Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Relations at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. He is also Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
Resume: The article discusses the results of Russian foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union against the background of major new global and regional international trends and the policy of other major world powers.
Abstract: The article discusses the results of Russian foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union against the background of major new global and regional international trends and the policy of other major world powers. The author argues that Russia should work for preventing a new structured confrontation in Europe, maintaining international stability, and keeping the world from sliding into a big war which seems to be more likely now than ever before in the last 50 years. At the same time it should join forces with China, India, Iran and other major non-Western players in building a community of cooperation, development and security for Greater Eurasia, open to the world and serving as one of the pillars of its stable and peaceful development. The world is changing incredibly fast and precariously. Russia must occupy a leading place in this world by moving towards economic growth and playing a key role in preventing a new world war, supporting global strategic stability and building or rebuilding international cooperation and security structures for the decade to come.
The level of economic development remains the main indicator of a country’s strength and influence in the world. This trend has been developing over the past several decades along with general global democratisation that has given people more influence on the policies of their governments. And the first demand of peoples is well-being. This trend has received a new impetus lately, as two major countries, the United States and China, have increasingly been employing economic factors of power—the former because it clearly failed last decade to transform military power into political influence in the modern conditions; the latter because of the relative weakness of other factors of power and its culture which generally does not rely on forcible expansion or ‘hard power’.
Economic rivalry may intensify and play a greater role in global competition due to imminent advances in new technologies, and robotics, and almost revolutionary changes in medicine, education and energy production.
A new technological revolution will most likely exacerbate yet another major global tendency—growing unpredictability, superfast realignment of forces and, as a result, increased risks of conflict in the world. This can deepen because the share of energy and resource producers in the world’s GNP is declining, popular professions are being ousted from industries even in developing countries, and inequality inside countries and between them keeps rising.1
It is not clear whether a new, ‘fourth’ technological revolution will revive sustainable economic growth and when. In the foreseeable future, global economic development is likely to slow down, the international financial system, which is still quite unstable, is likely to slide into another crisis, and a new economic crisis is increasingly possible.
The Old West will not develop as fast as many leading non-Western countries will, but the explosive realignment of forces that has occurred over the past 15 years will most likely slow down, while competition between the ‘West and the Rest’ and inside them will increase due to overall deceleration and accrued disproportions.
This deceleration along with technological changes and a ‘greener’ mentality developed by the majority of people will lead to a new relative decline in demand for traditional resources and metals, while demand for food and other water-intensive commodities will continue to grow.
The system of global economic regulation and globalisation, created mainly by the West after World War II, is rapidly undergoing a major overhaul, if not crumbling. Seeing that globalisation was giving equal or even bigger advantages to competitors, the Old West started abandoning it. The World Trade Organization (WTO) system is degrading, giving way to scores of bilateral and multilateral trade and economic agreements. Regional banks are edging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Interdependence and globalisation, which until recently were generally viewed as a blessing, look increasingly often like a factor of vulnerability, especially when countries which created the current system and held all the leading positions in it have started using them to reap some immediate benefits or retain power, like between Russia and Europe in the gas sector.
Another strong tendency contributing to conflicts now and in the future is the structural and culturally motivated long-term destabilisation of the Middle and Near East and parts of Africa, with the rise of Islamic extremism and terrorism, and mass migration.
The main global economic and technological development trends increase inequality inside countries and between them. Even in relatively rich countries there emerges a majority that lags further behind as the middle class shrinks. Some countries are doomed to trail behind in the foreseeable future. This will generate tension both inside those countries and in their relations with others including in Europe, and allow radicalisation of politics in many countries and regions.
One of the key tendencies in the early 21st century is the reaction to the dramatic weakening of the Old West’s military-political (due to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) and economic (after the 2008-2009 crisis) positions. It came as a particularly painful blow after what seemed to be the final and brilliant ‘victory’ by the beginning of the 2000s.
The effects of this blow have not yet been overcome, especially in Europe which is facing a structural crisis of its European project (for more detail see later). The dramatic weakening has galvanised the West into action to consolidate itself or even take revenge in the face of the rising non-West. This is the main cause of confrontation over Ukraine, and political and information pressure on Russia—unprecedented intensity and vulgarity since the early days of the Cold War and often beyond common sense and rules of political decency. The West views Russia as a symbol (albeit vulnerable) of this non-West and tries to undermine it in a broader (than just Russia-West) confrontation game seeking to preserve global positions and revert the growing political and moral strength of new leaders, especially China—which looks to become the leader in the decades to come. The Russia—West confrontation is also the result of the attempt of the latter to consolidate itself against the habitual enemy.
Although economic, scientific and technological factors continue to prevail on the international agenda and determine the power and influence of states, politics, including power politics, has been gaining more prominence lately. There are many reasons for that, such as the growing instability and turbulence in the world, and the return of nation states to the global political and economic stage as key players instead of the postmodern dominance of international institutions, transnational corporations (TNCs) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), anticipated in the 1960s-1990s. The rise of Asia, a continent of nation states, is another important factor. Countries, especially new ones, generally tend to play by the old rules as they seek to ensure their security and sovereignty. Modernity, instead of post-modernity, appears to be the dominant trend in international relations for years to come.
The return of the nation state to the central position in the world-system, its ‘renationalisation’, has also been facilitated by multiplying traditional global problems which the old global governance institutions have been unable to solve. The return to the world governed by international institutions looks unlikely for a couple of decades.
But the role of military force in international affairs can grow only to a certain extent. Its use is almost impossible at the top level between great powers due to the nuclear factor. The changing mentality and values of most peoples in the world, informational openness and fear of conflict escalation to nuclear confrontation prevent massive use of force at the middle level, too. When it is used, it often results in a political defeat, as was the case in Afghanistan, for the Soviet Union and then NATO, Iraq and Libya (although sometimes when administered competently it can bring the opposite result as in the case of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, Georgia and so far in Syria). So, the use of force goes down to lower levels to destabilise, provoke and settle civil wars and sub-regional conflicts.
The role of military force in international affairs will grow because of long-term destabilisation in the Middle and Near East and at any rate because of highly volatile international relations and superfast and multidirectional changes in the balance of forces in the world, between regions and inside them.
This trend has been strengthened by further demolition of international law, which was not always effective as it was, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, by barbaric bombing of Yugoslavia, the separation of Kosovo, and aggression against Iraq and Libya. Russia responded in the Transcaucasia and Ukraine despite its strong legalist approach to foreign policy. It is not clear whether the world can return to fair play and a ‘Concert of Nations’ or it will slide into the chaos of the Westphalian or even a pre-Westphalian system, but this time on a global scale.
At any rate, the role of military force coupled with responsible and skilful diplomacy is coming to the fore as a means of maintaining relative global peace and preventing accrued structural, economic and political contradictions from degenerating towards big wars. This increases the role, responsibility and influence of countries that can prevent such wars and conflict escalation. This applies, above all, to Russia. This role is all the more important now that the world has been in a pre-war state for the past 70 or 80 years because of the contradictions and imbalances that have not been addressed properly by governments and institutions. The memory of the horrible 20th century is receding, and so is the fear of big war. Moreover, many elites are unconsciously seeking it in a bid to overcome growing contradictions which they cannot resolve with the help of inadequate policies.
So far global war has been warded off by the main structural factor which has been determining global development over the past 70 years—nuclear weapons, and especially enormous arsenals built up by Russia and the United States. Not only did they prevent the Cold War from evolving into a global one in the past, but they also had a sobering effect in the face of nuclear Armageddon, or the old world would never have allowed new countries, like China and India, etc., to boost their international influence into the position of global powers.
The world saw what happened when Russia was weak and thus partially lost its deterrence capability in the 1990s. NATO attacked defenceless democratic Yugoslavia and bombed it for 78 days, then unleashed a war in Iraq under falsified pretexts, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Preventing a new big war as a result of error, escalation of tension, conflict or provocation becomes a top priority. But such provocations become increasingly possible, especially in the Middle East.
The return to power politics has been accomplished by the use of power politics in economic relations. Being unable or unwilling to use military force because of the nuclear factor, countries and their groups more and more often seek to achieve their national goals through unilateral misuse of increased economic interdependence and openness. Economic relations are being de-liberalised and turned into a weapon of geopolitical struggle. This manifests itself in restricting access to credit, attempts to dominate the process of determining technical and sanitary standards, manipulation with payment systems, sanctions and exterritorial application of national rules and laws. These methods are used mainly by the United States, but more and more often by other countries, as well. The spread of these practices may further undermine globalisation and lead to re-nationalisation or regionalisation of many economic regimes; economic considerations will play a greater role in matters of security; and competition if not outright rivalry will become seamless and total.
With old hard bipolarity (which actually never existed as there almost always was tripolarity with the Soviet Union having to confront the West and China in the east) and the subsequent brief ‘unipolar moment’ gone, the world may now be moving towards a new (soft) form of bipolarity. The United States is trying to consolidate the Old West around itself, and draw some of the new developed countries to its side through remaining military-political alliances, the transpacific partnership and the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. This will be accompanied very likely by the emergence of another centre, Greater Eurasia, around the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). China can play a leading economic role in this new centre, but its supremacy should and hopefully will be balanced out by other powerful partners such as Russia, India and Iran.
The future place of Europe in a new global configuration is not clear yet. It can hardly be a centre of power in its own right. A new fight for Europe may have been already unleashed. If the current chaotic and unstable multipolarity gives way to a new bipolarity, it will be important to avoid a new split, especially a military-political one, and a new round of structural military rivalry.
At any rate, rapid open-ended changes which may lead to confrontation require that great powers pursue responsible and constructive forward-looking policies. Now it is a triangle of Russia, China and the United States. In the future, it will certainly be India and likely Japan, and possibly Germany, France, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and Great Britain. At present, only relations between Russia and China within the triangle match the needs of a new world. But they are lacking strategic depth, an agreed long-term goal and global outreach. At this point no signs of a new ‘concert of powers’ for the 21st century are in sight. The G20 is useful but unable to fill the geostrategic vacuum. It can only try to help to resolve momentary problems, but cannot prevent the emergence of new ones. The G7 largely belongs to the past.
Information and ideological factors are becoming increasingly instrumental in international affairs due to technological changes that generate ever-growing amounts of information for people to process: due to the democratisation of the majority of countries which have to fight for their citizens’ transitory attitudes; due to the disappearance of dominant ideologies; and possibly due to changes the information revolution induces in the mindsets of large masses of people and a considerable number of world leaders who have to respond ever so often to the latest information irritants and who tend to simplify and to ‘destrategise’ the real picture of the world and their policies.
Re-ideologisation of international relations is a new and relatively unexpected factor. Ten or 15 years ago many thought that the world was about to embrace a common ideology of liberal democracy. However, abortive attempts to impose it by force and to ‘accelerate history’, problems that came to light in the United States, the world’s leading democracy—secret CIA prisons, revelations made by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange—on the one hand, and the relative success of countries with authoritarian capitalism or non-liberal leader democracies, on the other hand, challenged the only-democratic model of development and its effectiveness, and brought back the question of who is winning or who is to follow. The United States and some European countries losing their positions have been touting the idea of defensive liberal democratic messianism, which is more and more opposed by the ideology of new conservatism, nationalism, cultural and political pluralism, sovereignty and leader democracy.
Yet some positive tendencies have emerged in recent years that inspire hope that cooperation will prevail over rivalry in the coming decades. Russia and China are building trust-based and friendly relations, quite unusual for great powers (outside Europe over the past 50 years). Russia and India are beginning to forge a similar relationship. The issues of Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear programme have been resolved. The climate change conference in Paris reached a potentially historic agreement mainly due to cooperation between China and the United States which had previously obstructed such deals. And, of course, the growth of new giants —China, India—potentially makes international relations more balanced and fair.
The global economic and political centre will continue to shift to East and South Asia, although not as fast as in the past decade. The region is becoming not only an industrial, but also a scientific and technological leader and is among the top exporters of high-tech products.
Financial and commodity flows are being redirected from the ‘Asia for the world’ towards the ‘Asia for Asia’ pattern. The internal Asian, primarily Chinese, market is emerging as the main source of economic growth in the region.
Faced with the growing US resistance in the Pacific, China prioritises economic expansion to the south-west and west—to India, Iran, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, towards Russia and Europe. This shift is prompting China to contribute to the formation of the Central Asian and Eurasian centres of cooperation and development. This will mean vast opportunities for Russia but challenges, too.
China’s growth is predictably slowing down but it will still be higher than in other centres of power. It is very likely that China, in terms of its emulative power, will start turning into the world’s number one power in a decade. It will still fall behind the United States in terms of GDP per capita and military capability, but its authoritarian political system will allow it to use available resources much more effectively for achieving foreign policy goals. China is increasing its ‘soft power’ by providing enormous economic resources to partners and giving them access to its market. China is beginning to offer, still subtly but more and more explicitly, its economic and political model for other countries, especially developing ones, to follow. Beijing’s diplomatic and military potential will also grow. As a result, in several years Russia may end up with an even more powerful neighbour in the East. The task is to tap these new opportunities and create such conditions and institutions that China’s new might is not viewed by other countries, including Russia, as a threat and does not push Eurasia towards another split.
The quality and quantity of integrational and interstate associations in the post-Soviet space appear to be optimal for the time being and need not be enlarged further. Associations like the Russia-Belarus Union State, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) must be strengthened and fleshed out. However, accrued problems and economic slowdown will not allow Russia to support and subsidise its allies in the next several years. This will inevitably generate centrifugal tendencies in alliances and integrational groups. This is yet another argument in favour of reforms to revive economic growth in Russia. To soften the effect from such possible weakening of alliances, they may try to fit themselves into joint projects with China as part of the efforts to integrate the EAEU with the ‘One Road, One Belt’ initiative. Otherwise, countries will enter external markets and develop partnerships with China on their own but with weaker positions.
Europe of the European Union achieved outstanding results and became an example of a post-historical, non-violent and humane international order, and comfortable life for the majority of people. However, since the mid-2000s it has been in multidimensional crisis. There are several reasons for that: most EU countries can no longer compete effectively in international markets; their social systems are excessive to the detriment of their competitiveness; the EU expanded too rapidly and too much, driven by euphoria in the 1990s; cultural and economic differences within the Union have become more pronounced; the EU made a politically motivated decision to introduce the euro without creating collective economic governance mechanisms needed for a common currency; the EU adopted a common foreign and defence policy which only undermined the international influence of its major nations, while giving scarcely any added value; the policy of multiculturalism has failed de facto; European elites have drifted away from many traditional European values, including those professed by Christianity; as a result, the political and cultural gap between people and elites has widened; and the ‘democratic deficit’ emerged whereby powers are delegated to Brussels, causing more and more discontent and opposition. At the same time, the achieved level of democracy in the majority of EU countries makes their elites unable to adopt strategic and difficult decisions. Finally, the rest of the world for the foreseeable future has embarked on a ‘non-European’ path —towards re-nationalisation, military-political destabilisation, and a return to power politics. Europe has no instruments to deal with such a world.
As a result, Europe has been sinking deeper and deeper into its own problems over the past decade, trying, more or less successfully, to dampen, rather than resolve, one crisis after another, and gloss things over to imitate the viability of the European project. European elites are still largely engaged in escapism and refuse to admit the seriousness of the problems they face. The latest refugee crisis has upset another attempt to save the European project through previously unquestionable German leadership.
The degradation of the project, the growing re-nationalisation trend in the EU and the rise of right-wing ultranationalists, and possibly left-wing ones in the future, potentially give Russia more room for foreign policy manoeuvre but on the whole create more new problems. Instead of a stable and rich neighbour, not always friendly but generally comfortable, Russia may encounter multiple challenges or even conflicts in the future if the degradation is not stopped. A part of the European elites is seeking US protection, including through confrontation with Russia. Turbulence inside the EU will make it an even more difficult and less reliable partner for the world. Many functions have been delegated to Brussels, but it is losing its capability to act.
The European security project, conceived in Helsinki in 1975 and then furthered in 2000 when the Charter of Paris for the New Europe was signed, as a space of common and indivisible security and cooperation, has never materialised. The reasons for that include Western partners’ urge to expand their zone of influence and control to territories Moscow considered vitally important for its own security, and their unwillingness to respect Russia’s interests and concerns; the absence of a serious and frank dialogue between Russians and other Europeans over the past 25 years; diverging values; the previous weakness of Russia; and the desire of its elites to please and appease, which now has backfired.
The crisis in Ukraine, which has caused an upsurge of mutual distrust and hostile rhetoric, crushed all hopes entertained before. Some Western elites are trying to revive the military-political divisions and structural confrontation in Europe east of their previous borders; others want to restore the failed structure of relations that existed in the 1990s-2000s. The first scenario is unacceptable for Russia, is much less stable than the previous one and may cause conflicts. The second scenario has exhausted itself both politically and intellectually. Some of its elements may be useful only during the search for a new model of relations.
The United States will remain the world’s economic, technological and scientific leader in the foreseeable future. But its leadership will be corroded by structural problems in the American economy, primarily the debt burden, but even more so by the polarisation of the political system and its dwindling efficiency as borne out by the dominance of ideologised neo-conservatives in foreign policy on the right or liberal interventionists on the left, as well as by the erosion of the relatively realistic centre, and the ensuing dramatic decline in the level of competence and responsibility in the country’s foreign policy.
Messianism and ‘specialness’ are an integral part of American identity no different from Russian people’s striving for sovereignty and security. The United States is facing a hard time of adapting to a new reality where the rest of the world will become increasingly opposed to this messianism. In the process it may dash from isolationism to interventionism or to their explosive mixture.
The international community, Russia included, will have to minimise the damage from such dashing, prevent its most dangerous twists and turns, including through military-political deterrence, and help to direct the energy of this great country towards constructive engagement that would benefit America itself and the world in general.
The vast region of the Middle and Near East and North Africa will remain destabilised for several more decades. The main reasons are demographic imbalances, the culturally motivated inability of countries in the region to develop successfully in the new circumstances, and the resulting discontent of people who see a better and more prosperous life in other parts of the world in reports brought to them by television and the Internet. Failed and irresponsible military operations over the past several years in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and ill-fated Western support for the Arab Spring aggravated the situation dramatically. It has also been compounded by religious and post-imperial rivalry and attempts to restore the Caliphate and the Ottoman or Persian Empires. Instability also results from artificially drawn borders imposed on the region by former colonial powers. If this chaos keeps spreading further, the Middle East and neighbouring countries will send more and more refugees and terrorists to the outside world. ISIS followed the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and it will be followed by others. Instability will most likely reach (and is already reaching) adjacent regions in Africa, multiplying the number of failed states.
The biggest challenge is to find adequate methods to fight extremist sentiment that is rising and beginning to prevail among a considerable part of Muslims. However, this extremism has grown so strong that it can hardly be eradicated in the foreseeable future by economic policies, dialogue or tolerance, let alone the export of ‘democracy’ to predominantly Muslim regions. The world has been confronted with a new global threat.
The world, and Russia too, will have to learn to live with this tangle of problems and help find a new balance of power in the region, to prevent the spread of terrorism, instability and radicalism to adjacent areas and countries. Special attention must be paid to supporting in the coming decade relatively stable but potentially vulnerable countries, primarily Algeria, but also Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and to bettering of relations between countries that can help to ensure regional stability but are currently at odds with each other, such as Israel and Iran.
Russia: results of policy
Russia’s policy in the past decade has been largely successful and matched some global challenges, but failed to ensure economic development.
The country has restored its military capability at a qualitatively new level and at acceptable costs and can now respond to challenges in the increasingly turbulent and dangerous world, and make up partially for the relative insufficiency of economic and information aspects of its power.
Russia has generally succeeded, albeit belatedly and at heavy cost, in stopping the expansion of Western structures and alliances to territories it considers vital for its own security. Their further expansion could almost certainly have provoked a much more dangerous confrontation. Having seen in 2011-2013 that relations with the West were heading for a crisis and that attempts to negotiate an amicable deal led nowhere, Russia made a pre-emptive move in Crimea. It then came under strong pressure never exerted since the early 1980s and openly aimed at changing the political regime in the country. Russia has withstood it and won so far as it has laid the groundwork for healthier and fairer relations based on mutual respect for each other’s interests. The West is beginning to get used to the need to take into account Russia’s interests and its ability to defend them. Finding a new balance will take time. We are in for a long-term confrontation but it should not be allowed to escalate or get structured, so as to avoid a new Cold War, more dangerous than the previous one.
Russia’s successful foreign policy has consolidated most of its elite and society even though the purpose of such consolidation—a development strategy—has not been presented yet. The ‘nationalisation’ of elites is underway.
The disintegration of the post-Soviet and historical Russian imperial space, which could have triggered more conflicts and invited external forces to struggle for influence in this space, has been partially stopped and may even be reversed. The conflict in Ukraine is an aftermath of such disintegration. The creation of the Russia-Belarus Union State and the EAEU, and the strengthening of the CSTO are steps that lead to further consolidation.
An economic and partly political turn towards rising Asia has begun, albeit somewhat belatedly and slowly, through the development of Siberia and the Far East.
Russia has established relations of friendship and deep strategic partnership with China, thus opening up new opportunities for the development of its own eastern regions and diminishing military-political challenges from the East. The agreement of May 2015 which paired ‘One Belt, One Road’—the Silk Road and the EAEU has allowed Russia and China to avoid rivalry in Central Asia so much anticipated by the many pundits and pave the way for building a new area of development in Central Eurasia.
At the same time, Russia and China have no joint vision of the world and their relations lack ‘strategic depth’. They probably hesitate about pursuing long-term integration because of Russia’s economic weakness, which raises doubts about the sustainability of its policy, and because of suspicions of a possible strategic rapprochement between China and the United States. However, both developments are unlikely.
Hopes for large investments from China have not come true, yet, strengthening the positions of those members of the Russian elite who opposed the eastward turn for political and ideological reasons and mistrusted China a priori. Yet, a more serious obstacle to closer long-term relationship seems to be exactly the lack of strategic depth, which I just mentioned, that is, the absence of a long-term co-development goal. Neither side would accept a formal union in the near term. But how will they develop their relations then? Will they constantly suspect each other of turning away at any moment? Or will they have to balance each other and insure themselves against such risks all the time? Or will they gradually move to build a community of Greater Eurasia on the basis of the institutionalising SCO with the active participation of India, Iran and other great Eurasian powers and, of course, open to European subcontinent countries?
Russia has started, albeit belatedly, rebuilding closer relations with India, potentially one of a handful of truly sovereign and great powers. But their interaction also lacks strategic depth to respond effectively to the needs and challenges of the new world. There may also be good prospects for advancing cooperation with Japan and South Korea and, of course, with Iran—the likely superpower of its sub-region.
In a nutshell, Russia has a rather good geopolitical position. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was confronted by the West around the world and China in the East, Russia is opposed only by the West in a standoff which is inevitable but which will gradually lose its edge, unless of course something aggravates the situation or provokes a direct clash.
The political state of Russian society is also better than that in the closing days of the Soviet Union or at the dawn of the new Russia. The lack of faith in withering communist ideology, the ensuing moral emptiness of the 1980s, and the 1990s, when a revolutionary-minded minority was trying to impose upon the majority liberal values that later proved to be unviable in Russia, have been replaced with patriotism, state nationalism and more or less normal traditional values supported by the majority of people and most members of the elite. These values are also shared by the majority of people around the world and may as well be making a ‘counterrevolutionary’ comeback to the Western world whose elites have been trying to push them away.
The situation in the south has somewhat deteriorated because of long-term destabilisation in the Middle and Near East. But Russia is prepared for this contingency better than other countries and can play an active role in ensuring relative stability and security in neighbouring regions and the world in general. It has been trying to do that, generally quite successfully, in Syria by fighting terrorists, seeking to prevent deeper destabilisation as a result of the regional powers’ attempts to achieve hegemony and the further spread of extremism and terrorism. Dynamic policy in the Middle East and a firm stance in the Europe-Ukraine crisis have solidified Russia’s position as one of the leading great powers.
There have been foreign policy shortcomings, too, caused by external reasons. Mismatching vectors of value system development, the West’s attempts to impose its rules and models of development and expand its alliances, and subjective factors such as Russia’s weakness and illusions until the second half of the 2000s that concessions would gain respect for its interests, as well as its desire to please the West, did not allow it to build mutually advantageous, and therefore stable, relations with Europe and a viable European security system.
Russia failed to prevent a fratricidal conflict in Ukraine caused by the incompetence and governance failures of Ukrainian elites, which resulted in the worst economic and social degradation among almost all post-Soviet states, by the West’s policy to expand its zone of influence and control, and prevent closer integration between Ukraine and Russia, and by the desire of a considerable part of Ukrainian society to move away from Russia. But Russia also bears its share of responsibility. It either had no policy towards Ukraine or it boiled down to hopeless attempts to ‘buy’ its elites through energy subsidies that were pocketed right away. The prohibitive cost of ‘regaining’ that country devastated over a quarter of a century of mismanagement was not properly assessed. The result is the war in Ukraine and its further degradation either towards ultranationalist dictatorship or, which is more likely, further disintegration.
Ukraine is doomed to be a factor complicating constructive relations between Russia and Europe, a source of ‘black swans’—unpredictable challenges, crises and provocations—for many years to come. Finally, the biggest threat to Russia coming from the Ukraine crisis is that it diverts political, intellectual, administrative and economic resources to a no-win and hopeless situation. Distracting Russia and to some extent other European countries from a more productive policy apparently was and still is one of the purposes of the efforts undertaken by forces that helped to spark the crisis.
The economic and political pivot to the East requires more energetic efforts to proceed. The SCO has been admitting new members but is still half-active. The agreement to integrate the ‘One Belt, One Road’ concept and the EAEU has not yielded practical results, partly due to objective factors such as the crises in the West and the South. But the Europe-centric and Western-centric views inherited by the Russian elite and Foreign Service from the past, but totally obsolete now, are also to blame. There is also a risk, potential so far but increasingly palpable, of Russia’s deep and long-term embroilment in never-ending Middle Eastern problems or a war, similar if not to the war in Afghanistan then to the Crimean War of 1853-1856.
One of the problems slowing Russia is its relative adherence to the past. Following the post-revolutionary attempt of the 1990s, doomed from the very start, to integrate itself into the Western community or follow in the wake of its policies, rejecting all Soviet and Russian imperial heritage, Russia is now restoring traditions but also negating again some of its past, unsuccessful policy of the first post-revolutionary years. However, there were some achievements during that period too: the country preserved its nuclear strategic arsenal capabilities as the basis of national and international security, and also formal status of a great power and the school of diplomacy; it gained, even though sometimes at a heavy cost, invaluable experience that provided the framework for Russia’s super-realistic policy of today. The first 10 or 15 years of the new Russia also showed the benefits of maintaining good relations with most leading countries. They tried to benefit from its weakness, did not help the country, but nor did they try to deliver the coup de grâce.
Moscow is looking for an adequate response to present-day and future realities. Its policy is highly flexible but it still seems to be dominated by negation and reconstruction, which are necessary, but a thrust to the future is much more essential.
Russia’s foreign policy and society are going through a period of rapid and constant changes, but also self-cognition as it is returning to traditional values in its foreign policy and policy in general at a new level. The main of these values is unconditional sovereignty and security. Over the past 300 years, it has been supplemented with great power, gained through reforms carried out by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and brilliant military victories in the 18th and 19th centuries. These values have to be taken for granted even if they cost dearly. The attempt to scrap them in the 1980s and 1990s proved unsuccessful and produced no result but losses and resentment in society.
Commitment to the future is most important. In foreign policy this probably means preventing a new structured confrontation in Europe, maintaining international stability, and keeping the world from sliding into a big war which seems to be more likely now than ever before in the last 50 years. 7
An equally important constructive goal is to join forces with China, India, Iran and other countries in building a community of cooperation, development and security for Greater Eurasia, open to the world and serving as one of the pillars of its stable and peaceful development.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.