in recent times is conducive to India’s domestic initiatives such as the Make in India project. The finalising of the S-400 missile defence system agreement between India and Russia despite the threat of imposition of CAATSA sanctions has shown India’s predictable resistance to external pressures given its historical ties with Russia.
Indo-Russian nuclear cooperation constitutes an important element of our strategic partnership. The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) has become one of the biggest success stories of India-Russia cooperation. As Unit 1 and Unit 2 start commercial operation, the process for reactor buildings of Units 3 and 4 have already begun. With the construction of 12 nuclear power plants planned, India-Russia nuclear cooperation has indeed reached new heights. India, Russia and Bangladesh signed a trilateral agreement in March 2018, for the construction of a NPP in Rooppur, Bangladesh.
Energy diplomacy has been another major element of the strategic partnership, since Russia, an export-oriented energy country, will aim to leverage its energy card with India, an import-oriented energy market. India’s interests in the Arctic, for instance, especially energy resources, are a crucial aspect for India’s growing energy security needs. India received its very first delivery from Russia’s Arctic LNG Plant. This is seen as a great step towards strengthening India-Russia energy cooperation.
The bilateral partnership, which has a global strategic connotation, has seen both the countries enthusiastically promote the idea of building a multipolar world order and changing the global financial structure. In this regard, both India and Russia have envisaged promoting a harmonious global order based on international law and collective decision-making that includes developing countries and is not monopolised by developed countries alone. India and Russia, along with other players such as China, have succeeded in establishing non-western organisations such as BRICS and SCO. The member states have, within their capabilities and limitations, established mechanisms that address economic and strategic interests, such as the New Development Bank. While BRICS and SCO have become tools of political signalling on issues related to global affairs, there however exist asymmetries among the member states with regard to economic growth performance, distribution of resources and military strength. Additionally, although China is a member of such multilateral organisations, at the individual level Beijing has exercised assertive posturing that has caused concern in India. This can be seen by its irrational border claims and actions in the Indian Ocean region. The role of Russia especially during the time of crisis between India and China is therefore anticipated to be non-partisan and meaningful.
When the Treaty of Strategic Partnership was signed in 2000, the world was at the brink of a war on terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Both India and Russia, at their respective level, joined the bandwagon on the global war on terror. Both parties, as bilateral partners which have been victims of terrorist attacks, voiced their interests and concerns in combating terrorism and related activities. India and Russia have therefore cooperated at bilateral and multilateral levels. For instance, through Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, SCO member states participate in joint anti-terrorism exercises. India and Russia also share the mutual interest of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their possible acquisition by terrorist groups.
While both India and Russia assert their distinctive identity in world politics respectively, the strategic partnership has seen close coordination of foreign policy interests to a wide range of international and regional issues. Both countries firmly believe that intensification of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership can help respond to the challenges thrown up by global changes in a more effective way. While both India and Russia have a diverging approach on the Indo-Pacific narrative, one cannot deny that the two countries understand the need for strengthening maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with the universally accepted principles of international law. This includes combating piracy at sea and providing humanitarian aid during natural disasters. The two countries have shown keen interest in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan. Eurasian integration has been a key priority in the India-Russia strategic partnership. Russia understands that in its quest for “greater Eurasia,” India is a vital player for its huge market potential, economic growth performance, military strength and enhanced position in international affairs.
Strategic partnership in space, science and technology has been a bulwark in the bilateral relations between India and Russia since the Soviet era and has continued to remain one even today. In fact, both countries have agreed to expand their relations in the aerospace sphere, an area of traditional cooperation for decades. More than 500 joint projects involving scientists and research institutes from both countries have been undertaken within the framework of various initiatives since 2000.
While critically evaluating the two decades of strategic partnership between India and Russia, it is tempting to compare India’s strategic partnership with other major global players and the strategic partnership that it shares with Russia. The new realities of the dynamic nature of international relations have definitely posed a challenge to the partnership. The pursuing of an all-alignment foreign policy has caused a certain level of discomfort in the bilateral relations. India’s growing proximity with the U.S. and Russia’s compromised defence cooperation with China and mending of ties with Pakistan in recent times has caused anxiety in the strategic partnership between India and Russia. One possible inference that one can draw is the constant comparison to the current India-Russia partnership with that of the nostalgia of Indo-Soviet ties. But one needs to bear in mind that compared to the strategic partnership that both India and Russia share with other major players, there are limitations and shrouded with lack of trust. India’s defence relations with U.S., for instance, is yet to make any substantive development in joint production and restrictiveness about its technology compared to Russia’s generosity to sharing defence technology and Russia’s relations with Pakistan is eclipsed with lack of trust and understanding. As for Russia-China relations, there is growing speculation of a possible role reversal in the partnership given China’s growth in global politics in recent times.
However, there are few stumbling blocks in India-Russia defence cooperation, especially the shifting trends in partnership, for example defence engagement between Russia and China. Russia’s current cooperation with China has emerged exclusively, as it includes cooperation in sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defence, hypersonic technology, and the construction of nuclear submarines. With Russia now collaborating with China on sensitive military equipment, allowing for the latter to be well equipped with similar and more advanced capabilities, China is a major security concern for India. Hence, given the way warfare has evolved over the years, collaboration in advanced future weapon systems, including quantum technology and artificial intelligence, should be enhanced further between India and Russia.
Indo-Russian relations are undoubtedly at the cusp of a litmus test. Nonetheless, the strategic partnership should see the future of Asia beyond the U.S. and China factors, and both India and Russia can play a decisive role in promoting their mutual interests in the region.
The rapid and uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 in the past seven months has impacted the global order and the interconnected systems. Reflecting the spirit of the partnership in times of crisis, India coordinated with Russia in organising the repatriation of Russian nationals. Russia also welcomed India’s goodwill gesture to send medical supplies to help fight the virus.
Critics have often pointed out that the strategic partnership is yet to achieve its full potential, given the fact that some of the spheres of cooperation continue to be remain obsolete, for instance, the economic relations. Additionally, given nearly 70 years of diplomatic relations, soft power capabilities, cultural diplomacy, academic exchange programmes, and labour migration are at an imperceptible status.
Trade and investment remains the weakest link in our strategic partnership and falls far short of our potential, which unfortunately is not commensurate with our high-level political cooperation. Post the announcement of the Strategic Agreement in 2000, which largely promotes the strengthening of economic relations between India and Russia, the trade cart received much required upgrade. Potential areas of trade have been explored, which include trade and investment, energy, nuclear, science and technology, pharmaceuticals, IT, steel, diamonds, fertilizers, infrastructure, heavy engineering and food products. Exploring economic prosperity, sustainable development, and free movement of people, information, knowledge, ideas and greater institutional links has also become crucial.
In fact, both countries have set a target of $30 billion worth of trade turnover and $30 billion investment in each other’s country by the year 2025. It is also heartening that new options are being explored to further expand the domain of economic cooperation, Eurasian integrity, regional cooperation, free trade agreements, connectivity and trade corridors have gained the utmost importance in the annual bilateral summits in the past two decades. The two countries have also set up mechanisms such as Intergovernmental Commissions. For example, Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC), the International North South Transport Corridor and the Eurasian Economic Union, which have emerged as immediate priority areas for strong economic cooperation between the two countries.
The Russian Far-East is another region for potential economic engagement. India’s presence in the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) is aimed at developing trade, commerce, investment, railway infrastructure, steel plants, defence, space, ports and shipping. India has successfully participated in the annual EEF, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for an “Act Far East” policy and announcing $1 billion line of credit for the development of the Far East. Other than these developments, our economic ties are focused on exploring the potential of sub-regional cooperation. Sub-regional cooperation has emerged as one of the prospective areas of cooperation and regional connectivity to add further impetus to the economic cooperation between India and Russia. The key goal is to cement and institutionalise cooperation between the States and Union Territories of the Republic of India and Provinces of the Russian Federation.
To further bolster India’s FAR ambitions, an Indian Chief Ministers delegation of four Indian states led by the Commerce and Industry Minister of India Piyush Goyal visited Vladivostok to explore the opportunities and potential of business to business (B2B) cooperation in the FAR. With the introduction of the Russian Homestead Act and India being host to one of the largest agricultural farmers’ immigration in the world, the need for both India and Russia to tap the potentials of agricultural sector is crucial. Regional connectivity needs due attention, hence the successful execution of alternative economic corridors and maritime trade corridors, such as Chennai-Vladivostok, needs prompt engagement.
The major impact of the pandemic has prompted countries to explore alternate market destinations and shifts in the business environment. The crisis has opened opportunities for countries such as India and Russia to reposition themselves in the global supply chain. Russia, with its efforts to attract investment to the Far East, and India, with its huge manpower and existing available manufacturing units, should be endorsed as potential and suitable alternatives for manufacturing, instead of developed nations.
Despite the seemingly successful bilateral relations between India and Russia, the strategic community is incomplete if there is shortfall in establishing strong people-to-people engagement. Since the Soviet collapse, bilateral relations have seen minimal cultural diplomacy, academic exchange and labour migration. Perhaps new vistas of cooperation could be explored to promote soft power capabilities between the two countries, such as cinema, which has always been one of the most successful foreign policy tools to enhance cultural exchange and people-to-people contact between countries.
The film industry is a great medium for spreading narratives, and in India movies have an immense following as well as impact on the minds of the population. India and Russia collaborated in movie production during the Soviet era, however, the trend did not last long due to the fall of the Soviet Union, among other factors. The time is right for both India and Russia to collaborate in the entertainment industry, especially through joint production of movies and creating powerful narratives related to bilateral cooperation. India and Russia must concentrate more on the content of the movie rather than joint production alone, as for the audience the content matters more than the producer. Moreover, it can have an everlasting impact on the minds of the Indian population if the content projects a Russian character aiding/collaborating with an Indian protagonist in a movie in bringing down an antagonist. Also, the Indian movie industry is always on the look for exotic locations in foreign lands. Hence, in order to attract the Indian movie industry, Russia could look into easing travel and other shooting permissions within its jurisdictions. Such an effort would not only bring closer industry ties, but also be able to showcase the Russia and its rich culture to the Indian population, thereby acting as a window of promotion for Russian tourism.
Regarding geopolitical realignment, today the global community is seeking pragmatic internationalism. The role of India and Russia is crucial in their efforts to diffuse the multipolar world system. This is also relevant for regional alliances to actively engage politically and economically, which should help bilateral relations between the two countries elevate to a higher pedestal in post-pandemic world order.
The current global situation has given rise to some daunting challenges for the partnership once again. Some of the challenges in the post pandemic world are linked to the disruptions being caused to the international order by traditional and non-traditional threats such as climate change, cyber security, health security, data protection, secure communication challenges etc. Nurturing hopes for stability and prosperity in Eurasia in the post pandemic world, bilateral relations between India and Russia and their proactive role in regional mechanisms such as SCO, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Russia-India-China (RIC) are viewed as an integral part of this construct. Regional connectivity needs due attention including the successful execution of alternative economic corridors and maritime trade corridors.
In conclusion, the signing of the milestone agreement in 2000 was the outcome of developments that took place in bilateral relations between India and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The main aim of the agreement was to elevate the partnership to new level of cooperation and put speculations and uncertainties in the relationship to rest. Over the past twenty years of relations, the partnership has seen many ups and downs. Nonetheless, this has not allowed any major damage that could impact or lead to any serious conflict of interest between the two countries. Having said that, the coveted relations built over the years cannot be taken for granted. In this regard, apart from political elites and bureaucrats playing a crucial role in enhancing the relations, academicians, artists, students, the research community, think tanks and educational institutions should contribute to forming the true essence of the partnership. The youth, in particular, need to draw inspiration from each other’s rich history and cultural relevance, carrying forward the vision for a long-term partnership. The engagement of both countries in the international ecosystem in the post pandemic world has become even more relevant, as it has given rise to new challenges and opportunities. The strategic partnership between India and Russia nevertheless needs to insulate the mutual interests from challenges that emerge from within and from external factors. Perhaps, the need for a reality check and serious introspection will be crucial as the challenges are only set to grow given the dynamism of international relations.
From our partner RIAC
The European Union and Russia: To talk or not to talk and about what?
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.
From our partner International Affairs
The Role of Ideology in Foreign Policy: Why Contemporary Russia Cannot Be Compared to the Soviet Union
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) .
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.
From our partner RIAC
What Russia Wants In The Balkans
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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