Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Russia and its rational responses

Previously I applauded Sir Roderic Lyne’s reasoned approach to ‘reading Russia’, although I noted that Lyne did not extend to recognising Russia’s foreign policy interests. The former British ambassador’s attempt to inject a little rational argument into the debate has been answered by Fyodor Lukyanov, who offers a comparative assessment, examining how Russia’s actions have been reactive to changes in the world rather than aggressive in instinct.

Lukyanov’s point is that Russia is often considered in isolation, as if its actions are apropos of nothing and as if its ‘self-confidence’, ‘resurgence’ and ‘aggression’, (as perceived by western observers) are instincts engineered exclusively within Russia, arising independent of external events and driven only by a peculiar Russian mindset. His argument is that Russia is not operating within a vacuum.

“In reality Russia is a fully-fledged and essential part of the many and varied currents in today's world. It is a question not just of global economics, which is more or less acknowledged, but also of political trends defining the behaviour of the leading players in international relations. The Russian state, like all the others, is seeking answers to the challenges thrown up by global politics and economics.”


Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the world did not return to a state of happy equilibrium. Rather, the unipolar international situation, in which the US and EU operated unfettered, was an aberration, which would be redressed when other major nations had reacquired a degree of geo-political leverage. This redress would be in response to the conduct of foreign policy by the western powers, and in particular the US, rather than a display of spontaneous aggression toward them.

“Firstly, the West's peaceful expansion was only possible because the time was unique. Russia was in a geopolitical coma and unable to resist. China was taken up with its own development and was not yet thinking of a global role.”


The advance of western institutions took place without significant reform. The same organisations, which had been developed after World War 2 and had been employed throughout the Cold War, began to expand into territory vacated by the former Soviet Union. Rather than recognising the significance of the fall of that entity, rather than instigating wide ranging solutions which might have reformed the former Soviet empire, the same international institutions were retained and hegemony was asserted.

“As far back as the 1990s the international institutions, which had not been reformed after the end of the cold war, started showing signs of dysfunction. At that point the world leader, instead of taking over the process of transforming the international system, decided to go its own way and rely on its own strength and opportunities. The USA had, after all, plenty of both.”


This approach culminated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. An invasion which brought into stark relief the role which raw military might continued to assume in geo-politics.

“It is clear that in the 21st century, on the basis of false evidence, bypassing international law and without any kind of political or legal justification, a sovereign state can be invaded, its regime overthrown and the country occupied. Military strength, which during the 1990s was seen to have lost its critical significance, has now returned to world politics full-scale and in the most brutal form."


In Lubyanko’s assessment, given the undermining of international institutions represented by Iraq, given the chaos and dysfunction which that invasion visited upon international politics, it is natural that states equated strength with stability. In other words, over the five intervening years, Russia has been following an entirely appropriate and rational programme of consolidating its own strength in an uncertain world, facilitated by an unprecedented escalation in the price of hydrocarbons. In pursuance of these aims, subsuming companies such as Yukos into the state becomes tactical necessity.

The ‘Colour Revolutions’ which swept Russia’s backyard constituted another external threat. There were popular mass movements around which these revolutions coalesced, but there was also a degree of truth in Russians’ belief that US policy was to foment them, and that the purpose was strategic and aimed at Russia. The policy of ‘sovereign democracy’ was therefore an understandable reaction to possible foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.

So Lubyanko’s perception is that Russia, rather than pursuing a coherent strategy for its own aggrandisement, is instead extemporising its best response to the challenges which confront it. In this approach it is little different from other countries or blocs which seek to protect their own interests and are subject to the currents of geo-politics.

This argument has much to commend it, and it should make instructive reading for those who consider Russia recalcitrant, aggressive and incorrigible

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