Rigid Alliances or Ad Hoc Coalitions? Military-Political Alliances in the 21st Century
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia

On June 19, the Valdai Club held an expert discussion on trends in military-political alliances, as part of a presentation of a Valdai Paper, titled “Russia’s Allies and the Geopolitical Frontier in Eurasia.”

The discussion was regarding how effective Russia’s policy is in the broad frontier, when it comes to interacting with other centers of power and providing for its geopolitical interests. The paper’s authors believe that in the first decades of the 21st century, Russia has been successful at acquiring its new geopolitical niche. It is not trying to integrate frontier territories and is likely to accept their fluid identity. The system of unions created by Russia does not pre-suppose long-term political and military engagement outside of its borders, other than surgical presence in regions that it finds most important.

Andrey Sushentsov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club and one of the authors of the report, noted that the western geopolitical frontier of Russia is characterized by high uncertainty and tension. There are two paths for the countries concerned: to increase this tension, perceiving its situation as more "threatened" than it really is, or to deescalate the tensions. The first way was chosen by the Baltic States, which made a decisive contribution to the securitization of the Baltic agenda in recent years.

According to Sushentsov, this contrasts sharply with the situation on the Russian-Chinese border.

 "There is no geopolitical frontier between Russia and China, they do not compete for Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan," he said. The reason for this situation, Sushentsov noted, is that Moscow and Beijing are building their relations on the principles of equality, respect for sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs and taking into account of each other's interests.

Russia’s Allies and the Geopolitical Frontier in Eurasia Valdai Paper #66
The risk of Russia’s involvement in low-intensity military conflicts has been growing since the early 2000s. Instability along many stretches of the border has forced Moscow to increase its military presence in the neighboring areas.

Vasily Kashin, a leading researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, agreed with this point of view. According to him, the ideal image of the future of Russian foreign policy is something that Moscow could achieve in the Asia-Pacific region. According to him, if Russia comes out to a peace treaty with Japan, in Asia it will be the complete opposite of what it represents in Europe. According to him, this ideal would be well spread to all directions of Russian foreign policy, which in practice is hardly possible. The main issue in problem regions is whether Russia can stabilize its relations with its opponents or they will develop according to the logic of the struggle, Kashin believes.

According to the authors of the paper, the network of alliances in which Russia is included, it is appropriate to consider the points of view of its adequacy to the global trends in the transformation of the institution of the international military-political alliance itself. Military-political alliances in the world are increasingly being created as projects for solving specific problems. Using the words of D. Rumsfeld, "it is not the coalition that determines the mission, but the mission defines the coalition."

The structure of Russia’s alliances, according to Sushentsov, is adequate to the requirements of the international environment. Therefore, the CSTO is a less binding organization than NATO, there is no rigidity and ideology in it, and its structure is supplemented by Russia's bilateral alliances with the member states. Russia and its allies are more ready for the uncertainty of challenges and threats, Sushentsov believes.

Nikolay Silayev, co-author of the paper and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Studies of Caucasus, MGIMO University, stressed that the ad hoc coalition is a stable trend that repeats other trends of the modern world. Russia, he said, seeks to maintain in each region such a balance of power between regional players that would be consistent with the current goals of its policies.

Aleksey Dzermant, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (Minsk), who participated in the discussion via videolink, expressed concern regarding the approach, which does not imply Russia's accession to permanent alliances. He pointed out that, in the context of a harsh rhetoric from NATO, the military-political union of Russia and Belarus is the only chance to contain the escalation.

Meanwhile, as the authors noted, the Russian military buildup in recent years shows that the Russian government does not consider the region, which includes Kaliningrad oblast, Belarus, the Baltic countries and Poland to be the most threatened. Therefore, the traditional Minsk policy of extracting political and other advantages from the confrontation between Russia and the West in post-Soviet space periodically falters.

One of the questions raised during the question and answer portion of the discussion was whether Russia could have non-situational allies and those with whom we share an existential threat. Iran was named as one such potential ally. Answering the question, Vasily Kashin noted that attempts at rapprochement with Iran would jeopardize relations with Israel, which are of value to Russia, and may cause concerns in Tajikistan, whose relations with Tehran have recently been characterized by a certain tension.

The conceptual foundations of Russia's policy in the Middle East aroused particular interest from the audience. Talking about the difference in approaches to building alliances between modern Russia and the USSR, Nikolai Silayev pointed out that the latter in the Middle East had clear allies and enemies, what cannot be said about Russia. As it is known, Russia maintains close relations with the leading players in the region without entering into binding alliances. Even friendly Russian-Syrian relations, which have a long history, do not imply legal obligations to each other, prescribing them to enter the war in case of aggression by a third party against an ally. The ability to maintain a regional balance is more important than permanent alliances, Silayev concluded.