Having decided to cast a direct military-political challenge to the West, Russia must demonstrate to all its non-Western partners that it was a successful, effective choice. How they perceive us will directly depend on the success of Russia’s actions in the conflict, not on half measures or dubious deal-making, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The firm internal consolidation among Western countries has become one of the distinctive features of the new geopolitical reality that has taken shape since February 24. It formed in response to the direct confrontation with Russia, and this political target, at least for the time being, prevails over the economic difficulties for these countries caused by the anti-Russia sanctions introduced by them and as well as by the potential for national discord. The situation appears unlikely to change in the medium term. Obviously, this consolidation is strengthening Western positions on both the current Ukrainian conflict and a broader range of issues, including in international organisations. All these countries are acting as a united front and speaking in one voice, with few nuances. In addition, Western countries are voting in lockstep in international organisations, the UN agencies and others.
It would be appropriate to ask in this context whether such consolidation is possible among non-Western countries? As we have already emphasised
before, one of the main geopolitical results of the initial months of the Ukrainian conflict was that the overwhelming majority of non-Western countries did not directly join the West’s anti-Russia sanctions. These countries took a much more restrained and neutral position on this issue. So, Russia’s global denunciation and isolation did not happen. Not only that, in the last few months, several countries simultaneously expressed their desire to join BRICS. Apparently, the conflict in Ukraine was a factor. This process is very revealing, considering that BRICS is a symbol of the collective non-West at the global level. Similar processes are taking place as regards the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at the regional level.
These examples show that the idea of bringing more and more countries into the already institutionalised (albeit on a limited scale) framework for non-Western international cooperation is gaining traction. However, is it possible to compare Western unity with the unity of non-Western countries on both the current agenda and a broad range of international issues? The answer is obvious, at least for the time being. This is not the case either at the global level or in regional formats. This is manifest, in part, in the absence of uniform consolidated voting by non-Western countries in the General Assembly and other UN agencies. For instance, last spring President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko pointed to this difference in voting in the UN in the context of the CSTO Eurasian format.
There are many reasons for the lack of consolidation among non-Western countries. A number of big non-Western states have historical contradictions that are obviously not conducive to the buildup of trust among them. Various regional non-Western cooperation formats (in Eurasia, Africa and Latin America) are trying to resolve this problem or at least to alleviate it, but we think these efforts are only having limited success. For example, there have been recent conflict situations between SCO members India and China or India and Pakistan. There is also the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the post-Soviet space, and similar examples in other parts of the world.
At the same time, historical antagonism between individual Western countries (for instance, between Hungary and Romania or between Poland and Germany) has been clearly relegated to the background if not completely settled and does not influence their current policies with rare exceptions. As a rule, bloc discipline keeps them in check. The comparison between the West and non-West is plain to see here. What’s more, non-Western countries don’t try to resolve their problems with non-Western mechanisms alone, but rather resort to Western help. They either seek mediation to settle conflicts (Armenia-Azerbaijan) or use Western security formats alongside non-Western ones (India). This shows that the West is doing better than the collective non-West in this respect.
In addition to historical grievances and mutual mistrust, regional rivalry between big non-Western countries explains the lack of high-level economic and geopolitical consolidation in the non-West. The challenge of harmonising the contradictory interests of individual countries has not yet been completely resolved. The task of searching for compromise and linking up various regional initiatives is still on the agenda.
Another big topic is how much distance from the West various non-Western countries consider acceptable for themselves. Practically speaking, each of them chooses its own red lines for revisionism. In many cases, these lines are very firm and narrowly defined. It is probably fair to say that the embracing by a non-Western state of its non-Western identity does not lead to its anti-Western policy in practice. There is a very clear line between a non-Western policy and anti-Western polic and few non-Western countries have dared cross it.
There are many reasons for this attitude, among them pragmatism and a reluctance to put at risk their economic ties with the West and their place in the international division of labour and in world markets. There is also the power of tradition and the idea ingrained over decades of Western-centric policies that the West is always right and it is better not to argue with it because of its military and economic might, and the corresponding realisation of one’s own weakness and self-distrust. And it’s also partly the same old game of attempting to keep a foot in both camps, which has become established political tradition. We believe this approach to the current pressing situation with Russia is on display in the G20. We think the most illustrative example of this is the position of Indonesia, the current chair of the G20, which has been extremely cautious and kept Russia at a distance.
In general, Russia’s example, and how its actions and their success are perceived, is now acquiring key importance for global and regional non-Western consolidation. Does the Russian path lead the way to a non-Western policy countering Western neo-imperialism or is it just an exception and not the common path for the non-West? Whether they want to or not, practically all large countries have to answer this question now, each for itself. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan showed China’s obvious reluctance to embark on the Russian path here and now, judging by China’s actually very mild reaction to this visit despite its formidable verbal warnings. As a result, there were many claims in the press and social media about the US scoring an important psychological victory over China. Many said America “showed China its place.”
The issue of Russia’s leadership ambitions in the non-Western community in the medium term and the attitude of its partners to them will depend on the answer to the question of whether Russia is a flagship or an exception for the non-Western world. If they decide that Russia is a flagship and is carrying a torch in the vanguard of a common struggle – that is one thing, and these countries are more likely to accept Russia’s status as leader. But if our non-Western partners decide that Russia is an exception, their attitude will be quite different. Even if they were thinking at one time to cast a direct challenge to the West, the Russian example has prompted them to give it up as a serious idea for the indefinite future. These countries may not even display this attitude in public but that is also why it won’t be going anywhere. In this case, Russia’s not infrequent appeals to transform non-West into anti-West will be perceived like “letters from Pyongyang” that reflect North Korea’s own vision of the world but nothing else. If this logic prevails, it will obviously affect the perception of Russia’s role and place in the non-Western world. In this case, Russia will not only become isolated in regard to the West but will also be perceived as somewhat marginal even in the non-Western world.
It is clear how to avoid this. Having decided to cast a direct military-political challenge to the West, Russia must demonstrate to all its non-Western partners that it was a successful, effective choice. How they perceive us will directly depend on the success of Russia’s actions in the conflict, not on half measures or dubious deal-making. This is true for the medium term and, quite probably, for the long term as well.