Russia's future role on the Eurasian continent

Posted in Russia | 22-Apr-09 | Author: Dmitry Shlapentokh

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev."The advent of Dmitry Medevedev as Russian President has let to several…
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev."The advent of Dmitry Medevedev as Russian President has let to several signs of Russia/China rapprochement."

The advent of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president has led to several signs of Russia/China rapprochement. China was among the first countries Medvedev visited, and recently China and Russia finally settled a border dispute that had spoiled their relationship for a long time and that in the late 1960s had led to bloody border clashes. Russia and China are active and dominant forces in the Shanghai Cooperation Association (SCO), which some pundits regard as an emerging counterbalance to NATO, with which Russia has had an increasingly hostile relationship, especially after the USA decision to put a missile defense shield in East Europe. Still, the image of China/Russia as not just a military/geopolitical alliance but also a strong partnership does not look promising, barring some unexpected turn of events.

It is true that after the USA/NATO attack on Serbia in 1999, Russia has leaned toward China and that Putin made China the first place to visit after his inauguration; it is also true that several Russian/Chinese joint maneuvers have since taken place. But no binding military treaty was signed, and actual Russia/China military cooperation in SCO is quite limited. Moreover, when the USA invaded Iraq-much to Russia's displeasure-Putin tried to counterbalance USA might by moving closer not to China but to France and Germany. In fact, at that time, fashionable "Eurasianists"-those who believe that Russia is a unique blend of Orthodox Slavs and Muslim, mostly Turkic, people-regarded the alliance with France and Germany as an essential axis of a sort, reinforced by Russia's allegiance to Iran and possibly India. China was emphatically absent from that design. But more than anything else, what demonstrates Russia's gravitation to the West, mostly Europe (with the USA increasingly marginalized in public discourse), is the mood of ordinary Russians. Even those who acknowledge that the Chinese are a hardworking people and even that Chinese criminals in Russia prey mostly on other Chinese, not on Russians, look at the Chinese with apprehension. Even those who would not mind seeing China as a counterbalance to the USA have a deep apprehension about Chinese migrants and fear that a declining Russian populace will finally lead Russia to be engulfed by the Chinese multitude. Some Russians from the Russian Far East travel to China, develop personal relationships, and even buy property there. But these Russians are mostly from the part of Russia with geographical proximity to China; and the vast majority of Russians from European Russia-where most of the people live-head to the West not to the East, as tourists, students, customers, and investors. Russia's role in China's overall geopolitical design is also rather marginal. Similar to Russia, China was alarmed by the USA/NATO attack on Serbia; and the incident with the American plane that crossed China's air space at the beginning of the Bush presidency brought the Chinese/American relationship to a new low. In this case, flirtation with Russia was a handy way to demonstrate to the USA that China is not isolated and that a grand Russia/China alliance could, indeed, emerge.

Still, Russia did not want to conduct joint sea maneuvers near Taiwan, the most likely place for a Chinese/American confrontation. Buying Russian weapons-essential for China in the late 1990s and early 2000s-became less attractive, mostly because of China's ability to produce the same weapons and Russia's unwillingness to sell to China all types of weapons. Most discouraging is Russia's unwillingness to provide China more than a fraction of the gas and oil Russia produces. Moreover, Russia's competition with China for resources in Central Asia made transforming SCO into a cohesive military alliance a rather daunting task. And while Russia looks to the West, to Europe, with which it has engaged in a complex love/hate relationship, the same could be said of China. It focuses its attention on the USA, with which China engages in a complex relationship of mutual rivalry and a peculiar economic and geopolitical interdependence. All this implies that, although Medvedev's trip to China and the recent settling of border questions appear to be a prelude to a grand alliance, they actually have different implications. Both China and Russia wish to solve existing problems in order to turn their attention in a different direction; for Russia it is West (Europe), and for China it is East(USA) or South.Still, the Russia/China rapprochement should not be disregarded, for the present trend can proceed only under comparative global stability. In case of a major crisis, all bets are off, and the Russia/China relationship could reemerge in a different form.

The western direction

While China continues to be comparatively marginal in Russian foreign policy, this is not the case with its attitude toward the West, with whom Russia is engaged in a hate/love or love/hate relationship. Russia's relationship with what is usually called "near abroad" e.g., the republics, also could be placed in the context of this approach to the West. The recent war with Georgia and the tension with Ukraine could well create the impression that Russia had changed its behavior completely and once again become an imperial power as it had been through most of the country's modern history. During the war with Georgia, the American conservative TV channel, Fox News, went so far as to directly compare present-day Russia with Nazi Germany. The images of the pro-Kremlin group "Nash'" (Our people) was interwoven with images of marching storm troopers. This comparison was not made even during the Reagan era when the USSR/Russia was dubbed the "evil empire"--although still not a Nazi state, the ultimate evil in the eyes of most Westerners.

Russia's image as an imperial power bound for expansion regardless of temporary setbacks, the traditional view of Russia since the 19th century, hardly provided a clue for understanding the country's posture at present. Russia has not become a Nazi/Soviet-type imperialist, bound to conquer/recreate the USSR, and the belief in the existence of Russia's imperial appetite should have been taken with a grain of salt even before the present-day economic crisis that hit Russia severely. One should remember that while the quest for empire could originally have an ideological construction, it has meaning only if it materializes in practice. An "empire" requires an imperial institution and--as is the case with modern society-an imperial economy, so to speak. For a long time, the most important element in a hot war/cold war was the army.

Nineteenth-century European states engaging in colonial expansion paid considerable attention to building an army. Service in the army of the colonial administration was one of the most important undertakings for members of European nobility. Considerable economic resources were spent on building a navy and, especially since the end of the 19th century, on military hardware, such as artillery and a navy. The industrial-military complex originated or, at least, developed at that time hampered the full-fledged development of the market and underscored the state's role in economic development. Even more so, the role of the state in the economy could be seen in the truly imperial regimes of the 20th century totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany. While nationalization was never directly implemented, and profit in itself was not outlawed, the entire course of events, especially after the Russian campaign, was toward increasing centralism and egalitarianism of a sort.

The economic benefits of an empire did exist; at least in theory. For example, after conquest, Germans could enjoy "Lebensraum," which many resources and heroic fighters on the Eastern front could claim. Still, material benefits were placed in the distant future. The present demanded sacrifice and ascetism. Material benefits played even less of a role in Soviet imperialism. The Soviet heartland received practically no material benefits from imperial expansion. Moreover, the empire was actually a liability for the regime. The Soviet government supplied huge amounts of weapons to proxies and satellites practically for free. The Soviet empire also provided cheap natural resources (oil and gas) to conquered East Europe, in sharp difference from traditional empires where the colonies provided the raw materials for the metropolis. And, in any case, the Soviet elite received no personal material benefits from imperial expansion. The empire's geo-strategic interests were in a way a goal in themselves. If one would apply the same characteristics to the present-day Russian elite, one could hardly find such "imperial" aspects. The real imperial policy and arrangements were not much in evidence even before the present-day economic crisis when Russia was awash in gas and oil money. Actually, the anti-imperial posture of the present-day Russian elite could be seen in the posture of the Russian army. The army, which is in better shape than in the Yeltsin era, is not the pampered child of the Soviets (or of the Nazis). Most weapons are obsolete, and a military career is not seen as the most attractive for the Russian elite. As a matter of fact, most Russian soldiers and officers are underpaid. There is also no sign of economic mobilization: no investment in real economy-e.g., in the production of machinery, roads, etc., which are essential for long confrontations and sustained empire building. The elite consumes a huge amount of oil/gas wealth. While the recent "National Security Strategy 2020" regarded Russian oil and gas as the instruments in geopolitics one can still doubt that Russian elite would forsake profit for long run geoplitical goal especially if it implied no reward in the form of cold cash.

The most important point is the Russian elite's connection with the West. Real estate in Europe, bank deposits and shares in Western companies--all of this makes the present-day Russian elite quite different, not just from the Soviet and Nazi elite but even from 20th-century European imperialists who usually did not invest in the countries that were often presented to the public as potential enemies. All of this hardly makes the Russian elite bonafide imperialists who just wait for the proper moment to be prepared for an imperial build-up. The present-day Russian elite could well be characterized as an elite of "bandits" rather than "imperialists." "Bandits" think primarily about material benefits. "Bandits" also do not like to delay gratification and usually have a rather short view of the horizon. Taking this definition of the Russian elite into consideration, one should look at present-day Russia's war with Georgia and the tension with Ukraine.

"Several Russia/China joint manoeuvers have taken place"
"Several Russia/China joint manoeuvers have taken place"
The USA mass media invariably presents Russia as the initiator of the war, and, consequently, sees it as the beginning of Russian imperial expansion. This analysis is usually reduced to finding out who took the first shot. The analysis in this case is trivialized. It is almost similar to the explanation of WWI as a result of the killing of Francis Ferdinand, Austro-Hungarian heir, and the outrage caused by the murder. It is a textbook axiom that WWI was caused by much more serious problems, and historians always place the event in a broad geopolitical context. The same should be done with the present conflict.

From the late 1980s, with the decline and then collapse of the USSR, one could see the continuous geopolitical expansion of the USA, first, as a part of the NATO alliance and, later, as its sole venture in Afghanistan and Iraq. At that time, the doctrine of "preventive war" and "regime change" was invented; and Robert Kagan, in a quite influential article, praised the USA as a decisive "Mars," while Europe was a feminine, powerless "Venus." And at the same time, an article published in the influential Foreign Affairs suggested that the USA could engage in pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Russia and China, who were too weak to respond. By their spirit and wording, these articles could have been published in the Nazi Volkischer-Beobachter. Georgian policy could well be placed in this context.

The Georgian elite might not receive any orders from Washington, but the very assurance that that USA would support Georgia in case of trouble was encouraging and prompted Georgia's assault on South Ossetia, which was formally under Georgia jurisdiction. The Russian response soon evolved into a full-fledged war with the possible goal of removing the pro-American regime. The USA mass media immediately transformed the attack into a Russian drive to recreate the Russian empire/sphere of influence and even compared Putin's/Medvedev's regime with the Nazi regime, driven by the same motives for imperial conquest. This image of Putin/Medvedev is due not so much to any real threat-at least at the moment-but because of the trend in the USA. The debacle in Georgia, together with Iraq and Afghanistan, was just an additional sign of the USA's declining military/geopolitical importance. These military problems were amplified by increasing economic problems. At the same time, Russia still behaved quite cautiously; and the general arrangements do not make Russia's conquest or expansion of influence easy, at least in the former USSR.

West Europeans also do not see in the present Russia much of a military threat. While in the beginning of the Georgian war, Putin/Medvedev planned to remove its president, Mikhail Saakashavilli, they did not press this too strongly and did not move Russian troops toward Tblisi, the Georgian capital; and reluctantly Russia withdrew at least some of its troops from Georgian territory. Russia's restraint was caused not just by a desire not to irritate the West too much but for a gamut of other problems. To start with, the response among the former Soviet republics was rather negative for Russia. Putin/Medvedev assumed that war would bolster Russia's prestige among its allies and prevent them from moving in a direction contrary to Russian interest. Actually, the opposite happened. Ukraine and the Baltic States, and possibly NATO-member Poland, moved closer to a geopolitical, and, perhaps, military, alliance; but even pro-Russian Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Kazakhstan implicitly expressed their displeasure with the war. The war had led to the virtual collapse of the idea of a "Eurasian" union of brotherly people of the former USSR, who, having the same historical destiny, would finally be united. Instead of unity, the former Soviet republics could look either for regional alliances or for a force that could counterbalance Russia: the USA, Europe/NATO or China.

Even the present-day arrangement to create joint forces to face a possible threat from Afghanistan does not look promising. For example, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belorussia leader and formally a part of the new alliance, stated that Belorussia would not send its troops outside the country's borders. Islam Karimov, the Uzbekistan strong man and also formally a part of the alliance, stated that Uzbekistan would consider sending troops depending on each particular request. Thus, it would be quite questionable not only to see a Russian war with Georgia as the road to a greater Russia but not even as a springboard in the solidification of Russia's position among the countries of the former USSR. Finally, there is another problem about which authorities are well aware. The war in Georgia has increased Russian nationalism, which has different modifications. Some in its imperial/patriotic form benefit the regime. Others, however, are of different form. For the representatives of this type of nationalism, the present-day regime represents minorities and does not respond to the needs of Russians. For them, there is not much difference between "bad" Georgians and "good" South Ossetians. All of them are "Caucasians" and hated. The push for nationalistic passion would provide these people with additional influence, and the regime is aware of this.

Last, but not least, Russia shares with the West-both the USA and Europe-the fear of the East, especially the fear of a fundamentalist victory in Afghanistan, which could easily spread to Central Asia and Russia proper. All of this moderates Russia's position, and this is understood by West Europeans. The Europeans' position is seen not just as reluctant to make a strong stand against Russia, as demanded by the USA and East Europeans, but by another policy. As was noted, the Russian elite is not so much imperial as pragmatic; and it is not the deployment of additional NATO forces near the border but other actions that would bother it much more. Billions of Russian dollars/euros are invested in European real estate, banks, etc. The legality of the origin of most of this money is quite questionable, and an investigation conducted in earnest could easily reveal its original criminal origin. And this money could be easily confiscated. Still, the Europeans have not done this, which indicates that Europe does not regard Russia as an imminent threat as an imperial power and is ready to compromise


Russia's foreign policy, as is the case with other countries, is mostly defined by the position of the elite. The present-day Russian elite continues to think primarily about its enrichment and has rather nebulous views of giant projects, such as empire, unless directly translated into cash. Russia's invasion of Georgia was not so much a resurrection of Russia's historical imperial appetite as a response to the USA's policy of "preemptive war" and "regime change." The war created not just benefits but problems for Russia, which make Russia's imperial expansion problematic. This is understood by most West/Central Europeans, who hardly want to antagonize Russia too much. Also, Russia, despite its tension with NATO, is still more predisposed to the West, mostly Europe, than to the East. At least, there is no sign of a grand China/Russia alliance. What should be done here?

"There is no sign of a grand China/Russia alliance"


One should remember that recommendations should not pretend to be universal, plainly because all participants of the "play" have their own interests, which could well be quite opposite to those of the other parties involved.

For the USA, the relationship with Russia is a dilemma, and the USA's relationship with Russia is incorporated in the more general problems that the USA faces at present. It is clear that Afghanistan is emerging as one of the major USA problems; and, here, Russia's cooperation is of the most essential. Weak, anti-imperial, "bandit" Russia would not be of any serious threat to the USA in the long run and from this perspective is quite different from China. Russia's domination in the former USSR, especially in Central Asia, should not be resented by the USA. Only cooperation with Russia would provide some chance to solve Afghanistan problems and prevent Islamic radicalism from spreading to much broader areas. Insuring Russia's predominant position in Central Asia would imply Russia's domination of the gas supply lines to Europe. And this would be hardly in the interests of the Europeans, at least some of them. (One should remember that the interests of the West/Central Europeans are different not just from the Americans but also from the East Europeans.)Indeed the major threat from Russia comes not from Russian tanks moving to Paris or Berlin but from dependence on Russian oil/gas. This problem could be solved only if one would employ the "Russian model"-the drastic involvement of the state in energy production and distribution. The state's direct intervention in the economy is still anathema for the USA elite and for economic growth. Even the Obama administration, despite much criticism of the conservatives, is still not taking any move that would ensure the state's direct engagement in shaping the country's economic landscape, even in the most vital energy sector. The state's direct engagement in the economic process is still to talk not walk. Still, it is much more acceptable in Europe. It also would require much closer integration between the key players of the European Union, France and Germany. The discord between these two members of the original "Charlemagne core"-the nucleus of a united Europe-plays into the hands of both Russia and the USA. On the other hand, a unified and economically viable West/Central Europe would not only stand well against Russia's oil/gas pressure but also against the USA's declining influence. The economic viability of the "Charlemagne core" would also ultimately push East Europe closer to Paris/Berlin rather than to Washington.