Global Governance
No Need to Be Afraid. Sovereignty and Realism in a Space Without Borders
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On December 20, the Valdai Club presented a report, titled “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, which was prepared for the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR and based on dozens of in-depth interviews with prominent thinkers, diplomats and politicians from nine post-Soviet countries.

The moderator, Fyodor Lukyanov, research director of the Valdai Discussion Club, noted the novelty of the report and the combination of an academic vision with applied issues. He called for “adequacy”, that is, for the perception of the surrounding reality as it is, and not as it would be desirable to see.

The author of the report, Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, spoke about the preparation of the report and about the hypotheses that were tested during the interviews. In particular, he stressed that the hypothesis about fear of Russia and Russia’s fear that the territory of its neighbours would be used against it, as one of the leading factors in relations, was confirmed. “As a representative of the realistic tradition in the science of international relations, this does not frighten me at all, since fear is a natural feeling in the interaction between states. You don’t need to be afraid of fear, you just need to work with it, understanding its inevitable presence,” Bordachev explained. The influence of this factor could be minimised by the maximum sovereign capacity of Russia’s neighbours. “Russia wants its neighbours to be independent states and to make foreign policy decisions without the influence of any external forces and taking into account its geopolitical position,” Bordachev said. At the same time, Russia is many times stronger than its neighbours, and none of them can pose a threat to it — this would only lead to its neighbours losing sovereignty.

Bordachev listed three main factors that define Russia’s relations with its neighbours: the power factor, the geopolitical factor (the common geopolitical space and the historical factor), and their shared historical heritage. If the first two of them cannot be changed, then the third is more flexible and more susceptible to a joint constructive impact. “We must overcome a common historical legacy, within which Russia is perceived as a metropolis,” he believes. Russia is expected to strive to ensure that the space around it should be closed, but in reality it should, on the contrary, strive for the maximum openness of this space. Russia’s unique geopolitical position allows it to act in any direction and choose for itself where to be more active. “There is no need to expect from Russia a choice in favour of the East or the West, it can always be where its interests are,” the author of the report said. “It is impossible to draw boundaries in our common space.”

Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, commenting on the report, supported the author’s idea that Russia’s interests would be fully ensured if the countries that surround it pursued an independent sovereign policy and do not turn into a field for another actor’s geopolitical games. He also noted the importance of neighbours outside the post-Soviet space as well as the need to take into account the broader context of relations with the West when analysing relations with neighbours. Speaking about the neighbourhood in the post-Soviet space, he noted that we are talking about states that know what they want, are aware of their interests and which must be perceived as independent players. He pointed to the commonality of many trends, interests, challenges and risks in this space, which could serve as a basis for building relations, and to a number of objective factors that keep these countries together.

Ivan Safranchuk, Director of the Centre for Eurasian Studies at MGIMO, in his polemical speech, noted that Russia traditionally had two approaches to the so-called post-Soviet space. Within the framework of the first of them, it was perceived as a springboard for movement toward other regions. Within the framework of the second one, the priority was “consolidating this space and turning it into a part of itself” — deep integration, but without assimilation. As a result, two approaches have emerged in Russian strategic culture, between which Russia cannot make a choice — and which, in any case, are currently unrealisable. This, as well as a number of other factors, means the need to search for a new paradigm. According to Safranchuk, the one proposed in the report, albeit controversial, is a valuable source of ideas and an invitation to discussion.