Pushkin’s dashing and the moralising of Dostoevsky’s ideal hero cannot yet converge on one point, as happened among those European peoples, whose cultural extremes yielded unity after they had lost all international weight and geopolitical significance, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The Russian president’s address to the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos took place in the form of a video message for the first time in 12 years. Once again, attention was drawn to the fact that he did not accuse anyone, he didn’t demand that partners in the West respect Russian interests and values, and in general, he was focused on the global agenda. Despite Russia’s difficult relations with the United States and Washington’s European allies, Moscow itself looks rather calm in light of the measures of economic pressure and attempts to influence Russian domestic policy being used. Russia clearly does not feel much stress over the most recent diplomatic developments, although they cannot but cause some alarm. One gets the impression that Russia has achieved what it was striving for: it has overcome the crisis associated with the acquisition of a new standing in world affairs and internal economic restructuring.
It is not surprising that just right now, the discussion about how much Russian foreign policy should be involved in world and regional affairs is intensifying. There are very convincing calls within the country to curtail foreign policy activity — its main goals have been achieved, and expanding the zone of Russia’s presence and responsibility in world affairs may now turn out to be a very costly affair and does not stand to deliver obvious benefits from the point of view of national interests. This approach, of course, has a solid foundation, and right now, when the country’s place in the global balance of power has stabilised as a whole, it is high time to turn to the fundamental features of Russian politics.
The main features of Russian foreign policy culture can be explained by the fact that Russia’s geopolitical position has not changed much when compared to the great power politics era of the 18th and 19th centuries. This sets Russia apart from all other globally important powers. In the past 100 years since the catastrophe that befell the European empires in World War I, the United States has become an almost universal balancer of global importance. Additionally, European countries have lost their global presence and roles, and China, on the contrary, for the first time in its history, has become integrated into the world economy, yielding it a no less significant presence in global affairs.
Russia, in turn, has remained where it was. Its geographical boundaries may have changed, of course, in comparison with the period of its greatest territorial expansion. However, the loss of direct control over Central Asia, Transcaucasia or the Baltic States was nowhere near as significant a loss as the collapse dealt the continental empires, such as that of Austria or Turkey, or the loss of vast areas of resources in Asia and Africa by Britain or France. Moreover, even amid modern conditions, Russia has retained the possibility of using its power to influence its relationship with Belarus and Ukraine, the largest Slavic states, which were previously part of it.
The famous British historian Dominic Lieven believes that the uniqueness of Russia after the collapse of the USSR was that it, having lost its empire, retained the main diamond of the imperial crown — Siberia, and this is what saved it from becoming a second or third-rate power, like Britain, Austria, Turkey and France. This point of view seems quite convincing, given how unique the role of the Russian intellectual and political elite were in the destruction of the USSR. Despite the fact that the trauma turned out to be significant, we will find how, with great difficulty, the Russian political community’s supporters once again shifted the burden of direct control of the state over its periphery onto the country’s shoulders. To some extent, this could be said of Ukraine and Belarus, but only because of the significant extent of mutual historical and cultural closeness, a kinship between the peoples inhabiting Russia and these two states.
This continuity of Russia’s geopolitical position is supported by a rather original composition of power capabilities. The peculiarity of Russia’s position in the global balance of power is such that while it is powerful enough to demand that its interests and values are taken into account within the framework of any international order, it needs this order as a resource for its own development. Russia feels strong enough to insist that things are fair from its point of view, but at the same time, its ability to make justice as a source of benefit is very limited. Therefore, with the exception of situations when its immediate interests are violated, Russia proceeds from its own internal prerequisites when it pursues a particular model of behaviour in world affairs, rather than assessing compelling external factors.
Here we are directly confronted with the most important dichotomy of the Russian foreign policy. This is, on the one hand, the daring inherent in the works of the father of the modern Russian language Alexander Pushkin, and on the one hand, moral messianism, which is combined with humility and immersion in oneself, the personification of which was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot, Prince Myshkin. Both features have an impressive material basis — a significant demographic potential, territories and resources by European standards. Pushkin’s daring demands intervention in the affairs of the outside world: in Syria, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh or in the issue of providing the world’s population with maximum access to the coronavirus vaccine. The moralism and humility of The Idiot entail withdrawing into oneself and indulging in isolationism — the argument that Russia cannot single-handedly make this world more moral, and therefore it is not worth trying.
At the same time, while both exhibiting daring and inwardly-focused propensities, Russia practically never engages in the kind of money-grubbing practiced by most of its partners on the world stage. When Russia crossed the Ural Mountains in the second half of the 16th century, it symbolically departed from the point where pandering and selfishness would have been necessary for its survival on the world stage. In a time of power and influence, Russia certainly benefited from its features. But they are simply related to its size and are inevitable in the diplomatic interaction between strong and weak states.
At both times when Russia’s opportunities in the world were at their peak — after its victories over Napoleon and Hitler — it had become the object of external aggression from Europe.
Pushkin’s dashing and the moralising of Dostoevsky’s ideal hero cannot yet converge on one point, as happened among those European peoples, whose cultural extremes yielded unity after they had lost all international weight and geopolitical significance. Until the same thing happens to Russia, and hopefully it will never happen, its foreign policy will remain the most controversial and perplexing, both for opponents and friends.