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The Coming Bipolarity and Its Implications: Views from China and Russia

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Authors: Zhao Huasheng and Andrey Kortunov

The Chinese authorities have never accepted or used the concept of China-U.S. bipolarity. Neither the so-called co-governance (G2) nor the bipolar confrontation between China and the United States is consistent with China’s diplomatic philosophy and policy. The Russian official narrative has also rejected the idea that the world has been moving in the direction of a new bipolarity, insisting on a gradual transformation of the unipolar, U.S.-centered international system of early XXI century to a multipolar (or polycentric) world order.

In spite of this, there are more and more discussions on the bipolarization of China and the United States in academic circles both in China and in Russia. Especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, China-U.S. relations have deteriorated sharply, conflicts between China and the U.S. have intensified, and bipolarization has become a hot issue in academic and political discussions of international politics. More and more often, observers of contemporary international relations look at these relations through the optics of a seemingly irreconcilable confrontation between the West and the East (or between liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies, between Atlanticism and Eurasianism, between maritime and continental powers, and so on). This intellectual flavor of the month calls for an unbiased analysis of what bipolarity means for Beijing and Moscow and how it does or does not fit into the Chines and the Russian perceptions of the emerging world order.

Three Biporlarities

There are at least three forms of bipolarities: political bipolarity, structural bipolarity and value bipolarity. Political bipolarity is the bipolarity in political cognition. It has certain political attributes and shows a number of political implications in terms of international status and influence. For example, bipolar co-governance or bipolar confrontation belong to political bipolarity. Structural bipolarity is bipolarity in material cognition. It reflects the explicit superiority of two big countries over other international actors in terms of material resources that they have at their disposal. Fundamentally, material or structural bipolarity is the foundation for political bipolarity; the latter emerges based on the former. Finally, value bipolarity implies that in defining poles, one should keep in mind value differences between major actors. In particular, libel democracies by definition cannot be divided into different poles because of their value proximity to each other; the borderline between poles should, among other things, reflect a clash in value systems — e.g., between Western-type democracies and non-Western authoritarianism of various sorts.

This triple attribute of bipolarity is an important theoretical presupposition in the analysis of bipolarization and a logical starting point for understanding the cognitive and theoretical differences between China, Russia and the West on this issue. In China, there is a tradition to emphasize the material dimension of bipolarity (or multipolarity). For the Chinese, the international structure has a natural attribute initially. Whether it is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, these structures merge as a pure reflection of existing asymmetries in international players’ material potentials. If any two actors have material resources far superior to all other actors, we can define the system as bipolar. The term has no inherent political connotation. It is neither naturally confrontational nor cooperative. Its political nature is to be given by decisions of the two “poles” in question. These “poles” can either follow the idea of equal cooperation or pursue a policy of competition and confrontation.

In Russia, they tend to emphasize the political dimension in defining the “poles” in world politics. This approach reflects Russia’s active foreign policy and power projection initiatives, while the country experiences a relative deficit of material resources. In Moscow, they often claim that the United States, China and Russia constitute the top league of global politics. The material weakness of Russia can be allegedly offset by its remarkable ability to focus on achieving specific foreign policy goals, on its capacity to mobilize needed resources, on its readiness to sustain a coherent long-term strategy in various regions, and so on. In this paradigm, Moscow can punch way above its weight, bringing an important dimension to the U.S.-China equation.

In the West, it is common to emphasize the value dimension of bipolarity. This Manichean approach to international relations implies that bipolarity becomes confrontational primarily due to the gap in values, which might exist between major players in the international system. If the descending and the ascending world leader do not have this gap (e.g., the United Kingdom and the United States in the late XIX – early XX centuries), the system is not truly bipolar. At best, we can argue that the system contains elements of bipolarity. However, if the value gap exists (the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), the system turns bipolar in the full sense of the word.

New Type of Great Power Relations vs “Thucydides Trap”

Based on the theoretical premise that the political relationship between great powers is malleable, China proposes the concept of a new type of great power relationship, meaning an equal, mutually respective, cooperative and win-win relationship. It is opposite to the popular “Thucydides trap” theory, believing that the confrontational nature of bipolarity is natural, inevitable and unchangeable. In other words, China questions the assumption that bipolarity means and can only be a confrontation.

It is at this point that the Chinese and the Western perceptions diverge. If great powers are destined to be antagonistic, the new type of great powers theory raised by China will lose its meaning. On the other hand, if the new type of great powers theory is reasonable, then the “Thucydides trap” is just one of the possible outcomes, and not the only one. Although both in theory or in practice the antagonistic relationship of bipolarity is much easier to appear than a cooperative one, because cooperative relations need to have a common intention of both poles, an antagonistic one could be formed by one side’s intention and behavior.

In Russia, they seem to share the Chinese view that there can be no determinism in the nature of relations between the two most powerful nations in the world. Indeed, even during the Cold War, there were periods of relaxation of tensions and limited détente between Moscow and Washington. Still, the predominant view is that the West (or, to be more exact, the United States) will not abandon its claims to global hegemony in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it will not accept a “cooperative” bipolarity or multipolarity, not to mention a truly democratic and inclusive polycentric world. The overall perception in Moscow is that unless there a fundamental change in the American foreign policy establishment, any U.S. leader will try to get back to the U.S.-led unipolar world, which is likely to result in an adversarial model of bipolarity. This bipolarity should not be “the West against the Rest.” It might take the form of “the U.S. against the Rest.”

As for the West, many political thinkers there assume that though there might be some ceasefires and truces in the U.S.-China confrontation, as well as in U.S.-Russian adversarial relations, at the end of the day, one can reconcile the global system only on the basis of common values. This assumption means that one side is destined to win and the other is doomed to lose. Needless to say, Western-type liberal democracy should ultimately prevail over its illiberal alternatives.

The Western logic of the “Thucydides trap” is that a strong country is bound to seek hegemony and is fight against alternative sets of values. In other words, it equates a strong country with hegemony and value universalism. In this regard, it also forms a division with China’s logic. According to China’s thinking, the relationship between a strong country and power politics is not necessarily corresponding. A strong country does not necessarily adopt unilateralism and move towards hegemony.

Moreover, a weak country does not naturally abide by just and reasonable thoughts and policies. Strength is also relative. Most countries in the world have a dual identity. They are weaker in the face of the stronger, but stronger in the face of the weaker. They can be strong in some fields but weak in others. They might be powerful in their material capabilities but powerless in their commitment to using them. Under different circumstances, nations have the status of transformation between “strong country” and “weak country,” and have the question of policy choice when facing the stronger or weaker country.

Here does not negate the basic role of structure to policy options, nor the basic principle of existence determines consciousness, and also understand the strong historical and realistic arguments of the theory of structural determinism. However, different from structural determinism, what we see in “existence” is not only the structure but also the historical civilization background, political system and culture, the changes of times and international conditions, the development and influence of technological means and other factors. More than that, the influence of existence on consciousness is not an absolutely one-way direction.

China’s Choice

With national strength as the index, China’s status in world structure is not for China to choose. It is formed naturally and it’s not the result of a country’s choice. A state may desire for some kind of international structure, but it is only a subjective will, but not necessarily the objective reality.

Suppose that bipolarity has been already formed in material terms and China is one of it, what concept and policy will China choose? According to China’s thoughts, the most reasonable and possible choice is continuing to follow multilateralism. That is to say, China does not take the bipolarity as the center of international politics and does not regard the bipolarity as a super structure above the world, even if China’s national strength is higher than that of the other countries. China will assume greater international responsibilities, but it will still be willing to live with other countries as political equals.

This does not contradict China’s position as one of the two strongest poles, because multilateralism is a political attitude which is optional. The concept of multilateralism is closely related to multipolarization, so it is often treated as a similar or even the same concept, but in fact, they are different. Whether in Chinese, English or Russian, they are all nouns with different meanings. In nature, multilateralism is not only a method, but also a political thought and attitude with value orientation. Multilateralism is based on the principle of political equality, while multipolarization is mainly a policy based on relations of big powers. Multilateralism takes into account the interests of all countries related and is based on the balance of interests of all related countries, while multipolarization attaches importance to power and takes power as the main element. Multilateralism does not deny multipolarity and it can also contain multipolarity, but multipolarization does not necessarily contain multilateralism. It could be both compatible or contradictory with multilateralism.

Now as China’s status as a great power has been firmly established, and China is not only one of the many poles, but also possible one of the two strongest, China’s relations with the world have shifted to how it views relations with other countries rather than worrying about its own status. In this context, multilateralism, which focuses on relations with other countries, is more suited to China’s diplomatic needs. Multilateralism is not linked to a specific international structure and transcends the constraints of it. Therefore, it is not in contradiction with China’s status as one of the supposed bipolarity.

Russia’s Choice

Russian-Chinese cooperation is gaining more ground, growing in all areas from the economic to political and security domains. The Chinese-Russian axis creates opportunities and temptations for neighboring and more distant states, resulting in the rapid institutional development of such entities as the SCO or BRICS. Though in Moscow they still refer to the notion of a multipolar or polycentric world, it seems that in reality, there is an increasing readiness to accept the new bipolar reality with the United States and China as the centers of gravity for this new polarization of global politics.

One might ask the question: is there anything fundamentally wrong about a bipolar world for Russia? Was it not the Soviet-U.S. bipolarity that served as the foundation of global peace and stability for some forty years after the Second World War? Isn’t it fair to say that a bipolar world – with all its imperfections and limitations notwithstanding – is still much better than the potential alternative of a gradual erosion of global governance and the arrival of anarchy and chaos in international relations? So why can’t Moscow simply accept this new polarity as a plausible and realistic option that can define the hierarchy and structure of the international system in the XXI century?

Some analysts in Russia have gone even further and maintain that this new global split has been historically predetermined and unavoidable, being based on “objective” realities. It is often argued that the Atlantic and the Eurasian civilizations have opposed each other from the days immemorial, that “land” powers have always and will always be different from “maritime” powers, that the “global continent” (Eurasia) is the eternal counterweight to the “global island” (America). And that it makes little sense to challenge the laws of history and geography. The logical conclusion is that we should take the emerging bipolarity as a natural and, in a way, even desirable state of affairs. The only realistic goal should be to maintain this bipolarity within a mutually acceptable framework in order to avoid an uncontrolled confrontation with unacceptably high risks and costs involved.

In our view, such a conclusion is at the very least premature. It is hard to deny that a trend towards a new bipolarity has already manifested itself not only in geopolitics, but also in the global strategic balance and the global economy. But whether this trend can be considered positive and whether it should be regarded as inevitable — these are points that can be disputed. Let me briefly outline a couple of arguments against these assumptions.

In the history of intellectual thought, any rigid determinism — be it religious, ethnic, economic or geographical — has always failed to explain and to predict social change and international developments. The period of the Cold War can hardly be described as an era of peace and stability — it included numerous regional wars and crises and an unprecedented arms race. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the world was very close to global nuclear conflict.

It is even more important to underscore the following. The modern world is very different from what it was in the second half of the XX century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided into two systems — the Western (capitalist) and the Eastern (communist) with irreconcilable (antagonistic) contradictions between them. In other words, the bipolar system was based on a solid ideological foundation. This foundation is gone and it is hard to imagine that it will reemerge in the foreseeable future. Nationalism, even in its extreme forms, and religious fundamentalism are unlikely to replace the fundamental ideological divide of the previous century.

Moreover, all of the main international players today have to confront essentially the same set of threats and challenges to their security, which are very different from the traditional threats and challenges of the XX century and earlier periods. Today, state leaders have to deal with international terrorism and political extremism, with transnational crime and illicit drug trafficking, with uncontrolled migration and climate change, with the instabilities of the global financial system and increased risks of technological disasters. Some of these challenges existed during the Cold War, but only in an “embryonic” form, being overshadowed by the all-embracing East-West confrontation.

One of the specific features of this new set of challenges is that most of them are not generated by other (rival) great powers. In fact, these threats have nothing to do with state actors of the international system, except for a small number of irresponsible, radical regimes (rogue states). The new generation of threats and challenges come from subversive non-state actors. They may represent the negative side effects of technological and economic progress, or the growing shortage of natural resources, or the obsolescence of many key international institutions and norms of international public law. This is a fundamental difference between the period of the Cold War and today’s world. Additionally, this is why a new bipolar system, even if it can be established, is unlikely to provide any long-term security or stability.

One should keep in mind another important difference between the contemporary international situation and that of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was economically almost completely separated from the West, as the two poles of the world did not depend on each other for their development. Today, in the era of globalization, the level of interdependence between the East and the West, between the “global continent” and the “global island” is unprecedentedly high. Therefore, any political bipolarity, which would have an inevitable impact on the economic, financial, cultural, and humanitarian dimensions of international relations, is likely to have much higher costs for everyone than the Cold War ever had. Not to mention the massive relocation of material and human resources from addressing numerous global problems looming on the horizon.

In sum, the trend towards a new bipolarity is troublesome and dangerous. Even in its modified and “modernized” form, a bipolar arrangement is not likely to successfully handle the critical international questions of this century. If the world is split once again, this will likely have long-term negative repercussions for the whole system despite some tactical gains that can be anticipated by the leaders of the new “poles.” It is in our common interest to avoid this option and move towards a more inclusive, democratic and truly global international system. Since “no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.”

U.S. Choice

Looking at the current global geopolitical landscape, we have to conclude that, although the triangle is still a popular and useful analytical pattern and one of the possible future scenarios for U.S.-China-Russia relations, no U.S.-China-Russia triangle today resembles that of the Cold War. Instead, for a couple of years, we observed the U.S. policy of “dual containment” with Washington applying more and more pressure on both Beijing and Moscow. This pressure has become an important factor cementing the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership.

This situation is a clear strategic setback for Washington. Since at least the early 20th century, one of the most important goals of the U.S. foreign policy has always been to prevent any consolidated anti-American center of power in Eurasia. U.S. policymakers have perceived a divided Eurasian landmass as an indispensable prerequisite for the global U.S. strategic hegemony. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the critical importance of keeping Eurasia divided better than anyone else did. He was more efficient than any U.S. leader before him in exploiting the growing rifts between Beijing and Moscow back in the early 1970s.

Can President-elect Joe Biden repeat Kissinger’s success and resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle with the U.S. at the top of it? Of course, almost 50 years have passed since the famous trip of Kissinger to Beijing in July of 1971. The world today is definitely very different from the world of the 20th century. The former bedrock theology of geopolitics may look old-fashioned and even antiquated. Still, let us consider the options that the U.S. leadership has in trying to keep Eurasia divided.

The first option would be to read Kissinger literally. That is to support the weaker U.S. adversary against the stronger one. Today, it would mean that Washington should try to bring Moscow to the American side in its predestined confrontation with Beijing. After all, Russia is a communist country no more, and Russian leaders should be concerned about the growing asymmetry of power between their country and China. To play the weaker adversary against the stronger one was a stated goal of the Trump administration, which it failed to achieve. U.S.-Russian relations did not improve under Trump. On the contrary, they fell to historic lows.

It is highly unlikely that Biden can be more successful in pursuing this goal than his predecessor was. The U.S. simply has nothing to offer to President Putin to make him reconsider his current close friendship with President Xi Jinping — be it in economic, political or strategic domains. Even if Biden were considering a new reset with the Kremlin, he would hardly be in a position to go for such a reset: The anti-Russian consensus in Washington is too strong and shows no signs of crumbling. It seems that the U.S.-Russian relationship will be locked in a confrontational mode for many years to come.

The second option for Biden in trying to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle would be to play on the opposite side of the stage, seeking an acceptable accommodation with the stronger Beijing and putting the squeeze on the weaker Moscow. Turning Kissinger’s geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient opponent than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the U.S., severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The U.S.-Russia confrontation will cost much less, given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states, and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with Washington.

However, is it realistic for Biden to count on a sweet deal with China? Such a bargain requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the U.S. holds in the system of international relations. The U.S. will have to abandon its claim to global American hegemony similar to that of the times of Kissinger. Certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage is ready to do that. If a revolution in the U.S.’ self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this is not likely to happen earlier than 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense.

Even more importantly, just as Trump repeatedly saw throughout the four years of his presidency that it was impossible to tear Russia away from China, Biden will steadily see that China cannot be torn away from Russia. Beijing needs Moscow regardless of the current state of affairs and the prospects for China-U.S. relations. China’s leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or “balancer” between Russia and America, but it will not actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia. In other words, if a U.S.-China-Russia triangle could ever emerge, it would be a triangle with Beijing, not Washington, on the top of it.

Thus, the Biden administration will not accomplish a lot if it attempts to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle. Under the current circumstances, a version of a “dual containment” equation appears to be the most likely approach of this new U.S. administration towards Beijing and Moscow, with China being treated more as a peer competitor and Russia as a global rouge state. To cut the costs of dual containment, Biden will try to mobilize U.S. Western allies in Europe and in East Asia. It will also try to keep Eurasia divided by forging stronger ties to China’s adversaries in Asia — above all, to India. By doing so, Biden will inevitably push the world closer to a new geopolitical bipolarity instead of a modernized version of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.

Multilateralism – A Path for Future China-Russia Cooperation

Over the past years, promoting multipolarization has been an important target for China-Russia international cooperation. Now the situation has changed. China is becoming one of the supposed new bipolarity, the status of China and Russia in the international structure will no longer be the same. It can be felt that Russia’s concern about it may be in an unequal position in Sino-Russian relations is increasing. In addition, it used to be said that China and Russia were a coalition of two weaker states in response to pressure from the sole superpower, the U.S. Now that China itself is becoming a “superpower,” what concepts will serve as the path for future China-Russia’s international cooperation?

Multilateralism certainly could play an important role in this, both as ideas and policies. Multilateralism opposes unipolarity but does not negate multipolarity. It still leaves the door open for Russia as a great power in a multipolar world. Multilateralism embodies the spirit of political equality. It stipulates China and Russia are equal partners both in international affairs and in bilateral relations. Multilateralism is consistent with Russia’s diplomatic ideology as well. Russia itself is a supporter of multilateralism and takes it as the banner of Russian diplomacy. Russia proposes that the future multipolarity should have a just and democratic character and that it should not be based solely on the balance of power, but on the interaction of national interests, patterns, cultures and traditions. This can be interpreted as a moral demand of Russia to international structure, and it is certainly true. Above all, despite all of the changes, China will still pursue the same goals in international affairs, such as anti-hegemony, anti-unilateralism, anti-neointerventionism, maintaining international strategic stability and establishing a more just and fair world order. Therefore, the goals of China and Russia in international politics will remain unchanged.

From our partner RIAC

Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum

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The other side of the Olympics

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The world Olympic movement has always been based on the principles of equal and impartial attitude towards athletes – representatives of all states of the world. The Olympic Games were designed to stop wars and political strife, to unite representatives of all countries of the International Olympic Committee. One of the main Olympic principles was peacekeeping – the opportunity for the strongest athletes to meet under national flags for a peaceful competition. We seem to be losing all this today. Since the days of Nazi Germany, the Olympic Games have become a weapon of propaganda, and during the Cold War, political squabbles from terrorist attacks, protests and boycotts unfolded around them. However, now, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) forced the Russian team to abandon the national flag and anthem, the entire political background of the current Olympic Games has become especially visible.

In ancient Greece, military operations were stopped for the period of the Olympic Games. Peaceful competitions, the cult of sports, the cult of beauty and the spirit of ancient competitions had priority. As the founder of modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, wanted to revive all this! But the proud fathers of Athens or Baron de Coubertin could hardly have imagined that in modern days noble sports would turn into an instrument of a political game. Earlier, there were boycotts because of the Cold War, provocations in the stands, racism… Now we have strange doping scandals. As a result, the Tokyo Olympics, at the suggestion of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), have become institutions that also operate on the basis of political interests.

As a reminder, since 2014, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been investigating the massive use of doping by Russian athletes. They were stripped of their medals and removed from the competition. In Russia itself, where they love sports and root for their athletes, this was perceived as a planned attack on Russian sports. Moreover, for example, Russian biathlon fans are convinced that half of European athletes in this discipline use anti-asthma drugs that expand the lungs “for medical reasons”.

However, that the suspension of Russian athletes is not based on scientific facts is confirmed by the statement of the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time, Ole Einar Bjorndalen.

Bjorndalen, 47, an eight-time Olympic biathlon champion, stated in 2017,that  more compelling evidence than scratch marks supposedly found on sample bottles of some Russian athletes if they are to be implicated in the ongoing doping scandal.

“I hope that we will be able to see some evidence for what they [Russian athletes] are being punished, and that it it’s not that there are some marks on the bottles, because then I will be terribly afraid of giving samples,” Bjorndalen, said, as cited by the Norwegian News Agency (NTB).

The very idea that one can be found guilty of doping violations without being tested positive has stoked fears among the athletes as they now worry they can be punished virtually under any pretext, Bjorndalen said.

“We skiers are beginning to feel uncertain when we are being tested that there are some scratches on sample bottles for which they can punish us,” he said.

Anyone who violates the doping regulations should be punished, and severely, so that the strong message is sent, that fair play is the basis of the Olympic Games. But to punish the whole country, and which is superpower in sport(Russia is always among the few countries with the most medals won), on the basis of unreliable evidence, is absolutely unacceptable.

Therefore, in response to a well-thought-out decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the days of the Olympics rallies, the Russians launched the not quite tolerant hashtag #wewillROCyou (according to the permitted name of the Russian team – Russian Olympic Committee). The anger of ordinary Russian citizens is reasonable if we keep in mind that never in history has any country been deprived of its flag and anthem.  

So we have to ask ourselves, all of us who love sports but also basic human rights, is it right to try to humiliate a country of 147 million inhabitants? Especially having in mind how much that country has provided to the world in the field of sports, culture, science. The answer is self-imposed – the injustice towards Russian athletes and Russia must be corrected.

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Russian Foreign Ministry sees elements of show in “Navalny poisoning”

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Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova has yet again dwelled with her usual sarcasm on last year’s reports about “Russia’s top opposition leader” and “the deadly Novichok”. Zakharova made the comments with her hallmark sense of humour over her Telegram channel following newly released reports on the results of an inquiry into the “poisoning of Navalny”, which appeared in the course of the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in July.

On August 20 last year, Russia’s public activist and campaigner Alexei Navalny had to be taken off his flight at Omsk and was delivered to hospital in a grave condition. Well before the final diagnosis he was flown to a Berlin hospital and there he was diagnosed with Novichok poisoning. Later on, he revealed the results of his own investigation which established the involvement in the poisoning of a group of FSB agents. The story has become the butt of a joke in Russia. Russians want to know why Novichok has not killed anyone so far and why Russian special services are unable to carry out a simple elimination operation.

Giving rise to more jokes was the publication of “an inquiry into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny” which the Russian side obtained from a report on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in implementation of its core document – the 2020-2021 Convention. Part 1.41 of the report, which was published after the session, says that “on August 20, 2020, at the request of Germany, the Secretariat dispatched a group of experts who were to render technical assistance in connection with reports about the poisoning of the Russian activist”. But August 20 was the very day of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who suddenly felt ill on board of the plane and who told the passengers about the poisoning himself. At about 6 a.m. (4.00 CET) Moscow time the plane with Navalny on board made an emergency landing at Omsk. The news got into the media by midday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were in meeting at the time. At 18.30 CET they give a press conference signaling the need to conduct an inquiry. On the same day the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received a request from Germany and reacted. However, for an international organization that adheres to specific procedures a reaction that quick is impossible for technical reasons. Unless all this has been planned before, which is what Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova points out.

Russian representatives prepared for the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons far better than the Germans. That’s why when asked why the draft report contains the date August 20 the German side first said that it was a misprint and then “recalled” that on that day chancellor Merkel turned to the Organization with a request. In any case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must secure a preliminary approval from its Secretariat before it can send any experts for conducting an inquiry. Interestingly, the Organization could not explain the confusion over the dates and procedures.  

This situation enabled the Russian Foreign Ministry to ‘’strike a new blow’’, accusing the United States, Britain and a number of European countries of regularly breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention. Simultaneously, many Russian media reminded their subscribers that Navalny was hospitalized after two days of noisy parties and visits to the sauna. The lifestyle of “Russia’s top opposition campaigner” causes a lot of criticism, as the anti-corruption activist lives a lavish life, which is unaffordable to most Russians and alienates potential supporters.

Zakharova’s harsh and sarcastic statements, made via her Telegram channel and picked up by the Russian media, de facto demonstrate that Moscow views the entire “poisoning” story as poorly fabricated and will not accept whatever results the West’s inquiry may present. We can see that the “Navalny case” does have a lot of flaws and that the Kremlin had clearly pointed them out. Even the ardent opponents to the Russian government refrain from mentioning “poisoning”, saying that “Alexei” went over the line and that the  story about “the Novichok-soaked underpants” sounds implausible.

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Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?

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The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.

Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.

In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.

The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.

Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.

Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.

The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.

In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.

Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.

Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.

The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.

Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.

In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.

Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.

In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.

Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.

Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.

Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.

Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.

From our partner RIAC

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