oDR: Opinion

Sliding into isolation: Russia and the world

While losing leverage on its neighbours, Putinist Russia has adopted a means of exerting influence and exercising control that is more characteristic of the secret police than diplomats. Only if Russia transforms into a genuine social democracy at home will we see change in its external actions.

Kirill Kobrin
23 December 2020
Василий Нестеренко. "Письмо к недругам России".
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"A letter to Russia's enemies"

This year, Russia held a constitutional referendum - a strange, even superfluous exercise in a country fighting coronavirus - but one that has become a landmark in the country’s political and ideological history. Putin’s regime, carefully constructed over the past 20 years, has reached its apex of power and control. But having reached Putinism’s peak, it’s clear that the system has found itself at a point of no return - socially, economically and ideologically.

What comes after this? What does a post-Putin and post-neoliberal future look like in Russia? This series of three articles by writer Kirill Kobrin - published this week - will trace the outline and problems of this future. This series is neither an exercise in futurology, nor an “expert risk analysis”, but rather an attempt to hint at the possibilities of this new, coming environment.

2. Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and the post-Putin consensus
3. Sliding into isolation: Russia and the world

Since Peter the Great, Russia has had two types of foreign policy. The first type is ideological, the other is pragmatic or realpolitik, as it was called in the 19th century.

Naturally, neither one nor the other has ever existed in its purest form. In practice, ideologically driven policies have often proven to be quite down to earth, while pursuing practical tasks has sometimes led the state into the ideological wilds. But still, as tendencies - or rather, as intentions - these two types of foreign policy can be found in any period of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet history.

The following discussion about the foreign policy features of Putin’s Russia will be conducted with an eye to the middle of the 19th century and the reign of Nicholas I.

The sense of stability

There is a great temptation to think in terms of so-called historical analogies. In this case, the temptation is especially strong. Here are just a few points of comparison between Putin and Nicholas I. A Russian ruler who has been in power for more than 20 years. A regime propped up by official censorship, criminal prosecution of political dissenters, and an ideology of state conservatism. (After all, it was under Nicholas I that Count Uvarov coined the famous triune formula “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality”.) Wars in the Caucasus. The stupid sadism of the sentences handed out to alleged radicals, as in the New Greatness case today, and 170 years earlier, in the case of the Petrashevsky Circle, among others. Finally (and here the Russian liberal nourishes a faint hope) there is Crimea, imagined as a symbol of ultimate collapse. Some people think nowadays that Crimea will be the end of one day Putin, as it was for Nicholas I, who died of pneumonia at the end of the Crimean War.

Of course, historical analogies are a way of deceiving ourselves, nothing more. “History is a metaphor for our consciousness,” said the philosopher Alexander Pyatigorsky. He was right. On the other hand, the metaphor does exist in our public consciousness, and it is exceptionally strong: all of us - society and the authorities - act out our hypotheses about reality, which are shaped, in particular, by ideas about history. In terms of historical metaphors that have become ideological fads, influences, and sometimes even constructs, our comparison of the first 20 years of the 21st century with the middle of the 19th century does makes sense when it comes to what is happening now with the Putin regime’s international policy, and what may happen to all these things soon.

Putin’s foreign policy has always been hostage to “stability,” another echo of the Tsarist regime, although “stability” is not even an ideological postulate, rather a sentiment

The historical comparison is especially apt if we note the oscillation between “ideology” (lofty) and “realpolitik” (pragmatic) in Putin’s foreign policy. Nicholas I considered himself the sovereign heir of Peter the Great and the successor to the “chivalric” principles of Paul I. He adopted an expansionist approach toward the Ottoman Empire, passing it off as a commitment to the sacred cause of protecting Orthodox Christians. In Europe, Russia played the role of a distant, not very pleasant relative from whom you never knew what to expect.

Despite seemingly decent relations with Prussia, Austria, and (before the 1830 July Revolution) France, and its defence of the Legitimist values of the conservative Holy Alliance, which, after 1825, seemingly no one had any use for except the Russian emperor himself, Russia slowly withdrew from the system of international relations, from the “concert of continental powers,” and it did so of its own free will. Relations with Great Britain were altogether strained over the “Eastern question.” This is not to mention France: first the overthrow of its Bourbon monarchy and then, in 1848, the overthrow of the monarchy as such turned the country into a personal nemesis of Nicholas I. The French retaliated by supporting the rebellious Poles in 1831 and taking in Russian political exiles.

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Russia's Foreign Ministry building, Moscow | Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved

The more powerful self-isolating Russia seemed, the worse it fared in the international arena. The situation was not saved even in 1849, when the Russian army aided Austria in quelling an uprising in Hungary. The European revolutions of 1848–1849 played a fatal role in Russian history. On the one hand, Nicholas I tightened the screws inside the country, finally alienating the educated class with his senselessly cruel persecution of “malcontents.” On the other, Russia earned itself the nickname “the gendarme of Europe.” At the first opportunity, European countries and the Ottoman Empire organised an anti-Russian coalition, which, given Austria and Prussia’s hostile neutrality toward the Russia tsar, brought Russia to disaster in the Crimean War. The “Don Quixote of autocracy,” Nicholas I either died or committed suicide in the finale of his infamous Crimean campaign.

We should also note the following quite important historical circumstance. The west’s current nationalist right-wing populist wave is largely based on reviving the ideological principles of the mid-19 century. The “traditional values” to which Orban and Kaczynski appeal today are an invention of the Romantic era, and the “national spirit” hails from the same place, from the time of so-called national revivals. This is not to mention Russian ideological constructs that until recently looked like mouldy relics of pre-Soviet times, but suddenly seem relevant again. For example, the disputes between “westerners” and “Slavophiles” about Russia’s “special path,” and, of course, “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality.” Naturally, the world today is completely different from the time of the opera A Life for the Tsar and Field Marshal Radetzky. But the zeal with which our world dresses up in the uniforms and tailcoats of the 19th century is extremely curious.

Putin’s foreign policy has always been hostage to “stability,” another echo of the Tsarist regime, although “stability” is not even an ideological postulate, rather a sentiment. From the early 2000s, “stability” was imagined both as post-Soviet Russia’s only worthy goal and its best means of conducting policy. But, here, in contrast to the century before last, Putin’s “stability” was, as it were, uprooted from the ideological field. It was painted neither Communist red, nor anti-Communist white. “Stability” was not supposed to have any positive content, only negative content.

Stability equals no instability, period. Or, rather, Russia’s 21st century stability is the opposite of the “reckless 1990s”. Hence the supposedly pragmatic nature of the country’s policies, both domestic and foreign, which have been focused on immediate problems and sometimes medium-term objectives, but not on long-term strategic goals. Such opportunism was especially palpable in Russia’s foreign policy in the noughties. All possibilities were probed, including joining NATO, but none of them was perceived as absolute. Everything depended on the balance of power, first, within Russia, and on the propaganda campaigns triggered by those exigencies.

A lonely Doctor Evil

That was how things were, and they have remained this way. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving behind two geopolitical layers in which the emergent Russian Federation found itself cocooned. The outer layer, consisting of the former Warsaw Pact countries, quickly defected almost en masse to the side of the Cold War’s winners. It was no longer possible to win them back in the late 1990s because Russian influence there was weak, mainly consisting of corrupt financial schemes.

The internal post-Soviet geopolitical layer (the former Soviet republics), in turn, was divided into two parts. With the west’s urgent help, the Baltic states quickly moved from the inner layer to the outer layer, although not completely, due to the neglected issue of their Russian-speaking populations, an issue that the ethnically-oriented ruling classes of these states did not want to solve, resulting in a profound and painful problem. Russia has exploited it to try to interfere in the affairs of the Baltic countries, but not very successfully. Russian policy towards the other countries in this internal geopolitical layer has been mostly ineffective. The Putin regime can only boast of a friendship with Armenia and several Central Asian states, which use Russia rather than support it.

While losing leverage on its neighbours - and on countries distant but important - Putinist Russia has adopted a means of exerting influence and exercising control that is more characteristic of the secret police than of diplomats

As I write this, the Russian authorities are trying to make the most of the situation in Belarus, but they are doing it rather clumsily - both the Europeans and the Belarusians themselves are simply afraid of another episode of military aggression on Moscow’s part. If that happens, Minsk will be lost to Russia just as Kyiv and Tbilisi were lost. As for the so-called far abroad, Russia has almost no patrons, friends, or even clients there. Among the latter, one can name only the bloody Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. China has been pragmatically exploiting Moscow’s weakness, nothing more. The American ruling class and the new US president will never forgive the Putin regime for its interventions (even if they were of a hypothetical nature only) in the 2016 US elections and many other things. This is not to mention the EU countries, especially now, after Alexey Navalny’s poisoning.

In discussions of any truly global issue, from climate change to the US-China conflict, Russia’s opinion plays absolutely no role. The only global role left for president Putin is that of a universal scarecrow, a slightly comical but relatively dangerous Doctor Evil who dispatches clowns to sprinkle poison on doorknobs in quiet English towns, or to poison his own opponents at home. Or steal a COVID-19 vaccine from the west. Or hack into the computers of employees of the US State Department. Or to organise a coup in tiny Montenegro for some reason. But, if you subtract the cinematic trappings, the truth is quite plain and sad.

When a country finds itself in such circumstances in international relations, it is usually called “isolation”.

The sea and the cliff

In the case of Putin’s Russia, it is mainly a matter of self-isolation, or more precisely, of isolation resulting from the mutation of a certain foreign policy direction. Embarked on as something absolutely practical, in the spirit of realpolitik, it eventually turned into a sinister ideological quixotism, an attempt to attain greatness using unsuitable means. Let us take a closer look at how cautious pragmatism transformed into great-power fanfare.

I would argue that the very nature of the concept of “stability” has largely caused this transformation. While losing leverage on its neighbours - and on countries distant but important - Putinist Russia has adopted a means of exerting influence and exercising control that is more characteristic of the secret police than of diplomats. This method has involved maintaining hotbeds of instability in countries that Moscow wanted to keep in its sphere of influence. It has often artificially fuelled these conflicts for decades, thus getting the opportunity to act as an arbiter, as a guarantor of stability in particular zones of instability.

Sebastian_Kurz_and_Sergey_Lavrov_-_OSZE_2017_(35818676766).jpg
Sebastian Kurz and Sergey Lavrov | Source: Pixabay.

Back in the 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova were such hotspots. The 2008 Russo-Georgian War was the apotheosis of this policy: it transpired that by exploiting such hotbeds of instability, the Kremlin really could keep Russia’s neighbours on its hook, if not under its control. Then the Putin regime moved from maintaining such hotbeds to igniting them, thus launching the war in Donbas in 2014. Simultaneously, the regime moved from the concept of “protecting our borders from the enemy” to direct aggression by occupying Crimea. From the viewpoint of realpolitik, these actions were completely senseless: they forever drove a wedge between Russia and Ukraine (or, at least, the current Russia and the current Ukraine), and Russia and the west, while generating intractable conflicts on Russia’s own borders. The Putin regime got its hands on its own Ulster and its own Palestine when it invaded Donbas.

Interestingly, these foreign policy mistakes, if not crimes, were made in obeisance to considerations that were anything but practical. Putin’s stability has ceased to be hollow. It has been filled with a Russian version of western right-wing conservatism, mixed with the ideological principles of Nicholas I’s foreign policy, especially in the last decade of his reign. The Putin regime fancies itself an indestructible cliff rising above the stormy waters of a radicalised west, as described in Fyodor Tyutchev’s famous 1848 poem “The Sea and the Cliff”:

Waves of violent surf,

Constantly rolling,

Roaring, whistling, screaming, howling,

Smash into the coastal cliff,

But calm and haughty,

Not driven mad by the waves’ whims,

Immobile, unchanging,

Coeval of the universe,

You stand, our giant!

This messianic embrace of stability and the reckless belief in the invincibility of their own political system gave the Russian leadership the illusion of their own impunity, which, of course, was facilitated by the weakening of the US during the Trump presidency and the EU around Brexit. Consequently, the Putin regime convinced itself of its own greatness and began acting accordingly. The rhetorical cover for the cautious foreign policy of a vulnerable and not very influential country eventually became that policy’s content.

From isolation to a post-conservative international

This is how the current, extremely dangerous situation has come about. In a sense, the Putin regime today has moved from combating the import of democratic (“colour”) revolutions (and thus imitating Nicholas I) to importing counter-revolution. The problem is that there is no need to import counter-revolution anywhere. No one invites Russian soldiers to quell their indignant subjects, not even Alyaksandr Lukashenka (at least not yet). Moreover, the countries neighbouring Russia are, for the most part, ideologically as conservative (i.e., new-model right-wing populist conservative) as it is, or even more so.

Semi-official and official ethnic nationalism in Ukraine and Hungary, respectively, is much more viral than in Russia. Official support for “traditional values” in Poland and Lithuania would give ultra-conservative Russian MP Yelena Mizulina a run for her money. At the same time, ideological kinship does not make today’s Russia a political ally of these countries. Suffice it to recall Poland, to which liberals like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are incomparably closer than Putin. The result of 20 years of foreign policy is that Russia is perceived as an outsider - often as an enemy - even by those who inhabit the same ideological landscape.

It is unclear how Russia can exit this impasse. Two possible options stand out. Either the country’s self-isolation becomes definitive, and Russia comes more to resemble North Korea than Tsarist Russia. Or, as I outlined in the previous essay, a new ideological consensus within the country (no matter whether it happens under a late-period Putin or without him) will enable it to blend a cautious, culturally conservative “liberal westernism” with a rejection of everything truly revolutionary in the modern world, especially feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, and socialism. Russia would then be able to build a bridge to similar forces in Europe and America, and be involved in establishing a cutting-edge post-conservative international.

Russia could thus regain some measure of international influence, but the price for it certainly would be many acquisitions of the last 10 years, including territorial ones. While it seems purely ideological, this course would sooner or later mutate into a realpolitik, however, depending on the new balance of power both in the world and in Russia itself. In any case, the rundown two-stroke engine of Russian foreign policy will continue to rattle on. It can only be stopped by a total reform of Russia’s socio-economic and political system, only by transforming the Russian state into a true social democracy - one that would express the real will and interests of society, including in foreign policy.

Translated by Thomas Campbell.

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