Russia’s place and role in the modern world is under the attack of the “collective West”, and not the political regime. Action needs to be taken now - otherwise it will soon prove impossible to stop the rollercoaster as it gathers momentum.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared recently that the current crisis had been caused in part by Russia’s decisions and the West’s reaction, but added that this was a “conscious choice”. What might this “choice” actually consist of and are the consequences really driven by conscious?
It had already become clear by the end of 2014 that Russia was being drawn into a qualitatively new phase, both unprecedented in Russian history and extremely dangerous for the country. Over the past three years Russia has drastically changed course strategically, embarking progressively on a path of isolation from the Western world and de facto disengagement from global politics and the world economy. This disengagement was the result of major practical steps adopted by Russia to withdraw from the system of rules and constraints on international actions formed by the early 2000s, thereby setting the country against all the key players in modern international relations. Russia tried to dictate new rules of the game to the world (that it perceived to be fairer), proceeding from the idea of Russia’s special role as a “unique civilisation” and the alternative pole of the “multipolar world”.
At the same time, however, it is becoming increasingly clear today that Russia has failed in this attempt. After deciding to disregard the West and its opinions as factors requiring serious consideration when determining Russia’s zone of interests (the area identified by the current regime in Russia as the sphere of its vital interests), our ruling elite committed gross errors when assessing its own capabilities and the comparative weakness of its “partners”. The elite failed to achieve its goal of a “Blitzkrieg” to force the West to change the rules of the game, and does not have and never will have the resources that it needs to attain this goal through long-term confrontation (over decades). A reluctance to accept its failure and to try and develop new and more realistic policies will merely exacerbate the potential implications of the wrong decision taken by the elite.
As a result, the conflict between Russia and the West, which has already harmed its strategic interests, will escalate into rigid antagonistic confrontation, rapidly reaching the “point of no return”. There is a risk that it will move to a principally different level where both economic and political interests, and also the historical destiny of the country, are put at risk.
Aggressive ambitions, staking its position on both covert and explicit blackmail, unpredictability, and a desire to oppose strategically the group of the most powerful and influential political and economic forces in the world today have not simply exacerbated Russia’s relations with the West, but have also established in the West – and this is even more dangerous for our country’s future - consensus on the need to undermine at all costs Russia’s geopolitical status as an available and effective method of countering its present and future demands. This is a fundamentally new phase of the crisis in relations between Russia and the West: the latter, convinced that it cannot influence the strategic course of Russia’s leadership, will inevitably look for another more radical way to eliminate what it considers to be a serious threat.
Judging by recent words and deeds, the West as a whole (the sum total of opinions and attitudes determining the vector of developed countries, regardless of individual deviations and special positions on specific issues) does not intend to wait for political change or “regime change” in Russia – such methods take too long to eliminate a factor that has been irritating the West, and the likelihood of attaining sustainable results is also dubious. It is far more likely that the West will choose a simpler solution to the problem of Russia as a country that is “breaking up” the post-Soviet and European space and is perceived by the West as the main threat for Europe: the West will deprive Russia of its ability to act as an unpredictable but influential player capable of complicating significantly the global policies of the 21st century, which have already been transformed without its input into a mesh of problems automatically triggered by unexpected developments. Even though such a strategy towards Russia is fraught with danger in all scenarios, and its apparent simplicity is deceptive, Western policy is nonetheless clearly turning this way.
What does this mean? Primarily, that the goal and target of the pressure is not so much the regime in its current form or the effective system for developing policies, but rather the global role and place of the Russian state as a player and even potential subject of international politics. In other words, the West is adhering to the old principle: anything that is not subjugated to its influence and constraints represents a threat and must be neutralised.
I am not referring here to military scenarios that the West will do its utmost to avoid by taking all manner of imaginable and unimaginable actions, but instead the relatively slow, but implacable economic pressure on Russia aimed at radically limiting the capabilities available to the country’s leadership.
The West can achieve this goal through Russia’s Achilles heel - its economy - by depriving the country of the sources and resources it needs to grow. Such rationale is based on the premise that once the country has been deprived of the ability to seriously influence the world (due to the fundamental weakness of its economic potential and the need to constantly address multiple perpetual problems requiring a quick fix), it will become safe and predictably sterile from both a global and regional perspective, even if the current political regime is preserved. In this sense, the hopes of some opponents of the current regime that “the West will help us” are naive and erroneous. The present political structures in Nigeria or Zimbabwe can be preserved for centuries – and no one will allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the ruling regimes there. Furthermore, this is even more unlikely in Russia where the prospects of total destabilisation as a result of external inept and reckless interference could bring the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Moreover, there are ideological justifications: thanks to a large extent to the increasing level of confrontation in both Russia and the West, a convenient opportunity is emerging to renege on the idea of world peace based on common values and openly use the comfortable theory of the “fragmentation of civilisation”.
Russia is already being driven out of the “Big World” (ousted from any role in the search for solutions to global problems, regional conflicts and other issues) and this process will continue without war, or even the use of armed force. To achieve this goal, the leaders of the global economy simply need to maintain the course of isolating Russia using the tools at their disposal.
Legally formalised sanctions represent only a minor component and by no means their most dangerous aspect. I am referring here to issues of wide-ranging proportions: Russia’s actual expulsion from the global financial system, its isolation from global capital markets and inability to attract and use global financial, technological and entrepreneurial resources to develop the country. More stringent restrictions on any forms of debt financing and technology transfer effectively close the door to any significant foreign investments in Russia, including the use of repatriated capital previously exported by Russian business. To all intents and purposes, this undermines opportunities for the country’s economic growth (incidentally, recent statements by Western experts openly state that this is the goal of the new sanctions, and not some concessions in the Donbass confrontation).
In addition, the power of inertia should also be taken into account. The more the Russian economy operates on the basis of administrative and military mobilisation against external threats, the more difficult and even problematic it will be to return to normal life and peaceful growth. The logic of economic and consumer behaviour is changing, motivation is changing, and finally the people themselves are changing. Over the next few years the composition of the government and senior leadership of large state corporations will inevitably change. Whereas present directors and trustees timidly hint at the desirability of lifting sanctions soon and returning to normal interaction, these new people will find themselves in a familiar and comfortable environment against the backdrop of “hostile encirclement”.
The situation will become simpler and more defined for Western “partners” as well. Whereas there really was a powerful group of interests in the first few months “after the [annexation of] Crimea” that hoped that everything would be reduced to a local “incident” based on the model of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and that they would be able to capitalise somehow on the efforts and resources invested into Russia in the previous decade, the situation has changed now. Most of Russia’s western counterparties at governmental and non-governmental levels became convinced that everything was “serious and for the long haul” this time, and have to all intents and purposes already accepted the inevitable losses – both financial and non-financial – that they will have to incur. This supports the policy of isolating Russia being implemented by virtually all the powerful interest groups in western countries. In this case, the key issue is not that this policy also has the actual backing of the Russian elite (according to the principle “yes, this is what we actually wanted”) – rather that the policy of encircling Russia with an invisible, but high fence, will become engrained for the long term.
It goes without saying that the total isolation of any country, especially Russia, is impossible in the 21st century. At the same time, effective isolation is possible. The call from the US Department of State “not to do business with Russia in the usual way” will not be implemented immediately and literally, but will definitely work in the long run. The country will not only be deprived of external resources, without which accelerated “catch-up” growth is impossible, something that Russia still desperately needs, at least for the time being - it will also lose a necessary measure of internal stability. In actual fact, economic growth is the only mechanism capable of alleviating domestic social, intercultural and ethnic tensions and contradictions, and mitigating the risks of social and political instability. On the contrary, a decline in economic activity intensifies such risks in every possible way, and cannot be offset by drug-like dependency on TV in the long term. The intensification of internal conflicts and tensions, which are inevitable against the backdrop of shrinking incomes and growing unemployment, will make Russia highly vulnerable, transforming the country into a target on a global scale for all types of extremist and destabilising forces. Moreover, given the country’s specifics, it could objectively result in the breakup of the country under different scenarios.
We should not harbour the illusion, as some do, that our current problems represent the peak of external pressure, which will subsequently decline, in particular, owing to the inefficacy of the sanctions. Other methods will be used, but the overall pressure will increase. It is true that the government will try to limit the efficacy of this pressure, respond, and accuse the West of “double standards”, but Russia will have no one to accuse and will find no place where it can appeal for justice. In reality Russia has nothing in its arsenal to counter such pressure.
In terms of the impact on the Russian economy, the policies of external isolation and self-isolation represent a special type of policy. Figuratively, it does not cause visible physical injuries, but at the same time destroys the body’s ability to maintain the functioning of its vital organs. It is impossible and pointless to oppose such policies through curses or to rely on the miraculous emergence of some unknown new forces within, as the present government has been trying to do.
It would be wrong to say that Russia will not survive a “head-on collision” with the West, or a new “cold war”. There will be no collisions, as we are talking here about dramatic asymmetry and not the inequality of forces. Globalisation has already changed the world to such an extent (for better or worse, we will not discuss this now) that it is simply impossible to jump into a sea that became barren 25 years ago.
Russia has no allies. The army, navy and strategic nuclear forces determined the position of the country until almost the end of the last century, but in today’s world, this is clearly inadequate. The ability of Western countries to deal with the fundamentally new threats is also inadequate, but Russia will feel this earlier and more acutely than anybody else.
In this case, the search for alternatives to the West and the decision to “turn to the east”, south or anywhere else, is also absolutely groundless. At a time of a worsening crisis there is no help or sympathy for Russia and the fate of its economy and never will be. India and China have their own interests: economically, they actually depend on the West, and perceive their connections with the leading economies of the world as the growth driver of their future prosperity and power. For China, the United States represents an incomparably more important sales market and source of resources for growth. Even Belarus and Kazakhstan do not support Russia politically. They are discovering their own interests and are adopting their own stance in the post-Soviet space. However, more importantly, they categorically don’t want to share with Russia the international pressure and sanctions applied against the country.
The political errors committed by Russia’s leadership in recent years have raised questions as to whether the country will be able to continue existing as such. The collapse of the USSR did not become a fatal national catastrophe for only one reason: future prospects were clear - the West European model of state-building and a modern market economy. Now that such an option has been rejected, the possible collapse of the Russian state resulting from impending economic disaster is almost perceptible physically. In these circumstances, preparing for some “collision”, “confrontation”, and talks about the mobilisation of resources lead to a dead end, and escape from reality; in actual fact, this resembles catatonia and reeks of indolence. To prevent such a disaster and save the country, we need to think and adopt a different mindset.
However, the Russian media lacks adequate public awareness or understanding of this fact. Fundamentally new threats are discussed using old terms that contextualise the nature of these “challenges” through something familiar and understandable, and therefore do not appear so frightening (for example, “we have experienced far worse”). Talks about confrontation with the West and the rest of the world, the “sanctions war” and a new “Cold War” are already part of everyday conscious and do not intimidate people regarding possible consequences, but are instead transformed into part of an endless political “talk show”. A mutual blame game has become routine practice when the statements of the opposing party are not taken seriously and do not result in an attempt to forecast possible events in the future, both in the short and long term. A rhetorical “rebuff” to the enemy becomes an end in itself, determining all other reactions.
In actual fact, the topic of “sanctions” and the possible lifting of the sanctions, which has been the centre of so much debate, fails to encapsulate the severity of the situation. The very use of the word engenders associations with the policy of the “Western” world against Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and other “rogue states”, but Russia is a completely different story. Sanctions against “rogue states” were introduced and maintained for a long time at a time of total indifference to their long-term consequences by both sides. Nobody believed in the rapid “democratisation” (Westernisation) of these societies, or that they would be able to represent a real threat to the Western world for the foreseeable future. That is why, for example, that during the more than three decades spent by Iran under sanctions neither the country’s place in the world, nor its future economic and social development prospects have changed significantly.
The current relations between Russia and the West are fundamentally different: if everything continues in the same vein, the process of Russia’s forced transition to a third-world backward country will become irreversible. We must act now - otherwise, it will soon be impossible to stop the rollercoaster as it gathers momentum. Due to its tremendous inertia, after a while even regime change in Russia will no longer help and will not solve the problem, as the numerous conditions for accelerated economic growth will be lost forever and their recovery could take years, if not decades. And losing several few decades for growth and development in the 21st century is an inexcusable luxury for our country. We don’t have such a safety margin, and absolutely no “historical greatness” will save the country from the fate of a weakening Colossus incapable of maintaining control over its own degradation and decay.
What can be done immediately to extricate our country from this dangerous negative spiral?
First of all, initiatives should be implemented to regulate the situation in Ukraine and normalise relations between Russia and Ukraine, which open up prospects and create the terms and conditions for dialogue. We must act immediately solely on the basis of common sense and long-term national interest. Above all, Russia must propose an International Conference on Crimea with the participation of the representatives of the peoples of the peninsula, Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and the widest possible range of stakeholders. This is the best way to demonstrate a readiness for dialogue, which is essential if Russia is to become again a party to dialogue, so that the other parties talk to and listen to the country.
We need to proceed on the premise that the opinions, interests and positions of Crimea’s population are key when deciding the status of the peninsula. The optimal solution would involve an internationally recognised referendum in accordance with respective Ukrainian laws and with objective control, with due respect shown for the people living in Crimea. An international conference on this issue might decide that practical implementation of the referendum and control over its objectivity should be carried out under the auspices of the UN or the OSCE in accordance with internationally recognised standards. It goes without saying that this would take time, but at this stage the key issue is to start dialogue and bring an end to the deadlock. This is a serious approach and a dignified method for attaining longstanding solutions. At the same time, this might be a conversation with the West in a language that it understands, and a real opportunity to recover from the crisis.
Secondly, at the same time a fundamental change in the situation in eastern Ukraine is required. If the present situation is maintained, no truce is sustainable, and Russia will always be accused of escalating the conflict. Our country’s leadership has the ability and competence to resolve this issue. Russia can take the necessary steps to end the armed confrontation.
The key issue is to implement the Minsk Agreements on the withdrawal of “illegal armed formations, military equipment, as well as militants and mercenaries from Ukraine” and to ensure guarantees regarding the safety of the population in Donbass through the large-scale involvement of OSCE observers and neutral peacekeeping forces. Such actions will provoke a negative reaction in Russia, but this does not constitute a force majeure. Such a reaction can be overcome for the sake of the country’s survival. We must understand that rejection of the so-called “doctrine of limited sovereignty” in respect of Ukraine, and also all other post-Soviet states, is an absolute imperative of the 21st century, and the sooner Russia takes this step, the better.
Thirdly, it is necessary to revive Russia’s status, where direct cooperation with the West can be significant, and perhaps decisive. The topic is an old one – international terrorism, in particular, terrorism based on Islamic fundamentalism. “Islamic State” represents a fundamentally new threat, not in theory, but in actual fact, which threatens our country from a geographically vast foothold. ISIS poses a direct risk to the Caucasus and other potentially unstable Russian regions. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan followed by the arrival of the Taliban will expand and strengthen this foothold. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan represents evidence that neither the USA nor the West in general has come up with an adequate solution for the problem. However, the fight against armed extremism is one area where Russia’s military-intellectual, military-technical, and military power potential can be used efficiently.
These represent the minimum mission-critical political steps that would enable the country to stave off the threat of degradation and begin its actual development from the long-term historical perspective.
I count myself among the democratic opposition. Regime change has been and remains my goal and the goal of the party and I am honoured to be one of the leaders of this party. However, my colleagues and I refuse to accept the collapse of the economy, attempts to cast off the country as a “third world” state, its degradation and decay, regardless of who is to blame. To simply document the fact that we did not play any role in this situation (for example, “we warned you, we said, demanded, and predicted…”) is pointless. Such an approach would not console anyone, just as the people who failed to preserve Russia in 1917 could not be consoled until their dying days by the thought that the Bolsheviks were to blame for the national tragedy. Our underlying political principle is to preserve the country. Our conscious choice is Russia as a modern and free country. And it is from this point of view in the current situation that the regime’s stubborn adherence to the current course, and the mere statement of evident shortcomings in the regime and the need for change, appear in our eyes equally unacceptable.
The proposed measures represent the only real way out of the dangerous impasse facing our country today. And we are ready to cooperate with anyone who is ready to start making progress along this path.