Russia’s Troubles and Options

FEATURES | October 30, 2018     

ILLUSTRATION: HEIDI YOUNGERThe present Russian-Western conflict need not predetermine a difficult Russian-Western century. What are the scenarios? And what can be done?


Can Russia return to the European fold in the foreseeable future? I ask this not in the geographic sense, of course – for Russia has always been, and remains, on all the evidence – a predominantly European country. But what of a new communion, in terms of institutions and values, between Russia and the EU, with which Moscow fell out in scandal several years ago?

The question is neither academic nor abstract; it has extremely practical consequences, for the prospects of some species of reconciliation between Russia and Europe in the coming years will determine, in very real terms, the larger near-term and medium-term strategies of both Moscow and Brussels, and indeed those of major countries around the world in this early new century.

Please Come Back – All is Forgiven

In the more liberal circles of Europe and Russia, there is a general predisposition to view a Russian return to the European fold as foreordained. The return is believed to be inevitable, and any argument therefore turns on the timing of the next Russian pivot or repivot to the West, as well as on the effective cost that the Russian state and Russian society will be required to pay in order to be welcomed back by Europe.

In terms of timing, optimists often reference the year 2024, which is when the fourth presidential term of Vladimir Putin ends, and when the country will again find itself at a historical fork in the road. Pessimists prefer to speak of a later date – to wit, the early or even mid-2030s, when the so-called ‘Putin generation’ will, for reasons obvious, depart the Russian political scene. At that point, the core of Russian society will consist of people born after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The gap between the optimistic and pessimistic prognoses amounts to between six and 10 years. This may well seem a significant period of time in today’s politics. But in European and Russian history, this is evidently but a glimmer in historical space-time.

As for the economic and strategic price to be paid by Russia (leaving the European price aside), the assessments vary widely. Some might suggest that the path of gradual economic and political reform for post-Putin Russia, working toward a European social-democratic model and pluralistic political regime, remains very apposite and appropriate. Others will argue that the window of historical opportunity for evolutionary development in Russia has been closed, and that the only possible path for the world’s biggest country is that of a complete and total break with the ‘wrong’ institutions of state and property that were created in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR. On this logic, the ‘revolutionary’ path of liberation from the legacy of the Soviet period must at last address the fundamental challenges of Russian transformation – challenges left unaddressed from the early 1990s. Bref, national catharsis must precede real national transformation.

Still, the wide variation in estimates for the timelines and trajectories of Russia’s ‘historical return’ to Europe does not change the general determinism in the conclusions: the resuscitation of Russia’s European vector as a strategic priority for Moscow is inevitable.

This determinism turns on at least three arguments. First, Russians (not only Orthodox Russians, but also members of Russia’s many non-Orthodox minorities), according to their history, culture, lifestyle and core values, are fundamentally Europeans – not Asians. Europe remains the principal magnet for Russia’s students, cultural figures, artists, business people, scientists, intellectuals and civil servants. Europe has the world’s largest Russian and Russian-speaking diasporas, including mixed marriages between people with two or more cultural identities (one of them Russian). In short, Russia is a part of European civilization. As such, it is pointless to speak of the ‘European option’ for Russia. This is not a choice, but rather destiny.

Second, only Europe can serve as an effective motor for Russian economic and social modernization. Russia already has aggregate scientific-technological potential that, for all practical intents and purposes, has, with the exception of China, no real match in Asia for the foreseeable future. Even more importantly, Europe is genuinely interested in Russia’s technological market, which could well serve as a catalyst for the continent’s own technological and economic development. (By contrast, Russia’s Asian partners remain perfectly content to continue to use Russia strictly for its practically inexhaustible reserves of raw materials and its extant technological capabilities – especially in the defence realm, preserved from the Soviet period. For Asia, the development of Russian human capital is not a priority.)

Third, only in concert with Europe – where Russia would find itself in the company of highly comparable states in terms of economic weight and demographic potential – can Russia remain a veritably influential player in global politics. On its own, it is clear that Russia does not have any near- or medium-term potential to claim for itself the role of a bona fide ‘power centre’ of global rank. And yet in the exclusive company of the rising giants of Asia (China and India), which significantly outpace Russia in economic growth, Moscow would inevitably soon find itself in the arrière-plan, regardless of the geopolitical constructions that will determine the Eurasian world. Indeed, the relegation of Russia to the second tier of Asian politics would be merely a function of the rapidity of the depreciation of Russia’s remaining foreign policy assets (nuclear weapons, P5 membership of the UN Security Council, and energy resources).

On this historically driven logic, then, Europe has no need for worry. Russia, like a disobedient teenager who runs away from home, will soon have to face up to the strange, harsh and not very friendly world of Eurasia, and will before long draw the appropriate conclusions and return to where it belongs. The main task for Europe, then, is to ensure that the rebellious teenager does not harm himself and others in the interim or, more concretely, does not get involved in risky and dangerous enterprises. In the meantime, the doors to the European household should remain open.

Having said this, it is hardly worth reproaching Europe for the fact that – over more than four years – it has not been able to work out a comprehensive strategy vis-à-vis Moscow. Why? Because so very much depends on processes happening principally on the Russian side of the Eurasian fault line. In the best case, perhaps, from the Western side of the fault line, systematic support can be offered to accelerate the inevitable changes to come inside Russia through the expansion of contacts at the civil society level, as well as through targeted collaboration with specific groups in Russia – to wit, young Russians, small business and technocrats in Moscow and in the regional and local governments. At the same time, Russia should be invited to cooperate with the West along those vectors where the interests of all sides manifestly coincide – notably, the fight against international terrorism, countering nuclear weapons proliferation and, inter alia, the regulation of regional crises.

Brussels should also maintain in its arsenal a sufficiently large number of ‘negative stimuli’ – sanctions or other instruments of pressure – such that Russia can understand that there are certain ‘red lines’ beyond which it cannot go. One can argue about the relative balance of negative versus positive stimuli or incentives, but the EU must show strategic patience and be prepared for future changes in Russian politics and policy.

Where Are You Summoning Us?

The liberal narrative of inevitable Russian re-communion with Europe or the EU would be persuasive but for one important complication: Europe is itself not unchanging over time. The more Western-oriented discourses in Russia would have some believe that Russia could simply return to the European world and order that existed 15, 20 or even 30 years ago. In that European order, there was no conflict over Ukraine, no sharp Eurozone crisis, no migration crisis on the present scale, no Brexit, and no rise of right-wing populism. That world order had no transatlantic fault or split, no comparable economic dominance by China, no return to international protectionism, and no Arab Spring with its tragic consequences. Bref, that European order had none of that which today determines the priorities of the EU.

The vulnerability of the liberal narrative in respect of the evolution of cooperation between Russia and Europe becomes especially glaring when we compare the political dynamics of Russia and Poland. When Russian liberals speak of the growing estrangement of Russia from Europe, they typically advance two explanations. The first is institutional in nature – to wit, that for a quarter-century Russia has not been able to insert itself adequately into the European (EU) and Atlantic (NATO) structures as a full participant or equal partner. One can debate who bears responsibility for this failure, but the fact remains: Russia found itself on the sidelines of the European security order in particular and the ‘European project’ in general, without becoming a serious stakeholder in the project. This, in turn, predetermined the country’s turn toward Asia.

The second explanation is a systems one. Over this same quarter-century, Russia has not succeeded in its search for an effective new model of socioeconomic development – all the while effectively exhausting the potential of its resource economy, resulting in economic stagnation and social stasis. The original, tenuous post-Soviet social contract between society and state was ruptured by the state. Nationalism and militarism became the principal new sources of legitimacy for state and government, and this led, predictably, to the collapse of relations between Moscow and Brussels.

In the event, Warsaw serves as a perfect counterexample to Moscow. Without a doubt, Poland has achieved an impressive victory exactly where Russia has suffered crushing defeat. Polish integration into the structures of the EU and the North Atlantic alliance had a clear signalling effect: the rapid socioeconomic development of Poland over the last two decades has evoked envy not only from all of the other newer members of the EU, but indeed among most of the representatives of ‘old Europe.’ As such, Poland would, until recently, have seemed like the last place in Europe in which to expect a rise in nationalism, the triumph of Euroskepticism, and doubts about the immutability of liberal European values.

And yet there are major changes underway in modern Poland that are forcing many liberal Varsovian intellectuals to draw parallels with Russian processes. If but a few years ago Russian liberals dreamed of transforming Russia into a ‘big Poland,’ then this vector is today patently irrelevant (see the Feature article by Fyodor Lukyanov in GB’s Winter 2016 issue). The long-term trajectory of Poland’s political system and the values that will prevail in Polish society over even the medium run have become highly unpredictable.

The other, no less illustrative example of the weakening of the European gravitational field vis-à-vis Russia is modern Ukraine. The present political elite of that country is struggling desperately to repeat the successful integration experience of the states of Central Europe. But the erstwhile enthusiasm for Europe in Kiev, Lviv and other Ukrainian cities has now largely dried up, the country’s financial resources have been greatly diminished, and the influence of right-wing populists, who have questioned the EU’s constant geographical expansion, has grown. Even the biggest enthusiasts of the ‘European path’ in Ukraine today are forced to push back the timelines for the country’s probable entry into the EU – at a minimum, to the fourth decade of this century (other things being equal). And all of this is occurring in the context of a general disposition today in Brussels that has arguably become no more favourable toward Kiev than it is toward Moscow.

Now, let us suppose for a moment that in Moscow, somewhere between the years 2030 and 2035, events take place that are analogous to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution of 2013-2014. Supporters of a ‘European path’ for Russia take power in the Kremlin and solemnly proclaim there to be no alternative to the course of eventual Russian entry into the EU. Question: how many decades will Moscow have to wait for its turn to enter? How many insurmountable political, economic and psychological barriers will, in practice, inevitably stand in Moscow’s way? How many European politicians will call for delays and waiting, or otherwise require Moscow to undergo endless additional verifications? Answer: There is every reason to suppose that a reformed and democratic Russia will be in the position not of Ukraine, but rather of Turkey, which has waited in vain for a half-century for the question of its full entry into the EU to be decided.

So whither, all things considered, should Russia return: to the romantic Europe of 1995, full of optimism and courage, or to the triumphant, self-assured Europe of 2004 – confident in its power, legitimacy and historical rightness? Or should it return to the frightened and strategically disoriented Europe of 2016? Or perhaps to the wonderful and perfect Europe of 2030, which exists today only in the imaginations of a small handful of European visionaries and analysts?

Of course, the exponents of a ‘return to Europe’ start from the premise that time is on the side of the European project. Having coped with and survived the diseases of growth and expansion, the EU will emerge, on this logic, from its tests, crises and problems seasoned, renewed and filled with new energy. To be sure, most Europeans and most Russians should only wish for this to happen. But today, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, such an optimistic scenario is driven more by faith than anything else. And the coming years will tell us whether Europe can convert this belief into concrete actions and results.

To Europe – on the Chinese Bandwagon

Even in the best or ‘honeymoon’ periods of Russian-European cooperation, Moscow was never prepared to fully support the concept of a ‘Big Europe’ or ‘Greater Europe’ – that is, one based on the full or even partial participation by all countries on the continent in the normative and regulatory foundations of the EU. Moscow’s support, over the foreseeable future, for this concept, under the existing conditions of systemic crises in Europe and the general uncertainty over the historical prospects of the European project, seems even less probable. This is all the more true now that the centre of global economic activity has moved increasingly to Asia, creating new, alternative integration opportunities for Russia and other Eurasian countries.

In turn, the Russian vision of a Greater Europe that would consist in a collaboration of approximate equals between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union – building on existing areas of collaboration like sectoral and visa dialogues, energy compromises and transboundary cooperation – elicited very little enthusiasm on the European side. This was so not only because European bureaucrats do not view the Eurasian Economic Union as an integration project that is at all comparable to the EU – not least because most of the members of the Eurasian Economic Union would, at the very first opportunity, be prepared to exchange Moscow in favour of Brussels. Rather, this was because the EU is poorly equipped to envision and advance a dialogue of equals with any opposite number whatsoever – including the US and China. The traditional, almost genetic strategy of the EU has always consisted in the geographical expansion of its standards, rules and norms to other participants in the international system, rather than in any adaptation of its internal algorithms to the particularities of other participants.

Today, on the present vector and logic, a clean exit from the dead-end at which EU-Russia relations find themselves is nearly impossible. Europe, in its current circumstances, does not have persuasive arguments to return Russia to the idiom of the relations that existed between the two sides at the start of this century. Moscow, for its part (even accounting for the not insignificant aggregate economic and strategic potential of the Eurasian Economic Union), does not have enough power to force Brussels (even when it is significantly weakened vis-à-vis its position a decade or two ago) to undertake a dialogue of equals with it. This stalemate will not break for the foreseeable future, even if by some miracle one succeeds in removing the main obstacle to Russian-European cooperation – to wit, the ongoing conflict in and around Ukraine.

Paradoxically, the only realistic path for a Russian return to Europe today is via Asia. In other words, if Russia cannot effectuate a return to Europe – on acceptable terms – on its own, then it may only be through the creation, jointly with China, India and other Asia partners, of a ‘Greater Eurasia’ that Russia can acquire the expanded negotiating positions and potential it would need for its eventual dialogue with Brussels.

The idea of a Russian ‘pivot to the East’ – as it were – obviously has a long history. It was tried in different historical conditions and in various forms over the course of at least the last century and a half. The results of these efforts were inconsistent. On the whole, despite a number of policy and societal achievements, Russia has never been able to become a full-throated player in the Asia-Pacific region.

The role of the East for Russian foreign policy and economic strategy grew substantially in reaction to the breakdown in Russia-West relations from 2014. Over the last four years, much strategic and policy work has been advanced along this vector of activities. Nevertheless, the prospect of creating a unified Eurasian economic, strategic, socio-cultural and humanitarian space with the participation of Russia as one of the founding partners of a Greater Eurasia remains unclear. Moreover, the long-term possibility of Russia being pushed to the margins of many of the ‘system-forming’ integration projects in Eurasia remains very real.

Of particular concern is the fact that the pivot to Asia is often seen in Moscow as an opportunity for Russia’s leaders and elites to deviate from addressing the country’s fundamental problems – that is, the pro-Asian pivot removes the necessity or reduces the urgency of undertaking deep structural reforms in the Russian economy, in Russian government, and in Russian society more generally. And in practice, of course, the pivot places even higher demands on Russian diplomacy and the country’s political economy. For the construction of a Greater Eurasia is an extremely complex undertaking – more difficult and complex, in fact, than the construction of a Greater Europe (which itself was not successful in spite of Russia’s attention to it during its first two post-Cold War decades).

Identifying and overcoming the multiple obstacles (geopolitical, strategic, economic, social and cultural-anthropological) along the way to creating a Greater Eurasia will prove a major challenge not only for Russian foreign policy, but also for the country’s internal development. To have any chance of success, then, Russia will need more than good relations with China, or for that matter more to show for its efforts than showcase multilateral institutions like BRICS and the SCO. And it will need more than the simple expansion of traditional economic ties with its Asian partners. For the current lag in Russian growth rates as compared with Asian averages of four to five percent, Russia’s exclusion from the technological revolution in Asia, and its marginal participation in Asia’s scientific, educational and cultural-humanitarian spaces together suggest that full-fledged membership in a Greater Eurasia would be even less realistic than in Greater Europe. Bref, Russia cannot join a Greater Europe via the Asian pivot, or via Greater Eurasia, except as a decidedly secondary player.

Still, for the time being, the Eurasian project presents at least two clear advantages for Russia over the European project: first, for the majority of Asian countries, despite the complexities of bilateral relations with Moscow, there are not, in respect of Russia, as many historical grievances, grudges and negative stereotypes as there are with many European partners, and Russia is not seen as an existential threat; second, unlike the European project, the Eurasian project is still just beginning. The rules of the game have not yet been set firmly, procedures not made permanent, and strict bureaucratic mechanisms not yet established. This means that Russia can ensconce itself far more easily and simply in Eurasian processes on an equal-to-equal basis, and in certain areas even as a leader. Moreover, it stands to reason that, at least for now, Russian leaders and elites better understand and work more effectively with authoritarian governments, which Moscow tends to find, aesthetics aside, more reliable and faster in making and implementing decisions than Western governments and democracies.

To be sure, the European project, whatever its present difficulties with Russia, remains extremely important for the world entire – including for Russia. It is still the most successful integration project of the past several centuries. And the builders of the new world order, undoubtedly, will draw much – successes and failures alike – from the European legacy. But the future of relations between Europe and Russia depends first and foremost on what will become of the EU in five to 10 years’ time – that is, by the time the new Russian political cycle will have begun.

The question of Russia’s return to Europe will perhaps have become less topical by then. Indeed, it may by then have been replaced by a different, no less fundamental and interesting question about how Moscow and Brussels will cooperate in the context of a Greater Eurasia. In that case, even with the European part of Russia included, Europe will, in toto, be understood to hold merely peninsular status just beyond the western tip of the colossal Asian continent.

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Andrey Kortunov is research director of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow.

(ILLUSTRATION: HEIDI YOUNGER)

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