Reverting to a Crossroads

18 march 2014

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: Russia has started a very big game. The risks are great, but the possible gains are enormous as well.

Once again I must start the introductory article for our next publication by noting that this issue was almost ready for print when events forced us to urgently redo everything. Such situations have happened more than once in recent years. But the Ukrainian conflict is so important for Russian and, perhaps, world politics that I will devote my entire introduction to this problem rather than commenting on the contents of this issue. We have decided to leave the issue as planned. After all, what happened in Ukraine is not something akin to the proverbial “black swan” arriving and changing everything, but a result of processes that have been going on for a quarter of a century.

The referendum in Crimea essentially ended the era that began with two speeches by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Addressing the UN General Assembly in December 1988, Gorbachev said that global politics should be guided by “the priority of universal human values.” In the summer of 1989, Gorbachev urged the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to build a “common European home.” Those keynote speeches followed on the ideas he voiced in his book Perestroika and New Thinking for Our Country and the World, published in two editions in late 1987 and mid-1988.

Since then, the global political landscape has changed beyond recognition. The “our country,” about which Gorbachev wrote, is gone. But the state, which has officially become its legal successor, has largely been following, despite numerous twists and turns along the way, the philosophy set out by the last Soviet leader. That philosophy suggests putting an end to systemic confrontation, renouncing the division of the world into blocs, and acknowledging that there is some universal human ideological ground.

However, when Gorbachev was formulating his “New Thinking,” there was still a balance in the global arena and the world’s two superpowers were equal actors in international affairs. Perestroika theorists saw their future interaction in the spirit of convergence, a fashionable idea at the time, in which the two countries would borrow the best and reject the worst from each system. The rapid decline of the Soviet Union put an end to dreams of equal rapprochement and mutual ideological enrichment. The right to interpret universal human values ??and rules of international relations now belonged to the winner.

In Russia, those rules (largely unwritten and accepted tacitly) had already fueled doubts in the early stage of revolutionary-democratic euphoria in the country and its extreme foreign-policy weakness. The degree of rejection increased as Russia built up its capabilities. Yet the main legacy of the Gorbachev era remained; namely, constructive relations with the West, which were viewed as inherently valued and vital for the country’s development, security, and, more generally, its prospects. Conflicts broke out from the very beginning and grew increasingly acute in various regions: the Caucasus, Yugoslavia, again Yugoslavia, Iraq, the post-Soviet space—from “colored revolutions” to the war in South Ossetia, the Middle East... But the need to minimize damage to relations with Europe and the United States was constantly present as a factor in decision-making. Even the August 2008 conflict, the largest to date, was accompanied by political and diplomatic efforts aimed at defusing tensions and achieving some kind of agreement.

The Ukrainian crisis and, especially, its Crimean phase have negated previous patterns. The collapse of the Yanukovych regime in Kyiv, which was followed by a “compromise” made under pressure from European ministers, and the subsequent legal and political turmoil served as a trigger for Russia’s decisive action. It seems the West did not realize at once (if at all) that to Russia the Ukrainian issue is the red line. And when it seemed possible that Ukraine, with active participation from Europe and the U.S., could turn into something built on different principles (in this case it does not matter whether they would have been more liberal and Atlantic or, conversely, obscurantist and nationalist), there was no longer any room for agreement. Russia no longer cares about the possible damage to its relations with the West, which may now be curtailed.

The fact that Ukraine served as the reason for the U-turn is both accidental and natural. “Accidental” because almost twenty-three years ago, when Ukraine first proclaimed and then gained its independence, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine, which had everything it needed to be successful and prosperous, would find itself mired in corruption and embezzlement by incompetent managers. If Ukraine had had a margin of safety, it would not have experienced such a collapse of its political system, which gave rise to chaos inside and temptations outside the country. “Natural” because Ukraine has always been regarded as an important bridgehead upon which the balance of power in Europe and the physical security of Russia depend. Yet there is another motivation important for understanding the actions of the Russian leadership.

The Soviet Union’s fate was finally decided on December 1, 1991, when the people of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic voted in a referendum for independence (by contrast, nine months earlier the majority of Ukrainians had voted to preserve the Soviet Union). Ukraine’s secession meant that the Soviet Union had no future as a political entity, because Ukraine was not a dependent periphery, but the second fundamental support of the then single state after the Russian Soviet Federative Republic. Notably, in a telephone conversation with one of the leaders of the Crimean Tartars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who insisted that the Crimean referendum was illegitimate, Vladimir Putin (if we believe Dzhemilev’s version) argued that Ukraine had left the Soviet Union in violation of effective Soviet laws.This does not mean that Russia wants to restore the country lost in December 1991. In fact, Russia does not need many of the former Soviet territories. What Russia may be seeking is to replay the Cold War final. In Russia, the viewpoint has always existed (and has grown increasingly widespread lately) that the Soviet Union did not lose the Cold War; rather it surrendered and left the battlefield. Partly this was due to naivety, as Moscow was enthralled by the illusion of “universal human values,” and partly, as many people believe, because of betrayal. Russia’s status as a defeated power (never officially recorded, but universally acknowledged) forced it to make increasingly more concessions. Eventually, Russia was unable to restore its rights in the new system. In other words, no one was willing to view Russia as an equal. And Russia would not agree to a position of a country that is constantly getting up off its knees.

Russia is not capable of laborious, Chinese-style, time-consuming work, especially because its medium and, especially, long-term competitive advantages are waning. Russia had achieved everything that it could have achieved without much effort and initiative by the end of the 2000s in terms of international prestige and recovery growth. The previous development model has been exhausted. Russia has not learned to reap the full benefits of global integration and has not achieved recognition as a truly equal partner. No one intends to discuss with Russia the rules of the game that would suit it. Major players believe the global system that emerged with the end of the Cold War should not, in essence, be revised.

It seems that the Russian leadership has come to the conclusion that, if things continue to develop in the same way, Russia will have no chance for a breakthrough and will be destined to decline. This is why it must either reverse the trend and force major powers to admit it into the “core,” or some kind of confrontational balance will emerge targeted towards non-Western partners.

No one was prepared to see Russia demand a revision of the established situation in such a sharp and categorical way. Similarly, no one expected that Western threats (economic sanctions, political isolation, the freezing of assets, etc.) would be effective. Why is Moscow so resolute?

First, the Russian leadership believes, and not without reason, that everyone is tired of Ukraine and that few people seriously believe in its future. Therefore, even amid the exaltation we are witnessing, there will hardly be full mobilization of the Western world, as this is not a serious cause for it. Both the U.S. and Europe have many problems of their own, and strong-willed political leaders like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher are nowhere in sight.

Second, the state of Ukraine is such that any attempt by the West to turn it into a field of confrontation with Russia will only ruin its fragile structure. On the other hand, attempts to reach a compromise and glue together the crumbling entity will result in a recurrence of the crisis, which will be even more dangerous and radical.

Third, although 13 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council voted for a resolution declaring the referendum in Crimea invalid and China abstained, the non-Western world has a mixed attitude towards the recent developments. Of course, no one can officially recognize the transfer of part of a country under the jurisdiction of another state without consent of the home country. But many people are watching with interest as someone has thrown an uncompromising challenge to the U.S.—for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many people have become tired of the lack of alternatives in global affairs, so efforts to organize the complete isolation of Russia will fail.

Fourth, the tightening of Western policy creates political initiatives that were launched or declared in Russia before all these events began, including the nationalization of the elite, the turn towards the East, the reduction of Russia’s dependence on the foreign situation, ideological disassociation from liberal values, and the ousting of the Western intellectual presence.

What are the probable risks? A serious mobilization by the West is possible. No country has overtly refused to follow the U.S.’s lead since the late 1980s (individual vocal leaders, like Hugo Chavez, do not count, while Iran does not have sufficient potential). This factor could cause the West to tighten its policy. The image of “Russian expansionism” could be used to consolidate the West, which, after the end of the Cold War, has been increasingly divided. The time is right for this, as Western countries are now engaged in difficult negotiations over the establishment of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the revelations by Edward Snowden have poisoned relations between the two Atlantic shores. Systematic work to exert economic pressure is possible, although no one – especially in Europe – wants to discuss real sanctions. Global interdependence would make things very difficult for countries that introduce sanctions.

Russia has started a very big game. The risks are great, but the possible gains are enormous as well. The old world order has almost stopped functioning and a new one is about to take shape. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the first to speak about the need for a new world order in 1986, failed to build it. Vladimir Putin is returning to a crossroads to make a new attempt.

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