2016 – A Victory of Conservative Realism
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Dean of the Department of World Economics and World Politics of the National Research University-Higher School of Economics
In the winter of 2014, two months before the events in Crimea, when it was already clear that the confrontation with the West was getting increasingly tense, I read again Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was struck by a phrase that had not caught my attention before: “A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it.” I realized then that Russia would resolve and win.
More than three years later, the tide has turned. There are still many dangers ahead; the economic base is still weak; and reforms, the fight against corruption, and the change of elites are proceeding too slowly. But in foreign policy Russia has held out, it is winning in almost all areas and has significantly strengthened its international positions. Factors that helped it achieve this are the will, the unification of the majority of people and elites, brilliant diplomacy, and the ability for strategic foresight.
It was also just good luck. Our partners who decided to “punish” Russia and reverse their retreat saw the ground falling away underneath them. But luck favors the strong… and conservative realists who are directing Russia’s policy that has been successfully countering both reactionaries, who are pulling the country back into bipolar confrontation, and liberal radicals, who wanted to outrun history and impose upon nations order that the radicals considered progressive (and beneficial for themselves). Geopolitically and ideologically, Russia took “the right side of history.”
The End of Two Eras
The year 2016 marked the end of two eras: the Cold War between the two blocs, which some have unsuccessfully been trying to revive, and the “unipolar moment”—the West’s hegemony—that followed it. While it was generally believed that Russia had lost the Cold War (although Russians never thought so, believed that they had overthrown communism themselves, and under no circumstances admit defeat), the “unipolar moment” was lost in the 2000s by the West which tried to expand its sphere of influence and control but failed. It has been trying to take revenge over the past seven or eight years, primarily by discomfiting the moral leader of the risen “new”—Russia, but failed again.
Many of the changes are quite objective: the rise of Asia, China and the other “new” when the “old” could no longer stop the process because of the nuclear factor. The European Union crisis is largely objective, long-term and almost all-embracing. Mankind is going back to the world of nation states on a new and global basis.
Russia stands to benefit from these changes, many of which it actually catalyzed. I don’t want to jinx it, but 2016 was not only a year of pivotal changes worldwide but also a year of Russia’s foreign-policy victories.
Conditions are now shaping up for the formation of a new, more just and stable world order. The situation is similar to that in 1812-1814 when the fortitude of Russian soldiers, the power of their weapons, and the far-sightedness and magnanimity of Emperor Alexander I together with the wisdom of Metternich and Talleyrand became key factors in creating a Concert of Nations in Vienna in 1815—an international system that ensured relative peace and vast opportunities for the development of the majority of European states for almost a hundred years ahead.
Luck is returning to Russia again. Oil prices have stabilized at an acceptable level, and the forces in the world which sought Russia’s defeat and openly declared their desire to “tear apart” its economy, “change its regime” or force it to change its policy by means of sanctions, “isolation” or “strategic patience,” are backing down. In the United States, the globalist ideologized elite suffered a defeat, failing to take revenge and restore the short-lived American hegemony it had ruined itself by the reckless and incompetent policy of “spreading democracy,” which resulted in political fiascos in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, destabilized the entire Middle Eastern region, and shattered the United States’ moral and psychological positions. European brothers of this elite are losing power in one European country after another as they have forgotten the interests of their own countries and the majority of people in their futile pursuit of a global victory of “democratism” and “new European values.” These elites put mankind’s best creation—the European Union—at risk and sought to make up for their blunders by imposing joint sanctions as a last resort. But they will not last long as their societies will obviously want to change their elites for right-wing and conservative at first and eventually probably for leftist but relatively patriotic ones.
Russia’s victories are largely man-made. They are the result of a realistic assessment of the world and adequate decisions. In the second half of the 2000s the probability of a new large-scale war obviously increased due to the Georgia conflict, NATO’s decision to open the way to its membership for Ukraine and Georgia, the growing destabilization of the Middle East, and attempts by the West to take revenge. When it had become clear for Russia that it had no chance to make an amicable agreement with the West, it started an effective military reform. When time came for a direct political confrontation, few wanted to raise the stakes. The expansion of Western alliances into territories vital for Russia’s security had been stopped by 2016. Ukraine, which was hurled, maliciously or thoughtlessly, into the cauldron of confrontation, has been denied even symbolic tokens of its “European choice.”
For almost twenty-five years, Russia teetered on the brink of the “Weimar syndrome”—a sense of humiliation and injustice thrusted on it by Western policies. But, unlike Germany in the 1930s, Russia escaped being drawn into it; it launched a political fight, held out and ended up the winner. Also, a very promising fundamental change occurred in the minds of the leading part of the Russian ruling elite and the majority of people. Over the past 300 years, geostrategically and culturally they saw themselves and their country as a periphery of Europe. Since 2011-2012, Russia sharply intensified its turn towards the growing economic and political markets of Asia. This coincided in time with the aggravation of the political and ideological confrontation with post-modern Europe which largely forgot its core values and their roots that attracted Russia as well. Russia came to understand that the European Union had entered into a comprehensive crisis with no end anywhere in sight for the time being. Having realized that, Russia mentally turned from a European province into the center of rising Eurasia, into a conservative yet forward-looking Atlantic-Pacific power, which, I hope, will not have any firm global commitments.
A Pivot to the East
Relative conservatism of Russia’s foreign policy did not prevent Moscow from starting a pivot to the East, belated but resolute. For four centuries Russia looked at its Asian territories as a burden it had to protect and develop or as the backyard in its confrontation with the West. Now Siberia is emerging as a driving force of development, and Asia is assuming primary importance in the country’s foreign policy. The share of Asian countries in foreign trade is growing. Russia may reach the long-sought balance in five years or so, shaking off its excessive dependence on European markets, which sanctions showed is disadvantageous not only politically but also economically.
The Russia-ASEAN summit in 2016 laid the basis for a significant growth of trade with this group of rapidly developing countries. Trade turnover with India is on the rise, and an agreement has been reached to build a gas pipeline to that country. Finally, work has been stepped up to launch direct railway service to Iran towards India and the Persian Gulf region via Azerbaijan.
The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) Commission and Beijing are discussing concrete ways to integrate the Silk Road project with the EEU and create a non-preferential free trade area between the Eurasian Economic Union and China. A similar agreement has been signed with Vietnam. Almost forty other countries are wishing to set up such areas with the EEU.
A series of agreements between Japan and Russia on economic cooperation in the Far East and on Kurile Islands became a major success as they benefit the two countries not only economically but also geopolitically. Japan has de facto left the West’s anti-Russian front which was already bursting at the seams. Cooperation between the two countries is another element that will ward off the risk of China’s dominance which is dangerous for Beijing itself as it would inevitably prompt other states to form a counterbalance to China. Close friendly ties between Russia and China, coupled with cooperation with other neighbors, creates conditions for Beijing’s constructive and beneficial immersion into a network of institutions and relations.
In 2016, the idea of building a continental partnership of Greater Eurasia—an area of development, cooperation, and security from Tokyo (or Shanghai) to Lisbon—acquired an official status. It was publicly declared by the president of Russia and later reiterated by the leaders of China and Russia as their official goal.
A Trend Reserved
The Syria operation has so far been a special success story. All of its goals have been achieved. Terrorist groups were not allowed to take control of the entire country and its coast, which seemed almost inevitable and which would have made it even worse than Chechnya in the 1990s. A countless number of terrorists, especially from former Soviet republics, were killed. A series of regime change operations, carried out by the West in the past two decades, were stopped. Respect for the norms of international law and co-existence, which the West systematically violated, are being reestablished. The focus was shifted from Ukraine where the situation is likely to remain hopeless in the years to come. Conditions were created for constructive cooperation with the United States.
Russia demonstrated new possibilities of its Armed Forces and strengthened one of their key functions, that is, deterrence, including the strategic one, supporting it with effective launches of high-precision cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and new airborne missiles.
Following abortive attempts to begin a peace process with Western countries, Moscow started it with key regional powers such as Iran and Turkey. Having resolved its crisis with Ankara which had apologized for the downed Russian fighter aircraft, Russia proved that it is a serious power once again, which was particularly evident against the background of the United States’ flip-flops, and concessions and arm-twisting by Europeans. But any success is unstable in such a volatile situation with a large number of players involved. So far, Russia has avoided being hopelessly and deeply involved in the conflict, which its foes openly desired.
As far as I understand, keeping Bashar al-Assad in power permanently is not among the Russian elite’s priorities. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian civil war, which may last indefinitely, the victory in Aleppo, achieved by Russia together with the legitimate Syrian government’s forces, has won Russia the status of a key regional power in the Middle East and a global power. Russia has also restored the global balance, which was upset after the Soviet Union left the world stage, resulting in NATO turning from a defensive alliance into an aggressor in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya. With all the dangers, the world is becoming more stable.
Having stopped the neo-Weimar expansion of Western alliances, which threatened with a big war, and the practice of regime change, Russia is regaining its traditional and internationally important role of one of the main, if not the main, suppliers of security.
But the most important changes, which began in 2014 and finally occurred in 2016, took place in the psychological state of society and its elites. The West made its strongest attack, or counterattack, in the information field where it still holds key positions. It was believed that it also had the upper hand in soft power: the way of life in relatively free and, most importantly, rich Western societies were considered more attractive. Beginning in 2013, the Western anti-Russian propaganda became total: no good or at least correct news about Russia. There was so much lie that the entire Western propaganda looked false. When at the end of its term the badly defeated Obama administration started accusing Russia of nearly undermining the state system in America, even its allies obviously felt embarrassed.
Propaganda capabilities apparently were not equal, but the general trend is being reversed too. Russia is catching up in the information sphere even though its mass media are by far outnumbered by its opponents’. A firm and calm policy played the main role in changing the situation. Russian leaders, unlike Western counterparts, did not resort to verbal attacks. Russia proposed viable principles that are attractive for the majority of peoples and countries: protection of national sovereignty, freedom of political and cultural choice, and normal values of public and private life, not postmodern ones, rooted in the thousands of years of human history.
This set of values and readiness to protect them gave Russia a great soft power asset. Another factor was the strong conservative reaction in the West and the whole world to the efforts to impose postmodernism, ultra-liberalism and globalization on their societies. Western elites that had lost touch with their people called this reaction populism and sometimes, quite absurdly, fascism. However, they did not stop the tide but rather encouraged it. State nationalism is on the rise. Postmodern Western values have also been rejected by rising Asia. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia took “the right side of history.”
The West switched over from the information and political offense to defense. The uproar over omnipotent “Russian hackers” capable of undermining the political structures of the West showed its previously concealed inner weakness. The United States, but especially Europe, have given up propaganda mantras and are adopting one counter-propaganda program after another. The purpose is not to shake Russia, which has become consolidated under external pressure and whose people assaulted by a barrage of almost completely unfair propaganda have developed immunity against it, and not even to damage Russia’s international positions, but to protect their own crumbling institutions and values which are more and more often questioned by society.
What Is To Be Done
We live and will live in a difficult, highly competitive, dangerous, and increasingly unpredictable world. It is important to start economic growth and development in order not to fall behind the new technological revolution again. Economic weakness provokes external pressure.
In fact, Russia’s foreign-policy strategy for the coming years is clear enough, at least to me, to the extent possible amid the dizzying changes taking place in the world.
Russia should continue the modernization of its Armed Forces, but with less spending, and Vladimir Putin has already confirmed that. Russia’s achievements, I’m sure, have sent a clear signal to all that it is not only prepared but able to firmly protect its interests.
Economic diplomacy must be developed and strengthened further. We are now witnessing the de-liberalization and politicization of the world economy. Competitors constantly accuse Russia of massive use of economic weapons. Unfortunately, such accusations for the most part are false. We still do not have an adequate geoeconomic strategy dovetailed to foreign policy and the economic policy of the country. Russia’s policy of assistance to other countries shocks by obsoleteness and ineffectiveness.
An absence of foreign economic policy strategy, or its complete absence, delayed Russia’s pivot to the East for more than a decade and caused the failure of its policy towards Ukraine where we had substantial economic possibilities to force or encourage it to cooperate. Nor there is a body responsible for developing and enforcing a foreign economic strategy. The current one is largely based on the ideology of the past which partners and competitors are abandoning.
There is a risk of getting carried away or too much involved in the bottomless quagmire of Middle Eastern conflicts. A decisive victory is impossible there; a defeat is almost inevitable if we get bogged down in the region, especially since those who sought, quite openly, to turn it into a new edition of Afghanistan are still there.
As for the constructive agenda, we must continue and speed up our “pivot to the East.” This time we should also engage Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN countries. We urgently need a set of measures to develop our economic relations, still weak, with India and Iran. And naturally we should safeguard and develop our latest achievement—the de facto strategic union with China, especially in view of inevitable attempts by the new U.S. administration to make us estranged from each other.
If we yet are unprepared, mainly due to insufficient institutional and expert potential, to join multilateral trade negotiations in Eurasia as part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership led by China and ASEAN, we must built up such potential. But at the same time we should long have started working harder to develop and institutionalize the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is a potential central institution of the emerging geoeconomic and geopolitical partnership of Greater Eurasia, one of the two pillars of the future world.
The other one is the community forming around the United States. Competition will not end and may actually become quite fierce. But the new U.S. administration, which wants to focus on domestic affairs, is creating a window of opportunity for normalizing bilateral relations and building them on the basis of interests and balances. Russia’s latest successes have given it enough power to bargain for its own benefit.
It would be reasonable for both countries to pool efforts in order to crush Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. The roots of the crisis run deep, and only historical development can resolve it. But if the Islamic State (banned in the Russian Federation) and the like are not eradicated, if they are not shown that they cannot win, the Middle East and the whole world are doomed to face new waves of extremist ideological terrorism. The two countries’ policy of supporting the existing states and regimes would be rational. Any weakening of statehood, especially in such a sensitive region as the Middle East, is a proven evil.
Russia should also try to reach agreement with the Americans on the prevention of re-militarization of Europe, which is becoming increasingly fragile due to the deepening crisis of the European Union that may lead to relative destabilization of the continent. “Stable confrontation” like that during the previous Cold War, which many in the United States and Europe dreamt of when they started the crisis, cannot be stable in present-day Europe.
It is necessary to take the edge off the military-strategic confrontation but not through counterproductive or outdated disarmament negotiations that were conducted in the closing years of the Cold War or during the “reset.”
It is time to leave behind the reactionary idealism of illusions about nuclear disarmament and understand that it is nuclear deterrence, despite its dangers, that saved the world from a catastrophe in the past and is saving it now, in the era of stunningly rapid and dangerous changes and new challenges, including cyber threats. If it is impossible, or maybe even fatal, to overcome nuclear deterrence, it is better to try to optimize it in a conservative and rational manner through constant broad dialogue among all nuclear powers under the leadership of Russia and the United States. Even if we do not trust each other, we can still agree to joint rules and cooperation in order to prevent a catastrophe.
Having become a full-fledged and future-oriented Pacific-Atlantic power and having strengthened its positions, Russia should start thinking about mending its relations with Europe, damaged by the greed and thoughtlessness of some of the neighboring countries. Major agreements with the EU are hardly plausible as Brussels is largely incapable. But discussion must be conducted in order to facilitate the creation of a new partnership of Greater Eurasia which should also include Europe. It would be advisable to start developing relations with leading countries, thus pressing for isolation or self-isolation of countries that hold anti-Russian views. Another important area of work is multilateral consortiums with Russian, European and Asian companies to implement various projects, including those in Siberia and the Russian Far East. It would be useful for Russian companies to participate in multiplying Chinese projects in Europe as well.
We should not reanimate old and failed negotiation formats, into which our partners are trying to draw us in order to prevent us from breaking the impasse they consider beneficial for themselves. A resumption of the Russia-NATO political dialogue would be a mistake bordering on appeasement and legitimization of the aggressor. The Russia-NATO dialogue should be reoriented to the military level to prevent incidents, while interaction within the OSCE should focus on the coordination of efforts to combat terrorism, cyber threats and illegal migration, the protection of external borders, and the prevention and settlement of crises—the Ukrainian crisis and possible similar future crises in the EU. The purpose of the European policy is to develop cultural, civilizational, human, and economic ties important for Russia, and engage Western neighbors in the development and cooperation area of Greater Eurasia.
The Ukrainian situation is hopeless for the time being. While continuing to insist on full implementation of the Minsk accords and building bypass transport routes, Russia should press for undelayed broad autonomy for Donbass within Ukraine. Later, Russia should work towards the emergence of a neutral, independent and Russia-friendly Ukraine or many Ukraines, if Kiev fails to retain control over the entire territory of the country. The only way for Ukraine to survive is to turn from an object of rivalry into a bridge and a buffer.
An absolutely new world will also need a global governance body. The UN Security Council is indispensable, but it is laden with the inertia of bygone times. Other institutions are becoming weaker. Sooner or later—better sooner as there seems to be no alternative—the world will return to the Concert of Nations concept. At first, if these efforts succeed, we will have a Group of Three—Russia, China, and the U.S. Later, they could be joined by India, Japan, perhaps Brazil and some leading European countries.
Going back to the historical parallel which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The lost battles of Austerlitz and Smolensk (twice), and the hard-won battles of Borodino, Stalingrad and Kursk are behind us. If this is really so, it is better to go not to Paris, as in 1814, or Berlin, as in 1945, but straight to Vienna of 1815 to build peace and a new, conservative but future-oriented Concert of Nations and create a governance structure for a new world. Without such a return to the roots, chaos will only keep growing.