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28.12.2011. Europe Not Growing Any More

Russia: Results of the year and agenda for tomorrow

First, I would like to make a reservation: I will sum up foreign policy results and bring forward my proposals, mostly from the standpoint of foreign policy, which I believe would be advantageous in the next few years.
We are now so accustomed to breathtaking changes that they hardly catch our attention. Meanwhile, the outgoing year has delivered several drastic changes in Russia’s international environment.
The crisis-related problems that had been piling up in the European Union in the recent years due to its inability to address them swiftly have apparently acquired a new quality. Our immediate neighbor, partner and potential ally has plunged into a systemic crisis which cannot let it return to the old ways and anywhere soon. The EU will either have to split the eurozone in two or have some countries leave it, to prevent the fall of the edifice of European integration – a concerted effort of two generations and one of the highest achievements of the human civilization.
For Russia, this crisis is of critical significance, and not only because it can further slow down Europe’s growth, aggravate the stagnation of the world economy, provoke a second wave of the world economic crisis or plunge the demand for oil and gas.
It strikes a new blow at Russia’s traditional European orientation, which has been the most important source of its economic, political and social modernization and development.
Most importantly, the European crisis makes the European Union and a large part of its members unpromising partners for Russia in the near future. The EU will have to withdraw even deeper in itself. The crisis postpones the opportunity for Russia to create, together with Europe, a common economic, energy and humanitarian space. The necessity of this project proposed by Russia was acknowledged by many in European top elite, especially the business community. In the absence of a rapprochement project, secondary issues that have divided Russia and the EU will again surface. Thus far, Russia’s relations with the EU will stay deadlocked.
The “reset” of Russian-U.S. relations has petered out as the new agenda for it never materialized and failed to give it an impulse and relations inevitable started to slide back. The split of the U.S. political elite ties the hands of the incumbent quite constructive administration and makes Russia prepare for a possible rise to power of much more conservative, if not reactionary, leadership. It might attempt to gain geopolitical revanche along Reagan’s lines, which is likely to make America even a greater failure in the new world. Yet it would push Moscow onto a well-trodden path of confrontation with Washington, which cannot give us any benefit. Correct relations with the United States have strengthened our positions in relations with other centers of power. Poor relations will weaken them. Also, confrontation will divert resources from the renovation of the Russian economy and society. It might even make Russia cross the line between the critically needed economic revival and army reform, and the arms race which once contributed to the country’s downfall.
Thirty years ago, overreacting to Reagan’s absolutely mythical Star War project was one of the last holes that sank the Soviet flagship.
In any case, orienting Russia’s foreign-policy towards America is becoming unpromising also. We can only hope that the damage will be reasonably limited and we we’ll be able to quietly make headway in other directions. Therefore, the West is a blind alley for Russia for some time, or, worse, a way to get involved in unnecessary confrontation.
The situation in the South does not look very promising either. The Muslim world, which has been rocked by the Arab Spring revolts, is apparently entering a period of still greater instability and degradation. Israel is in a desperate situation. The possibility of a strike at Iran does not look distant any more. Indeed, it looks likely. With a high probability of a new wave of crises sweeping across the region. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will again make that country a source of threats to its neighbors, including the former Soviet Central Asia republics.
In the outgoing year, Russia suggested the idea of a Eurasian Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus – a task conceived by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, quite promising but difficult to accomplish, and also very expensive. It is a promising project because a union with Europe does not look possible in the next few years, nor does a union with China. Russia must consolidate its own center of power at least.
What Russia should and possibly would do in such a world situation?
First, Russia should restrain from getting involved in conflicts that would waste the power it began to build only recently, which is still too modest. We should learn from the lessons of other countries. The United States, with its tremendous might gained by the late 1990s, fritted it away by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The French and the British dragged NATO into a war against Gaddafi in order to show they are still to be reckoned with. It is now obvious that by killing the Libyan leader they did not gain anything but a big headache and an upsurge of ever more belligerent anti-Western regimes. The “victory” was forgotten all too soon, in a matter of a few weeks, as the waves of the European crisis swept it away.
Second, taking the Eurasian Union project in earnest implies that Central Asian states will not be invited. Russia should provide assistance to them in security issues. Russia should render them support, in cooperation with China and India and with greater involvement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in order to ensure a minimal economic stability there. It could even enlist the support of the United States and the European Union. If they are able. Despite all the fears of our neo-Soviet strategists, neither the U.S. nor the EU can strengthen their positions there at present. Perhaps, they never will. Can one recall Moscow’s concerns about the EU’s Central Asia initiative? One cannot. Because there is nothing left of it. What happened to the Nabucco gas pipeline project? The West has just given it up, even if unofficially.
Russia has to decide on its frontiers at last. A sound option is to jointly build border facilities along Kazakhstan’s northern border. Ukraine is not joining this union yet. But it has no European Union perspective either. It cannot survive on its own. Given a consistent domestic development of Russia and its allies, it will be drifting towards them.
Third, and most importantly, Russia, with its eight-centuries-old fears of the “Asian threat” and wishful thinking about post-industrial modernization, has lost the chance to hook on to the Asian economic locomotive, which the U.S. has done. We let Siberia and our Far East turn into rundown regions.
In the last two years the situation has begun to change – there have been political gestures and declarations suggesting a turn to Asia. The APEC summit in Vladivostok can become a viable instrument for such a turn.
Siberia and the Russian Far East just cannot but become the mineral, energy and agricultural base for a new Asia, and the backbone of Russia’s new Asia policy and its own economic upturn. This region must no longer serve simply as the rear for Russia’s centuries-long standoff with the West – which has vanished. This huge region has been running idle and threatens to turn from a Russian great asset into a liability and a source of weakness.
A vast market emerged in the East. Russia has to use this advantage by investing into the infrastructure of Siberia and the Far East, and make all efforts to attract technologies and capital from China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and Southeast Asian countries. This will make Russian Asia a major supplier of food, raw materials and energy for the rising continent. Russia thus will boost its power dramatically in the world setup.
The country is in suspense, looking for a big project. It is time to start developing what we have underfoot. The development of Russian Asia will provide a powerful impulse for the country’s domestic development. Furthermore, by taking a foothold in Asia, Russia may become a true 21st century power.
This can be accomplished. We only have to give up Soviet-style approaches and senseless centuries-old phobias.
Until the 20th century, the European way was generally regarded as progressive. In the present-day reality, being progressive means to Russia that it is becoming increasingly Asian economically while remaining European culturally. It also implies a rational use of its competitive advantages including in the military sphere and fantastic historic opportunities.

// Originally published in Russian in Rossiiskaya Gazeta (federal issue) No. 5669 of December 28, 2011