Norms and Values
The First Six Months of the New Reality

August 24 marks six months since the announcement by the leadership of the Russian Federation of a special military operation in Ukraine. It and the response of the West have formed a fundamentally new geopolitical and geo-economic reality; not only for the warring parties, but for the whole world. In any case, the challenges posed to world energy and food security are obviously global in nature. This article was prepared for the Valdai Club expert discussion, titled “Half a year in a new reality: How has the world changed after February 24?”, which will take place on August 25 at 16:30. Watch the broadcast on our website.

It is clear that there will never be a return to the past, even if it is theoretically assumed that the parties to the conflict will be able to start effective negotiations in the near future and come to a mutually acceptable cessation of hostilities. Even such a hypothetical scenario is unlikely to reverse the situation, lead to the lifting of sanctions, or restore the balance that characterised world politics and the economy before February 24. The long-term and irrevocable nature of the changes that have taken place is quite obvious. Therefore, it would at this point be methodologically correct to discuss and evaluate not just six months of the new reality, but precisely the first six months. They will undoubtedly be followed by another six months and yet another. The dynamics of processes, of course, may change in the future. But the general trend is a serious one, and set to remain for a long time.

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Is It Possible to Lift Sanctions Against Russia? - No
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Every conflict sooner or later ends in peace. Such is the conventional wisdom that can often be heard from those who, amid the current situation of the sanctions tsunami and confrontation with the West, are trying to find hope for a return to "normality". The logic of such wisdom is simple. At some point, the parties will cease fire and sit down at the negotiating table. The end of hostilities will lead to a gradual reduction in sanctions pressure on Russia, and our businesses will be able to return to work with Western partners.

What are the results of this first half of the new reality? One of them is related to the much more pronounced polarisation of power in world politics. First of all, of course, between Russia and the West. The Western countries have imposed extremely rigid sanctions against Russia. In response, Russia has significantly expanded its official list of unfriendly states. Also, the Western countries openly support the strategy of promoting a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. The supply of Western weapons to Ukraine, as well as the use of intelligence information from Western satellites for target designation both in naval and anti-aircraft artillery combat, has had an impact on the course of hostilities. It should not be underestimated. Naturally, in their official statements, the representatives of Western countries constantly deny the direct nature of their participation in the conflict.
However, we agree that the notorious red line between indirect support and direct participation is becoming more and more blurred with each new stage of hostilities.

The official Russian position, however, from our point of view, so far admits that the West has not crossed its red line, since the strikes announced in response to the decision-making centres are not inflicted. We’ll see what happens next.

The very course of hostilities in relation to the current stage is also, in our subjective opinion, limited. In many ways, it has come down to a classic artillery duel at the tactical level. This method has largely proven itself in the wars of the last century. The difference with the 20th century is essentially only that now this artillery duel is complemented by elements of 21st century hi-tech. These include the active use of real-time target designation via satellites and UAVs (by at least one of the parties). Such a deliberate limitation of the conflict at this stage, with its sole focus on tactical artillery combat, which doesn’t include attacks on real centres for making military-political decisions (although the forces and means allow this), is undoubtedly a specific feature. It distinguishes it from other military conflicts conducted by major powers in the recent past. We can recall the NATO operation against Yugoslavia in 1999, the US and its allies’ operation against Iraq in 2003, and a number of others. There, the question of restraint in strikes against military-political centres was not even raised. Only time will tell which of these approaches is more effective from a military and political point of view, at least the next six months of the new reality.

A new geopolitical rift has emerged, and not only between Russia and the West. It has affected almost all countries and regions of the world. The expressed position of the Western countries in the first months of the conflict reflects the Bolshevik principle “He who is not with us is against us.” These countries have pressured virtually every major non-Western country to support sanctions against Russia. However, most of them have refused to do this, trying either to take a position of equidistance in this conflict (at least outwardly), or at least not to be directly involved in it.
Thus, the current conflict has contributed, if not to the consolidation of the Non-West, at least to its more pronounced distancing from the West than before.

The intensification of discussions on the expansion of the BRICS and SCO that occurred after February 24 is also a manifestation of this. We have already noted earlier that it is precisely this distancing of the Non-West from the West that has become the real success of Russia in global politics within the framework of the new reality, to a large extent the fruit of its diplomatic efforts and the promotion of alternative value narratives in previous years. Also within the Western countries, after the shock of the very first months of the conflict, voices in support of neutrality and non-alignment became more and more heard.

But between the position of equidistance and open revisionism towards the West, there is also, of course, a red line. One of the key questions of the new reality is what the limits are for revisionism. Are there any countries now that are ready to follow the path of Russia and transform the ordinary rebellion against the West and the established status quo into an open military and political challenge? In many ways, the answer to this question will depend on how certain countries assess the success of Russia's actions, both militarily and more broadly, economically, in resisting sanctions. Now, in the context of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, the answer to this question, and whether there are limits for revisionism, should come from China. It has to pass this test, perhaps earlier than it wanted to, but the acceleration of geopolitical time is also one of the features of the new reality.

A feature of the new reality is the principle of collective guilt and the collective responsibility of the entire Russian society as a whole and of each Russian citizen individually, openly postulated not only by Ukraine, but also by Western countries. This has manifested itself both in the sanctions, which were aimed much more at the ordinary people than at the Russian leadership, and in mass media narratives. In previous conflicts, there was no such incidence where the principle of collective responsibility was no longer taboo. In our opinion, this is a distinctly new feature.

Norms and Values
From the Demonization of the Enemy to the Demonization of Society: Collective Responsibility and Modern Warfare
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It is obvious that the current divide between Russia and the West is much wider, deeper and more resilient than it has ever been in the past – whether during the Cold War era or at any point in history before February 24, 2022.

Another aspect of the past six months is related to the assessment of Russia's importance in the global economic system. Before the start of the conflict, one could meet polar points of view on this issue, both overestimates and underestimates (such as the notion of it being a “gas station country”). The result of the new reality was clear: fears about the coming global energy and food crisis, about a global recession, about inflation and rising prices. Regardless of how the winter develops or the next half-year of the new reality, we can state that in this conflict it was for the first time demonstrated that sanctions can be a double-edged sword. They can cause damage not only to the target country, but also to the countries that introduce them. The only question is the acceptability of the balance of these damages in the public opinion of the countries that initiated the sanctions.

The question of the role of the individual in history also took its place in understanding the new reality. Donald Trump in this regard has openly said: “With me there would be no war.” If we extrapolate this statement to the other politicians of the recent past, is it possible to make assumptions that “there would be no war under Merkel” or “there would be no war under Poroshenko”? The psychological perception of one’s counterpart, the a priori assessment of his strength and respect for his strength in the system of coordinates that has developed in the sphere of geopolitical decision-making, in our opinion, should not be underestimated. In this context of psychological perception stereotypes (and their intense media retransmission), the fact that Biden is not Trump, Scholz is not Merkel, and Zelensky is not Poroshenko, I think, could well play a role. This lack of trust, not even between politicians, but of their a priori perception as “heavyweights” of the global system, led to what really happened.
Thus, the value gap was superimposed on the personal one.

Narratives that “politicians are no longer the same”, that in today’s world there are no Churchills or De Gaulles, there’s no Mahatmas Gandhi, have appeared quite often before. This happened regardless of how much it corresponds to reality, and how much it is generally possible to correctly compare politicians of different eras and generations. In addition, it is clear that such idealisation and glorification of the politicians of the past can also turn out to be a historical myth. But nevertheless, if we try to rationally explain this phenomenon, we can speculate about the changed conditions of the global society, about the sharp increase in the restrictions of political correctness, which have transformed in recent years into a total “cancel culture”, about various principles for recruiting politicians, about the role of education and cultural outlook. But one way or another, this factor of “shredding” politicians (or perceiving them as such), has led, among other things, to the fact that an effective dialogue about various values ​​and interests and attempts to harmonise them “with them”, “with these” a priori turned out to be impossible. The parties did not hear each other, not only because of the opposing geopolitical interests that they defended, but also because of value differences, multiplied by interpersonal perception.

These, in our subjective opinion, are some preliminary results that can be drawn from the results of the first half-year of the new reality. The first, but, we repeat, far from the last. The dynamics of world geopolitical and economic processes has acquired a fundamentally different vector and speed. Only time will tell where this will lead.

Half a Year in a New Reality: How Has the World Changed since February 24? An Expert Discussion
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.