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The Law, the Rights and the Rules

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The frank and generally constructive conversation that took place at the June 16, 2021 summit meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden in Geneva resulted in an agreement to launch a substantive dialogue on strategic stability, reaffirming the crucial premise that nuclear war is unacceptable. The two sides also reached an understanding on the advisability of engaging in consultations on cybersecurity, the operation of diplomatic missions, the fate of imprisoned Russian and US citizens and a number of regional conflicts.

The Russian leader made it clear, including in his public statements, that finding a mutually acceptable balance of interests strictly on a parity basis is the only way to deliver on any of these tracks. There were no objections during the talks. However, in their immediate aftermath, US officials, including those who participated in the Geneva meeting, started asserting what seemed to be foregone tenets, perorating that they had “made it clear” to Moscow, “warned it, and stated their demands.” Moreover, all these “warnings” went hand in hand with threats: if Moscow does not accept the “rules of the road” set forth in Geneva in a matter of several months, it would come under renewed pressure.

Of course, it has yet to be seen how the consultations to define specific ways for fulfilling the Geneva understandings as mentioned above will proceed. As Vladimir Putin said during his news conference following the talks, “we have a lot to work on.” That said, it is telling that Washington’s ineradicable position was voiced immediately following the talks, especially since European capitals immediately took heed of the Big Brother’s sentiment and picked up the tune with much gusto and relish. The gist of their statements is that they are ready to normalise their relations with Moscow, but only after it changes the way it behaves.

It is as if a choir has been pre-arranged to sing along with the lead vocalist. It seems that this was what the series of high-level Western events in the build-up to the Russia-US talks was all about: the Group of Seven Summit in Cornwall, UK, the NATO Summit in Brussels, as well as Joseph Biden’s meeting with President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

These meetings were carefully prepared in a way that leaves no doubt that the West wanted to send a clear message: it stands united like never before and will do what it believes to be right in international affairs, while forcing others, primarily Russia and China, to follow its lead. The documents adopted at the Cornwall and Brussels summits cemented the rules-based world order concept as a counterweight to the universal principles of international law with the UN Charter as its primary source.

In doing so, the West deliberately shies away from spelling out the rules it purports to follow, just as it refrains from explaining why they are needed. After all, there are already thousands of universal international legal instruments setting out clear national commitments and transparent verification mechanisms. The beauty of these Western “rules” lies precisely in the fact that they lack any specific content. When someone acts against the will of the West, it immediately responds with a groundless claim that “the rules have been broken” (without bothering to present any evidence) and declares its “right to hold the perpetrators accountable.” The less specific they get, the freer their hand to carry on with the arbitrary practice of employing dirty tactics as a way to pressure competitors. During the so-called “wild 1990s” in Russia, we used to refer to such practices as laying down the law.

To the participants in the G7, NATO and US-EU summits, this series of high-level events signalled the return by the United States into European affairs and the restored consolidation of the Old World under the wing of the new administration in Washington. Most NATO and EU members met this U-turn with enthusiastic comments rather than just a sigh of relief. The adherence to liberal values as the humanity’s guiding star provides an ideological underpinning for the reunification of the “Western family.” Without any false modesty, Washington and Brussels called themselves “an anchor for democracy, peace and security,” as opposed to “authoritarianism in all its forms.” In particular, they proclaimed their intent to use sanctions to “support democracy across the globe.” To this effect, they took on board the American idea of convening a Summit for Democracy. Make no mistake, the West will cherry pick the participants in this summit. It will also set an agenda that is unlikely to meet any opposition from the participants of its choosing. There has been talk of democracy-exporting countries undertaking “enhanced commitments” to ensure universal adherence to “democratic standards” and devising mechanisms for controlling these processes.

The revitalised Anglo-American Atlantic Charter approved by Joseph Biden and Boris Johnson on June 10, 2021 on the sidelines of the G7 Summit is also worth noting. It was cast as an updated version of the 1941 document signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill under the same title. At the time, it played an important role in shaping the contours of the post-war world order.

However, neither Washington, nor London mentioned an essential historical fact: eighty years ago, the USSR and a number of European governments in exile joined the 1941 charter, paving the way to making it one of the conceptual pillars of the Anti-Hitler Coalition and one of the legal blueprints of the UN Charter.

By the same token, the New Atlantic Charter has been designed as a starting point for building a new world order, but guided solely by Western “rules.” Its provisions are ideologically tainted. They seek to widen the gap between the so-called liberal democracies and all other nations, as well as legitimise the rules-based order. The new charter fails to mention the UN or the OSCE, while stating without any reservations the adherence by the Western nations to their commitments as NATO members, viewed de facto as the only legitimate decision-making centre (at least this is how former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described NATO’s role). It is clear that the same philosophy will guide the preparations for the Summit for Democracy.

Labelled as “authoritarian powers,” Russia and China have been designated as the main obstacles to delivering on the agenda set out at the June summits. From a general perspective, they face two groups of grievances, loosely defined as external and internal. In terms of international affairs, Beijing is accused of being too assertive in pursuing its economic interests (the Belt and Road initiative), as well as expanding its military and, in general, technological might with a view to increasing its influence. Russia stands accused of adopting an “aggressive posture” in a number of regions. This is the way they treat Moscow’s policy aimed at countering ultra-radical and neo-Nazi aspirations in its immediate neighbourhood, where the rights of Russians, as well as other ethnic minorities, are being suppressed, and the Russian language, education and culture rooted out. They also dislike the fact than Moscow stands up for countries that became victims to Western gambles, were attacked by international terrorists and risked losing their statehood, as was the case with Syria.

Still, the West reserved its biggest words to the inner workings of the “non-democratic” countries and its commitment to reshape them to fit into the Western mould. This entails bringing society in compliance with the vision of democracy as preached by Washington and Brussels. This lies at the root of the demands that Moscow and Beijing, as well as all others, follow the Western prescriptions on human rights, civil society, opposition treatment, the media, governance and the interaction between the branches of power. While proclaiming the “right” to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries for the sake of promoting democracy as it understands it, the West instantly loses all interest when we raise the prospect of making international relations more democratic, including renouncing arrogant behaviour and committing to abide by the universally recognised tenets of international law instead of “rules.” By expanding sanctions and other illegitimate coercive measures against sovereign states, the West promotes totalitarian rule in global affairs, assuming an imperial, neo-colonial stance in its relations with third countries. They are asked to adopt the democratic rule under the model of the Western choosing, and forget about democracy in international affairs, since someone will be deciding everything for them. All that is asked of these third countries is to keep quiet, or face reprisals.

Clearheaded politicians in Europe and America realise that this uncompromising policy leads nowhere, and are beginning to think pragmatically, albeit out of public view, recognising that the world has more than just one civilisation. They are beginning to recognise that Russia, China and other major powers have a history that dates back a thousand years, and have their own traditions, values and way of life. Attempts to decide whose values are better, and whose are worse, seem pointless. Instead, the West must simply recognise that there are other ways to govern that may be different from the Western approaches, and accept and respect this as a given. No country is immune to human rights issues, so why all this high-browed hubris? Why do the Western countries assume that they can deal with these issues on their own, since they are democracies, while others have yet to reach this level, and are in need of assistance that the West will generously provide.

International relations are going through fundamental shifts that affect everyone without exception. Trying to predict where it will take us is impossible. Still, there is a question: messianic aspirations apart, what is the most effective form of government for coping with and removing threats that transcend borders and affect all people, no matter where they live? Political scientists are beginning to compare the available toolboxes used by the so-called liberal democracies and by “autocratic regimes.” In this context, it is telling that the term “autocratic democracy” has been suggested, even if timidly.

These are useful considerations, and serious-minded politicians who are currently in power, among others, must take heed. Thinking and scrutinising what is going on around us has never hurt anyone. The multipolar world is becoming reality. Attempts to ignore this reality by asserting oneself as the only legitimate decision-making centre will hardly bring about solutions to real, rather than farfetched challenges. Instead, what is needed is mutually respectful dialogue involving the leading powers and with due regard for the interests of all other members of the international community. This implies an unconditional commitment to abide by the universally accepted norms and principles of international law, including respecting the sovereign equality of states, non-interference in their domestic affairs, peaceful resolution of conflict, and the right to self-determination.

Taken as a whole, the historical West dominated the world for five hundred years. However, there is no doubt that it now sees that this era is coming to a close, while clinging to the status it used to enjoy, and putting artificial brakes on the objective process consisting in the emergence of a polycentric world. This brought about an attempt to provide a conceptual underpinning to the new vision of multilateralism. For example, France and Germany tried to promote “effective multilateralism,” rooted in the EU ideals and actions, and serving as a model to everyone else, rather than promoting UN’s inclusive multilateralism.

By imposing the concept of a rules-based order, the West seeks to shift the conversation on key issues to the platforms of its liking, where no dissident voices can be herd. This is how like-minded groups and various “appeals” emerge. This is about coordinating prescriptions and then making everyone else follow them. Examples include an “appeal for trust and security in cyberspace”, “the humanitarian appeal for action”, and a “global partnership to protect media freedom.” Each of these platforms brings together only several dozen countries, which is far from a majority, as far as the international community is concerned. The UN system offers inclusive negotiations platforms on all of the abovementioned subjects. Understandably, this gives rise to alternative points of view that have to be taken into consideration in search of a compromise, but all the West wants is to impose its own rules.

At the same time, the EU develops dedicated horizontal sanctions regimes for each of its “like-minded groups,” of course, without looking back at the UN Charter. This is how it works: those who join these “appeals” or “partnerships” decide among themselves who violates their requirements in a given sphere, and the European Union imposes sanctions on those at fault. What a convenient method. They can indict and punish all by themselves without ever needing to turn to the UN Security Council. They even came up with a rationale to this effect: since we have an alliance of the most effective multilateralists, we can teach others to master these best practices. To those who believe this to be undemocratic or at odds with a vision of genuine multilateralism, President of France Emmanuel Macron offered an explanation in his remarks on May 11, 2021: multilateralism does not mean necessity to strike unanimity, and the position of those “who do not wish to continue moving forward must not be able to stop … an ambitious avant-garde” of the world community.

Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with the rules per se. On the contrary, the UN Charter is a set of rules, but these rules were approved by all countries of the world, rather than by a closed group at a cosy get-together.

An interesting detail: in Russian, the words “law” and “rule” share a single root. To us, a rule that is genuine and just is inseparable from the law. This is not the case for Western languages. For instance, in English, the words “law” and “rule” do not share any resemblance. See the difference? “Rule” is not so much about the law, in the sense of generally accepted laws, as it is about the decisions taken by the one who rules or governs. It is also worth noting that “rule” shares a single root with “ruler,” with the latter’s meanings including the commonplace device for measuring and drawing straight lines. It can be inferred that through its concept of “rules” the West seeks to align everyone around its vision or apply the same yardstick to everybody, so that everyone falls into a single file.

While reflecting on linguistics, worldview, sentiment, and the way they vary from one nation or culture to another, it is worth recollecting how the West has been justifying NATO’s unreserved eastward expansion towards the Russian border. When we point to the assurances provided to the Soviet Union that this would not happen, we hear that these were merely spoken promises, and there were no documents signed to this effect. There is a centuries-old tradition in Russia of making handshake deals without signing anything and holding one’s word as sacrosanct, but it seems unlikely to ever take hold in the West.

Efforts to replace international law by Western “rules” include an immanently dangerous policy of revising the history and outcomes of the Second World War and the Nuremberg trials verdicts as the foundation of today’s world order. The West refuses to support a Russia-sponsored UN resolution proclaiming that glorifying Nazism is unacceptable, and rejects our proposals to discuss the demolition of monuments to those who liberated Europe. They also want to condemn to oblivion momentous post-war developments, such as the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, initiated by our country. The former colonial powers seek to efface this memory by replacing it with hastily concocted rituals like taking a knee ahead of sports competitions, in order to divert attention from their historical responsibility for colonial-era crimes.

The rules-based order is the embodiment of double standards. The right to self-determination is recognised as an absolute “rule” whenever it can be used to an advantage. This applies to the Malvinas Islands, or the Falklands, some 12,000 kilometres from Great Britain, to the remote former colonial territories Paris and London retain despite multiple UN resolutions and rulings by the International Court of Justice, as well as Kosovo, which obtained its “independence” in violation of a UN Security Council resolution. However, if self-determination runs counter to the Western geopolitical interests, as it happened when the people of Crimea voted for reunification with Russia, this principle is cast aside, while condemning the free choice made by the people and punishing them with sanctions.

Apart from encroaching on international law, the “rules” concept also manifests itself in attempts to encroach on the very human nature. In a number of Western countries, students learn at school that Jesus Christ was bisexual. Attempts by reasonable politicians to shield the younger generation from aggressive LGBT propaganda are met with bellicose protests from the “enlightened Europe.” All world religions, the genetic code of the planet’s key civilisations, are under attack. The United States is at the forefront of state interference in church affairs, openly seeking to drive a wedge into the Orthodox world, whose values are viewed as a powerful spiritual obstacle for the liberal concept of boundless permissiveness.

The insistence and even stubbornness demonstrated by the West in imposing its “rules” are striking. Of course, domestic politics is a factor, with the need to show voters how tough your foreign policy can get when dealing with “autocratic foes” during every electoral cycle, which happen every two years in the United States.

Still, it was also the West that coined the “liberty, equality, fraternity” motto. I do not know whether the term “fraternity” is politically correct in today’s Europe from a “gender perspective,” but there were no attempts to encroach on equality so far. As mentioned above, while preaching equality and democracy in their countries and demanding that other follow its lead, the West refuses to discuss ways to ensure equality and democracy in international affairs.

This approach is clearly at odds with the ideals of freedom. The veil of its superiority conceals weakness and the fear of engaging in a frank conversation not only with yes-men and those eager to fall in line, but also with opponents with different beliefs and values, not neo-liberal or neo-conservative ones, but those learned at mother’s knee, inherited from many past generations, traditions and beliefs.

It is much harder to accept the diversity and competition of ideas in the development of the world than to invent prescriptions for all of humanity within a narrow circle of the like-minded, free from any disputes on matters of principle, which makes the emergence of truth all but impossible. However, universal platforms can produce agreements that are much more solid, sustainable, and can be subject to objective verification.

This immutable truth struggles to make it through to the Western elites, consumed as they are with the exceptionalism complex. As I mentioned earlier in this article, right after the talks between Vladimir Putin and Joseph Biden, EU and NATO officials rushed to announce that nothing has changed in the way they treat Russia. Moreover, they are ready to see their relations with Moscow deteriorate further, they claimed.

Moreover, it is an aggressive Russophobic minority that increasingly sets the EU’s policy, as confirmed by the EU Summit in Brussels on June 24 and 25, 2021, where the future of relations with Russia was on the agenda. The idea voiced by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to hold a meeting with Vladimir Putin was killed before it saw the light of day. Observers noted that the Russia-US Summit in Geneva was tantamount to a go-ahead by the United States to have this meeting, but the Baltic states, siding with Poland, cut short this “uncoordinated” attempt by Berlin and Paris, while the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry summoned the German and French ambassadors to explain their governments’ actions. What came out of the debates at the Brussels summit was an instruction to the European Commission and the European Union External Action Service to devise new sanctions against Moscow without referring to any specific “sins,” just in case. No doubt they will come up with something, should the need arise.

Neither NATO, nor the EU intend to divert from their policy of subjugating other regions of the world, proclaiming a self-designated global messianic mission. The North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation is seeking to proactively contribute to America’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific Region, clearly targeted at containing China, and undermining ASEAN’s role in its decades-long efforts to build an inclusive cooperation architecture for Asia-Pacific. In turn, the European Union drafts programmes to “embrace” geopolitical spaces in its neighbourhood and beyond, without coordinating these initiatives even with the invited countries. This is what the Eastern Partnership, as well as a recent programme approved by Brussels for Central Asia, are all about. There is a fundamental difference between these approaches and the ones guiding integration processes with Russia’s involvement: the CIS, the CSTO, EurAsEC and the SCO, which seek to develop relations with external partners exclusively on the basis of parity and mutual agreement.

With its contemptuous attitude towards other members of the international community, the West finds itself on the wrong side of history.

Serious, self-respecting countries will never tolerate attempts to talk to them through ultimatums and will discuss any issues only on an equal footing.

As for Russia, it is high time that everyone understands that we have drawn a definitive line under any attempts to play a one-way game with us. All the mantras we hear from the Western capitals on their readiness to put their relations with Moscow back on track, as long as it repents and changes its tack, are meaningless. Still, many persist, as if by inertia, in presenting us with unilateral demands, which does little, if any, credit to how realistic they are.

The policy of having the Russian Federation develop on its own, independently and protecting national interests, while remaining open to reaching agreements with foreign partners on an equal basis, has long been at the core of all its position papers on foreign policy, national security and defence. However, judging by the practical steps taken over the recent years by the West, they probably thought that Russia did not really mean what it preached, as if it did not intend to follow through on these principles. This includes the hysterical response to Moscow’s efforts to stand up for the rights of Russians in the aftermath of the bloody 2014 government coup in Ukraine, supported by the United States, NATO and the EU. They thought that if they applied some more pressure on the elites and targeted their interests, while expanding personal, financial and other sectoral sanctions, Moscow would come to its senses and realise that it would face mounting challenges on its development path, as long as it did not “change its behaviour,” which implies obeying the West. Even when Russia made it clear that we view this policy by the United States and Europe as a new reality and will proceed on economic and other matters from the premise that we cannot depend on unreliable partners, the West persisted in believing that, at the end of the day, Moscow “will come to its senses” and will make the required concessions for the sake of financial reward. Let me emphasise what President Vladimir Putin has said on multiple occasions: there have been no unilateral concessions since the late 1990s and there never will be. If you want to work with us, recover lost profits and business reputations, let us sit down and agree on ways we can meet each other half way in order to find fair solutions and compromises.

It is essential that the West understands that this is a firmly ingrained worldview among the people of Russia, reflecting the attitude of the overwhelming majority here. The “irreconcilable” opponents of the Russian government who have placed their stakes on the West and believe that all Russia’s woes come from its anti-Western stance advocate unilateral concessions for the sake of seeing the sanctions lifted and receiving hypothetical financial gains. But they are totally marginal in Russian society. During his June 16, 2021 news conference in Geneva, Vladimir Putin made it abundantly clear what the West is after when it supports these marginal forces.

These are disruptive efforts as far as history is concerned, while Russians have always demonstrated maturity, a sense of self-respect, dignity and national pride, and the ability to think independently, especially during hard times, while remaining open to the rest of the world, but only on an equal, mutually beneficial footing. Once we put the confusion and mayhem of the 1990s behind us, these values became the bedrock of Russia’s foreign policy concept in the 21st century. The people of Russia can decide on how they view the actions by their government without getting any prompts from abroad.

As to the question on how to proceed on the international stage, there is no doubt that leaders will always play an important role, but they have to reaffirm their authority, offer new ideas and lead by conviction, not ultimatums. The Group of Twenty, among others, is a natural platform for working out mutually acceptable agreements. It brings together the leading economies, young and old, including the G7, as well as the BRICS and its like-minded countries. Russia’s initiative to form a Greater Eurasian Partnership by coordinating the efforts of countries and organisations across the continent holds a powerful consolidating potential. Seeking to facilitate an honest conversation on the key global stability matters, President Vladimir Putin suggested convening a summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that have special responsibility for maintaining international peace and stability on the planet.

Efforts to bring more democracy to international relations and affirm a polycentric world order include reforming the UN Security Council by strengthening it with Asian, African and Latin American countries, and ending the anomaly with the excessive representation of the West in the UN’s main body.

Regardless of any ambitions and threats, our country remains committed to a sovereign and independent foreign policy, while also ready to offer a unifying agenda in international affairs with due account for the cultural and civilisational diversity in today’s world. Confrontation is not our choice, no matter the rationale. On June 22, 2021, Vladimir Putin published an article “Being Open, Despite the Past,” in which he emphasised: “We simply cannot afford to carry the burden of past misunderstandings, hard feelings, conflicts, and mistakes.” He also discussed the need to ensure security without dividing lines, a common space for equitable cooperation and inclusive development. This approach hinges on Russia’s thousand-year history and is fully consistent with the current stage in its development. We will persist in promoting the emergence of an international relations culture based on the supreme values of justice and enabling all countries, large and small, to develop in peace and freedom. We will always remain open to honest dialogue with anyone who demonstrates a reciprocal readiness to find a balance of interests firmly rooted in international law. These are the rules we adhere to.

Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

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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.

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Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement

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(This is the second and final part of the author’s article series on this topic. The first one can be read here, and it is recommended to review it before the present piece).

Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, or its post-2014 comprehensive engagement with the many Muslim-majority countries along its southern periphery and beyond, comprises one of the most important pillars of its contemporary grand strategic balancing act between East and West. The Southern vector of its diplomacy prevents any zero-sum choice between East and West by presenting the Eurasian Great Power with a much-needed third option, which in turn can be leveraged to improve its negotiating potential with those aforementioned two regions of Eurasia. The first part of the article series elaborated on the geostrategic situation in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, while the present piece is more focused on Russia’s opportunities in these regions and narrative engagement with them. Although they can be read separately, it is recommended that they are reviewed together in order to obtain a better understanding of everything.

Russian Interests

North Africa: Becoming the Libyan Power Broker

In North Africa, Libya is the scene of intense competition between Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France on the other. Russia must therefore seek a compromise solution that prevents either side from becoming dominant, with Russia playing the kingmaker role if possible (perhaps through a mix of creative diplomacy, energy partnerships and PMCs). The victory of either side over the other might unbalance the region, creating more opportunities for American or other meddling with unpredictable consequences. Libya is also the gateway to parts of West and Central Africa, so whoever fully controls it could expand more confidently into Africa with time, thus complicating Russian interests there too (which are beyond the scope of the present analysis despite some of the countries being Muslim-majority ones). If pressed to choose, Russia should side more with Egypt and the UAE, especially since the latter can open doors for Russia in other regions if their partnership reaches the strategic level through cooperation here and elsewhere.

Levant: Resolving the War in Syria

Russia must somehow resolve the Syrian dilemma, ideally by pairing an Iranian withdrawal with the nuclear deal, sanctions relief for Syria, and some form of decentralization that is acceptable to Damascus. Moscow must also ensure that Turkish influence is balanced by Emirati influence and that the Muslim Brotherhood is contained. In addition, comprehensively strengthening ties with Israel is a must, but Russia has to articulate the reasons behind this balanced policy to Arab civil society to avoid losing soft power by having its rivals (i.e. America) exploit the narrative void to portray Russia as “pro-Zionist”, etc. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has to maintain balanced influence there which does not infringe on its neighbors, all the while expanding its role over that region via its springboard of energy diplomacy. The Kurdish card can also help Russia balance those same countries, but it must be played very carefully to avoid possibly irreparable blowback to Russian interests.

The Gulf: Investing in Vision 2030 & Engaging with (South) Yemen

Unlike the other “Ummah Pivot” regions, Russia has no serious risks in the Gulf, but plenty of opportunities. It should continue its military and energy diplomacy with all partners to expand its influence over their elite. This can help open up real-sector economic opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 model of socio-economic development for example. Still, the UAE should be Russia’s priority partner because it is obviously more influential than Saudi Arabia is right now even if Riyadh commands more power over the global energy markets than Abu Dhabi does. Russia should seriously consider diplomatically involving itself more in resolving the long-running and highly disastrous war in Yemen by attempting to replicate its regrettably unsuccessful but nevertheless principled approach to the Syrian one by encouraging decentralization. This necessitates closer ties with the UAE and its South Yemeni partners, but must not be pursued too enthusiastically lest Saudi Arabia and Iran grow suspicious of Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.

South Caucasus: Managing the New Regional Reality

Russia’s interests here are three-fold and interlinked: it must manage Turkey’s growing influence over Azerbaijan, ensure Armenia’s compliance with last year’s ceasefire agreement mandating the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, and effectively utilize the aforementioned to bring about tangible economic dividends related to improving trade with all concerned countries (most importantly Turkey and Iran). This requires a tricky diplomatic balancing act, but there are still certain reasons to be optimistic about its success. Azerbaijan seems increasingly conscious of Turkey’s creeping influence over it and might move closer to Russia in order to balance this. Armenia, while more nationalistic than ever, can’t realistically refuse to unblock the corridors in perpetuity, so eventually it’ll be compelled to comply. As for trade, Russian companies are already active in the South Caucasus and can expand their businesses into Turkey and Iran with time.

Iran: Bolstering the Islamic Republic’s Balancing Act

With or without resolving their strategic dilemma in Syria that was earlier explained, the future of the Russian-Iranian relations seems bright, but it mustn’t be overhyped due to the difficulties that Moscow might face in making significant economic inroads in the real-sector of Tehran’s economy given Beijing’s newfound role. Russia should work more closely with India by reviving the NSTC as soon as possible, though New Delhi might not be too interested unless Washington’s sanctions are eased or removed. This severely limits Russia’s economic diplomacy but does not outright exclude its possible effectiveness. Russia should seek to expand upon its existing strategic economic partnerships to reach new commercial and other ones, taking advantage of its closer location to Iran vis-a-vis China and realizing that it might take time for China to optimize its overland trade routes to the Islamic Republic via Central Asia and W-CPEC+.

Central Asia: Retaining Strategic Influence

Russia risks losing the most out of this portion of its “Ummah Pivot” given growing Chinese, Turkish, and perhaps soon even American influence through a variety of spheres as was previously explained. The most effective solution rests in more confidently engaging civil society to retain the appeal of Russian soft power, continue cultivating regional elite including through MGIMO’s new Tashkent branch campus, and relying upon military diplomacy related to countering Afghan-emanating threats to secure privileged economic partnerships in exchange. Cynically speaking, while Russia in no way supports growing Sinophobic sentiments in the region, this terrible trend helps keep Chinese influence in check to Russia’s benefit, though China’s said influence might then just as easily be replaced by Turkey’s, especially considering some locals’ recently revived interest in the brand of political Islam that Ankara unofficially exports. Russia might not be able to stop some loss of its influence, nor the gradual establishment of a larger Muslim bloc like was earlier discussed, but it can still manage this process if it better understands exactly what is happening and why.

South Asia: Containing Afghan Threats & Pioneering Trans-Regional Connectivity

The post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is the greatest uncertainty in this region, as is the strategic significance of N-CPEC+/CEC, the latter of which can either strengthen Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) vision and/or serve as an entry point for American balancing influence in Central Asia. Moscow must see to it that Afghanistan does not fester with ISIS threats that can subsequently spread throughout the broader region in parallel with maintaining a pragmatic balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. With the latter in mind, Russia should seek utilize its historic partnership with India to draw New Delhi further away from the Quad and therefore stabilize the strategic situation with all five related nuclear powers, though without compromising on its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan. Ideally, Russia will restore stability in this highly strategic space and tangibly profit from it through economic means, including new trade routes like N-CPEC+/CEC and the VCMC.

Narrative Engagement

North Africa: Keeping the Spotlight on Turkish Activity

Russia should emphasize the need for a pragmatic compromise to the Libyan Civil War, while also highlighting the trends of Arab unity and growing Turkish influence through political Islam. Egypt’s role should be afforded particular attention in order to improve Russia’s appeal in its society by showing its people that Moscow deeply respects their country’s regional power status. As for the Turkish dimension, it should be critical, but fair, though not propagandistic and overly anti-Turkish in order to avoid worsening very sensitive ties with Ankara. Another idea is to also talk about the UAE’s growing power as well, focusing on its extra-regional engagements in North Africa so as to provide positive informational support which enhances bilateral relations.

Levant: Articulating Russia’s Complex Balancing Act

Russia must urgently articulate the driving forces behind its multi-sided balancing act, especially with Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, in order to dispel suspicions about its grand strategic intentions due to the visible narrative void that’s characterized the past few years as a result of lackluster efforts in this respect. When it comes to Syria, Russia must begin floating pragmatic compromise solutions to provoke wider discussion about them in order to discover whether they are acceptable for all stakeholders. As for Turkey, Russia did indeed unofficially legitimize its sphere of influence in Syria, but should begin talking more about how destabilizing it is become and how counterproductive Ankara’s unrealistically recalcitrant stance on compromising on President Assad’s political future is for the peace process. Concerning Iran, Russia should applaud its anti-terrorist contributions but consider highlighting its regionally destabilizing role vis-a-vis Israel, though in a sensitive and fair manner. Finally, the Kurdish card must be played very carefully because the risks might easily and far outweigh the rewards, but this outpost of Russian influence should not be forgotten either and should receive more attention when it comes to the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Gulf: Encouraging the Region’s Socio-Economic Transformation

While appreciating the UAE’s aspiring regional hegemon status, Russia should be careful not to offend Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities. It should concentrate on multilateral security solutions, such as its existing Gulf one while pioneering a decentralized compromise solution to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Russia should applaud MBS’ socio-economic reforms and begin engaging more closely with the country’s youthful society. Turkey’s military base in Qatar can largely be ignored for the time being since it does not do much, but if it becomes troublesome, Russia has to consider how to respond to it in the narrative sense, though once again without risking a worsening of very sensitive Russian-Turkish ties. Generally speaking, the Gulf should not present too many narrative challenges for Russia as the opportunities far outweigh the risks.

South Caucasus: Promoting Regional Reconciliation

Russia has to balance its sympathy for Armenia’s reactive nationalist outcry to losing last year’s war with its newfound partnership with victorious Azerbaijan. It also must gently encourage Armenia to abide by last year’s ceasefire agreement when it comes to unblocking all regional economic and transport corridors. The key challenge is how to respectfully respond to Turkish influence, especially if it becomes visibly pernicious. As a rule of thumb, being softer is better than being harder because of the sensitivities at play. More than that, Azerbaijan seems to naturally realize the risks of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Russian media possibly drawing attention to this too conspicuously might elicit a negative reaction though and make many suspect Moscow’s motives, though this might still be possible to strike a fair balance and/or employ other means to this end.

Iran: Recalibrating Russia’s Balancing Act

First and foremost, the strategic dilemma with Iran in Syria must be publicly clarified at the elite and civil society levels. Secondly, Russia has to re-engage Iran more enthusiastically than ever before, with or without the removal of U.S. sanctions. It also must bring India on board as well, taking advantage of recently troubled U.S.-Indian relations. Without India, Russia’s outreaches with Iran will remain limited, and Moscow will become a junior partner to Beijing. Speaking of which, the People’s Republic should not be criticized, but Russia can still gently and very generally speak about the risks of disproportionate dependence on any single partner. Iran must come to realize that Russia is an irreplaceable balancing partner for it, one which can fulfill a very strategic role, but it must also carry tangible economic and political benefits too.

Central Asia: Cultivating Regional Elite & Promote Secularism

More elite cultivation and media engagement is needed otherwise Russia will lose out to other powers in its own “backyard”. Russia should not ever support Sinophobia, but it could draw attention to some objective economic consequences of reportedly lopsided deals and their impact on the locals, though perhaps via indirect means to avoid angering China. Secularism must also be supported to counteract rising Islamist tendencies which could lay the seeds for non-state threats, especially via Western/U.S. and ISIS ideological infiltration of those societies. Those threats can be emphasized quite a lot to remind everyone of Russia’s stabilizing military role, which could in turn justify the privileged economic deals that it receives unlike some of those other countries’ partners in exchange for its indispensable security services.

South Asia: Pragmatically Engaging with the Taliban & Constructing a New Regional Paradigm

Engagement with Afghan society is extremely limited so Russia should concentrate on retaining cordial relations with Kabul while expanding pragmatic ties with the resurgent Taliban. It needs to formulate a narrative means through which the entrance of Russian mineral extraction companies won’t cause the same level of controversy as any of its competitors, especially Western and Chinese ones. It also needs to focus on the socio-economic benefits of N-CPEC+/CEC, especially with respect to how more Russian trade and investment can help the Afghan people. It could also, however, warn about the U.S. using N-CPEC+ as a Trojan Horse for slyly expanding influence there and beyond to reduce its appeal among the populace and preemptively thwart a prospective economic diplomacy plot. The historic partnership with India must be celebrated at every opportunity to continue courting it back to Russia’s side after recent years of allying with America. Russian experts can also take the lead in discussing pragmatic balancing solutions for the region’s nuclear powers, including Pakistan, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s legitimate interests so as to continue strengthening their ongoing rapprochement, perhaps by drawing more attention the strategic balancing motives behind their country’s CPEC+ vision.

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