As Russia is approaching a point where economic and technological backwardness will become a real threat to its security and sovereignty, one possible option for it is a stealth strategy, writes Valdai Club programme director Ivan Timofeev. It means that Russia should gradually disappear from radar screens as an existential threat, accumulate and concentrate resources, and focus on internal development goals.
The presidential election in March 2018 will place the future model of Russia’s foreign policy on the agenda. The election coincides with a mounting heap of problems and disagreements, and Russian foreign policy will need to adapt in order to overcome them. Over the next six years, Russia will have to deal with three concurrent trends: (1) systemic and increasing external pressure coming from the most developed and advanced states; (2) disruption of order and increased unpredictability in international relations; (3) internal “fires” stemming from the weakness of the economy, territorial imbalances and the problem of institutions. We are approaching a point where economic and technological backwardness will become a real threat to our country’s security and sovereignty, and the professional skills of diplomats and the military alone are unlikely to be enough to uphold the country’s interests. In these circumstances, the honey badger model, as Mikhail Korostikov so wonderfully defined it, may be found wanting.
One possible option is a stealth strategy, which means that Russia would gradually disappear from radar screens as an existential threat, accumulate and concentrate resources, focus on internal development goals, do the painstaking homework of modernizing the country, and abandon the rhetoric of a besieged fortress in favor of a language of new opportunities and ideas. To continue with analogies from the animal world, we may need to spend some time in a well-disguised den in the foreseeable future, to lick our so far minor wounds, accumulate fat and, if possible, avoid open confrontation with dangerous carnivores. If Russia acts more like a bear than a honey badger, we can benefit from our omnivorous nature. The country can be flexible in its survival strategies, adapt to a changing environment, and develop new resource niches by hunting for salmon in the absence of meat, or going into vegetarian mode when no fish can be found. A bear in its natural habitat is an extremely cautious and circumspect animal.
In the past, we often had to rely on such a strategy. Each time Russia was forced to do so in the wake of crushing defeats or disasters that drove the country literally to the brink. Today, we can avoid such a scenario. Russian stocks are high, but the limits on growth make themselves felt. Diversifying the investment portfolio of our foreign policy makes sense until the moment the situation turns, and stock prices begin to plummet. In the current circumstances, Russia would be hurt both by a Western or imperial/protective doctrine. What it needs is pragmatism and a dash of introversion in the positive sense of the word – to focus on itself and its own problems. The views advanced by Gorchakov and Milyutin provide guidelines for the future.
We need to take into account the following considerations as Russia’s foreign policy is poised to begin a new cycle.
The West will always see Russia as a threat requiring consistent and systemic opposition. Chaotic and sporadic steps to restrain Russia following the Ukraine crisis are being replaced by a well-structured and fine-tuned machine which includes the military-political sphere, the economy, ideology and soft power. It is difficult to acknowledge this because we have developed extensive ties, and joint projects, and initiatives during the 25 years since the end of Cold War. Many of these are in death throes. However, we should be under no illusion about the prospects for miraculous pacification in the event of a pro-Western candidate winning the election or Russian statehood sinking into crisis. Such a crisis will bring nothing but yet another period of trouble and knock us back. The West cannot overcome our problems for us. We must learn the lessons of the 1917 and 1991 disasters.
We should also realize that mounting Russophobia in the West is due not only to Russia, but the painful transformation of Western society as well. It is hard to admit that Brexit, Trump, left- and right-wing radicals are products of Western democracies. It is much easier to blame them on the powerful “hand of the Kremlin,” thus compensating for their own frustration, confusion, and loss of ego. The temptation to take it out on Moscow will grow as the disorder in international affairs intensifies.
However, we need to be honest with ourselves. Our role as the all-purpose bogeyman is a result of Russia’s weakness, not its strength. Moscow is an easy target for economic sanctions, since it cannot provide a meaningful response. Cobbling together a cross-party consensus against Russia is also easy, since jobs and the future of voters depend only marginally on cooperation with Russia. Russia can be threatened with force as a way to drum up some money for military budgets. It cannot be attacked, but it will not attack, either. Finally, one can endlessly stigmatize the “bloody regime” in an attempt to keep fraying liberal bonds intact. We have nothing to say here since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its left-wing alternative.
Can you imagine the West permitting itself to act like this with China? Hardly. The issue here is not only about power, although it certainly matters. Few would dare, for example, to punish Beijing with economic sanctions for cyber spying or artificial islands built in the South China Sea. China’s foreign policy style is also a factor here. For several decades, China has been building up internal reserves and is still very cautious on the foreign policy arena, its power notwithstanding. China is adroitly shirking global responsibilities. With all its economic, demographic and military power, it is absent from the West’s radar screens as a threat. Americans can ramble on all they want about China’s mounting assertiveness and aspects of its political regime, but, in the current circumstances, any anti-China wing in Congress, let alone an international coalition against China, would fall to pieces before it even began to take shape.
Russia hardly needs to replicate China’s reform experience, as our countries are far too dissimilar. We will have to follow our own path. However, when it comes to the strategy of focusing on development and disappearing from radar screens, we have much to learn from China. We also need to take a close look at the language China uses in its foreign policy. China does not blame anyone for anything. It does not complain and avoids language which may provoke conflict. Of course, this is partly a matter of national culture and philosophy. However, the rhetoric of opportunity clearly wins out over the language of anxiety and resentment so firmly rooted in Russian discourse.Disappearing from radar screens in our relations with the West will not be easy. The policy of containing Russia has already become part of the West’s routine logic. In this situation, it would be a mistake to either escalate the situation in proportion to Western efforts, or to wait impassively until the noose of sanctions and isolation causes irreparable damage. We will have to manage confrontation, ducking consolidated blows and being careful not to waste our limited resources. Moscow has certain capabilities in this department.
First, the West itself is a historically disparate community. US and EU policies toward Russia already represent two different approaches. While the Americans just go ahead and ratchet up pressure, the EU is much more cautious and pragmatic. We cannot be tempted to pit America against Europe. This is not Russia’s thing. However, Russia needs to take advantage of the nuances in its Western neighbors’ policies and the opportunities that remain in our relations with them that are beneficial to us. For example, the EU has reserved the possibility of working with Russia, whereas, for example, NATO has virtually ruled this option out. The fact that both these entities are closely related does not, of course, mean that we should pursue a policy based on the lowest common denominator. Bilateral relations with individual countries also hold great potential.
Second, rapid changes in the world order make it extremely difficult to isolate Russia globally. This circumstance must be put to good use, and much is being done already. However, here, too, there are two extremes. First, we view Asia as a partner of secondary importance – an attitude we inherited from the past – even though it is imperative that it should become our top priority. Second, it is the illusion that the “pivot to the East” will automatically solve all our problems, and that Asia can’t wait for us to come there. We are forced to turn to the East as an economically weaker player that is extremely limited in its ability to shape the rules of the game.
Third and final, Russia still has a margin of safety and reserves, despite its enormous problems. Russia should not be overestimated. But it should not be underestimated, either. If used properly, its limited resources can go a long way, which has happened on many occasions throughout history. However, it is important to realize that, unlike in the 20th century, the margin for error is much smaller now. A smart and effective system of governance is becoming a key factor of our security.