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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The main thrust of media coverage going into 2016 can be described with one single phrase – the situation is complicated, but it will get even worse. Such assessments are typical during times of rapid change. And foreign policy is no exception. The set of problems and challenges is without a doubt far reaching. But in current circumstances it is probably best not to get bogged down in illusory optimism or pessimism. We need to take stock of the achievements made and possible steps that can be taken in future.

The main thrust of media coverage going into 2016 can be described with one single phrase – the situation is complicated, but it will get even worse. Such assessments are typical during times of rapid change. And foreign policy is no exception. The set of problems and challenges is without a doubt far reaching. But in current circumstances it is probably best not to get bogged down in illusory optimism or pessimism. We need to take stock of the achievements made and possible steps that can be taken in future.

The “Age of Politics”

2015 was a year of rapidly unfolding multi-polarity. Multi-polarity has long been the mantra of foreign policy documents and speeches. The idea is that a multi-polar world order is inherently more just and democratic. It is often viewed as an alternative to the unipolar world led by the United States.

But multi-polarity is flawed as well. If the potential of the various players is asymmetrical, and the “rules of the game” are weak, then multi-polarity leads to greater uncertainty and a greater risk of conflict. And the longer the players tread these “muddy waters”, the greater the temptation becomes to second-guess the “rules of the game” and act pre-emptively. This process of acting and reacting ultimately undermines the institutions, and any trace of trust that remained soon goes too. Multi-polarity without institutions is similar to a dry forest – a spark is enough to set off a huge fire.

In 2015, several players demonstrated that they were prepared to use (or call for the use of) force to defend their global and regional interests. Russia got involved in the Syrian conflict. China continued to have disputes over islands in the South China Sea. Turkey raised the stakes in the Middle East in dramatic fashion. In the past, these events would have been seen as isolated incidents. Now they have become the norm. Power politics is no longer the prerogative of the United States. Other players are actively taking responsibility in the field of security. We are also talking about the more independent actions of the United States’ allies in NATO here.

It is against this background that the United Nations, the world’s key international institution, is taking most of the heat. It managed to make a breakthrough in finding a resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The interest in the anniversary session of the UN General Assembly showed that talk about the decline of the organization was indeed premature. And the resolution on Syria, which states that the country will undergo political reform under the aegis of the United Nations and not under the direction of individual powers, can also be considered a success. This is a major victory for Russian diplomacy and the general policy of the Russian Federation to strengthen the United Nations.

The fate of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is far more worrying. Its 40th anniversary, as Sergei Karaganov aptly noted, almost turned into a memorial service. The question of whether or not the organization will be reformed is up in the air. Long-standing ideas about strengthening the OSCE, which would include taking on a number of NATO’s functions, are unacceptable for our partners. The organization played a key role in freezing the Ukrainian crisis, but it is not strong enough to deal with growing conflicts. This much was made abundantly clear after it did practically nothing in response to the downing of the Russian Su-24. Russian military presence in Syria prevented the situation from escalating further. The balance of powers turned out to be stronger than international institutions.

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On the whole, 2015 marked the triumphant return of the “Age of Politics” to international relations. Even in the former bipolar world, not to mention the 25 years that came after the end of the Cold War, international politics were dominated by economic concerns. Globalization is a product of the economy, not of politics. Last year, we saw how political interests crush economic viability. The randomness and fluctuations of 2014 once again became the norm in 2015. What does all this mean for Russia? Let us take a look at the key points of Russian policy over the past year.


The fact that Ukraine has ceased to be a major topic for media outlets in Russia and around the world by no means signifies that the issue has been resolved. Less than a year ago, the Donbass region was embroiled in a brutal series of armed conflicts, which in many ways prompted the next round of negotiations that led to the new Minsk II Accords. The freezing of the conflict was a key result of these negotiations.

But the Minsk Process is unlikely to be completed even next year, despite the fact that the deadline was supposed to be the end of 2015. The Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics and Ukraine differ fundamentally in terms of the manner in which they are implementing the Minsk Accords. Ukraine is interested in regaining control over its borders with the Russian Federation, holding elections on Ukrainian legislation, and the subsequent implementation of agreements in current conditions. It is clear that this approach is unlikely to be accepted by the unrecognized republics. In this scenario, they would lose control over the situation, and their fates would be in the hands of the Ukrainian authorities. On the other hand, the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics have combat-ready armed forces and the support of Russia. And this means that they can push their own agenda, which is to be granted maximum autonomy and the right to keep their armed forces and exercise control over the borders, even if it is under the nominal sovereignty of Ukraine. Finding a compromise between these two positions is an extremely difficult task.

The state of Ukraine itself will have a profound effect on the situation. The collapse of Ukrainian statehood is unlikely. Paradoxically, the Brownian motion inside the country is making it extremely strong. The authorities in Kiev have been able, at least partially, to shift responsibility for the situation in which the country now finds itself to the regions and numerous political actors. Such a system is very difficult to control. But it is very difficult to destroy as well.

Political and economic support from the West is also significant here. EU and NATO membership is a very distant prospect. But the country’s many contacts with the West on all kinds of levels will keep it afloat. A model has emerged in Ukraine by which democratic institutions exist side by side with a weak, but stable state. At the same time, the country’s sovereignty is limited by the frozen conflict, as well as by its dependence on foreign partners.

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What is also of importance is the fact that Ukraine and Russia have lost each other as partners, most probably for a very long time. It looks like the “Age of Politics” has begun with Russia–Ukraine relations. Political interests have destroyed the huge potential that existed for economic cooperation and trade.

Syria and the Middle East

Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian conflict was just as surprising as the Ukrainian events that unfolded a year earlier. It broke the paradigm of military non-intervention in the affairs of foreign states. Russia showed determination to defend its own vision of how to resolve the Syrian issue, the essence of which is to preserve the country’s statehood, put an end to the civil war, and then usher in political change at a time of relative stability and peace. The idea of preserving statehood has become an important component of Russian foreign policy, a counterweight to the West’s concept of democracy at any cost. The crises of state and subsequent civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine legitimize this concept. And Russia’s own experience of political transition makes the philosophy of statehood much more than a theoretical doctrine. For the first time in a long time, Russia enters the international arena with a clear system of values and priorities, one that has been formulated as a result of its own experiences. At the same time, Russia offers its partners compromises with regard to the political process in Syria. Islamic State is an important component in the equation, but it is far from the only one. Russia is attempting to offer a solution to the essence of the problem, and it sees Islamic State as a consequence of this. Russian diplomacy has scored an unequivocal victory by bringing the positions of its Western partners closer together with regard to the Syrian crisis.

The operation in Syria has revealed a number of hazards. The Russian Air Force has supported the Syrian army in the air, meaning that victory “on the ground” is by no means guaranteed. Russia’s involvement in the conflict could thus be very drawn out indeed. An even more serious threat is combatting regional powers, which risks military incidents and further escalation. The incident with the Su-24 put an end to 20 years of strategic partnership with Turkey. Economic interdependence, which the liberals believe to be insurance against political conflicts, was destroyed overnight. “Well-armed gentlemen” are once again taking to the international stage. This does not bode well for international security. The UN Resolution on Syria risks being undermined by deliberate attempts to stir up the conflict. This is a negative scenario for Russia.

Islamic radicalism poses an even greater threat for Russia. Islamic State can be destroyed by military means, but its ideology and social base will remain. Cross-border radicalism is gaining momentum. Fighting Islamic State in Syria today, Russia may incite a new wave of unrest near its borders with Central Asian countries. There is a risk of this happening in 2016. And competition with neighbouring countries only complicates the situation.

What Should the West Do? What Should We Do with the West?

Russia’s activity on the international stage has caused mixed feelings in the West. On the one hand, Russia is a force to be reckoned with, a partner with whom the West should strive to cooperate – on an equal footing – on a number of issues. 2015 was a turning point in this regard. Western countries have sought to establish cooperation with Russia, understanding that they cannot resolve the Ukrainian and Syrian crises without Russia.

On the other hand, the desire to punish Russia directly or indirectly will be present in Western politics for a long time to come. The ideal situation for the West as a result of this punishment would be a crisis of the political system driven by a flagging economy, continued sanctions, public protests and internal squabbles among the elites. At the same time, the punishment has to be spectacular and effective, but not bloody – the collective West fears civil war and the disintegration of a nuclear power even more than it does Russia gaining power. The motive of punishment will inevitably be present in Western politics, despite the fact that it pursues partnership relations in a number of areas. Not all countries support this course. But strategic interdependence in key institutions (NATO, the EU) forces them to follow the general plan. We are not talking about some kind of conspiracy against Russia that has to be played out within a specific timeframe, however, although this could happen given then right circumstances.

For Russia, this is a reason to take a serious look at areas where it may be vulnerable. Professional diplomacy and surgical interference in international affairs gives Russia short-term advantages only. In order to play the long game, we need a serious domestic economic base. And it is unlikely that we will be able to piece one together in isolation, without cooperating with the outside world (including the West). Russia will have to play a very delicate game if it is to defend its security interests. At the same time it should seek cooperation formats with the outside world that will further the country’s development.

The Eurasian Alternative?

The establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was the achievement of 2015. For the first time in 25 years, Russia and its partners managed to launch a significant integration project that went beyond the Soviet legacy. The initiative to connect the EAEU and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project caused a huge stir. Does this mean that Russia’s “pivot to the East” solves the problem of deteriorating relations with the West? No. The experience of China shows that diversifying international partners is preferable to focusing on a select group of countries, even when under sanctions. Declarations from both sides on cooperation between the EAEU and the EU are cause for moderate optimism. The seriousness of Russia’s cooperation with the European Union and China will be put to the test in 2016. The EAEU will have to address the issue of deepening integration while at the same time trying to find a way out of the economic crisis. If it manages to do this, then the future of the Union will look promising. Another task is to avoid politicizing the EAEU. This temptation is unavoidable in the “Age of Politics”. But constructing a political building without a foundation will only increase the risk of the project becoming unstable in the long term. The slogan “Here we Go, Economy!” will not lose its relevance even in the age of politics.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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