One can only marvel at how quickly things change. Just a short while ago, Russia seemed to be retreating on all diplomatic fronts. An attack on Syria was just around the corner, with Iran likely to fall victim next. The Ukraine was rushing full tilt towards association with the EU. All Russia’s efforts were failing. Three months later, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rides confidently in post, there’s been an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough in relations with Iran, whilst the EU summit in Vilnius, which was conceived as a triumph for a United Europe, whose powerful appeal couldn’t be resisted by the two prospective associated members… Armenia and the Ukraine… ended in a flop.
What changed? Nothing. The circumstances are the same, as is the overall alignment of forces. All the main characters behave as they did before. Then, why does Moscow, the putative former number one loser, unexpectedly look like the most skilful player in the tactical, if not strategic, field? It turns out that the linchpin of success in a world in which nothing is clear, no rules are in effect, and where former mainstays crumble away, is adherence to a consistent principle… maybe, any principle, as long as the stance is firm enough. Principles aren’t EU-style values, nor are they Soviet-style ideology. Behavioural principles are a system of views on what the world is all about, and how you should act to conform to norms that may not necessarily exist in written form.
The accepted view on Russia in general, and on President Vladimir Putin’s Russia in particular, is of a country pursuing an archaic foreign policy, reliant on an old-fashioned arcane armamentarium. Its representations hinge on national sovereignty‘s inviolability, which prevails over all new tidings regarding “responsibility to protect”, which implies the right of outside forces to interfere in the internal affairs of a state. This stance exemplifies a legalistic approach, which means that all global players must respect international law, provided that the prime principle, sovereignty, doesn’t require that you deviate from the former for the sake of its assertion. This is why Russia, which normally reveres the UN and its institutions, is so blasé about the ruling of the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea with regard to the Greenpeace ship.
In the last analysis, Russia believes that… no matter what people say about various new types of power… good old “hard power” will always prevail. Moreover, there isn’t even any need to use it. As a rule, it’s enough just to show resolve. Finally, relations between countries amount to an unending fight for power and prestige, as Hans Morgenthau, a classical author of the political realism school, used to say. Thus, it’s inadmissible to let incantations that there are no winners in the “zero-sum game” in the modern world delude you. Inherent in the Russian tradition, these views attained their purest and most consummate form under Putin, particularly, after his recent return to the Kremlin. He’s convinced that only a firm mainstay… a real one, if available, or an intellectual construct, if everything were falling apart… would help a nation survive amidst growing chaos. The classical approaches to international relations are supposed to perform precisely this function.
Current results show that this approach works, because this persistence in a certain method sets Russia apart from other major players. The EU talks about values and applies this yardstick to different situations from the Middle East and North Africa to Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Without analysing the causes, one can only state that it’s a failure everywhere. No one sees the EU as an influential actor in the Middle East, nor is it getting on with SNG countries, where, seemingly, it should be able to enjoy every advantage. The USA prefers an ideologically-consistent approach, dividing participants in conflicts into “progressives” and “retrogrades”. However, the Mideast reality can drive everyone to despair. As developments forge ahead, they’re less and less amenable to fitting into this simple framework. Hence, one sees them thrashing about in search of the “right side of the story”.
Russian policies led to Moscow’s growing prestige, but in itself, this fact can become a trap because it generates growing expectations. Incoherent American behaviour in the Middle East and its attempts to play down its presence and activity are leading to a vacuüm, with everyone habitually looking at Russia as someone best fit to fill it. Who else can do it, if you think about it? The memory of the role played by the USSR there is still alive and there aren’t any other candidates in sight. China shies away from liabilities as if they could burn its fingers. Paradoxically, Russia has no intention whatsoever to come back to this part of the world as the main outside force. Neither was this the aim of its Syrian policy, which, properly speaking, it didn’t directly aim at the Middle East itself. The important thing for Russia was to make everyone realise the above principle… interference with the aim of régime change is inadmissible because it’s a path to all-out ruin.
Largely, this comeback materialised because others made blunders, but now Moscow isn’t sure how it should capitalise on this achievement. Of course, Moscow isn’t averse to signing more arms contracts, but people expect something else… on a grander scale. Yet, Russia isn’t ready to get embroiled in the largely-hopeless affairs of the region. The Ukraine, it’d seem, is another matter. Russia’s stake is obvious. Nevertheless, the spirit of rivalry will fizzle out, leaving questions about what to do with so close a neighbour. After all, Kiev didn’t make a choice in favour of Moscow. Once again, it simply bowed out of choosing in the hope that it’d be in a place to extort benefits from both parties. Riding the crest of a wave of success, Russia might launch a stick-and-carrot offensive to inveigle Kiev into its institutional embrace, but there’s a high risk that all inputs would go down the drain without any visible effect and that relations with the Ukraine would stagnate. When all the tumult dies down, the drift towards the West continues regardless of the vacillating priorities of the authorities. It’s an odd situation.
The Russian leadership feels the world’s instability better than others do, and it uses this knowledge to its advantage. However, the more success that they achieve, the less it’s clear what they should do about it. Russia doesn’t know what it’d like to be in the future, what role it should play, and what priorities it should set. This is the most important thing. It’s developed a view of the world that helps it get tactics right, but it lacks an equally systemic view of itself, which should decide its strategy. However, tactics alone are a short-term asset.