Vyacheslav NIKONOV (Russia)
5. But how does Russia position itself in this new global reality? The strategy proposed first by Gorbachev and then by Yeltsin was that Russia should become part of the Western system. Gorbachev proceeded from the concept of a “common European home;” Yeltsin in the 1990s said that Russia must become part of the European Union and possibly even join NATO. But it soon became apparent that the concept of our integration into the Western club was untenable. And now, the majority of Russia’s political elite, including those who reside in the Kremlin, believe that for the foreseeable future there is no alternative to our taking on the role of an independent power center that will pursue an independent foreign policy.
Both current President Medvedev and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, have rightly pointed out that Russia is one of the few countries on the planet capable of playing its own foreign policy game.
This is because we simply have no place where we can give up our sovereignty—membership in the EU and NATO turned out to be illusions; nobody is prepared to accept us there, either now or in the future. NATO is a military-political block that was created to counter the Soviet Union. And it functions by consensus, that is, any state has the right of veto within the NATO framework. But if the Russian Federation were part of NATO, it would mean the end of NATO, since Russia would veto any decision that it found objectionable. And this is well understood in both Brussels and Washington.
The European Union is an organization that is primarily responsible for the well-being of the European economic space. And among other issues, it is concerned with buoying up the more backward economies in the EU. Naturally, no one finds the prospect of also raising Russia’s economy in Europe attractive, and therefore the very idea of Russia’s membership in the EU is not even under discussion.
And for our part, we already clearly understand that we should not join the EU. If Russia were to join NATO, our hands would be tied on all geopolitical vectors, but our interests lie not just in Europe but in the Far East and to the south of our borders, as well. Therefore, it is preferable for us to retain our freedom of action. As far as the EU is concerned, both our businessmen and our government officials are fully aware that we definitely should not join it under any circumstances. Joining the EU would mean accepting the Acquis Communitaire—approximately 80 thousand pages of regulations, each of which we would have to endorse should we become a member of the European Union.
Leading European experts, all American economists and the overwhelming majority of Russians believe that the Acquis Communitaire is exactly what is ruining the European economy, because the EU is more highly regulated than any other economy in the modern world. It even regulates the standard size of holes in the Swiss cheese produced in EU countries. Russia’s tax system would be inconceivable in any European nation. A thirteen-percent income tax would be impossible in any country of the European Union, not to mention a flat rate tax. In our country it costs 46 kopecks in taxes to pay employees one ruble of salary. In Germany each euro of salary costs another euro and forty cents in taxes, and Germany’s tax burden is not the highest.
That means that Russia actually has a freer economy than the countries of Europe. In addition, Europe has already entered a period of negative economic growth. As far as the Orient is concerned, there is simply nothing there that Russia could give its sovereignty up to; there are no significant integrated supranational groupings to which countries could transfer their sovereignty. The structures to which Russia belongs—CIS, EuAsEC, SCO—are not even close to taking away the power of national governments.
6. Thus Russia persists as an independent center of power. And it has its own code of civilization based on Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as authors of the theory of civilizations from Arnold Toynbee to Samuel Huntington have emphasized.
Of course, a question arises: do we have sufficient resources to be an independent center of power, to play an independent role in world affairs? There is every likelihood that we do. By all credible estimates, Russia would have to be very unlucky not to become the fifth largest economy in the world over the next ten years. It is the seventh largest now—or eighth, according to some estimates.
According to a variety of parameters Russia is a first-rate power. It is one of the five members of the UN Security Council. It is an energy superpower. This is not some kind of development concept; it is a fact—Russia accounts for 17 percent of all energy sold on the planet.
Russia is still a nuclear superpower—even with all of our economic difficulties our tactical nuclear weapons stockpile is larger than that of the United States. It is a space superpower. The Euronews channel in its program “Space” talked about toys that Europeans are fascinated with, and which we played with back in 1960. And in the coming years we will remain the only viable space power, because the United States is shutting down its shuttle program, and all piloted flights will take place using our Soyuz spacecraft. The International Space Station can be supported exclusively by the Russian Federation.
Russia is a resource superpower. It accounts for 30 percent of the world’s raw material resources, which not only gives us capabilities but also poses a very serious challenge. Never before in history has there been such an imbalance between the size of a territory and the resources present in it, and the sparsity of the population inhabiting it. Namely—it covers one eighth of the planet and has only 2.3-2.4 percent of its population.
Finally, Russia has made an enormous contribution to the development of humanity over the past millennium, and everyone acknowledges that contribution. Our credibility in this regard is even slightly exaggerated, in both positive and negative directions. Russia is still perceived as a great state; it is frequently confused, psychologically at least, with the USSR, which pays us additional political dividends.
In addition, Russia is one of very few countries where the political leadership, the political class and the community of experts think in global terms. Few such elites remain in England and France; in China and Japan they are just beginning to appear. Only in the United States do they unquestionably exist. I repeat, no other country has more elites who think globally.
In principle, the modernization of Russia, which continues despite the current crisis, will also allow us to reach the level of a world power as defined by socio-economic parameters.
7. Russia can no longer be a superpower, but it is one of the great powers. This status requires our full participation in the structure that functions as the brain of the modern world’s control system. But we will encounter quite a few problems with fulfilling that role. The crisis in South Ossetia is just one example of this. Obviously, both our successes in recent years—and the successes have been obvious and could not pass unnoticed—and what we achieved in South Ossetia leave us no chance for the calm development that our country has dreamed about for decades.
We will not get the chance we hoped for. Upon assuming the post of President, Medvedev said that Russia needs 20 years of calm growth in order to become a top-ranking country. And many others have said the same thing, beginning with Stolypin, and even before him. But it has not happened; not once in the last century have we had twenty years of calm development. And I fear it won’t happen now. And this is one of the reasons why the current Russian leadership has shown serious concern for the international situation, for Russia’s position in the world, for strengthening its defense capabilities and for forming a system of alliances capable of defending our country.
Can it be that Russia itself is at fault? Can it be that we have too many ambitions left over from Soviet times? After all, Sweden withdrew from the world political stage after its defeat at Poltava, and today people live remarkably well there. When Germany and Japan lost World War II, they also tempered their ambitions and began to develop quietly.
In reality, nothing threatens our security more than our internal attitudes. But there is something called the geopolitical standing of a nation. If your neighbors are Finland and Norway, you can withdraw into yourself, declare your neutrality and exist in peace. Or if you live on an island, like the Japanese, you can quietly immerse yourself in your own internal affairs. However, Germany and Japan did not do so on their own—their self-involvement was a result of their defeat in World War II. Occupying forces came onto their territories and established foreign control. But in the past 500 years no one has conquered Russia and carried out necessary and proper reforms. It has not happened, although it has been tried.
There is one other nation that has undergone this kind of change—Great Britain. No one has ever conquered it, either; it has not lost its sovereignty in the past half-millennium. But Great Britain is an island. And Russia has traditionally been at the crossroads of global routes and civilizations; it was a revolving door for the nomadic hordes. We saved Western civilization from the Oriental civilization, and Oriental civilization from the Western. For each peaceful year over the past thousand, there were two years of war. More often than not, we were not the ones doing the attacking; we were being attacked from all sides.
Therefore, to say that our country has excessive foreign policy ambitions is to contradict history. However, this is the main line of Western historical science—to prove that Russia is aggressive by nature. But I cannot agree with that. Even considering the most recent period, we were not the ones who bombed Yugoslavia or fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we were not the ones who expanded NATO and placed bases on the borders of other countries, like the Baltic States, Poland and Romania; and we were not the ones who deployed a missile defense system there. The United States has military bases in one hundred twenty countries of the world; Russia has bases in three.
Russia is a tasty morsel for which there has always been a serious geopolitical struggle. And Russia has been strongly criticized for approximately the same thing. If you look at what the British press wrote about Russia at the beginning of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, you will not see much in the way of difference. And Russia has always had the same geopolitical interests and the need to protect those interests; and if Russia were to abandon them, it most likely would simply cease to exist. That is where the problem lies.
8. The President’s Address to the Federal Assembly, which I also listened to in St. George’s Hall, was very indicative of this. Russia’s foreign policy challenges have remained unchanged for quite a long time. In fact, little has changed in the world, and it is no mere chance that we have increasingly begun recalling Russia’s foreign policy tradition of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
During the time of Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Stalin, this tradition was based on two main principles about which we have completely forgotten in recent years.
The first principle is that Russia must prevent the establishment of states and alliances of states that represent or are able to represent a direct threat to our country’s security. Under modern conditions the chief challenge to our security is the expanding North Atlantic bloc and the possibility that s nation such as Ukraine will enter NATO. The Russian leadership as a whole has come to this conclusion. That is because this would create a system of alliances that would include countries capable of directly challenging the security of the Russian Federation.
Our military believes that should Ukraine enter NATO, Russia will be indefensible in a conventional war. If Ukraine enters NATO and a conventional war like what happened in South Ossetia is begun, and if that war should then escalate, we would lose. That means that the nuclear threshold would be dramatically lowered, and should events like those described occur, it would be necessary to use nuclear weapons—with all the consequences for the participants in the conflict.
That, of course, is a hypothetical situation, but Ukraine membership in NATO would be an existential challenge for Russia, a challenge that may threaten the existence of the country and all of its citizens.
Ninety percent of the tension present in our relations with Western nations derives from existential challenges for the Russian Federation. Imagine that in August 2008 Georgia was a member of NATO. According to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, in the event of aggression against any member of NATO all other members of the alliance will automatically come to its aid using all means necessary, including nuclear. That means that August 8, 2008 would have seen the start of global war.
Fortunately, that is now understood in Western capitals, especially the European capitals. They perceived the war in South Ossetia as a sign that the very idea of NATO expansion to new spaces encroaches on Russia’s existential interests and is in no one’s interests. That is indeed a very serious problem.
The second of the principles that Russian foreign policy has always been based on is that while fighting the main threat it is necessary to create strategic depth by building alliances on all other approaches. And the Russian leadership is also well aware of that. Strategic depth is a system of alliances with partners who hold similar positions. Note that Russian-Chinese relations were recently intensified within the SCO framework. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, together with the observer countries—India, Pakistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan—already encompasses half of humanity, and soon, within 10-15 years, the SCO countries will account for more than half the world’s economy.
It is a serious foreign policy power, which, incidentally, also opposes NATO expansion. China’s position on the issue is particularly tough. Currently, our military-political cooperation with CIS countries is also clearly increasing. After the war in South Ossetia there was a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes the core CIS countries—Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Over sixty agreements to strengthen military-political cooperation within the framework of the CSTO were signed. We intensified our efforts on the southern approach, primarily, by supporting the Turkish idea of a stability pact for the Transcaucus. For centuries stability in the Caucusus was maintained by the triangle of Persia, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. And today the idea proposed by Turkey of ensuring security through the efforts of the countries in the region is actively supported by the Russian Federation and by the leadership of Azerbaijan and Armenia. This will make it possible to set up a Transcaucus security system that would not include the leading Western countries.
This means that Russia is returning to the roots of its foreign policy by countering threats that represent an existential challenge and building strategic depth. But this does not mean that our country is bent on confrontation with NATO, or with Western countries in general. All proposals for cooperation that have been on the table for a long time, since before the war in the South Caucusus, remain in force. Russia is still proposing a new security pact for the European continent. The 2008 Presidential Address sounded extremely anti-American, but Medvedev stated his readiness to maintain close ties with the new American administration of Barack Obama, which can turn a new page in Russian-American relations, although it is far from guaranteed.
At the same time, Barack Obama is an entirely new figure, and not only in Russian-American relations. He is in many respects an unusual man for Washington; he is not tied to old commitments. He was not part of the Clinton team and does not belong to the Democratic Party establishment. That means he is capable of acting in unexpected ways and will not necessarily follow the well-trodden path.
Medvedev and Obama belong to a new, young generation of politicians. We also know that both Obama and Medvedev differ in one respect—in the morning before reading the papers prepared for them by their staffs they turn on their computers and read the news on the Internet. That means they are more open to the world than to their staffs, and this gives rise to some hope.
The collapse of the USSR left a geopolitical vacuum in Europe and the world that was caused by the departure of the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe and a significant part of the Post-Soviet space. NATO, the EU and our neighbors to the south and east have been busily filling this vacuum. But what happened in August 2008 means that the vacuum is no longer there. All subsequent steps to expand the West’s military and economic alliances are already encountering the sphere of our vital interests.
We have entered a new reality, where Russia is undoubtedly playing a more significant role than it has played heretofore, when it was ignored on all issues having to do with world politics. We are again sitting at the table of a large, serious geopolitical game, and we have some trump cards. And this requires a precise foreign policy and a much focused foreign policy mechanism, which, unfortunately, was dismantled in the 1990s. It requires us to understand that Russia has a decent future, but there are too many people that do not want to see our future be bright.
Vyacheslav Nikonov is the Executive Director of the ‘Russky Mir’ [Russian World] Foundation, Head of the Working Group for International Affairs of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, Chief Editor of the journal “Strategiia Rossii” [Russia’s Strategy],and Doctor of Historical Sciences.
The article first appeared in Russian at the August 2009 ‘Russia’s Strategy’ journal edition.
The English translation published by the ‘New Eastern Outlook‘.