Russian Foreign Policy // Analysis

04 february 2015

Seven Steps beyond the Horizon of the Crisis

Andrey Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
Photo:
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Performers simulate the Russian flag during
the Opening Ceremony, Sochi 2014 Paralympic
Winter Games

It is often thought that an acute international crisis is not the best time to reflect on long-term foreign policy objectives. A crisis demands that politicians and practicing experts completely concentrate on achieving immediate goals and dramatically narrows the horizons of long-term planning, forcing leaders to put off many things that only recently appeared extremely important and urgent. During a crisis, tactics dominate strategizing, and decision-making is largely determined by the rigid logic of the events taking place today, rather than the long-term consequences of the widening crisis spiral.

But sooner or later all crises come to an end, and life goes on. As such, the time is ripe to think of how Russia will build a relationship with the outside world “after Ukraine.” Of course, much depends on the outcome of the crisis: on whether it ends in compromise or a long-term chronic conflict between Russia and the West, in a strengthening the Ukrainian statehood, or in its ultimate collapse. But whatever the final scene of the Ukrainian tragedy, the fundamental questions that Moscow will inevitably face when the curtain finally falls are already evident. The solution to these problems will shape not just the future of Russian foreign policy, but the future of the country itself. Here are just a few that seem to be of particular significance.

Where can international resources be found to aid Russia's modernization?

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Europe (and to a much lesser extent – the United States) remained the main source of investment, technologies, managerial decisions and standards for Russia. It has been suggested increasingly often as of late that Asia could easily adopt this role in the future. Moreover, the Asian continent is regarded as a potentially major market for the Russian economy. Is this just the rhetoric of the moment or a long-term, well thought-out strategy? If this is the strategy, then what is it based on? After all, our relations with EU countries have been shaped by many decades of mutual cooperation, and even today they are not only the most developed, but also quite unique in terms of quality (an elaborate regulatory framework, the degree of participation of small and medium-sized businesses, the diversification of forms and mechanisms of cooperation, the size of the Russian diasporas in the countries of the region, etc.). Indeed, have there been any successful projects of economic modernization carried out in isolation from the Euro-Atlantic core of the world economy? After all, the US, the European Union and Japan make the core of the external resources for the modernization of the BRICS countries.

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There is little doubt that the relationship with the United States has been frayed for a good long while, and we cannot rely on Japan in the present context of a bitter confrontation with Washington. But if we accept the premise that Russia will have to “return to Europe” in any case, then we should do our best today to make this “return” less complicated and painful. From this point of view, the country’s possible withdrawal from the Council of Europe or the termination of a dialogue with Brussels on energy issues is unlikely to help Russia’s long-term interests.

Similarly, thinking about the future, we should refrain from emphasizing the “gap in values” between Russia and Europe and put an end to the humiliating portrayal of European leaders as "puppets of Washington,” “single marriage proponents” and so forth. The undisguised gloating over the European Union’s current economic and financial difficulties comes off as just as inappropriate, not to mention the endless prophecies of an imminent collapse of the entire “European project.”

What are the real prospects of Eurasian integration?

Integration processes in the Eurasian space are caused by objective and long-term factors. But shouldn’t the dramatic worsening of relations between Russia and the West have a powerful impact on these processes?

Firstly, the experience of other integration projects has shown that successful projects are possible during the stage of economic recovery of participating countries, but not in down times, let alone an unfolding crisis.

Secondly, the Ukrainian conflict has created long-term political complications for Moscow even with such close allies as Belarus and Kazakhstan, which cannot but affect their attitude toward economic integration.

Thirdly, it is easy to predict that our Western opponents who have never been fond of the Kremlin’s integration efforts will now redouble their efforts to, at least, slow down the rapprochement between Russia and its partners, offering the latest enticing economic and political alternatives.

What additional arguments can Russia find to maintain the attractiveness of the integration project to its neighbors under these circumstances? The joint struggle with the crisis is certainly a prerequisite for the successful continuation of the project. But it is not the only necessary condition. It is equally important to offer the partners a clear and convincing picture of the long-term prospects of integration processes. These prospects should not boil down to the mere reasoning that world energy prices will sooner or later rise, and the Eurasian region will prosper again. The matter at hand here is not just restoring confidence in the economic model of our country’s development (and the current model should drastically change to this end in view), but restoring the attractiveness of Russian civilization, without which we are bound to lose all remaining allies and partners.

Is it possible to escape another arms race with the West?

Russia's current program of modernizing its armed forces was developed and adopted during a fundamentally different economic and political situation: oil prices were different; sanctions against Russia were not yet conceived of; and our economic development forecasts did not expect any crisis. And the West until recently had not prepared for a serious military confrontation with Moscow, as evidenced by the stable dynamics of the decreasing military budgets of most NATO-member countries. Today things have changed for us, and not for the better.

The country faces the challenge of an uncontrolled arms race with the West amidst growing domestic economic problems. The expressed desire of the country's leadership to maintain the integrity of rearmament plans even at the expense of civil budget items is quite understandable, but is it possible for the civil economy and defense industry to pursue divergent courses in the 21st century? Shouldn’t we rather concentrate on the inevitable optimization of defense spending, making up for the latter’s reduction with a more flexible and ingenious diplomacy, using asymmetric responses to the challenges of opponents?

The resumption of a meaningful dialogue with the West on strategic and conventional weapons appears to be a far from easy task under these circumstances. But the absence of such a dialogue not only dramatically increases the risk of an accidental outbreak of military conflict (including a nuclear one), but also does not enable us to counteract the most dangerous and destabilizing trends of the arms race, not to mention the impossibility of releasing resources so badly needed for the development of the civil economy and the social sphere. These truisms were well known even during the Cold War, which explains why half a century ago the USSR and the United States began intensive negotiations that resulted in the conclusion of a number of historical agreements, first on the limitation and then on the reduction of the strategic arsenals of both countries. Perhaps, it is time to return to this experience of the epoch of global confrontation between the two superpowers, since any “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Washington in the foreseeable future is out of the question.

What to do with the unrecognized states and territories?

Unrecognized states and “frozen” conflicts in the post-Soviet space have more than once created diverse political and economic problems for Russia. But if before the Ukrainian crisis there was some possibility of finding compromise solutions and settling at least some of these problems, today this possibility is close to zero. Moreover, the existing variety of unrecognized entities is likely to include in the near future the LPR and the DPR, which surpass all the existing state anomalies combined in population and territory. What will this mean for Russia in the coming decades in economic and political terms? What price will it have to pay? And what should the Russian strategy be: a continued stake on maintaining the status quo, or the adoption of certain unconventional steps to reduce Russia's involvement in these conflicts?

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Of course, this isn’t about abandoning support in an instant to our friends and allies across the borders of our country. But this support should be made targeted, more transparent and efficient as well as less costly for Russia. It is possible and, apparently, even necessary. Likewise, it is possible and necessary to encourage the leaders of unrecognized states to enter into an active and extensive dialogue with their opponents, striving for consistent if slow progress in resolving these conflicts. It is no secret that in all unrecognized states, there are forces that are not interested in any dialogue and rely solely on maintained and even increased support from Moscow. But should Russian policy place a stake on these particular forces in the long run?

How to build a new immigration policy and relations with the Russian Diaspora?

It is easy to predict that one of the inevitable consequences of the current crisis will be a dramatic increase in the outflow of the energetic and promising professionals abroad. In reality, this trend became apparent in 2014 when the number of emigrants reached record levels since the beginning of the century. The counter-flow – the return of Russian experts, scientists and entrepreneurs working in the West – is becoming shallow in front of our very eyes. At the same time, the number of migrant workers coming from the CIS countries and abroad is shrinking rapidly. It is worth noting that this situation of social and economic instability, most likely, will render null our modest success in increasing the birth rate, as the latter usually reduces sharply during crisis periods. Apparently, Russia will soon have to face the most acute shortage of human resources in its post-Soviet history. Moreover, this deficit will affect the entire labor market, from unskilled workers to world-class specialists.

Are we ready for this radically new situation? Or should we make significant adjustments to the current immigration policy and the practice of interacting with Russian diasporas? The ongoing discussions of a possible abolition of the Federal Migration Service and the transfer of its functions to the Ministry of the Interior cannot but make one uneasy. After all, the matter at issue is not just the bureaucratic apparatus games inside the Kremlin, but the place of migration policy in Russia's general modernization strategy for decades to come. The times of readily available migration resources are over for us, while the need for such resources, in contrast, is growing. Therefore, the emphasis in Russian migration policy should probably be transferred from the administrative mechanisms of regulating migration flows (the Ministry of the Interior can cope with this perfectly well) to finding solutions to problems of migrants’ adaptation and integration (which requires the combined efforts of the government, business, civil society, educational institutions, media and many other institutions).

What changes are needed in the mechanisms of using soft power?

It must be admitted that the crisis has changed for the worse attitudes toward Russia in most countries of the world. One can argue that the current anti-Russian sentiments and stereotypes are neither justified nor stable, but it is difficult to assume that they will disappear on their own without a sustained effort on our part. Meanwhile, opportunities for implementing large-scale and expensive PR-projects like the Sochi Olympics are absent today, and in the coming years they are unlikely to appear. Budget infusions into propaganda agencies for foreign audiences are shrinking, and state-funded places in Russian universities for foreign students and graduate students will probably also fall under sequestration. Increased funding of Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) and similar organizations is hardly possible. Accordingly, we have to create new, effective and low-cost mechanisms for the use of Russian “soft power” that will work in a very unfavorable environment.

Perhaps, the discussion of this subject should start with an unbiased and objective analysis of our failures and defeats on this front. Why, for example, has Russia's “soft power” failed to work properly before and during the crisis in Ukraine, even in respect of a substantial part of the Russian-speaking population?

Then, we have to draw up an inventory of the instruments of “soft power” technologies already employed and the methods of their application. It sometimes appears that with regard to “soft power,” we are moving not forward, but back to the tried and familiar, although archaic and often openly counterproductive, patterns of Soviet times. The question arises about whom in the future will be our main target audience abroad: the political mainstream in the West and in the East, or the right and left-wing radicals who do their utmost to undermine this mainstream? Placing a stake on radicals can yield quick and tangible results (especially, given the current political and social instability in many countries around the world), but in the long term this approach may prove incorrect.

What should the basis of the new Russian patriotism be?

Today the patriotic upsurge is considered to be one of the main positive outcomes of the Ukrainian crisis. However, one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to note that this upsurge is largely due to anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian sentiments, rather than to the fostering of one’s own although rather ambiguous values. Whether these anti-Western sentiments reflect the real picture of the modern world is a separate topic. But in any case, this foundation of Russian patriotism is more than shaky, and we can not exclude the possibility of growing social apathy and cynicism in the very near future, especially amidst rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. In addition, Russian patriotism today is rather a jealous glance at the great past of the country than a bona fide attempt to draw its desired future basing on today's realities.

However, the modernization of Russia is far from possible without the unifying force of civil patriotism. As the experience of many other countries has shown, it is exactly the patriotic feeling that helps to endure losses and hardships, to cope with the challenges and difficulties typical for any period of social and economic modernization. Such mobilizing patriotism looks to the future, not to the past; it has more to do with hope than with memories, with all the undeniable significance of the latter for the national self-consciousness.

It is appropriate to ask what kind of Russia we want to see in ten, twenty or thirty years. What country would we like to leave to our children and grandchildren? Maybe, it's time to shift the focus from the persistent cultivation of a “besieged fortress” mentality to the democratic social development of our common future?

... The above questions may seem to some people untimely, politically incorrect, or, conversely, too abstract, and even rhetorical. However, an acute crisis is also the time to take a fresh look not only at the world around us, but at ourselves too. It is the time to raise inopportune, politically incorrect and abstract questions, even if there are no detailed and comprehensive answers to them yet.

Politicians and practicing experts have become engrossed with the current crisis, but the society like never before needs a meaningful debate about the foreign policy strategy of building a new country. Our external environment has radically and irreversibly changed and continues to change rapidly. And it means that the sooner we begin this discussion, the better we will be prepared for life “after Ukraine.” As Peter Drucker, the greatest management theoretician of the 20th century said on another occasion, “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”

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Andrey Kortunov, “Seven Steps beyond the Horizon of the Crisis,” Russian International Affairs Council, 04 February 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=5191

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