Russia, which can withstand the pressure of the West and inflict a military defeat on it in Ukraine, will be able to solve all other problems that may theoretically arise on its periphery, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
It is difficult to find an observer who would disagree with the fact that Russia’s most urgent foreign policy task is to improve its own statehood and economic resilience in the face of global instability, which will continue for an indefinite period of time. However, if this is truly the case, most of the foreign policy stories which have caused contention among experts deserve much less attention than the media would like. One of the axioms of the science of international relations says that a great power is its only truly formidable opponent, and no external enemy can pose a threat to its existence. Supporting evidence is provided by the historical experience of the USSR, which suffered defeat as a result of the Cold War in 1949-1991. This happened as a result of internal weakening, rather than intrigues or external opponents launching an offensive.
The military-political conflict between Russia and the West is, simultaneously, an attempt at a final territorial delimitation in Europe and a new stage in the design of the borders of the Russian state. Therefore, at present, this conflict has become the most important one, as it defines the outlines of the European international order for the main participants in global politics. For Russia itself, it is the most important, because here it is faced with a consolidated enemy whose intentions are obviously hostile. The foreign policy strategy of the European states is aimed at fighting Russia and reducing its international influence. To accomplish this task, they have the capabilities of their military-political bloc and the full support of the United States, which uses the countries of Eastern Europe as a territorial base for expanding its influence.
At the same time, we should not be embarrassed by the fact that the confrontation is nevertheless limited in nature, and its participants are not ready to maximize their efforts in pursuing this conflict. Now the socio-economic position of the leading powers does not at all imply the likelihood of such an upsurge among the broad masses, which were characteristic of previous world wars. Virtually nowhere in the world are there conditions at the national level for pressure from below to become so powerful and all-encompassing as to move the rulers to adopt a revolutionary attitude towards the international order. However, the hybrid form of the clash between Russia and the West does not make it any less serious. Moreover, the goal of the efforts of the United States and Europe in the economic field is really the defeat of Russia and its maximum weakening.
Against this background, we must inevitably look more calmly at the concerns that arise in connection with the developments in other areas adjacent to Russia. In each individual case, they can, of course, be quite dramatic for Russia’s small and medium-sized neighbours, and in some cases even create significant threats for them. However, it is unlikely that any development on the Russian perimeter is capable of creating problems for it that are important in the implementation of the main national development goals or ensuring its own security.
This creates grounds for several assumptions to be made at once. First, in the case of modern Russian politics, the rule may be that the great powers are rather indifferent to the change in the balance of forces between their small neighbours. Since none of the neighbours can directly threaten Russia, the scale of their power capabilities is of no significant importance. Second, the ability of the Russian state to develop under such economic pressure from the West, as we are seeing now, is already a guarantee that tactical problems on the periphery will not become threatening for it. Ultimately, the ability to influence the behaviour of neighbours is determined by Russia’s own economic attractiveness and clout in world affairs. Russia, which can withstand the pressure of the West and inflict a military defeat on it in Ukraine, will be able to solve all other problems that may theoretically arise on its periphery.
In this sense, Russia may, of course, be interested in the stability of its neighbours, but this is no reason to try to determine their development or dictate foreign policy decisions. A strong and stable state, based on such colossal resources as Russia, may well do without having to control its peaceful neighbours, and potentially unfriendly behaviour on their part should be stopped not by “binding” them to Russia, but by inevitable retaliation.
Ultimately, nowhere outside Europe does Russia encounter the phenomenon of anti-Russian consolidation as a historically important factor in domestic and foreign policy. This means that in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow’s concern in the future may be only the internal problems of its neighbours, but not their aggressive behaviour towards Russia. The way relations between them are developing now, while Russia is really solving important issues for itself in Europe, is unlikely to create problems of a fundamental nature for it. Even more, the cooperation of neighbouring countries with major powers friendly to Russia will not lead to this.
The long-awaited advancement of the economic dialogue between China and the Central Asian countries is entirely good news for Moscow. Difficulties and mistakes in the process of development of these neighbour countries to Russia’s south will not create a threat to the survival of Russia, even if they turn out to be dramatic for them. In fact, this explains the calm attitude of the Russian government towards developments and processes that would be extremely important for a country of a smaller scale. We do not yet know how successful the efforts of the participants in this dialogue will be regarding the additional stabilisation of the region and the development of its states. However, due to the fact that China and its regional partners cannot even theoretically be considered potentially hostile to Russia, their rapprochement can either benefit it or eliminate existing problems if it moderately succeeds. But there is no way to create new difficulties for Russia, comparable to those that we are now seeing emanating from the West.
The same goes for the South Caucasus region, which is now very likely on the verge of major changes because of the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This region, due to its geopolitical position, as well as its ethnic composition, cannot become a consolidated territorial base for the policy of forces that directly threaten the security and survival of the Russian state. Even the comparative strengthening of Turkeyin the region will not lead to dramatic consequences; although a member of a military-political bloc hostile to Russia, it acts completely independently in regional affairs. This means that the degree of potential threat from its influence will depend only on Turkey itself, whose domestic political and economic future is not completely certain. The threat from America’s Eastern European allies is not a product of their own capabilities, but of the use of these territories as a base for American policy in Eurasia.
Summing up, we can say that while in the case of Ukraine and perhaps even the Baltic states, Russia is dealing with a consolidated adversary whose intentions towards us are determined by strategic circumstances, in the rest of the periphery the situation is not similar, even theoretically. Nowhere in neighbouring Eurasia do we run the risk of facing situations similar to Eastern Europe in the future. This is quite obvious, even without factoring in the exceptionally friendly relations between Russia and China, as well as regional organisations supported by both powers, among which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization occupies a central place.