Russia, the Champion of Oppressed States

Following the criticism of Putin´s third presidential term, Russia launches a suicidal attack on western hypocrisy.

In the public eye, democracy and Russia don´t really go together. Putin´s “divine claim” to the presidential throne has been widely debated in the countries of the West, many severely criticizing the turn of events as a return to czarism, despotic rule and personal authoritarianism. In the months directly following Putin´s inauguration, Russian foreign policy responded with a full-fledged attack on the democratic hypocrisy of Western states. Liberal interventionist policies were labelled a covert return to colonialism, as divide and rule strategies and state authoritarianism. Russia´s presented role in the system: an impartial rational arbiter, prepared to defend the individual rights of the agents of the system; a true champion of the oppressed and exploited. I will claim in this article that such policy is fundamentally self-defeating in Russia´s current situation, both in respect to its geostrategic orientation and its unfortunate timing.

Image courtesy of The PIX JOCKEY, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of The PIX JOCKEY, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Lately, three messages may be repeatedly heard from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. First, the West fundamentally breaches the international code of conduct with its aggressive exporting of democracy, and has thus alienated itself from the very order it professes to uphold. The Russian Federation (RF) is the natural leader of those who feel the West has unjustly risen above the laws of the “international society” and claimed an impossibly strong position as a self-proclaimed global policeman. Second, in order to be truly accounted for as a counterweight to the West, RF must present a united front as a regional hegemon, a requirement which can only be met by continued integration activity within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These integration processes are more important for the RF than closer cooperation with the EU. Third, in keeping with its opposition to the West, and its desired regional hegemony, Russia will redirect its attention from the EU to the Asia-Pacific region.

Going from the top, Russian foreign policy stresses the message that it is committed to a stringent guarding of the Rule of Law in international affairs. A powerful catalyst in that respect proved to be the international intervention in Libya, and most importantly the death of Colonel Gaddafi. From that experience, Russia drew the conclusion that the West is prepared to interfere in a state’s sovereign affairs, support a pro-Western rebellion, and do all this without being able to ensure the safety and fair trial of the leaders of the toppled government.  The Russian approach to Syria is in large part a response to this perceived experience of betrayal in Libya, where Russia initially supported the no-fly zone, but felt duped into regime change. Assuming the identity of a guarantor of fair dealings and non-intervention provides Russian policies with significant leverage on the international, as well as the domestic, level. On the latter, Russia presents an external enemy, in hope of uniting its citizens behind the government; on the former it builds its image of a just moral agent, a power for the non-western states to rally behind.

Significant shortcomings challenge this new identity. Of these, most significant is the competition Russia faces from China. To quote Marcus Aurelius: “Today is too late, the good lived yesterday”. It seems that once again, Russia overslept its window of opportunity and the wonderful image it is trying to build has already been claimed by the Peoples Republic of China. With the attraction of the alternative Chinese model and the economic strength to project its soft power around the globe, the PRC has already gained an upper hand in this competition – to the extent that contestation of this status quo may prove to be nearly impossible. Indeed, Russia may be reduced to “picking up leftovers”, in which case it would most certainly find itself in the midst of the “awkward club”, albeit in a leading position. Whether or not such alignment would serve its power growth is debatable.

Sadly (for the RF), the Chinese preponderance of power hampers Russian ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region as well. Indeed, as the region becomes the essential tiltyard of many great powers, including China, USA and Japan, Russia may find the competition rather challenging to enable any meaningful engagement. Moreover, while the rationale behind this policy is understandable from a normative stance, with the region rapidly becoming the focal point of the world economy, it simply does not reflect the reality of Russian trade orientation. Currently, more than 50% of Russian trade takes place with the EU, and only 18% with the countries of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). It seems doubtful that Russia will be able to increase its share of trade in the region, as it remains an unanswered question what goods it could offer. Indeed, Russian imports have been steadily rising over its exports to the region. For a successful expansion, Russia cannot do without influential allies. Unfortunately however, historical tensions do not seem to favour any closer cooperation with the PRC, Japan or the USA, and with these players out of the question, Russian involvement will probably remain limited. Even Russia’s strongest card, delivery of energy resources, is significantly undermined by an already existing infrastructure of alternative oil and gas arrangements.

To wrap up, the chosen path of Russian foreign policy seems questionable at the very least. Unless it can secure better trade agreements with the APEC region, it seems Russia remains dependent on the EU as its main source of income. Concurrently, noteworthy is the amount of structural investment from the side of the EU into Russian modernization. Under such conditions, one must ask whether a reintensified power struggle with the West (and consequentially with the EU) is a prudent move. Although the EU-Russian relationship goes both ways, and the EU is still largely dependent on Russian energy exports, it might just be that the EU will decide to pursue different energy arrangements, if the alternative is to be dealing with a largely antagonistic power. While Russian foreign policy has for long played second string to domestic political issues, with the accession of Vladimir Putin to a second presidential term, it seems Russia may have overestimated the salience of the response needed to calm down the domestic tensions, and underestimated the global geopolitical situation.

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