Where to Go and with Whom to Go: Russia’s Foreign Policy on the Threshold of a New Decade

28 january 2020

Sergei Karaganov, Doctor of History, is Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University–Higher School of Economics (NRU–HSE), and Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia.

Resume: Russia is entering a new decade with significant (and I am even tempted to say brilliant) foreign and defense policy achievements, and with a substantial margin of strength. But the challenges and problems lying ahead are fraught with deceleration or even rollback.

Russia is entering a new decade with significant (and I am even tempted to say brilliant) foreign and defense policy achievements, and with a substantial margin of strength. But the challenges and problems lying ahead are fraught with deceleration or even rollback. Despite the difficulties, the hostility of part of the world, and the fatigue from a decade of fierce struggle, the 2010s were probably the most successful period in terms of foreign and defense policy, at least since the 1970s when the USSR’s foreign policy influence and military security were at their height. But then a series of mistakes followed: first of all, the Afghanistan campaign; exhausting arms race, in which the Soviet Union tried hard to catch up with or even lead the way; and, above all, internal stagnation. By the end of the following decade, the country collapsed.

In the 2010s, Russia managed to halt the expansion of Western alliances which threatened vital interests of its security. In Syria, a series of imposed “color revolutions”, that destroyed entire regions was stopped. Russia has gained advantageous, including economically, positions in the Middle East. It has built a de facto allied relationship with China, which markedly strengthens the positions of both countries in the world system. In the 1960s-1980s the Soviet Union had to fight on two fronts.

 Having begun its turn to the East, Russia has significantly changed the balance of power in relations with the West, especially Europe, in its own favor. Once Europe’s periphery willing to gravitating towards the center and prepared to pay for this, Russia is now turning into the center of a new vast Eurasian space and regaining Eurasian identity (without giving up its basically European culture), which becomes particularly beneficial amid Asia’s continued rise.

 Yet most importantly, by carrying out a successful military reform, by rearming and reforming general-purpose forces, and by starting to deploy the latest generation of high-tech strategic weapons, Russia has preemptively ruined the United States’ hopes to regain military superiority, and has so far won the arms race without getting involved in it. It seems that by crushing those hopes, Russia, not even fully realizing it yet, has finally knocked the foundation out of the West’s five-hundred-year dominance in world politics, economy, and culture. That foundation was ensured by the West’s military supremacy. Dozens of countries and previously suppressed civilizations now have much greater opportunities for free and sovereign development.

 Russia had to pay for the success of course, but the price was meagre compared to what it had to pay for maintaining its security and ability to play a sovereign role in determining world politics.

 The country’s position on the world stage is incomparably stronger now than it was just a decade ago. A “window of opportunity” has been created which can and must be used for development. Otherwise, we may fail again, as we did once after the relative success of the late 1960s-1970s. This “window” has been open for three or four years now. But having botched the chance presented by the Crimean enthusiasm of 2014-2016, we still keep missing it. The main challenge is obvious and it is similar to the previous one: internal stagnation coupled with the absence of national development goals and the loss of Russian boldness. Our partners and opponents assume that Russia will become weaker economically and technologically (plus demographic problems). This explains why they are less inclined to take our interests into account. This weakness is one of the key motivations behind their policy of hard pressure. Russia has a small market to attract allies and few opportunities to “buy” them.

Trapped in stagnation, even new elites (medium-sized business people, security officials, and professionals) are less willing to support the firm course, while the old, pro-Western, ones have been discredited by past failures and hostile Western policies. Irritation is growing in society, which is increasingly difficult to compensate by foreign policy achievements or propaganda.   

Also, objectively speaking, despite defense policy successes, the threat of war is still there and has probably even increased. The mix of traditional and advanced weapons is increasingly fraught with the risk of unintended escalation. New players have emerged, and there has been a decline in the intellectual and moral level of elites in many countries. Responsible elites are withdrawing in the West.

China needs us now. But as it becomes economically, and most importantly, militarily stronger, it may objectively become less inclined to take our interests into account. Beijing may start pursuing a tougher policy. 

The danger of falling behind in scientific and technological terms is quite obvious in a number of areas, endangering Russia’s sovereignty and the ability to preemptively neutralize U.S. attempts to regain military superiority. A related challenge would be a potential desire to respond in-kind or get drawn into the arms limitation process based on the principles and regimes of the previous era. 

In the new decade, Russia will have to solve the most complex political and technological problem. Two technological, digital platforms?American (Western) and Chinese (Eastern) ?are forming in the world. Our hopes for creating a third one jointly with Europeans have not come true. Russia cannot create its own one due to the small market. Apart from a tiny segment of critical technologies, we are using Western ones for the most part, which becomes increasingly dangerous because of American sanctions. So we will have to switch to the friendlier Eastern platform, while making sure we do not become too dependent on it.

The West will continue its information, propaganda, and political pressure. It is not prompted by Russian “sins,” constantly thought up and blamed on us, but by the need for the West to organize itself against an “enemy,” even an artificially created one, in an attempt to stop its own weakening and disintegration.

Russia is politically missing the growing global concern over environmental degradation. These issues will get more and more attention on the global agenda, making it increasingly difficult to keep aloof or shy away from them. They serve as a unifying factor in relations with most of the non-West and part of the West.  Russia has a potentially strong position in the field of environmental protection, but it has been passive so far. 

And yet the main challenge is the absence of a positive agenda and economic growth in Russia itself, which demoralizes elites and society. Besides, the country lacks a major project which could glue elites together, at least partly. All great powers fell apart without such projects. (Such a vacuum is all the more dangerous for Russia which has always been highly ideologized throughout history). An example is the collapse of the USSR when its ideological core?the communist ideology we imposed on ourselves in the 20th century?started to decay in the 1960s-1970s. The European Union’s Europe is drifting apart in front of our eyes. It has lost its national core (with only France trying to preserve some of it). The European idea of a peaceful Europe has been achieved, but there is no new one anywhere in sight. They have tried endless expansion instead, but it and a number of other mistakes are further undermining the European project.

Habitual international institutions and regimes are weakening. Increased protectionism will be exacerbated by a likely escalation of the global economic crisis. The trend towards politicization of economic relations, and partial fragmentation and regionalization of the world economy can be expected to continue in the foreseeable period of ten years. Economic interdependence will gradually turn from a predominantly positive factor of development into a factor of vulnerability. A qualitatively new foreign economic strategy will be needed.

What Is to Be Done?

The current international political and economic environment requires the state to reenergize and reformat its economic and social policy and work out a proactive ideological policy. Otherwise, weakening and even a defeat on the international stage would be very likely.

A significant resource to tap and an urgent need to address is a modern active policy of peace or peace-saving (a new language is needed). It should combine strong deterrence with the rejection of direct threats and with the promotion of the slogan “Russia is the main provider of peace, a defender of sovereignty and freedom of choice for all countries and civilizations, a guarantor of a new non-aligned movement and the prevention of hegemonism.” (I should say that Russia is already doing all this de facto.)

But a strong peace preserving policy is not all; it must be accompanied by an active environmental policy. We need it ourselves in order to get rid of the habit of littering, and it should find a strong response in society which is still very close to nature. (Suffice it to mention the unique experience of “dachas” in Russia?ownership and cultivation of plots of land by tens of millions of people.)

Active environmental policies are almost by definition a unifying idea. A common slogan Russia could use itself and offer to the rest of the world is “Let’s save peace and Earth together.”

All three themes?peace, freedom for all, and the protection of nature and land?are intended to fill the dangerous ideological vacuum within the country, at least to some extent, thus making national existence more meaningful, and turning politics into a subject of deserved pride. They fully match the traditional desire of Russian mentality to make other peoples happy and free (this time not at its own expense, but jointly with others.) Also, a developing and promoting Russian culture should be raised to the level of national idea for the country itself and for the world. But this is a separate project of paramount importance.

Concurrently, it is necessary to launch a new major national project called “Siberia” and aimed at accelerating the development of all Siberian regions, not just the Far East. Also, the “turn to the East” needs an ideological basis. In the current predominantly bureaucratic and technocratic format, it is doomed to slow down or even fall into limbo.

Naturally, it is necessary to emphasize the European roots of Russian culture and show Russia’s desire to have good relations with European countries and the EU. Anti-Europeanism is at odds with the modern identity of most Russians, although current post-European values are quite annoying. Real rapprochement with the EU would be unlikely for now because of its internal condition. But it is worth trying. Restoring political relations with NATO, as some high-ranking fellow citizens suggest now and then, would simply be counterproductive and dangerous, as this will only legitimize the weakening and inherently antagonistic alliance. In Europe, Russia should focus on interaction with South European and Central European countries.

In general, Russia should seek to overcome residual Western-centrism as it no longer leads to modernization and strengthening. We have almost used up the Western resource (dating back to Peter the Great) and now need a truly multi-vector, including ideological, policy.

As regards China, Russia should pursue a cautious rapprochement (we already have almost an alliance). But it is important to integrate it into the system of balances and institutions within the Greater Eurasia concept. If this does not work or Beijing is not willing to do so, some cooling is almost inevitable. But friendly relations must be preserved. It is a powerful asset.

In relations with the United States, there is no need to make any corrections to the chosen course: firm deterrence coupled with demonstrated readiness to negotiate ways to reduce the threat of war. The anti-Russian wave with predominantly internal roots has gained strong momentum over there. We will have to wait for six years or so for it to subside. Only after that can some normalization be possible (when the U.S. gets used to the fact that it has lost the role of an unconditional hegemon and if the policy of pressure on Russia does not lead to concessions. If we go for it, God forbid, U.S. is likely to try to finish us off.) A small “window of opportunity” will open after the 2020 U.S. election, giving us a chance to make our relations slightly less confrontational. But full normalization is unlikely for the time being. Sanctions are forever. 

It is also necessary to step up the diversification of foreign economic relations, stop using the dollar, stick to pinpointed autarky wherever necessary, and boost the development of some key high-tech industries.

The focus should be on severe measures to fight corruption, which is suppressing economic growth and harassing business, on judicial reform, which makes law-enforcement fairer and ensures effective protection of property, on sweeping liberalization of conditions for medium and small businesses, especially in Siberia, and, naturally, on national programs in a number of key high-tech fields, in infrastructure construction, and in science. Counteracting those dreaming of another revolutionary suicide will also have to be on the agenda.

I am afraid to say that in order to make the necessary changes and to push away corrupt elites or those of them who are clinging to the past, we may need an “enemy” which they are actually playing up to. A country created in a desperate millennial struggle against external enemies seems unable to develop rapidly without an enemy. It will not have to be invented, though; it will be obligingly furnished by the world. However, while fighting “internal and external enemies,” it is important to pursue a forward-looking strategy and ideology, which is nowhere in sight yet, even though it should be.


Originally published in Russian on December 26, 2019 in "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" № 294(8052)

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