A Lop-Sided Power
No. 4 2013 October/December
Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
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Even the Smartest Diplomacy Has Its Limits

Several decades ago, Germany’s sharp-tongued ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called the Soviet Union “Upper Volta with missiles.” It was a hurting but largely fair observation. The Soviet Union was rapidly turning dull and drab, losing cultural and ideological appeal, and increasingly lagging – economically and technologically – behind leading Western countries, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Only the country’s military might still allowed it to claim the role of a second superpower (which was actually backed up by a rather high level of natural science in the country).

By the turn of the 1970s-1980s, the Soviet model of development had lost its viability, but the course did not change. Party and government functionaries were prospering, intellectuals were quietly loathing them, those individuals who had an opportunity were leaving the country, and the masses kept silent. The Soviet ideology and identity imposed by bloodshed, millions of deaths and massive propaganda, firmed up by the victory in World War II and reinforced exclusively by continuous reference to that victory, were beginning to crumble. Almost no one had any beliefs or faith in the future. When oil prices collapsed, the country started to fall apart. Its military might was unable to stop that and only exacerbated the crisis.

Today, Russia is in a better situation. It lost a part of itself – Ukraine and Belarus – with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but with them went many of the provinces, such as Central Asia and the Transcaucasia, conquered by tsars in their geopolitical games in the 19th century and living off the empire’s resources. Russia cast off, superfluously, the military yoke that had been strangling the Soviet Union where the army and the defense industry had devoured a quarter (or more — no one knows exactly) not of the country’s budget but of its gross national product. The reforms started by then Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and generally carried on by his successor Sergei Shoigu will most likely produce, by the end of the decade, an army with capabilities matching current threats and objectives.

However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union did not cause Russia to lose its status of nuclear superpower and its place in the UN Security Council. It has safeguarded its victorious history over the past five hundred years, losing some small wars of course, but ultimately always winning. Russia has also preserved, even though mismanaged, its great culture created by the best minds of the empire.

Since the turn of the century, Russia has been on a lucky streak. The rise of Asia has boosted demand for Russia’s traditional export commodities: raw materials, energy and metal. The need for water-intensive products – food, cellulose and petrochemicals, the production of which Russia can increase relatively easily – has been growing steadily. It has also been lucky geopolitically with its traditional competitors bogging down. The United States suffered two major defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. The crisis of 2008 exposed the weaknesses of the American economic model, which are being tackled now but the rift in the political elite is growing wider. Europe is suffering the consequences of the hasty EU and Eurozone enlargement, which have been exacerbated by the reluctance of the majority of countries (except Germany and Scandinavia) to give up the development model based on consumption and unlimited broadening of rights to the detriment of obligations. Despite its obvious humanitarian appeal, this model is unable to compete with rising Asia.

The fact that the West is treading water has its negative side too. Modernization impulses, which almost always came from the West in Russian history, are waning and the probability of a geopolitical alliance with Europe has declined, at least for the time being. All this has increased the influence of traditionally strong isolationist and uncompetitive sections of Russia’s population and elite. They have been vigorously fighting everything associated with the West, while in fact opposing advanced and effective practices although the “threat” from the West, even a spiritual one, is minuscule.


Apart from luck, there is something else, more material – a tough policy and skillful diplomacy that help strengthen positions in the best possible way – that is also one of the main sources of Russia’s international influence and prestige. These factors have helped, to some extent, make up for the slowing and de-modernizing economy, ineffective institutions and declining and deteriorating human resources. Although foreign policy can only be partly independent from the domestic one, Russia’s foreign policy now has gone far ahead of the shrinking domestic base.

Russian diplomacy largely plays by the rules based on the geopolitical templates of the previous centuries and the state-oriented Westphalian system. This appears to be quite appropriate in the modern globalizing but increasingly unmanageable world where nations, frightened by new challenges, have rushed back into the embraces of the state, weakened but still capable of protecting their interests. The world where re-nationalization tendencies are gaining momentum in international relations while hopes for (or fears of) global dominance of transnational corporations, global civil society, NGOs or a world government (or to be less subtle, a global cabal) did not come true. And, finally, the world where law, ethics and moral rules, which used to underlie international relations not so long ago, are being rejected.

With preserved and honed skills but freed from ideology, Russian diplomacy feels quite at ease in this world. It takes guidance from values that call for unconditional protection of sovereignty and have become deeply rooted in national identity over the past 300 years, manifesting themselves in the great power mentality and leadership aspirations. 

The latest example of such diplomacy is the daring Syrian gambit of 2013. The proposal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons helped rescue the Obama administration out of the trap where it had driven itself and where it had been driven by others calling for strikes against Syria. It also saved, at least for some time, Bashar al-Assad, who is largely seen as a client and ally of Russia. But above all it gave more weight to Moscow’s foreign policy.

There had been quite a few good decisions before that too, though. They helped Russia strengthen its positions in the post-Soviet region significantly. As a result, not only the Customs Union but also the Eurasian Economic Union is under construction, although things move slowly and not always smoothly. The goal of the Eurasian Economic Union is not so much to restore hegemony as to strengthen positions in global competition. External forces, which used to act openly in their attempt to curb Russia’s growing role in the post-Soviet area, are doing this gentler and less obviously now. But the current confrontation with the European Union over Ukraine will not reorient Kiev – mainly because the Ukrainian elite is lacking any sense of orientation except for its desire to suck two mothers.

It is true though that the latest round of the game for Ukraine has exposed Russia’s weakness, but not a foreign policy one. Many Ukrainians’ bid for accession to the EU, even though virtual, is caused not so much by their fear of Russia as a tougher and stronger competitor as by the “soft power” exuded by the European quality of life, which seems to be much more attractive. Ukrainians simply want to dream about “living like in Europe,” not like in Russia.

 Having few economic and military-political trump cards in its Asia policy, Moscow has been deftly maneuvering within the Russia-China-U.S.A. and Russia-Japan-China triangles as a constant “third winner,” despite China’s overwhelming economic supremacy in the region. Russia maintains warm and friendly relations with China, while at the same time building friendly or constructive ties with its neighbors (which became quite obvious during Vladimir Putin’s Asian tour in November 2013). These are not only India but also Vietnam, the Republic of Korea and Japan. Unlike the United States, which is trying to create a system of military-political deterrence against China, Russia seems to be pursuing a policy of friendly embrace by seeking to balance Beijing’s power in an amicable way – much for the latter’s benefit, but for its own one in the first place.

Russian diplomacy has been quite efficient on the Iranian track as well. Along with Western countries Russia has been exercising strong economic pressure on Tehran in a bid to prevent it from turning into a military nuclear power. While doing so Moscow has also been persistently and successfully fighting attempts to start a war against Iran, which can only lead to further destabilization in the region and force Russia to make a choice. As a result, it managed to avoid disagreements with the important southern neighbor that had acted constructively with regard to the Chechen war and the Caucasus in general, and helped resolve crises in Central Asia. And one can hope it will assist in the Afghan settlement too. 

Not only does Russia have a correct relationship with Iran but it also maintains almost very good relations with Israel and is building ties with Egypt, another key country in the region. Russia has been promptly, and at minimum cost, taking up niches that have emerged in the Middle East after the exit of the exhausted United States.

There are different opinions about the Russian government’s determination to avoid foreign influence on its domestic policy by imposing restrictions on Russian NGOs and limits on public servants’ assets and property abroad as well as by refusing to continue discussing the political situation in the country with Western partners as it did until recently. I personally think that the pressure put on NGOs, with no compensation so far, has done more damage than good by demoralizing civil activity, which (together with the rebirth of municipalities) are crucial for the development of the country.

An ever growing number of politicians and analysts come to the conclusion that external pressure on Russia over its domestic policy is counterproductive. This opinion is shared by many Russians who can see that appeals to the West give no results. We should count only on ourselves. Russia is getting rid of the vestiges of the 1990s and the Soviet practice of exchanging Jews for economic tips and partial recognition of the regime that was aware of its own illegitimacy and weakness.

Risks for Russia from this policy are not big at the moment. The West’s annoyance with Russia over its conspicuously independent policy and rejection of the right to dictate values to it has so far not led to strong and collective pressure on the Kremlin, especially now that the West has other problems on its hands to deal with. The West is divided and often needs Russia. But this situation will not last forever.

Russia’s foreign policy does have its weak spots. Many embassies keep away from society in their host countries just like in Soviet times or even more so. Diplomats are unwilling and do not know how to communicate with people and are not encouraged to do so. The turn towards Asia has not been backed up by a strategy for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East and is now in limbo. Until recently many observers could not help smiling at Moscow’s conspicuous readiness to stand up to the United States wherever it was right or wrong. This readiness does not quite apply to the Syrian conflict, though, in which Moscow extended a helping hand to Washington. 

But the faults mentioned above do not belittle the main conclusion: Russia’s foreign policy and diplomacy have been very successful over the past several years.THE LIMITS OF DIPLOMACY

In its final days the Soviet Union was a one-sided military-political power. As the year 2013 has shown so vividly, Russia is now turning into a one-sided diplomatic power, which neither has nor uses other levers of influence. Naturally, a diplomatic power is better than a military one by definition. But it’s still one-sided and therefore unstable.

If the current destabilization in the world continues, Russia with its diplomacy buttressed by increased and upgraded military capabilities can stay among the three leading powers for some time and Putin will keep his top ratings as the most influential politician, but placing bets on instability is a risky endeavor, especially since one of the sources of this instability is the Middle East, from where it will sooner or later reach Russia and spur Islamic extremism in some of its regions. 

Once the United States secures its energy independence and casts off the burden of Middle East conflicts, it will leave the region and have complete freedom of action, such as putting pressure on Moscow. China will continue to grow stronger and wield influence by its mere presence. There are also other alarming tendencies that may shake positions in the political and diplomatic sphere that is crucial for Russia at this point. Our importance as a supplier of oil and gas is also declining as more alternative energy sources come into the market from Africa and Asia, and as shale gas production picks up. The economic slowdown in Asia has a negative impact on the political, let alone economic, value of Russian natural resources. Illegitimacy of large private holdings acquired in the 1990s and, more importantly, their insufficient legal protection and all-pervasive corruption undermine investment prospects and will lead to slackening economic growth in the years to come regardless of the situation in the world markets, which does not look positive for that matter.

This medium-term economic downturn detracts from Moscow’s political weight, interests and respect among partners. This decline in the “soft power” can be made up for by tough rhetoric or even strong-willed and skillful diplomacy but only to a limited extent. It is highly unlikely that Barack Obama would have ignored a meeting with the leaders of China, which is the second most dynamic economy in the world. But this is precisely what he did in September by refusing to take part in the Russian-U.S. top-level talks ahead of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, even though Beijing’s actions cause just as much annoyance and concerns in Washington. However, this refusal, albeit indirect, weakened Russia’s positions in its dialogue with China, Europe and other partners and competitors. 

The Syrian maneuver allowed Russian diplomacy to make ample amends for possible losses from that. But it did not solve the problem of international perception of Russia as a country with a dim future.

In fact, Germany’s increasingly strong rhetoric with regard to Moscow over the past year can hardly be explained solely by domestic political factors such as attempts to push away Social Democrats, who are generally considered “pro-Russian,” or frustration over inspections at German charitable funds in Russia and NGOs they finance, or Russia’s resentment over the latest European attitude towards sexual minorities, and other differences in values, which existed before and were much deeper.

Berlin’s less favorable stance in respect of Russia has been brought about almost entirely by expectations of lesser dependence of Europe and Germany on Russian energy supplies in the long term and by a pessimistic outlook for the Russian market. This rattled the positions of entrepreneurs who have been playing a key role in shaping up Berlin’s Russian policy over the past several decades.

Finally, Russia is simply not interesting for many partners because of the economic slump and, most importantly, because of the lack of active and purposeful development strategy. This is clear to anyone who attends international forums regularly.

Long-term political prospects appear to be even more disturbing than current problems, chiefly because of the slackening domestic base. Russia is falling behind technologically. It takes virtually no part in the sixth wave of innovation and seems to be barely aware of what that is. Instead of solving these and other fundamental tasks facing Russian society, the government has been skillfully manipulating the public opinion, throwing in new contrived problems to deal with.

Pessimism becomes dominating in Russian society. Functionaries steal, run away, take their money and children out of the country or wholeheartedly decry the authorities. Russians are losing drive and nerve that have saved us so many times during excruciating ordeals in our history and helped win brilliant victories. Russia is losing pace; it is looking back into the past and making no commitments for the future.

The paragraphs above could have been omitted in an article focusing on Russia’s foreign policy but for the fact that the slowdown and pessimism in the era of information openness are easily seen by the rest of the world and thus undermine this policy. The assertive vigor demonstrated by Vladimir Putin or Sergei Lavrov can make up for overall pessimism only to some extent.

Besides, the focus in global competition is shifting to the economy, technology, ideas and information. Military power has not lost its relevance but it acts on the second or third tier of relations between secondary powers. The leading ones cannot afford to use it in full measure because of the nuclear stalemate. When they do use it, they lose more and more often as evidenced by the latest U.S. and NATO experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Libya is hardly a victory either. Missiles have less weight on the global scale now than they did when Helmut Schmidt was ridiculing the Soviet Union. 

The competition is won by those who can produce new technologies and/or put them into use effectively, quickly and on a massive scale, or by those who can impose or offer views and perceptions, either their own or other people’s but benefitting them, using the latest communication solutions. Not only goods but also countries become brands in the modern unprecedentedly open world, and their competitive advantages depend on their image just as much as those of corporations.


Technologies have never been more available than they are today, but it takes trained and motivated personnel to use them. And this is the main point I have been driving at. Russia has chances to join the group of advanced countries and retain the status of great power. But, let me say this again, placing focus on diplomacy or military power would not be enough. The state and society should direct their efforts towards reproducing human resources, which are still quite substantial, through accelerated development of education, health care and high culture, while making massive investments in young people and creating conditions – political, social and certainly legal – for them to stay in the country and link their future and the future of their children with it. The development of the country’s human resources should become a new national idea for the whole generation. If we do that, the world will quickly see prospects for a future economic and social upturn, and the current decline, inevitable for several years, will cause no loss of political weight. The country will have a future.

There is also the need for a major “spiritually uplifting” and economically beneficial project committed to the future. Useful as it is, the Eurasian Union does not meet this criterion. The drive for integration with Europe, which has brought together East European elites, can also hardly pass as such “major project” amidst the protracted internal crisis in the EU and the European model. At the same time, rejecting the European path, which started with the Varangians and the adoption by Rus of Christianity from Byzantium, the advanced version of Europe at that time, would mean rejecting ourselves and our essence as a nation.

New development plans for Siberia and the Russian Far East, which have been discussed for many years, using technologies and capital from Europe, America, leading Asian countries and certainly China should probably become such a project. This would allow Russia to hook up to the Pacific growth driver and become a great power not only in Europe but also in the Asia-Pacific Region. How can this be done? The answer is quite obvious, but this is a topic for a separate article. Let me finish this one by saying that the main reserves for Russia’s foreign policy and its influence in the next decade lie more than ever in internal development. And this is also where the main threats are, fraught with the risk of losing political weight in the international arena and the status of great power, which is so much adored by the majority of Russians.