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How the West failed to understand contemporary Russia

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A few years ago, James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy claimed that, for anyone wishing to understand the domestic and foreign politics of Russia he should read and try to understand the great works of Russian literature. In a post that he made at theforeignpolicy.com, he mentions: “Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think”.

It is understandable that when a former NATO commander suggests something like that, policymakers and diplomats from the U.S. would have an easier time understanding contemporary Russian politics. However, if this claim was true, how is it possible that after thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the West in general still, fail to understand Russia and its position in this world?

The Russian-American relations in the era of Boris Yeltsin

By 1989, it was pretty clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the uprising in Eastern Europe created a chain reaction that eventually caught up with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the reforms that Gorbachev suggested to open up the Soviet Union failed. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian Federation became an independent state and declared itself as the successor to the USSR. The Russian-American relations during the Yeltsin period can be described as neutral with a mutual tolerance from both sides. Also, at that time, there was indeed a sense of officially ending the Cold War, as both sides took positive measures to ensure that. In 1993, both sides signed the START II arms control treaty that focused on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.

However, the warm relations between the United States and Russia revealed how the U.S. perceived Russia. As a weak nation trying to balance itself after the fall of communism and its dissolvement. At the same time, Russia had to deal with enormous problems. The new Russian Federation was forced to sell almost 40.000 public businesses, like energy, mining, and communications companies. The economy of the country was in a freefall and for years the country found itself, hostage, to oligarchs. Besides that, Boris Yeltsin himself was considered to be a national embarrassment, relying heavily on the oligarchs and the West that saw him as a political tool to influence Russian domestic politics.

The United States under Bill Clinton wasn’t exactly rooted in any exalted “Russophilia”, as Dr. Andrei Kortunov pointed out: “Washington gave warm support to Yeltsin because of numerous US agencies’ analyses indicating Yeltsin could be counted upon as a guarantee of the irreversibility of the big and small victories gained over the former Cold War antagonist” (Kortunov, 1997). However, in March 1999, these slightly warm relations would be tested, after the U.S.-led NATO military operation against Serbia over the disputed land of Kosovo. Russia was against the attack and until this day, it does not recognize the pseudo-state of Kosovo. A few months later, when he was visiting China, Boris Yeltsin verbally attacked Bill Clinton for his criticism of Russian tactics in Chechnya. He made a blunt reminder of the fact that Russia was still a nuclear superpower. “Things will be as we have agreed with Jiang Zemin. We will be saying how to live, not Bill Clinton alone”. This was the only attempt that Boris Yeltsin did to show that Russia must still be considered a major player in international affairs. The U.S. made the mistake to think that the weakness of one man represented a weak nation in total, but with the 1999 elections and the victory of Vladimir Putin on December 31st, it was clear that Russia was entering a new era re-emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and challenge the geopolitical status quo of the new millennium.

Vladimir Putin and the genesis of modern Russia

After the appointment of Vladimir Putin as the new President of the Russian Federation, the relations between the two countries were characterized as stable and warm. However, the West continued the same rhetoric of underestimating Russia. For former senior CIA officer Paul R. Pillar, the mistake that the U.S. and the West made was pretty clear. The West did not treat Russia as a nation that got rid of communism like Hungary or Poland. Besides that, the rapid expansion of NATO on former Soviet territories created more problems for the peaceful coexistence of both superpowers, as Russia viewed that as a sign that it will not be treated fairly and equally in the global political arena.

For years, Vladimir Putin had a more passive-aggressive stance against the United States. In 2001, Russia expressed its opposition against the invasion of Afghanistan and in 2003 again, against the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, Russia at that time was focused on its internal affairs, as President Vladimir Putin had to resurrect a crumbling economy, deal with suppressing the power of the oligarchs and ensure the safety of Russian citizens against the attacks of Chechen terrorists. According to Vladislav Surkov, former Aide to Vladimir Putin, the country did manage to stabilize itself due to bold political changes. “Russia stopped breaking and began to recover”, he wrote. To be able to compete again with the United States, Russia had to put an enormous effort to achieve that, under internal and external pressure, while being underestimated by its Western partners.

For Dr. Georgi Asatryan, Vladimir Putin and the concept of Putinism helped Russia achieve that. “Putin provided stability, predictability, and peace. Putinism ensured the possibility of development. The West cannot comprehend this since standards have always been higher there”, were his words in one of his articles for EuroNews. The West soon comprehended the role of Russia in the world, with the newly appointed Obama administration in 2008. While President Barack Obama, was optimistic about a potential reset between the relations of the two nations, the reality just proved that the West had gone from a state of misunderstanding and underestimating the Russian Federation, to a state of trying to find a scapegoat and a potential enemy to protect its ideal monopoly of international influence and power.

Tug-of-war with the Obama Administration

For a brief time, there was a possibility regarding the reset in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington. In 2010, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear arms treaty called NEW START to effectively reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile. However, this euphoric feeling of resetting lasted only for a few moments. By 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected to serve as the President of Russia for a third term. The tug-of-war between the two countries involved certain disbelief about resetting the tones. On the one hand, the West continued its traditional feeling of mistrust, creating a sense of fear against the rapid re-emerge of Russia and the nationalistic policies of Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Russia remained paranoid about the intention of the West to meddle in its internal affairs as well as with their political expansion towards Eastern Europe.

Sir John Sawers, former head of Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Britain, expressed his opinion a few years ago, in a BBC interview. “If there was a clear understanding between Washington and Moscow about the rules of the road, that we are not trying to bring down each other’s systems, then solving regional problems like Syria or Ukraine or North Korea would be easier”. Many experts believed that the mixed signals that the Obama administration sent towards Moscow might have been one of the reasons for the fragile relationship between the two states.

From 2013 until the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016, three main events have destabilized the relations between Washington and Moscow and also added up to the misunderstanding and animosity between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Firstly, the case of Edward Snowden. Mr. Snowden released secret U.S. government documents exposing a mass surveillance campaign inside the United States and on foreign country leaders. He was granted asylum in Russia, where he remains until now. The incident of Edward Snowden was enough to cancel the meeting between Obama and Putin in Moscow. The second event that stigmatized Russian-American relations was the 2014 Ukrainian coup d’ etat and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In February 2014, after the collapse of the legitimate government of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia decided to annex Crimea based on a referendum that was held on March 16, 2014. The referendum was successful and Crimea became part of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the West was against the referendum while the United States accused Russia of acts of aggression. On March 24, 2014, Russia was suspended from participating in the G8 summits. Due to the concerning situation in Ukraine at that time, the relations between the two states were characterized as the worst since the end of the Cold War.

Last but not least, the event that further increased the gap between the two sides was the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s involvement started in 2015 with an air campaign in Syria, aiming to help stabilize the situation and keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. A month later, after the air campaign, President Obama called the Russian military intervention a “recipe for disaster”. In October after the launch of the Aleppo offensive and two fruitless rounds of talks in Lausanne and London, Russia’s U.N ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, compared the tensions in Syria with the events during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, mentioning that the relations between the United States and Russia were the worst since 1973.

The Donald Trump Syndrome

The most important event in Russian domestic politics is the U.S Presidential elections. This phrase has been a joke in the Russian political elite circles in the Kremlin, but it does not go far from reality. In 2016, the victory of Donald Trump might have been seen as a dreamy situation for Russia, but the reality is far from it. Although there is some truth in this statement. Donald Trump had more open policies towards Moscow promoting a more ideal relationship between the two states. It was clear that the Kremlin had ambitions to rebuild the shattered relation it had with the U.S. that was filled with mistrust from the Russian side and increased Russophobia from the American side.

In 2018, President Doland Trump called for Russia to be allowed to join the G-7 summit, where Russia was expelled back in 2014. In the first formal meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018, some experts argued that there was a friendly climate between both sides. However, Donald Trump drew criticism from U.S. politicians regarding his stance to side with Russia on the allegations about potential Russian interference in the 2016 elections. John McCain went as far as describing Donald Trump’s policy as: “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.

Nevertheless, over the last four years, the Trump administration has been more of a headache rather than an ally of Russia. Particularly in the case of the Nord Stream II pipeline, where the Trump administration issued numerous sanctions on Russian and European companies involved with the project. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov criticized the Trump administration by saying that the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to destroy the U.S-Russia relations. Besides that, the paranoia of the former President Donald Trump with China, had a negative impact on any establishment of a new arms control agreement between the three countries, something that the Kremlin will be eager to pursue after the inauguration of Joe Biden. The increased instability inside the United States and political immaturity of Donald Trump, has been more harmful than beneficial for Russia who now sees the new Biden administration as a political pillar, to try and establish any sort of normalization in the diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in a respectful manner of mutual understanding.

Joe Biden and the Future of the U.S.-Russia Relations

On January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Joe Biden is an old familiar face to the Kremlin, having served as the Vice-President for Barack Obama. However, the fact that he is more familiar does not change the cold relations between him and Vladimir Putin. The cold relations can be traced back to 2011 when Joe Biden met with opposition leaders, expressing his thoughts on how Vladimir Putin should not run for President in 2012. This statement is still memorable for many Kremlin officials, and the same rhetoric seems to still be used, with Joe Biden referring to Russia as the “biggest threat to U.S. security”. However, despite what many analysts believe, the new Biden administration might be more reliable in building a new relationship of understanding between the two sides.

There is a growing feeling amongst the political elite of the Kremlin, that the growing turmoil and instability in the U.S. especially after the events on January 6, 2021, harms the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Besides that, Mr. Biden will take the “wheel” of a country that for four years has been exposed to unprofessionalism and childish acts from a President that is in danger of being removed from his office before the inauguration of his successor. Joe Biden, as a more traditional U.S. politician, a so-called “inside man” of U.S. politics, can be proven to be more reliable on rebuilding any new diplomatic relations with Russia. As former senator Bill Bradley, who visited the USSR in 1979 with Joe Biden, pointed out: “Joe knew the Soviet Union, knows Russia, has experience with Vladimir Putin and understands what’s possible and what’s not”.

Joe Biden’s familiarity with Russia might provide room for improvement, however, it is understandable that the relations between the two states will not be extremely friendly. A harsher attitude towards Russia is expected by the Biden administration. Nevertheless, the future of the U.S.-Russia relations with Joe Biden might conduct a more understanding approach without the mistakes of past administrations. In the end, the relations between Russia and the United States might reach a level of understanding each other’s coexistence in the global arena while acknowledging the realistic politics that require each state to behave in a manner that will maximize its benefits. 

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The European Union and Russia: To talk or not to talk and about what?

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The recent visit of the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell to Moscow was seen by those, who care about good-neighbourly relations between the EU and Russia, as a first step on the way of putting an end to their decline, since already for some time they were going from bad to worse. Why didn’t the expectations of these people of good will bear the fruit? Were they simply naïve? To an extent, it is true. But why was there such a negative reaction to Borrell’s visit in several European capitals, and also in the European Parliament, including the calls for his resignation? What led Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, to declare that his country must be ready to severing relations with the EU in case the latter adopts new sanctions against Moscow? What would this mean for Europe, for Russia and even for the wider world since notwithstanding the coronavirus the world remains interconnected and interdependent, even if a reverse tendency has also become visible?

First of all, it has to be noted that there are those, both in Russia as well as in Europe, who are actively against any improvement of relations between Moscow and Brussels. In Russia these are not only, and even not so much, those ultra-nationalists (exemplified, say, by Alexander Prohkanov) for whom the Western influence in Russia is like a bat from the hell infected by coronavirus. These are also members of the radical pro-Western opposition to the Kremlin, exemplified by Alexei Navalny. For them any sign of reconciliation between the West and Russia is a cause for alarm since in such a case they may be soon out of job. And both of these Russian opponents of rapprochement between the EU and Russia have their counterparts in the West, including Europe. Significant parts of political elites, particularly in the Baltic countries and in Poland, for whom trans-Atlantic ties are much more important than European interests, hope that by supporting the radical opposition in Russia they could enforce there a regime change, a kind of ‘colour revolution’.

However, as the success of such scenarios is ‘highly unlikely’ and political pragmatism and economic self-interests usually prevail over vociferous extremism, be it political or religious, there is still hope at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, when Sergei Lavrov said that Russia should be ready to possible severing relations between EU and Russia, he didn’t mean at all that it would be Russia’s choice. It was said in the context of a response to a threat of new EU’s sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions since all such unfriendly measures inevitably undermine relations between States and societies. And though it is impossible to realistically imagine a complete severance of relations between Brussels and Moscow, it may well be that at least for the nearest future political relations between them become a bit frozen. It maybe even advisable to take the time off and reflect for a while, instead of continuing with mutual recriminations. However, this would also mean that relations between Russia and individual member-States of the Union would necessarily rise in importance since there are areas and issues where cooperation between Russia and Europe is inevitable and unavoidable (be it the situation in the Middle East, the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, responses to cyber-terrorism and even the conflict in Eastern Ukraine or the situation in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh, etc.). Moreover, Covid-19 is not only forcing States to impose stricter border controls, even within in the Schengen zone; the virus is also pushing them to cooperate in the distribution and use of effective vaccines, notwithstanding their ‘politically incorrect’ origin. This all means that the role and position of the EU in the world would further weaken.

The failure of Borrell’s mission was also predetermined by what the High Representative himself called ‘the DNA’ of the European Union – the concern for human rights, particularly in States that don’t belong to the Union. As the High Representative himself claimed, in justification of his visit and apologising before the MEPs for its meagre results, the primary purpose of his twofold mission was to convey to the Kremlin the Union’s concerns for human rights and political freedoms in Russia and particularly for the situation of Mr Navalny. He even demanded Navalny’s ‘immediate and unconditional release’. And only then came issues of bilateral cooperation between the EU and Russia. This was an absolutely wrong, even disastrous, way to start a dialogue. The European Union is not a human rights NGO, like the Amnesty International or the Human Rights Watch, and even if it has a human rights mandate, then only vis-à-vis its member-States. Moreover, the whole history of the human rights movement shows that inter-State relations (and relations between the EU and Russia are inter-State relations) are not the best forum for conducting a human rights discourse. For that there are specialised human rights bodies, both international and domestic, intergovernmental and non-governmental. When human rights diplomacy of States has had tangible positive effects, it has been achieved by unobtrusive approaches, never through public criticism in the face of mass media. Such criticism has always been counterproductive, even vis-à-vis smaller and weaker States, to say nothing about great powers.

Usually such public criticism doesn’t even have a purpose of improving the human rights situation in a target country. It may be a form of self-satisfaction – we are holding a moral high-ground, while you are outcasts (rogue or pariah States). It is nice to feel virtuous even if things on the grounds don’t change at all or even get worse. It may be also a part of regime-change tactics in parallel with undercover support for opposition forces in target States. Never have such public campaigns improved human rights situations. The opposite is true – human rights situations have improved as a result of fruitful cooperation between States. So, the reforms in China and the inclusion of China in the world-wide economic cooperation have lifted, according to the World Bank, 850 million Chinese out of extreme poverty, helping thereby the UN to achieve one of its Millennium Development Goals. However, such an unexpected success has not been to everybody’s liking and today Washington is trying to harness its allies to help contain Beijing’s rise, using for it, inter alia, human rights discourse that is not doing any good either for Uighurs in the North or Hongkongese in the South of the country. But such policy of containment is not at all about Uighurs or inhabitants of Hong Kong; it is about geopolitics in the disguise of human rights. 

In the aftermath of the failed attempts to promote democracy and human rights in the wider Middle East, the former British Prime Minister Theresa May promised that there is no ‘return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’She vowed never to repeat the ‘failed policies of the past’, breaking from the ’liberal intervention’ principle established and promoted by her predecessor Tony Blair. Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, was right in emphasising that ‘democracy and human rights will progress in future much less through the prescriptions and interference from the outside by the West than depending on the internal dynamics of individual societies’. It is often, though not always, the case that the less States publicly criticise other States on human rights issues, the better would it be for human rights.

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The Role of Ideology in Foreign Policy: Why Contemporary Russia Cannot Be Compared to the Soviet Union

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Ideology is a crucial component in understanding the motivation behind any individual or group of people. Realism falsely presupposes that the motivation of actors can be understood purely through the lens of survival in a limited resources zero-sum domain. At face level, this sounds rational and economic, but it should be understood that in microeconomics, even though people are assumed to always act self-interestedly, it is also understood that what their self-interest is actually composed of is ultimately subjective. Therefore, a more realistic and analytical view of realpolitik allows us to understand that the self-interest of nations is also subjective, which means that the role of ideology cannot be discounted as it pertains to foreign policy.

Throughout human history, nearly every nation has been founded for the sake of itself, even expansionist empires. A glaring exemption to this rule was observed during the Cold War, a clash of two markedly ideological countries.

The United States is a country that was founded on the ideology of humanist enlightenment liberalism and is a country whose founding was assumed to be not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of all mankind. This was seen as early as the settling of the American continent, with John Winthrop’s famous imagery in A Model of Christian Charity which portrayed the country as a moral paragon, a city on a hill for all the world to see. Likewise, this idea of liberal universalism was evident in the very founding documents of America. In the United States Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers wrote that their country was being incepted to secure the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

This founding ethos directly affected America’s foreign policy, as America has historically occupied a position as the world’s “policeman,” believing that they uniquely have an obligation to defend democratic values everywhere. This rhetoric can be found exhaustively in colloquial American media, but one noticeable concrete example of it is found in George Bush’s 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, where the document states that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.

In a similar vein, the Soviet Union was also founded upon an ideology that extended beyond its national borders. The USSR was the product of Marxist theory and was therefore not founded for the sake of national interest or nationalism, but for the sake of facilitating the international communist revolution, a sentiment captured in the final remarks of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains…WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!”

This created an interesting vision for communist statehood, because in the USSR, the state was not the merely the final end, as it is in many governance structures, but both an end in itself and a means to a further end. This Proletarian internationalism manifested itself into an interventionist foreign policy, one that sought to propagate communist ideology across the world and facilitate revolution. In fact, it could even be said that this was the primary function of the USSR. Even Lenin once admitted that “from the beginning of the October Revolution, foreign policy and international relations have been the main questions facing us” (Jacobson, 1994) [1].

The clash between these two ideological superpowers became physically manifest during the Cold War through various “cold conflicts” such as the Vietnam War, conflict in Angola, and Cuban missile crisis, instances when the US and USSR sought to project their values onto other nations. As can be imagined, the war made tensions very high between the two countries, and in the West, a staunch fear-based perception of Russia developed. The Cold War was portrayed in America as a fight between good and evil, and Russia was portrayed as a relentless enemy that will never back down, a sentiment which had a lasting effect on the way that Russia is viewed in the contemporary West. This impact has been so salient, that even Russia today is still often characterized as if it was some great evil, waiting for “red dawn” to arrive.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the communist ideology that had influenced the behavior of the USSR fell with it. Without this ideological superstructure, Russia reverted back into a country that falls into a normal range of ideological behavior, determined primarily by a defined set of national interests. While the USSR and US fought for the ability to hegemonize a bipolar system into a unipolar one, contemporary Russia rejects the idea of unipolarity and seeks to coexist with other nations in a multipolar world. Russia certainly has defined geographical areas in which it has foreign interests, specifically the Eurasian sphere, but these interests are predicated on a shared history and mutual economic benefit, and not desires to imperialize.

Nevertheless, in the modern age, there are still fears about Russian imperialism and a “new cold war”. Such fears come from a misunderstanding about the role of ideology in foreign policy. These sentiments demonstrate both a failure to understand the determining factor behind Soviet foreign policy—the union’s ideology, and a failure to analyze a modern country independently of its ideological history. These feelings come from an assumption that Russia today has the same motivational foundation as the Soviet Union, and that is simply not true.

The ideology supporting modern Russia’s foreign policy had formed largely in response to the conclusion of the Cold War, when a bipolar system was turned into a unipolar one, dominated by the United States. In this condition, the world was severely influenced by American foreign policy, military interests, politics, culture, and media, and could be defined as what many scholars would call a global hegemon. Russia considers such a distribution of power to be undemocratic and an affront to the individual autonomy of nation-states.

In his 2007 Munich address on security policy, Vladimir Putin criticized the idea of an America controlled hegemonic order when he stated that in our world, “there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within”. Another comment by Putin from around the same time period attacks this model of governance was when he stated that “(the) people are always teaching us democracy but the people who teach us democracy don’t want to learn it themselves”.

It was in response to this new structural backdrop, as well as increasing levels of globalization, that an ideology of multilateralism and polycentrism became the underlying motivator behind contemporary Russia’s foreign policy. Russia’s ideology rejects a vision of an American led hegemonic order, but also does not seek to hegemonize the order for itself either, it merely beckons for the mutual coexistence and recognition of autonomy between the world’s global powers and regional subsystems.

This sentiment is captured in the words of Sergey Lavrov, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs for Russia in 2013. Lavrov stated that the world was undoubtedly moving towards a polycentric system of international relations, and that in order to ensure an equitable outcome during this transition, “fairer and more democratic systems where economic growth centers and new financial power centres should play a greater role in managing the world economy and political processes”. While the moves and actions of modern Russia are often framed in a realist lens by Western critics, the underlying ideology of the Russian Federation is actually quite liberal, as Russia accepts that a multipolar world should be brokered by polycentric or multilateral means, such as the United Nations.

It would be foolish to judge any country by its ideological history. It would be intellectually dishonest to evaluate a previously religious state in the context of religious ideology after secularization. Likewise, Russia today has largely, if not completely separated from its interventionist communist past and has embraced a new vision of both the world order and its foreign policy. When evaluating contempo

1. Jacobson, J. (1994). “The Ideological and Political Foundations of Soviet Foreign Policy.” In When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. University of California Press. pp. 12.

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What Russia Wants In The Balkans

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Popular narratives on Russia’s geopolitical interests in the Balkans point to two rather divergent directions. One of them, inherited from the 19th-century strategic thought, says that Russia, as a landlocked empire, must expand into the Balkans, so as to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. According to this narrative, the Balkans is treated as an empty space, regardless of the ethno-religious identity of the inhabitant population. The other one, which can be traced back to 19th-century romanticist pan-Slavism, but which has been popularized in its present form after the publication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“, says that Russia conceives of its influence in the Balkans through the cultivation of fraternal relations with the region’s Orthodox Christians, using common religious identity to project its geopolitical ambitions.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either. Russia’s influence in the region, from the early 19th century to the present day, could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis, exercised through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic foundations, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of weak nation-states. Although these nationalist movements used Orthodox Christianity and a popular folklore motif of fraternity with Orthodox Russia as effective tools for mobilizing the targeted populations on the anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic grounds, their elites always remained clearly detached from Russia, being continuously oriented towards their true patrons in London and Paris.

The Russian motive in mobilizing Serbian nationalism in the 1990s was, of course, quite convenient for London and Paris, having concealed their continuous support to the Serbian military invasion of Bosnia and Croatia, which produced a gigantic campaign of ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population in the occupied areas, with more than 100.000 dead and over one million expelled. That was one of the reasons why the British propaganda, both diplomatic and public, insisted on the alleged Russian support to Serbia and its military expansion as a reason why the Western powers could not intervene in the war in Bosnia and prevent further bloodshed. Another reason, much more important from a strategic point of view – indeed, the reason why the Serbian campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing was supported by London and Paris in the first place – was the global promotion of Hungtington’s theory of „the clash of civilizations“ as „the next pattern of conflict“. According to that pattern, future geopolitical blocs would be formed on the basis of religious identities, acting as „civilizations“ in ineradicable conflicts. As a model of such conflicts at a micro-level was the one launched in Bosnia, in which Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians were pushed to the point of mutual extermination, in an attempt to form „ethnically cleansed“ areas. This scheme was imposed on these communities’ self-appointed leaders (Izetbegović, Karadžić, Boban) by the European Community’s negotiator Lord Carrington at the conference held in Lisbon in 1992, several months before the war. The widely promoted narrative of the alleged Russian support of the Serbian aggression on Bosnia, and the alleged pan-Islamic support to Bosnia’s defenders (with the deliberate media characterisation of all Bosnians, whatever their religion, as „Muslims“) served the purpose of transforming the world into one of clashing „civilizations“. The ultimate goal was to generate an analogous conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims on the macro-level, which would eventually push Russia into a lasting armed conflict with the former Soviet republics populated by Muslims, and then into a global conflict with the rest of the Islamic world. Needless to say, such a development would have created a significant strategic advantage for the Anglo-American powers and a great strategic loss for both Russia and the Islamic countries. 

Yeltsin’s foreign policy at the time did not show too much understanding of that geopolitical game, allowing for a public image of Russia as a promoter of pan-Orthodox ideology and a sponsor of the Serbian aggression in the Balkans. However, it must be noted that Russia was not drawn into any major conflict that would fit the pattern of Hungtington’s „clash of civilizations“, although the local conflicts in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, in which it was directly or indirectly involved, did possess some elements of that model. In contrast, Putin’s foreign policy was based on a much deeper understanding of global relations and geopolitical games at play, so that eventually the Anglo-American strategy of drawing Russia into inter-religious conflicts in Central Asia, in line with Huntington’s theory, did not bear much fruit. And so did the constructed image of Russia’s involvement on the Serbian side gradually wither away.

Yet, paradoxically, in the last couple of years Russia has played the role, previously insinuated by the Anglo-American propaganda, of a protector of Serbia’s efforts to create a Greater Serbia out of the territories of the neighbouring countries with a Serb ethnic minority population (Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo).It is difficult to imagine anything more destructive for a country, which is a home to more than 190 ethnic groups, than to adopt the principle of ethnic and religious homogeneity. However, contrary to the principles of ethnic diversity applied in its own territory and in the broader area of the former Soviet Union, Russia’s attitude in the Balkans has shown open support to the Greater Serbian programme of uniting all Serbs into a single, ethnically homogenous state. Russian foreign policy of open support for the Serbian efforts to cede the Serb-populated renegade province of Bosnia to Serbia is self-contradictory, to say the least. It is also self-defeating, if taken seriously and applied to Russia itself and the neighbouring countries with a Russian ethnic minority. Can anyone imagine today’s Russia in permanent efforts to cede parts of all post-Soviet republics populated with Russians, so as to unite them in some mythical Greater Russia? Or, can anyone imagine Russia attempting to ethnically cleanse its own territory, so as to expel or exterminate all those 190 ethnic communities, in the name of an ethnically homogenous Russian nation-state? Of course not. Yet, that is precisely the policy of Serbia towards its neighbours and towards its own population that Russia now openly supports on the international scene. Therefore, one has to rightfully ask, what is it that Russia wants in the Balkans?

In the first place, it is highly questionable how influential Russia really is in Serbia, despite its public support for it. For, the very existence of Serbia, from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882 , to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) at the Versailles Conference in 1919, always had explicit support by London and Paris. The dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia, which Serbia used as a convenient opportunity to implement the Greater Serbia programme, was also clearly backed by London and Paris, with no relevant participation by Moscow. Under these conditions, it is difficult to imagine a strategic shift from the centuries long Anglo-French influence to that of Russia. It is also difficult to identify Russian strategic interests in the Balkans, given that Russia’s foreign policy was not designed to exert control in the zones outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

Yet, if Russia has no real influence on Serbia, then the current Russian support of Serbia’s continuing hostile policy towards its neighbours may well be a simulation of influence. Even if such a simulation cannot deceive the foreign policy circles in London, which are quite familiar with the extent of their long-term control over Serbia, it may well deceive such circles in Washington, which are commonly persuaded that Moscow’s influence can be detected everywhere. For what purpose? If the Balkan region is of strategic importance for the US, not only as a link between the West and the Middle East, but also in terms of its natural resources (e.g. Kosovo), then the simulated Russian influence in the Balkans might serve as a leverage against the American influence in the zones of true strategic importance for Russia. What first comes to mind, of course, is Ukraine and its aspirations to join NATO: if a tactical simulation of Russian influence in the Balkans, as a zone of traditional strategic influence of the West, turns out to be successful, then it might be possible to push Washington to reduce its ambitions in Ukraine and leave it outside NATO structures.

There is also another purpose for which such a simulation might serve. Not so many analysts, diplomats or politicians are aware of the tacit strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey, which has elevated Turkey to the status of a great power. This alliance has already been tested in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Libya, Russia and Turkey simulated a possibility of mutual military confrontation, each supporting one of the warring parties, while in reality they agreed to divide the spheres of influence, using the Libyan warring parties as their respective proxies. In Syria, under the pretended confrontation, the new allies also divided the spheres of influence. Still, the most interesting game was played out in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkey openly supported Azerbaijan in its efforts to restore sovereignty over this region. On the other side, Armenia was persuaded by Western powers, namely France, to go into the war over Azerbaijan’s region under the pretext that Russian military support to Armenia was a geopolitical inevitability. However, Azerbaijan, with Turkish military support, took the region over, with no resistance on Russia’s part. Russia thus returned to the principle of inviolability of post-Soviet borders and finally abandoned the principle of ethnically homogenous greater states, advocated by Armenia and its patrons in Paris and London. Is there a possibility for Russia and Turkey to play a similar game in the Balkans? Is there a possibility that Russia and Turkey want to generate an illusion among the Serbian nationalist elites that Russia would unquestionably support their attempts to cede parts of Bosnia and Kosovo, at the same time leaving Turkey with a free hand to extend its military support to Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s efforts to prevent Serbia from questioning their sovereignty? Is there a will in Russia to return to the principle of inviolability of borders in the Balkans, too, thereby abandoning the principle of ethnic homogeneity advocated by Serbia and its sponsors in London and Paris, the most harmful principle for Russia’s own interests? Is there a will in Russia to follow its own geopolitical interests, in cooperation with Turkey, along the same lines and with the same implications as in Nagorno-Karabakh? Really, what is Russia doing in the Balkans? 

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