The year 2009 brought closure to the first decade of the 21st century and – largely although not completely – to the entire post-Cold-War period in Euro-Atlantic politics. It also closed an era in Russian domestic and foreign policies marked by the country’s recovery as a state and a steep strengthening of its international and political positions.
While ten years ago Russia faced the task of de facto regaining real sovereignty and the status of a great power, which it had inherited de jure from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the key issue now is whether Russia will be able to preserve a place for itself among the first-tier leaders and prove capable of defending its interests successfully, or whether it will slide to the role of a second- or even third-tier player, a country with a de facto limited sovereignty that follows – voluntarily or forcefully – in the footsteps of top-grade powers.
The problem at stake now is the geopolitical orientation of the Russian state and society. During the past decade Russia succeeded in ridding itself of the role of a periphery state dependent on the West, which was superimposed on it in the 1990s. Russia shook it off quite successfully and began to play the part of an independent center of power. However, now it faces a different prospect – that of turning into Great China’s raw material and – eventually – political appendage.
For a start, I will list the latest – from my point of view – changes in the world that have had an impact on Russian politics. Then I will sum up the results of Russia’s foreign policy efforts over the past year. Finally, – my personal vision of the tasks for tomorrow.
The Changing World
The year 2009 added increasingly more international weight to China, a country that suffered fewer losses than other nations during the crisis and continued developing robustly. The less successful nations now view China’s transformation – too premature and exceeding its real opportunities – into superpower number two that is virtually equal to the U.S. but actually lags far behind it.
I am confident that one of the most highly debated issues in traditionally cautious China is whether it thrust forward too early and whether it should deflate the overblown foreign policy bubble a little.
Not only does China continue developing. The quality of this development, too, keeps changing visibly, as the share of high-tech products in Chinese exports is growing at a speed that defies belief. The country is beginning to claim the role of a leader in the new sphere of scientific and technological revolution – energy saving. Today, China trains more engineers than the rest of the world taken together and almost a hundred times more than in the U.S. At the latest military parade in Beijing, China showed new-generation armaments that are practically fully manufactured inside the country. True, their reliability is still low; yet, given the current rate of innovative economic development, China may turn into a top-rate military power within ten years. This will certainly add still more weight to it in the global political and economic bargaining.
The political line of the incumbent illustrious, courageous, pragmatic and positively minded U.S. president stopped the degradation of U.S. foreign policy positions, but it could not reverse it. The root causes of this weakening lie very deep and resulted first of all from a moral collapse of the American economic model that the U.S. so triumphantly tried to impose on the world a mere few years ago. The American Administration halted the crisis by renouncing the Washington Consensus and showering the economy with money, yet the fundamental causes of mistrust remain untouched, even though the U.S. economy remains the strongest and the most innovative in the world.
The defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined another source of America’s might – military superiority in general-purpose forces over the rest of the world. This superiority has proven to be inapplicable, the way nuclear superiority failed previously. American might is no longer scary and trustworthy in the eyes of those who used to put stakes on it.
The Americans are yet to feel the bitterness of an infamous pullout from Iraq and – in two or three years secured by the current buildup of contingents – from Afghanistan, too.
The chain of frustrations has undermined America’s moral optimism, which is essential for the nation and which equally irritated and amazed many people. This factor conceals a potential danger as it paves the wave to the arrival of new radicals in power, a replication of Reaganism.
The past year happened to be especially problematic for Europe, which nauseatingly drudged to attain ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and won a predictably Pyrrhic victory, Pyrrhic for the time being at least. An in-depth weakness of the European foreign policy has risen to the surface. The official desire to make it unified has bumped into its swelling inefficiency, and this breeds a hidden desire in some big countries to quit this policy line. Hence there is a grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff: for EU top positions, the powers have ostentatiously elected people known to be incapable of leadership. This backlog looks impassible, at least for now, especially as it is aggravated by the Europeans’ reluctance to make sacrifices for the big foreign policy, which surfaced over the past two years, but has been here for years.
As a result, Europe is simply disregarded. This reality, dramatic for the Europeans, became apparent at the Copenhagen summit on climate change, where President Obama, held in reverence by the Europeans, struck pragmatic agreements with new leaders behind their backs – on an issue that is a priority of the European foreign policy.
As I have written on a number of previous occasions, Europe’s weakness is unprofitable for Russia from the strategic viewpoint. European modernizational magnetism gets feeble, as does the Russian readiness to play by the more humane European rules. However, the kind of weakness we see today may turn out tactically useful. The Europeans are developing a realization that they are flopping and that their reliance on the U.S. – even the U.S. with Obama as President – is growing increasingly illusionary. They are developing the awareness that a rapprochement with Russia, albeit in the condition in which this country exists today, and a rapprochement devoid of haughtiness, offers Europe virtually the sole chance for keeping a place for itself in the premier league of global politics.
The rest of the world kept developing without any special novelties. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained deeply mired. The new nuclear proliferators made steps towards consolidating a new nuclear role (North Korea) or acquiring a nuclear status (Iran). Predictably, the Copenhagen summit on climate change flopped for the most part. The world economy and politics remained enveloped in a moral and intellectual vacuum; the Old West had lost its leadership in this sphere, but no one picked it up.
Nation-states, not transnational corporations or non-governmental or supra-governmental organizations, moved to the center position in world economy and politics.
On the face of the crisis, the growth of consumption in the developing economies slowed down but did not stop altogether an increase of the relative shortage of many raw materials, energy resources, foodstuffs, and freshwater. This puts Russia into a lucrative position and raises its competitive advantages.
Is Russia Sagging?
Last year evidenced a relative weakening of Russia’s positions in international politics – an alarming but not as yet dramatically dangerous development, especially as it contrasts with Russia’s skyrocketing regaining of its positions in 2000 through 2008. The process reached its peak in August and September 2008 when economic growth was not yet questioned by many and Moscow proved its willingness to defend its interests toughly by repelling the assault on South Ossetia and the ensuing propaganda attack.
The main cause of the country’s current sagging is the revelation of the real weakness and backwardness of the Russian economy that has suffered from the crisis to a much greater degree than the developed or new developing states. Yet the main concern is the vector of this country’s social and economic development that does not look reassuring. While the talk pleasing the sentimental Russian – including my own – hearts about innovations and modernization and about the fight with the overly corrupted and inefficient bureaucracy smothering the country’s development goes on, de-modernization of the Russian economy and society continues, and this covertly undermines the long-term capitalization of Russian foreign policy. Russia is being reckoned with, but if the current tendencies persist, presumably, there will be less and less need for it in the future.
Russian foreign policy per se developed quite successfully last year, as it benefited from the rule of the duumvirate, which offered an opportunity to act out a good cop/bad cop scenario both inside and beyond the country. The tough, acerbic and muscle-flexing Putin embodied Russia’s hard power, and the suave Medvedev represented its soft power, thus lending the chances for a compromise to those who sought to reach them without impairing one’s own reputation.
It is also true, however, that neither of the two leaders has so far come up with anything that would resemble in any way a long-term concept of Russia’s place in the world. Both have been building their policies on small steps or, rather, on economic and energy contracts.
The idea that was proposed – assessment of foreign policy on the basis of its contribution to the country’s economy – looked extremely unconvincing in a world where force and politics have regained the dominant role in international relations, albeit in a different, economy-motivated form as compared to the previous centuries. The Russian Foreign Ministry that sharply stepped up its intellectual activity tries to fill in the conceptual vacuum.
Fair winds continued blowing into the sails of Russia’s foreign policy.
Weak Europe and relatively weak America needed Russia – for keeping up the pretence of efforts to resolve the looming problems in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.
Against this background, success was scored in promulgating the idea of the need in a new treaty on European security, and of ending – through this treaty or other means – the unfinished Cold War, which, as one can clearly see today, enfeebles both Russia and the entire Euro-Atlantic region. Previously ignored, this idea is being seriously discussed today.
The normalization of Russian-American relations continued, too, although on a rather narrow front. In contrast to the previous attempts made to improve this relationship, there was no serious concession made on the part of Russia this time, while mutual benefits are evident. The improvement is yet wobbly, as it hinges on the internal situation in the U.S. Many people in Russia do not want it either. What is most important is that the “resetting of relations” left the main stumbling block in Russian-American relations intact: the U.S. has stopped the expansion of its influence through NATO into the post-Soviet space (above all, Ukraine), yet it refuses to recognize Russia’s right to having a sphere of its own vital security interests. NATO suspended the expansion after getting a blow in South Ossetia, but it has not given up the expansion. The factor may bring about a disruption at any moment, and it undermines trust in general.
Last year saw a large-scale rapprochement between Russia and China which signed a range of agreements that strongly resemble concessionary ones. A pipeline that will pump crude oil to the Chinese market is starting its operation. The Chinese seem to display even more friendliness than in the past, although they keep on a tough bargaining style.
Yet the main change, although not fixed in agreements or declarations, was the emergence of a genuine geopolitical alternative for Russia – for the first time in centuries. The economies of China and other countries in Eastern and Southeast Asia that are developing at skyrocketing rates, their fast-paced technological progress and the incipient shifting of global financial centers to the region furnishes Russia with an opportunity of a partial reorientation towards Asia in foreign policy and trade. This reorientation may have even more attraction as it requires only the construction of new roads, oil and gas pipelines and the signing of new concessions, but it does not demand modernization of society.
The reorientation issue was off the agenda until last year, as Russia and the Soviet Union had always been oriented towards Europe and the West (both while feeling attraction to or repulsion against them).
The availability of an alternative strengthens Russia’s positions in bargaining with the West. Yet it also increases the chances – if the existing vector of social and economic development persists – of sliding past the status of a “respected younger brother” and turning into an outright raw and energy appendage of Great China. This will add to the unenviable role of a powerful but weakening energy appendage of feeble Europe. In the final run, a scenario of this kind is fraught with weakening of the country’s sovereignty.
What Is To Be Done?
Some recommendations for Russian foreign policy in the year that has just begun are fairly obvious. It is worthwhile signing a Russian-American treaty on strategic armaments reductions without concessions and, possibly, beginning talks on the reduction of excessive tactical nuclear weapons. Naturally, the reductions should be balanced and reasonable, ruling out the elimination of arsenals to the zero level or the establishment of a totally unneeded nuclear free zone in Europe.
It is important to continue promoting the idea of a new system of European security over the outdated and inefficient system that exists today.
We should remember, though, that no new system of security in Europe will not be possible without active consent on the part of the U.S. Otherwise, it will be torpedoed by “New Europeans” who listen to the Old Europeans with increasing laxity. Only the U.S. has the ability to coerce them to a more constructive conduct.
That is why we must continue searching for ways of rapprochement with the U.S., including agreements on a mutual respect for and support of each other’s interests, like America’s interests in the Near and Middle East and Russia’s interest in reaffirming Ukraine’s non-affiliation with military blocs.
We should coolly maneuver around the Ukrainian election, avoid getting into squabbles with Ukrainian politicians and frustrate any efforts to push the Ukrainian people into an anti-Russian orientation. And we should bear in mind that Yushchenko, who is departing for a political void, may palm off a farewell provocation.
It is not ruled out that the new realism in Europe, augmented with friendly Spain’s presidency in the EU, will give a chance for extricating the EU-Russian relations out of the impasse of reciprocal rebukes and misunderstanding of where to steer these relations. We must not miss this opportunity.
Quite possibly, we will have to agree to a toughening of sanctions against Tehran that is apparently going to extremes – on the condition that Beijing gives consent to the sanctions too, and their low efficiency is acknowledged. Along with this, we should preclude an overly delayed Israeli strike at Iranian nuclear facilities that will be suicidal for the Israelis. Also, there is an obvious need to pool efforts with other great powers – the U.S., China and possibly India – and get ready for a new strategic situation in the Greater Middle East. This might be done in a bid to fill in the visibly expanding vacuum of security around the Persian Gulf. Also, Middle East countries might be offered multilateral nuclear guarantees, some time in the future at least.
Once we have subscribed to the cause of setting up a Customs Union, we must bring it to the end. Although the idea is not apparently useful, its expediency may increase in case of a possible fragmentation of the World Trade Organization regime into regional sub-regimes. Russia’s accession to the WTO may take several more years because of the retarded structure of our foreign trade.
We must at least start trying to steer the growing and generally beneficial attraction of China with the aid of a compensatory policy. Some of its elements are clear: it is important to draw new businesses based in the western and central parts of Russia rather than the old, decrepit and half-criminal businesses in the Far East, into relations with China and new Asia. It is worthwhile thinking of developing a group of industries specially oriented at the Chinese market. Exception should be made for the Russian “high-tech” that evokes dismal astonishment. Let us forget about it, at least until Chubais overhauls the Russian economy with help of nanotechnologies. In the meantime, a difficult yet quite feasible development of Russia’s agricultural sector, transport infrastructures and a group of industries that could supply foodstuffs to China’s bottomless market might prove really helpful. It would stand to reason to involve other Asiatic players, the U.S., Australia and Canada in developing Siberia and the Russian Far East where we will not manage on our own all the same. We must step up relations with ASEAN, Japan and South Korea. We would benefit from realizing the extent to which we under-utilize the opportunities opened by the Asian growth.
Expansion of the dialogue with China on the problems of world governance, especially in the strategic spheres, is necessary, too, as is the promotion of a trialogue – involving the U.S. – on the same issues.
At this point, Russia’s best possible geopolitical orientation would look as follows: a speedy and governable economic rapprochement with Asia and not only with China; a social and political rapprochement with Europe and elimination of the lingering rudiments of the Cold War from relations with it, as the ultimate goal of this rapprochement is the emergence of a new system of European security and the Union of Europe (between Russia and the EU on the basis of common humanitarian, energy and economic spaces); a rapprochement with the U.S. in the strategic sphere, in order for Russia to become a third power in the emerging Sino-American duumvirate of future world governance.
Yet the main factor what will determine Russia’s foreign policy orientation and the opportunity to independently influence its course lies beyond the scope of this article. And that is the vector of the development of Russia’s economy and society. As never before, it is of critical importance.