Russia in a New World Order? Lessons from the "Primakov Readings"

14/12/2016 11:23

Russia in a New World Order?


Hannes Swoboda

Invited to a conference in Moscow called "Primakov Readings" organized by the Russian Think Tank IMEMO, I had the opprtunity to listen to numerous speakers from Russia but also from countries stretching from Japan, China and India via Europe to the US. The meeting was held in honour of a former Russian foreign minister who was one of the architects of the new foreign policy of Russia after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. He combined an attitude of international cooperation and of a strong representation of Russian interests in its immediate neighborhood but also globally. He became famous when, on the way to the US, invited by Vice-president Al Gore, he ordered the plane to return to Moscow after he was informed that the US and its allies would start bombing Serbia. This decision is used today for making clear, that Russia cannot and will not accept unilateral decisions and the global dominance by the US.


In all the debates during the Primakov Readings the relationship of Russia to the US on the one side and to China on the other side were the principle topics. Europe as such was certainly underrepresented concerning the speakers but also as a subject/object of discussion. As one participant said: “Europe is still an economic power, but politically it is not on the radar. It cannot really influence situations even in its immediate neighborhood for example in Ukraine, Hungary or Poland. “

Well, no country can really achieve what it wants to achieve on the international scene. The US is the strongest economic, military and therefore political power. But their interventions were not followed by big successes. Mostly on the contrary. And Russia?
Well it did intervene directly and/or indirectly in many states of its neighborhood. And they got some -rebel- friends depending on Russia's support but they alienated most of the populations of the Ukraine, Georgia etc. And internationally they could not win recognition for the separate areas they helped to create. Maybe the occupation and reinstallation of the Crimea as part of Russia got a de facto recognition, by means of strong historic ties with Russia and a mostly Russophile populatio

We should admit But it is true, that Russia had some success in the public opinion of several Western countries. The election of Donald Trump, the designation of Francois Fillon as candidate of the Republicans in France, presidential elections in Bulgaria and Moldova could be interpreted as developments in favour of Russia. Russia's policies have not been the reason for these votes, but in some cases, strong anti-Russian (public) statements and policies could have had an inverse influence on voting behaviour. In fact, Russia can be quite satisfied with some of these events including the Brexit decision of the British public. This decision could weaken not only the EU but also the U.K. which has a strong anti-Putin policy.


The situation will change after the election of Donald Trump in the US, although we do not know in which direction and with what kind of consequences for US-Russia relations. As one participant at the discussions said, Russia can be happy because the country is not a strong economic competitor to the US as China is. Otherwise, Trump would be very aggressive towards Russia and Putin. Trump said that he admires Vladimir Putin’s strong leadership and considers the Russian president as a model. This does not mean that he will be generally soft on Russia. Indeed, he will be less willing to take military action outside of the US and that may please president Putin as well. Nevertheless, mottos such as “Make America Great Again” or “America first” can lead to tensions with the Russian Federation, especially if Trump will not be able to prevent further decline of US economy in terms of global GDP’s percentage.

In general, president Trump will much more personalize and commercialize international relations. In that sense, he may develop good relationship with president Putin and bad relationship with China. Otherwise, cancelling the Trade Agreement with the Pacific countries (TPP), in which China was not included, pleases China which may now start to enhance trade agreements with the very countries for which the US just stopped the negotiated agreement. And China may use that strategy to strengthen its position in the whole area.

We will have to live with many contradictions and uncertainties coming from the most powerful country in our multipolar world. Even if the US will remain powerful, it is clear, that China is characterized by a growing economic power and Russia Russia remains a great military power. So the world is more and more moving to a multipolar globe. We should not forget that there is an increasing number of non-state actors which could always be seen as “disturbing-mini-polars”.


During the last few months, decisions as different as presidential elections in the USA and Brexit have changed an already fragile international situation. There is no single power to give the existing order/disorder a more stable structure. And there are no cooperating powers or international organizations which could or would do that. On the one hand, globalization is questioned and, on the other hand, aggressive non-state actors globalize themselves and present a common threat. Such a threat may represent a good opportunity to reconsider the current mistrust among great powers, especially between the USA and Russia as well as between several European countries and Russia.Trust means also risk, but mistrust bears more risks.

The contradiction between policies based on values and policies based on interests was discussed. One participant noted that values are not a good basis for cooperation because they have to be interpreted as absolute, while interests can always be the subject of compromise. Nevertheless, we should be aware that the reaction of Western countries is very often related to interests rather than values.

Furthermore, the fact to give up on values would mean a big step backwards for Europe and the risk to lose the support of many citizens. It would destroy one of the fundamental bases of the European Union. Several Western participants rightly asked for a better defence of liberal and open societies successes. But what has not been mentioned is the economic and social challenging to these values from the inside of our societies. As long as unemployment and precarious working conditions are defining the life of too many citizens, the defence of our liberal societies will be very weak. Under these conditions, authoritarian regimes from within and outside the EU have it easy to get strong sympathies.

In general, we have to recognize, that internal conflicts are much more influencing foreign policy strength or weakness than foreign threats. This is also true for the European Union. A militarization of our security policy will not help if we do not reduce internal threats by solving economic and social deficiencies including domestic terrorism.


Internationally we have to find ways to defend "our" values by deeds and words, but at the same time, to look to at some basic agreements with countries like Russia. Two of those common principles would be the inviolability of borders and the respect of national sovereignty. But could one sign together with Russia documents containing such principles after what happened with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine? Russia would retaliate with the case of Kosovo, although in this case Kosovo was not taken by another country. What about different NGOs in Russia that are supported by Western countries? They are seen by Russian power as working for regime change. But Russian propaganda in many European countries could also be seen as efforts to support regime change. And they are many invented stories and false accusations.

We are quite far from easily going back to the situation either before or immediately after the break down of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain as Russia gained strength and the "West" tried to ignore Russian military and political power too long.
Nevertheless, to think only in terms of a new Cold War would be utterly wrong. The fact that Trump as new US president may put more defence burden on Europe could lead to exaggerated military expenditures and even to considering nuclear weapons for countries that don’t have such particularly awful weapons yet. But we need not additional militarization of our foreign policy and detraction from fighting common enemies such as terrorism as well as hunger and poverty. Instead of a new arms race, we have to put disarmament on our common agenda.


Anyway, we cannot ignore Russian actions on our Eastern borders which are felt particularly strong by some countries who had bad experiences with Russia and/or the Soviet Union over the last centuries. In this respect, a summit between the new US president and president Putin would be welcomed. But one European discussant made it very clear that a so-called Rapallo effect must be avoided: US and Russian presidents should not talk and agree about Europe over the heads of Europeans. But who are the Europeans und who speaks for them? Governments of the Baltic nations, Poland and Romania? Or those of Hungary and Slovakia? What about the German government characterised by various political tendencies?  You should also take into account feelings and opinions in many countries like Austria who would like a stronger engagement with Russia in order to preserve peace.

Those who plead for a more constructive attitude towards Russia, even under president Putin and his authoritarian governance must take into account concrete actions by Russia and the bad experience of many EU countries. But these countries and their governments must also rethink their hard line which is not the attitude of everybody in Europe. In some of these hard-lined countries one can recognize a very weak support for a stronger EU - at least until now a strong orientation to the US - and at the same a strong demand, that their negative attitude against Russia is accepted as the(!) EU foreign policy.

This position should be thought over, especially after the election of Donald Trump as president. One has not to go as far as for example former Italian foreign mister Lamberto Dini who in his speech at the conference made only the West, especially US politicians responsible for the new Cold War between the US and Russia. But more reflections on NATO expansion and its psychological effect on Russia would help to design a more constructive and viable dialogue with Moscow.

The USA and the EU can no longer rule the world. This kind of global order is more and more challenged by Russia and China. And as the "West" did not undertake strong and realistic efforts to invite Russia to "join" on a newly defined basis, our order is challenged.

It should have been obvious that Russia would not join the West or "our" Europe under "our" conditions. At least, the EU should have tried to come to a common treaty like during the Viennese Congress in 1815 for a common reorganization of the European security structure. The Paris Charter which was signed when Russia was still in a weak position and which covered some of the vital questions but gave no security guarantees for Russia became unfortunately obsolete. It is too early to give it a new try with some reformulations and mutual security guarantees, but this is the direction we have to follow. And the OSCE should be the place and organization where such initiatives should be thought of and finally started.

Both the EU and Russia, not to speak of the US, are still in the old thinking of punishing the other side for misbehaviour. But both would need a way of mutual respect and support. The EU needs Russia for security in Europe and security is an important desire of EU citizens. After the old-fashioned national thinking has disappeared, people want a cooperative security in Europe, at least in many countries. Otherwise, a new nationalism, which is already visible, will get stronger and we would lose the peace dividend won after World War II and especially after overcoming the split   between a free, Western world under US leadership and a subjugated, Eastern world under Russian leadership.

And Russia needs the knowledge and intellectual capacity which supported modernization of the Western world. With modernization I mean not only the technological revolution or better revolutions but also the liberation of people from unquestioned social restrains and limitations, for example, concerning sexual constraints. Without such "Western" technologies and experiences, Russia can neither counterbalance the old fashioned and mythological attitudes of some of their thinkers nor modernize economy and prepare the country for an open society based on a digital economy.

I do not mean that the EU and its strategies and policies are always supreme to the Russian equivalents. But Western technological and social achievements, even if some of them are also challenged internally, could contribute to necessary liberalization in Russia. That does not suppose we should advise Russia to copy Western Europe and its development model. And an open and sincere dialogue could always clear one owns positions and attitudes.

Leading Russian politicians still long for being part of Europe. The question of one of the organizers of the conference: should we formulate the title of the meeting „Russia a part of Europe" or "Russia apart from Europe?" was symptomatic of today’s Russian attitude. In the magazine "Russia in Global Affairs, edited by one of the moderator of the IMEMO conference, Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian Foreign Minister Lawrow wrote recently: "Over at least the last two centuries all attempts to unite Europe without Russia and against it always led to big tragedies, the consequences of which were overcome with the decisive participation of our country." So let us look to history and try to start a reset for a United Europe beyond the EU not by destroying it but by adding a new dimension.


Is it too late to invite Russia to join a new European order? Many experts do think so. But historically, Russia always longed for recognition by Europe and needed European technologies or modern industrial management. But isn't Russia more and more leaning towards China, in addition to its Eurasian concepts? There are many Russian advisers to President Putin who argue strongly for a nostalgic all-Russian strategy based on national myths. But there are also strong arguments for an orientation towards Asia as the cornerstone of Russian global influence. For the moment, Russia with President Putin is trying its own "pivot to Asia" primarily towards China with some interest to form an alliance against the West.

But one must see that China itself is interested in strong economic and political ties to the West. The "one belt, one road" (OBOR) initiative to revitalize the Silk Road is proof of that wider concept. Russia and China will cooperate more strongly in the future and Russia will also try to find other Asian partners. That is natural in a multipolar world and as such not in contradiction to a possible reset for relations with the US and also with the EU. International relations and its power structures will never be as before. All countries and unions of countries, like the EU will have to adapt to them. And such adaptations are preconditions for influencing the new world order.

An increasingly strong China will be part of the new world order. Furthermore, India and other Asian countries will play a more important role in the future. And therefore Russia will not be able to have good relations only with China. That may even raise suspicion with other traditional allies like India.

Europe until now did not really engage itself strongly in and with Asia. Sometimes, human rights concerns are standing in the way of having stronger ties but also economic disputes are preventing a closer relationship with China. We should not refrain from defending our economic interests against dumping and violation of intellectual property rights. But we should know where the economic and in medium term also political power is developing to. To keep a balance therefore it would also be fruitful to try to develop better relations with Russia in addition to good relations to China.

There should be no contradiction between our will to strengthen relations with Asia and the need to improve dialog with Russia. Any one-sided dependency is detrimental to our interest and, in the long term, to our desire to enhance our values. The Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is underlining the connectivity from China via Russia and/or via Central Asia and could establish new economic ties which may foster peace and reduce conflict. But all participants must be ready to refrain from using infrastructure investments and the flow of goods only for their own interest.

Basic economic factors and interests are different between the various partners along the new Silk Road. There is a strong intra-industry trade between China and Europe. In contrast to this trade pattern, about 75% of imports from Russia to Europe but also to China are made up of mineral fuels. This shows how important it would be for Russia to reduce the dependency form hydrocarbons and to improve sophisticated industrialization. For the moment, a partnership about modernization with the EU would be much more successful in comparison to one with China

Concerning the OBOR project, Russia is not really satisfied with a rising influence of China in Central Asia, where for the moment it plays a dominant role. On the other hand, some of these countries would appreciate if this strong Russian influence could be decreased. If all partners think reasonable and in long terms it could create a win - win situation following the development of a new Silk Road. Especially if the new Silk Road would not only focus on exchanging commodities and some industrial products but would enhance local connectivities with long range connectivity between great powers such as China, Russia and the European Union.



To be in Russia especially in Moscow without paying due respect to culture would be a big mistake. So we, foreign participants of the "Primakov Readings", were lucky that organizers brought us to the Tetryakov Gallery for Modern and Contemporary Russian Art. We could dive deeply into Russian art with all its contrasts: from primitive art to the abstract, supremacism of Malevich to socialist realism, especially in Stalin's time and then to paintings and sculptures in periods of softening public pressure and to the years after perestroika. It was a very impressive visit with an equally impressive and knowledgeable guide.

Personally, I am very sorry, that the revolution in art (especially painting and architecture) which was ready to contribute to the new society at the beginning of the twentieth century could not succeed in forming the time after the Russian revolution. Very soon it was replaced by art in obedience to politics and primarily inhuman and cruel political leaders. The presentation of men and women as being integral part of a modern technological oriented economy or working with happy faces on the fields in bringing in record harvests could only cover the real hardship of Soviet citizens. And the hardship came to an extreme with Stalin sending so many into prison and to death. Culture was only one victim of this dreadful period in Russian history.

Luckily the Austrian cultural attaché could also bring us to two galleries which also presented two contrasting views on Russian painting today. We visited a "people's gallery" in a social housing complex with works on paper by a young unconventional artist. And in contrast to that visit we could see the new exhibition on modern and contemporary art displayed in an old but renovated and transformed factory in the centre of Moscow. The gallery is owned by an oligarch and the selection is rather conservative but still impressive. In all its variety, art is an important element of Russian society, private and public life.

The city of Moscow is as impressive as the art presented in museums and galleries. It is an imperial metropole and everybody who can drive through the city during the day and even more through the night cannot follow those who think they can deny Russia an important place in the global order. Moscow, like St. Petersburg and other big cities, are definitely forming also the minds of Russian citizens and supporting a strong national identity. You may find violations of human rights inside Russia and Russian s supporting military actors. The same you can say about many other important countries. Without putting different countries on the same level and comparing them directly, there are unjustified differences in treating Russia in a very severe way and sanctioning it for its actions, while overlooking and tolerating actions by other countries including the US and some European countries.