Waiting for a Storm

23 june 2012

Russian Foreign Policy in the Era of Change

Dmitry Yefremenko has a PhD in Political Science. He is Deputy Director of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: The much needed reforms of the Russian political system, although creating extra problems when being implemented, can contribute to greater resistibility to external challenges in the long term. Such reforms do not guarantee Moscow’s success in foreign policy, but they will certainly ease the risks stemming from internal political polarization.

Whatever may be happening in the world these days, turbulence is Mr. Analyst’s label of choice. This catchword largely owes its popularity to the world financial and economic crisis, which now looks as infinite as it did back in 2008. Uncertainty about the capacity to exercise control of one’s own future, which Pierre Bourdieu discussed in relation to the individual at the end of the 20th century, is now enveloping states and their economic systems, as well as transnational associations. Nothing is ruled out and nothing is predetermined – this is what the uncertain system of coordinates, in which world leaders have to make decisions, looks like now. Vladimir Putin, who has extended his stay in office till 2018 (without any guarantees, though), can for a good reason be considered one of the oldest old-timers. The world and the country where he has taken presidency for a third time is markedly different from what it was when Boris Yeltsin handed over the reigns of power to him. That the changes have proved so significant is largely a merit of Putin himself. But that by no means makes his future tasks easier.

ABOUT OUR UNDER-REVOLUTION

The range of foreign political options, which the Russian political leadership will be able to choose from in the near future, will be determined by internal political opportunities to a far greater extent than at the beginning of the past decade. In my previous publications I dared speculate that in the election campaigns of late 2011 and early 2012 Russian foreign policy may become hostage to an uncontrolled march of events as a result of the lack of the authorities’ legitimacy won in elections devoid of genuine competition. Now that the dramatic threshold is way behind, one should consider the possibility for Russia falling victim to the latest changes and turning into a new trouble spot of world turbulence. But first, a few words about what really happened between December 4, 2011 and March 4, 2012.

‘Under-revolution’ seems to be the most appropriate word to describe the events. The term was coined by some leaders of the student unrest of 1968 to describe the scale of youth protests against the social and political system in the countries of the West.

The dwindling electoral support for the ruling party United Russia (even according to the official results from the State Duma elections) and, above all, the protest demonstrations that followed the December 4 voting have demonstrated that the political consensus of the early 2000s is gone. The scope of the demonstrations in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and in Sakharov Avenue indicated a cumulative growth in the number of those having “stylistic disagreements” with the authorities. Although a detailed sociological profile of the “people with white ribbons” is still to be drawn, one can say with certainty that the vertical chain of command has lost the support of a considerable segment of the middle class in major Russian cities.

Apparently, the awareness of the new situation has thrown the ruling Putin-Medvedev tandem into confusion. The protest sentiments forced them to agree to partial political liberalization, which had begun to be considered long before the December elections. Simultaneously, the editorial policies of the government-controlled electronic mass media showed certain change, similar in scale to the glasnost breakthrough of the 1980s.

However, in January 2012, the Putin team revised its election tactic to shift to confrontationist rhetoric towards the protesters and the sympathetic external forces (the just-appointed U.S. Ambassador, Michael McFaul fell victim to that campaign, too). In this way a new basis of Putin’s electoral support was consolidated and preconditions were created for a considerable shift in the balance of forces at the level of the political elite. The presidential election proved surprisingly competitive, but it was a competition between the authorities and a patchy opposition not represented in the ballot papers. In February, the pro-Putin forces achieved superiority in the scope of street demonstrations. Eventually, Putin for the first time emerged winner in a political standoff, and this fact will have major consequences for Russia’s politics.

It looks like the scope of protest demonstrations was a no smaller surprise for the leaders of the anti-Putin opposition than it was for the authorities. Almost spontaneously a weird coalition emerged that united supporters of liberal values, leftwing radicals and nationalists. In a configuration like this the emergence of one coordinating center, capable of formulating an integral list of political demands, proved impossible. Seeking to gain massive support of demonstrators in street protests, the oppositional leaders missed the chance of distancing themselves from dubious personalities and organizations that had joined the rallies in the first days. As a result, protest activity developed a downtrend before the March 4 election. The scope and intensity of grass roots support for the oppositional protests were not enough for destabilizing the regime. But nothing is settled yet. The number of opponents critical of Putin and of the system he represents has not reduced, and it is hard to believe they will be calmly waiting for the end of his third term.

From the very moment of his inauguration, Putin was confronted with a stark dilemma – either to go ahead with strengthening the authoritarian rule in every possible way, or to undertake fundamental political reforms, including a constitutional one, which would at last build the presidency into the system of power sharing, establish guarantees of the independence of courts and the mass media, and make genuinely free elections inevitable. Most probably Putin and his entourage will at first try to consolidate power with regard to the new political realities. The under-revolution of the winter of 2011-2012 highlighted the non-efficiency of the previous coalition of siloviki and systemic liberals Putin had relied on since 2000. In the new conditions, Putin will have to recruit a new generation of the managerial and political elite to count on. In the long term, the “newcomers” will be determining the country’s future to an ever larger degree.

In the near future the Russian authorities will be taking any significant step with double caution, because the risk of another outbreak of protests is still high. Putin’s political opponents will continue to question the legitimacy of his third presidency and the current composition of the State Duma. In the event of another tide of the economic crisis Putin will have to establish a dialogue again with various political forces, including the advocates of Western-type liberal democracy and radical nationalists. The task of the political leadership will be to integrate both groups in a legal political process by giving them a chance of full-fledged participation in regional and municipal elections, and then in federal election campaigns. The normalization of political processes would be far easier to achieve should there be an unambiguous signal that Putin and his entourage are prepared to confine themselves to a six-year presidency and will not seek to prolong it to 2024. In fact, time is ripe for Putin to start working on a strategy of a civilized exit from the ruling officialdom within the deadlines established by the Constitution.

The Russian under-revolution has demonstrated the Opposition’s indifference to foreign policy issues. The oppositional activists’ response to Putin’s statements throughout the election campaign was slack, none of them even tried to propose some policy benchmarks in that sphere, at least in response to the Putin’s article in Moscow News. It is very unlikely that there is a broad consensus of Putin’s supporters and opponents as regards foreign policy issues. The Opposition remained reluctant to get involved in the foreign policy discussion, most probably because the alternative platform does not look attractive enough for mobilizing the electorate and political activists. In fact, the Opposition allowed Putin to retain monopoly on shaping and interpreting Russia’s foreign policy agenda.

The social processes that have been unfolding in Russia since late 2011 are undoubtedly consonant with the main trends of the global political turbulence. But, if one considers the March 4, 2012 election as an interim threshold, then one must admit that by the moment it was reached Russia had avoided the plight of turning into another source of global chaos. Russia’s foreign policy has not yet become hostage to the internal political change, of which Russia’s independent stance on Syria in early 2012 is evidence. Nevertheless, the likes and dislikes of Russia’s main foreign partners regarding the actors of the political process within the country have clearly manifested themselves. In the future, especially in a situation of a growing internal political turbulence, outside pressure in support of this or that force inside Russia will increase. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s foreign policy choices may be derivative of a “friend-or-foe” approach, with all other factors of significance fading into the background.

 

EURASIAN (POST-SOVIET) INTEGRATION

The Putin-Medvedev duumvirate’s rule has seen a major change in interstate cooperation in the post-Soviet space. In fact, there has developed a change of trend for the first time ever since 1991. True, it would be too bold to say that disintegration and nation-state building has given way to a unification boom. But the creation of the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is increasingly often seen as a project with greater-than-zero chances of success. It is also noteworthy that it was none other than Vladimir Putin who played the most important role in launching this initiative (although by and large he avoided disputing Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy prerogatives).

Why did it become possible? It would be an exaggeration to say that the economic integration of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan materialized in favorable external conditions, but the general background was surely neutral. The world economic crisis noticeably reduced the capabilities of the key world players in the post-Soviet space. Besides, as one may speculate, the resetting of Russian-U.S. relations implied bilateral tacit awareness that the U.S. activity in matters related to the political and economic development of the CIS countries would be surely less intensive than it was under George W. Bush. While refusing to recognize Russia’s right to a zone of privileged interests, the United States under Barack Obama apparently deemed it impossible to resist Russia’s growing strength in the post-Soviet space too firmly. As for the European Union, the Eastern Partnership program, formulated at the initiative of Poland and Sweden, has failed to become an effective instrument for exercising influence in the post-Soviet space. In a word, by 2012 Russia had achieved considerable progress in advancing its integration initiatives.

True, these initiatives still remain mostly a political project. The idea of a Eurasian Union, which Putin breathed a new life into in the autumn of 2011, is still feeding the political component of the integration activity. However, this policy is fraught with certain risks, such as the disruption of unification efforts. The establishment of a trilateral Customs Union and the proposed formation of a Eurasian Union on its basis is a project of three personalistic authoritarian regimes, of which the Russian one is the softest, particularly so after the turbulent political winter of 2011-2012. Therefore, it is logical to focus efforts on minimizing the project’s costs so as to make the integration trend irreversible and ensure stability of the union structures irrespective of what may be happening “after Nazarbayev,” “after Lukashenko,” or “after Putin.” Conversely, any steps towards expanding the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union territorially, for instance, to Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, would hardly contribute to making the economic basis of integration stronger. Alongside greater economic pressures this would be tantamount to the import of instability and conflicts. For instance, in view of the strained relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan it would be careless to agree to a radical rapprochement with Dushanbe, thereby complicating the dialogue with Tashkent.

Creating a firm and sound (at least economically) core of integration in the post-Soviet space is a major task that will take years, if not decades, to accomplish. Beyond the scope of the “top three” – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – it would be correct to opt for a model of multi-speed integration, making it possible to gradually create economic and political prerequisites for closer relations among ever more countries in the post-Soviet space. In relation to Ukraine, the optimal scenario might be to put it in the follow-up integration echelon. Ukraine’s hypothetical membership of the Customs Union, the Common Economic Space and, eventually, of the Eurasian Union, would considerably ease the integration impetus and, in case of another change of power in Kiev, result in the deconstruction of the emerging associations. One has the impression that Moscow seeks to use the weaknesses of Ukraine’s current authorities to address issues concerning the future of the gas pipeline system, as well as involve Kiev in some sort of partnership that would prevent Ukraine’s ultimate reorientation towards the European Union. However, the march of events in the neighboring country after the “Orange Revolution” has convincingly shown that any “final” solutions there are impossible. For Moscow it would be reasonable to proceed precisely from this understanding of Ukrainian specifics. If the idea of Greater Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” is to be considered in earnest, Kiev might play a modest but independent part in such a European concert. Russia should recognize this and even help Ukraine find a constructive role of a link between the European Union and the Eurasian one.

 

THE EUROPEAN IMPASSE

That the relations between Moscow and the European Union have been in an impasse for years is on everybody’s tongue. Even those who are still prepared to offer solutions are beginning to feel bored. Russia can only wait and watch the EU trying to find a way out of the debt and institutional crisis. Naturally, it can make its moderate contribution to resolving the debt problems and to eventually take a tactically beneficial position of a lender. On the EU scale Moscow’s support will be hardly noticeable, but it would be tangible for individual countries, for instance, Cyprus. Possibly, the current moment is most convenient for laying hands on low-priced European assets, but a massive buy-up of the heftiest chunks of property, for instance, in the high-tech sector, will not happen.

In his last pre-election article Vladimir Putin made it clear that he was an advocate of the version of anti-crisis reforms and institutional transformation that Berlin and Paris were insisting on. To be more precise, not of the version as such, but of the idea that its implementation will help consolidate German-French domination in united Europe. It is hoped that such transformation would have the most favorable effect on Russia-EU relations. However, if this shift is bound to occur, it will not happen in the near future.

Europe’s debt crisis has exposed things which everybody knew all the way but which were painstakingly camouflaged: whereas before the crisis Germany’s leadership was kept under the veil of a consensus political decision-making (even with certain adjustments the Lisbon Treaty had introduced), which diluted political responsibility, now Berlin is forced to assume the role of a full-fledged leader. Germany’s cautious Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is still trying to share the burden of responsibility with France, but this does not make much difference. Most probably, when the crisis is at its peak, the majority of EU countries will accept Berlin’s terms of exit from the debt depression, but the London-led camp of opponents will get stronger, too. As they overcome the crisis, the number of countries, prepared to contest Germany’s key role in solving various problems, will grow. A variety of scenarios is possible here.

One scenario suggests that the mechanism of decision-making in the EU will be rather quickly adjusted to the new economic realities, and the “multi-speed Europe” principle will be institutionalized. This would be most favorable for taking practical steps in favor of implementing the idea of “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” The European Union’s stratification into several integration tiers would help bring about more zones of cooperation, serving as “bridges” from the European Union (its core) to the Eurasian Union. Implementation of a differentiated model of multi-speed integration would lay the basis for new mega projects with points of support in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev and Moscow. For the time being this scenario looks purely hypothetical, though.

Under another scenario the reformatting of the EU will last a while, and Berlin will have to make concessions to partners on issues of secondary importance again and again. Possibly, the policy towards Russia and other countries in the post-Soviet space will be one of the victims. On the Eastern track, the simulacrum of the European Union’s common foreign policy has chances to last longer. Then the stagnation in relations between Moscow and the European Union undergoing internal transformation will last for years. Europe will be a priori unable to discuss strategic partnership matters with Moscow, and Russia will hardly like the idea of waiting in uncertainty in front of the European home’s locked front door. Respectively, Moscow’s partnership with Brussels will not become a tangible factor, contributing to Russia’s positions in the Asia-Pacific region, which Putin mentioned in the pre-election article “Russia and the Changing World” as a goal to be sought. Most probably, it will turn the other way round, and a resolute surge in Russia’s policy in Asia and the Pacific will sooner or later force the EU countries to take a fresh look at the prospects of relations with the largest country in Eurasia.

The third scenario may involve a sharp worsening of the military-political situation in the Middle East, and also its long-term geopolitical and geo-economic consequences. A clash of Israel and the United States with Iran would make the problems of energy security more acute. The effects of such a clash will produce serious long-term challenges for all: the redrawing of borders in the Middle East, refugee flows, Turkey’s struggle for asserting its ambitions of a regional dominator in the Eastern Mediterranean, the South Caucasus and Central Asia and the comeback of the specter of a Sunni Caliphate from Mecca to Casablanca. Awareness of common threats is certainly one of the strongest arguments for countries to unite.

 

ASIA-PACIFIC WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITIES

Remarkably, Russia’s chairmanship of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has coincided with the shift of the world policy focus on that region. If the struggle for global leadership between the United States and China is to become the key factor in the transformation of the system of international relations, then the expanses of East Asia and the Pacific are bound to serve as the competition field. The more so since the center of gravity of world industrial and financial activity is moving from the Euro-Atlantic area to the Asia-Pacific region. A realignment of forces is afoot, and Russia is not taking an active part in it yet, reluctant to get involved in any political-economic configuration prematurely. However, despite the growing tensions caused by this realignment, the Asia-Pacific region still remains a fairly stable and economically safe part of the world, and presence there is a basic condition for Russia’s successful development in the 21st century. “An eastward turn” will entail major risks, but staying idle will be far more risky, for the window of opportunity may be shut to never open again.

A radical change in the agenda of Russian-U.S. relations will be possible only if the sides succeed to jointly define a balance of interests in the Asia-Pacific region and to consider it as the main context-formatting factor for the entire range of cooperation relations between Moscow and Washington. Firstly, the balance of interests should involve economic cooperation, including creation and development of regional free trade areas. Secondly, it suggests support for Russia’s active contribution to supplying energy resources to the Asia-Pacific region, including wide diversification of routes of delivery and destinations. This sort of mutual understanding in questions of energy supply to the Asia-Pacific region means a departure from confrontational policies in the field of European energy security, where the United States had until recently acted as the main lobbyist for alternative oil and gas supply routes that would ease Europe’s dependence on Russia. Thirdly, the new balance of interests suggests the United States and the Asia-Pacific countries leaning on it will enjoy vast opportunities opened up for the development of Siberia and Russia’s Far East. At least, the same opportunities as China enjoys. Fourthly, Russia should recognize that the considerable military presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region does not endanger its security. Moreover, a further U.S. military buildup in the region may be deemed acceptable on the condition it does not undermine Russia’s own strategic security efforts. At the same time, the United States will have to demonstrate its readiness to take into account the interests of Russia’s security in the post-Soviet space, in Europe, and in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, however, the chances for a positive “resetting of the resetting” of the U.S.-Russia relations are slim, and they will remain so for years to come. Relations with Russia have long ceased to be a matter of bipartisan consensus in Washington. Quite probably, fundamental efforts in favor of a U.S.-Russia rapprochement will for a long time be blocked by an influential group of U.S. legislators interested in the votes of anti-Russia minded migrants from Central and Eastern Europe and their descendants. The rhetoric component of Russian-U.S. interactions may even get stronger. For instance, a swap of the vintage Jackson-Vanik amendment for the Magnitsky Act that John McCain and a number of his colleagues have proposed will exacerbate the distrust between the two countries, without resolving a single practical problem. The publication of a conversation between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, caught by a live microphone in Seoul, and the ensuing anti-Obama and anti-Russia campaign by Mitt Romney and other Republicans were yet another illustration the chances of shrugging off the power of stereotypes are scarce.

Instead of searching jointly for opportunities for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region as the basis of a new agenda of U.S.-Russian relations we will see a further erosion of the modest achievements of the resetting. The current agenda of bilateral relations, in which the missile defense problem takes center stage, will be perpetuated till the end of the current decade. And then, especially in case of another surge of internal political tensions in Russia or of another aggravation of relations with the West, Moscow may take a step towards still closer relations with Beijing.

The current level of Russian-Chinese relations is optimal by and large. A search for a balance of interests and new mechanisms of cooperation by Russia and the United States in the Asia-Pacific region might help achieve a better balance and avoid unilateral dependence on China. For Moscow, it would be equally risky to get involved in anti-Chinese and anti-American alliances. At this point it would be reasonable to lessen the disproportion in China’s favor by stepping up cooperation with the United States. Such restoration of balance would provide the most comfortable ground for the further advancement of Russia’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

The opportunities for economic cooperation and the development of trade are most significant in this context. Russia’s crucial task following the access to the World Trade Organization is choosing partners for the establishment of free trade regimes. Already now discussions are underway on free trade by the Customs Union countries with New Zealand, Vietnam and Mongolia (beyond the Asia-Pacific region consultations are being held with the member-states of the European Free Trade Association). The talks may serve as a model for further wider dialogues over the establishment of relations with the existing and emerging free trade areas or even over full-fledged participation in one of these areas. In contrast to the European Union, multilateral structures of economic cooperation and free trade in the Asia-Pacific region keep cropping up. Besides accepting the conditions for cooperation in the region established earlier by other actors, Russia may also participate in setting the rules of the game.

The Asia-Pacific region still lacks a major project for multilateral economic cooperation, but there is a variety of competing projects. In the final count the choice will be confined to which project is preferable – the one involving the United States or China. This situation will not last indefinitely, but now Russia has a chance to consider various options. The free trade regime is by no means a harmless thing, particularly so for a one-sided economy like Russia’s. Nevertheless it makes sense to analyze the existing options, above all the possibility of closer relations with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The United States will dominate this emerging economic group, so a probe into the chances of close cooperation with the TPP will also put to test the chances of “resetting the resetting” on the basis of a balance of interests of Washington and Moscow in the Asia-Pacific region. One should not brush aside offhand the possibility of taking part in some other configuration, for instance, the ASEAN+6 format.

Russia should look for regional partners (in other words, sherpas, if one is to use a word from the diplomatic vocabulary) that would be prepared to provide assistance to Russia in turning eastwards. They should not be stronger than Russia itself, or have some insurmountable differences, like a territorial dispute. Clearly, Moscow should create powerful incentives to persuade these countries to take into account its interests in earnest. Such incentives may be varied – supplies of fuels and energy, joint infrastructural projects, the opening of the Russian labor market, creation of favorable conditions for economic activity, assistance in resolving conflicts, etc.

Vietnam and South Korea may easily become such regional players. With Vietnam Russia shares the political and economic heritage of the Soviet era. Naturally, that heritage suffered serious erosion, but, despite the years of mutual estrangement, a number of successful economic cooperation projects have been preserved, and many people in both countries are keenly interested in reviving Russian-Vietnamese cooperation on a new basis. Vietnam largely follows the Chinese model of modernization, and in terms of the structure and quality of its workforce Vietnam looks very much like China of 10-15 years ago, but the gap is narrowing. At the same time, the Vietnamese economy is tiny compared to the Chinese one. Besides, Russia and Vietnam do not have a common border, which lifts certain concerns which invariably surface whenever plans for a massive invitation of Chinese workforce into Russia are discussed. Lastly, Vietnam is not just an ASEAN member, but a participant in the TPP, and the specific features of Vietnam’s political regime are not an obstacle to this.

The situation with the Republic of Korea is different, of course, but even in that case Russia may discover some potentially favorable opportunities. First and foremost, Moscow is sincerely interested in the peace settlement of controversies over North Korea’s nuclear program. Russia has every reason to demonstrate support for a constructive dialogue between the two Korean states, because it is a necessary condition for the implementation of projects for developing transport and energy infrastructures in the Korean Peninsula. Peaceful unification of the two Koreas would be consonant with Russia’s strategic interests. Naturally, it would be preferable to see not some dramatic scenarios, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but gradual and steady progress in the inter-Korean dialogue based on the principle “one country – two systems.” Moscow has enough reasons to seek a situation in which still-divided Korea would be its privileged partner in East Asia, similar to what Germany is in Europe. Also, Korea may counterbalance the influence of China and Japan somewhat.

However favorable the foreign economic opportunities might be, Russia’s “turn eastwards” will require resolute internal political action. The plans for creating a government corporation for the development of the Russian Far East seem to point to the seriousness of such intentions. However, it looks like they have already fallen behind the pace of depletion of the region’s human potential and the scale of external challenges. In the current situation moving the center of political power to that region may turn the tide of negative trends. Dmitry Medvedev’s initiative, voiced last year, for doubling the territory of Moscow and moving political governance structures to a new site would resolve only some of the Russian capital city’s problems. At the same time the project will cause further growth in the disproportion between the central region and the rest of Russia. A decision to move the capital to the Asian part of the country, or at least to disperse the capital city’s functions geographically will not only prove that Russia wishes to fit in with the new configuration of political and military power, but also herald the beginning of a new political era. Lastly, relocating Russia’s government center eastwards would let the authorities distance themselves from such a hotbed of political turbulence as the Moscow megalopolis.

 

* * *

Turbulence is characteristic of a situation where long-term forecasts are not worth a dime. Minor causes may trigger macro-processes and scenarios that seemed exotic or utterly improbable just recently, but today are a fact of life. Most global turbulence factors lie outside Russia, and changing something radically is beyond its leaders’ ability. The economic system of global capitalism has accumulated a tremendous potential of internal destruction and chaos, and over the years of the economic crisis that potential has not only eased, but kept growing. Globalization has put a cap on the territorial expansion of world capitalism and encouraged it to start temporal expansion, to try to maintain economic growth and well-being at the expense of the future. What makes the current crisis particularly dangerous is that this resource seems to have been exhausted, too. No one knows though whether all bills will be presented for payment instantly, or several generations will have to redeem them by installments.

The old U.S.-centered world order has been losing supports one by one. Moscow may watch this happen with a mixed feeling of satisfaction and alarm. The reasons for alarm are many, because even the general outline is still unclear, and, consequently, the period of turbulence will last. Russia is, of course, capable of making its contribution to the gradual emergence of a new world order, hoping for a worthy place in it. However, one should not rule out a synergy of internal destabilization and external turbulence, witnessed many a time in the past, for instance, in the second half of the 20th century. At this point one can say with certainty only that no vector of historical evolution is predetermined.

The above-described options of Russia’s action in the international arena during Vladimir Putin’s third presidency are based on the assumption of relatively inertial transformation of the world order. They rest upon the assumption of moderate turbulence. At the same time there are no guarantees that in 2012-2018 the world and Russia will avoid getting into a real storm. The causes may be varied – an escalation of currency wars, a chain of defaults that nation states may declare on sovereign debts and, lastly, tensions in the Middle East growing into a large-scale military conflict. The ineffectiveness of anti-crisis measures may add to the temptation to try an unconventional exit from the crisis through a military shakeup. Many have been writing about this option and still keep doing so, but the important thing is that such options have begun to be considered in earnest by the most authoritative analysts, such as Paul Krugman.

In the years-long saga over Iran’s nuclear program the most menacing factor is the pace at which tensions have been soaring. This pace narrows the room for maneuver by politicians making decisions, and increases the role of random factors which can result in the total loss of control. This pace brings to mind the way tensions grew over the Balkans in the period from the Bosnian crisis in 1908 up to the fatal shot in Sarajevo. Fortunately, in contrast to the events of a hundred years ago the current situation still gives enough reasons to believe that Russia will be able to avoid direct involvement in the conflict. But it will be unable to stay aloof altogether, either, because the economic effects of the military cataclysm will be global. Consequently, the hope for a relatively smooth and soft transformation of the world order will be shattered.

The good news is that turbulence does not mean that this or that scenario is predetermined. The combinations of factors increasing the likelihood of a military scenario are transient. A minor push may trigger a chain reaction of decisions and actions that will make a conflict inevitable. But it is likewise possible that a “war-inducing” combination of factors will begin to be eroded, too, while the trends enabling one to edge back from the fatal line will be gaining strength.

However, those responsible for planning and political decision-making in a turbulent environment must take into account the possibility of the worst-case scenario. There is not enough certainty that political planning in Russia is done at the appropriate level. There is still less certainty that the country will remain strong enough to stand the gusts of the storm during Putin’s third presidency. The much needed reforms of the political system, although creating extra problems when being implemented, can contribute to greater resistibility to external challenges in the long-term. Such reforms do not guarantee Moscow’s success in foreign policy, but they will certainly ease the risks stemming from internal political polarization.

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