Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the fifth essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part four.
After their litany of complaints against the West, the Russian pragmatists as a rule conclude that the old world order ceased functioning because it did not grant Russia the role it deserved. Thus we need a new world order, one that will finally resolve the “unfinished” Cold War. Now, here is an interesting coincidence: this is exactly the idea that the Kremlin is promoting! This was the central message of the Kremlin-organized 2014 Valdai Forum, which attracts both Russian and foreign experts yearly. This time the discussion was entitled “The New Rules or the Game with No Rules?”1 Here is the main idea of the Valdai debates: the Cold War ended (or maybe it didn’t end) without any concrete agreements or rules; hence, there is a need for agreement on new principles for the global order. This is precisely the message the Russian authorities needed to be delivered to create the intellectual backdrop for Putin’s speech, which expressed the same ideas more bluntly: The Cold War “did not end with making peace and understandable and transparent agreements,” he said, so there is a need for a “new system of mutual agreements and obligations.”
But which principles will this new world order be based on? The Kremlin’s statements make it clear: The new world order has to be built on the West’s rejection of its civilizational mission and the recognition of other actors’ (that is, Russia’s) right to interpret the global rules of the game; and the old international norms are not valid any more. Should the West agree to this? Interestingly enough, even the experts who are considered pro-Western in Russia today argue that the world order cannot rest on international law.
Academician Alexei Arbatov: “The international relations system does not rest on international legal norms and institutions but rather on the actual balance of forces of the leading powers and their alliances, as well as on their common interests.” Apparently, Arbatov is arguing for the elevation of Russia’s role in the international relations system. But if Russia’s decline continues, the “balance of forces” principle will push Russia to the periphery of the international system.
True, in mid-2015 the Kremlin gradually started to look for a more flexible way to implement its survival doctrine. This does not mean that its architects were so worried about Russia’s growing isolation and piling problems for the well-being of the rent seeking elite, which needs personal incorporation into the West, that they decided to look for an exit solution. No, the political regime, having shifted toward the “enemy search” logic, can’t leave it without creating the impression of being defeated. Hence, one could see the Kremlin attempts to build a dual-track course: On the one hand, its apologists continue to scare and blackmail the West and Russia’s neighbors if Moscow is denied “deliverables;” on the other, experts with reputations as serious scholars have started to look for ideas that could persuade the West to agree to a new status quo (hence allowing it to lift the sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy).
Here is the example of the dual-track approach. Fyodor Lukyanov, stating that “the Kremlin does not want to provoke the West into applying greater pressure, but it will refrain from doing anything to reduce the current pressure,” suggested that the situation is moving into “a phase of ‘peaceful coexistence’.” This argument from a pro-Kremlin expert means that at least part of the Russian political class and business community have started to worry about what confrontation and isolation would mean for their interests. The idea of “peaceful coexistence” found supporters among German experts. Markus Kaim, Hanns W. Maull, and Kirsten Wesphal (The German Institute for International and Security Affairs—SWP) suggested looking for a new modus vivendi, understanding it as “a peaceful coexistence and ‘coevolution’ between Western ideas of domestic political order and those of Russia.” The proposed new status quo has to give the Kremlin the possibility of softening the Western stance while at the same time allowing it to demonstrate a feeling of victory over the West: “They have lost, not us!”
The concept of “peaceful co-existence” was elaborated by Vladimir Lenin in the 1920s. (Lenin used the term “peaceful co-habitation.”) It had the same duality of purpose: to secure use of Western economic resources to serve the needs of the Soviet state, and to continue “the class struggle” with capitalism. In the early 1950s Stalin returned to this idea, having in mind the same agenda. He also underlined the principle of “equality” as the basis for this coexistence (thus there is historical precedent for the pragmatists’ calls for equality). However, Stalin’s “peaceful co-existence” didn’t prevent the Cold War; nor did it prevent Soviet militarization from exhausting the Soviet Union and accelerating its demise. One can’t be sure where Russia and the West will strike the balance between mutual containment and dialogue this time, given that the Kremlin has begun to seek legitimacy on a militaristic/patriotic basis.
Pivot to China?
One can’t avoid impression that the Russian pragmatists have started a desperate search for any idea that could justify the Kremlin’s policy or help the authorities to bring Russia back to the role of global importance. Their latest initiative is to demonstrate the need for Russia’s pivot to China.
“Rejected by the West, Russia has pivoted to Asia and found in China its leading partner”—this has become the new pragmatist song. Looking at the global chessboard, one can’t help but be puzzled. Only yesterday, Russia was dating Europe; today, the Kremlin is trying to persuade the world (and itself?) that it has fallen in love with Beijing. The same experts who recently viewed Russia as part of Greater Europe, now with the same gusto sing of Russia as a part of Greater Asia.
China is ready to invest huge resources into the construction of Eurasian infrastructure, which will bind Russia tightly to the East,” hopes Lukyanov.2 He is convinced that parallel to the “New West” the “New East” is emerging “under the leadership of China and Russia.” “Russia is tilting toward China in the face of political and economic pressure from the United States…. With China’s economic might and Russia’s great power expertise, the BRICS group…will increasingly challenge the G-7 as a parallel center of global governance”, argues Trenin. Sergei Karaganov tries to persuade us that “Europe has last the post war world” and the “Community of Big Eurasia” is emerging around Russia and China that will promote the idea of the new world order.
However, massive Chinese investments so far have not come. Moreover, Beijing refused to finance the Russian pipeline “Sila Sibiri” that was to be the jewel of the Russo-Chinese friendship. Russia’s hopes that the Chinese will help them relieve the pressure of Western sanctions with loans have already proved unfounded.3
The shrill hurrahs in Moscow for “the intertwining” of Putin’s pet project (the Eurasian Union) with China’s ambitious “New Silk Road Economic Belt” (now the “One Belt, One Road” project) could be perceived as another attempt at concealing the fakery. “Intertwining” may take place, but only as a means for China to develop the infrastructure that will connect it with Europe. Is Russia ready to serve as China’s “bridge”? The irony is that, when China wants to “bridge” itself with Europe, Putin’s Kremlin wants to push Russia in the opposite direction, which makes the whole “intertwining” a mess.
Russian and Chinese animosity toward the West and the United States cannot serve as a strong cementing factor, especially given that Beijing is interested in constructive relations with Washington. “Even though Xi and Putin might be in the same bed against the West, their dreams are clearly different”, warns China expert Huiyun Feng.
Trenin disagrees with this pessimistic assessment, arguing that “Sino-Russian Entente,” as he calls Moscow’s emerging partnership with Beijing, “does not mean that China in this tandem will be a hegemon—most probably Moscow will find ways to create a ‘special relationship’ with its partner.” This is hardly persuasive. Why should Beijing massage the vanity of a fading empire?
On the Chinese side, one does not see any proof that Beijing is speaking the same language as Moscow. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting from Europe to East Asia, and the international system appears to be moving toward bipolar dynamics involving China and the Unites States”, writes Yan Xuetong (Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy). And what might Russia’s role in these “bipolar dynamics” be?
But if “pro-pivot” experts are right and the Chinese side shows some readiness to accommodate the Kremlin in order to build a stable alliance, then I would argue that this would be the worst possible option for Russia. Why? For one reason: China’s rejection of European norms. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd states, “Chinese leaders see their traditional hierarchical values as being in deep contrast with those of the liberal democracies.” The Russian experts also admit that “the convergence of the outlooks” of Russian and Chinese establishments is “preservation of the current regimes in both countries.” The Russo-Chinese tandem, if it came to be, would become an anti-modernist force aimed not only at preserving their domestic authoritarianisms but also at containing liberal democracy globally.
The U.S. China expert Andrew J. Nathan warns that China “will surely have greater motives and greater capacities to exercise international influence.” He lists some of the things China might use its influence to achieve: promote authoritarian values abroad; encourage the rise of the anti-liberal lobbies in democratic countries; spread “authoritarian techniques” to help other states “emulate” the strategies developed by China for using law to support repressions; “roll back the existing democratic institutions” to help to ensure the survival of the authoritarian regimes that are its key economic and strategic partners (such as Russia); and “shape international institutions” to make them “regime-type neutral instead of weighted in favor of democracy.” From the liberal point of view, such a Russo-Chinese partnership looks threatening indeed. Russia’s pivot to China in the current context (irrespective of whether Russian is an equal partner in the tandem) would be a devastating blow to the European dimension in Russia.
However, today, one could conclude, that “the China Factor” has already failed to live up to expectations. The Moscow adventure in Syria only proves that the Kremlin has started to look for other ways to return to the global scene.
As for the BRICS group, one can only marvel at how all its members are trying to use one another in order to gain preferential treatment from the West. As the Chatham House report “The Russian Challenge,” published in June 2015, warned,
Most Russians are deeply uncomfortable with the possibility of becoming dependent, as a junior partner, on China. The Kremlin has raised expectations of the BRICS group and of pivot to Asia and the Pacific that cannot be fulfilled. As a tactics in his battles with the United States and Europe, Putin is trying to put himself at the head of a cabal fighting against a “unipolar” and liberal world and for a new international order. The bedfellows he has assembled are ill-assorted and the thesis is unconvincing.
Hopefully, the Kremlin’s dreams of Sino-Russian entente, or of the BRICS as a new pole of the global government, will amount to as little as the pragmatists’ other ideas.
1President Putin in his Valdai address praised the authors of the paper for the discussion: “I would like to point out that the Valdai Club, with the participation from Professor Fyodor Lukyanov and Ivan Krastev, has prepared an excellent paper for the discussions that took place yesterday and in the course of these few days.”
2See Ulrich Speck’s criticism of Lukyanov’s position here.
3In the first half of 2015 Chinese investments in Russia plunged 25 percent and trade fell a third. By comparison, China’s trade volume with the United States amounts to $343 billion, versus $95 billion with Russia (2014).