Russia to be an “Efficient Balancer” in Asia

MK Bhadrakumar

Originally posted by MK Bhadrakumar, 25 October 2012

It is a pity that I can’t recount the free-wheeling, scintillating discussions with the Russian intelligentsia and political elites through the past four days in St Petersburg and Moscow — because of Chatham House rules. Anyway, I am speechless every time I come here — how much this country has changed since I first lived and worked here in 1975.

I seldom heard a kind word about Vladimir Putin in all these four days so far. Our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should consider himself an extraordinarily lucky man in comparison. Russians are simply reveling in the seamless freedom of expression they currently enjoy, which, when combined with their compulsively brooding nature and their tendency to be self-deprecatory, can inebriate the power of reasoning at times. The “discontent of democracy”?

However, today in Moscow the Chatham House rules were mercifully lifted for a scintillating two-hour conversation we held — a 50-member group of “Russia watchers” drawn from Europe and the United States, plus China, Japan, India and Iran (including three former prime ministers and one defence minister and a top communist party official) — today with Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Russia’s State Duma (Parliament).

Pushkov is known to be close to President Vladimir Putin and is an authoritative voice on Russian foreign policy. He is a many-splendoured personality — professor, strategic analyst, journalist and today a politician. In the Russian system, his current position gives him a prominent role in the foreign policy establishment. (We hope to be received by Putin.)

Pushkov confirmed a trend which I began noticing from Day 1 as soon as I came, namely, that notwithstanding the rhetoric from Moscow, Russia’s heart and soul is still with the West, while the East becomes a mere occasional affair, a highly selective engagement. Much of the angst reminds me of a jilted lover — something we all have gone through sometime or the other in our tumultuous life.

Actually, Pushkov devoted almost three-quarters of his talk to Russia’s relations with the West, United States in particular.

It was left to a prominent Iranian member of parliament (who is also a member of the Majlis’ consultative committee on foreign and security policies) in our group to gently point out toward the end that Pushkov didn’t say anything about the SCO or the Arab Spring — and, unsurprisingly,  it was my turn to elicit Pushkov’s views on Russia’s tryst with Asia. Out of old habit, I kept a verbatim account, which I summarize below:

  • Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet era has always been about the West. “But a limit has been reached for both sides.” Russia’s admission to the two most important western institutions — NATO and EU — is not going to be possible. Russia is unwilling to concede its sovereignty and in any case the “returns” for doing so aren’t commensurate. There are no “incentives” for Russia to rethink.
  • Russia came close to considering membership of NATO, but it is clear that neither side will gain out of Russia’s accession. It is a closed chapter now.
  • As for EU, Russia has strengthened its European identity and is already part of the European economic space. But Russia is not a part of “political Europe” or the “military-political Europe”. Simply put, Russia has a different political culture and there is a huge ideological difference between Russia and the EU countries.
  • Russia’s problem is quintessentially that “there is nowhere to go East”, either. There could possibly be an economic dimension to Russia’s ties with the East, but “much less” is there in the East in political or military terms. Besides, China with which Russia has close relations has a “relatively free hand” in Asia and, therefore, Russia has settled for bilateral relationship. Neither Russia nor China wants a military alliance to counter NATO; at any rate, such a (Sino-Russian) alliance is neither desirable nor is conceivable.
  • So, at the end of the day, it is all economics with the East — oil, gas, etc.
  • Against this backdrop, a consensus has appeared in Russia that it has no need to go anywhere, and should rather stay put where it is. Eurasia is Russia’s “natural habitat”. Also, major military potentials are concentrated in Eurasia: US also happens to be a Eurasian power thanks to its alliances with countries like Pakistan or South Korea; most of the conflicts today are on the peripheries of Eurasia, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, Eurasia is vital to Russia’s interests.
  • How does Russia approach Eurasia? The formation of a Eurasian Union is the principal idea today. The Customs Union has been the first step and it is proving efficient. A country like Kazakhstan, which knows very well where its interests lie, wouldn’t be espousing the Customs Union without the conviction that the grouping could be greatly beneficial.
  • The next step is going to be the Common Economic Space, which forms the backbone of the Eurasian Union. There is a lot of skepticism in the West about the Eurasian Union idea but it doesn’t perturb Russia. All sorts of things have been said about the euro zone or the imminent fall of the dollar, but events proved otherwise; so will be the case with the Eurasian Union.
  • The key factor here is that Russia should not press its partners with a political union or common currency. “Those things can wait.” The Eurasian idea should be approached cautiously and convincingly. A lot can be gained in the economic field.
  • Besides, Eurasian Union “turns Russia into an independent center of attraction for other countries.” Much depends of course on how well Russia does economically.
  • Suffice to say, the western perception that “Russia is going toward the East” or is seeking a confrontation with the West is unwarranted. Russian foreign policy has been largely reactive — except, perhaps, on Syria. It is the West which precipitated the current tensions while Russia has not sought confrontation. The war with Georgia was provoked by the West; Russia didn’t precipitate it.
  • The root problem is that the West wants Russia to “make it look like the European countries”, but Russia has its own character, its ideology, customs, etc. An ideological element is always present in the West’s — and the US’ — attitude towards Russia, “which is dangerous”. The objective should be “a decent cooperative relationship” rather than to make Russia “a carbon copy” of the western countries.
  • Russia is not prescriptive toward the West. Russia didn’t ask how come George W. Bush won in 2000 or why Ohio today is so terribly important in an apparently nation-wide election. It is up to the US to have its political or electoral system. But the West is needlessly intrusive and Russia cannot accept it.
  • Post-Soviet Russia began with a clean slate. There was no desire for another Cold War and on the contrary, Russia had a lot of warmth toward the US in the early 1990s. But the result was disappointing; perhaps, Russia expected too much. “Instead of becoming an ally of the US, Russia became an object of US influence.”
  • The eastward expansion of NATO was the defining moment in the evolution of Russia’s foreign policy ideology. Thus, the present ideology — the “ambition to be an independent player” — was borne out of actual experience. It began in the period of Boris Yeltsin circa 1995. The replacement of Sergei Ivanov as FM with Evgeniy Primakov and the choice of Victor Chernomyrdin rather than Gaidar as PM — although they were apparatchiks — it was Yeltsin’s response as a Russian politician who began realizing that the first five years of his presidency “didn’t give the desired results”.
  • The core problem is the misunderstanding on the part of the West that Russia will “comply”. Indeed, “Russia has complied on many things, but not all.” Out of this experience this ideology has been born that Russia should be an “independent center of power”.
  • Russia is looking for a “balancing role” in Asia. It is no longer a superpower. The Asia-Pacific is becoming “the area” of the 21st century. But it is a hotbed of tensions. Russia fears that an “imbalance can develop” in Asia and “Russia doesn’t want to see a single power dominating Asia.” The role of an “efficient balancer” is what Russia can and should play in Asia. If Russia tries to exceed that role, “there could be misunderstandings.” (This part on Asia was in response to my intervention.)
  • With regard to the Arab Spring, Russia has a cautious approach. Russia is opposed to revolutions; it has had enough of revolutions in its history. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was a “historic mistake”. Because of it, “Russia was affected genetically; it was a national tragedy.” Therefore, the revolutions in the Middle East should not be viewed from an ideological perspective. The notion of humanitarian intervention should be definitely reconsidered. And foreign powers “should not take moral sides in civil conflicts.”

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. Article reprinted with the permission of the author.

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