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Forget Kalashnikov? Russian Foreign Policy After Realism

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The Russian community of international relations professionals and pundits is strongly influenced by political realism. Being a realist is a good rule of thumb when it comes to mainstream approaches to international affairs. “Enemy” liberalism, “freaky” constructivism, “obsolete” Marxism—these are all marginal alternatives. It is more difficult to make a career with them, or even simply to be understood correctly. Let’s try to figure out why this is happening, and how the philosophical fashion of Russian foreign policy thinking can be transformed further.

There are several reasons for the popularity of realism. First, realism is real. It is unlikely that anyone would think to doubt the presence of a destructive principle in human nature. It is just as difficult to refute the assumption that international relations are anarchic. Ensuring security by balancing the strength of another with your own strength in order to contain possible aggression is normal behaviour in such an environment. The big fish eat the little ones as all strive for domination. The weak must either become strong or join a coalition sufficient to contain the stronger players. Anarchy breeds ambiguity of intentions and potentials. “The Fog of War” is a companion of anarchy. It is quite possible to describe both the behaviour of modern great powers and the actions of smaller players in realistic terms, manoeuvring between the “poles of power”.

The second reason is that realism is simple. By focusing on survival, security and domination, realism discards everything else. Economics, for example, is important to the extent that it can help address security issues and establish political dominance. The same goes for ideology. At best, for realists, it is a means of “information war”. At worst, it is not even included in the analysis. Other realists challenge ideology, claiming, not without reason, that it interferes with pragmatic foreign policy. The state itself is a “black box”. For a realist, it doesn’t matter what happens inside the state. What matters is exactly what it does. That is, the “inputs” and “outputs” are important—national interests and steps to implement them. At the same time, in the view of realists, the state acts rationally. It strives to minimise damage to its security and maximise its dominance and influence in international affairs. Such a set of variables is as simple as a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A minimum number of parts, basic assembly, reliability and unpretentiousness. Even a slow-witted new recruit straight off the farm can master it in a couple of hours.

The third reason is that realism is global. The neorealists have turned it into a systemic theory of international relations. It allows you to operate with holistic concepts such as world order, polarity, structure, etc. Realism satisfies the needs of those who would not like to tinker with the “small issues” of international relations, preferring to tackle immediately the “big and serious topics”.

The fourth reason is that realism is comfortable. The realist does not enter inside the state. Thus, he relieves himself of the threat of offending someone, discussing public policy, economic efficiency, social conflicts and other issues of inner life. Moreover, you can remain a good guy both from your own perspective and from that of others. After all, the realist does not stoop to “interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states”. By and large, he does not care who is a scoundrel abroad and who is a saint. Therefore, realism is a convenient platform for international dialogue. It allows you to discuss high politics, but not to sink into the grime in the corners of the kitchen where such politics is being prepared. From an image-building point of view, realism is a win-win strategy. A stern military man, an experienced diplomat, a wise scientist. In general, a person who guards national interests, respected at home and abroad, staying away from uncomfortable topics.

In the Soviet Union, realism began to gain popularity during the years of the Brezhnev stagnation period. Then it was a kind of elitist and at the same time informal stream of thought, in full swing under the heavy arches of ideological attitudes. By that time, the deadness of ideological guidelines was becoming more and more obvious. Realism was a fresh and useful alternative. It developed rapidly in the United States, a key adversary and at the same time a model for hidden admiration. It was much more convenient to find a common language with American interlocutors precisely in terms of realism, having made a few critical remarks about the decay of capitalism and getting in response the usual reprimands about human rights and freedom. In the United States, realism was also far from the only doctrine and went hand in hand with the “good old-fashioned” version of liberalism for external consumption. In addition, relations with ideological partners brought more and more disappointment to the Soviet Union—aggravation with China, conformity among the socialist parties in Western Europe, the cynicism of the “spongers and fiery revolutionaries” in Eastern Europe and many other corners of the planet where individual countries decided to follow the socialist path, taking Soviet supplies and loans.

The short-lived rise of liberal idealism in Russia at the end of the Cold War quickly crashed into the realities of that very world, in which there is no place for the weak, and the resulting vacuum of power and domination is quickly occupied by stronger players. It is hardly surprising that realism then emerged as the platform for the revival of Russia as a great power. Against the background of fermentation and the painful transformations of the 1990s, the realist’s weighty word was perceived as a breath of fresh air as well as a hope for lost pride and national prestige. Realism has become not only an influential, but also a fairly effective doctrine. Almost all foreign policy achievements of the past twenty-odd years are rooted in its basic concepts.

It would seem that Russian foreign policy has at last arrived at the long-awaited gold standard. However, history, as you know, does not tolerate the “end of history”, and it’s not so important who exactly pretends to give the final answer and put an end to it. It will continue to grind any gold standard that seemed unshakable before. Sooner or later, such a fate will be prepared for realism. Like the good old Kalashnikov, it will be replaced by a more advanced and modern system. The main advantage of realism—the simplicity of its construction, where the internal dimensions of a state are disregarded, risks becoming a weakness. Here again, the question arises why the fashion for realism in Russia might fade away, relegating it to becoming a recognised, albeit not particularly influential doctrine.

The first reason is the permeability of the borders of domestic and foreign policy. Autonomous foreign policy is an abstraction. Taking it seriously means being trapped in an intellectual ivory tower. As beautiful as it is far from reality. Russian politics is no exception. The nation’s foreign policy is increasingly acquiring the features of public policy, which, by the way, is not uncommon in terms of world practice. In addition, the demand for foreign policy to retain some ideological context is growing in Russia again. The paradox is that some of our realists are also calling for a new ideology, apparently realising the exhaustion of its model for the current historical stage. So far, such a content seems to be rough and poorly thought out. For a full-fledged political theory (and ideology as its derivative), it is not enough just to oppose the liberal and at the same time “decaying” West, referring to some “traditional” values, which, moreover, are also Western. Such an “ideology” has few prospects. It is similar to an attempt to replace foreign words in the language with “native” ones. Inevitably one discovers that there are too many such words, and their “primordial” substitutes are absurd. The problem, however, is different. The West, willingly or unwillingly, is indeed throwing down a serious normative, political, philosophical and ideological challenge to the modern Russian state. The value model of the conventional West is not going anywhere, and will be a factor in Russian politics, a challenge to the stability of its modern structure. It is not easy to answer it with the naked pragmatism of realism. Even the most far-sighted Russian realists understand this much.

Incidentally, many Russian international experts proceed from the idea that a growth of conflict in the international environment is inevitable. Some believe that the growth of conflict is the prerequisite for the demand for realism. If the world is approaching a war, then it should be studied with a theory that operates with the appropriate concepts. However, the historical experience of the next two global conflicts shows that everything was not so simple. The First World War is difficult to consider outside the context of the crisis of statehood of at least three empires and the explosion of social movements within key participants. And World War II—as a continuation of this process, which greatly increased the influence of ideology on foreign policy.

The second reason is the multidimensionality of international relations. Many critics of realism have written about it and the essence of the argument is clear. In international relations, not everything boils down to power. This argument, however, must be used with caution. At certain points, history collapses due to security issues. War often devalues the everyday life of all other spheres, subjugating them to itself. It’s hard to be an “innovative entrepreneur” when machine guns are rattling in your yard. However, it is also true that such inevitable moments in history are relatively short-lived, and in peacetime the success and prosperity of a state becomes a much more complex matter. There is no doubt that a long war has become a daily routine for a number of states. They are torn apart by internal conflicts and in their lives there is nothing but war. But, thank God, this is not the case for Russia. The luxury of peace is one of the achievements of Russian politics over the past twenty years. Moreover, for many years, conditions have been created for waging war against Russia to become the least likely option for its counterparties to pursue. New nuclear missiles and conventional weapons, as well as a relatively successful experience reforming the armed forces, are still guaranteeing peace for Russia.

At the same time, however, a reality has emerged which can no longer accommodate realism. Having won peace for itself, Russia will be forced to embrace more diverse international relations. No matter how the modern world order “crumbles”, the dimensions of the modern world cannot be reduced to mere security issues. It is symptomatic that it was the Russian realists who put forward proposals atypical for realism. These include, for example, proactive climate and environmental policies. There is a new economy, technology, human capital, and interdependence here. However, from a conceptual point of view, this is no longer realism. Because it is simply impossible to reduce the climate topic to mere national interests and security, tearing it away from society and the economy.

Russian foreign policy thinking is about to change. The worst-case scenario would be the creation of an artificial semblance of ideology. Then realism would seem like a golden age and a concentration of common sense. The best scenario would be the pursuit of more flexible intellectual schemes suitable for the understanding of contemporary international relations. The good old “Kalashnikov” and a couple of “spam cans” can be kept as a keepsake. Just in case.

From our partner RIAC

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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Is War Inevitable?

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Over the past days and weeks, media outlets have been proliferating all kinds of apocalyptic predictions and scenarios on the immediate prospects of the Ukrainian crisis. Journalists, experts, and politicians claim—with all seriousness—that a Russian-Ukrainian war can hardly be thwarted, not to mention article that seek to explore a purported coup in Kiev, the crushing response of the West, or even the looming nuclear conflict of global dimensions.

We shall try to find an answer to a number of interwoven questions, which might arise in the minds of those who face this wave of dire prophecies and predictions. Why has this information attack been unleashed? Who is behind this and who is deriving profit from it? What is really going on and what could happen to the Ukrainian issue in the near future?

Starting off with Moscow’s plans and intentions. Anyone who is slightly familiar with the structure of power in Russia knows well that it is few people who are especially close to the power circles that are aware of the true plans and the motives of the Russian authorities. As a rule, these people tend to avoid showing up in the media. Strong statements are usually made by those tasked by their superiors to attract a lot of exposure or by those who act at their own discretion to be noticed and appreciated by their top management. Obviously, none of these talking heads are privy to any of the Kremlin’s plans, which means they are simply working out their tasks at a higher or lower professional level. Regrettably, being baseless and of no practical value, the campaign—launched by such ‘concerned’ people about the allegedly impending war in Ukraine—invariably affects the public sentiment in our country, causing either panic or warmongering. This bellicose campaign, coupled with its dire consequences, has the potential to seriously demoralize and traumatize Russian society. Time will tell what repercussions this may bring about; still, nothing good can obviously be expected from this wave of hysteria.

It can be assumed that some in Russia need another anti-Ukrainian campaign to deflect attention from the country’s severe socio-economic and political problems, to raise the population’s patriotic spirit, or to unite the country. If one thinks so, one is likely to be seriously disappointed over time. The very idea of war against Ukraine or in Ukraine is insufficient for a new national idea; it is not even close to a platform on which Russian society could be consolidated.

Now let’s take a look at this problem from Ukraine’s perspective. We have to admit that there are many in the country who are interested in stirring up information hysteria around the relations with Russia, and for various reasons. They assume that playing the role of an innocent victim of the bloodthirsty Russia can only bring benefits to Ukraine.

First, they believe that this way it would be easier to implement a plan in order to shape a new national identity. Second, the West might be willing to turn a blind eye to Ukraine’s domestic scandals, corruption cases and other issues. Third, one can count on increased economic and military aid by playing the victim. Fourth, numerous clumsy actions of Russian propaganda only serve to strengthen anti-Russian sentiments across Ukraine. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Kiev will go on with doing everything it can to heat up tensions in the media environment.

The campaign around Russia’s alleged imminent aggression in Ukraine is also good for Washington and its Euro-Atlantic allies. It provides a distraction from their own domestic problems, allowing for cohesion within the archaic NATO and diverting attention from the ignominious flight of the Western troops from Afghanistan. By focusing on what is going on around Ukraine, the White House is trying to counter the Europe-wide perceptions that the Atlantic string of U.S. foreign policy is finally receding into the background of U.S. priorities, giving way to the Indo-Pacific, which is more important to Washington.

Long story short, everyone is minding their own business, spinning a propaganda war around Ukraine.

Are there any forces that might actually be interested in a full-blown rather than a propaganda war in Ukraine? The situation looks different here. If one puts aside the opinions of fierce fanatics and professional instigators, it turns out that no one needs an actual war with the use of modern weapons, countless casualties and immense destruction. Everyone would lose from such a war, be it Russia, the West, or Ukraine. This would entail such political, military, and economic costs for everyone that it would not be easy to recover for decades, not merely years. The repercussions of a major war at the center of Europe would be no less lasting than the ramifications triggered by the Chernobyl disaster, which have persisted for almost forty years. Who would be willing to take such a risk?

We allow ourselves to draw a relevant, if not too original, conclusion, leaving all the forecasts and scenarios of a military conflict at the heart of Europe to the conscience of numerous slacktivists. The only decent way out of the current situation is for all sides to immediately meet at the negotiating table on mutual security guarantees. Russia, the United States, and NATO have all presented their proposals on this matter. The positions of the parties are known. Now we must come to agreement.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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