Towards a New Strategy of Civilizational Concentration

6 june 2017

Civilizational Geopolitics at the Turn of an Era

Andrei Tsygankov is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University.

Resume: Once it has consolidated its civilizational subjectivity, Russia will be able to go back to playing an active role in world affairs. This rebound will not be a return to the principles of (neo)-Soviet or superpower globalism. Rather, it will proceed from a new understanding of the country’s international role.

Russian foreign policy successes in the Middle East have created new and more favorable conditions for Russia. These accomplishments include the proactive assertion of independence in the realm of mass media and humanitarian values, development of relations with China and a number of non-Western countries, and stimulatioin of  profound changes in the world. The continuing disintegration of the liberal world order and the turn of the West towards national interests and conservative values, which began with Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, have made it possible for Russia to search for new partners with ideals closer to its own. In this context calls have been more frequent for pushing ahead with a vigorous foreign policy and formalizing a new world order approximating the Congress of Vienna model. In these circumstances, it is important to reconsider the goals and capabilities of Russia as a country with its own, special system of values that takes a unique geopolitical position.


Russia emerged and took shape as a local civilization with a special system of values and a specific geopolitical position. Regionally, Russian identity formed and matured on the vast expanses of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, where a number of peoples were committed to the values of Orthodox Christianity and strong statehood. In the fifteenth century Russia became isolated. With the fall of Byzantium, Russia lost the source of its spiritual authority. As the main heir to the Orthodox tradition, Muscovite Rus’ realized the importance of protecting its values and traditions from threats from the south, and from Catholic Rome’s ambitions to incorporate its eastern neighbor into the imperial system.

An extremely complex geopolitical position made the situation even worse. Locked deep inside Eurasia, Russia had no natural borders. The task of protecting Russian sovereignty required the creation of a belt of buffer territories and a strong army. Coexistence with the world’s strongest powers left an imprint on the Russian mentality. Furthermore, Russians were clearly aware that their survival and independence would require constant protection and could not be taken for granted as long-lasting assets.

An active foreign policy was an imperative. With its innate system of values—locally limited and geopolitically vulnerable—Russia was doomed to conduct global or transregional policies. To survive, Russia was forced not only to demonstrate its strength and capabilities, but also to display permanent initiative and involve other major powers in joint projects. History left Russia no other option of retaining its spiritual sovereignty and traditional values. Isolation from existing sources of geopolitical risks appeared to be the ideal solution, but continued foreign policy efforts were the inevitable price to pay.

Quite often Russia lacked the material resources to attain its aims. Unlike Western Europe, which was the center of world development, Russia remained a semi-peripheral country, an aspirant that never obtained full membership status in that select club. The great leaps forward under Peter the Great and Josef Stalin narrowed the gap, but resulted in no fundamental changes to Russia’s position. The standard of living in Russia today is still far below that in Western countries (although it is noticeably higher than in most non-Western countries).

The scarcity of resources required a pro-active, balanced, and least costly foreign policy. Russia’s rulers might have misjudged their real capabilities a few times, but they never lost the awareness that those capabilities were not infinite. Throughout most of its history, Russia had no global power ambitions. For Russia, transforming the world order was a task of secondary importance, a collateral effect of efforts to preserve the civilizational and geopolitical kernel of its sovereign system of values.

Frequently confronted with a far stronger opponent, Russia opted for temporary isolation or asymmetrical offensive countermeasures which were invariably selective and did not require considerable costs. Bearing in mind the geopolitical need for pro-active involvement in world affairs, those periods of isolation were not very typical. Introduced on the recommendation of such influential advisers and statesmen as Nikita Panin under Catherine the Great, or Alexander Gorchakov under Alexander II, such periods of moderate isolation invariably pursued the aim of Russia’s eventual return to world politics. Most often such periods of lull occurred when the country had to take time to heal the scars of war and regain lost strength. Those were “breathing spaces”—a term founder of Soviet state Vladimir Lenin often used in relation to the policy of temporary reconciliation with the West. Whenever it took asymmetric, proactive countermeasures, Russia found the strength to defend itself and at the same time steer clear of the risk of going to war with great powers. For instance, in the 1870s Russia threw its weight behind Christian insurgents in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans, quite confident that the risk of intervention by the Austro-Hungarian Empire or other major European power was small.

The policy that emphasized Russia’s civilizational survival did evoke criticism from both Westernizers, who dismissed the idea of Russian identity as such, and those who advocated turning Russia into a global power capable of dictating the rules of the world order. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the latter urged the capture of Constantinople and wanted to use the victory over Napoleon to gain a firm foothold in Europe as an uncontested founder of a new world order. At the beginning of the twentieth century the leftist revolutionaries, impatient to see the triumph of a world revolution, urged a march on Warsaw and Berlin. In other words, Russian history is made up of many actors who wanted to throw national interests and values on the altar of their ideals—whether the status of a superpower, the triumph of world Communism, or universal humanitarian and global liberal values.

In Russia, the wish to preserve the cultural and political identity frequently developed into a dispute between those who emphasized the importance of resisting the aggressive West and those who advocated reclaiming the vast yet sparsely populated territories of Russia’s Eurasia. An example is the well-known debate between Russian philosopher Vadim Tsymbursky and the supporters of multipolarity and Eurasian expansion, who maintained that the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic world was the main threat to Russia. While well aware of that danger himself, Tsymbursky nevertheless believed it was largely exaggerated. He urged that the focus be on internal development, on moving the capital east of the Ural Mountains, and on building relations with Russia’s nearest neighbors.

Nothing close to Tsymbursky’s ideas have materialized, but their main vector remains relevant today. Neglecting the priorities of civilizational development is fraught with an excessive strain on resources, internal weakness, and decline of the country’s international status. Ever since Peter the Great the government has had to spend about a quarter of the budget to maintain the status of a great power and invariably demanded the people’s readiness for self-sacrifice. Widespread poverty and serfdom were a means to achieve rapid mobilization of the armed forces. The development of society lagged behind and invariably followed mobilizational templates—for the sake of fast accumulation of resources crucial to maintaining national security. Systemic reforms were either postponed or curtailed. Instead, taxes on society were raised and increasingly new mechanisms for exploiting society were introduced. Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of global support for “Socialism-oriented” countries, in combination with the lack of internal reforms, weakened the country and brought about its eventual collapse.


Resting upon the global domination of the United States, the modern world order is collapsing. Triggered by the infamous U.S. invasion of Iraq, this process has gained steam in recent years. Vigorous policies by such major powers as Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and others is a hard fact. While the United States has retained material supremacy for now, the world has started drifting towards the establishment of new rules in international relations.

The process of formulating such rules may take a long time, while the lack of such rules incites rivalry among major powers and breeds instability. As long as international relations remain in this transitional phase, the contradictions will continue to worsen and an integral world will break apart into regional geopolitical spaces. New zones of likely armed conflict and trade rivalry are emerging. Tough bargaining in public and covert talks are coming to the fore. Countries are vulnerable to new challenges, which pushes them towards the centralization of power, makes them self-centered, and causes them to drop out of the well-established system of global rules. The latest developments inside the European Union confirm these trends, such as attempts by Greece to negotiate special conditions for itself within the framework of the German-U.S. consensus, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the United States’ conservative turn following Donald Trump’s presidential win, growing rightist self-isolationist trends in Europe, and the political centralization processes in Russia and Turkey.

Countries are ever less inclined to seek the patronage of and material support from the United States. Instead they are strengthening regional ties. Great powers are keen to enhance their spheres of influence in border areas, whether in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or the South China Sea, while avoiding conflicts with each other. However, it should be remembered that conflicts among great powers invariably accompanied any significant change in the world order over the past two centuries. Before the emergence of the Vienna, Berlin, Versailles, and Yalta systems of international relations, humanity had experienced the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean War, World War I, and World War II.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president is fraught with more crises in international relations. While eliminating the causes of some previous tensions the new U.S. administration is creating new trouble spots. The expansion of NATO and the export of democracy are being replaced by harsh measures to deter China and Iran, build up missile defense and new systems of U.S. military domination, and protectionism and trade blocs. The U.S. is pursuing a two-fold aim of developing its economy and infrastructures, while at the same time it is gaining a stronger foothold on the world stage. The risk of further aggravation in U.S.-Chinese relations is the biggest danger for the international system. Trump’s attempts to restrict China’s trading and financial influences, to expand relations with Taiwan and to increase the U.S. naval presence near China cannot but evoke harsh resistance.

The continuing collapse of the modern world system will entail a long period of uncertainty for Russia and force it to find an adequate foreign policy response. Attempts to join the list of the superpower’s key allies were made in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to encounter American distrust, largely due to Russia’s attempts to negotiate special conditions for itself. Generally speaking, a model of external military and political dependence cannot be acceptable for a country with a long historical experience and political culture resting upon its unique identity and great power status.

At a time when the U.S. has changed priorities and the global balance of power is drifting towards U.S.-Chinese confrontation, any attempts to go ahead with the policy Russia has pursued in recent years will no longer make sense. The key feature of that policy was to push ahead with asymmetric proactive efforts for the purpose of retaining Russia’s positions in Eurasia. Intervention in the conflict in Syria and confrontation with the West in the mass media largely stemmed from the intention to demonstrate Russia’s capabilities and to retain positions in the Eurasian region in defiance of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. The conflict in Ukraine is no longer a priority in relations with the U.S. The intensity of the media war has eased considerably (at least on the Russian side), and Russia’s ideas of how to search for a solution in Syria are far closer to those of the new American administration than the previous U.S. leadership.

In a situation like this it may be useful to look back on the periods of relative isolation and concentration of internal civilizational resources. Such a civilizational, self-concentration program should pursue the purpose of building internal values and material, economic, and intellectual basics of the country’s development in an increasingly complex world environment. Promotion and development of cultural diversity, stronger principles of state governance, and support for the family, education, and science would become its essential elements.
Devising a new model for Russian economic development is the most important component of all. It is quite obvious that the development model dependent on energy resources has become exhausted. While mostly benefitting the interests of influential political and economic groups, such a policy was unable to create mechanisms for the sustainable economic development of society. Solving fundamental economic or political problems did not bring prosperity. Widespread corruption and the technological backwardness of Russian business in contrast to the West resulted in income shortfalls for the Russian treasury, which greatly hindered further efforts to strengthen statehood. Russia’s political class fell behind the requirements of the day and the tasks of modern economic development. The Russian economy’s competitiveness has remained relatively low and the ruble’s decline that started at the end of 2014 was a clear sign that the model of governance is ineffective. Western sanctions have exposed more problems in safeguarding economic and political sovereignty amid external pressures. The process of devising a new development model has begun, but it is still very far from completion.

Some may say that neither relative openness nor “turbulence in the global world” will leave any chance for Russia to slide into temporary self-isolation. For these reasons the historical experience of “self-concentration” and regrouping of forces in the context of relative estrangement from international affairs, which happened after the defeat in the Crimean War, will be of no use. One should also remember the failure of Yevgeny Primakov’s attempts to make the nation focus on itself, following in Gorchakov’s footsteps. Even Tsymbursky, who deservedly enjoys the reputation of the main theoretician of Russia’s civilizational concentration, recognized that such a policy would be very hard to pursue. He surmised that the great powers’ consent to non-intervention in the limitrophe states might be possible, but the destructive role of the West in the Ukrainian crisis shattered this illusion.

Nevertheless, quite a few factors are pushing Russia towards the possibility of formulating a new strategy of civilizational concentration. It is becoming increasingly obvious that efforts to push ahead with an independent foreign policy will run into the need to build up the country’s ideological, social, and economic basis. Complete isolation is utopian, but shifting the emphasis from a proactive foreign policy towards internal development is not only possible, but necessary. International relations have entered a period of instability. These are no easy times, but, by rephrasing Tsymbursky’s idea, one can postulate that it may yield benefits for those who will be able to use it.


Throughout Russian history periods of concentration were forced and were successful only in the context of multi-polar geopolitics, and only when the other great powers were distracted by problems not related to Russia. The reform policies of Alexander II and Alexander Gorchakov’s desire to regain Russia’s lost foothold on the Black Sea benefited a great deal from the standoff between Britain and France, on the one hand, and a rising Prussia, on the other. The “peaceful coexistence” that followed the 1917 revolution and “the victory of Socialism in one country” theory helped Soviet Russia find its feet and gain strength amid the growing crisis of the Western world.

The concentration efforts encountered problems when these factors were absent. Against the backdrop of the United States’ global domination and Yevgeny Primakov’s ambitious attempts to maneuver between the West, China, and India had no chance of success, just like the project of reintegration into the post-Soviet space was doomed to fail. Instead of focusing on domestic development, Russia was entirely preoccupied with deterring Western policies, quite often missing an opportunity to establish relations with its neighbors on the basis of market economy tools and soft power. Obviously, the United States’ distraction from the problems of Russia and Eurasia is a necessary (although not sufficient enough) condition for the policy of civilizational concentration to succeed.

Confidence in one’s own strength and capabilities is the backbone of the policy of civilizational concentration. There is no chance of achieving self-concentration if there is nothing to concentrate. Russia has walked a hard, albeit glorious road in history—something impossible to achieve without the vital strength of the civilizational kernel where confidence in the future remains strong.

What makes Civilizationists different from Westernizers and statists is the certainty that the main source of prosperity and development is within us, and not in the achievements of Western culture or a multi-polar oligarchic world of great powers. It goes without saying that confidence in one’s own strength should not lead to self-isolation or refusal to maintain active interaction with the outside world and borrow knowledge from other cultures and peoples. Such interaction and learning have always been part of Russia’s historical development—with the brief Soviet period as the sole exception. Russia always borrowed widely and freely; it modified its civilizational basis, but never relinquished it.

If Russia were given the time for civilizational concentration today, then its foreign policy might curtail excessive global involvement and proactive development of internal and external Eurasia. But if disagreements between the U.S. and China increase to become the main axis of global politics, it will make no sense for Russia to unequivocally team up with either party in the standoff. Instead, it will be far more important for Russia to avoid involvement in the U.S.-Chinese dispute and develop bilateral relations with either state in accordance with its civilizational interests. It is worth discussing security matters and the struggle with terrorism with the U.S., and joint trade and the economic development of Eurasia and the Far East with China, Japan, and South Korea. Any involvement in the United States’ hypothetical confrontation with Iran, a country that has geopolitical links with the Eurasian region and which is Russia’s major partner in the Middle East settlement, should likewise be avoided at all costs.

Russia can afford this degree of independence. With its foreign policy successes Russia has asserted its great power status and maintaining it will not require great extra costs in the near future. Apart from maintaining the security of its borders and fighting terrorism, Russia does not need to invest in building up the status of its armed forces proportionate to that of the United States. By and large Russia is capable of setting and achieving targets implying the creation of a new development model and civilizational concentration. The issue of the day is not just identifying promising projects, such as establishing a link between the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Silk Road project, but forming a sensible, predictable, and lasting system of measures to put domestic affairs in order. The external diversification of markets should go hand in hand with the diversification and expansion of the domestic market. The country needs new internal colonization, promotion of development, and heavy investment in promising industries, as well as in science, culture, education, and healthcare.

If Beijing is destined to become the main annoyance to the United States, China in some respects will take the place of Russia, whose policy had been a matter of Washington’s unflagging attention. In that case Russia will have an opportunity to turn slightly Chinese, wait for the storm to subside, keep a low profile, and focus on domestic development. Russian analysts have pointed out more than once that Russia has a great deal to learn from China. Unlike Eastern European countries, China avoided privatization for privatization’s sake. On the contrary, it managed to painstakingly position itself as a stable country where the rights of investors are respected, thereby drawing foreign capital on very favorable terms. Thus, China created an opportunity for implementing an economic policy of development. The existence of a legitimate national leader and a harsh struggle against corruption keep that policy going. Just in case globalization makes a U-turn, China has kept certain mechanisms of survival and development at the expense of a relatively high level of internal diversification and competition.

Excessive rapprochement with Europe plays against Russia’s civilizational interests too. The dialogue may continue and trading and investment ties may become even more diversified, but they are unable to compensate for the deep divide between the sets of values that the two parties profess. One side insists on sanctions as a punishment for the Kremlin’s aggressive policies, while the other believes such a policy is a necessary reaction to the infringement of its civilizational rights in Eurasia. That conflict will continue for years to come. Russia will remain connected to Europe, but it will not be part of the European civilizational system, regardless of whether that system appears in a liberal or conservative disguise. In the foreseeable future “detachment instead of confrontation”—a term coined by Alexei Miller and Fyodor Lukyanov—will embody not only mutual understanding, but also a mode of behavior purposely chosen.

As far as reclaiming Eurasia is concerned, the policy of concentration implies efforts to cultivate relations with actors constituting Russia’s immediate civilizational environment. This applies not just to ethnic Russians, but also to all those who are attracted towards Russia by virtue of the historical memory of common victories and defeats, who feel in their bones that they belong to Russian culture, and who are perceptive of Russian foreign policy. This group incorporates not so much government officials as people, including those who, like many Ukrainians, are looked at as “the enemy within” by their own government. In communicating to them the instruments of diplomacy, soft power and economic integration will be most efficient. So far these instruments have been not very effective for two reasons—Western resistance and Russia’s own weakness. Greater attention to the country’s internal development and the existence of the above-mentioned international conditions will make the policy of Eurasia’s civilizational reclamation effective and contribute tangibly to the prevention of crises similar to the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts, while enhancing Russia’s sphere of influence.

The policy of civilizational concentration is a forced measure that might last until the world order regains stability once more. At the moment, we are at the turn of two epochs, where the coexistence of conflicting rules and systems of values is a fact of life which needs to be reckoned with. Shaping a truly polycentric world will take a great deal of time. Most likely no balance of military and political power will emerge for another decade, which will make the rules of a new world order shared by the main actors of international relations far harder to generate. This sort of uncertainty prompts a policy of flexible, non-ideological cooperation with various partners. Preparations need to be made for long and persistent self-assertion in the world. The current phase, which is a relatively long one, must be used not for attempts to transform the world order or restore one’s own “empire,” but for preserving, reformatting, and cautiously promoting one’s own values where the soil for that is fertile.

Throughout this relatively long transitional period Russian foreign policy will need new benchmarks that will lead it beyond the bounds of the unipolar world theory. The nature of the modern system of international relations is to be studied anew. The same applies to the nature of external challenges and the optimal ways of providing a proper response to these challenges. Proceeding from the ideas of the “civilization state” and the “conservative state,” it is essential to create an image of Russia that will absorb the best components of the country’s values while avoiding excessive confrontation with the West. Incidentally, Russia has never formulated its values as anti-Western. The Soviet period was the sole exception. Russia invariably generated and protected values that had good chances of meeting with understanding in Western countries—Christian humanism, inter-ethnic dialogue, a strong state, and social justice. The issue on the agenda today is producing a new combination of these values acceptable for Russia. Many aspects of those values are universal and this is expected to facilitate the task of their protection and promotion in the world in the future.

The period of concentration will make it easier to identify internal and external priorities. Once it has consolidated its civilizational identity, Russia will be able to go back to playing an active role in world affairs. This rebound will not be a return to the principles of (neo)-Soviet or superpower globalism. Rather, it will proceed from a new understanding of the country’s international role. Hopefully, the further march of international relations will offer such an opportunity and Russia will not miss its chance.

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