The COVID-19 pandemic is exerting complex impact on global development. The aggravation of negative processes (the growing rivalry of great powers and the struggle for leadership) is accompanied by the emergence of potentially positive ones (the increasing demand for joint response to global challenges) which in the long run will affect the international environment. However, the essence of modern world politics remains unchanged: it is the struggle for positions in building a new order in place of the rapidly collapsing present one and the approaching finale of not only the “unipolar moment,” but also of the West’s five-hundred-year domination based on military superiority achieved in the 16th-17th centuries. There is a danger that by focusing entirely on the pandemic Russia and the international community might get distracted from addressing fundamental problems―devising and implementing a new, future-oriented ideological base and agenda for Russia’s foreign policy.
For several years, the world has been drifting towards a pre-war state as the danger of unintended global war due to the escalation of multiplying crises grew. There are several reasons for that: the fastest ever redistribution of power in the world; degradation of elites in many countries and their despair over the inability to cope with snowballing problems, which has been clearly exposed by the global coronavirus attack; the emergence of a new generation of destabilizing weapons and the expansion of military rivalry into new spheres (outer space, cyberspace, artificial intelligence); the emasculation of previous arms limitation regimes; escalating U.S. rivalry with China and Russia; the blurring of the line between war and peace; and dwindling resistance of societies to the threat of war―a kind of “strategic parasitism,” a habit of peace, utterly unjustified in view of the factors listed above.
The pandemic is dangerous, but by historical standards probably not catastrophic, even though it is perceived as such because it has triggered an avalanche of problems and imbalances―economic, financial, and those related to growing inequality, pollution, climate change, migration, intra-European and intra-Atlantic problems―which kept mounting but were never addressed. Many elites have seized on the pandemic as the equivalent of a relatively safe “little war” that will write everything off. It may help release the steam, but it is equally likely that it may precipitate a deep global economic crisis, similar to that of 1929 which was one of the causes of World War II, and exacerbate numerous international problems and contradictions. The U.S. has stepped up its confrontational policy towards China and Russia in a desperate attempt to regain global leadership, thus increasing the threat of war between the great powers.
At the same time, the current upheavals cannot but make mankind revise many habitual models of relations and reassess existing values. Issues pertaining to environmental pollution, climate change, natural and technological disasters and pandemics will gain greater importance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also become a powerful catalyst for the growing trend towards renationalization of the world economy and politics. It has shown that anti-epidemic measures are largely being taken at the national level. In fact, it has proven that only sovereign states are able to provide people with public benefits. This generates much stronger demand for sovereignty, rejection of external dominance, and freedom in choosing one’s political and cultural path, development models, and foreign policy orientation.
Finally, the pandemic has highlighted the need for a new philosophy of development that would center on the preservation and development of man and protection of nature, not on unbridled consumption.
All these trends require that Russia fundamentally upgrade the ideological framework of its foreign policy and offer its own society and the world attractive and future-oriented ideas.
Russia’s Foreign Policy: the Need for New Ideas
This need was fairly obvious even before the pandemic. Russia’s foreign policy of the last fifteen years has been quite successful. The restoration of effective deterrence capability, the creation of highly efficient conventional armed forces and state-of-the-art strategic systems, brilliant diplomacy, and competitors’ mistakes have let the country return into the top league of world politics. At the same time there are indications showing that the ideological content of Russia’s foreign policy is lagging behind global development trends and the needs of Russian society, which may cause a loss of some of the regained international positions and may reduce public support for a strong foreign and defense policy.
Russia’s foreign policy rhetoric lacks bright, forward-looking ideas that would be consistent with main global development trends and be able to lead. For example, the idea of multipolarity, which still underlies Russian foreign policy rhetoric but actually represents the agenda of the 1990s and 2000s, is no longer attractive to most countries. The “unipolar moment” is over, and the main question now is not whether or not a multipolar world order will ever become a reality, but what rules and norms will lie at its foundation.
Naturally, Russia’s foreign policy can boast some promising ideas such as the Greater Eurasian Partnership. However, at the global level, Russia’s unique contribution to world affairs and its special mission have remained unidentified or inconsistent with the general trends and aspirations of most countries. Russia has often been even wary of talking about its mission.
There is an ideological vacuum in the world, and a fierce struggle is unfolding to fill it. The U.S., while still waving the flag of freedom and democracy and building up its economic and military power, is trying hard to retain dominance while at the same time “giving up” the liberal approach and displaying Darwinian egoism. China has proposed a Community of Common Destiny, which represents its mission as the promotion of harmony and development. But it is not yet quite clear what exactly this means in practice.
Big ideas, which simultaneously reflect internal identity, make the national existence meaningful and illuminate distinctive contribution that a country could offer for the rest of the world, constitute the defining feature of a great power. If such ideas fade away or are abandoned, great powers become weak and even fall apart. Russia has already gone through that.
We do not suggest adopting a state ideology in the classical sense, an ideology that would claim to elaborate “the only correct” views on historical development and offer a true and universal system of values, or that would impose its views and values on others. The country and the world had enough of that in the 20th century. The pragmatism of Russia’s foreign policy, that is, its ability to develop relations with all countries regardless of their internal regimes, must be preserved as it gives great advantages and reduces costs.
But it is necessary to understand what Russia is in the world of today and tomorrow, what its positive contribution to international affairs is in comparison with the role of other powers, and why Russian society and most countries of the world should be interested in preserving a strong Russia and making it even stronger. What role will it play in a world where, on the one hand, two superpowers (the U.S. and China which is turning into a superpower) come to the fore, but, on the other hand, more and more countries do not want to become dependent on them? Can Russia contribute to the fight against epidemics and environmental degradation and how? The answers to these questions will largely determine Russia’s international position, its influence, its role in shaping a new world order, and even its internal political stability.
A New Ideological Triad for Russia and the World
The ideas that were proposed by one of the authors of this article in a previous publication (see New Ideas for Itself and the World) have not only lost relevance now, in the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, but, on the contrary, have become more pertinent and important. In our opinion, Russia’s foreign policy should be based on the following ideological triad:
- Preserving international peace;
- Promoting the freedom of countries to choose development models; defending sovereignty and diversity; countering any ideological, political or value hegemony; and positioning Russia as a guarantor of a “New Non-Alignment;”
- Jointly protecting the environment and combating new global challenges, including pandemics; promoting a new development philosophy based on the preservation of the global human habitat, and, above all, of man himself, focusing on his moral and physical health and well-being, rather than constantly growing consumption.
It is desirable that each of these ideas become the basis of the relevant policy, a set of foreign policy initiatives.
Russia’s mission in this case would be saving the planet from nuclear catastrophe and environmental disaster, protecting sovereignty and freedom of choice for all countries. This is not an urge for Russia to make everyone happy at its own expense, as it was in Soviet times, but a policy that meets the interests of Russian society. Since such a mission cannot be carried out unilaterally, it is necessary to seek maximum cooperation of all countries in order to consolidate peace and protect the environment. One of the slogans for the proposed policy could sound like “Let’s save the planet together.”
These ideas and priorities are, first, fully consistent with global trends. Peace, freedom of choice and sovereignty, the preservation of nature and humans is what is needed everywhere today and will be even more needed tomorrow.
Second, these ideas are akin to domestic identity, to what has always been valued in Russia. Ensuring sovereignty and independence is one of Russia’s highest priorities; preserving peace has historically been the main pursuit of the country that has survived several devastating incursions and has been existing in a challenging geopolitical environment. The emphasis on the spiritual and cultural development of man and society, not just on material goods and consumption, is also in line with Russia’s spiritual tradition.
Third, these ideas largely reflect what Russia is de facto already doing but has not yet conceptualized or is not yet been promoting as its own contribution to global development. By pursuing a firm foreign policy and creating new weapon systems that make it impossible for the U.S. and NATO to restore military superiority in the foreseeable future, Russia has reduced the threat of aggression against itself, a large-scale war, and a new conventional and nuclear arms race. This makes such a race too costly, if not completely meaningless, for the other side in the years to come. We have got a window of opportunity for a new policy and domestic development. Having put an end to the West’s military superiority, on which its political, economic, and cultural dominance has rested for the last five centuries, having stopped a series of destabilizing color revolutions and regime change endeavors in Syria, by playing an active role in Asia and the Middle East and maintaining a balanced partnership with all centers of power in these regions, Russia is strengthening the basis for preserving and strengthening the sovereignty of dozens of states. Russian policy guarantees them the freedom to choose a civilizational and cultural path as well as economic and political models of development, thereby allowing them to avoid making the exclusive “either-or” choice.
Fourth, the proposed foreign policy ideas and priorities are largely low-cost and even economically profitable. The only partial exception is environmental protection, the improvement of the national health system and assistance to the closest partners in modernizing their own health systems. But the development of these spheres will bring economic benefits in the future as well. Besides, this is inevitable anyway. It is always better to lead the way and reap international political benefits than respond to external or internal pressures.
The Policy of Securing Peace
It can encompass three key dimensions.
The first one is reducing the threat of war by easing political confrontation, reducing military activities, and forging dialogue between the military and political leaderships.
It is necessary to improve conflict prevention mechanisms (deconfliction) and to develop rules of conduct in “gray zones,” where the threat of unintentional military clash is the highest, especially in the cyber sphere.
One step further, when the Americans appear prepared for it, a new round of arms limitation negotiations can be proposed in order to block the most destabilizing directions of the arms race (space-based weapons, medium-range missiles, low-yield nuclear weapons on strategic carriers, precision non-nuclear weapons, etc.). But there must be no hurry so that to avoid falling into the trap of the traditional “arms control” formula.
It is necessary to propose a multilateral dialogue among all nuclear powers devoted to strengthening strategic stability. The efforts should be aimed at devising new rules of the game in the military-strategic field for the future, which would minimize the possibility of accidental and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons due to a fatal mistake or misjudgment. It would also be desirable to urge all nuclear powers to reject the use of military force, at least against each other, since it risks provoking nuclear escalation and may cause catastrophic consequences for the planet and the whole mankind. Such a statement could be adopted at a meeting of the leaders of the UN Security Council permanent member states.
The second dimension is the strengthening of deterrence. This will remain the main way to prevent the use of force between nuclear powers in the foreseeable future as the world is rapidly restructuring the international system and developing new rules of international co-existence (or restoring traditional ones). When Russia de facto gave up the policy of active deterrence against the West in the 1990s and 2000s, the latter immediately committed a series of aggressive acts (against Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya). A possible slogan for such a policy could be “Russian strength for peace” in contrast to the American “peace through strength.”
The strengthening of deterrence means further improvement of Russia’s nuclear and non-nuclear deterrent capabilities, without getting involved in an arms race. It also means production of the most advanced strategic systems, but keeping them in limited numbers, without building them up in big quantities. It would also be desirable to extend the New START Treaty until 2026 in order to preserve the current mechanisms of ensuring predictability and to have time for developing a new understanding and architecture for maintaining strategic stability.  Russia should keep repeating publicly that a “limited” nuclear war against it is impossible, which would also be true of a nuclear war against Russia in Europe without a retaliatory strike against the United States, or that Russia can be defeated in a large-scale non-nuclear war.
The third dimension is the positioning of Russia as an effective and successful peacemaker, which in fact it already is. Russia should give more importance to peacemaking and the settlement of military conflicts in its foreign policy rhetoric, and to work closely with relevant international organizations and NGOs, engaging more actively with China, as well as BRICS and SCO countries in general, to ensure economic reconstruction in Syria.
Another possible dimension is promoting Russia as an exporter of trust and security through the supply of air and missile defense systems, and the protection of digital infrastructure.
The Policy of Protecting Political, Cultural, Civilizational Diversity, Sovereignty and Freedom of Choice
By playing the role of an independent global center of power, pursuing active policies in key regions of the world, and maintaining balanced relations with regional players, Russia can counter any attempt to impose universalism, political, cultural or economic hegemony, or put countries in a situation where they would have to make a tough “either-or” choice. Perhaps Russia, in cooperation with other BRICS and SCO countries, should consider proposing the establishment of a Global Alliance for Sovereignty and Diversity, an informal association of countries advocating the protection of sovereignty as one of the highest values.
Russia can also become a guarantor of a “New Non-Alignment,” bringing together countries that do not want to side with states seeking global or regional hegemony, and that want to develop independently. Naturally, Russia should maintain friendship and strategic partnership with China and seek to improve relations with the United States. This will strengthen Russia’s position as a global independent center of power and at the same time make it a desirable partner for countries seeking to avoid an obligatory strategic choice. Russia should also support the existing Non-Aligned Movement. This work is not noticeable in Russia’s foreign policy rhetoric and practice yet.
The Policy of Protecting Nature, Earth and Human Life
It may encompass developing a national and international pollution (and, in the long run, carbon emission) control program, including rejection of household plastic products, limitation of harmful emissions and energy losses, and a massive (and at the same time inexpensive) reclamation and reforestation campaign in areas affected by fires or overexploited. This program should include areas around big cities in order to involve more people in the process.
It is necessary to promote, both inside and outside the country, Russia’s image as a “green country,” emphasizing its nature’s riches and diversity as values, not only as a resource of economic development. The Arctic should become the world’s main platform for scientific cooperation, a natural laboratory for studying climate change.
As a supplier of environmentally-friendly and resource-intensive goods, Russia can help East Asian countries solve ecological and resource problems. Siberia and the Far East should be actively turned into a region for the development of an innovative resource-based economy built on a fusion of natural wealth and high technologies.
There is also an obvious need to provide information support for our readiness to help increase the supply of organic food and water-intensive goods, bringing tens of millions of hectares of idle land into use. For example, during its BRICS presidency, Russia could propose increasing its grain supplies to Africa using Chinese-built infrastructure. There is an obvious need to establish an International Grain Fund to help in case of crop failures.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for international cooperation to combat pandemics, including assistance to the least protected countries with weak health systems. Together with China and other BRICS and CSO countries, Russia could lead the way in the following areas: broadening scientific and technical cooperation in the production of vaccines; coordinating the positions of BRICS and SCO countries in the WHO and promoting increased funding and broader powers for the organization; sharing best practices to strengthen national health systems; coordinating BRICS, SCO and G20 countries’ policies to assist countries with less developed health systems.
Russia should once again show its readiness to cooperate in dealing with industrial and natural disasters (especially in the most vulnerable countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America). It would be useful to deepen cooperation on these issues within the BRICS and/or SCO framework. Humanitarian assistance offered by China and Russia to a number of European countries opens up opportunities for interaction with them to address these issues.
Russia needs a new humanitarian policy. The Federal Agency for the CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) should turn from an institution organizing relatively low-effective cultural events and seminars abroad into a humanitarian policy coordinating center that would become responsible for the provision of Russian bilateral non-military and non-macroeconomic aid to other countries.
The 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Second World War, and Russia’s chairmanship in BRICS and the SCO, which have coincided with the world-rattling pandemic, can be used for launching new foreign policy initiatives.
The policy of securing peace, protecting the freedom of choice for all, the environment, and human lives must be implemented gradually over a period of 10-15 years, that is, the expected duration of acute struggle for the restructuring of the international system, the development of new (restoration of old) rules, and the establishment of balances.
A new language free from Cold War-era terminology is very important. For example, instead of “struggle for peace” we should speak of “ensuring peace and saving Earth,” “joint peace creation,” and “saving Earth and peace as a common cause.”
It is necessary to prevent arms race not only in order to reduce the threat of war, but also in order to use the funds thus saved for protecting the environment and reducing social inequality. Russia should propose strengthening not just “strategic stability,” but “multilateral strategic stability.” New foreign policy initiatives should grab attention even linguistically.
Priority target audiences must be Russian society, elites and people in the non-West―SCO, BRICS, ASEAN and Arab―countries, and such states as Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. A powerful potential ally is China, a country that sustained the biggest human losses in World War II after the Soviet Union.
The West should be considered a target audience, let alone partner, only on a secondary or even tertiary basis. In fact, Western elites, gripped by a massive anti-Russian information campaign, barely hear Russia’s reasoning. (Although there is a visible fear of war in Europe and it seems to be more and more willing to cooperate, especially Southern and Central European countries). The obvious inability and unwillingness of the EU and NATO to address the real challenges to European security, migration, and the pandemic will only reinforce this trend. But the desire to take revenge will also grow stronger. It seems that politically the West is already losing the pandemic battle.
Once a tentative “Coalition for Peace and Earth” is established, it would be possible to engage Western countries and their political forces in the implementation of the new policy. In the meantime, it is worth showing the U.S. that it cannot regain strategic superiority. This, however, does not exclude dialogue, even if it can hardly achieve results but is able to improve the atmosphere, at least in the short term.
There is no need to frighten Europe with the Russian force, it is well aware of Russia’s capabilities. On the contrary, it should be invited to step up confidence-building measures. It would also be expedient to point out that European NATO countries spend much more on military needs than Russia does today. Dialogues with Europeans should seek to develop common approaches to security challenges, including pandemics, for future. These challenges are not on the East-West axis, on which the North Atlantic Alliance remains stubbornly fixated.
The promotion of these and other ideas for Russia and the world must not be put off until the contours of a new world begin to take shape. The deconstruction of the old and the formation of a new order will occur simultaneously. In this situation one must be not only strong and decisive, but also active and creative.
This article summarizes the report “Protecting Peace, Earth and Freedom of Choice for All Countries. New Ideas for Russia’s Foreign Policy” prepared at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics. The article a follow-up to Sergei Karaganov’s essay titled “New Ideas for Russia and the World” published in the March/April 2020 Russian-language issue of this magazine (https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/novye-idei-dlya-sebya-i-mira/). The report itself is based on the results of a situation analysis conducted by the Faculty in late 2019 under the auspices of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the support of the Committee on International Affairs of the Russian State Duma, the International Public Fund “Russian Peace Foundation,” the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Russia in Global Affairs. The report is available at: https://www.hse.ru/data/2020/04/27/1544981528/%D0%97%D0%B0%D1%89%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B0%20%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%80%D0%B0.pdf and https://globalaffairs.ru/articles/zashhita-mira-zemli-svobody/. Its non-public version was released in early 2020; the published version, updated after the coronavirus outbreak, is marked by more poignant argumentation and conclusions, as well as more cautious wording. The report is intended for broad public and expert discussion.
More information on the concept of multilateral strategic stability can be found in the report “New Understanding and Ways to Strengthen Multilateral Strategic Stability” prepared on the basis of an earlier situation analysis: http://svop.ru/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/REPORT_Eng_1.pdf .