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Is Russia ready to let go of the dream of a multipolar world?


Nezavisimaia Gazeta – a pro-Kremlin news outlet, but highly respected one in Russia – published on August the 12th an article on Moscow’s foreign policy interests. In fact, a plea for one big interest: Russia must allow itself to be dragged into a confrontation with the West (the US – to be read). In fact, the idea of the article is clear, natural and simple from the perspective of Russia’s national interests: Moscow must be pragmatic and avoid a confrontation with the US, if Russia’s direct interests are not threatened. Russia must neither respond to the challenges posed by the US allies (the article bears a condescending note, referring to the “new Europeans”/ “новые европейцы”; Romania is also in this category) nor be too attached to its own allies.

Two ideas are highly important in this article. First, a subliminal reference to the fact that the US acceptance of Nord Stream 2 is a signal that the US and Russia are on equal footing and sign deals disrespecting other international actors. The second one: Moscow should not form a common front with Beijing against Washington.

Correlating the two ideas a question emerges – about Russian intentions in foreign policy – which for now can only be analyzed / debated, and a definite answer to be provided only by the developments that are yet to come: Moscow intends to abandon the dream of a multipolar world, a multipolar world in which the Russian-Chinese alliance played such an important role?

The Russian idea of multipolarity and multilateralism

For Russian media and analytical experts in Moscow, the issue of multilateralism has long been a constant concern. From a Russian perspective, the concept is closely linked to the idea of multipolarity – an international political scene that is not dominated by a single state actor, but one in which there are several powers that have their own, undisputed, spheres of interest.

In a Russian logic, multilateralism is intrinsically linked to multipolarity for very pragmatic reasons: Russia knows that it is not, in real terms, a power as big as the US, and by projecting the image of a superpower (Russia masters the art of projecting images/narratives) does not automatically turn Moscow into an equal to Washington. That is why Moscow needs multilateralism: to create multipolarity and to erode America’s global influence.

Russia’s idea of multilateralism is not drawn from the Western theories of international relations. Moscow’s external actions are not only about cooperation inside international institutions and strengthening their role and importance on projects meant to promote collective peace and security. Moscow only partially pursues what, in a Western logic, is the use of interdependencies for stability, common good and reduction of the potential for conflict (meaning, changing – through interaction – the behavior of international actors) or diffuse reciprocity – as Keohane postulates – in the sense of “I help you now, because I know that when I need you, you’ll help me too”.

For Russia, multilateralism is about the possibility of having as much influence as possible on as many organizations as possible or of setting up organizations to counterbalance others that are perceives as controlled by the West (especially the USA). The Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union are just Russia’s best-known responses to Western projects such as NATO or the EU. In theory built on the logic of the Western model of multilateralism, in practice – copiously dominated (but sometimes managed with difficulty) by Russia.

Thus, multilateralism becomes a lever to provoke multipolarity: counterbalances to the perceived Western dominance, through alliances within existing organizations or through the creation of new international organisms.

Russia, China and the dream of a multipolar world. Why isn’t working?

If the USA or the EU / NATO member states form the Western Pole, for Russia, the idea of counterbalancing it is the Eurasian pole – “led” by Russia and China. In fact, declaratively, the Sino-Russian relationship is highly valued by both Moscow and Beijing. However, the main (maybe the only?) true link between the two powers is their adversity towards the US, not some convergence of values, interests and goals. In fact, the statu-quo couldn’t be other: both Moscow and Beijing are regional hegemons, and the geographical proximity between two hegemons can only lead to adversity. Cooperation or the repression of adversity ends when the common enemy disappears.

The alliance of conjuncture between Russia and China – a situation dictated by their opposition to the US – and their lack of true appetite for multilateralism and multipolarity is best seen in a relatively new field of international relations, insufficiently regulated and that would require a true multilateral approach: the cyber domain. As an analytical report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies/ IISS notes Russia and China are: second tier powers in the cyber field (according to the IISS methodology, only the US is a first-tier power in this field); from a strategic and doctrinal point of view, cyber security is an area of confrontation with the West; for both, social media is of particular interest from the perspective of national security, being seen as medium for the spread of hostile messages against the state; state institutions are involved in hacking actions against the West.

Alongside China, Russia has created other international multilateral organizations designed to simulate a so-called new multipolar international order: BRICS (acronym for emerging powers Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Unlike the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, China’s presence in these two organizations makes them no longer one state shows. Just a quick remarck – about the BRICS states, the relevance of these so-called new vectors of multipolarity and how much they represent real alternatives to the “old order” – it is worth looking at news and statistics regarding the states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russia’s dissatisfaction with China lies in the refusal to turn the Russian-Chinese partnership into a full-scale strategic politico-military alliance. As the online media in Moscow notes, there are several reasons for the mistrust between the two states, mostly Chinese prejudices – Russia’s refusal to support Beijing in Southeast Asia; the fear that Moscow would abandon Asia as soon as Western Europe will turn again to Russia and recognize Moscow’s exclusive sphere of interests in the former Soviet realm.

Despite the appearances, one area of competition between China and Russia is Central Asia. Traditionally under Russian influence, Central Asia is under a permanent Chinese offensive on economic and trade issues. An analysis published in June 2021 by the Center for European Policy Analysis concludes that there is a Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia, not yet an open rivalry, with Russia still being pre-eminent (through its military, political, economic and civilizational presence), but with Beijing steadily advancing in economic terms. At least in the short to medium term, and especially from a security perspective, Russia and China will still be able to identify a modus vivendi on Central Asia, given that both states fear a spillover of terrorism into Central Asia after the American withdrawal. from Afghanistan.

Going back to a unipolar world?

In essence, the article from Nezavisimaia Gazeta signals that Russia would like to return to a unipolar world, multipolarity being just a reaction to the fact that Moscow is not recognized/ treated as a great power. The confrontation between the USA and China is seen as a hope/ way that leads to this result: the erosion of both the US and China and the emergence of a new order with only two great powers, one of them being, obviously, Russia.

For Russia, a return to unipolarity would mean a return to stability and familiarity, a familiarity of the Cold War, in which Moscow was recognized as a great power and had a clearly defined area of exclusive interests. It may seem old-fashioned, but Russia always wants to return to moments of the past – be they of fierce confrontation or of glory. This is what Timothy Snyder theorizes as being the politics of inevitability – Russian resignation to the inevitability of conflict, of an international destiny in which the present does not matter and nothing can be done to avoid a history that repeats itself with the inherent cyclicity of confrontation. Vladimir Putin’s Russia looks at the present and the future through the lens of history (obviously, the history Moscow recognizes). To have a better understanding of the present and look into the future, we need to turn to history – the phrase is perhaps the best example meant to sustain that for Russia the historical analysis and identification of the causes of national disasters and / or periods of glory it’s an extremely important part of substantiating future foreign policy decisions. The above-mentioned phrase belongs to Vladimir Putin.

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